American History – The Colonial PeriodCrystal Calhoun
American History – The Colonial Period
By Floyd Dorrance
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The Colonial Period
Most settlers who came to America in the 17th century were English, but there were also Dutch, Swedes and Germans in the middle region, a few French Huguenots in South Carolina and elsewhere, slaves from Africa, primarily in the South, and a scattering of Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese throughout the colonies.
After 1680 England ceased to be the chief source of immigration. Thousands of refugees fled continental Europe to escape the path of war. Many left their homelands to avoid the poverty induced by government oppression and absentee-landlordism.
By 1690 the American population had risen to a quarter of a million. From then on, it doubled every 25 years until, in 1775, it numbered more than 2.5 million.
Although a family could move from Massachusetts to Virginia or from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, without major readjustment, distinctions between individual colonies were marked. They were even more so between the three regional groupings of colonies
New England in the northeast has generally thin, stony soil, relatively little level land, and long winters, making it difficult to make a living from farming. Turning to other pursuits, the New Englanders harnessed water power and established grain mills and sawmills. Good stands of timber encouraged shipbuilding. Excellent harbors promoted trade, and the sea became a source of great wealth. In Massachusetts, the cod industry alone quickly furnished a basis for prosperity.
With the bulk of the early settlers living in villages and towns around the harbors, many New Englanders carried on some kind of trade or business. Common pasture land and woodlots served the needs of townspeople, who worked small farms nearby. Compactness made possible the village school, the village church and the village or town hall, where citizens met to discuss matters of common interest.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony continued to expand its commerce. From the middle of the 17th century onward it grew prosperous, and Boston became one of America’s greatest ports.
Oak timber for ships’ hulls, tall pines for spars and masts, and pitch for the seams of ships came from the Northeastern forests. Building their own vessels and sailing them to ports all over the world, the ship masters of Massachusetts Bay laid the foundation for a trade that was to grow steadily in importance. By the end of the colonial period, one-third of all vessels under the British flag were built in New England. Fish, ship’s stores and wooden ware swelled the exports.
New England shippers soon discovered, too, that rum and slaves were profitable commodities. One of the most enterprising — if unsavory — trading practices of the time was the so-called “triangular trade.” Merchants and shippers would purchase slaves off the coast of Africa for New England rum, then sell the slaves in the West Indies where they would buy molasses to bring home for sale to the local rum producers.
THE MIDDLE COLONIES
Society in the middle colonies was far more varied, cosmopolitan and tolerant than in New England. In many ways, Pennsylvania and Delaware owed their initial success to William Penn.
Under his guidance, Pennsylvania functioned smoothly and grew rapidly. By 1685 its population was almost 9,000. The heart of the colony was Philadelphia, a city soon to be known for its broad, tree-shaded streets, substantial brick and stone houses, and busy docks. By the end of the colonial period, nearly a century later, 30,000 people lived there, representing many languages, creeds and trades. Their talent for successful business enterprise made the city one of the thriving centers of colonial America.
Though the Quakers dominated in Philadelphia, elsewhere in Pennsylvania others were well represented. Germans became the colony’s most skillful farmers. Important, too, were cottage industries such as weaving, shoe making, cabinetmaking and other crafts.
Pennsylvania was also the principal gateway into the New World for the Scots-Irish, who moved into the colony in the early 18th century. “Bold and indigent strangers,” as one Pennsylvania official called them, they hated the English and were suspicious of all government. The Scots-Irish tended to settle in the back country, where they cleared land and lived by hunting and subsistence farming.
As mixed as the people were in Pennsylvania, New York best illustrated the polyglot nature of America. By 1646 the population along the Hudson River included Dutch, French, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Portuguese and Italians — the forerunners of millions to come.
The Dutch continued to exercise an important social and economic influence on the New York region long after the fall of New Netherlands and their integration into the British colonial system. Their sharp-stepped, gable roofs became a permanent part of the city’s architecture, and their merchants gave Manhattan much of its original bustling, commercial atmosphere.
THE SOUTHERN COLONIES
In contrast to New England and the middle colonies were the predominantly rural southern settlements: Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
By the late 17th century, Virginia’s and Maryland’s economic and social structure rested on the great planters and the yeoman farmers. The planters of the tidewater region, supported by slave labor, held most of the political power and the best land. They built great houses, adopted an aristocratic way of life and kept in touch as best they could with the world of culture overseas.
