Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625

Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625

Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625

Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625

Synopsis

Andrew Fitzmaurice reveals that English expansion was profoundly neo-classical in its inspiration, and that humanist traditions were extremely influential in the early development of the American colonies. Until now, accounts of early American colonization, and of European colonization in general, have placed great emphasis upon the links between colonization and the aggressive agendas of modern times claimed by historians and literary scholars.

Excerpt

And yet when these insatiably greedy and evil men have divided among
themselves goods which would have sufficed for the entire people, how
far they remain from the happiness of the Utopian Republic, which
has abolished not only money but with it greed!

Thomas More's hostility to greed was characteristic of Renaissance humanism. The distinctive aspect of his discussion of greed in Utopia is that he invented a society free from this vice which he located, twenty-four years after Columbus' first voyage, in the New World. Was More alone in imagining the New World through humanism? Humanism was the dominant intellectual force of Renaissance Europe. In what way did it shape Europe's 'discovery' and conquest of the New World? My aim is to explore this question in relation to the English (or, more precisely, anglophone) understanding of America from More's generation, early in the sixteenth century, through to the demise of the Virginia Company in 1625. Humanists were active in New World projects throughout Europe, but it was in England, I shall argue, that the humanist imagination dominated colonising projects. Frequently, prominent English humanists – John Rastell, Thomas Smith, Philip Sidney, Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Ralegh – were at the forefront of colonisation. Many others who were prominent humanists (or patrons of humanists) – Richard Eden, John Florio, Dudley Digges, Henry Wriothesley – were also involved in the projects. We also find that many men of more humble birth, such as Captain John Smith, employed their education in the studia humanitatis as a tool of colonisation. But what in the humanist imagination drew these men to the New World? And why,

Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge, 1989), p. 109.

Our subject is anglophone because while dominated by the English, many of these projects involved
Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Irish interests. Moreover, Scottish, Welsh and Irish (resettling the Old
English) colonies were projected. As we shall see, these projects all employed similar humanist tools.

On humanism in European colonising projects, see Wolfgang Reinhard, ed., Humanismus und Neue
Welt
(Bonn, 1987). For humanist nervousness of conquest and war, see Robert P. Adams, The better
part of valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on humanism, war, and peace, 1496–1535
(Seattle, 1962).

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