The colonies were settled chiefly by English people at first, with a leavening of Germans, Scots, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, Swedes, Finns, a scattering of other nationalities, a handful of Sephardic Jews, and a gradually increasing number of black African slaves. The cultures these people brought with them varied according to the nationality, social status, and taste of the individual. The newcomers never lost this heritage entirely, but they-and certainly their descendants-became something quite different from their relatives who remained in the Old World. They became what we call Americans. But not right away.
What Is an American?
The subtle but profound changes that occurred when Europeans moved to the New World were hardly self willed. Most of the settlers came, it is true, hoping for a more bountiful existence and sometimes also for nonmaterialistic reasons, such as the opportunity to practice their religions in ways barred to them at home. For some whose alternative was prison or execution, there was really no choice. Still, even the most rebellious or alienated seldom intended to develop an entirely new civilization; rather, they wished to reconstruct the old on terms more favorable to themselves. Nor did a single "American" type result from the careful selection of particular kinds of Europeans as colonizers. Settlers came from every walk of life and in rough proportion to their numbers in Europe (if we exclude the very highest social strata). Certainly there was no systematic selection of "the finest grain to provide seed for cultivating the wilderness."
Why then did America become something more than another Europe? Why was New England not merely a new England? The fact of physical separation provides part of the answer, America was isolated from Europe by 3,000 miles of ocean. The crossing took anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on wind and weather. No one undertook an ocean voyage lightly, and few who made the westward crossing ever thought seriously of returning. The modern mind can scarcely grasp the awful isolation that enveloped settlers. One had to construct a new life or perish-if not of hunger, then of loneliness.
Unlike separation from Europe, some factors affected some settlers differently than others. Factors as material as the landscape encountered, as quantifiable as population patterns, as elusive as chance and calculation all shaped colonial social arrangements. Their cumulative impact did not at first produce anything like a uniform society throughout the 2,000-mile-long and 50-mile-wide corridor that contained England's American colonies. Two quite different societies developed, one at each end of the corridor. A third society in the middle shared elements of both. The "Americans" who evolved in these regional societies were in many ways as different from each other as all were from their European cousins. The process by which these identities merged into an American nation remained incomplete. It was-and is-ongoing.
The southern parts of English North America comprised three regions: the Chesapeake Bay, consisting of "tidewater" Virginia and Maryland; the "low country" of the Carolinas (and eventually Georgia); and the "back country," a vast territory that extended from the fall line in the foothills of the Appalachians where falls and rapids put an end to navigation on the tidal rivers to the farthest point of western settlement. Not until well into the eighteenth century would the emergence of common features-export-oriented agricultural economies, a labor force in which black slaves figured prominently, and the absence of towns of any size-prompt people to think of "the South" as a single region.
When the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 that human life tended to be "nasty, brutish, and short," he might well have had in mind the royal colony of Virginia. Although the colony grew from about 1,300 to nearly 5,000 in the decade after the crown took it over in 1624, the death rate remained appalling. Because more than 9,000 immigrants had entered the colony, nearly half the population died during that decade.
The climate helped make the Chesapeake area a death trap. "Hot and moist" is how Robert Beverly described the weather in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), the dampness "occasioned by the abundance of low grounds, marshes, creeks, and rivers." Almost without exception newcomers underwent "seasoning," a period of illness that in its mildest form consisted of "two or three fits of a fever and ague." Long after food shortages and Indian warfare had ceased to be serious problems, life in the Chesapeake remained precarious. Well into the 1700s a white mate of 20 in Middlesex County could look forward to about 25 more years of life. Across Chesapeake Bay, in Charles County, Maryland, the average life expectancy was even lower.
Because of the persistent shortage of women in the Chesapeake region (men outnumbered women by three to two even in the early 1700s), widows easily found new husbands. Many men spent their entire lives alone or in the company of other men. Others married Indian women and became part of Indian society.
All Chesapeake settlers felt the psychological effects of their precarious and frustrating existence. Random mayhem and calculated violence posed a continuous threat to life and limb. Social arrangements were rude at best and often as "brutish," as Hobbes had claimed.
The Lure of Land
Agriculture was the bulwark of life for the Chesapeake settlers and the rest of the colonial south; the tragic experiences of the Jamestown settlement revealed this quickly enough. Jamestown also suggested that a colony could not succeed unless its inhabitants were allowed to own their own land. The first colonists had agreed to work for seven years in return for a share of the profits. When their contracts expired there were few profits. To satisfy these settlers and to attract new capital, the company declared a "dividend" of land, its only asset. The surviving colonists each received 100 acres. Thereafter, as prospects continued to be poor, the company relied more and more on grants of land to attract both capital and labor. A number of wealthy Englishmen were given immense tracts, some running to several hundred thousand acres. Lesser persons willing to settle in Virginia received more modest grants. Whether dangled before a great tycoon, a country squire, or a poor farmer, the offer of land had the effect of encouraging immigration to the colony.
Soon what was known as the headright system became entrenched in both Virginia and Maryland. Behind the system lay the principle that land should be parceled out according to the availability of labor to cultivate it. For each "head" entering the colony the government issued a "right" to take any 50 acres of unoccupied land. To 44 seat" a claim and receive title to the property, the holder of the headright had to mark out its boundaries, plant a crop, and construct some sort of habitation. This system was adopted in all the colonies south of New York.
More often than not, those most eager to come could not afford passage across the Atlantic. To bring together those with money who sought land and labor and poor people who wanted to get to America, the indentured servant system was developed. Indenture resembled apprenticeship. In return for transportation, the indentured servants agreed to work for a stated period, usually about five years. During that time they received no compensation beyond their keep. Indentured women were forbidden to marry and if they became pregnant, the time lost from work was added to their terms of service. Servants lacked any incentive to work hard, whereas masters tended to "abuse their servants ... with intolerable oppression." In this clash of wills, the advantage lay with the master; servants lacked full political and civil rights, and masters could administer physical punishment and otherwise abuse them. An indenture, however was a contract; servants could and did sue when planters failed to fulfill their parts of the bargain.
Servants who completed their years of labor became free. Usually the ex-servant was entitled to an "outfit" (a suit of clothes, some farm tools, seed, and perhaps a gun). In the Carolinas and in Pennsylvania, servants also received small grants of land when their service was completed.
Most servants eventually became landowners, but with the passage of time their lot became harder. The best land belonged to the large planters, and low tobacco prices and high local taxes combined to keep many ex-servants in dire poverty. Some were forced to become "squatters" on land along the fringes of settlement that no one had yet claimed. When someone turned up with a legal title to the land, the squatters demanded "squatters' rights," the privilege of buying the land from the legal owner without paying for the improvements they had made on it. This led to lawsuits and sometimes to violence.
In the 1670s conflicts between Virginians who owned choice land and ex-servants on the outer edge of settlement brought the colony to the brink of class warfare. The costs of meeting the region's ever-growing need for labor with indentured servants were becoming prohibitive. Some other solution was needed.
"Solving" the Labor Shortage
The first African blacks brought to English North America arrived on a Dutch ship and were sold at Jamestown in 1619. Early records are vague and incomplete, so it is not possible to say whether these Africans were treated as slaves or freed after a period of years like indentured servants. What is certain is that by about 1640 some blacks were slaves (a few, with equal certainty, were free) and that by the 1660s local statutes had firmly established the institution of slavery in Virginia and Maryland.
