ISBN: 0 946488 05 3
- British America
- The Mother Country
- The Colonies in the Seventeenth Century
- The Colonies in the Eighteenth Century
- Guide to Further Reading
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.
During the past-twenty years or so a generation of historians on both sides of the Atlantic has transformed our knowledge and understanding of early modern England and her American colonies. For the most part, however, these scholars have worked independently, studying English or colonial societies in isolation, and only rarely both together. But their many contributions now make it possible for this pamphlet to attempt a synthesis seeking to demonstrate what light the current state of scholarship about early modern England throws on colonial history, and vice versa. Such a comparison can be highly illuminating, as American history in the century and a half before the crucial confrontations which culminated in the War of Independence was in many significant respects an extension of British history. Indeed, it could even be argued that on the accession of George III the colonies had more in common with Britain than they had ever had before.
Although few modern American historians made detailed studies of England during the colonial period, their conclusions about the colonies often’ contained explicit or implicit models of the mother country. Broadly speaking the extent to which they detected similarities or differences between the two communities reflected their convictions as to whether a conflict or a consensus model was more appropriate to American society. Those who saw a clash of social and economic interests behind colonial politics by implication at least drew comparisons between the colonies and England, both displaying similar tensions. Those who were impressed by the apparent absence of such strains in colonial society tended to contrast them with the mother country.1
Twenty five years ago the consensus model was the more fashionable among American historians. Perhaps its most committed advocate was Daniel Boorstin, whose prize-winning book The Americans: the Colonial Experience asserted the differences between the colonists and their English cousins. The colonial experience was the boyhood of Crevecoeur’s “new man.” In Boorstin’s pages effete Englishmen were constantly contrasted with audacious Americans. The English were idealists and thinkers, while the colonists were pragmatists and doers. Philosophies formulated to interpret European realities were irrelevant to the facts of the wilderness which had to be interpreted afresh in the light of new experiences.2 Common sense thus became a sound American virtue long before Thomas Paine appealed to it in his famous Revolutionary pamphlet of 1776.
The panorama portrayed in bold colours on a broad canvas in Boorstin’s survey seemed to be substantiated by a miniature study of one corner of the landscape, Sumner Chilton Powell’s Puritan Village: the formation of a New England Town, which also won a prize. Powell concentrated on the establishment of Sudbury, Massachusetts, and concluded that its first townsmen created a community so different from its English counterparts as virtually to represent a fresh start. He found no trace of several institutions and offices which administered local affairs in England.
Gone were the courts-baron, courts-leet, vestries, out-hundred courts, courts of election, courts of record, courts of the borough, courts of orders and degrees, courts of investigation, courts of ordination and views of frank-pledge… Gone were the seneschal, bailiff, jurymen . . . rector, curate, sexton . . . church-wardens, sidemen, questmen, overseers of the poor… Abolished too were the quarter sessions [and] justices of the peace.
Instead there were just selectmen and townsmen to supervise secular business, pastors and deacons to govern ecclesiastical activities.3
These two influential studies, one of the complete colonial experience, the other of that seminal American institution, the New England town, reinforced contrasting stereotypes of the Mother Country and the colonies. England was commonly represented as feudal and static in comparison with egalitarian, flexible and fluid societies across the Atlantic ocean. English society was held to be rigidly hierarchical: people not only knew their place but stayed in it. Generation after generation lived and died in the same villages, surrounded by familiar objects and faces. They enjoyed the comfort of extended families, in which three generations, grandparents, parents and grandchildren, uncles, aunts and cousins, lived under one roof or in close proximity. The decision to leave these sheltered communities and to cross an ocean to a New World was consequently traumatic. Those who took it must have been imbued with unusual qualities as individuals to sever their ties with traditional ways of life and values. In North America their rugged individualism triumphed over the wilderness. The ever-shifting frontier ensured that they were never psychologically confined to one spot of ground. When they did settle down it was in scattered farmsteads, not in compact villages. Their families were nuclear rather than extended, comprising just parents -and children. In every way, therefore, the colonial experience seemed to substantiate the words of Jared Eliot which Boorstin chose for the title page of his book: “It may be said, That in a Sort, they began the World a New.”
Studies produced since the 1950s enable these assumptions to be thoroughly tested. Was the social structure of early modern England feudal, rigid, and static? Did colonial America create an egalitarian, flexible and fluid society? Were the differences between the two societies more fundamental than the similarities? Were they growing more and more apart in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until political independence set the seal on the separation of what had already become two distinct nations in all but name? These are the questions which this pamphlet seeks to answer.
The notion that the social structure of early modern England was feudal, rigid and static is really no longer tenable. Few if any British historians currently working on English society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would consider the word ‘feudal’ to be applicable to it. If the word has any precise meaning, it must include holding land as a feudal tenure or fief, with obligations other than the payment of money rents to the landlord, such as the dues of wardship and marriage owed to the Crown by tenants in chief. Yet such tenure was finally abolished in England in 1660, after having lapsed effectively since 1642.
The term ‘feudal’ is sometimes employed of the landlord/tenant relationship. Certainly tenancy was far more extensive in Britain than in North America and, in theory at least, tenants were bound to their landlords by more than the cash nexus. There was a normative relationship in which the ideal landowner acted as a patriarch in the community in return for the deference of those dependent upon him. Judging by persistent complaints that it was breaking down, however, the ideal appeal to have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.4
One test of whether England was ‘feudal,’ in this restricted sense of tenants deferring to their landlords in ways which the latter could exploit to assert and maintain their hegemony, is provided by parliamentary elections. If a constituency were contested- then a landlord could translate deference directly into votes by ordering those of his tenants who were enfranchised to poll for candidates he supported. In this respect the fourth Duke of Bedford has been cited as an archetypal feudal landlord.5 Yet so far from ordering his tenants which way to poll his Grace had to bribe, cajole and coax them to cast their votes for his preferred candidates.6 The language employed by most landlords when soliciting electoral support from their tenants was generally obsequious rather than imperious. In two-member constituencies they usually restricted their requests to a single vote for one candidate, leaving their dependants free to cast the other vote as they chose. Moreover even those modest solicitations did not automatically meet with success. It is true that poll books recording votes cast at elections in counties, which were large enough geographically for the territorial interests of landed magnates to he plotted, reveal voters from particular parishes polling en bloc for the candidates preferred by the leading landowner in the vicinity. Yet sufficient numbers of them also voted contrary to the inclinations of the local magnates to make the notion of patriarchal landlords conveying a deferential tenantry to the polls an exaggeration of the degree to which deference maintained the gentry in power.7
The extent to which the electorate in early modern England was generally subordinate to the political elite has been exaggerated too. Although there was far from being an adult male franchise, nevertheless the right to vote was extensive enough to make the total number of voters at least 300,000, roughly a quarter of all adult males in the seventeenth century, and a fifth by the mid eighteenth. The growth of oligarchy, and with it of political stability, which culminated in the ascendancy of Walpole, was achieved not by subordinating so much as by evading the electorate. In 1716 the Whigs extended the maximum interval between elections from three to seven years. Furthermore, where previously under the Triennial Act of 1694 the gap between general elections had on average been two years, by and large between 1716 and 1761 parliaments were allowed to go their full allotted span. And when general elections were called, the number of contests fell as the oligarchs preferred to carve up the seats between them rather than risk a reference to the electors. In those few constituencies where the voters were allowed to express their preferences, they tended to show their opposition to the Whig oligarchy at election after election. So far from the electorate demonstrating deference to the point where the English polity could be described as feudal, therefore, its evasion by the elite indicated their concern that the electoral system as it had operated under the later Stuarts made the House of Commons dangerously dependent upon volatile voters.8
Articulate opposition to the oligarchy’s growing grip on the electoral system largely took the form of demands for the repeal of the Septennial Act, and a return to triennial if not annual elections, coupled with the elimination of corruption from the constituencies. The fact that these arguments were largely deployed by opponents of the oligarchs from within the political elite, while there was no reaction from the electorate to their deprivation, or radical demands for an extension of the franchise, until the late eighteenth century, seems to substantiate the view of those historians who maintain that the political stability achieved under Walpole rested upon a consensus. As Professor Plumb defines such stability, it is “the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men or officials who control them.”9
Yet other historians, led by E.P. Thompson, have denied that’ there was any such consensus. On the contrary, they assert that the oligarchy was extremely repressive, and sought by such legislation as the Riot Act of 1715 and the Waltham Black Act of 1723 to sustain their property rights against the propertyless by draconian measures. Moreover the lower orders did not acquiesce in their subordination, but expressed their resentment in less articulate ways, such as popular Jacobitism, rioting and community support for the ‘social crimes’ which the repressive legislative sought to control.10
Even this Marxist model of eighteenth century English society, however, does not represent it as feudal. Mr. Thompson depicts it as being polarised between a patriciate and a plebs. Although he does not discern the existence of an urban bourgeoisie between them, except in London, until after 1760, he nevertheless does not ‘regard the predominantly landed ruling class as a feudal aristocracy. Because their methods of estate management are to him more capitalist than feudal he prefers to call them an agrarian bourgeoisie.11
If England cannot be described as feudal, so English social structure was less rigid than is sometimes alleged. That it was a hierarchy cannot be denied. The handful of peers at the very top, those 180 or so noblemen who attended the House of Lords, became in many ways more of a closed caste as time passed. Abolished in the Interregnum (1649-1660), they came back with a vengeance at the Restoration. Almost all the leading politicians before Walpole either were nobles or sought to be ennobled. Where Queen Anne made twelve commoners peers at a stroke, both George I and George II preserved the number and with it the dignity of the peerage.
It would, however, be wrong to characterise English society as ‘aristocratic’ because of the entrenchment of the nobility at the top. One hundred and eighty men scarcely constituted a dominant class. Though legally distinct from the’ 16,000 or so gentry, they were economically indistinguishable. Peers and country gentlemen alike owned landed estates, and enjoyed similar life styles, centred on the country house, with visits to London or Bath for the season, while some had their own town-houses either in the capital or the local county town. These substantial landowners formed a distinct ruling class.
Below this elite distinctions tended to become blurred. How far the distinction between the gentry, and farmers, merchants and professional men can be regarded as a difference of class is debateable. Some historians argue that the gentry formed the only real class in pre-industrial England, since they developed a consciousness of themselves as a group at the top of English society. others, it is argued, had no awareness of occupying a place in a national entity, but identified with the local community. They therefore thought socially in vertical rather than horizontal terms, gauging their status by those above or below them in the immediate neighbourhood.12 The fact that their desire for upward mobility expressed itself in the appropriation of the title ‘gentleman’, so that hybrids such as gentleman farmer, gentleman merchant, gentleman lawyer and even gentleman tradesman crept into the language during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, seems to confirm that they had no separate class consciousness of their own. other historians, however, do see the business and professional men at least, if not the freeholders and tenant farmers, developing as a middle class with interests distinct from those of the elite.13 Such expressions as ‘the middling sort’ and ‘the middle station of life’ which also manifested themselves in this period, are cited as testimony to a growing awareness of their being a separate category. They indicate too a stratification into three classes, upper, middle and lower.
