The current book project of SIFK 2019-21 Postdoctoral Researcher Alexander Mazzaferro, titled No Newe Enterprize: Empirical Political Science and the Problem of Innovation in the Colonial English Americas, offers a new account of the English colonization of the Americas.

It is informed by two understudied aspects of early modern thought: the prohibition on what writers in the period pejoratively called “innovation” and the rise of an empirical approach to political knowledge that Mazzaferro call’s Atlantic political science. The term “innovation” was as ubiquitous in the seventeenth century as it is in our own era, yet it had a nearly opposite meaning: it functioned as a polemical synonym for rebellion reflective of the belief that change of any kind was guaranteed to be disruptive. But despite the overwhelming influence of the early modern prohibition on innovation, the period also found thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon articulating more positive conceptions of human-led change.

No Newe Enterprize traces this paradox to the contested scene of New World settlement and to the overlooked literary genre it generated, the colonial report. In an era of extensive disciplinary overlap, leaders in British North America and the Caribbean borrowed the empirical methods then transforming the natural sciences—eyewitnessing, experiment, candid description, inductive interpretation—in order to thwart the forms of innovation threatening their settlements, from mutiny and heresy to native warfare and slave insurrection. Grounding political knowledge in experience rather than received wisdom fortified the colonial project. But it also exposed the elite innovations that had prompted that resistance in the first place, including New World civil and ecclesiastical discipline, indigenous dispossession, and plantation slavery. Indeed, reports written by colonists like William Bradford, John Smith, William Strachey, John Winthrop, and Richard Ligon made audible the otherwise marginalized voices of colonialism’s discontents, who rejected this improvisational new mode of governance in favor of pre-existing ways of collective life. 

Charting the emergence of settlements in Bermuda, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Barbados, No Newe Enterprize enriches the history of science and the history of political thought by recovering their early modern cross-fertilization. Reframing the settlement period as one of epistemological and physical conflict over the legitimacy of political change, Mazzaferro argues that New World colonization facilitated the rehabilitation of the innovation concept by redefining sovereignty as a monopoly on the right to innovate in observable states of exception.

Related SIFK Courses

KNOW 40308: Political Theologies of Slavery and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Spring 2020)

Learn more about Alexander Mazzaferro.