Whether slavery produced race prejudice in America or prejudice produced slavery is a hotly debated, important, and difficult-to- answer question. Most seventeenth-century Europeans were prejudiced against Africans; the usual reasons that led them to look down on "heathens" with customs other than their own were in the case of Africans greatly reinforced by their dark skin, which the English equated with dirt, the Devil, danger, and death. Yet the English knew that the Portuguese and Spaniards had enslaved blacks-negro is Spanish for black. Because the English adopted the word as a name for Africans, their treatment of Africans in the New World may also have derived from the Spanish, which suggests that they treated blacks in their colonies as slaves from the start. Probably the Africans' skin color lay at the root of the tragedy, but prejudice and existing enslavement interacted with each other as both cause and effect, bringing about the total debasement of the African.
Slavery soon spread throughout the colonies. As early as 1626 there were 11 slaves in New Netherland, and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 provided that "there shall never be any bond-slavery ... amongst us; unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars [i.e., Indians] and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us." However, relatively few blacks were imported until late in the seventeenth century, even in the southern colonies. In 1650 there were only 300 blacks in Virginia and as late as 1670 no more than 2,000.
White servants were much more highly prized. The African, after all, was almost entirely alien to both the European and the American ways of life. In a country starved for capital, the cost of slaves-roughly five times that of servants-was another disadvantage. For these reasons, so long as white servants could be had in sufficient numbers, there were few slaves in the Chesapeake, and those that were generally worked alongside white servants and shared roughly the same food, clothing, and quarters.
In the 1670s the flow of new servants slackened, the result of improving economic conditions in England and the competition of other colonies for labor. At the same time, the formation of the Royal African Company (1672) made slaves more readily available. The indenture system began to give way to slavery as the "permanent" solution to the region's chronic need for labor. An additional inducement causing planters and politicians to switch was the recognition that, unlike white servants, black slaves (and their offspring) would be forever barred from competing with whites for land or political power.
Prosperity in a Pipe: Tobacco
Labor and land made agriculture possible, but it was necessary to find a market for American crops in the Old World if the colonists were to enjoy anything but the crudest sort of existence. They could not begin to manufacture all the articles they required; to obtain from England such items as plows and muskets and books and chinaware, they had to have cash crops, or what their English creditors called "merchantable commodities." Here, at least, fortune favored the Chesapeake.
The founders of Virginia tried to produce all sorts of things that were needed in the old country: grapes and silk in particular, indigo, cotton, oranges, olives, sugar, and many other plants. But it was tobacco, unwanted, even strongly opposed at first, that became for farmers on both sides of Chesapeake Bay "their darling."
Tobacco was unknown in Europe until Spanish explorers brought it back from the West Indies. It was not common in England until the time of Sir Walter Raleigh. Then it quickly proved irresistible to thousands of devotees. At first the London Company discouraged its colonists from growing tobacco. Because it clearly contained some habit-forming drug, many people opposed its use. King James I wrote a pamphlet attacking the weed, saying that smoking was a "vile and stinking" habit "dangerous to the Lungs." But English smokers and partakers of snuff ignored their king, and the Virginians ignored their company. By 1617 a pound of tobacco was worth more than 5 shillings in London. Company and Crown then changed their tune, granting the colonists a monopoly and encouraging them in every way.
Unlike wheat, which required expensive plows and oxen to clear the land and prepare the soil, tobacco plants could be set on semi-cleared land and cultivated with a simple hoe. Although tobacco required lots of human labor, a single laborer working two or three acres could produce as much as 1,200 pounds of cured tobacco, which, in a good year, yielded a profit of more than 200 percent. Under these circumstances, production in America leaped from 2,500 pounds in 1616 to nearly 30 million pounds in the late seventeenth century, or roughly 400 pounds of tobacco for every man, woman, and child in the Chesapeake colonies.
The tidewater region was blessed with many navigable rivers, and the planters spread along their banks, giving the Chesapeake a shabby, helter-skelter character of rough habitations and stump-littered fields, surrounded by forest. There were no towns and almost no roads. English ships made their way up the rivers from farm to farm, gathering the tobacco at each planter's wharf The vessels also served as general stores of a sort where planters could exchange tobacco for everything from cloth, shoes, tools, salt, and nails to such exotic items as tea, coffee, chocolate, and spices.
However, the tremendous expansion of tobacco caused the price to plummet in the late seventeenth century. This did not stop the expansion of the colonies, but it did alter their society. Small farmers found it more difficult to make a decent living. At the same time men with capital and individuals with political influence were engrossing large tracts of land. Tobacco was notorious for the speed with which it exhausted the fertility of the soil. Growers with a lot of land could shift frequently to new fields within their holdings, allowing the old fields to lie fallow and thus maintain high yields, but the only option that small farmers had when their land gave out was to move to unsettled land on the frontier. To do that in the 1670s was to risk trouble with properly indignant Indians. It might also violate colonial laws designed to slow westward migration and limit tobacco production.
Chesapeake settlers showed little respect for constituted authority. The most serious challenge took place in Virginia in 1676. Planters in the outlying counties heartily disliked the officials in Jamestown who ran the colony. The royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, and his "Green Spring" faction (the organization took its name from the governor's plantation) had ruled Virginia for more than 30 years. Outsiders resented the way Berkeley and his henchmen used their offices to line their pockets. They also resented their social pretensions, for Green Springers made no effort to conceal their opinion, which had considerable basis in fact, that western planters were a crude and vulgar lot.
Early in 1676 planters on the western edge of settlement, always looking for excuses to grab land by doing away with the Indians who owned it, asked Berkeley to authorize an expedition against Indians who had been attacking nearby plantations. Berkeley refused. The planters then took matters into their own hands. Their leader, Nathaniel Bacon, was (and remains today) a controversial figure. His foes described him as extremely ambitious and possessed "of a most imperious and dangerous hidden Pride of heart." But even his sharpest critics conceded that he was well qualified "to lead a giddy and unthinking multitude."
When Berkeley refused to authorize him to attack the Indians, Bacon promptly showed himself only too willing to lead that multitude not only against Indians but even against the governor. Without permission he raised an army of 500 men, described by the Berkeley faction as "rabble of the basest sort." Berkeley then declared him a traitor.
Several months of confusion followed. Bacon murdered some peaceful Indians, marched on Jamestown and forced Berkeley to legitimize his authority, then headed west again to kill more Indians. In September he returned to Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Berkeley fled across Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore. But a few weeks later Bacon came down with a "violent flux"-probably it was a bad case of dysentery-and he died. Soon thereafter an English naval squadron arrived with enough soldiers to restore order. Bacon's Rebellion came to an end.
On the surface, the uprising changed nothing. No sudden shift in political power occurred. Indeed, Bacon had not sought to change either the political system or the social and economic structure of the colony. But if the rebellion did not change anything, nothing was ever again quite the same after it ended.
The Chesapeake now became committed to black slavery. Bacon's Rebellion scaled an implicit contract between the inhabitants of the "great houses" and those who lived in more modest lodgings: southern whites might differ greatly in wealth and influence, but they stood as one and forever behind the principle that blacks must have neither. This was the basis-the price-of the harmony and prosperity achieved by those who survived "seasoning" in the Chesapeake colonies.
The English and, after 1700, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the tidewater parts of the Carolinas turned to agriculture as enthusiastically as had their Chesapeake neighbors. In substantial sections of what became North Carolina, tobacco flourished. In South Carolina, Madagascar rice was introduced in the low-lying coastal areas in 1696. By 1700 almost 100,000 pounds of rice were being exported annually; by the eve of the Revolution, rice exports from South Carolina and Georgia exceeded 65 million pounds a year.
