Mid-Atlantic States

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The British middle colonies were constructed, between 1664 and 1720, from the remnants of Dutch New Netherland in the Hudson River Valley and Scandinavian New Sweden on the Lower Delaware River. The defining element of their character was population diversity, beginning with these non-English seventeenth-century foundations and continuing with major German and Scots-Irish migrations to the region during the mid-eighteenth century. By 1750, the mid-Atlantic region included members of a dozen or more religious denominations, including Anglicans, Lutherans, German and Dutch Reformed Calvinists, Presbyterians, and sectarian Pietists, as well as Jews and Catholics.

The region's architects included royal agents and proprietary stakeholders working from the top down and diverse colonists operating at ground level. English officials by 1682 had carved the territory into New York; New Jersey; and Pennsylvania, including its Lower Counties below Philadelphia (later Delaware). New Jersey split into two proprietary entities, called East and West New Jersey. Settlers and Indians across the Hudson and Delaware watersheds acted as if these imperial and political designations were irrelevant. They traveled, traded, farmed, and built families across the vague borders of the region. Royal officials after 1685 tried to reassemble a greater New York, resembling the original footprint of New Netherland, but proprietary interests, led by William Penn, resisted this project. Between 1720 and 1760, imperial and proprietary activism receded, and the bonds of region were private trade, extended family dynamics, and complex interprovincial political networks. The durable geopolitics of Indian diplomacy—anchored in an entity in western New York known to ethnohistorians as Iroquoia—reinforced regional cohesion. None of these processes generated any broad consciousness of collective identity among the area's people. Unlike in New England or the southern colonies, "region" here was more a behavioral than a subjective phenomenon.

The American Revolution destroyed the main structural pillars of the region—the hub of royal government at New York, the proprietary hearth in Philadelphia, and the linchpin of European-Indian relations in Iroquoia. Defeated redcoats sailed from New York Harbor in 1783, leaving a toothless socket of British imperial power. The Penn family was the biggest Loyalist claimant on royal largesse. The Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy, having benefited from both imperial military power in New York and war aversion in Pennsylvania, were driven by American treaty expansionism into Canada and the Great Lakes country. The adhesive strength of private behaviors is suggested by the fact that—as the institutional scaffolding of the region collapsed—the mid-Atlantic complex retained so much of its shape and its functional utility.

Economic processes in the late colonial era contributed to both the survival and the modest warping of the mid-Atlantic's outer boundaries. The bulwark of great landlord power in the Hudson Valley kept New York underpopulated, and—with help from British troops in the 1760s—pushed Yankee settlers north along the Connecticut River and into coastal Maine. Mason's and Dixon's Line was barely surveyed in the 1760s, defining a political border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, when the loss of planter confidence in tobacco culture eroded the economic edges of the region. Farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula and in northern Maryland shifted to grain cultivation and much of the area joined Philadelphia's economic hinterland. With this shift, the families of talented lawyers like John Dickinson and Joseph Galloway came into that city's political orbit. By 1776 they embodied the at-best ambivalent response of elite middle colonists to the risks and opportunities of independence.

resistance and revolution

Geographical convenience made New York and Philadelphia the respective meeting places of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and the first Continental Congress in 1774. From 1765 until 1783, members of the Continental Congress from New England were described as being from the "Eastern" colonies or states, while the rest lacked focused regional identities. The overlapping hinterlands of New York and Philadelphia were harder to herd into effective cooperation against British imperial change, or to mobilize into resistance, than the more united societies of Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina. This caution initially assured a local stability that was fruitful of deliberative creativity. As the crisis of empire intensified in the 1770s, however, it meant that opposition to British measures was forced on many communities and enforced in others. It was not accidental that a Pennsylvania moderate like Dickinson presided over political deliberations at the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765 and remained influential in Philadelphia a decade later. When he and the conservative Whigs who supported him retreated in 1776—opposing separation until after adoption of the Declaration of Independence—radical Patriot forces had to steer the Revolution from places that had been wracked by intense internal upheaval and divisive change for more than a decade.

The mid-Atlantic's cautious approach toward rebellion and then its explosive embrace of it grew from factors that had made the region vibrant, prosperous, and turbulent for a century. Cultural and religious pluralism bred a pragmatic toleration that was not conducive to boycotts or active resistance. The royal hub in New York and the proprietary hearth at Philadelphia established rooted patronage circles in the hinterlands of both towns that grew together in New Jersey. The mundane commodities that the region made—grains, meats, timber, glass, and even bar iron—escaped the regulatory embrace of mercantilist imperial managers and found Atlantic markets that enriched their makers within the strictures of the English Navigation Acts. This fostered what Thomas Doerflinger has called a "logic of moderation" that persistently muffled radicalization.

