Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 73, no. 3 July 2016


Atlantic Iron:
Wood Scarcity and the Political Ecology
of Early English Expansion

By Keith Pluymers

Fears of wood scarcity were common in early modern England, and proponents of colonial expansion into Ireland and Virginia drew on these anxieties to justify their enterprises and to solicit support for projects exploiting colonial woods. They argued that Ireland and, later, Virginia were the edges of a wooden frontier. Closely examining the connections between ironworks in Virginia, southwest Ireland, and the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries reveals a more complex political ecology that transcends broad concepts of scarcity and abundance. Contemporaries disagreed about the extent and severity of English wood scarcity. Colonial ironworks competed against each other and with domestic and European producers. Many investors in and leaders of ironworks understood that to compete on quality and price they needed to exploit regulatory differences, forge commercial connections with other producers and merchants, and secure access to markets, materials, and expertise. The Virginia Company’s attempts to build ironworks, culminating in a short-lived project at Falling Creek, demonstrate that early Virginia colonists saw their woods through an Atlantic lens and understood that North American natural abundance needed to be made, not just discovered.

The Pleasures of Taxonomy:
Casta Paintings, Classification, and Colonialism

By Rebecca Earle

A new model for thinking about the socioracial categories depicted in casta paintings (remarkable eighteenth-century Spanish American images representing the outcome of “racial mixing”) takes seriously both their fluidity and their genealogical character. Approaching classification, and casta paintings, from this direction clarifies the underlying epistemologies that structured colonial society and helps connect the paintings more explicitly to the debates about human difference that captivated Enlightenment thinkers. Ultimately, however, these paintings were produced and collected in the hundreds not simply because they visualized Atlantic debates about classification and human difference but because these visualizations were interesting and pleasant to contemplate. They agreeably roused the pleasures of the imagination via their taxonomic as well as their narrative power. Linking casta paintings to the importance accorded to pleasure in both the scientific and the colonial imagination helps explain their fascination, which derived from their ability to condense the complex interconnections of classification, colonialism, and sexuality into appealing images.

Conciliarism and the American Founding

By Michael D. Breidenbach

Conventional understandings of Catholicism, especially the claim that the pope held temporal power over all civil rulers, presented a signal challenge to early American Catholics’ civil and religious liberty. Yet reform-minded Catholics in the North Atlantic world asserted their independence from the temporal powers of external authorities, including the pope. Catholics who participated in the American founding, such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton and John Carroll, drew from an intellectual tradition of conciliarism that was rooted in Catholic thought yet compatible with republicanism. The Carrolls’ public support of the nation’s foundational documents and their development of the American Catholic Church presented to the broader political and religious public a Catholic tradition that advocated not only a republican view of temporal independence but also a juridical, nonhierarchical understanding of church and state. Catholics of this sort were not a foil to American religious and political arrangements; instead, they fit their beliefs within the ideologies of the American founding and thereby answered Protestant charges that Catholics should be legally penalized. These conclusions offer compelling reasons to include the conciliarist tradition within the “multiple traditions approach” of American founding historiography

Vitalism in America:
Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion
in the Early Republic

By Kirsten Fischer

For more than a decade, the New York–based freethinker Elihu Palmer (1764–1806) lectured and wrote on “vitalism,” the idea that a divine life force inheres in the tiny particles of matter that comprise everything in the universe. The idea was transformative, Palmer believed. When people recognize that all creatures are made of the same eternal and divinely propelled particles, they will radically change their behavior toward all living things. Palmer was a minister by training who never left the United States. Where did he learn about a vital power infusing all matter? Three men inspired him: Dr. Isaac Ledyard of Long Island, who first introduced Palmer to a vitalist cosmology; John “Walking” Stewart, an eccentric Englishman who persuaded Palmer that atoms register and remember pain; and comte de Volney, a French philosophe attached to the idea of a life force in matter. Fully persuaded, Palmer made it his life’s work to undermine all “religious superstition” and spread the good news of vital matter in eternal motion. He believed vitalism would naturally evoke a “universal benevolence” that would in turn end all oppression, making vitalism, in his view, the most radically egalitarian philosophy in the early Republic.