The Continental Background - Europe Discovers The New World
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The Renaissance. As the great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt observed, the Renaissance "first gave the highest development to individuality, and then led the individual to the most zealous and thorough study of himself in all forms and under all conditions." It was this search that led to the Renaissance concern with new techniques in the arts and sciences, and manifested the willingness of men to experiment with new modes of behavior and to question the value of old institutions. The result was an intellectual environment that allowed Europeans to see in the New World a place where original social and political experiments could be launched. As the spirit of the Renaissance flourished, it spread from Italy northward across Europe to the low-lying flatlands of the North Sea plain. There, in the flourishing commercial towns of the Lowlands, the new bourgeoisie became patrons of the arts. In these northern areas individual thinkers and artists tried to reflect the still-potent religious beliefs of the day, as well as the rapidly growing interest in commerce and industry.
Whatever dismay may have been provoked by ecclesiastical lapses from grace or by the princely displays of the Renaissance, intellectual activity flourished. Enraptured by the apparently endless possibilities of human creativity, the humanists called for the release of man from inhibitions upon his artistic powers. Though preoccupied with religious subjects, the Renaissance artist, thoroughly versed in human anatomy, depicted God and His saints not in the hieratic manner associated with Byzantine art but in human guise. It might be said, indeed, that the Renaissance re-created God in man's image. Traditional restraints on human endeavor crumbled; visions of limitless human achievement agitated the human imagination. The European re-examined his traditional beliefs at home and probed with insatiable curiosity the four corners of the globe. Change was in the air; it was destined to have a profound influence wherever the western European chose to settle.
The Reformation. The religious upheavals that shook Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were both to affect vitally established European economic policy and to create a political turmoil that would radically change the European power balance. Yet, when the Reformation first began, its conscious intention was not to fragment the Church into numberless sects but to restore the universal church of Christ to its original purity. The reformers were rebelling, among other things, against the increasing preoccupation of the papal authority with secular matters. In Italy, the Church had often presented to outsiders the face of an institution committed to the flesh. A startled Luther viewed with dismay the lavish display of the papal court, its preoccupation with secular art, and its seeming disinterest in theology. The men who joined in the reforms initiated by Luther did so because religion seemed to them of overriding importance in the world order, and no personal sacrifice seemed too great if it helped to achieve the purification of Christian doctrine. The intensity of their belief soon added a new dimension to colonization of the New World - for many Christians, colonization offered an opportunity to escape the forces of Antichrist in Europe and to revitalize the Christian religion in the New World.
The Reformation was born in Luther's assertion that faith alone justified human salvation. When he added that priestly absolution in the sacrament of penance could not free a sinner from his sin, but that faith and inner grace alone could work salvation, the Papacy accepted this as a direct challenge to its own special mission. If Luther was right then the priesthood served no essential purpose in the relationship between man and God. Any doubt that this was in fact Luther's belief ended when he asserted that every believer had the right to interpret the Bible as his conscience dictated.
Luther unwittingly gave the signal for revolution when he declared the doctrine of the priesthood of the believers. In time, already caught in a struggle between the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors and the minor German princes, he would express horror when this leveling doctrine was used by the Anabaptists to justify a social revolution; but such usage was typical rather than perverse. In challenging papal authority Luther had sounded an alarm bell that heralded the increasing willingness of men to question and to oppose authority, whether such authority was ecclesiastical or political. But he also taught a doctrine of submissiveness to the state that profoundly affected English history. When Henry VIII forced a union of church and state, with the monarch as the supreme embodiment of that union, religious dissent became tantamount to treason. In England, particularly, dissent nurtured the seeds of revolution.
It remained for Calvin, in his severely logical Institutes of the Christian Religion, to provide a theology that transcended the secular state. Emphasizing the doctrine of predestination, which was founded in the omnipotence and omniscience of God, Calvin viewed the world as irrevocably divided between the elect and the damned. It was the duty of the "elect" to demonstrate their election by living a saintly life, no matter what the temptation. Though few in number, this group had the sublime knowledge that it was a divine aristocracy, permitted by a just God to know and manifest its chosen condition. Calvinism attracted the confident - some thought arrogant - spirits, who resolutely and aggressively demanded recognition of their holy state.