A distinction should be drawn between the social structures of the countryside and the town. England was still predominantly rural, and village communities could be seen as societies where the principal social division remained that between the genteel and the vulgar. Even so there was a clear differentiation to be made between country gentlemen who lived off rents; tenant farmers, who paid rent, and freeholders, sometimes termed yeomen; and agricultural labourers. The tenants and freeholders, along with the clergy and the increasing number of rural attorneys and doctors, formed a middle group, if not a middle class, in the countryside. One figure conspicuous by his rarity if not complete absence was the peasant. The word itself was not used in early modern England, the nearest equivalent to the owner occupier who farmed his own family farm. directly being the term “husbandman.” By contrast with Europe England was not a peasant society, a fact sometimes overlooked by historians who make sweeping comparisons between – the American colonies and ‘traditional’ societies.
In towns social structure was more complex. Quite what constituted a town in itself has aroused debate amongst historians. A minimum population of 2500, however, seems to be the best guide.14 Even below this level the difference between agricultural and trading villages was striking. Where those with under 2000 inhabitants would have few tradesmen other than those supplying basic services, those with bigger populations could contain industries such as brewing and toolmaking. Towns with over 5000 inhabitants had quite diffuse economies, while London’s trades were manifold, over 350 being listed in trade directories by the mid eighteenth century. There was a hierarchy of trades, with a huge gap between luxury tradesmen such as master gold and silversmiths and coachbuilders.at one end, and journeymen tallow chandlers and weavers at the other. Despite these differentials, however, the emergence of a threefold stratification can be detected. By the eighteenth century there were distinct districts in the metropolis for ‘the quality,’ ‘the middling sort’ and ‘the poor.’ The town houses of the aristocracy and gentry in the new squares near the court at St. James represented the top of society. The City proper was the habitat of the business community, while there were professional districts too, for example the Inns of Court. Eastwards along the river were already to be found poorer districts such as Shadwell and Wapping.
The poor themselves formed the mass of the English population, rural or urban. Cottagers and landless agricultural labourers, unskilled town workers, the casually employed and the vagrant accounted for about half the inhabitants of England and Wales. Provision for the destitute among them became a major public concern with the passing of the Elizabethan poor laws. The burden on parishes, which were responsible for raising parochial rates for poor relief, was probably greatest in the first half of the seventeenth century, when the population was still rising, from 2,984,500 in 1560 to 4,892,500 by 1630, putting pressure on resources and fuelling inflation. Food prices rose fastest, while wages failed to keep pace, so that conditions for those at the bottom of English society were probably as bad in the fifty years 1600 to 1650 as at any time in early modern history.
Thereafter, for at least a century, the economic situation improved. The population of England and Wales stopped growing in the 1650s and even shrank from 5,281,000 to 4,865,000 by the mid 1680s. Thereafter a slow increase occurred, though even as late as 1731 the total was still only 5,263,000 – less than it had been in the 1650s. Although growth then continued unchecked, even by 1751 the overall population was only 5,772,000. So the period was marked by a rise, a levelling off, a decline, then a slow recovery which gained momentum in the last two or three decades.15
This trend eased the pressure on resources. Food prices in particular fell, as the agricultural revolution simultaneously increased the productivity of English farms. Although this created problems for landowners and farmers, by and large the economic effects were beneficial. Extra spending power was generated in most sections of society. More substantial citizens spent on luxury goods and services, generating an expansion of the manufacturing and service sections of the economy. Towns particularly benefited from these demands, and grew accordingly. London experienced most growth, increasing from 200,000 to 675,000 inhabitants between 1600 and 1760. Other urban centres also expanded. Where in 1600 only Bristol and Norwich could number their populations in five figures, each having about 20,000 inhabitants, by 1760 there were at least fourteen towns with over 10,000 inhabitants.
Another consequence was an expansion of the business and professional classes. The middle sections of society bulged. In the fifty years 1680 to 1730 alone the numbers in the professions increased by nearly seventy per cent.16 The business section of society probably grew commensurately. In part this expansion was caused by downward mobility, as younger sons of-the landed gentry entered the professions and even trade. Since there were fewer younger sons to provide for, however, then mostly it was fuelled by upward mobility, sucking apprentices out of the lower classes.
Even the lot of those left in the lower echelons of English society improved in these years, especially in towns whose growth stimulated all kinds of economic activity. The physical expansion of London and other urban centres created employment for all trades connected with building. Demands for luxury goods and services employed craftsmen and a growing army of domestic servants.
These considerations attracted increasing numbers who moved from the countryside into towns and above all to London. This geographic mobility probably did more than anything to break down local communities and merge them into a national society.
In the early seventeenth century the horizons of many Englishmen had been constricted to their county boundaries. They felt themselves to belong to Cornwall, Kent or Yorkshire first, and to England second. Below the great aristocrats, who might own land in two or more counties, the majority of landowners held estates inside one. They tended to restrict their social activities within their county, or country as they significantly called it, making marriage alliances, for example, with other families from the local community. This loyalty apparently extended to men below the elite, for during the Civil War it was difficult to overcome it-and.to persuade people that they were involved in a nationwide struggle.17
In the century after the Civil War, however, one hears less and less about the county community. National consciousness was perhaps developed by the astonishing fact that, statistically at least, between 1650 and 1750 one in six of all Englishmen spent part of their lives in London.18
Internal migration on such a scale shatters the myth that people lived and died in the same communities in which they were born. Research on parish records has revealed that it was rather the exception than the rule. Of the families living in a particular parish in 1600 the descendants of only 16 per cent would still be there in 1700. While most might have moved only a few miles away, many migrated far afield. The decision to emigrate, therefore, was not necessarily the traumatic choice that has been imagined. For many it was to decide to make just another move, albeit a big one.19
It is crucial at the outset of a comparison of English with colonial societies to establish how far the social structure of the mother country was recreated in North America. Among the assumptions of ‘consensus’ historians-is the notion that only the middling sort went in any significant numbers across the Atlantic. American society thus from the start lacked an aristocracy at its head or a long tail of the labouring par Those more persuaded by the conflict model of society, on the other hand, while they accept that no aristocrats permanently settled in the colonies, and precious few gentlemen went there, are convinced that enough representatives of the middle and lower orders emigrated to carry across the ocean the social divisions of early modern England.
The main evidence for emigration in the seventeenth century concerns some 3000 indentured servants who sailed from Bristol between 1654 and 1661, and a further 750 who went from London in 1683 and 1684, all bound for the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Its documentation of the status of the colonists, however, is ambiguous.
Mildred Campbell claimed that, apart from the tiny handful of gentlemen and professional men, amounting to about one per cent of the total, the bulk of this sample can be identified as yeomen and husbandmen, with another substantial proportion comprising tradesmen and artisans. “The majority” she asserted “were England’s middling people.” She even endowed them with qualitative as well as quantitative values: they were “drawn from the middling classes: farmers and skilled workers, the productive groups in England’s working population.”20 So the myth of the transplantation of essentially middle class values – egalitarianism, individualism, self-improvement, thrift – received a powerful statistical boost.
Then David Galenson challenged the statistics. He pointed out that the Bristol records only systematically record occupations for the years 1654 to 1657, and argued that the registrations thereafter distort the data, exaggerating the proportion of farmers and minimising the number of labourers. On the basis of the earlier records he concluded that, apart from a tiny handful of gentlemen, the Bristol migrants can roughly be divided into four quarters: yeomen and husbandmen; tradesmen and craftsmen; apprentices or servants in husbandry; and unskilled labourers. In the case of the London records he claimed that Campbell had effectively ignored indentured servants with no occupation ascribed to them in the records, and that these should be regarded as labourers. His conclusion from these statistical adjustments was that the indentured servants destined for the Chesapeake Bay in the seventeenth century represented a much wider spectrum of English society than “the middling people.” “They came from all levels of England’s “common sort,” and together made up a cross section of English society that cut from the gentry to the paupers.”21
James Horn’s scrutiny of the quantitative evidence led him also to conclude that “about half of them were either minors or unskilled workers of various types, while the rest came from agricultural occupations and a miscellany of crafts and trades… They were mainly non-householders and had acquired little personal wealth. They came from the middle and lower echelons of that section of society that contemporaries labelled ‘the Commons’: the ordinary people who made up the vast majority of England’s population and who were obliged to work with their hands to earn a living.”22
The indentured servants who went to the Chesapeake therefore, and who accounted for the bulk of settlers in seventeenth century Maryland and Virginia, cannot be ascribed to the English middle class exclusively. On the contrary, they covered a wide cross-section of society, with only the extremes of aristocracy and landed gentry at the top, and penniless vagrants at the bottom, being conspicuously absent.
Quantitative evidence for the settlers of the northern colonies is much more sparse than for the southern colonies. Timothy Breen and Stephen Foster concluded from the most fruitful source that most of the adult males who emigrated to New England had been urban tradesmen in England. Although these took their domestics with them, so that the master-servant relationship was reproduced, few labourers accompanied them.23 Another indication that the first settlers were disproportionately from “the middling sort” is that “the rate of male literacy among the arrivals in New England was nearly double the base rate prevailing in England.”24 The original New England colonies, therefore – Plymouth, Massachusetts, Rhode- Island, New Haven and Connecticut – were different in this respect not only from the mother country but also from the early settlements in Virginia and Maryland.
There were other significant differences between New England and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as between them and England, in the first decades of colonisation. Social stability was achieved much earlier in the northern than in the southern colonies, for a variety of reasons.
One element making for a stable society in the north and an unstable pioneer community in the south was the fact that it was quite usual for whole families to emigrate to New England while individuals went to Virginia. The families which crossed the Atlantic were not distinct from those of urban tradesmen left behind. The nuclear family was not emerging in the colonies while the extended family survived in England. On the contrary, demographic research has established that the prevalent model was for the kin in an English household to consist solely of parents and children. Indeed, given the low life expectancy that prevailed, the statistical chances of any individual surviving to share a home with his or even her grandchildren were very small, especially since marriage were deferred until the late twenties. Life expectancy at birth was very low, perhaps no more than twenty. This was, however, due to the formidable incidence of infant mortality. Those who lived to be ten had a reasonable chance of seeing their fortieth birthday. Even so, the mean age of marriage in early modern England was about 26 for women. Only the tiny minority who endured into their sixties, therefore, were likely to live long enough to see their grandchildren. Paradoxically there was more opportunity for the creation of three-generation families in New England in the seventeenth century, since people lived longer as a result of the. healthier environment, while they also tended to marry younger.25
The case was very different, however, in the settlements around the Chesapeake Bay. The individuals who went to Virginia tended to be young men, with few women or children in their company. The result was an imbalance between the sexes of three men to one woman, which was clearly an obstacle not only to family formation but also to social stability. Indeed, the horrendous death rate in the first generation of settlement at Jamestown, from dysentery, typhoid and even salt water poisoning, was a deterrent to the establishment of a stable society of any sort. Men died like flies; so much so that in the first forty years it took at least 15,000 migrants to produce a population of about 7,500.
