It is never easy to say where a project such as the present one found its origin. In one sense, it began in the late Professor W. K. Jordan’s graduate seminar at Harvard, in which I wrote a paper on Bristol in the Civil War. This research so intrigued me that upon its completion I made it the proposed subject of my dissertation. But my first foray into English archives taught me a salutary lesson. Nearly everything I had concluded about Bristol from printed sources quickly came undone when I saw my first manuscripts, and the social and political divisions I had established in my seminar paper turned out to be illusory. What had seemed a plausible way to cover the facts I had gleaned from the books in Widener Library could in no way account for the evidence I had now discovered. Gradually, however, a new understanding emerged, one beginning with the perception that early modern English cities were, not self-contained social organisms, but places open to the wider world of national and even international affairs. My Ph.D. thesis, completed under Professor Wallace MacCaffrey’s direction and subsequently published in a dissertation series, explored the implications of this view of urban society for the lives and outlooks of the Bristolians, never reaching the Civil War period about which I had first intended to write. But using 1640 as a terminal date created something of a false sense of finality to the story, since events in the late 1630s seemed to settle all the outstanding political and economic issues of Bristol’s history in the later sixteenth and the early seventeenth century. Of course this was only an artifact of the chronological limits of the study; the Civil War and its aftermath almost immediately undid nearly all that happened. Upon completing my dissertation, then, I was left with the dilemma of how to deal with this awkward fact.
The solution came somewhat serendipitously in response to an inquiry from Bernard Bailyn, who had read my dissertation soon after its completion. He was interested in Bristol’s role in American immigration during the later seventeenth century and wanted to know something about its system for registering indentured servants bound for the American plantations. During my research I had made some notes about the origins of this system in 1654 but had given little thought to them at the time. When looked at closely, however, this registration scheme posed a genuine puzzle, since, as is argued in Chapter 8, the remedy it instituted simply did not fit the crime it claimed to punish. What, then, was this ordinance about and what had provoked it? Discovery of the case that had brought the Bristol Common Council to action began to reveal what was at stake, since the main targets of the registration scheme turned out to be interlopers in overseas trade and sectaries as well. In 1654 the activities of these individuals were highlighted at the calling of the first Protectorate Parliament, the elections for which in Bristol had produced victory for conservative merchants and outraged protest from the city’s radicals and sectaries. Many of these radicals turned out to be important colonial traders who frequently supplied indentured labor to the American market. In this light the ordinance and the register seemed designed less to protect servants than to control the traders; it was not so much a mechanism of economic regulation as a weapon of political attack.
Once I had reached this conclusion, much else began to become clear about the role of American trade in Bristol’s life. The nature of the American market, I realized, made it impossible to regulate trade with it under the rules on which Bristol’s major overseas merchants had previously relied. As a result, their victories in the late 1630s were incapable of coping with the new economic order taking shape among the colonial traders. I knew then that I had a solution to the dilemma posed by my dissertation, and I began pursuing the implications of my findings where they would lead. This book is the outcome.