|Chapter 5: The Cultures of Colonial North America,
AMERICAN COMMUNITIES The Revival of Religion and Community in Northampton
In 1734, Jonathan Edwards called upon his parishioners to heed the wrath and power of God. As he warned the congregation to fear for their salvation, they demanded to know how to follow God's path. As the wave of religious fervor spread, an all-out revival, the Great Awakening, took hold. Similar revivals occurred throughout the British North America, making the Great Awakening the first social event all of the colonies shared in common. But the revival had just as much to do with economic, political, and security issues than confronting Northampton and other New England communities. The ongoing conflict with the Indians, rising prices, decreasing availability of land, and a growing class distinction all served to drive a wedge between various groups of people and their religious beliefs.
NORTH AMERICAN REGIONS
Colonial Americans could not afford to neglect the wide range of settlements on the North American continent. Indians were still the majority population. British, Hispanic, and French colonists, despite their differences, also exhibited continuities with European culture as they adapted to New World conditions.
a. Indian America
Indians simultaneously traded and forged alliances with European settlers at the same time they maintained political autonomy. They adapted to new conditions—and became dependent on European goods. Although their relations were better with the French, Indians unsuccessfully battled French and British incursions into their territory. The declining population of Indians was one of several dramatic changes occurring in Indian cultures. The introduction of horses, stolen from the Spanish in New Mexico, led to the rise of the nomadic Plains Indian culture.
b. The Spanish Borderlands
New Spain flourished in and around what is now Mexico, and established buffer zones along its borders in today’s Sun Belt. In Florida the militarily weak Spanish formed alliances with local Indians and runaway slaves to create a multi-racial community. New Mexico was isolated from the mainstream of New Spain, but the population in the region expanded outward by creating cattle ranches and farms along the Rio Grande. In the 1770s, California communities were closely tied to the evolving mission system. Designed to convert Indians, the missions also coerced their labor and deployed soldiers against Indian resistance. Mission Indians were overworked, underfed, often sick, and profoundly demoralized; in coastal California, the native population fell by 74 percent under the mission system. The Catholic Church played a dominant role in community life.
c. The French Crescent
French colonists created a second Catholic empire in North America. The French allied with Indians who were part of their trading network. They created a defensive line of military posts and settlements, a crescent meant to contain the British along the Atlantic seaboard. The French set up farming communities throughout Quebec which shipped wheat to their Louisiana plantations. French communities combined French and Indian elements in architecture, dress, and family patterns.
d. New England
In New England (except for Rhode Island), Puritan congregations governed local communities. Puritans did not believe in toleration and resisted English efforts to enforce it. But by 1700 other Protestant denominations were able to practice their beliefs openly. New England towns grew rapidly. Population pressed against the available land.
e. The Middle Colonies
In contrast to New England, the middle colonies were the most ethnically diverse regions. New York had already become a cultural “salad bowl,” though immigrants who moved to the upper Hudson were likely to find a region of sharp class differences with little land for sale. In contrast, land to the south was much more accessible, encouraging more immigrants. Pennsylvania Quakers accepted a more diverse population than their Puritan neighbors to the north.
f. The Backcountry
By 1750, Pennsylvania’s population had spread to the frontier, a tract of land extending to the southwest. Indians living in the valley west of the Appalachians posed a great threat to settlers. They forged the backcountry into a distinctive region where rank was often of little concern.
g. The South
The South was a tri-racial society, with whites, black slaves, and Indians. Large plantation houses dominated both the Upper and Lower South, though small tobacco farms were widely found throughout the Upper South. The region was a patriarchal society, dominated by white males. The Anglican Church was present but had little power. In the Upper South, well-developed neighborhoods created a sense of community and white solidarity.
In the colonies, everyday life was centered on family and kinship, the church, and the local community. Americans tended to be attached to the cultures of their European homelands, and perpetuated practices and beliefs long after they had fallen out of favor in Europe. These cultures were based on oral transmission and helped to link Americans with a strong sense of community based on a medieval worldview. The community outweighed the needs of the individual. Though some commercial agriculture arose, the majority of rural North Americans were self-sufficient farmers, practicing a diversified agriculture and engaging in various crafts as sidelines. In cities, artisans were organized according to the European craft system with periods of apprenticeship leading to a journeyman status and (with luck) the chance to be an independent craftsman with apprentices and journeymen of his own. Few career opportunities existed for women, though some women (especially printers’ wives) were able to succeed their husbands in business.
Unlike in Europe, land in America was abundant and cheap. But this scarcely led to a democratic society. Forced labor, whether of African slaves or white indentured servants, was considered acceptable. Both groups suffered great hardships. Although some indentured servants eventually won freedom and prosperity, most did not. The demand for land led to wars against Indians.