At the same time, yeoman farmers, who worked smaller tracts of land, sat in popular assemblies and found their way into political office. Their outspoken independence was a constant warning to the oligarchy of planters not to encroach too far upon the rights of free men.
Charleston, South Carolina, became the leading port and trading center of the South. There the settlers quickly learned to combine agriculture and commerce, and the marketplace became a major source of prosperity. Dense forests also brought revenue: lumber, tar and resin from the long leaf pine provided some of the best shipbuilding materials in the world. Not bound to a single crop as was Virginia, North and South Carolina also produced and exported rice and indigo, a blue dye obtained from native plants, which was used in coloring fabric. By 1750 more than 100,000 people lived in the two colonies of North and South Carolina.
In the southern-most colonies, as everywhere else, population growth in the back country had special significance. German immigrants and Scots-Irish, unwilling to live in the original tidewater settlements where English influence was strong, pushed inland. Those who could not secure fertile land along the coast, or who had exhausted the lands they held, found the hills farther west a bountiful refuge. Although their hardships were enormous, restless settlers kept coming, and by the 1730s they were pouring into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Soon the interior was dotted with farms.
Living on the edge of the Indian country, frontier families built cabins, cleared tracts in the wilderness and cultivated maize and wheat. The men wore leather made from the skin of deer or sheep, known as buckskin; the women wore garments of cloth they spun at home. Their food consisted of venison, wild turkey and fish. They had their own amusements — great barbecues, dances, housewarmings for newly married couples, shooting matches and contests for making quilted blankets. Quilts remain an American tradition today.
SOCIETY, SCHOOLS AND CULTURE
A significant factor deterring the emergence of a powerful aristocratic or gentry class in the colonies was the fact that anyone in an established colony could choose to find a new home on the frontier. Thus, time after time, dominant tidewater figures were obliged, by the threat of a mass exodus to the frontier, to liberalize political policies, land-grant requirements and religious practices. This movement into the foothills was of tremendous import for the future of America.
Of equal significance for the future were the foundations of American education and culture established during the colonial period. Harvard College was founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Near the end of the century, the College of William and Mary was established in Virginia. A few years later, the Collegiate School of Connecticut, later to become Yale College, was chartered. But even more noteworthy was the growth of a school system maintained by governmental authority. The Puritan emphasis on reading directly from the Scriptures underscored the importance of literacy.
In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the “ye olde deluder Satan” Act, requiring every town having more than 50 families to establish a grammar school (a Latin school to prepare students for college). Shortly thereafter, all the other New England colonies, except Rhode Island, followed its example.
The first immigrants in New England brought their own little libraries and continued to import books from London. And as early as the 1680s, Boston booksellers were doing a thriving business in works of classical literature, history, politics, philosophy, science, theology and belles-letters. In 1639 the first printing press in the English colonies and the second in North America was installed at Harvard College.
The first school in Pennsylvania was begun in 1683. It taught reading, writing and keeping of accounts. Thereafter, in some fashion, every Quaker community provided for the elementary teaching of its children. More advanced training — in classical languages, history and literature — was offered at the Friends Public School, which still operates in Philadelphia as the William Penn Charter School. The school was free to the poor, but parents who could were required to pay tuition.
In Philadelphia, numerous private schools with no religious affiliation taught languages, mathematics and natural science; there were also night schools for adults. Women were not entirely overlooked, but their educational opportunities were limited to training in activities that could be conducted in the home. Private teachers instructed the daughters of prosperous Philadelphians in French, music, dancing, painting, singing, grammar and sometimes even bookkeeping.
In the 18th century, the intellectual and cultural development of Pennsylvania reflected, in large measure, the vigorous personalities of two men: James Logan and Benjamin Franklin. Logan was secretary of the colony, and it was in his fine library that young Franklin found the latest scientific works. In 1745 Logan erected a building for his collection and bequeathed both building and books to the city.
Franklin contributed even more to the intellectual activity of Philadelphia. He formed a debating club that became the embryo of the American Philosophical Society. His endeavors also led to the founding of a public academy that later developed into the University of Pennsylvania. He was a prime mover in the establishment of a subscription library, which he called “the mother of all North American subscription libraries.”
In the Southern colonies, wealthy planters and merchants imported private tutors from Ireland or Scotland to teach their children. Others sent their children to school in England. Having these other opportunities, the upper classes in the Tidewater were not interested in supporting public education. In addition, the diffusion of farms and plantations made the formation of community schools difficult. There were a few endowed free schools in Virginia; the Syms School was founded in 1647 and the Eaton School emerged in 1659.