Another distinction which has been drawn between the first settlements in Virginia and those in New England is in the motives which impelled the colonists to venture across the Atlantic ocean to North America. By and large gain has been cited as the main motivation of the early Virginians and godliness that of the original settlers in New England.
The first colonists in the Chesapeake appear to have been in search of easy pickings, lured by tales of fabulous wealth. An astonishing motley of ne’er-do-wells and adventurers sailed to Jamestown under the auspices of the Virginia Company, to whom the hard work of creating a permanent colony was the last consideration. As John Smith, looking back to those bizarre early days, complained26
All this time we had but one carpenter in the country, and three others that could do. little, but desired to be learners: two blacksmiths; two saylers and those we write labourers were for the most part footmen, and such as they could persuade to go with them, that never did know what a dayes worke was, except the Dutchmen and Poles, and some dozen other. For all the rest were poore Gentlemen, tradesmen, serving men, libertines and such like, ten times more fit to spoyle a commonwealth, than either begin one or but help to maintain one.
Jaundiced though Smith’s account undoubtedly was, it has been substantially confirmed by Edmund Morgan’s reconstruction of the early years of settlement. Apparently colonists did loaf around, totally dependent for even the most basic supplies upon Indians, whom they nevertheless were not averse to fighting.27 There may be a medical explanation for such otherwise unaccountable behaviour since Jamestown’s water supply, especially in summer, was polluted with salt from the sea. This could have caused saline poisoning which in turn induced indolence. Only when the colonists spread further up the James river did they escape the deadly disease environment which had threatened to wipe them out.28
By then the Virginia Company had been dissolved, the colony was under the Crown, and those colonists who had survived had discovered their economic salvation too in the cultivation of tobacco. The profits to be made from this cash crop attracted settlers who were prepared to invest the capital and labour needed to exploit it.
By contrast the great migration to Massachusetts in the 1630s, involving thousands of Englishmen, has been ascribed to religious motivation. Their most articulate spokesmen certainly claimed that they fled from religious persecution in England under Charles I, to found a puritan commonwealth in the wilderness. That religious considerations were a major factor in the motives of some emigrants is undeniable. What is questionable is the proposition that they motivated the majority.
Certainly the degree of religious persecution has been exaggerated. The notion that the Church of England under Archbishop Laud relentlessly suppressed its puritan critics, arraigning them before the arbitrary jurisdiction of the courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, and sentencing them to savage and even barbaric punishments, has been exposed as a myth, albeit one which puritan sympathisers have always sedulously fostered.29 Certainly some early settlers were refugees from Laudian suppression. Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, for instance, fled abroad to avoid answering to charges brought against them by High Commission. But the numbers who were subjected to ecclesiastical censure and discipline were too small to account for the massive movement across the Atlantic. It was the positive, assertive aspects of Arminianism rather than its negative, repressive features which most perturbed puritans. Ezekiel Rogers’ decision to leave Rowley in protest against the Book of Sports, which sanctioned Sunday recreation, was more typical than Cotton’s flight from Laudian justice.
Those who were dissatisfied with the Elizabethan church, and were consequently labelled puritans, objected to many different elements in it. Few disagreed with its theology, which was basically Calvinist. Objections ranged from disliking such ‘relics of popery’ as the exchange of rings in marriage, crossing an infant’s head in baptism and bowing at the name of Jesus, to the whole system of episcopacy. The term puritanism is consequently unsatisfactorily vague, since it has to cover such a gamut of attitudes. It is even more unsatisfactory to use the term Anglican to distinguish the opponents of puritanism, as almost all those who desired further reformation did so from within the Anglican community. Only a few, such as the Brownists and the Pilgrim Fathers, seceded from the Church of England.
Those who worked for reform inside the Church did so in the belief that they were ‘tarrying for the magistrate.’ Elizabeth had, after all, restored Protestantism after the Catholic Mary, and had partly reformed the Church. Puritans could be grateful for that, even if they wanted what they called a thorough godly reformation. What they meant by this varied. Some wanted to replace the episcopal system of government with one based on the Scottish Presbyterian model. Others desired each church to be a ‘gathered.community’ of saints, in which communion would be confined to ‘visible saints’ who could provide convincing evidence that they had received ‘saving faith’ and were therefore with the elect in the covenant of grace.
They could all entertain the hope that the Queen or her successor would eventually effect a more thorough reformation. Those who wished to confine church membership to visible saints, however, seem to have despaired first. Some gave up hope shortly after James I’s accession, when he seemed to turn his face against the reforms suggested by the Hampton Court Conference. Among these were William Bradford and his community, who left England at this time, and eventually settled Plymouth colony. But the new reign was not a major turning point in Anglican history, as has traditionally been claimed. On the contrary, many objections to the discipline of the church which were frequently raised under Elizabeth were rarely heard under her successor.
The rise of Arminianism after Charles I’s accession, however, posed a direct threat to the concept of the gathered church. Arminian criticism of the Calvinist doctrine of the election of the saints to salvation, and damnation of the unregenerate, was a fundamental challenge to their theology. If there were no elect, then church membership could not be confined to them. There was precious little hope of a thorough reformation in line with covenant theology from Arminian authorities. The best way to realise the ideal of the convenanted congregation from these ‘innovations in religion’ was to move out of their jurisdiction. By the late 1620s it was no longer feasible to join with the reformed churches on the continent, since the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 had been followed by the collapse of Protestant resistance to the Habsburg forces, and the apparent. triumph of the Counter Reformation. The alternative was to follow Bradford’s example and move to New England. Yet Winthrop and his associates in the Massachusetts Bay company did not intend to join Plymouth colony in schism. They still clung stubbornly to the notion that they were tarrying for the magistrate, to the point of insisting that they remained part of the Anglican community, and were merely preserving the ideal of the gathered church until the day when it would be used as the model for a thorough godly reformation. That day, of course, never came in England. There was a false dawn during the Interregnum, especially with the rise of the Independents under Cromwell. But ‘puritanism’ in England developed a dynamic under the impact of Civil War which it never acquired in New England. The rise of the sects – Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, Fifth monarchist, Quaker, etc. – and their toleration by Cromwell, created a confusion of creeds which the upholders of orthodoxy in Massachusetts would never have tolerated.
Nevertheless the rise of a puritan commonwealth under Cromwell has been held to have stopped migration to Massachusetts, and even to have reversed it. Yet it was not renewed when the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 revived religious persecution. What had changed meanwhile was the standard of living of the middling and lower orders in England. As we have seen, the early seventeenth century was a bleak period for Englishmen who depended for their livelihood on their labour, skilled or unskilled, while the late seventeenth century saw a significant improvement in their lot. It would seem that these improving economic circumstances made emigration less attractive than it had been earlier, in which case the differences between the motives of those who went to New England and those who went to the Chesapeake have probably been exaggerated. The mass of colonists who settled both areas of North America were probably prompted to do so by the hope of improving their material conditions across the Atlantic.
The drying up of the pool of English labour which had previously supplied the colonies, however, had a very different impact on the Chesapeake than on New England, adding to the differences between the two areas. In the northern colonies the main industries were farming and fishing. Although these were labour intensive, the units involved were small enough to be managed by individual households. The natural increase of the population, due to a decline in the death rate and a rise in the birth rate, at least kept pace with the geographical expansion of the area, and arguably outstripped it, producing a labour surplus rather than a shortage for the New England economy. Certainly there was no great demand for fresh emigration to the area from England or elsewhere.
It was quite the reverse in Maryland and Virginia. There the tobacco economy was insatiable in its demands for labour. In the first half of the seventeenth century this was mainly supplied by indentured servants from England, who earned their passage by selling their labour for a period of years. There were a few black slaves very soon after the extensive cultivation of tobacco began, but these were a small minority of the total labour force. Certainly slavery began in the Chesapeake before it became an economic necessity. With the cessation in the supply of indentured servants, however, tobacco growers turned to slaves to replace them. The institution of chattel slavery was not unknown in the north, but the numbers involved were quite disproportionate. Blacks never became more than three per cent of the total population of New England in the colonial period, while they eventually formed forty per cent of the inhabitants of Virginia.
They became an even bigger proportion of the population of South Carolina, which was established after the Restoration when indentured servitude began to dwindle. From the start South Carolina cultivated rice, another cash crop which the colonists exploited by. employing slave labour. Eventually a majority, some sixty per cent, of the colonists of South Carolina were black.
In the seventeenth century, of course, an even larger proportion of colonial North Americans consisted of red men. Quite how many native Americans existed north of the Rio Grande before white colonisation began is a matter of some dispute. What seems certain is that the traditional estimate of 1,000,000 must be revised upwards many times, perhaps as many as ten. Contact with European diseases, from which they had no natural immunity, produced a demographic catastrophe, reducing their numbers drastically.
At first the colonists depended on the Indians for their very survival. Without supplies of foodstuffs from the natives the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth would have failed. Yet initial symbiosis turned to attempted genocide by both sides, in Powhatan’s rebellion in Virginia in 1622, and in the Pequot war in New England in 1636. These hostilities created a permanent state of cold war between the races in North America. In the mid 1670s this turned to open conflict in New England, with the so-called King Philip’s war, which witnessed considerable losses of life amongst both red and white men, and in Virginia.
By then, however, the Europeans had effectively settled the coastal strip, and pushed all but friendly natives to the frontier. The English consolidated their North American empire after the Restoration of Charles II with the acquisition of the middle colonies: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Since these were settled after the emigration from England dwindled from a torrent to a trickle, they were colonised largely from elsewhere. New York and New Jersey, of course, had been Dutch colonies, and already had a European population before the English Crown acquired them, while there were other settlers from Europe, principally Scandinavians, on the Delaware. Their numbers, however, while sufficient to retain some cultural features such as the Dutch Reformed Church, were not high enough to remain the dominant element in these areas. Many New Englanders moved into the middle colonies, Newark, New Jersey, being founded by migrants from New Haven. Many more Scots and Ulstermen (Scots-Irish as American historians call them) also moved there, while from the outset William Penn encouraged Europeans to colonise Pennsylvania, and attracted immigrants from many parts of Germany.
By 1700, therefore, there was no single colonial society but three distinct societies. New England retained the most English characteristics, having been settled largely by Englishmen. These retained not only practices from the mother country, but even regional variations of them. Sudbury was founded by men from Hampshire and Wiltshire, who practised open field agriculture, while Watertown was founded by settlers from East Anglia who recreated the enclosed fields they were familiar with before emigrating. In his reconstructions of the English communities which provided the settlers for Hingham, Rowley and other Massachusetts towns, David Grayson Allen has demonstrated how far the colonial settlements developed “in English ways.”30 Thus the agricultural structure, land system, leadership patterns and local government of Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, which provided a nucleus of those who accompanied Ezekiel Rogers to America, were remarkably similar to those of Rowley. Even fuel supplies were carefully conserved by byelaws in both communities despite the fact that, though they were scarce on the East Riding wolds, they were abundant in the forests of the frontier. Such placenames as Boston, Cambridge, Ipswich, Plymouth and Sunderland bore witness to the persistent localism of the Englishmen transported to New England.
