America in the British Empire
Because the colonies were founded piecemeal by 10 persons with varying motives and backgrounds, common traditions and loyalties developed slowly. For the same reason, the British government was slow to think of its American possessions as a unit or to deal with them in any centralized way. The particular circumstances that led to its founding determined the specific form of each colony's government and the degree of local independence permitted to it.
The British Colonial System
There was a pattern basic to all colonial governments and a general framework to the system of imperial control for all the king's overseas plantations. In the earliest days of any settlement, the need to rely on home authorities was so obvious that few questioned England's sovereignty. Thereafter, as the fledglings grew strong enough to think of using their own wings, distance and British political inefficiency combined to allow them a great deal of freedom. Although royal representatives in America tried to direct policy, the Crown generally yielded the initiative in local matters to the colonies, while reserving the right to veto actions it deemed to be against the national interest. External affairs were controlled entirely in London.
Each colony had a governor. By the eighteenth century he was an appointed official, except in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Governors were chosen by the king in the case of the royal colonies and by the proprietors of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Their powers were much like those of the king in Great Britain. They possessed the right to veto colonial laws, but in most colonies, again like the king, they were financially dependent on their "subjects."
Each colony also had a legislature. Except in Pennsylvania, these assemblies consisted of two houses. The lower house, chosen by qualified voters, had general legislative powers, including control of the purse. In all the royal colonies members of the upper house, or council, were appointed by the king, except in Massachusetts, where they were elected by the General Court.
The lower houses of the legislatures tended to dominate the government in nearly every colony. Financial power, including the right to set the governor's salary, gave them some importance, and the fact that the assemblies usually had the backing of public opinion was significant. They extended their influence by slow accretion. Governors came and went, but the lawmakers remained, accumulating experience, building on precedent, widening their control over colonial affairs decade by decade.
At times the British authorities, uneasy about their lack of control over the colonies, attempted to create a more effective system. Whenever possible, the original, broadly worded charters were revoked. In 1696 officials in London attempted more direct control over colonial affairs. A Board of Trade nominated colonial governors and other high officials. It reviewed all the laws passed by the colonial legislatures, recommending the disallowance of those that seemed to conflict with imperial policy.
Colonists naturally disliked having their laws disallowed, but London exercised this power with considerable restraint; only about 5 percent of the laws reviewed were rejected. Furthermore, the board served as an important intermediary for colonists seeking to influence the king and Parliament. All the colonies in the eighteenth century maintained agents in London to present the colonial point of view. The most famous colonial agent was Benjamin Franklin, who represented Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts at various times during his long career. However, agents seldom had much influence on British policy.
The British never developed an effective, centralized government for the American colonies. By and large, their American "subjects" ran their own affairs. This fact more than any other explains our present federal system and the wide areas in which the state governments are sovereign and independent.
According to prevailing European opinion, colonies were important chiefly for economic reasons. The seventeenth century was a period of hard times. Many people were unemployed. Therefore some authorities saw the colonies as excellent dumping grounds for surplus people. If only two idlers in each parish were shipped overseas, one clergyman calculated in 1624, England would be rid of 16,000 undesirables.
Most seventeenth-century theorists, however, envisaged colonies as potential sources of raw materials. To obtain these, they developed a system that later economists called mercantilism. The most important raw materials in the eyes of mercantilists were gold and silver, which, being universally valued, could be exchanged at any time for anything the owner desired. How much gold and silver ("treasure" according to mercantilists) a nation possessed was considered the best barometer of its prosperity and power. Because there were no significant deposits of gold or silver in western Europe, every early colonist dreamed of finding El Dorado. The Spanish were the winners in this search; from the mines of Mexico and South America a rich treasure in gold and silver poured into the Iberian Peninsula. Failing to control the precious metals at the source, the other powers tried to obtain them by guile and warfare (witness the exploits of Francis Drake).