In the 1740s another cash crop, indigo, was introduced in South Carolina by Eliza Lucas. Indigo did not compete with rice either for land or labor. It prospered on high ground and needed care in seasons when the slaves were not busy in the rice paddies. The British were delighted to have a new source of indigo because the blue dye was important in their woolens industry. Parliament quickly placed a bounty on it to stimulate production.
Their tobacco, rice, and indigo, along with furs and forest products such as lumber, tar, and resin, meant that the southern colonies had no difficulty in obtaining manufactured articles from abroad. Planters dealt with agents in England and Scotland, called factors, who managed the sale of their crops, filled their orders for manufactures, and supplied them with credit. This was a great convenience but not necessarily an advantage, for it prevented the development of a diversified economy. Throughout the colonial era, while small-scale manufacturing developed rapidly in the north, it was stillborn in the south.
Reliance on European middlemen also retarded the development of urban life. Until the rise of Baltimore in the 1750s, Charleston was the only city of importance in the entire South. Despite its rich export trade, its fine harbor, and the easy availability of excellent lumber, Charleston's shipbuilding industry never remotely rivaled that of Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.
On the South Carolina rice plantations, slave labor predominated from the beginning, for free workers would not submit to its backbreaking and unhealthy regimen. The first quarter of the eighteenth century saw an enormous influx of Africans into all the southern colonies. By 1730 roughly 3 out of every 10 people south of Pennsylvania were black, and in South Carolina the blacks were the majority. "Carolina," remarked a newcomer in 1737, "looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people."
Given the existing race prejudice and the degrading impact of slavery, this demographic change had an enormous impact on life wherever blacks were concentrated. In each colony regulations governing the behavior of blacks, both free and slave, increased in severity as the density of the black population increased. The South Carolina Negro Act of 1740 denied slaves "freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom to raise [their own] food, to earn money, to learn to read English." The blacks had no civil rights under any of these codes, and punishments were sickeningly severe. Whipping was common for minor offenses, death by hanging or by being burned alive for serious crimes. Blacks were sometimes castrated for sexual offenses even for lewd talk about white women-or for repeated attempts to escape.
That blacks resented slavery goes without saying, but because slavery did not mean the same thing to all of them, their reactions to it varied. The white owners sought to acculturate the slaves in order to make them more efficient workers. A slave who could understand English was easier to order about; one who could handle farm tools or wait on tables was more useful than one who could not; a carpenter or a mason was more valuable still. But acculturation increased the slave's independence and mobility, and this posed problems. Field hands seldom tried to escape; they expressed their dissatisfactions by pilferage and petty sabotage, by laziness, or by feigning stupidity. Most runaways were artisans who hoped to "pass" as free in a nearby town. It was one of the many paradoxes of slavery that the more valuable a slave became, the harder that slave was to control.
Yet few runaway slaves became rebels. Indeed, organized slave rebellions were rare, and although individual assaults by blacks on whites were common enough, personal violence was also common among whites, then and throughout American history. But the masters had sound reasons for fearing their slaves; the particular viciousness of the system lay in the fact that oppression bred resentment, which in turn produced still greater oppression.
What is superficially astonishing is that the whites exaggerated the danger of slave revolts. They pictured the black as powerful, bestial, and lascivious, a cauldron of animal emotions that had to be restrained at any cost. Probably the characteristics they attributed to the blacks were really projections of their own passions. The most striking illustration was the fear that if blacks were free, they would breed with whites. Yet in practice, the interbreeding, which indeed took place, was almost exclusively the result of white men using their power as masters to have sexual relations with female slaves.
Thus the "peculiar institution" was fastened upon America with economic, social, and psychic barbs. Ignorance and self-interest, lust for gold and for the flesh, primitive prejudices and complex social and legal ties, all combined to convince the whites that black slavery was not so much good as a fact of life. A few Quakers attacked the institution on the religious ground that all human beings are equal before God: "Christ dyed for all, both Turks, Barbarians, Tartarians, and Ethyopians." Yet a few Quakers owned slaves, and even the majority who did not usually succumbed to color prejudice. Blackness was a defect, but it was no justification for enslavement, they argued.
Home and Family in the South
Life for all but the most affluent planters was by modern standards crude. Houses were mostly one- and two-room affairs, roughly built and unpainted. Furniture and utensils were sparse and crudely made. Chairs were rare; if a family possessed one it was reserved for the head of the house. People sat, slept, and ate on benches and planks. The typical dining table was made of two boards covered, if by anything, with a "board cloth." Toilets and plumbing of any kind were unknown; even chamber pots were beyond the reach of poorer families.
Clothes were equally crude and, as soap was expensive, rarely washed, therefore foul smelling and often infested with vermin. Food was plentiful. Corn, served as bread, hominy, pancakes, and in various other forms, was the chief staple. But there was plenty of beef, pork, and game, usually boiled with vegetables over an open fire.
Women, even indentured ones, rarely worked in the fields. Household maintenance was their responsibility including tending to farm animals, making butter and cheese, pickling and preserving, spinning and sewing, and, of course, caring for children. For exceptional women, the labor shortage created opportunities. Some managed large plantations; Eliza Lucas ran three in South Carolina for her absent father while still in her teens, and after the death of her husband, Charles Pinckney, she managed his large properties.
Because of the high death rate, second and third marriages were common. Despite the likelihood that a widow would soon remarry, studies of wills reveal that most southern men took special pains to provide for their wives and expressed confidence in their ability to manage the inheritance effectively.
Southern children were not usually subjected to as strict discipline as children in New England were, but the difference was relative. Formal schooling for ordinary youngsters was nonexistent; the isolated rural character of society made the maintcnance of schools prohibitively expensive. Whatever most children learned, they got from their parents or other relatives. A large percentage of southerners were illiterate. As in other regions, children were put to some kind of useful work at an early age.
More well-to-do, "middling" planters had more comfortable lifestyles, but they still lived in relatively crowded quarters, having perhaps three rooms to house a family and a couple of servants. Food in greater variety and abundance was another indication of a higher standard of living.
Until the early eighteenth century only a handful of colonists achieved real affluence. That fortunate few, masters of several plantations and many slaves, lived in solid, two-story houses of six or more rooms, furnished with English and other imported furnishings. When the occasion warranted, the men wore fine broadcloth, the women the latest (or more likely the next-to-latest) fashions. Some even sent their children abroad for schooling. The founding of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1696 was an effort to provide the region with its own institution of higher learning. However, William and Mary was not much more than a grammar school for decades.
These large planters also held the commissions in the militia, the county judgeships, and the seats in the colonial legislatures. The control that these "leading families" exercised over their neighbors was not entirely unearned. They were, in general, responsible leaders. And they recognized the necessity of throwing open their houses and serving copious amounts of punch and rum to ordinary voters when election time rolled around. Such gatherings served to acknowledge the representative character of the system.
No matter what their station, southern families led relatively isolated lives. Churches, which might be expected to serve as centers of community life, were few and far between. By the middle of the eighteenth century the Anglican church was the "established" religion, its ministers supported by public funds. The Virginia assembly had made attendance at Anglican service s compulsory in 1619. In Maryland, Lord Baltimore's Toleration Act did not survive the invasion of the colony by militant Puritans. It was repealed in 1654, reenacted in 1657, then repealed again in 1692 when the Anglican church was established.