Placenames such as Brooklyn in New York, Hoboken in New Jersey and Germantown in Pennsylvania testified to the greater ethnic diversity of the middle colonies. There were also a higher proportion of blacks in this region, especially in New York, twelve per cent of the inhabitants of which were black in the seventeenth century. In the next century the black population of the middle colonies combined was between six and eight per cent.31 Although this region, like others, retained its overwhelmingly rural character it also contained, in New York and Philadelphia, what were to become the principal cities of colonial America. Pennsylvania was a great wheat-growing region, the breadbasket of the colonies, and Philadelphia developed rapidly as a centre for processing the grain into flour and distributing it widely.
Apart from Charleston there was no town which was to grow into a city throughout the entire south during the colonial period. The Chesapeake colonies developed along the river systems, with plantations, small and large, abutting the waterfronts. In North Carolina there were two separate settlements, one along the Albemarle sound, the other on Cape Fear, mainly exploiting the abundant timber resources of an otherwise naturally impoverished region. Only South Carolina developed a major entrepot for its principal product, rice.
During the seventeenth century these three colonial societies differed in many respects from England. Even New England, which was the most English, had not recreated the conditions of the mother country. Its social structure was more truncated, lacking the elite of very rich landowners and the mass of very poor labourers. Its political institutions were based on criteria markedly different from those presided over by the Stuarts. During the 1630s, and again from 1660 to 1684, when parliamentary elections were few and far between in England, elections for Governors and General Courts of the various colonies were held annually. In Massachusetts and New Haven the franchise was vested in church members. Although this did not make these bible commonwealths theocracies, nevertheless dominion was founded in grace. Religion, indeed, remained paramount in the puritan colonies long after secularism had made inroads into its authority in the mother country. King Charles II challenged their religious qualification for the vote. His court set the tone for the sceptical, scoffing attitude to revealed religion which characterised the English ruling class in the late seventeenth century, when the leaders of New England could seriously believe that the hysteria at Salem in 1692 was due to witches, and preside over tribunals which sentenced those found guilty of witchcraft to death.
Yet there were trends in seventeenth-century New England moving it more into line with the mother country. During the second generation there were complaints of declension following the crusading idealism of the original puritan settlers. The so-called Halfway Covenant, offering baptism but not full communion to the grandchildren of church members, was seen by many as a lamentable fall from grace. Jeremiahs found a whole host of afflicting providences to chronicle alleged apostasy from the strict ways of the faithful. Luxury was especially singled out by preachers as one of the more deadly sins which had earned a just rebuke from Providence. All these were indications that materialism was eroding faith even in New England. This was especially true of the ports, which were the first to be contaminated with the commercial spirit. The outbreaks of witchcraft in Salem village have been seen as manifestations of resistance to the growth of capitalism in Salem itself, and its resulting breakdown of the traditional values upheld by the first settlers. Above all Boston, as it became the major port of New England, ceased to be ‘the City upon a hill’ which John Winthrop had urged the puritans to establish as a beacon to the world, and developed into a thriving commercial centre.32
Boston was to lead the way in the reactions of the colonies to imperial initiatives which culminated in what has been termed the Glorious Revolution in America. The fact that several colonial centres resisted James II and those they associated with him can be seen as a sign that developments in North America were pulling it closer to England by the late seventeenth century.
Colonial responses to imperial policies initiated by the mother country only became significant after 1676. Before then, to be sure, the English government had by no means neglected the colonies. On the contrary, there had been determined attempts to ensure that their economic development benefitted England, notably with the passing of the Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660 and the Plantations Duties Act of 1673. These measures were aimed at restricting the carrying trade between England and the colonies as far as possible to English shipping, and at confining the export of certain enumerated colonial products to England. They remained, however, pronouncements of intent rather than actual policies until 1676, after which Charles II, and even more so his brother, James II, initiated moves to bring their American dependencies more effectively under control.
Reactions to these English initiatives culminated in what has been seen as the first American Revolution. Perhaps significantly, although all the original colonies except Georgia had been established by 1688, the Revolution occurred only in the longer settled provinces of Massachusetts, Maryland and New York. It is true that New York was only acquired by the English in 1664, but it had been colonised by the Dutch for over half a century.
The bold decision of the members old the Massachusetts Bay Company to move its headquarters to the colony, and to use the charter granted in 1629 as the colonial constitution, had always run the risk of challenge. Indeed it was challenged several times before 1676, by Archbishop Laud, by the Presbyterians when they temporarily enjoyed power in England after the first civil war, and by Charles II after his Restoration in 1660. The restored monarch had objected to the persecution of Quakers in the Bay colony, and had insisted on breaking the monopoly of power in provincial politics held by congregational church members, forcing them to accept a property franchise too. But it was not until Edward Randolph arrived in 1676 to investigate evasions of the Navigation Laws by New England that their semi-autonomy was threatened in earnest. Randolph concluded that the only way to force Massachusetts to obey Whitehall was to make it a Crown colony, an argument which the English government eventually accepted. In 1679 the jurisdiction of Massachusetts over New Hampshire was removed when the Crown took over that colony. Five years later the charter of the Bay company was revoked after the colony had been accused of “usurping to be a body politic.”33
If Charles II lashed the Bay colonists with whips, his brother James, who succeeded to the crown in 1685, chastised the whole of New England with scorpions. All the northern colonies, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Plymouth and Rhode Island, as well as Massachusetts, were incorporated in 1686 into the Dominion of New England, to which New York and New Jersey were later added.
The Dominion was primarily concerned with defence. A military man, Sir Edmund Andros, was put in charge of this virtual viceroyalty. As its historian concluded, it was “a solution of the colonial problem of defense. It had the desired effect upon the French and hostile Indians, for it checked their encroachments upon the English settlements in North America. It strengthened the confidence of the Five Nations in the English and made the alliance more secure. It… brought credit to Andros, whose military policy was the strongest force of his administration.”34
This represented a new departure, for colonial defence had not previously been a prime concern of the English government. Charles II was far more interested in the revenues which the colonies could bring in to his insatiable exchequer. It has been claimed that military considerations became paramount even tinder Charles, and that the despatch of troops to suppress Nathanial Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 represents the introduction of ‘garrison government’ into the American colonies.35 But Charles actually disbanded the companies despatched to the Chesapeake once their task was completed. It was his brother who had genuine military priorities.
The Dominion was autocratic as well as defensive. Provincial representative assemblies were suppressed and the rights of town governments curtailed. Andros and his council legislated and taxed by decree. With the revocation of the charter all land titles were also revoked. Some colonists were deprived of their property completely, while most had it restored only on condition that they paid quitrents. Quitrents, while they were raised elsewhere in the colonies, were previously unknown in New England. Andros also saw to it that the Navigation Laws were strictly enforced, the number of ports of entry being reduced to five. Perhaps even more traumatic for the dominant Congregationalists, religious toleration was enforced, an Anglican Church being established in Boston, while Anglicans served on juries and in the militia. These policies alienated many vested interests in Massachusetts. As J. M. Sosin concludes “By 1688 there were relatively few prominent men with reason to support the governor in time of crisis.”36
The crisis arose when news reached Massachusetts in April 1689 that James II had been overthrown in England by William of Orange the previous December. An apparently spontaneous uprising occurred in Boston against Andros, who was thrown into jail along with other officials of the Dominion. The ringleaders chose the octogenarian Simon Bradstreet, a former governor of the colony, as president of a provisional council. Elections were held for a convention, which endorsed these revolutionary measures. Similar rejections of the Dominion and restoration of the old order occurred in Connecticut, Plymouth and Rhode Island.
News of what had happened in Boston reached New York City before the end of April. New York had been annexed to the Dominion of New England in 1688; consequently the fall of Andros and his imprisonment along with other agents of the Dominion in Boston was an ill omen for Francis Nicholson, the Lieutenant Governor of New York. The fact that France was now at war with England, and that the French in Canada threatened to advance on Albany and then on Manhattan, was even more ominous. Nicholson took steps to fortify New York City, placing some units of the Manhattan militia in Fort James.
His motives for these actions were misrepresented. It was said that he was hand in glove with the Papists to betray the city to the French. Among those who believed the rumours were officers in the militia, led by Jacob Leisler, who mutinied against Nicholson and took over the fort in the name of the inhabitants and soldiers. Nicholson chose to flee. leaving the colony in June 1689 for England. Leisler and his confederates proceeded to set up a Committee of Safety, proclaiming it to be the provisional government. In August it declared Leisler to be Commander in Chief.
If alleged sympathy with Popery helped to topple Nicholson, genuine Catholicism in high places precipitated revolution in Maryland. The proprietor, Lord Baltimore, was a Roman Catholic, and on the council which ruled from 1666 to 1689 there was always a slight majority of his co-religionists. This caused friction between the council and the assembly, which was aggravated in January 1689 when the councillors called in all public arms, ostensibly for repairs. There ensued a wild rumour of a Popish plot to kill Protestants with the help of Indians. Protestant assemblymen, led by John Goode, led an armed uprising against the Council. The Councillors surrendered without a struggle and proclaimed William and Mary King and Queen. The Protestant Association, as Goode and his colleagues called themselves, summoned a convention which set up a grand committee to govern the colony.
These disturbances in America can be seen as the reaction of the colonists to arbitrary power. Consciously copying the leaders of the Revolution in England they asserted their rights and liberties as Englishmen against the absolute monarch in league with France and Rome. The role of representative institutions in the events of 1685-1689 symbolises this fundamental conflict of interests. James II suppressed them in New England, where they had enjoyed a continuous history since the original settlements, and in New York, where, though the Dutch had never convened one, he himself had been forced to summon one in 1683, when he was proprietor. The revolutionaries in Massachusetts legitimised their actions with the summoning of a convention. Leisler also called one in New York. In Maryland it was the Lower House which led the Protestant Association against the proprietor and the council. Their criticisms of arbitrary government, taxation by decree, and confiscation of property have been seen as a prototype of the resistance to a similarly perceived threat under George III.37
At the same time the upheavals in Maryland and New York, and even to some extent Massachusetts, can be seen as adjustments within the social structures of those colonies rather more than between them and the mother country. Even historians who interpret the events of 1689 largely in imperial terms concede that they also represented struggles for power within colonial elites. The model for this interpretation is Bailyn’s analysis of Bacon’s rebellion of 1676 in Virginia. His thesis is that in the seventeenth century Englishmen accepted the argument of James Harrington that political power should rest with those who possessed economic clout in the community. In England these were the landowners, who acquired social status commensurate with their political and economic influence. Incidentally the framers of the constitution of the Carolinas, probably including John Locke, used Harrington’s scheme to try to preserve the link between property and power which he had advocated in Oceana. In America, however, this link did not prove easy to establish. A pioneer society took time to settle down, and meanwhile its social structure was very flexible. Moreover land, being both abundant and cheap, did not necessarily confer upon its owners the authority which it could in England. This was especially true in the early decades of settlement in Virginia, where a most unstable society threw up elites on a very different basis from that which the English ruling classes enjoyed. When members of the ruling class, sons of gentry like Nathaniel Bacon, migrated there, they discovered that they did not acquire the influence in Virginia society which they had come to expect from their status. Kept from power by the current ruling group in the entourage of Governor Berkeley, they became increasingly resentful and eventually took out their frustrations in rebellion.