The desire for learning did not stop at the borders of established communities, however. On the frontier, the Scots-Irish, though living in primitive cabins, were firm devotees of scholarship, and they made great efforts to attract learned ministers to their settlements.
Literary production in the colonies was largely confined to New England. Here attention concentrated on religious subjects. Sermons were the most common products of the press. A famous Puritan minister, the Reverend Cotton Mather, wrote some 400 works. His masterpiece, Magnalia Christi Americana, presented the pageant of New England’s history. But the most popular single work of the day was the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth’s long poem, “The Day of Doom,” which described the last judgment in terrifying terms.
In 1704 Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched the colonies’ first successful newspaper. By 1745 there were 22 newspapers being published throughout the colonies.
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In New York, an important step in establishing the principle of freedom of the press took place with the case of Johann Peter Zenger, whose New York Weekly Journal begun in 1733, represented the opposition to the government. After two years of publication, the colonial governor could no longer tolerate Zenger’s satirical barbs, and had him thrown into prison on a charge of seditious libel. Zenger continued to edit his paper from jail during his nine-month trial, which excited intense interest throughout the colonies. Andrew Hamilton, the prominent lawyer who defended Zenger, argued that the charges printed by Zenger were true and hence not libelous. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and Zenger went free.
The prosperity of the towns, which prompted fears that the devil was luring society into pursuit of worldly gain, produced a religious reaction in the 1730s that came to be known as the Great Awakening. Its inspiration came from two sources: George Whitefield, a Wesleyan revivalist who arrived from England in 1739, and Jonathan Edwards, who originally served in the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Whitefield began a religious revival in Philadelphia and then moved on to New England. He enthralled audiences of up to 20,000 people at a time with histrionic displays, gestures and emotional oratory. Religious turmoil swept throughout New England and the middle colonies as ministers left established churches to preach the revival.
Among those influenced by Whitefield was Edwards, and the Great Awakening reached its culmination in 1741 with his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards did not engage in theatrics, but delivered his sermons in a quiet, thoughtful manner. He stressed that the established churches sought to deprive Christianity of its emotional content. His magnum opus, Of Freedom of Will (1754), attempted to reconcile Calvinism with the Enlightenment.
The Great Awakening gave rise to evangelical denominations and the spirit of revivalism, which continue to play significant roles in American religious and cultural life. It weakened the status of the established clergy and provoked believers to rely on their own conscience. Perhaps most important, it led to the proliferation of sects and denominations, which in turn encouraged general acceptance of the principle of religious toleration.
EMERGENCE OF COLONIAL GOVERNMENT
In all phases of colonial development, a striking feature was the lack of controlling influence by the English government. All colonies except Georgia emerged as companies of shareholders, or as feudal proprietorships stemming from charters granted by the Crown. The fact that the king had transferred his immediate sovereignty over the New World settlements to stock companies and proprietors did not, of course, mean that the colonists in America were necessarily free of outside control. Under the terms of the Virginia Company charter, for example, full governmental authority was vested in the company itself. Nevertheless, the crown expected that the company would be resident in England. Inhabitants of Virginia, then, would have no more voice in their government than if the king himself had retained absolute rule.
For their part, the colonies had never thought of themselves as subservient. Rather, they considered themselves chiefly as commonwealths or states, much like England itself, having only a loose association with the authorities in London. In one way or another, exclusive rule from the outside withered away. The colonists — inheritors of the traditions of the Englishman’s long struggle for political liberty — incorporated concepts of freedom into Virginia’s first charter. It provided that English colonists were to exercise all liberties, franchises and immunities “as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England.” They were, then, to enjoy the benefits of the Magna Carta and the common law. In 1618 the Virginia Company issued instructions to its appointed governor providing that free inhabitants of the plantations should elect representatives to join with the governor and an appointive council in passing ordinances for the welfare of the colony.
These measures proved to be some of the most far-reaching in the entire colonial period. From then on, it was generally accepted that the colonists had a right to participate in their own government. In most instances, the king, in making future grants, provided in the charter that the free men of the colony should have a voice in legislation affecting them. Thus, charters awarded to the Calverts in Maryland, William Penn in Pennsylvania, the proprietors in North and South Carolina and the proprietors in New Jersey specified that legislation should be enacted with “the consent of the freemen.”
In New England, for many years, there was even more complete self-government than in the other colonies. Aboard the Mayflower, the Pilgrims adopted an instrument for government called the “Mayflower Compact,” to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation…and by virtue hereof [to] enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices…as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony….”