Georgia and the Back Country
West of the fall line of the rivers that irrigated tidewater Chesapeake and Carolina lay the back country. This region included the Great Valley of Virginia, the Piedmont, and what became the final English colony, Georgia, founded in 1733 by a group of London philanthropists who were concerned over the plight of honest persons imprisoned for debt. They conceived of settling these unfortunates in the New World. (Many Europeans were still beguiled by the prospect of regenerating their society in the New World.) The government, eager to create a buffer between South Carolina and the hostile Spanish in Florida, readily granted a charter in 1732 to the group, who agreed to manage the colony without profit to themselves for a period of 21 years.
In 1733 their leader, James Oglethorpe, founded Savannah. Oglethorpe was a complicated person, vain, high-handed, and straitlaced, yet hardworking and idealistic. He hoped to people the colony with sober and industrious yeoman farmers. Land grants were limited to 50 acres and made nontransferable. To insure sobriety, rum and other "Spirits and Strong Waters" were banned. To guarantee that the colonists would have to work hard, the entry of "any Black ... Negroe" was prohibited. The Indian trade was to be strictly regulated in the interest of fair dealing.
Oglethorpe intended that silk, wine, and olive oil be the main products-none of which, unfortunately, could be profitably produced in Georgia. His noble intentions came to naught. The settlers swiftly found ways to circumvent all restrictions. Rum flowed, slaves were imported, large land holdings were amassed. Georgia developed an economy much like South Carolina's. In 1752 the founders, disillusioned, abandoned their responsibilities. Georgia then became a royal colony.
It was only about this time that settlers in any numbers penetrated the rest of the southern back country. As long as cheap land remained available closer to the coast and Indians along the frontier remained a threat, only the most daring and footloose hunters or fur traders lived far inland. But once settlement began, it came with a rush. Chief among those making the trek were Scotch-Irish and German immigrants. By 1770 the back country contained about 250,000 settlers, 10 percent of the population of the colonies.
This internal migration did not proceed altogether peacefully. In 1771 frontiersmen in North Carolina calling themselves Regulators fought a pitched battle with 1,200 troops dispatched by the Carolina assembly, which was dominated by low country interests. The Regulators were protesting their lack of representation in the assembly. They were crushed and their leaders executed. This was neither the last nor the bloodiest sectional conflict in American history.
Colonial New England
If survival in the Chesapeake required abandoning many European notions about social arrangements and submitting to the dictates of the wilderness, was this also true in Massachusetts and Connecticut? Ultimately it probably was, but in the early going, Puritan ideas certainly fought the New England reality to a draw.
Like other early New England towns and unlike these southern ones, Boston had a dependable water supply. The surrounding patchwork of forest, pond, dunes, and tidemarsh was much more open than the malaria-infected terrain of the tidewater and low-country South. One consequence was that New Englanders escaped "the agues and fevers" that beset settlers to the south, leaving them free to attend to their spiritual, economic, and social well-being. "Seasoning" proceeded so imperceptibly as to almost escape notice.
New England's Puritans were set apart from other English settlers by how much-and how long-they lived out of their baggage. The supplies the first arrivals brought with them eased their adjustment. The Puritans' baggage, however, included besides pots and pans, saws and shovels, a plan for the proper ordering of society.
At the center of the plan was a covenant, or agreement, to insure the upright behavior of all who took up residence. They sought to provide what John Winthrop described to the passengers on the Arbella as the two imperatives of human existence: "that every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affection."
The first and most important covenant governing Puritan behavior was that binding family members. The family's authority was backed by the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land." In a properly ordered Puritan family, as elsewhere in the colonies, authority flowed downward. Sociologists describe such a family as nuclear and patriarchal; each household contained one family, and in it, the father was boss. His principal responsibilities consisted of providing for the physical welfare of the household, including any servants, and making sure they behaved properly. All economic dealings between the family and other parties were also transacted by him.
The Reverend John Cotton's outline of a woman's responsibilities clearly established her subordinate position: She should keep house, educate the children, and improve "what is got by the industry of the man." The poet Anne Bradstreet reduced the functions of a Puritan woman to two: "loving Mother and obedient Wife." Colonial New England, and the southern colonies as well, did have their female blacksmiths, silversmiths, shipwrights, gunsmiths, and butchers as well as shopkeepers and teachers. Such early examples of domestic "liberation," however, were mostly widows and the wives of incapacitated husbands. Even so, most widows, especially young ones, quickly remarried.
The Puritan Family
Dealings with neighbors and relatives and involvement in church activities marked the outer limits of the social range of most Puritan women. Care of the children was a full-time occupation when broods of 12 or 14 were more common than those of 1 or 2. Fewer children died in New England than in the Chesapeake or in Europe. Childbearing and motherhood, therefore, likely extended well over two decades of a woman's life. Meanwhile, she also functioned as the chief operating officer of the household. Cooking, baking, sewing, and supervising servants all fell to her. These jobs were physically demanding, though not so debilitating as to prevent large numbers of New England wives from seeing one or more husbands off to the hereafter.
As Puritan social standards required husbands to rule over wives, so parents ruled over children. The virtue most insistently impressed upon New England children was obedience; Cotton Mather's advice, "better whipt, than damned," graced many a New England rod taken up by a parent in anger, from there to be rapidly transferred to the afterparts of misbehaving offspring. But household chores kept children out of mischief. By age six or seven girls did sewing and helped with housework, and boys were put to work outdoors. Older children might be sent to live with another family to work as servants or apprentices. Only when well into adulthood would children emerge from under parental control.
Such practices may convey the impression that Puritans hustled their young through childhood with as little love as possible. New Englanders harbored no illusions. "Innocent vipers" is how one minister described children, having 14 of his own to submit as evidence. Yet for all their acceptance of the doctrine of infant damnation, Puritan parents were not indifferent to the fate of their children. "I do hope," Cotton Mather confessed, "that when my children arc gone they are not lost; but carried unto the Heavenly Feast with Abraham." Another minister assigned children who died in infancy "the easiest room in hell."
Population growth reinforced Puritan ideas about the family. When the outbreak of the English Civil War put an end to the Great Migration in the early 1640s, immigration slackened off sharply. Thereafter growth was chiefly due to the region's extraordinarily high birthrate (more than three times the rate today) and strikingly low mortality rate. This resulted in a population much more evenly distributed by age and sex than that in the South.
Visible Puritan Saints and Others
When it came to religion, Puritans believed that church membership ought to be the joint decision of a would-be member and those already in the church. Obvious sinners and those ignorant of Christian doctrine were rejected out of hand. But what of "outwardly just" applicants who lacked compelling evidence that they had experienced God's saving grace? In the late 1630s, with the Great Migration in full swing and new arrivals clamoring for admission to the churches, such "meritmongers" were excluded, thereby limiting church membership to the community's "visible saints." A decade later, the Great Migration over and applications down, some of the saints began to have second thoughts.
By the early 1650s fewer than half of all New England adults were church members, and so exacting had the examination for membership become that most young people refused to submit themselves to it. How these growing numbers of nonmembers could be compelled to attend church services was a problem ministers could not long defer. Meanwhile, the magistrates found it harder to defend the policy of not letting taxpayers vote because they were not church members. But what really forced reconsideration of the membership policy was the concerns of nonmember parents about the souls of their children, who could not be baptized.