DIVERGING SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PATTERNS
Although the British colonies shared much with the French and Spanish, critical differences emerged.
a. Population Growth and Immigration
High birthrates and low death rates caused tremendous population growth in all regions. Unlike the French and Spanish, English officials encouraged immigration, even from non-English nations. Naturalization was relatively easy for Protestants. Although New England remained mainly English, by 1790 less than half of British America was English in origin. Large populations of Africans, Irish, Scots-Irish, Scots, and Germans, among others, contributed to unprecedented diversity.
b. Social Class
Colonial America was more egalitarian than the European mother countries. In New Spain and New France hereditary elites held only limited privileges. The British colonies had a more open elite based on wealth that allowed frequent entrance of new people into its ranks. A large class of poor and unfree persons was found in British North America, but so was a large “middling sort”—about 70% of the whites. These middling sorts enjoyed a standard of living higher than that of the vast majority of Europeans.
c. Economic Growth and Economic Inequality
The economies of New France and New Spain were essentially stagnant in the eighteenth century. British North America enjoyed substantial gains in per capita production. But as time passed, the gap between rich and poor was increasing, especially in cities and in commercial farming regions. In the older regions, land shortages had created a mass of “strolling poor” who wandered in search of handouts, often winding up in towns and cities.
d. Colonial Politics
Unlike the French and Spanish, the British used a decentralized form of administration. Royal governors and locally elected assemblies governed. Most adult white males could vote. But colonial politics were characterized by deference rather than democracy. It was assumed that leadership was entrusted to men of high rank and wealth. Most colonial assemblies had considerable power over local affairs because they controlled the purse strings.
THE CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA
a. The Enlightenment Challenge
The British colonies were far more open to intellectual and religious challenges than their Catholic counterparts.
Enlightenment ideas, emphasizing that scientific principles should be applied to create more human happiness, took hold in America, including the emerging American colleges. Widespread literacy also helped the spread of these ideas. The success of the New England Primer exemplifies the importance of books in British colonial culture; newspapers, almanacs, Bibles, and so-called “captivity narratives” were also popular. Among the upper classes in the British colonies, a more cosmopolitan culture was emerging.
b. A Decline in Religious Devotion
The growth of Enlightenment ideas occurred at the same time as a decline in religious devotion. Even the Puritan churches were suffering declining memberships. Individual commitment to the church was declining as well. Traditional Calvinist theology was challenged by Arminianism, which proposed an alternative to predestination.
c. The Great Awakening
Jonathan Edwards’ preaching began the Great Awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts. A small elite controlled wealth and power in the community. Young people had become disaffected. Edwards called for a return to the traditions of Puritanism. As the movement spread, thousands of people experienced emotional conversions. In 1738, George Whitefield toured America, inspiring audiences to groans and cries of ecstasy. Conflict developed between “New Lights” who followed the Great Awakening and “Old Lights” who distrusted the emotional enthusiasm. In the South the Great Awakening introduced Christianity to many slaves and led to the growth of Methodist and Baptist churches. As a result of the Great Awakening, church membership greatly increased.
d. The Politics of Revivalism
New Lights tended to come from the lower ranks of society who had learned to question their leaders, laying the groundwork for future political change.
The growth of America led to the rise of distinct colonial regions. Economic development created social and cultural tensions that in turn led to the Great Awakening that helped pave the way for future political action.
Chapter Resources at a Glance
Regions in Eighteenth-Century North America
Growing Use of the Horse by the Plains Indians (with interactive map on CD-ROM)
The French Crescent
Spread of Settlement: Movement into the Backcountry, 1720-1760 (with interactive map on CD-ROM)
Ethnic Groups in Eighteenth Century British North America
A portrait of the Delaware chief Tishcohan
A mounted Soldado de Cuera (Leather-Coated Soldier)
The Church of San Xavier del Bac
Enhanced satellite photograph of the Mississippi River near New Orleans showing modern landholding and long lots
The Turner House (The House of the Seven Gables)
View of the Philadelphia waterfront, 1720
A spinner and carpenter from The Book of Trades
An eighteenth-century genre painting from New Spain
The first page of the New England Primer (1689)
Satirical British cartoon of evangelist George Whitefield, 1760
Baptism by Full Immersion in the Schuylkill River of Pennsylvania, 1770
Population of North America in 1750
Wealth Held by Richest 10 Percent of Population in British Colonial America, 1770
Estimated Total Population of New Spain, New France, and the British North American Colonies, 1700–1780
The Ancestry of the British Colonial Population
Distribution of Assessed Taxable Wealth in Eighteenth-Century Chester County
Plan of an American New Cleared Farm
Communities in Conflict: The Inoculation Controversy in Boston, 1721
Samuel Grainger, The Imposition of Inoculation as a Duty Religiously Considered (1721) and William Cooper, A Letter to a Friend in the Country (1721).