Although there was no legal basis for the Pilgrims to establish a system of self-government, the action was not contested and, under the compact, the Plymouth settlers were able for many years to conduct their own affairs without outside interference.
A similar situation developed in the Massachusetts Bay Company, which had been given the right to govern itself. Thus, full authority rested in the hands of persons residing in the colony. At first, the dozen or so original members of the company who had come to America attempted to rule autocratically. But the other colonists soon demanded a voice in public affairs and indicated that refusal would lead to a mass migration.
Faced with this threat, the company members yielded, and control of the government passed to elected representatives. Subsequently, other New England colonies — such as Connecticut and Rhode Island — also succeeded in becoming self-governing simply by asserting that they were beyond any governmental authority, and then setting up their own political system modeled after that of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
In only two cases was the self-government provision omitted. These were New York, which was granted to Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York (later to become King James II); and Georgia, which was granted to a group of “trustees.” In both instances the provisions for governance were short-lived, for the colonists demanded legislative representation so insistently that the authorities soon yielded.
Eventually most colonies became royal colonies, but in the mid-17th century, the English were too distracted by the Civil War (1642-1649) and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth and Protectorate to pursue an effective colonial policy. After the restoration of Charles II and the Stuart dynasty in 1660, England had more opportunity to attend to colonial administration. Even then, however, it was inefficient and lacked a coherent plan, and the colonies were left largely to their own devices.
The remoteness afforded by a vast ocean also made control of the colonies difficult. Added to this was the character of life itself in early America. From countries limited in space and dotted with populous towns, the settlers had come to a land of seemingly unending reach. On such a continent, natural conditions promoted a tough individualism, as people became used to making their own decisions. Government penetrated the back country only slowly, and conditions of anarchy often prevailed on the frontier.
Yet, the assumption of self-government in the colonies did not go entirely unchallenged. In the 1670s, the Lords of Trade and Plantations, a royal committee established to enforce the mercantile system on the colonies, moved to annul the Massachusetts Bay charter, because the colony was resisting the government’s economic policy. James II in 1685 approved a proposal to create a Dominion of New England and place colonies south through New Jersey under its jurisdiction, thereby tightening the Crown’s control over the whole region. A royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, levied taxes by executive order, implemented a number of other harsh measures and jailed those who resisted.
When news of the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) that deposed James II reached Boston, the population rebelled and imprisoned Andros. Under a new charter, Massachusetts and Plymouth were united for the first time in 1691 as the royal colony of Massachusetts Bay. The other colonies that had come under the Dominion of New England quickly reinstalled their previous governments.
The Glorious Revolution had other positive effects on the colonies. The Bill of Rights and Toleration Act of 1689 affirmed freedom of worship for Christians and enforced limits on the Crown. Equally important, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690) set forth a theory of government based not on divine right but on contract, and contended that the people, endowed with natural rights of life, liberty and property, had the right to rebel when governments violated these natural rights.
Colonial politics in the early 18th century resembled English politics in the 17th. The Glorious Revolution affirmed the supremacy of Parliament, but colonial governors sought to exercise powers in the colonies that the king had lost in England. The colonial assemblies, aware of events in England, attempted to assert their “rights” and “liberties.” By the early 18th century, the colonial legislatures held two significant powers similar to those held by the English Parliament: the right to vote on taxes and expenditures, and the right to initiate legislation rather than merely act on proposals of the governor.
The legislatures used these rights to check the power of royal governors and to pass other measures to expand their power and influence. The recurring clashes between governor and assembly worked increasingly to awaken the colonists to the divergence between American and English interests. In many cases, the royal authorities did not understand the importance of what the colonial assemblies were doing and simply neglected them. However, these acts established precedents and principles and eventually became part of the “constitution” of the colonies.
In this way, the colonial legislatures established the right of self- government. In time, the center of colonial administration shifted from London to the provincial capitals.
THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR
France and Britain engaged in a succession of wars in Europe and the Caribbean at several intervals in the 18th century. Though Britain secured certain advantages from them — primarily in the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean — the struggles were generally indecisive, and France remained in a powerful position in North America at the beginning of the Seven Years War in 1754.
