In “The Settlement,” Book I of his overview of American history (see The Penguin History of the USA), Hugh Brogan presents to a presumably gullible audience two accounts of the English colonization of America. Focusing on the first colonies in the south (Virginia) and north (Massachusetts and the rest of New England) respectively, he sets up a contrast between the two halves of the American colonial coast which provides background for the subsequent development of the American character. The nature of the Virginian settlements he judges entirely economic, ending his discussion of these with a withering condemnation of “the greed of seventeenth-century Englishmen” (Brogan, 29). By contrast, he presents the original motives for migration to New England as largely religious. Common knowledge of the eventual outcome of struggles between north and south make the implications of his comparison evident: the ideal of the hardworking, honest , earnest American of generations to come would be rooted not in the southern pseudo-aristocracy, but in the values of the Puritan north.
Having taken John Smith – the intelligent, highly motivated leader of the Virginians – as the model for the settlers of the American south, Brogan moves to the figure of John Winthrop when he considers the founding ethos of New England. Pious, idealistic, reasonable, and full of integrity, Winthrop seems by Brogan's account to be almost too good to be true. One might argue that the “unreal” quality of this founder's virtue is exactly what Brogan intends to emphasize. No sooner does he finish lauding Winthrop's legacy to America than he begins to cast doubt on the permanence of that legacy. The resulting shift to an account of the erosion of the “City on a Hill” ideal is hardly subtle. The decline of religious sentiment into economic sense is chronicled in detail. “Fishing proved almost as lucrative as John Smith had forseen” the author comments, hinting wryly at a fundamental connection between two cultures which had at first appeared nearly as polar opposites (Brogan, 47). The outline of Winthrop's (and his associates') futile efforts to correct the secularization of Puritan society ends with the bland statement: “the saga was over” (Brogan, 49).
So soon? Brogan is careful to classify Winthrop's mark on America as “indelible” (Brogan 43). Yet he proceeds to focus on New England's alleged disintegration into a materialistic society all too similar in some respects to its southern neighbors. One perceives that behind Brogan's determination to convince readers of his belief in the persistence of the “sober, respectable, self-reliant, energetic” spirit of the Puritans is an obsessive tendency to state things in the past tense. The “American character” he applauds at the end of this chapter “was” admirable when “the course of American history” was still in progress – when American culture had yet to fully descend to pure materialism, he hints (50). The saga of settlement had its heroes in the fathers of New England, but for Brogan, it seems, this saga is over and its heroes' strengths no more than a memory.