At first the churches permitted baptism of the children of church members. Most Puritans approved this practice, which allowed them the hope that a child who died after receiving baptism might at least be spared Hell's hottest precincts. Because most of the first generation were church members, nearly all the second-generation New Englanders were baptized, whether they became church members or not. The problem began with the third generation, the offspring of parents who had been baptized but who did not become church members. By the mid-1650s it was clear that if nothing were done, soon a majority of the people would be living in a state of original sin. If that happened, how could the churches remain the dominant force in New England life?
Fortunately, a way out was at hand. In 1657 an assembly of Massachusetts and Connecticut ministers recommended a form of intermediate church membership that would permit the baptism of people who were not visible saints. Five years later, some 80 ministers and laymen met at Boston's First Church to hammer out what came to be called the Half-Way Covenant. It provided limited (halfway) membership for any applicant not known to be a sinner who was willing to accept the provisions of the church covenant. They and their children could be baptized, but the sacrament of communion and a voice in church decision making were reserved for full members.
Opponents of the Half-Way Covenant argued that it reflected a slackening of religious fervor. There may have been some loss of religious intensity, but the rise in church memberships, the continuing prestige accorded ministers, and the lessening of the intrachurch squabbling in the decades after the Half-Way Covenant was adopted suggest that the secularization of New England society had a long way to go.
Democracies without Democrats
Like the southern colonies, the New England colonies derived their authority from charters granted by the Crown or Parliament. Except for rare fits of meddling by London bureaucrats, they were largely left to their own devices where matters of purely local interest were concerned. This typically involved maintaining order by regulating how people behaved. According to Puritan theory, government was both a civil covenant, entered into by all who came within its jurisdiction, and the principal mechanism for policing the institutions on which the maintenance of the social order depended. When Massachusetts and Connecticut passed laws requiring church attendance, levying taxes for the support of the clergy, and banning Quakers from practicing their faith, they were acting as "shield of the churches." When they provided the death penalty both for adultery and for blaspheming a parent, they claimed they were defending the integrity of families. When they set the price a laborer might charge for his services or even the amount of gold braid that servants might wear on their jackets, they believed they were enforcing the Puritan principle that people must accept their assigned stations in life.
Laws like these have prompted historians and Americans generally to characterize New England colonial legislation as socially repressive and personally invasive. Yet a healthy respect for the backsliding ways of humanity obliged New Englanders not to depend too much on provincial governments. The primary responsibility for maintaining "Good Order and Peace" fell to the more than 500 towns of the region. These differed greatly in size and development. By the early eighteenth century the largest-Boston, Newport, and Portsmouth-were well along toward becoming urban centers. This was before "frontier" towns like Amherst, Kent, and Hanover had even been founded. Nonetheless, town life gave New England the distinctiveness it has still not wholly lost.
Dedham: A "Typical" Town
Dedham, Massachusetts, illustrates how this worked. In 1634 the heads of 30 households in Watertown, already feeling crowded in that then-two-year-old village, petitioned the General Court for a grant of land to establish a new town. A year later they became the proprietors of a 200-square-mile tract west of Watertown on the condition that they all move there, "gather" a church, and organize a town government. These "proprietors" then drew up a town covenant, which committed all who signed it to conduct themselves "according to that most perfect rule, the foundation whereof is everlasting love." Other clauses bound them to keep out the "contrary minded," to submit personal differences to the judgment of the town, and to conduct their business so as to create a "loving and comfortable society in our said town."
The covenant provided that town business be decided at semiannual town meetings, at which all male adults who had subscribed to the covenant could vote. At these meetings a representative to the General Court was to be elected and seven selectmen chosen to run the town between town meetings. In addition, matters relating to town lands were to be decided, taxes to pay the minister's salary set, and provisions for poor and incompetent people made. The next century brought many changes to Dedham. Yet when the town's 1,200 residents celebrated its centenary in 1736, they were governing themselves much as their great- grandparents had.
But was colonial New England democratic? To be democratic, a government must at least offer those subject to its authority a voice in its operations. With the possible exception of the 1670s and 1680s, when a stiff property-holding requirement (L80 of taxable estate) was in effect in Massachusetts and Connecticut, most adult male New Englanders could vote. Compared with England or with the southern colonies, where blacks had no political rights, the New England governments were relatively responsive to public opinion.
Relatively few voters, however, bothered to vote because most offices went uncontested. Those elected consistently came from the wealthiest and most-established levels of the community. In Dedham, 5 percent of the adult males filled 60 percent of the town's positions. (Even in Rhode Island, widely regarded as almost too democratic, voters usually elected their wealthiest and longest-settled townsmen.) Ordinary voters tended to choose their "betters," and those they selected took the responsibilities of public office seriously. Together they created "a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy."
The Dominion of New England
The most serious threat to these arrangements occurred in the 1680s. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, England was ruled by one man, the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's death in 1658 led to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of Charles 11 (1660-1685). During his reign and the abbreviated one of his brother, James 11 (1685-1688), the government sought to bring the colonies under effective royal control.
Massachusetts seemed in particular need of supervision. Accordingly, in 1684 its charter was annulled and the colony, along with all those north of Pennsylvania, became part of the Dominion of New England, governed by Edmund Andros.
Andros arrived in Boston in late 1686 with orders to make the northern colonies behave like colonies, not like sovereign powers. He set out to abolish popular assemblies, to change the land-grant system so as to provide the king with quitrents, and to enforce religious toleration, particularly of Anglicans. Being a professional soldier and administrator, he scoffed at those who resisted his authority. "Knoweing no other government then their owne," he said, they "think it best, and are wedded to ... it."
Fortunately for the Puritans in New England, the Dominion fell victim two years later to yet another political turnabout in England, the Glorious Revolution. In 1688 Parliament decided it had had enough of the Catholic-leaning Stuarts and sent James II packing. In his place it installed a more resolutely Protestant Dutchman, William of Orange, and his wife, James's daughter Mary. When news of these events reached Boston in the spring of 1689, a force of more than 1,000 colonists led by a contingent of ministers seized Andros and lodged him in jail. Two years later Massachusetts was made a royal colony that also included Plymouth and Maine. As in all such colonies, the governor was appointed by the king. The new General Court was elected by property owners; church membership was no longer required for voting.
Many New England towns resembled "peaceable kingdoms." But in some, tensions developed between generations when they ran out of land sufficient to support the grandchildren of the founders. Others allowed petty disputes to divide townspeople into rival camps. Still others seemed doomed to serious discord. Among these, Salem village provides a singular example.
In 1666, families living in the rural outback of the thriving town of Salem petitioned the General Court for the right to establish their own church. For political and economic reasons this was a questionable move, but in 1672 the General Court authorized the establishment of a separate parish.
Over the next 15 years three preachers came and went before, in 1689, one Samuel Parris became minister. Parris had spent 20 years in the Caribbean as a merchant and had taken up preaching only 3 years before coming to Salem. Accompanying him were his wife; a daughter, Betty; a niece, Abigail; and the family's West Indian slave, Tituba, who told fortunes and practiced magic on the side.
Parris proved as incapable of bringing peace to the feuding factions of Salem Village as had his predecessors. In January 1692 the church voted to dismiss him. At this point Betty and Abigail, now 9 and 11, along with Ann Putnam, a 12-year-old, started "uttering foolish, ridiculous speeches which neither they themselves nor any others could make sense of." A doctor diagnosed the girls' ravings as the work of the "Evil Hand" and declared them bewitched.