These were, however, the teething troubles of an infant colony. When Virginian society matured, a gentry class emerged which united in itself the twin attributes of economic and political power. Thereafter the gentry exercised their authority undisturbed from below for generations. By the eighteenth century a handful of families, such as the Byrds, the Carters, the Washingtons, dominated life in the Old Dominion.38
The same ‘model has been applied to the Glorious Revolution in Maryland. Coode and his colleagues Nehemiah Blakiston, Kenelm Cheseldyne and Henry Bowles have been seen as English gentlemen who migrated to the colony, and like Bacon found themselves ostracised by the ruling clique. They had prospered after emigrating to Maryland. Coode married the daughter of a wealthy Roman Catholic, yet he rose no higher politically than to the rank of militia officer. This built-up frustration found expression in an abortive uprising in 1681 and the Protestant Association’s successful resistance to the proprietorial faction.39
Leisler’s rebellion has also been seen in this light. Although Leisler was a German, while his chief accomplice, Jacob Milborne, was English, they were supported by the Dutch in New York City. Leisler married a wealthy Dutch widow, a marriage which should have introduced him to New York’s elite. Instead his political ambitions were thwarted until he took it into his own hands to achieve them by force. Significantly the predominantly English inhabitants of Suffolk county on Long Island, who also rose up against the Dominion, dissociated themselves from Leisler, preferring to join with Connecticut. On the other hand, the Dutch outpost at Albany also kept aloof from Leisler, and only reluctantly accepted his leadership in 1690 when they turned to him for protection after an Indian raid on Schenectady.40
In Massachusetts too there was a dislocation between economic and political power. The growing business community of Boston and other towns were kept out of provincial government by the Congregationalists who insisted that the franchise should be confined to church members. Charles II tried to exploit this tension by obliging the puritan oligarchy to concede a property qualification for voting too, though this was too high to make a significant impact on the electorate. Initially the Dominion of New England found some favour with those outside the ruling church, but eventually Andros drove the colonists to combine against his rule. Even so they remained divided in their objectives for replacing the Dominion. Church members desired the restoration of the Charter of 1629, while the others did not wish to see the puritan oligarchy restored.
The Glorious Revolution was the last violent threat to political stability in the colonies before the reign of George III. Although the turbulence it created took time to calm down, especially in New York, British America entered the eighteenth century as a settled society rapidly acquiring maturity.
As the colonies grew and society in them became more complex, so they developed comparable characteristics’. The differences between them persisted, but similarities also developed so that on the eve of the Revolution an American society is discernible.
The numbers of the colonists grew dramatically from zero in 1600 to about 223,000 by 1700, 934,000 by 1750 and 1,688,000 by 1770. Contemporaries became aware that the population was doubling roughly every twenty-five years, which was a much faster rate of growth than obtained in England during these years. Its distribution was, however, uneven. New England did not grow as rapidly as it had done in the seventeenth century, for the mean age of marriage rose and the birth rate correspondingly declined. The middle colonies filled up with immigrants, Ulstermen and Germans dominating a new influx from Europe. The communities which they created differed markedly from the settled, almost static, townships of New England. In Germantown, for instance, there was a staggeringly high turnover of population as immigrant families moved in, stayed a few years, then split up and moved on, to be replaced by newcomers from Europe.41 Those who moved on poured down into the backcountry of the Carolinas, creating whole communities in the piedmont in a few years around mid-century. The longer-settled tidewater strip in the south also saw a natural increase of the white population, especially around the Chesapeake Bay when the ecology became much healthier for human life.
Signs that land along the eastern seaboard was becoming relatively less abundant begin to emerge by the eighteenth century. The average size of holdings in the longest settled areas diminished while their value rose. Thus Suffolk county in eastern Massachusetts had only thirteen men out of three hundred with estates worth more than £900 in 1660, compared with fifty-three out of three hundred and ten by 1765. Over the same century the number of men with estates worth less than £100 also increased from fifty-seven to seventy-one. As Kenneth Lockridge concluded from this analysis, “not only were the rich becoming more numerous and relatively more rich, but the poor were becoming more numerous and relatively poorer.”42 A similar pattern is discernible in Maryland. In the 1690s only 1.6 per cent of colonists had estates worth £1000 or more. By the 1750s the proportion had risen to 3.9 per cent. Poorer planters also acquired more wealth between 1690 and 1740.43 By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, many white farmers in Maryland were not planters but leaseholders.
Although leaseholding was less extensive in the colonies than in Britain it did exist, and apparently on an increasing scale. In New York the vast manors of Rensselaerswyck and Livingston had only 115 tenants between them in the second decade of the eighteenth century. By the 1770s they had 1,460 out of a total of between six and seven thousand tenant farmers in the whole colony. By then, too, a majority of farmers in eastern Maryland were tenants rather than owner occupiers. Whether men became leaseholders because they could not afford freeholds is debateable. It appears that in colonial New York many tenants chose that status, either as a stepping stone to a freehold or even for life, while in Maryland most had no choice.44 In general, however, it would seem.that opportunities for indentured servants to acquire land were diminishing, so that perhaps three quarters of them never became landowners. Some of these sought their livelihoods not on the land but in the growing towns.
Urban growth occurred along the seaboard, with Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston becoming major ports. All had several thousand inhabitants by 1760, Philadelphia, with a population of 18,000, being the largest. These ports generated an elite of merchants and professional men. Merchant princes like the Hancocks of Boston, the DeLanceys of New York and the Pembertons of Philadelphia were true plutocrats. As elsewhere in the colonies, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. From the evidence of inventories it emerges that the distribution of wealth in Boston and Philadelphia changed for the worse between 1684-1699 and 1756-1765. In the first period the top four per cent owned 25.9 per cent of personal wealth in Boston and 21.7 per cent in Philadelphia, while by the second period they commanded 46.4 and 55.8 per cent respectively. Meanwhile the share of the poorest 30 per cent in both cities had declined from 3.3 to 2.0 per cent in Boston, and from 4.5 to 1.0 per cent in Philadelphia. Average annual expenditure on poor relief in the three ports over the century also indicates a substantial increase in the numbers of paupers in them all. From the 1700s to the 1750s it rose from £173 to £1204 in Boston and from £119 to £1803 in Philadelphia, while in New York it increased from £249 in the second decade of the century to £1667 by the seventh.45
The changing social structures of these towns heralded the trend of social change in the colonies as a whole between 1607 and 1760, away from a hierarchy of orders towards a class system. The ideal of a hierarchical society upheld by John Winthrop in his celebrated lay sermon on board the Arbella gave way to Benjamin Franklin’s world of “great and rich men, merchants and others,” “middling people, the farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen,” and the poor.
How far these developments led to the rise of class tensions in eighteenth-century America is a question upon which historians are currently very much divided. Some claim that class played no significant part in the major conflicts which arose between the colonists, and that these can be better explained in terms of other divisions: for example, imperial, colonists against the mother country and its agents; religious, New Lights and Sides against Old; and sectional, the frontier against the east. Others insist that class tensions underlay all these struggles.
During the eighteenth century the colonies came to be regarded as constitutional microcosms of the mother country. It was a commonplace in contemporary England that the Glorious Revolution had either restored or secured the finest constitution conceivable. Where in the Classical Polybian theory there were only three types of polity; monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, Englishmen enjoyed a mixture of all three in the institutions of the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. Moreover, while the pure types tended to degenerate, monarchy becoming tyranny, aristocracy turning to oligarchy, and democracy sinking into anarchy or mob rule, the mixture could preserve the original purity of all three by keeping them in balance. Thus the Lords and Commons could check the Crown, Crown and Commons the Lords, and Crown and Lords the Commons.
This balanced constitution was allegedly reflected in the colonies by the trinity of Governor, Council and Lower House of Assembly. However, the Glorious Revolution did not in fact secure for the colonists this enviable balance. For one thing, the whole analogy between the King and the Governors, the Lords and the Councils, and the Commons and the Lower Houses of Assembly was illusory. Where the Kings, at least in the eighteenth century, ruled by hereditary succession, Governors were appointed at the pleasure either of the Crown or the proprietors. In Crown Colonies the average tenure of office was a mere five years. The Lords, too, sat in the Upper House of Parliament by virtue of their hereditary titles, whereas Councils were chosen by the Governors. Only the Lower Houses of Assembly could legitimately claim to derive their authority from a source similar to that which upheld the House of Commons in England.
Another flaw in the argument that the colonies constitutionally mirrored the mother country was that many of the benefits which Englishmen claimed to enjoy by virtue of the Glorious Revolution were not exported across the Atlantic. Even those colonies which rose up against their rulers in 1689 did not benefit from their actions as much as they might have hoped.
The reactions of William III to the upheavals in Massachusetts and New York at the time of the Glorious Revolution revealed that the new king was not going to allow the colonies to benefit from the downfall of his predecessor as much as their English cousins benefitted. Even in England William did his best to minimise the curtailment of royal authority in the Revolution Settlement. In Massachusetts he insisted on retaining as much of the powers of the Dominion of New England as he could, and by the new charter nominated the chief executive positions in the colony. In New York his agents overrode the claims of those who had led resistance to the Dominion there, and executed their ringleaders. Although in Maryland the Protestant Association was more successful in achieving its aims than were the revolutionaries in Boston or New York, these coincided with the King’s aspirations for that colony to become a Crown Colony.
In other ways also the colonies as a whole failed to benefit from the fruits of the Glorious Revolution. As Bernard Bailyn has shown, three aspects of the Revolution Settlement in England were not extended to North America. First, the limitations on the duration of parliaments achieved in the Triennial Act of 1694, albeit subsequently modified in the Septennial Act of 1716, acted as a check on the prerogative of summoning and dissolving the Houses of Parliament at pleasure. Only New Hampshire and South Carolina had Triennial Acts, while New York obtained a Septennial Act in 1743. Otherwise colonial assemblies could be summoned, prorogued and dissolved at the pleasure of the governors. Second, the Act of Settlement of 1701 established the independence of the English judiciary by stipulating that judges should be appointed upon good behaviour and could not be dismissed at the pleasure of the Crown. No such restriction was placed upon judicial appointments in the colonies. Justice in North America, from the creation of Vice Admiralty courts to the appointment of JPs, remained very much subordinated to the prerogative powers of the executive. Thirdly, the royal veto of parliamentary bills lapsed in England in Anne’s reign. The vetoing of measures passed by colonial assemblies, however, was vigorously maintained, both by governors and by the Privy Council. Indeed it actually increased towards the end of the colonial period. Governors were instructed to veto a whole range of measures should they ever result in potential legislation on the grounds that they were incompatible with the interests of the mother country. They were also required to insist, even in bills involving apparently acceptable legislation, upon clauses which suspended their implementation until they had been approved in England.