By that time France had established a strong relationship with a number of Indian tribes in Canada and along the Great Lakes, taken possession of the Mississippi River and, by establishing a line of forts and trading posts, marked out a great crescent-shaped empire stretching from Quebec to New Orleans. Thus, the British were confined to the narrow belt east of the Appalachian Mountains. The French threatened not only the British Empire but the American colonists themselves, for in holding the Mississippi Valley, France could limit their westward expansion.
An armed clash took place in 1754 at Fort Duquesne, the site where Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is now located, between a band of French regulars and Virginia militiamen under the command of 22-year-old George Washington, a Virginia planter and surveyor.
In London, the Board of Trade attempted to deal with the conflict by calling a meeting of representatives from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the New England colonies. From June 19 to July 10, the Albany Congress, as it came to be known, met with the Iroquois at Albany, New York, in order to improve relations with them and secure their loyalty to the British.
The delegates also declared a union of the American colonies “absolutely necessary for their preservation,” and adopted the Albany Plan of Union. Drafted by Benjamin Franklin, the plan provided that a president appointed by the king act with a grand council of delegates chosen by the assemblies, with each colony to be represented in proportion to its financial contributions to the general treasury. This organ would have charge of defense, Indian relations, and trade and settlement of the west, as well as having the power to levy taxes. But none of the colonies accepted Franklin’s plan, for none wished to surrender either the power of taxation or control over the development of the western lands to a central authority.
England’s superior strategic position and her competent leadership ultimately brought victory in the Seven Years’ War, only a modest portion of which was fought in the Western Hemisphere.
In the Peace of Paris, signed in 1763, France relinquished all of Canada, the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi Valley to the British. The dream of a French empire in North America was over. Having triumphed over France, Britain was now compelled to face a problem that it had hitherto neglected — the governance of its empire. It was essential that London organize its now vast possessions to facilitate defense, reconcile the divergent interests of different areas and peoples, and distribute more evenly the cost of imperial administration.
In North America alone, British territories had more than doubled. To the narrow strip along the Atlantic coast had been added the vast expanse of Canada and the territory between the Mississippi River and the Allegheny Mountains, an empire in itself. A population that had been predominantly Protestant and English now included French-speaking Catholics from Quebec, and large numbers of partly Christianized Indians. Defense and administration of the new territories, as well as of the old, would require huge sums of money and increased personnel. The old colonial system was obviously inadequate to these tasks.
SIDEBAR: THE WITCHES OF SALEM
In 1692 a group of adolescent girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, became subject to strange fits after hearing tales told by a West Indian slave. When they were questioned, they accused several women of being witches who were tormenting them. The townspeople were appalled but not surprised: belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout 17th-century America and Europe.
What happened next — although an isolated event in American history — provides a vivid window into the social and psychological world of Puritan New England. Town officials convened a court to hear the charges of witchcraft, and swiftly convicted and executed a tavernkeeper, Bridget Bishop. Within a month, five other women had been convicted and hanged.
Nevertheless, the hysteria grew, in large measure because the court permitted witnesses to testify that they had seen the accused as spirits or in visions. By its very nature, such “spectral evidence” was especially dangerous, because it could be neither verified nor subject to objective examination. By the fall of 1692, more than 20 victims, including several men, had been executed, and more than 100 others were in jail — among them some of the town’s most prominent citizens. But now the hysteria threatened to spread beyond Salem, and ministers throughout the colony called for an end to the trials. The governor of the colony agreed and dismissed the court. Those still in jail were later acquitted or given reprieves.
The Salem witch trials have long fascinated Americans. On a psychological level, most historians agree that Salem Village in 1692 was seized by a kind of public hysteria, fueled by a genuine belief in the existence of witchcraft. They point out that, while some of the girls may have been acting, many responsible adults became caught up in the frenzy as well.
But even more revealing is a closer analysis of the identities of the accused and the accusers. Salem Village, like much of colonial New England at that time, was undergoing an economic and political transition from a largely agrarian, Puritan-dominated community to a more commercial, secular society. Many of the accusers were representatives of a traditional way of life tied to farming and the church, whereas a number of the accused witches were members of the rising commercial class of small shopkeepers and tradesmen. Salem’s obscure struggle for social and political power between older traditional groups and a newer commercial class was one repeated in communities throughout American history . But it took a bizarre and deadly detour when its citizens were swept up by the conviction that the devil was loose in their homes.
The Salem witch trials also serve as a dramatic parable of the deadly consequences of making sensational, but false, charges. Indeed, a frequent term in political debate for making false accusations against a large number of people is “witch hunt.”
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Floyd Dorrance is a professional researcher of a variety of articles.
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