But who had done the bewitching? The first persons accused were three women whose unsavory reputations and frightening appearances made them likely candidates: Sarah Good, a pauper with a nasty tongue; Sarah Osborne, a bedridden widow; and the slave Tituba, who had brought suspicion on herself by volunteering to bake a "witch cake," made of rye meat and the girls' urine. The cake should be fed to a dog, Tituba said. If the girls were truly afflicted, the dog would show signs of bewitchment!
The three women were brought before the local deputies to the General Court. As each was questioned, the girls went into contortions; "their arms, necks and backs turned this way and that way ... their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented." Tituba confessed to being a witch. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne each claimed to be innocent. All three were sent to jail on suspicion of witchcraft.
These proceedings triggered new accusations. By the end of April, 24 more people had been charged with practicing witchcraft. Officials in neighboring Andover, lacking their own "bewitched," called in the girls to help with their investigations. By May the hunt had extended to Maine and Boston and up the social ladder to some of the colony's most prominent citizens, including Lady Mary Phips, whose husband, William, had just been appointed governor.
By June, when Governor Phips convened a special court consisting of members of his council, more than 150 persons (Lady Phips no longer among them) stood formally charged with practicing witchcraft. In the next four months the court convicted 28 of them. Five "confessed" and were spared. One woman won a reprieve because she was pregnant. Two others escaped. But 19 persons were hanged.
Anyone who spoke in defense of the accused was in danger of being charged with witchcraft, but some brave souls challenged both the procedures and the findings of the court. Finally, at the urging of the leading ministers of the Commonwealth, Governor Phips adjourned the court and forbade any further executions.
No one involved in these gruesome proceedings escaped with reputation intact, but those whose reputations suffered most were the ministers. Among the clergy only Increase Mather deserves any credit. He persuaded Phips to halt the executions, arguing that "it were better that ten witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned." The behavior of his son Cotton defies apology. It was not that Cotton Mather accepted the existence of witches-at the time everyone did, which incidentally suggests that Tituba was not the only person in Salem who practiced witchcraft-or even that Mather took such pride in being the resident expert on demonology. It was rather his vindictiveness. He even stood at the foot of the gallows bullying hesitant hangmen into doing "their jury."
The episode also highlights the anxieties Puritan men felt toward women. Many Puritans believed that Satan worked his will especially through the allure of female sexuality. Moreover, many of the accused witches were widows of high status or older women who owned property; some of the women, like Tituba, had mastered herbal medicine and other suspiciously potent healing arts. Such women, especially those who lived apart from the daily guidance of men, potentially subverted the patriarchal authorities of church and state.
Higher Education in New England
Along with the farmers and artisans who settled in New England with their families during the Great Migration came nearly 150 university-trained colonists. Nearly all had studied divinity. These men became the first ministers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and a brisk "seller's market" existed for them. Larger churches began stockpiling candidates by hiring newly arrived Cambridge and Oxford graduates as assistants or teachers in anticipation of the retirement of their senior ministers. But what to do when, as a 1643 promotional pamphlet, New England's First Fruits, put it, "our present ministers shall lie in the dust"? Fear of leaving "an illiterate Ministry to the Churches" turned New Englanders to finding a way to "advance learning and perpetuate it to Posterity."
In 1636 the Massachusetts General Court appropriated L400 to found "a schoole or colledge." Two years later, just as the first freshmen gathered in Cambridge, John Harvard, a recent arrival who had died of tuberculosis, left the college L800 and his library. After a shaky start, during which students conducted a hunger strike against a sadistic and larcenous headmaster, Harvard settled into an annual pattern of admitting a dozen or so 14-year-old boys, stuffing their heads with four years of theology, logic, and mathematics, and then sending them out into the wider world of New England.
Immediately below Harvard on the educational ladder came the grammar schools, where boys spent seven years learning Latin and Greek. Massachusetts and Connecticut soon passed education acts that required all towns of any size to establish such schools. New Englanders hoped, as the Massachusetts law of 1647 stated, to thwart "that old deluder, Satan" by insuring "that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our forefathers." But not every New England town required to maintain a school actually did so. Those that did often paid their teachers poorly. Only the most dedicated Harvard graduates took up teaching as a career. Some parents kept their children at their chores rather than at school.
Yet the cumulative effect of the Puritan community's educational institutions, the family and the church as well as the school, was impressive. A majority of men in seventeenth-century New England could read and write, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, male literacy was almost universal. Literacy among women also improved steadily, despite the almost total neglect of formal education for girls.
Spreading literacy created a thriving market for the printed word. Many of the first settlers brought impressive libraries with them, and large numbers of English books were imported throughout the colonial period. The first printing press in the English colonies was founded in Cambridge in 1638, and by 1700 Boston was producing an avalanche of printed matter. Most of these publications were reprints of sermons, but modest amounts of history, poetry, reports of scientific investigations, and treatises on political theory also appeared.
By the early eighteenth century the intellectual life of New England had taken on a character potentially at odds with the ideas of the first Puritans. In the 1690s Harvard acquired a reputation for religious toleration. According to orthodox Puritans, its graduates were unfit for the ministry and its professors were no longer interested in training young men for the clergy. In 1701 several Connecticut ministers therefore founded a new "Collegiate School" designed to uphold the Puritan values that Harvard seemed ready to abandon. The new college was named after its first English benefactor, Elihu Yale. Nonetheless, as became all too clear at commencement ceremonies in 1722 when its president and six tutors announced themselves Anglicans, Yale quickly acquired purposes well beyond those assigned to it by its creators.
The assumption that the clergy had the last word on learned matters, still operative at the time of the witchcraft episode, came under direct challenge in 1721. When a smallpox epidemic swept through Boston that summer, Cotton Mather, the most prestigious clergyman in New England, recommended that the citizenry be inoculated. Instead of accepting Mather's authority, his heretofore silent critics seized on his support of the then-radical idea of inoculation to challenge his professional credentials. They filled the unsigned contributor columns of New England's first newspaper, the Boston Gazette, and the New England Courant, which opened in the midst of the inoculation controversy, with their views.
The Courant was published by James Franklin and his 16-year-old brother, Benjamin. The younger Franklin's "Silence Dogood" essays were particularly infuriating to members of the Boston intellectual establishment. Franklin described Harvard as an institution where rich and lazy "blockheads ... learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely ... and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble, as Blockheads as ever, only more proud and conceited."
James Franklin was jailed in 1722 for criticizing the General Court, and shortly thereafter the New England Courant went out of business. Meanwhile, Ben had departed Boston for Philadelphia, where, as everyone knows, fame and fortune awaited him.
Prosperity Undermines Puritanism
Prior experience (and the need to eat) turned the first New Englanders to farming. They grew barley (used to make beer), rye, oats, green vegetables, and also native crops such as potatoes, pumpkins, and, most important, Indian corn, or maize. Corn was easily cultivated, and its yield exceeded that of other grains. It proved versatile and tasty when prepared in a variety of ways and also made excellent fodder for livestock. In the form of corn liquor, it was easy to store, to transport, and, in a pinch, to imbibe.
The colonists also had plenty of meat. They grazed cattle, sheep, and hogs on the common pastures or in the surrounding woodlands. Deer, along with turkey and other game birds, abounded. The Atlantic provided fish, especially cod, which was easily preserved by salting. In short, New Englanders ate an extremely nutritious diet. Abundant surpluses of firewood kept the winter cold from their doors. The combination contributed significantly to their good health and longevity.
