First Sentence is Factually Incorrect

The letter I just sent to the editor of the New York Times:

Dear Editor,

In “The Party of Work,” (November 8) David Brooks begins thusly, ” The American colonies were first settled by Protestant dissenters.” First, the colonies of the United States were already settled when the Puritans arrived. In fact, there were native villages completely ravaged by disease from earlier European contact into which the Puritans happily settled. Second, if we ignore Native Americans (as Brooks has done) and focus only on the thirteen English colonies that became the US, Brooks forgot Virginia. The English settled it in 1607, over a decade before the Pilgrims arrived and well before John Winthrop sermonized about a “city on a hill” during his 1630 trans-Atlantic voyage on his way to settle the Massachusetts Bay colony. Even the Dutch in New Amsterdam arrived before the Puritans.

The first sentence of his piece is factually incorrect.


Jessica Luther
PhD Candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin

I will say, there is plenty about Brooks’ piece that is factually incorrect (like that Protestant dissenters were all for “equal opportunity” – they owned slaves, man). But the NYT limits letters to 150 words so I focused only on that one sentence.


12 thoughts on “First Sentence is Factually Incorrect

  1. BOOM! You just provided me with some support for an argument I was going to make on my FB page to a question a friend raised about why there is a north/south divide.

  2. From the soc.history.what-if FAQ:

    11.b. Could the American Indians have repelled the Europeans?

    No, nor any other people from the Old World who might have discovered
    the New. Even apart from a considerable technical edge (guns, but also
    metal working, shipbuilding, etc.), the Europeans had a decisive
    advantage because of their diseases. Due to their late settlement of
    the continents and lack of domesticated animals, the native Americans
    lacked any immunity to most Old World diseases, which meant a
    catastrophic population collapse (definitely higher than 50%, and
    perhaps more than 90%) in the first generations following contact.
    Deaths on a similar scale will necessarily follow *any* extensive
    contact between the hemispheres.

  3. Not to split hairs, but I think he’s factually correct because he used the term “colonies”. The American continents were first settled by the ancestors of Native Americans. However, the “American colonies” are the product of Protestant European settlement. It is worth noting that Brooks whitewashes history a lot, and he’s generally a garbage writer. Regardless, he isn’t technically wrong here.

  4. Yeah, he still is technically wrong. Because Virginia was not settled by Protestant dissenters. Neither was South Carolina. Nor New York. Nor Georgia. Nor Maryland.

    This is not a small thing, saying the settlement of the Americas was done by Puritans. It’s a national myth that is reified every year on Thanksgiving (Pilgrims were the fringe of the fringe of the fringe – and we conflate Puritans and Pilgrims all the time, which is another issue all together). We focus on Massachusetts instead of Virginia, we talk about Protestant dissenters instead of greedy soldiers because then we don’t really have to talk about slavery as fundamental to our history. Brooks is participating in that here.

  5. Thanks for this reminder, Jessica.

    I did not study history in college, though I do remember learning about the different origins of the various colonies in my high-school American history class. As I get older that gets foggier, though, and I become less alert to the kind of shoddy generalizations David Brooks is making here.

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