Colonial Society

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COLONIAL SOCIETY. The basis of American society has always been the individual and political rights and ideals of freedom and equality that most Americans today take for granted. Many of these rights were won, either by design, chance, or circumstance, during the period when the thirteen colonies that formed the United States were under British control. The revolutionary generation, who numbered about 2 million, wanted to retain the best of the English system while rejecting the worst. To a certain degree they were successful. English concepts of freedom and liberty established in the colonial era were retained, but with a peculiarly American flavor.

The People

The character of American society was determined in part by the immigrants themselves. Most settlers who chose to come to America were termed the "middling sort," or what we would call today "middle class," since neither the very wealthy nor the very poor emigrated. Hence there was no hereditary aristocracy in colonial America, and the accumulation of wealth alone was usually considered sufficient to elevate a person to the ranks of the elite. Colonists were largely farmers, artisans, merchants, fishermen, or craftspeople. Others were adventurers or fortune hunters, who, after finding there were no precious metals to be had along the eastern seaboard, turned to other employments. Many came as indentured servants, spending a certain number of years working to pay off the cost of their voyage to the New World. Others were convicted felons, who were neither wanted nor willingly tolerated in the provinces. All European immigrants found economic opportunity here that did not exist at home, and in time some amassed large fortunes.

The distinctiveness of American society was also caused by a racial, ethnic, and religious diversity that was rare in Europe. America was not an uninhabited wilderness but was settled by indigenous Indian tribes upon whom early settlers often depended for food. These tribes were pushed aside or exterminated when they resisted the sale of their land to white settlers. Nevertheless, the very presence of Indians and the frontier, a moving line where Indian and white society met, forced adaptations on Europeans as they struggled to cope with an environment entirely different from that of Europe.

The development of American society was also influenced by the presence of African slaves, with the first slaves imported in 1619. Slavery was unknown in England but was quickly accepted in England's colonies. A large workforce was particularly necessary in the southern tobacco-and rice-producing colonies. Planters turned to slave labor as the pool of Englishmen who were willing to indenture themselves decreased. Slaves were preferred to white indentured servants because they and their offspring served for life. Racism was not particularly prevalent in the early seventeenth century but increased by the end of the century, when, by law, slavery in all colonies was lifelong, inherited through the mother, and not changed by conversion to Christianity. Unrest followed restrictive legislation, leading to several slave rebellions that were ruthlessly suppressed. These, in turn, brought even harsher slave codes and heightened racism.

Despite a largely rural population, colonial cities grew rapidly. These cities were dirty and crowded, and people suffered from frequent epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, and dysentery. Living conditions for the poor in both urban and rural areas were squalid. Life itself was brutal, with public executions in which the condemned were burned alive or hanged, drawn, and quartered, or broken on the wheel.

Legal Rights

Colonists worked to establish basic rights for themselves and their off spring. Among these rights was representative government, which was quickly adopted in every colony except New York, which did not have a representative assembly until 1691. The Puritan New England colonies also followed English tradition in creating representative government, but they refused to accept English common law in the seventeenth century. As they pointed out, common law developed in an older, settled society and had no application in a frontier environment. Instead, they enacted entire sections of the Bible into law and resisted English practices or laws until forced to accept both in 1686 under the Dominion of New England government. Most other colonies readily accepted English common law, with some resistance coming from New York, where the Dutch civil law tradition persisted for some time.

Women in New York were particularly affected by the transition from civil to common law, which, after the 1664 English conquest, gave women far fewer legal rights than they enjoyed under Dutch law. Under English law, married women had no legal existence except through their husbands, even losing control of their dowry. In all the colonies, marriage was usually by choice, but parents' consent was necessary. If widowed, a woman was entitled to one-third of her deceased husband's estate, and if she remarried she could negotiate a prenuptial agreement to protect her late husband's property for herself and her children from the previous marriage. Remarriage was usually rapid because single parents, particularly in a frontier environment, could not maintain a household and raise children without the help of a partner. Among Puritans until 1686, marriage was a civil contract that carried specific obligations for husband and wife. If these obligations were not met, then it was possible to obtain a divorce. This was less possible in other colonies, where an assembly act was necessary for a divorce. The European double standard was evident in America, as it was much easier for a man to obtain a divorce from an adulterous spouse than it was for a woman to obtain a divorce for the same reason.

Women in seventeenth-century America were notorious for their outspoken involvement in political controversies such as Bacon's Rebellion and the Leisler Rebellion. This changed somewhat by the 1760s, when women apologized for offering their opinions on current affairs. During the course of a married woman's reproductive years, she would probably be pregnant five to nine times, with death in childbirth a distinct threat, particularly in the seventeenth century. The child mortality rate was also high but improved by the eighteenth century, when life expectancy was about fifty years, exceeding that of people born in England.