The trouble was that the shortness of the growing season, the rocky and often hilly terrain, and careless methods of cultivation, which exhausted the soil, meant that farmers did not produce large enough surpluses for trading.
The earliest Puritans accepted this economic marginality. The more pious positively welcomed it as insurance against "the serpent prosperity," which might otherwise deflect their spiritual mission into commercial opportunism. No prominent English merchants joined the Great Migration, though many were devoted Puritans and some had invested in the Massachusetts Bay Company. Settlers who turned to business upon arrival attracted suspicion, if not open hostility. Laws against usury (lending money at excessive rates) and profiteering in scarce commodities were in effect from the first days of settlement. Robert Keayne, a prosperous Boston merchant, was twice fined L200 by the General Court and admonished by his church for "taking above six-pence in the shilling profit." Keayne paid the fines, all the while convinced that "my goods and prices were cheap pennyworths."
Early Puritan leaders resisted the argument of people like Keayne that business was a calling no less socially useful than the ministry or public office. Differences in wealth should be modest and should favor those to whom the community looked for leadership. In the Puritan scheme of things, Governor Winthrop should stand higher than Keayne in all rankings, wealth included. But Winthrop died in 1649, broke and in debt, whereas Keayne died three years later in sufficient prosperity (despite those stiff fines) to leave the town of Boston and Harvard College impressive benefactions. The gap between the Puritan ideal and the emerging reality was becoming embarrassingly clear.
A Merchant's World
Winthrop's generation had tried to minimize dependence on European manufactured goods by producing their own. When their efforts failed, they next pinned their hopes on establishing direct trade links with European suppliers by offering the skins of beaver and other such fur-bearing animals as otter, muskrat, and mink. Unfortunately, the beavers soon caught wind of what was going on and took off for points west and north. By the late 1650s the New Englanders were back where they started. As one English merchant wrote, as trading partners New Englanders "have noe returns." The colonists then turned to indirect trading schemes, in which merchants like Robert Keayne played a central role and from which they ultimately derived stature as well as wealth.
Fish, caught offshore on grounds that extended from Cape Cod to Newfoundland, provided merchants with their opening into the world of transatlantic commerce. In 1643 five New England vessels set out with their holds packed with fish, which they sold in Spain and the Canary Islands; they took payment in sherry and madeira, for which a market existed in England. One of these ships also had the dubious distinction of initiating New England into the business of trafficking in human beings when its captain took payment in African slaves, whom he subsequently sold in the West Indies.
This was the start of the famous "triangular trade." Only occasionally was the pattern truly triangular; more often, intermediate legs gave it a polygonal character. So long as their ships ended up with something that could be exchanged for English goods needed at home, it did not matter what they started out with or how many things they bought and sold along the way.
So maritime trade and those who engaged in it became the driving force of the New England economy. Because numerous merchants congregated in Portsmouth, Salem, Boston, Newport, and New Haven, these towns soon differed greatly from towns in the interior. They were larger and faster growing, and a smaller percentage of their inhabitants was engaged in farming.
The largest and most thriving town was Boston, which by 1720 had become the commercial hub of the region. It had a population of more than 10,000; in the entire British Empire, only London and Bristol were larger. More than one-quarter of Boston's male adults had either invested in shipbuilding or were directly employed in maritime commerce. Ship captains and merchants held most of the public offices.
Beneath this emergent mercantile elite lived a stratum of artisans and small shopkeepers, and beneath these a substantial population of mariners, laborers, and "unattached" people with little or no property and still less political voice. In the 1670s, at least a dozen prostitutes plied their trade in Boston. By 1720 crime and poverty had become serious problems; public relief rolls frequently exceeded 200 souls, and dozens of criminals languished in the town jail. Boston bore little resemblance to what the first Puritans had in mind when they planted their "Citty upon a Hill." But neither was it like any European city of the time. It stood there on Massachusetts Bay, midway between its Puritan origins and its American future.
The Middle Colonies: Rising
New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware owe their collective name, the Middle Colonies, to geography. Sandwiched between New England and the Chesapeake region, they often receive only passing notice in accounts of colonial America. The lack of a distinctive institution, such as slavery or the town meeting, explains part of this neglect.
Actually, both institutions existed there. Black slaves made up about 10 percent of the population; indeed, one New York county in the 1740s had proportionally more blacks than large sections of Virginia. And eastern Long Island was settled by people from Connecticut who brought the town meeting system with them.
This quality of "in-betweenness" extended to other economic and social arrangements. Like colonists elsewhere, most people in the Middle Colonies became farmers. But whereas northern farmers concentrated on producing crops for local consumption and southerners, for export, Middle Colony farmers did both. In addition to raising foodstuffs and keeping livestock, they grew wheat, which the thin soil and shorter growing season of New England did not permit but for which there existed an expanding market in the densely settled Caribbean sugar islands.
Social arrangements differed more in degree than in kind from those in other colonies. Unlike New England settlers, who clustered together in agricultural villages, families in the Hudson Valley of New York and in southeastern Pennsylvania lived on the land they cultivated, often as spatially dispersed as the tobacco planters of the Chesapeake. In contrast with Virginia and Maryland, however, substantial numbers congregated in the seaport centers of New York City and Philadelphia. They also settled interior towns like Albany, an important center of the fur trade on the upper Hudson, and Germantown, an "urban village" northwest of Philadelphia where many people were engaged in trades like weaving, tailoring, and flour milling.
The Middle Colonies: An Intermingling of Peoples
The Middle Colonists also possessed traits that later would be seen as distinctly "American." Their ethnic and religious heterogeneity is a case in point. Traveling through Pennsylvania in 1744, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm encountered "a very mixed company of different nations and religions." In addition to "Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish," he reported, "there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Seventh day men, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew." In New York City one embattled English resident complained: "Our chiefest unhappiness here is too great a mixture of nations, & English the least part."
Scandinavian and Dutch settlers outnumbered the English in New Jersey and Delaware even after the English took over these colonies. William Penn's first success in attracting colonists was with German Quakers and other persecuted religious sects, among them Mennonites and Moravians from the Rhine Valley. The first substantial influx of immigrants into New York after it became a royal colony consisted of French Huguenots.
Early in the eighteenth century, hordes of Scotch-Irish settlers from Northern Ireland and Scotland descended on Pennsylvania. These colonists spoke English but felt little loyalty to the English government, which had treated them badly back home, and less to the Anglican church, because most of them were Presbyterians. Large numbers of them followed the valleys of the Appalachians south into the back country of Virginia and the Carolinas.
Why were so few English in the Middle Colonies? Here, again, timing provides the best answer. The English economy was booming. There seemed to be work for all. Migration to North America, although never drying up, slowed to a trickle. The result was colonies in which English settlers were a minority.
The intermingling of ethnic groups gave rise to many prejudices. Benjamin Franklin, though generally complimentary toward Pennsylvania's hard-working Germans, thought them clannish to a fault. The French traveler Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, while marveling at the adaptive qualities of "this promiscuous breed," complained that "the Irish ... love to drink and to quarrel; they are litigious, and soon take to the gun, which is the ruin of everything." Yet by and large the various types managed to get along with each other successfully enough. Crevecoeur attended a wedding in Pennsylvania where the groom's grandparents were English and Dutch and one of his uncles had married a Frenchwoman. The groom and his three brothers, Crevecoeur added with some amazement, "now have four Wives of different nations."