In the mid-seventeenth century another method, less hazardous and in the long run far more profitable, called itself to the attention of the statesmen of western Europe. If a country could make itself as nearly self-sufficient as possible and at the same time keep all its citizens busy producing items marketable in other lands, it could sell more abroad than it imported. This state of affairs was known as "having a favorable balance of trade." The term is misleading; in reality, trade, which means exchange, always balances unless one party simply gives its goods away, an uncommon practice among traders. A country with a favorable balance in effect made up the difference by "importing" money in the form of gold and silver. Nevertheless, mercantilism came to mean concentrating on producing for export and limiting imports of ordinary goods and services in every way possible. Colonies that did not have deposits of precious metals were well worth having if they supplied raw materials that would otherwise have to be purchased from foreign sources, or if their people bought substantial amounts of the manufactured goods produced in the mother country.
If the possession of gold and silver signified wealth, trade was the route that led to riches, with merchants as pilots to steer the ship of state to prosperity. "Trade is the Wealth of the World," Daniel Defoe wrote in 1728. One must, of course, have something to sell, so internal production must be stimulated.
The Navigation Acts
The nurture of commerce was fundamental. Toward this end Parliament enacted the Navigation Acts. These laws, put into effect over a period of half a century and more, were designed to bring money into the treasury, to develop the imperial merchant fleet, to channel the flow of colonial raw materials into England, and to keep foreign goods and vessels out of colonial ports (because the employment of foreign ships in the carrying trade was as much an import as the consumption of foreign wheat or wool).
The system originated in the 1650s in response to the stiff commercial competition offered by the Dutch, whose ships had carried much of the trade between Europe and the colonies.
The Navigation Act of 1660 reserved the entire trade of the colonies to English ships and required that the captain and three-quarters of his crew be English. (Colonists, of course, were English, and their ships were treated on the same terms as those sailing out of London or Liverpool.) The act also provided that certain colonial "enumerated articles"-sugar, tobacco, cotton, ginger, and dye like indigo could not be "shipped, carried, conveyed, or transported" outside the empire. Three years later Parliament required that with trifling exceptions all European products destined for the colonies be brought to England before being shipped across the Atlantic. Because trade between England and the colonies was reserved to English vessels, this meant that the goods would have to be unloaded and reloaded in England. Early in the eighteenth century the list of enumerated articles was expanded to include rice, molasses, naval stores, furs, and copper.
The English looked upon the empire broadly; they envisioned the colonies as part of an economic unit, not as servile dependencies to be exploited for England's selfish benefit. The growing of tobacco in England was prohibited, and valuable bounties were paid to colonial producers of indigo and naval stores. A planned economy, with England specializing in manufacturing and the colonies in the production of raw materials, was the grand design. By and large, the system suited the realities of life in an underdeveloped country rich in raw materials and suffering from a chronic labor shortage.
Much has been made by some historians of the restrictions that the British placed on colonial manufacturing. The Wool Act of 1699 prohibited the export (but not the manufacture for local sale) of colonial woolen cloth. A similar law regarding hats was passed in 1732, and in 1750 an Iron Act outlawed the construction of new rolling and slitting mills in America. No other restrictions on manufacturing were imposed. At most the Wool Act stifled a potential American industry; the law was directed chiefly at Irish woolens rather than American. The hat industry cannot be considered a major one. Iron, however, was important; by 1775 the industry was thriving in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and America was turning out one-seventh of the world supply. Yet the Iron Act was designed to steer the American iron industry in a certain direction, not to destroy it. Eager for iron to feed English mills, Parliament eliminated all duties on colonial pig and bar iron entering England, a great stimulus to the basic industry.
The Effects of Mercantilism
All the legislation reflected, more than it molded, the imperial economy. It made England the colonies' main customer and chief supplier of manufactures, but this would have happened in any case. Furthermore, important colonial products for which no market existed in England, such as fish, wheat, and corn, were never enumerated and moved freely and directly to foreign ports. Most colonial manufacturing was untouched by English law. Shipbuilding benefited from the Navigation Acts, because many English merchants bought vessels built in the colonies. Between 1769 and 1771, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island shipyards constructed perhaps 250 ships of 100 to 400 tons for transatlantic commerce and twice that many sloops and schooners for fishermen and coastal traders. The manufacture of rum for local consumption and for the slave trade was significant; so were barrel making, flour milling, shoemaking, and dozens of other crafts that operated without restriction.