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to explain:
1. The similarities and differences among eighteenth-century Spanish, French, and British colonies.
2. The impact on British culture of increasing European immigration.
3. The ways that Native Americans changed as a result of contact with European customs and lifestyles.
4. The patterns of work and class in eighteenth-century North America.
5. How the tensions between Enlightenment thought and traditional culture led to the Great Awakening.
Discussion Suggestions and Possible Answers
1. What were the similarities and differences between the principal colonial regions of North America in both the political and social realms?
Answer: North America was comprised of a number of regions, including Indian, French, Spanish as well as English. Native people sought trade alliances with Europeans while maintaining political autonomy, a difficult balance made more challenging by the declining population. Spanish settlers dominated in Mexico and in the buffer regions such as New Mexico, Florida and California. The Spanish developed many mixed race communities and the Catholic Church dominated throughout. The French were likewise creating a Catholic empire in North America, although there were fewer French settlers, they had numerous alliances with the Native peoples. French settlements formed a crescent around British North America.
Among the British, New England was dominated by the Puritan religion and small communities. In contrast, religious and ethnic diversity defined the Middle Colonies and the availability of cheap land encouraged immigrants in the eighteenth century. The South was a tri-racial society of whites, slaves and Indians where the Anglican Church dominated the region’s society and culture. The rice growing regions of South Carolina and Georgia had a black majority. In all areas local communities, family and kinship networks were most important and the church was frequently the center of social and cultural interaction.
2. Why did the British open their colonies to immigration? How did this affect their ethnic and racial make-up?
Answer: Through a combination of immigration and natural population growth, the British colonies grew very rapidly. The large number of non-English protestants, including Scot-Irish, German, Irish, and Scots, in addition to the slaves who were forcibly immigrated, created a remarkably diverse society. The result was economic growth in British colonies, compared to the French and Spanish colonies which were stagnant. The rapid growth also meant the rise of powerful local government assemblies to administer these areas.
3. What were the principal trends among Native Americans in the eighteenth century?
Answer: Native Americans developed trade alliances with all of the European nations in their midst. Over time the Indians became dependent upon European trade goods and found themselves increasingly unable to maintain their political autonomy. They also frequently became involved in the military conflicts between the European nations, seeking economic and political gains through these actions. The Indians adapted many aspects of European culture, perhaps most notably horses from the Spanish, from which emerged a distinct Plains Indian culture.
4. How and why did class differences develop in the Spanish, French, and British colonies in the eighteenth century, and what was their impact?
Answer: Economic and political growth and expansion were the most important trends. A large class of unfree workers, both white and black, emerged, but the majority of whites would be considered from the “middling sort.” Although entry into the elite classes in French and Spanish colonies was based on heredity, upward mobility was possible in the British colonies where status was principally based on wealth.
5. What were the effects of the Great Awakening on the subsequent history of the British colonies?
Answer: Church membership, which had been declining, grew rapidly as a result of the Great Awakening. Many new congregants came from the lower ranks of society and the new Methodist and Baptist churches—the so-called “New Lights”—encouraged their members to question the established order and hierarchy. The “New Lights” would play an important role in the later political upheaval in the colonies.
North American Regions
The Spanish Borderlands
The French Crescent
The Middle Colonies
Traditional Culture in the New World
The Frontier Heritage
Diverging Social and Political Patterns
Population Growth and Immigration
Economic Growth and Increasing Inequality
Contrasts in Colonial Politics
The Cultural Transformation of British North America
The Enlightenment Challenge
A Decline in Religious Devotion
The Great Awakening
The Politics of Revivalism
Resources (Web, Films/Video)
Divining America: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/divam.htm
This Far by Faith. Traces the spiritual journeys of African Americans across the nation’s history. (PBS Video, 6 episodes, 2003.)
Instructor’s Resources (Available on CD-ROM)
Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)
Chief Plenty Coups, Crow
John Hammond, Leah and Rachel, or the Two Fruitful Sisters, Virginia and Mary-Land (1656)
William Byrd II, Diary (1709)
James Oglethorpe, Some Account of the Designs of the Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia (1733)
James Oglethorpe, The Stono Rebellion (1739)
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)
Elizabeth Sprigs, Letter to Her Father (1756)
Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
Critical Thinking Exercises
Students might look at some of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and compare them with contemporary televangelists. Students could write essays or make presentations on the ways that they are similar and dissimilar.