The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II Colonial Conditions Modify the Old World Heritage

January 27, 1711 I rose at 5 o'clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. It rained all night but held up about 8 o'clock this morning. My sick people were all better, thank God Almighty. I settled several accounts; then I read some English which gave me great light into the nature of spirit. I ordered Tom to plant some (l-c-s) seed. I ate goose giblets for dinner. In the afternoon my wife and I took a little walk and then danced together. Then I read some more English. At night I read some Italian and then played at piquet with my wife. . . . I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

--The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1711

Intellectual life in colonial America was much like that of the Old World from which in so large a measure it was derived; on both sides of the Atlantic there were always the fundamental postulates and categories of civilized western thought. But one cannot understand the intellectual equipment of the rising American nation without taking into account how the American physical environment and the new social environment modified the Old World intellectual agencies. It would be a great mistake to assume that the intellectual life of Great Britain, Holland, France, Germany, and other lands was transferred to the New World in toto and developed here in the same way as in Europe. Here the first colonists, after trying and perilous voyages, encountered a physical environment that often differed strikingly from that of their homeland; at once they were confronted with pressing problems of survival and of adjustment to their fellow men, problems they had never met before. Here their descendants continued their conquest of the wilderness; they had to work out new ways of dealing

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