Two forces that worked in opposite directions must be considered before arriving at any judgment about English mercantilism. Although the theory presupposed a general imperial interest above that of both colony and mother country, when conflicts of interest arose, the latter nearly always predominated. The Hat Act, for example, may have been good mercantilism, but Parliament passed it because English feltmakers were concerned over the news that Massachusetts and New York were turning out 10,000 hats a year.
Mercantilistic policies hurt some colonists, such as the tobacco planters, who grew far more than British consumers could smoke. But the policies helped others, and most people proved adept at getting around those aspects of the system that threatened them. In any case, the colonies enjoyed almost continuous prosperity in the years between 1650 and the Revolution, as even so dedicated a foe of trade restrictions as Adam Smith admitted.
By the same token, England profited greatly from its overseas possessions. Despite all its inefficiencies, mercantilism worked. Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole's famous policy of "salutary neglect," which involved looking the other way when Americans violated the Navigation Acts, was partly a bowing to the inevitable and partly the result of complacency. English manufactures were better and cheaper than those of other nations. This fact, together with ties of language and a common heritage, predisposed Americans toward doing business in England. All else followed naturally; the mercantilistic laws merely steered the American economy in a direction it had already taken. They were not a cause of serious discontent until after the French and Indian War.
The Great Awakening
Although a majority of the settlers were of English, Scotch, or Scotch-Irish descent, and their interests generally coincided with those of their cousins in the mother country, people in the colonies were beginning to recognize their common interests and character. Their interests and loyalties were still predominantly local, but by 1750 the word American, used to describe something characteristic of all the British possessions in North America, had entered the language. Events in one part of America were beginning to have direct effects on other regions. One of the first of these developments was the so-called Great Awakening.
By the early eighteenth century, religious fervor had slackened in all the colonies. Prosperity turned many colonists away from their forebears' preoccupation with the rewards of the next world to the more tangible ones of this. John Winthrop invested his faith in God and his own efforts in the task of creating a spiritual community; his grandsons invested in Connecticut real estate.
The proliferation of religious denominations made it impracticable to enforce laws requiring regular religious observances. Even in South Carolina, the colony that came closest to having an "Anglican Establishment," only a minority of persons were churchgoers. Settlers in frontier districts lived beyond the reach of church or clergy. The result was a large and growing number of "persons careless of all religion."
This state of affairs came to an abrupt end with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. The Awakening began in the Middle Colonies as the result of religious developments that originated in Europe. In the late 1720s two newly arrived ministers, Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Calvinist from Westphalia, and William Terment, an Irishborn Presbyterian, sought to instill in their sleepy Pennsylvania and New Jersey congregations the evangelical zeal and spiritual enthusiasm they had witnessed among the pietists in Germany and the Methodist followers of John Wesley in England. Their example inspired other clergymen, including Terment's two sons.
A more significant surge of religious enthusiasm followed the arrival in 1738 in Georgia of the Reverend George Whitefield, a young Oxford-trained Anglican minister. Whitefield was a marvelous pulpit orator and no mean actor. He played on the feelings of his audience the way a conductor directs a symphony.
He undertook a series of fund-raising tours throughout the colonies. The most successful began in Philadelphia in 1739. Benjamin Franklin, not a very religious person and not easily moved by emotional appeals, heard one of these sermons. "I silently resolved he should get nothing from me," he later recalled.
I had in my Pocket a Handful of Copper Money, three or four silver Dollars, and five Pistoles in Gold. As be proceeded I began to soften and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory ... determin'd me to give the Silver; and he finished so admirably that I empty'd my Pocket wholly into the Collector's Disb. Wherever Whitefield went, he filled the churches. If no local clergyman offered his pulpit, he attracted thousands to meetings out-of-doors. During a three-day visit to Boston, 19,000 people (more than the population of the town) thronged to hear him.