The Crown in England found a way round these restrictions of its prerogative partly by the exploitation of its patronage. The curtailing of its power to prolong the life of parliament left it potentially vulnerable to the return of a hostile majority to the Commons after elections brought about by the constraints of the Triennial or Septennial Acts, rather than by the choice of the monarch. Yet in practice the election results even under the Triennial Act rarely went against the royal wishes, while under the Septennial Act no government lost an election in the eighteenth century. This was because the evasion of the electorate, the growth of oligarchy and above all the judicious exercise of patronage brought the electoral system increasingly under the control of the executive. The veto was not taken away from the Crown by statute. It atrophied because the influence of the Crown ensured that objectionable legislation never got as far as requiring the royal consent under the Hanoverians.
In the colonies, as Bailyn has again demonstrated, this was very far from being the case. Gubernatorial patronage was very restricted, while the electoral system was more representative.46
Where royal patronage in England grew to the point that opposition politicians could seriously maintain that “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished,” colonial governors actually lost out as patrons during the course of the eighteenth century. Some of the posts at their disposal earlier were appropriated by the imperial authorities, while others were acquired by the assemblies. Their ability to influence elections was thus shrinking at a time when the number of constituencies in the colonies was increasing as population became more dense in the east and expanded in the west. There were also no rotten boroughs in colonial North America, as the franchise was wider there than in Britain. How much wider is a matter of some dispute. Consensus historians have claimed that effectively all white adult males could vote in the elections for the lower houses of colonial legislatures, though this has been strongly challenged.47 The debate involves calculations of the extent of the various franchises which obtained in the different colonies. Virginia’s House of Burgesses could boast that it was the oldest representative institution in North America, having first met in 1619. Then it seems likely that all adult males did vote for burgesses, but by the eighteenth century only owners of twenty-five settled acres, or one hundred unsettled acres, were allowed to vote. Massachusetts, too, elected representatives early in its existence, and vied with Virginia for the honour of being the cradle of American democracy. The Puritans who controlled early Massachusetts, however, were far from being democrats, and confined the franchise to church members. How exclusive this made the electorate is also a subject of dispute, though as church membership fell in the seventeenth century the proportion of electors also shrank, perhaps to as few as one in five of the adult male population. In 1691 the British government insisted that a property qualification should prevail, and fixed it in the English county franchise of a forty shilling freehold. Units of property also conveyed the right to vote elsewhere in the colonies, being fifty acres in Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and freeholds worth £40 and £50 in New York and New Jersey.
These appear to have been more rather than less exclusive than the English franchise, but the extent of land ownership was far wider in the colonies than in England. Land was so much more abundant and available in America that estimates of the electorate range from fifty to as many as eighty per cent of white adult males. Even the most conservative estimate, therefore, makes the right to vote at least twice as extensive in the colonies as it was in the mother country.
One result of what Bailyn has summarised as “swollen claims and shrunken powers” was the rise of the assemblies at the expense of the governors.48 Jack P. Greene has shown how they eroded gubernatorial powers by gaining control of a whole range of executive activities.49 Perhaps the most crucial were their successful bids to appoint the colonial treasurers. This transferred from the governors to the assemblies considerable financial leverage. As James Glen, Governor of South Carolina, complained to the Board of Trade in 1748, “the political balance in which consists the strength and beauty of the British Constitution, being here entirely over turned… all the weights that-should trim and poise it [are] by different laws thrown into the scale of the people… Almost all the places of either profit or trust are disposed by the General Assembly.” Having investigated the southern Lower Houses Greene claimed that the phenomenon was general throughout the South, and even applied the model he had established to most of the colonies by the middle of the eighteenth century.
In a more recent investigation of North Carolina, however, Roy Clayton has questioned the assumption that the Lower House rose at the expense of the Council as well as of the Governor.50 On the contrary, he maintains that the Council was not a mere extension of the executive, but functioned independently. Councillors were chosen from the colonial elite, and they stood up to the pretensions of Governors on behalf of their own interests no less staunchly than did representatives in the assembly. Indeed the leaders of opposition to the executive tended to dominate the Upper House, and to head colonists of like views and interests who sat in the Lower. Thus “the quest for power” did not pit Lower House against Council and Governor but both houses against the executive, with the lead being taken by the Council. Clayton too argues that his model, though based largely on North Carolina, is generally applicable.
In fact the situation varied from colony to colony. After 1701, for instance, the Council in Pennsylvania exercised no legislative authority, the legislature being unicameral. Here the Quaker party established itself in the assembly against the proprietorial party. Elsewhere it could depend upon whether the Councils really represented the colonial elites, or were English placemen foisted on the colonies by such imperial agencies as the Secretaries of State or the Board of Trade.
In Greene’s view the assemblies won their contest with the executive by insisting that they possessed the same powers as the House of Commons. They thus rested such claims as the right to initiate money bills on precedents established by parliament in its resistance to the Crown in the seventeenth century.
According to Bailyn, however, the rhetoric of resistance to executive claims in the eighteenth century derived not from struggles with the Stuarts but from Country propaganda against the Court under the Hanoverians.51 The colonial press repeated the arguments of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in Cato’s Letters and Lord Bolingbroke and William Pulteney in The Craftsman. These had developed the notion that the balanced constitution was in constant danger of being thrown off balance by the Crown’s attempts to increase its power at the expense of Lords and Commons. The Crown threatened the perfect equipoise reestablished in the Glorious Revolution directly, by building up a standing army, and indirectly, by the use of corruption. Armies were always a threat to liberty, and had been used to stifle representative institutions and establish absolutism in Ancient Rome and in contemporary Europe. Corruption was even more insidious, since it eroded the independence of both Houses of Parliament and of the electorate. It was the duty of the virtuous citizen to be vigilant and to resist these threats.
Whether the rhetoric of seventeenth century precedent or eighteenth-century Country ideology was the more appropriate again depended to some extent on how successful assemblies were in their struggles with the executive. By and large those which significantly curtailed the authority of the Governors cited Stuart history in support of their claims, while those which still encountered resistance borrowed the arguments of the English opposition to the Whig oligarchs. The problem of establishing a typology which fits the political experience of all the colonies in the eighteenth century is that politics in each of the thirteen developed different patterns.
Yet an overall view which seems to command wide acceptance amongst historians is another model proposed by Jack P. Greene, the concept of political stability being established throughout at least the major colonies during the early eighteenth century.52 As he summarises his thesis, “the political development of each of the major colonies followed a generally similar pattern with a relatively long period of drastic, almost chronic, political disorder and flux, which, in most cases, began early in the period of settlement, and lasted through the first decades of the eighteenth century, being followed, beginning in the 1720s and 1730s, by an era of extraordinary political stability and in some places relative public tranquillity that continued at least into the 1750s and l760s in most colonies.” This relative social harmony was achieved by the deference of the lower orders, who accepted the hegemony of the colonial elites.
This concept appears to find support even in the works of scholars who otherwise would not accept Greene’s consensus approach to colonial history, but on the contrary regard social conflict as a major dynamic of change in the colonies. Thus Gary Nash concluded from an analysis of Pennsylvanian politics between 1681 and 1726 that, towards the end of that period,53
Slowly, tentatively… society began to crystallise, to assume a more structured appearance. Hesitantly, and not without interruptions, the wheels of government began to turn again as the management of politics became once more the concern of select groups whose members did not welcome the participation of the lower or middle classes in public affairs. Opposition to political power exercised from above was by no means dead in Pennsylvania, however. A strong tradition of dissent to prescriptive authority remained. But only under special circumstances did it manifest itself, usually during periods of economic difficulties or external threats.
Rhys Isaac has also shown how the leading families of the Virginian gentry established themselves as a patriarchal elite by the eighteenth century. They formed a ruling class which held sway, not by crude repression, but by a subtle cultural blend of authority and deference, which made Virginia one of the most politically stable of all the colonies.54
Yet both Nash arid Isaac see the Great Awakening as a movement which shattered any kind of religious consensus, and divided the colonies along class lines. New Light Congregationalists in New England, and New Side Presbyterians in the middle colonies, both appealed, according to Nash, largely to the lower orders, tradesmen, craftsmen and the labouring poor, especially in the major ports which to him were the crucibles of social change. They were accused by their opponents, the Old Lights and Sides, of being levellers.55 Rhys Isaac’s examination of the Baptists in Virginia during the central decades of the eighteenth century led him too to conclude that they made conversions among socially inferior groups, including women, servants and even slaves, and were criticised by the Anglican elite for subverting the social order. One magistrate actually accused some Baptist preachers of”carrying on a mutiny against the authority of the land.”56
Yet other historians have represented the Great Awakening as primarily a religious movement which cut right across social, economic and even family groupings. In so far as it has been traced to secondary causes rather than to the inscrutable workings of Providence, it has been seen as a reaction to the apostasy of Calvinist churchmen from the traditional teachings of Calvin. The established clergy were condemned as succumbing to Arminianism, Arianism and, perhaps worst of all in some eyes. Anglicanism by their critics. They in turn were criticised for being enthusiasts when they emphasised the need for regeneration in a traumatic conversion by the saving grace of God.
Some historians have even sought secular explanations of the phenomenon. An outbreak of diphtheria has been cited as one contributory factor, the resultant deaths of small children being interpreted as a providential visitation, warning against the cooling of religious zeal in the former godly colonies. Another possible cause has been discerned in the fact that, in New England at least, the colonists began to marry later in life. The theory goes that more and more frustrated young people anticipated their marriages, and felt guilty as a result of breaking the strong religious taboo against pre-marital intercourse. This guilt induced a psychological state which made them ripe for religious conversion.57
Perry Miller saw tensions between traditional societies increasingly confined to the frontiers and the more secular communities emerging along the seaboard behind the Awakening. As he expressed it “the Great Awakening was the point at which the wilderness took over the task of defining the objectives of the Puritan errand.”58
Certainly sectional conflict between east and west seems to have become more pronounced towards the end of the colonial period. In 1755 John Hambright led about 700 men to Philadelphia to protest against the poor protection offered to settlers on the frontier of Pennsylvania. Nine years later his example was followed by the more notorious Paxton boys. In the late 1760s the backcountry of both North and South Carolina witnessed Regulator movements protesting against their treatment by the eastern establishments.
The North Carolina regulation has been the most closely studied, and detailed investigation has brought out vividly the differences amongst historians about the nature of colonial society on the eve of the American Revolution. There are at least three major interpretations of the conflict within the colony. One sees it as a sectional or regional dispute purely and simply, being an issue between the settlers newly arrived in the piedmont and the longer established colonists in the tidewater. A second interprets it as a conflict of interests in the eighteenth-century sense of the term: a struggle between the landed interest of the piedmont counties and the legal and commercial interests which began to threaten the ascendancy of land during the 1760s. The third regards it as a class struggle between poor farmers and the rich merchants and officials who were exploiting them.59
The most recent study of the Regulation, by Roger Ekirch, challenges all three interpretations, and suggests that it arose because of the peculiar circumstances facing the backcountry provinces.60 His stress or: the frontier situation refutes the sectional theory, since he sees the tensions as being paramount inside the west and not between the west and the east. He denies it was a class movement, since many of the regulators were substantial farmers. At the same time he disagrees that it was a conflict of interests, insisting that the regulators were anxious to attract businessmen into the backcountry. Hermon Husband wanted to encourage “men of public generous spirits, who have fortunes to promote trade” to settle in the piedmont.