Such persons were not apt to give homage to monarchs or bishops, all of whom they believed damned. Far from accepting the subordination of the church to the state, Calvinists insisted it was the responsibility of the elect to create a state in which man's duty to God would have precedence. Religion was to them of overriding importance. As the visible elect, they rejected the idea of a church governed by bishops; instead, they insisted that the governance of the churches should be in the hands of presbyteries, courts of elected ministers, and devout elders. Though far from democratic - they rejected the idea that the damned should help order the human condition - they nevertheless raised a formidable challenge to the omnipotence of the state. Under the Calvinist scheme the wielders of secular power were answerable for their moral conduct. Within the presbyteries the elect, at least, received a formidable training in self-government. But the Calvinist doctrine of the "calling," which made labor a religious act, propelled the Calvinists into aggressive economic activity. They justified this activity by quoting from the Bible: "Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings." In the burgeoning mercantilist economies of western Europe the Cal' vinist flourished, convinced that by the success of his economic pursuits he proved his election. Where Luther had preached against the sinfulness of usury, the Calvinist saw in profit the mark of divine favor. A New World colony founded by Calvinists would almost invariably display a marked inclination toward capitalist endeavor.
The Protestants, Lutheran and Calvinist, accomplished a revolution. They undermined established secular authority and bequeathed to the world the idea that the human conscience could never surrender its autonomy.
The Nation-State. Perhaps no single development of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had a greater effect on the course of western European history than the emergence of nation-states. The institution of monarchy was the means used to cement the newfound political unity of France, England, and Spain. Under the feudal system, the kings were circumscribed by the bulk of common law upon which the feudal nobility based their inherited rights. A realignment of class interests was required if the king were to gain dominance. By tradition, the king held the rank of first noble - whether he was first among equals or superior in rank was a moot point. In theory, his interests were those of the nobility; in fact, the nobility comprised his chief antagonists. Where the king wished to be supreme, the nobility were intent on subordinating him to themselves. From this struggle emerged the new monarchs.
Intent upon gaining absolute power, the king became aware of a mercantile class with a vested interest in the creation of a stable social order which would insure the safety of its property. Resentful of interference in their affairs by demanding marauding lords, sickened by the petty feuding of the nobility (in which feuds they often became innocent victims), the merchants entered into a natural alliance with the king. For security they were prepared to support the royal struggle for power. By paying taxes into the royal exchequer they empowered the king to raise armies with which to suppress his noble rivals. Suppression alone, however, was but a prelude to the second struggle - the destruction of the mass of feudal law. Although implicit in the rise of the new monarchs, the royal desire to establish its absolute control could only be fully achieved by the construction of a governing apparatus with effective central powers. From the diversity of feudalism the king sought to consolidate a nation obedient to his will.
It was these new monarchies that carried out the initial European exploitation of the New World. The mercantilist idea of national development through royal and mercantile cooperation expanded quickly to include utilization of the New World. But the merchant-adventurer soon realized that this cooperation often involved great risk on his own part without a commensurate gamble by the king. If the merchant had been powerless to defend himself against the nobility, he was hardly better able to do so against the consolidated royal power. In time, the cooperation of mercantile interests and royal aspirants would be revealed for what it was, a marriage of convenience; and like such marriages, it would prove to be open to sudden partings.
Mercantilism. Perhaps the most compelling motive leading to continued migration to the New World has been the desire for economic security and gain on the part of settler and sponsor alike. This desire manifested itself in the origins of the earliest settlements, when the colonizing power saw in empire an opportunity to secure a self-sufficient economy that would have as its natural corollary the strengthening of the nation-state. To achieve these goals it was believed necessary to gain a favorable balance of trade, one in which a nation's exports exceeded in value its imports, and compelled other nations to pay the balance in the world's limited bullion. The possession of a monopoly in an item of commerce took on enormous significance, since it seemed to guarantee maximum profit. The additional assumption that the amount of wealth in the world was limited gave a fillip to the race for control of the world's resources. Success meant the difference between national survival and failure. This system became known as mercantilism.
As the new nation-state struggled to survive, it came to view its economy as an instrument of state policy. In the sixteenth century, efforts were increasingly made to uproot the old medieval guilds, since it was felt that their local orientation endangered the centralizing policies of the new monarchs. Government assumed a positive role in subsidizing new industry and in protecting old industries from foreign competition. Systems of national tariffs were developed and superimposed on the old medieval system of provincial and municipal tariffs. Though mercantilists in nations throughout Europe would have preferred to abolish these internal tariffs, only the English were successful. Mercantilism actively fostered alliances between government and the private entrepreneur. These found expression in the formation of great companies which attracted private capital to the support of governmental enterprises. Normally, the charters of these companies granted them monopoly privileges in the conduct of trade with a particular part of the world. The private participants believed they were assured of substantial profits, while the state hoped for an expanded treasury from the influx of gold and silver. A combination of public and private initiative lay at the foundation of empire building from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century.