His oratorical brilliance aside, Whitefield succeeded in releasing a torrent of religious emotionalism because his message was so well suited to American ears. By preaching a theology that one critic said was "scaled down to the comprehension of twelve-year olds," he spared his audiences the rigors of hard thought. Though he usually began by chastising his listeners as sinners, "half animals and half devils," he invariably took care to leave them with the hope that eternal salvation could be theirs. Although not denying the doctrine of predestination, he preached a God responsive to good intentions. He disregarded sectarian differences and encouraged his listeners to do the same. "God help us to forget party names and become Christians in deed and truth," he prayed.
Whitefield attracted some supporters among ministers with established congregations, but many more from among younger "itinerants," as preachers who lacked permanent pulpits were called. A visit from him or one of his followers inevitably prompted comparisons between this new, emotionally charged style and the more restrained "plaine style" favored by the typical settled minister.
Of course not everyone found the Whitefield style edifying. When those who did not spoke up, churches sometimes split into factions.-Those who supported the incumbent minister were called, among Congregationalists, "Old Lights," and among Presbyterians, "Old Sides," whereas those who favored revivalism were known as "New Lights" and "New Sides." These splits often ran along class lines. The richer, better-educated, and more influential members of the church tended to stay with the traditional arrangements.
But the emotional upheaval that accompanied the Great Awakening transcended issues of class. Persons chafing under the restraints of Puritan authoritarianism and made guilt ridden by their rebellious feelings now found release. For some the release was more than spiritual; Timothy Cutler, a conservative Anglican clergyman, complained that as a result of the Awakening "our presses are forever teeming with books and our women with bastards." Whether or not Cutler was correct, the Great Awakening helped some people to rid themselves of the idea that disobedience to authority entailed damnation. Anything that God justified, human law could not condemn.
Other institutions besides the churches were affected by the Great Awakening. In 1741 the president of Yale College criticized the theology of itinerant ministers. One of these promptly retorted that a Yale faculty member had no more divine grace than a chair! Other revivalists called on the New Light churches of Connecticut to withdraw their support from Yale and to endow a college of their own. The result was the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), founded in 1746 by New Side Presbyterians. Three other educational by-products of the Great Awakening followed: the College of Rhode Island (Brown), founded by Baptists in 1765; Queen's College (Rutgers), founded by Dutch Reformers in 1766; and Dartmouth, founded by New Light Congregationalists in 1769. These institutions promptly set about to refute the charge that the evangelical temperament was hostile to learning. Jonathan Edwards, the most famous native-born revivalist of the Great Awakening, was living proof that it need not be.
The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards, though deeply pious, was passionately devoted to intellectual pursuits. But in 1725, four years after graduating from Yale, he was offered the position of assistant at his grandfather Solomon Stoddard's church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He accepted, and when Stoddard died two years later, Edwards became pastor.
During his six decades in Northampton, Stoddard so dominated the ministers of the Connecticut Valley that some referred to him as "pope." His prominence came in part from the "open enrollment" admission policy he adopted for his own church. Evidence of saving grace was neither required nor expected of members; mere good behavior sufficed. As a result, the grandson inherited a congregation whose members were possessed of an "inordinate engagedness after this world." How ready they were to meet their Maker in the next was another question.
At Edward's rendering, the heat of Hell's consuming fires and the stench of brimstone became palpable. In his Most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," delivered at Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, he pulled out all the stops, depicting a "dreadfully provoked" God holding the unconverted over the pit of Hell, "much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect." Later, on the off chance that his listeners did not recognize themselves among the "insects" in God's hand, he declared that "this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be." A great moaning reverberated through the church. People cried out, "What must I do to be saved?"
Unfortunately for some church members, Edwards's warnings about the state of their souls caused much anxiety. One disconsolate member, Joseph Hawley, slit his throat. Edwards took the suicide calmly. "Satan seems to be in a great rage," he declared. But for some of Edwards's most prominent parishioners, Hawley's death aroused doubts. They began to miss the easy, Arminian ways of Solomon Stoddard.