Instead Ekirch stresses the volatile nature of a rapidly emerging society. Officials in the backcountry were nouveaux riches on the make. They really were corrupt. Between 1754 and 1768 the western counties’ taxes were embezzled far more persistently than were those of the tidewater. At the same time the shortage of currency in the west meant that the settlers were not only unwilling but unable to pay their taxes, and either got into hopeless debt or had their goods distrained. Thus the regulation arose out of specific and genuine grievances experienced in the western counties.
The differences between the frontier and the east, and the even sharper distinction to be drawn between North and South, militate against easy generalisations about an American Society emerging by the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet the thirteen colonies clearly felt that they had sufficient in common to unite against Great Britain, to resist British attempts to subdue them, and to forge a new nation out of that conflict. Paradoxically perhaps what held them together was not only the differences they had with England but also what they had in common with the mother country.
The effect of recent work on early modern Britain and her North American colonies has been to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between them. England at least no longer appears to have been feudal, or as rigid and static as was previously believed. At the same time colonial America seems less egalitarian, flexible and fluid than it was once represented. Moreover the similarities were apparently becoming more rather than less marked. Paradoxically, on the eve of the confrontation which was to divorce them, the two societies were developing along parallel if not along converging lines.
The social structures of the original colonies in the Chesapeake and New England were distinctly different from those of the mother country. In Virginia a highly unstable and predominantly male society created conditions which could not be paralleled in the British Isles. New England was more stable and based on the family, but the upper and lower strata of English society were not reproduced there. By the mid eighteenth century, however, social stratification in North America resembled Britain much more closely. On both sides of the Atlantic the breakdown of traditional hierarchies and the emergence of social classes, with the consequent replacement of vertical by horizontal loyalties, is increasingly discernible.
The two communities were also becoming more and more enmeshed economically, in a system of imperial trade. This system contributed to what has been called the first commercial revolution. The pattern of English exports experienced a significant reorientation during the course of the colonial period. In 1600 far and away the biggest export item was woollen cloth, while by 1700, though it still dominated exports, it had shrunk in relative significance, the buoyant element in overseas trade being the re-export of colonial produce to Europe. By the eighteenth century, therefore, the colonies were involved in a complex international as well as imperial trade.
During the eighteenth century a further realignment of British exports occurred in which the American colonies again played a significant part. This second commercial revolution involved the export of British manufactured goods to overseas customers, many of them colonists. The resultant interlocking of British and colonial economies did more than anything to bring the two societies closer together. American landed proprietors equipping their Palladian houses with furniture and fittings from England were consciously aping English country gentlemen. The tradesmen and professional men below them purchasing Sheffield cutlery and Wedgwood pottery were indistinguishable in their tastes from their counterparts across the Atlantic. Even craftsmen utilising metal utensils made in Birmingham were contributing to the creation of a homogeneous culture.
The development of an Atlantic economy pulled the two societies closer together. Boston, Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” was a unique town. Within decades, however, it had acquired the characteristics of a commercial entrepot. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston were linked in complex trading patterns with London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. These links forged together an Atlantic community, making the colonies truly British America.
The closest interlocking was achieved during the Seven Years War, or, as it is perhaps more accurately called by American historians, the French and Indian war. Britain spent more on money, men and resources ridding North America of the French than she had expended on the colonies since the beginning of colonisation.61 It has been claimed that the co-operation of British troops and colonists produced friction rather than harmony, though against this has been cited the boost to colonial morale of working for a common imperial objective.62 The war also channelled ideological energies against French absolutism which might have been directed against the British government, and were to be shortly after the Peace was signed in 1763. Thus the religious enthusiasm aroused by the Great Awakening saw the great enemies of Protestantism and Liberty in Popery and France, the twin representatives of Antichrist and Tyranny. Only after the war, when they could no longer be thus identified, were these roles projected on to Great Britain.
Indeed the Great Awakening cannot be considered as a purely American phenomenon. It was part’ of a great wave of religious enthusiasm which engulfed the Protestant world during the mid eighteenth century. In Britain it took the form of Methodism. George Whitefield, the Methodist minister, played a prominent role in the Awakening too. So far from dividing the colonies from the mother country the religious revival was in many respects a shared experience. It was only when conflict broke out between them that the religious movements diverged, until John Wesley became an outspoken critic of the colonial rebellion.
Before then the Great Awakening and Methodism were remarkably similar phenomena, appealing to the same kinds of people on both sides of the Atlantic. The form religious enthusiasm took in Britain and in her American colonies bore testimony to how similar the two societies had become.
Of course there were obvious differences between them. Among the most glaring was the racial and ethnic diversity of the colonies in comparison with Britain. Yet these centrifugal forces pulling them apart did not overcome the centripetal attraction drawing them together during the colonial period.
Indeed, as far as native North Americans are concerned, they were another fact of life in colonial America which made the colonies more unlike the mother country in the seventeenth century than they became during the eighteenth. The early settlers in the Chesapeake and New England had to face daily contact with the Indians, and the very real threat of being thrown back into the sea by them. Without help from natives the first arrivals in both areas might well have starved. At the same time Powhatan’s uprising in 1622 could have wiped out the Jamestown colony, while the Pequot and King Philip’s wars (1636-7; 1675-6) seriously disrupted life in New England. By the eighteenth century, however, the main centres of Indian habitation had moved westward, either willingly, as they searched ever further for furs to trade with the white settlers, or reluctantly, as a result of being deprived of their homelands by the expanding colonies. Those who remained became absorbed into colonial society, some as neighbours, others as servants or even as slaves. Hostilities were more and more confined to the frontiers. Upper New York and the Connecticut river valley experienced attacks from Indians allied to the French during the wars between Britain and France. Even after they ended, Pontiac’s uprising in 1763 reminded the northern and middle colonies that their westward expansion encroached on the territories of natives who would fiercely defend them, as the Paxton boys discovered. Further south the backwoods of the Carolinas were also disturbed by Indian attacks as late as the 1760s, to the annoyance of the Regulators. But to the long settled communities along the eastern seaboard, and especially to the townspeople of Boston, New York and Charleston, Indians were by then a remote frontier folk.
Something of the way in which native North Americans became assimilated into the culture of the more civilised parts of the colonies can perhaps be gauged from changing perceptions of them on the part of the colonists. Englishmen who went to North America took with them two stereotypes of the natives, formed from folklore and long European acquaintance with the New World. One portrayed them as savage infidels who fought with inhuman ferocity and had no mercy for men, women or children, whom they butchered horribly. Another depicted them as noble savages, cultured if unlettered, who had much to teach white men about how to live in harmony with their new environment. In the course of the seventeenth century experience emphasised the first image. Interaction between the two races was marked by hostilities in which atrocities were perpetrated by both. This reinforced the notion that the natives were devilish, filled with bloodlust for slaughter. As warlike relations receded more and more to the frontier, however, so the second stereotype became predominant along the settled seaboard, reinforced somewhat by the Enlightenment’s stress on the nobility of savages.
The historiography of Colonial North America in this century has followed a curiously similar course. Encipher as historians of the colonies dealt with the natives at all, then, apart from romantic tales of Pocahontas, they tended to treat them as little more than a threat to the survival of white civilisation in the wilderness. They remained largely offstage, to be brought on only when their hostile activities disrupted life for the colonists. Recently, however, they have been studied in their own right. These studies have stressed that those whom the Europeans encountered were not nomadic tribes living primarily by hunting, but were settled communities who lived mainly by agriculture. The more the Indians are investigated by historians the less they appear to have been savages and the more they seem to have had in common with the colonists. Thus recent research, by playing down the differences between the two races, also detracts considerably from the view that coexistence with the Indians made the colonies significantly different from Britain. They may not have reminded Englishmen of England, but they certainly led them to draw comparisons between native North Americans and highland Scots, and above all between Indians and Irish peasants.63
While natives became increasingly less prominent in colonial society, blacks by contrast came to be an ever more significant part of the population. They undeniably constituted a major difference between the colonies and the mother country, as did the institution of chattel slavery. Although blacks were not totally unknown in early modern England, they formed but a tiny proportion of the total population. By 1760, however, there were some 325,000 in North America, most of whom were slaves. The majority lived in the South, forming a third of the population in Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia, forty per cent in Virginia, and a majority, sixty per cent, in South Carolina. They were nevertheless scattered throughout the colonies. Between the Mason-Dixon line and the Hudson river, a region of some 427,900 souls, they numbered about 29,000 or roughly 6.7 percent. In New England they were far fewer, perhaps only 12,700 in an area with an estimated population of 449,600. With fewer than three percent of black inhabitants New England differed as much from the South in the mid eighteenth century as it did from the mother country.
Although the lot of blacks, even in New England, was very different from’ that of whites, it exaggerates the differences between the races to attribute them all to race. Stressing the racial distinctions overlooks many social and even class divisions which separated them. Characteristics which whites attributed to blacks, such as idleness, insolence, insubordination, and physical and sexual potency, reflected images of the lower orders in England as they were seen by their superiors. Also the way in which religion was used as an instrument of social control to suppress the rebellious instincts of the blacks was virtually identical with its exploitation to curb discontent amongst the English poor.
Again black historiography has followed a trend which has narrowed racial distinctions in colonial North America. Like Indians, blacks were rarely mentioned in histories of the colonies except as problems for whites. If they were discussed it was generally in terms of an amorphous mass of slaves. The model of race relations was largely based on the great plantations of the South, emphasising the gulf which stretched between rich planters on the one hand and huge gangs of field labourers on the other. Recent research, studying blacks as individuals in their own right, has corrected misconceptions perpetuated by earlier treatments. For one thing, the large plantation has been shown to have been exceptional even in the South. It was much more normal to own slaves numbered in single rather than double, let alone triple, figures. Moreover slaves were not just field hands or even domestics, but acquired a wide range of skills too. This was another respect in which colonial societies moved from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century in a direction bringing them bore rather than less into line with British society. Where in 1619 the first recorded blacks in Virginia were almost inevitably destined for work in the fields, by 1760 there was a black hierarchy ranging from labourers to luxury craftsmen. Free blacks could rise even higher in the social scale. Blacks not only acquired a wide range of economic functions, they also developed their own social and even family life. North American slavery was unique in sustaining a black community which actually grew spontaneously, unlike other slave societies which required a ceaseless flow of captive Africans to sustain the workforce.64
As black society became increasingly complex and structured, while ever larger numbers were born and bred in the colonies, so it acquired many characteristics of white social structure and even culture. The gap between field hands freshly arrived from Africa, and craftsmen descended from several generations of American ancestors, was. far wider than that between skilled slaves, free blacks, and whites. This was manifested in the different methods of resisting slavery adopted by slaves on different rungs of the black hierarchy. Unacculturated field hands tended to try to escape in a body, unaware that the facts of geography made this a futile form of protest. Those nearer the top of the ladder were more inclined to escape individually into free society, often with success.65
The very existence of slaves in their midst led colonists to cherish their own freedom. This too caused them to stress their similarities with England. They constantly compared themselves to freeborn Englishmen and boasted that they enjoyed English liberties. Whenever these seemed to be challenged, either by proprietors or by the Crown, they were quick to accuse these agencies of being tyrants intent on enslaving them. It was this argument which was ultimately to lead to separation and Independence.