When war intruded into the region between 1776 and 1779, it galvanized these circumstances. Washington fought unsuccessfully in late 1776 to defend the islands at the mouth of the Hudson River. Repeated defeats sent his army retreating across New Jersey, while that colony's pragmatic civilians seemed to embrace the ascendant British side. When this momentum unexpectedly reversed after Christmas 1776, their mercurial loyalties did too. The British withdrew into New York City, which they kept as a headquarters garrison until late 1783. The Continentals tried to police the Hudson and Delaware watersheds. The territory between the two forces became a no-man's-land where corrupt and violent freelance conflict between civilians often followed patterns of prewar ethnic and religious enmity and amity. When General William Howe invaded Pennsylvania in late 1777 and occupied Philadelphia, similar dynamics emerged there, complicated by that polity's Quaker culture. The British abandonment of Pennsylvania in 1778 froze this crazy-quilt pattern of strengths and weaknesses into place there.

The war was neither won nor lost in the mid-Atlantic, but the Revolution showed its kaleidoscopic character there as vividly as anywhere in America. Native American–European hostilities, although arriving belatedly after 1750 in the one English place that had been buffered from them by Iroquoian diplomacy and Quaker restraint, continued into the Revolutionary era. Washington's effort to end this problem decisively with a destructive invasion of Iroquoia under General John Sullivan in 1779 loosened the hold of Indians on the region and hastened their removal from it during the 1780s and 1790s. The multiethnic European populations of the Mohawk, Raritan, Schuylkill, and Brandywine Valleys—almost as prolific demographically as New Englanders—were freed to expand into the western parts of the older colonies.

the early republic

The mid-Atlantic was both an exporter and importer of population in the early Republic. The manorial wall along the Hudson River broke after 1790 and restless Yankees "hived" west into the spaces evacuated by retreating native nations. Across the Finger Lakes region, and especially in the Genessee country, they hoped to create a newer New England, but smaller transsecting streams of settlers moving north from Pennsylvania and New Jersey subverted that design. The British seizure of Fort Duquesne in 1758 made Pennsylvania a cultural filter for postwar American settlement of the Ohio Valley and the Old Northwest. The mid-eighteenth-century flow of German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian migrants into the Valley of Virginia likewise fashioned a Greater Pennsylvania portal to the upper parts of the trans-Appalachian South. Although Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 claim probably overstated the case, a new and distinctly "American" society seemed to be emerging between a temporarily exhausted and in some ways a culturally fragmenting New England hearth and a still-incipient South that had yet to achieve any real integration or coherence.

During the generation after 1787, the mid-Atlantic traded its fortuitous Revolutionary-era position of national political centrality for one of continental economic and then industrial hegemony. This advantage was not built on internal unity, or even internal coherence, as the polar tendencies latent in the region since the 1630s reasserted themselves. New York political leaders mobilized British capital and new immigration between 1817 and 1825 to drive a canal west from the Hudson Valley to Lake Erie during those years. The success of the Erie Canal in the 1820s positioned New York to become a dominant force in the nation's economy for the next century. By "improving" the natural sea-level path of the Mohawk River, they welded the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley agricultural hearth and eventual industrial belt to their Atlantic metropolis. Pennsylvania's efforts to match this achievement with an awkward combination of turnpikes, canals, railroads, and inclined planes over the Appalachian Mountains seemed more inspired than ingenious. By mid-century, however, the Pennsylvania Railroad pierced that barrier. Then the subterranean accident of anthracite and bituminous coal deposits could redress the advantage. Pittsburgh became the heavy manufacturing citadel of an industrializing America while Philadelphia built a diversified and resilient light industry and skilled-craft economy. That city's port, although farther from the Atlantic than New York City's and prone to winter disruption, held its share of the Northeast's import and export traffic. New York City became the financial engine of a capitalist national economy and displaced Philadelphia as the port of entry for the torrential streams of Europeans who transformed the nation in the nineteenth century.

In the generation before the Revolution, the mid-Atlantic colonies built prototypes for a modern political system that stabilized a dynamic plural society, ameliorating its conflicts and harnessing its energies into productive channels. While those state-based machines failed under the pressures of imperial crisis, and while governments in the region were maintained by the sword rather than by consensus during the Revolution, the underlying culture of political pragmatism survived the trauma. By 1787, Philadelphia again seemed a safe enough place for national constitutional delegates to gather. The document that they produced received some of its most challenging ratification tests in the region. While planning began almost immediately for the national capital to move south along the balance beam of free and slave systems, and while Virginia and Massachusetts would dominate the American presidency for a generation after the Revolution, New York and Pennsylvania remained laboratories of state and metropolitan political experimentation. Indeed, New Jersey—by allowing women to vote until 1807, however inadvertently—even more fully anticipated the ultimately democratic political future.

See alsoAgriculture: Overview; Constitution, Ratification of; Delaware; Economic Development; Erie Canal; Iroquois Confederacy; Loyalists; New Jersey; New York City; New York State; Pennsylvania; Philadelphia; Revolution: Military History .


Countryman, Edward. A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Doerflinger, Thomas M. A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Jensen, Joan M. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Jonas, Manfred, and Robert V. Wells, eds. New Opportunities in the New Nation: The Development of New York after the Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720–1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Taylor, Alan. William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Wayne Bodle


Mid-Atlantic States