Rather than soften his message, Edwards persisted, and in 1749 his parishioners voted unanimously to dismiss him. He became a missionary to some Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1759 he was appointed president of Princeton, but he died of smallpox before he could take office.
By the early 1750s, a reaction had set in against religious "enthusiasm" in all its forms. Except in the religion-starved South, where traveling New Side Presbyterians and Baptists continued their evangelizing efforts, the Great Awakening had run its course. Whitefield's last tour of the colonies in 1754 attracted little notice.
Although it caused divisions, the Great Awakening also fostered religious toleration. If one group claimed the right to worship in its own way, how could it deny to other Protestant churches equal freedom? The Awakening was also the first truly national event in American history. It marks the time when the previously distinct histories of New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South began to intersect. Powerful links were being forged. As early as 1691 there was a rudimentary intercolonial postal system. In 1754, not long after the Awakening, the farsighted Benjamin Franklin advanced his Albany Plan for a colonial union to deal with common problems, such as defense against Indian attacks on the frontier. Thirteen once-isolated colonies, expanding to the north and south as well as westward, were merging.
The Enlightenment in America
The Great Awakening pointed ahead to an America marked by religious pluralism; by the 1740s many colonists were rejecting the stern Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards in favor of a far less forbidding theology, one more in keeping with the ideas of the European Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment had an enormous impact in America. The founders of the colonies were contemporaries of the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the genius who revealed to the world the workings of gravity. American society developed amid the excitement generated by these great scientists. Their discoveries implied that impersonal, scientific laws governed the behavior of all matter, animate and inanimate. Earth and the heavens, human beings and the lower animals-all seemed parts of an immense, intricate machine. God had set it all in motion and remained the master technician (the divine watchmaker) overseeing it, but He took fewer and fewer occasions to interfere with its immutable operation. If human reasoning powers and direct observation of natural phenomena rather than God's revelations provided the key to knowledge, it followed that knowledge of the laws of nature, by enabling people to understand the workings of the universe, would enable them to control their earthly destinies and to have at least a voice in their eternal destinies.
Most creative thinkers of the European Enlightenment realized that human beings were not entirely rational and that a complete understanding of the physical world was beyond their grasp. They did, however, believe that human beings were becoming more rational and would be able, by using their rational powers, to discover the laws governing the physical world. Their faith in these ideas produced the so-called Age of Reason.
Many churchgoing colonists, especially better educated ones, accepted the assumptions of the Age of Reason wholeheartedly. Some repudiated the doctrine of original sin and asserted the benevolence of God. Others came to doubt the divinity of Christ and eventually declared themselves Unitarians. Still others, among them Benjamin Franklin, embraced Deism, a faith that revered God for the marvels of His universe rather than for His power over humankind.
The impact of Enlightenment ideas went far beyond religion. The writings of John Locke and other political theorists found a receptive audience. Ideas generated in Europe often reached America with startling speed, where they were quoted in newspapers from Massachusetts to Georgia. No colonial political controversy really heated up in America until all involved had published pamphlets citing half a dozen European authorities. Radical ideas that in Europe were discussed only by an intellectual elite became almost commonplace in the colonies.
As the topics of learned discourse expanded, ministers lost their monopoly on intellectual life. By the 1750s only a minority of Harvard and Yale graduates were becoming ministers. The College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), founded in 1751, and King's College (later Columbia), founded in New York in 1754, added two institutions to the growing ranks of American colleges that were not primarily training grounds for clergymen. Lawyers, who first appeared in any number in colonial towns in the 1740s, swiftly asserted their intellectual authority in public affairs. Physicians and the handful of professors of natural history declared themselves better able to make sense of the new scientific discoveries than clergymen. And self-educated amateurs could also make useful contributions.
The most famous instances of popular participation occurred in Philadelphia. It was there, in 1727, that 21-year-old Benjamin Franklin founded the junto, a club at which he and other young artisans gathered on Friday evenings to discuss "any point of morals, politics, or natural philosophy." In 1743 Franklin established an expanded version of the Junto, the American Philosophical Society, which he hoped would "cultivate the finer arts and improve the common stock of knowledge."