It was not, therefore, the development of a distinctly American society which brought about the conflict with Britain. Rather the reverse, the quarrel between Britain and her colonies was to create an American society. Since the establishment of Virginia and Massachusetts the two societies had developed along parallel if not converging lines, their social structures, economies and cultures becoming more and more similar. By the accession of George III the expression “British America” was more rather than less appropriate than it had been before. Perhaps paradoxically separation came about more because the colonies were too like Britain than because they were not British enough.
Two older surveys of the kind of society in England which supplied North America with colonists have been largely superseded by the new social history: Wallace Notestein’s classic The English People on the Eve of Colonisation (London, Hamilton, 1954) and Carl Bridenbaugh’s Vexed and Troubled Englishmen (Oxford, Clarendon, 1968). The ‘cliometric’ approach was heralded by Peter Laslett, The world we have lost (second edition, 1971).12 The best recent survey of the seventeenth century is Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (1982).13 An attempt was made to synthesise current work on the first half of the eighteenth century in W.A. Speck, Stability and Strife: England 1714-1760 (London, Arnold, 1977).
There has been an enormous number of studies on the colonies inspired by the new approach. For a pioneering synthesis of those for the eighteenth century see James A. Henretta, The Evolution of American Society 1700-1815 (New York,, Heath, l973). A superb scholarly overview of all aspects of colonial life is to be found in R.C. Simmons, The American Colonies (London, Longman, 1976). Simmons’ comprehensive and well-organised bibliography is the best starting point for further explorations of particular themes, though a more recent analysis of some aspects is in Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America (1984).31
- “Whig” historians of the nineteenth century tended to see a consensus behind American resistance towards Britain, while “Progressive” historians of the early twentieth century detected underlying social conflict. See Edward Countryman, The People’s American Revolution (BAAS pamphlet number 13; 1984).Back
- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York, Vintage Books, 1958), winner of the Bancroft Prize in 1959.Back
- Sumner Chilton Powell, Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Tour (New York, Deubleday; 1965) pp. 182-3; winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.Back
- W. A. Speck, Society and Literature in England 1700-1760 (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1983), pp. 45-53.Back
- Herman Wellenreuther, “A View of the Socio-Economic structures of England and the British Colonies on the Eve of the American Revolution,” Erich Angermann et al., eds., New Wine in Old Skins: A Comparative View of Socio-political Structures and Values affecting the American Revolution (Stuttgart, Ernst Klett Verlag, 1976), p. 20.Back
- E. C. Johnson, “The Bedford Connexion: The fourth Duke of Bedford’s Political Influence 1732-71” (unpublished Cambridge Ph.D. Thesis, 1980).Back
- W. A. Speck, Tory and Whig: The Struggle in the Constituencies 1701-1715 (London, Macmillan, 1970), pp. 26~7, 45.Back
- Geoffrey Holmes, The Electorate and the National Will in the first Age of Party (Lancaster, 1976).Back
- J. H. Plumb, The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725 (London, Macmillan, 1967), p. xvi.Back
- E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the origin of the Black Act (London, Allen Lane, 1975) and D. Hay et al., eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (London, Allen Lane, 1975).Back
- E. P. Thompson, “Patrician Society, Plebian Culture,” Journal of Social History, 7 (1974) pp. 382-405; “Eighteenth Century Society: Class Struggle without Class?”, Social History, 3 (1978), pp. 133-165.Back
- P. Laslett, The World we have lost: England before the Industrial Age (second edition, London, Methuen, 1971), pp.23-54.Back
- Compare Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London, Hutchinson, 1982), pp. 17-38, and Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, Allen Lane, 1982), pp. 63-112.Back
- Penelope Corfield, The Impact of English Towns (Oxford, OUP, 1982), p.6.Back
- E. A. Wrigley and R. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871 (London, Arnold, 1981), pp. 208-9.Back
- Geoffrey Holmes, Augustan England: Professions, State and Society 1680-1730 (London, Allen and Unwin, 1982), p.16.Back
- J. S. Morrill, The Revolt of the Provinces (London, Longman, 1980).Back
- E. A. Wrigley, ‘A Simple Model of London’s Importance in changing English Society and Economy 1650-1750’, Past and Present, 37 (1967), pp.44-70.Back
- David Galenson has persuasively argued that the system of indentured servitude was an adaptation of service in husbandry, whereby “instead of moving from one village to another to enter service, after 1607 English youths frequently moved to another continent”. David W. Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America (Cambridge, CUP, 1981), p. 9.Back
- Mildred Campbell, “Social Origins of some Early Americans”, James Morton Smith,ed., Seventeenth Century America (New York, Norton, 1972), pp. 63-89.Back
- David W. Galenson, “‘Middling People” or “Common Sort”? The Social Origins of some early Americans re-examined’, William and Mary Quarterly, 35 (1978), pp. 499-524. See also Mildred Campbell’s spirited reply, ibid, pp. 525-540 and their further exchange in ibid, 36 (1979), pp. 264-286. Galenson’s final position, which is accepted here, is in his White Servitude pp. 34-50.Back
- James Horn, ‘Servant emigration to the Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century’, Thad W. Tate et al., eds., The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1979), p. 65.Back
- T. H. Breen, Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in EarlyAmerica (Oxford, OUP, 1980), pp. 46-67.Back
- K. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England (New York, Norton, 1974), p. 46. Literacy in Virginia before 1650 seems to have been lower: ibid, p. 79, Galenson, White Servitude, pp. 65-78.Back
- John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family life in Plymouth Colony (New York, OUP, 1970); Philip J. Greven, Four Generations: Population, Land and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1970); Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: the First Hundred Years; Dedham, Massachusetts (New York, Norton, 1970).Back
- Jack P. Greene, ed., Settlements to Society: A Documentary History of Colonial America (New York, Norton, 1975), p. 38.Back
- Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, Norton, 1975), pp. 44-91.Back
- Carville V. Earle, ‘Environment, Disease and Mortality in early Virginia’, Tate et al., eds., The Chesapeake, pp. 96-125.Back
- Kevin Sharpe, ‘Archbishop Laud’, History Today (1983), xxxiii, 26-30.Back
- David Grayson Allen, In English Ways: The Movement of Societies and the Transferal of English Local Law and Custom to Massachusetts Bay in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1981).Back
- Jim Potter, ‘Demographic Development and Family Structure’, Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, eds., Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1984), p. 138.Back
- Darrett B. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town 1630-1649 (Chapel Hill University of North Carolina, 1965).Back
- Michael Garibaldi Hall, Edward Randolph and the American Colonies 1676-1703 (New York, Norton, 1960); Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676: The End of American Independence (New York, Knop1, 1984).Back
- Viola F. Barnes, The Dominion of New England: A studv in British Colonial Policy, (New Haven, Yale UP, 1923; republished New York, Ungar, 1960), p. 229.Back
- Stephen Saunders Webb, The Governors-General: The English Army and the Definition of the Empire 1569-1681 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1979), p. 447.Back
- J. M. Sosin, English America and the Revolution of1688 (London, University of Nebraska, 1982), p.89.Back
- David Lovejoy, The Glorious Revolution in America (London, Harper, 1972)Back
- Bernard Bailyn ‘Politics and Social Structure in Virginia’,James Morton Smith, ed., Seventeenth-Century America, pp. 90-115.Back
- Lois Green Carr and David William Jordan, Maryland’s Revolution of Government 1689-1692 (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1974).Back
- Thomas J. Archdeacon, New York City 1664-1710 (London, Cornell UP, 1976), pp. 97-122.Back
- Stephanie Grauman Wolf, Urban Village: Population, Community and Family Structure in Germantown, Pennsylvania 1683-1800 (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1976).Back
- Kenneth A. Lockridge, ‘Land, Population and the Evolution of New England 1630-1780’, Past and Present, 39 (1968), pp. 62-80.Back
- Aubrey C. Land, ‘Economic Base and Social Structure: The Northern Chesapeake in the Eighteenth Century’, T. H. Breen, ed., Shaping Southern Society: The Colonial Experience (New York, OUP, 1976), pp. 244-5.Back
- Patricia Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (New York, Columbia, 1971), pp. 179-228; Gregory A. Stiverson, Poverty in a land of Plenty: Tenancy in Eighteenth-century Maryland (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1977).Back
- Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard UP, 1979).Back
- Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (New York, Vintage, 1970).Back
- See especially Robert E. Brown, Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts 1691-1780 (Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1955); J. R. Pole, Political Representation in England and the origins of the American Republic (London, Macmillan, 1966).Back
- Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, p. 96.Back
- Jack P. Greene, The Quest for Power (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1963).Back
- T. R. Clayton, “A Study of the Colonial Council in America” (unpublished Cambridge Ph.D. Thesis, 1982).Back
- Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard UP, 1967).Back
- Jack P. Greene, ‘The Growth of Political Stability: An Interpretation of Political Development in the Anglo-American colonies 1660-1760’, J. Parker and Carol Urness, eds., The American Revolution: A Heritage of Change (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, 1975), pp.26-52.Back
- Gary B. Nash, Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania 1681-1726 (London, Princeton UP, 1968), pp. 306-7.Back
- Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1982), pp. 11-138.Back
- Gary B. Nash, Urban Crucible, pp. 198-232.Back
- Isaac, op cit., pp. 161-269.Back
- Richard Hofstadter, America at 1750 (New York, Vintage, 1971), pp. 217-268.Back
- Perry Miller, ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening’, Errand into the Wilderness (London, Harvard UP, 1956), p. 153.Back
- Hugh T. Lefler and William S. Powell, Colonial North Carolina: A History (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1973); James P. Whittenburg, ‘Planters, Merchants and Lawyers: Social change and the origins of the North Carolina Regulation’, William and Mary Quarterly, 34 (1977), pp. 215-238; Marvin L. Michael Kay, ‘The North Carolina Regulators 1766-1776: A Class Conflict’, in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, 111., Northern Illinois UP, 1976), pp. 73-123.Back
- A. Roger Ekirch, ‘The North Carolina Regulators on Liberty and Corruption, 1766-1771’, Perspectives in American History (1977-8), xi, 199-256.Back
- Julian Gwyn, ‘British Government Spending and the North American colonies 1740-1775’, in Peter Marshall and Glyn Williams, eds., The British Atlantic Empire before the American Revolution (London, Cass, 1980), pp. 74-84.Back
- Jack P. Greene, ‘The Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution: The Causal Relationship Reconsidered’, ibid., pp. 85-105; Alan Rogers, Empire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority1755-1763 (Berkeley, University of California, 1974).Back
- See especially Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1975).Back
- See for example Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, Knopf, 1974).Back
- Gerard W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York, OUP, 1972).Back