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1754-1783: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

1754-1783: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

An Era of Contrasts. The revolutionary era was bracketed by two long wars in which much blood and money were spent. Yet, paradoxically, in this age the population of British North America surged upward, and colonial merchants and planters became lavishly wealthy. The French and Indian War brought unprecedented levels of British government spending to the colonies, and many a colonial merchant made his fortune outfitting British soldiers and ships. New England and New York merchants, Pennsylvania farmers, and Southern planters profited from wartime spending and increasing intercolonial trade. In the backcountry European settlers engaged in a bloody war of attrition with Native Americans, steadily pushing them off valuable land. Tens of thousands of people poured into the colonies from Europe and Africa, feeding a seemingly inexhaustible demand for labor in fields and workshops.

Colonial Culture: New Fortunes. The rising wealth of upper- and middle-class colonists was largely spent in imitation of European habits and tastes. The styles of the French court predominated in the 1760s and early 1770s, with the emphasis on mannered attire and etiquette. Men in powdered wigs and women in French corsets set the tone among the colonial elite. Although they could not attain the levels of style and grandeur of European royalty, American elites put on an elaborate display of elegance and courtly manners. Even at the lowest levels of colonial society the material standards of life were improving from the primitive conditions of the early 1700s. Colonists expected and got a certain level of comfort, if not luxury. Bedsteads, tableware, and tea sets, mostly imported from Europe, took their place in the humblest of homes.

Population Growth. The period from 1700 to 1775 was one of the most extraordinary periods of population growth North America has ever experienced. Immigration and natural growth contributed to a tenfold increase in population. At the outbreak of the Revolution nearly one-half of the residents of the thirteen colonies were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Germans, Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English flooded into the colonies, particularly after 1730, and a booming Atlantic slave trade ensured that a large segment of this new population was African. Many Europeans arrived as indentured servants and virtually all African migrants were slaves. The Revolution disrupted transatlantic migration, but by that time America was already a rich landscape of various languages, dialects, and races.

The Laboring Poor. Along with new wealth came new classes of laboring poor and indigent paupers in the colonies. Immigrants and the rural poor tramped in and out of the colonial cities in an unending search for employment. America was a land of vast natural resources; food and drink were abundant in this landscape but not always distributed equitably among the population. Urban workers dug oysters from tidal basins during times of unemployment; slaves and servants on plantations lived on cornbread and salt pork as they labored to produce valuable export crops. Work was often sporadic, dependent on the seasons and fluctuations in trade. Refugees from colonial wars sought shelter in the bustling cities along the coast, further adding to the problems of municipal governments as they tried to manage and contain the problems of poverty. Quaker and Puritan moralism governed most experiments in poor relief, but attacking laziness and immorality did little to solve the serious problems of colonial society.

Unification. The escalating conflict with Britain unified this diverse and changing society in a surprisingly short period of time. Although colonists came from many different backgrounds, most, if not all, deeply resented military coercion and restrictions on their lifeline, international trade. The nonimportation and home-manufacture drives of the 1760s and 1770s were largely symbolic, but they touched nearly every level of society and permanently changed the self-image of the colonists. Everyday items such as tea or linen were suddenly loaded with political meaning, a meaning that soon permeated society as colonists took sides over resistance to England. Patriot organizations crossed class and ethnic boundaries and brought enormous social pressure to bear on those who trafficked in boycotted goods.

A Message of Equality. As American women took to their spinning wheels and American men wore homespun clothing, they had little impact on the vast British export trade, but the virtue and simplicity of these demonstrations were a powerful affront to British aristocracy and power. The revolutionary movement contained a message of equal rights that had a powerful appeal to colonists who had known nearly every degree of servitude and dependence.

Wartime Life . From 1775 to 1783 armies marched across the colonial landscape; ports were blockaded; and thousands were made refugees. People under military attack or occupation still had to contend with the daily struggle of feeding their families and maintaining their way of life and communities. Soldiers enlisted for a few months of fighting and returned to tend to their farms. But many fell prey to death and disease or found that the enemy had occupied their homes. As men went to war, women often took over traditional male roles of running farms and businesses. Women alone had to deal with the horrors of occupation or face the uncertainties of refugee status. American women, for the most part, stood up well to this challenge and took on public political roles, supporting the Revolution with household production and fund-raising drives. In a society that held women to be inferior, women could issue a bold challenge to men by being resourceful and courageous in the face of hardship and danger. The equality preached by the revolutionaries was never fully extended to women, but it was not expressly denied to them either, and it seemed to infect them with a spirit of independence.

Slavery and Equal Rights . The promises of equality also excluded African Americans, whose labor was crucial to the colonial economy. Nonetheless free blacks and slaves seized the rhetoric of freedom or the divisions among Europeans to create opportunities for freedom. A growing number of whites and blacks in the North attacked the hypocrisy of slavery, and by the 1780s slavery was dying north of Maryland. This by no means happened without a struggle. The determined efforts of antislavery activists pressing their cases in legislatures and courts brought this result. Slave labor was valuable even in the North, and doctrines of white supremacy remained stubbornly enshrined in law and social practice. In the South, on the other hand, Patriots became hardened in their commitment to slavery as the British enlisted slaves in their army or liberated them from their former masters. Some eighty thousand to one hundred thousand slaves took advantage of wartime conditions to escape their bondage although the retreat of the British armies meant that many would be reenslaved.

Contested Frontiers . The Revolution was fiercely contested on the western frontiers of British North America. This contest had less to do with imported tea and British taxes than with the land hunger of white settlers and the desperate defense of Native Americans trying to hold onto land and sovereignty. The trans-Appalachian frontier was a zone of warfare and personal violence between Indian and settler, but it was also the site of an amazing amount of cultural sharing and cooperation. Europeans had been trading in this region for more than 150 years. Close trading and political and personal alliances had formed between Indians and Europeans. The fur trade transformed Indian society, bringing great dependence on trade goods and the few Europeans who carried out that trade. Unrestricted immigration to the frontier threatened trade and British sovereignty. The British tried, but failed, to stop this migration, and to many Indians the British seemed to be their natural allies against settler encroachment. Indian tribes that allied themselves with the revolutionaries earned little gratitude from the new nation and soon found themselves dispossessed of their lands.

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