"The Best Poor Man's Country"
Ethnic differences seldom caused conflict in the Middle Colonies because they seldom limited opportunity. The promise of prosperity (promotional pamphlets proclaimed Pennsylvania "the best poor man's country in the world") had attracted all in the first place, and achieving prosperity was relatively easy, even for those who came with only a willingness to work. From its founding, Pennsylvania granted upwards of 500 acres of land to families on arrival, provided they would pay the proprietor an annual quitrent. Similar arrangements existed in New Jersey and
Delaware. Soon travelers in the Middle Colonies were being struck by "a pleasing uniformity of decent competence." New York was something of an exception to this favorable economic situation. When the English took over New York, they extended the Dutch patroon system by creating 30 manorial estates covering some two million acres. But ordinary New Yorkers never lacked ways of becoming landowners. A hundred acres along the Hudson River could be bought in 1730 for what an unskilled laborer could earn in three months. Even tenants on the manorial estates could obtain long-term leases that had most of the advantages of ownership but did not require the investment of any capital. "One may think oneself to be a great lord," one frustrated "lord" of a New York manor wrote a colleague, "but it does not amount to much, as you well know."
Mixed farming offered the most commonly trod path to prosperity in the Middle Colonies, but not the only one. Inland communities offered comfortable livelihoods for artisans. Farmers always needed barrels, candles, rope, horseshoes and nails, and dozens of other articles in everyday use. Countless opportunities awaited the ambitious settler in the shops, yards, and offices of New York and Philadelphia. Unlike Boston, New York and Philadelphia profited from navigable rivers that penetrated deep into the back country. Although founded half a century after New York and Boston, Philadelphia grew more rapidly than either. In the 1750s, when its population reached 15,000, it passed Boston to become the largest city in English America.
Most Philadelphians who stuck to their business, particularly if it happened to be maritime commerce, did well for themselves. John Bringhurst, a merchant, began his career as a clerk. At his death in 1751 he left an estate of several thousand pounds. According to the historian Gary Nash, the city's "leather-apron" artisans often accumulated estates of more than L400, a substantial sum at the time. By way of contrast, in Boston after 1710 economic stagnation made it much more difficult for a skilled artisan to rise in the world.
The Politics of Diversity
"Cannot more friendly and private courses be taken to set matters right in an infant province?" an exasperated William Penn asked the people of Pennsylvania in 1704. "For the love of God, me, and the poor country, be not so governmentish." However well-intentioned Penn's advice, however justified his annoyance, the Pennsylvanians ignored him. Instead, they and their fellows throughout the region constructed a political culture that diverged sharply from the patterns of New England and the South both in contentiousness and in the sophistication required of local politicians.
Superficially the governments of the Middle Colonies closely resembled those of earlier settlements. All had popularly elected representative assemblies and most male adults could vote. In Pennsylvania, where Penn had insisted that there be no religious test and where 50 acres constituted a freehold, something close to universal manhood suffrage existed. In New York even non-property-holding white male residents voted in local elections, and rural tenants with lifetime leases enjoyed full voting rights.
In Pennsylvania and most of New York representatives were elected by counties. In this they resembled Virginia and Maryland. But unlike the southerners, voters did not tend to defer in politics to the landed gentry. In New York, in 1689, during the political vacuum following the abdication of King James 11, Jacob Leisler, a disgruntled merchant and militia captain, seized control of the government. "Leisler's Rebellion" did not amount to much. He held power for less than two years before he was overthrown and sent to the gallows. Yet for two decades New York politics continued to be a struggle between the Leislerians, and other self-conscious "outs" who shared Leisler's dislike of English rule, and anti-Leislerians, who had in common only that they had opposed his takeover. Each group sought the support of a succession of ineffective governors, and the one that failed to get it invariably proceeded to make that poor man's tenure as miserable as possible.
New York lapsed into political tranquility during the governorship of Robert Hunter (1710-1719), but in the early 1730s conflict broke out over a claim for back salary by Governor William Cosby. When Lewis Morris, the chief justice of the supreme court, opposed Cosby's claim, the governor replaced him. Morris and his assembly allies responded by establishing the New York Weekly journal. To edit the paper they hired an itinerant German printer, John Peter Zenger.
Governor Cosby might have tolerated the Weekly journal's front-page lectures on the right of the people to criticize their rulers had the back pages not contained advertisements referring to his supporters as spaniels and to him as a monkey. After submitting to two months of "open and implacable malice against me," he shut down the paper, arrested Zenger, and charged him with seditious libel.
What began as a squalid salary dispute became one of the most celebrated tests of freedom of the press in the history of journalism. At the trial Zenger's attorney, James Hamilton, argued that the truth of his client's criticisms of Cosby constituted a proper defense against seditious libel. This reasoning (though contrary to English law at the time) persuaded the jury to acquit Zenger.
Politics in Pennsylvania turned on conflict between two interest groups, one clustered around the proprietor, the other around the assembly, which was controlled by a coalition of Quaker representatives from Philadelphia and the German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.
Neither the proprietary party nor the Quaker party qualifies as a political party in the modern sense of being organized and maintained for the purpose of winning elections. Nor can they be categorized as standing for "democratic" or "aristocratic" interests. But their existence guaranteed that the political leaders had to take popular opinion into account. Moreover, having once appealed to public opinion, they had to be prepared to defer to it. Success turned as much on knowing how to follow as on knowing how to lead.
The 1763 uprising of the "Paxton Boys" of western Pennsylvania put this policy to a full test. The uprising was triggered by eastern indifference to Indian attacks on the frontier-an indifference made possible by the fact that the east outnumbered the west in the assembly, 26 to 10. Fuming because they could obtain no help from Philadelphia against the Indians, a group of Scotch-Irish from Lancaster county fell upon a village of peaceful Conestoga Indians and murdered them in cold blood. Then these Paxton Boys marched on the capital, several hundred strong.
Fortunately a delegation of burghers headed by Benjamin Franklin talked them out of attacking the town by acknowledging the legitimacy of their grievances about representation and by promising to vote a bounty on Indian scalps. It was just such fancy footwork that established Franklin, the leader of the assembly party, as Pennsylvania's consummate politician. "Tell me, Mr. Franklin," a testy member of the proprietary party asked, "how is it that you are always with the majority?" Soon thereafter, the assembly sent Franklin to London to defend local interests against the British authorities, a situation in which he would definitely not be "with the majority."
Overlaying the political disputes and contentions of the era was a general anxiety over the role of women. Anne Hutchinson had drawn the wrath of Massachusetts Puritan authorities by criticizing their teachings and humiliating them in public debate; Puritan anxieties toward unattached or independent women surfaced later in the Salem witch trials. This concern was not confined to New England. In 1661 Governor Berkeley of Virginia issued a proclamation threatening Quaker women, but not men, with imprisonment if they persisted in disseminating "schismaticall and hereticall doctrines." These and other attempts to suppress women's activity in church and political meetings backfired. Many women endorsed Bacon's Rebellion; some were imprisoned when the rebellion was crushed. The Governor's inability to control refractory women was symptomatic of widespread uneasiness toward women among the seemingly omnipotent planter elite.
The authority of husbands, and indeed of male political leaders and elites, differed over time and place. But the general trend was away from a model of social and political power derived from the hierarchical example of a family, where the authority of the husband was analogous to that of the monarch. Although this shift was toward political egalitarianism, it did not empower women. During the eighteenth century women were increasingly pushed to the margins of political life. Before, women who headed a family could assume authority in public matters as well. But by the mid-eighteenth century, white women were expected to confine themselves to the private matters of the home.