Education and Religion

Colonial society valued education, but its benefits were not offered equally and varied by geographic location. Some southern schools were established for the children of farmers, while wealthy planters hired tutors for their children. Education for the lower orders of society was more readily available in most New England colonies, where any town with a hundred families had to provide a grammar school. The male children of well-to-do families learned Latin and Greek, a necessity for the college bound, but girls' education usually ended after primary school since they were not accepted in colleges. In New Netherland and New York, both the Dutch Reformed Church and the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel made provision for the education of poor children. Higher education was particularly important to the Puritans, who established Harvard College in 1636 and Yale in 1701. In Virginia, the College of William and Mary was founded in 1691.

Religious toleration originated in the colonial era, forced on Americans by circumstance rather than conviction. While most English colonies were ethnically and religiously homogenous in the seventeenth century, with mostly Anglicans in Virginia and the Carolinas, mostly English Catholics and Puritans in Maryland, and a majority of English Puritans, or Congregationalists, in New England, exceptions existed. New York was unique among England's colonies because its settlers were drawn from many parts of Europe and represented numerous religions. In the eighteenth century, the ethnic and religious diversity that would become the rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was increased in all colonies with the influx of large number of Scots, Scots-Irish, French Huguenots, German Lutherans, and Irish immigrants. In the largely Protestant English colonies, public worship for Catholics and Jews was permitted in only three colonies: Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Church of England was established only in Virginia and South Carolina, although some futile efforts were made to establish it elsewhere. The pluralistic religious beliefs of the middle colonies was one of the many factors that eventually led to the separation of church and state under the Constitution.

Religion, which prompted the settlement of the New England and Maryland colonies, continued to be important in the eighteenth century, sparking a major religious revival called the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening followed the triumphal 1739–1740 tour through the colonies of the English minister George Whitefield, when scores of people claimed to have experienced a religious conversion. While church membership increased and interest in religion ran high during this period, the Awakening also split congregations into Old and New Lights, or those who continued to favor an educated ministry and those who favored the ministry of untrained laymen. The Awakening thus had the unintended effect of splitting American religious society into different factions, leading to the proliferation of sects. By 1776, the Congregational church had the largest membership, with over a half million members, followed by the Quakers and Presbyterians, with Baptists and Methodists starting to win converts. The Great Awakening also led to the establishment of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1746, the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) in 1740, the College of Rhode Island (Brown) in 1764, Dartmouth in 1769, King's College (Columbia) in 1754, and Queen's College (Rutgers) in 1766.

Newspapers and Leisure Pursuits

Americans of all educational levels insisted on being well informed on public issues. A growing literacy rate kept pace with the demand for information, which was met in part by newspapers. The first colonial paper, the Boston News-Letter, was established in 1704, followed in 1719 by the Boston Gazette. Soon every colonial city had its own newspaper, which informed and politicized the lower and middling sort, reprinted foreign news and essays written by British opposition leaders, carried local advertisements, published political satire, reported on crimes and runaway slaves and servants, and in the case of the New-York Weekly Journal, carried the first political cartoons. The cartoons in the Journal attacked an unpopular governor, William Cosby, who had the printer of the paper, John Peter Zenger, arrested and charged with seditious libel. An account of the trial written by the attorney James Alexander was widely circulated in England and the colonies and eventually helped to establish the legal principle that truth was a defense against libel. A love of knowledge was accompanied by a commitment to leisure pursuits. Attending religious services provided, in addition to spiritual solace, a chance to exchange local news. For relaxation, the elite in colonial society often conducted scientific experiments. David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia designed and made an orrery to illustrate the workings of the solar system, while John Bartram named and bred different species of plants. Other people relaxed from daily demands by playing ball and by betting on horse racing, cock fighting, dog fights, wrestling matches, and bear baiting. Colonists also played cards and dice, sang, danced, and played musical instruments, the wealthy holding recitals in their homes. All classes drank, with a per capita consumption of over seven gallons of liquor a year. The upper classes favored imported wines and brandy while the lower orders drank home-brewed beer, hard cider, and rum. In Virginia and Maryland, people attended theatrical performances of Shakespeare's plays and those of other playwrights.

Civil Unrest

By the mid-eighteenth century, differences between the elite and lower classes pointed to a less egalitarian society. For the first time, cities were forced to provide food and shelter for the poor, while the wealthy built large houses and filled them with expensive imported furniture. The poor resented these ostentatious displays of wealth and made their displeasure evident in prerevolutionary riots, with urban crowds frequently demolishing the homes of the wealthy while protesting British measures.

The rejection of royal rule that followed civil unrest was sparked in part by a growing sense that American society was different from English society. English examples of government and individual rights were adopted but modified for the American condition. On the other hand, conditions peculiar to America led to the adoption of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, while the frontier experience brought a greater individualism than that fostered by European society. The roots of racism and violence also spring from this period. For better or worse, the patterns of American society that affect us today were colonial in origin.


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Mary LouLustig

See alsoBacon's Rebellion ; Colonial Settlements ; Common Law ; Great Awakening ; Leisler Rebellion ; Puritans and Puritanism ; Slavery ; andvol. 9:Massachusetts School Law ; Untitled Poem .

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