Chapter Two American Society in the Making



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Chapter Two

American Society in the Making
The colonies were settled chiefly by English people at first, with a leavening of Germans, Scots, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, Swedes, Finns, a scattering of other nationalities, a handful of Sephardic Jews, and a gradually increasing number of black African slaves. The cultures these people brought with them varied according to the nationality, social status, and taste of the individual. The newcomers never lost this heritage entirely, but they-and certainly their descendants-became something quite different from their relatives who remained in the Old World. They became what we call Americans. But not right away.
What Is an American?
The subtle but profound changes that occurred when Europeans moved to the New World were hardly self willed. Most of the settlers came, it is true, hoping for a more bountiful existence and sometimes also for nonmaterialistic reasons, such as the opportunity to practice their religions in ways barred to them at home. For some whose alternative was prison or execution, there was really no choice. Still, even the most rebellious or alienated seldom intended to develop an entirely new civilization; rather, they wished to reconstruct the old on terms more favorable to themselves. Nor did a single "American" type result from the careful selection of particular kinds of Europeans as colonizers. Settlers came from every walk of life and in rough proportion to their numbers in Europe (if we exclude the very highest social strata). Certainly there was no systematic selection of "the finest grain to provide seed for cultivating the wilderness."
Why then did America become something more than another Europe? Why was New England not merely a new England? The fact of physical separation provides part of the answer, America was isolated from Europe by 3,000 miles of ocean. The crossing took anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on wind and weather. No one undertook an ocean voyage lightly, and few who made the westward crossing ever thought seriously of returning. The modern mind can scarcely grasp the awful isolation that enveloped settlers. One had to construct a new life or perish-if not of hunger, then of loneliness.
Unlike separation from Europe, some factors affected some settlers differently than others. Factors as material as the landscape encountered, as quantifiable as population patterns, as elusive as chance and calculation all shaped colonial social arrangements. Their cumulative impact did not at first produce anything like a uniform society throughout the 2,000-mile-long and 50-mile-wide corridor that contained England's American colonies. Two quite different societies developed, one at each end of the corridor. A third society in the middle shared elements of both. The "Americans" who evolved in these regional societies were in many ways as different from each other as all were from their European cousins. The process by which these identities merged into an American nation remained incomplete. It was-and is-ongoing.
Spanish Settlement
The southern parts of English North America comprised three regions: the Chesapeake Bay, consisting of "tidewater" Virginia and Maryland; the "low country" of the Carolinas (and eventually Georgia); and the "back country," a vast territory that extended from the fall line in the foothills of the Appalachians where falls and rapids put an end to navigation on the tidal rivers to the farthest point of western settlement. Not until well into the eighteenth century would the emergence of common features-export-oriented agricultural economies, a labor force in which black slaves figured prominently, and the absence of towns of any size-prompt people to think of "the South" as a single region.
The Chesapeake
When the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 that human life tended to be "nasty, brutish, and short," he might well have had in mind the royal colony of Virginia. Although the colony grew from about 1,300 to nearly 5,000 in the decade after the crown took it over in 1624, the death rate remained appalling. Because more than 9,000 immigrants had entered the colony, nearly half the population died during that decade.
The climate helped make the Chesapeake area a death trap. "Hot and moist" is how Robert Beverly described the weather in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), the dampness "occasioned by the abundance of low grounds, marshes, creeks, and rivers." Almost without exception newcomers underwent "seasoning," a period of illness that in its mildest form consisted of "two or three fits of a fever and ague." Long after food shortages and Indian warfare had ceased to be serious problems, life in the Chesapeake remained precarious. Well into the 1700s a white mate of 20 in Middlesex County could look forward to about 25 more years of life. Across Chesapeake Bay, in Charles County, Maryland, the average life expectancy was even lower.
Because of the persistent shortage of women in the Chesapeake region (men outnumbered women by three to two even in the early 1700s), widows easily found new husbands. Many men spent their entire lives alone or in the company of other men. Others married Indian women and became part of Indian society.
All Chesapeake settlers felt the psychological effects of their precarious and frustrating existence. Random mayhem and calculated violence posed a continuous threat to life and limb. Social arrangements were rude at best and often as "brutish," as Hobbes had claimed.
The Lure of Land
Agriculture was the bulwark of life for the Chesapeake settlers and the rest of the colonial south; the tragic experiences of the Jamestown settlement revealed this quickly enough. Jamestown also suggested that a colony could not succeed unless its inhabitants were allowed to own their own land. The first colonists had agreed to work for seven years in return for a share of the profits. When their contracts expired there were few profits. To satisfy these settlers and to attract new capital, the company declared a "dividend" of land, its only asset. The surviving colonists each received 100 acres. Thereafter, as prospects continued to be poor, the company relied more and more on grants of land to attract both capital and labor. A number of wealthy Englishmen were given immense tracts, some running to several hundred thousand acres. Lesser persons willing to settle in Virginia received more modest grants. Whether dangled before a great tycoon, a country squire, or a poor farmer, the offer of land had the effect of encouraging immigration to the colony.
Soon what was known as the headright system became entrenched in both Virginia and Maryland. Behind the system lay the principle that land should be parceled out according to the availability of labor to cultivate it. For each "head" entering the colony the government issued a "right" to take any 50 acres of unoccupied land. To 44 seat" a claim and receive title to the property, the holder of the headright had to mark out its boundaries, plant a crop, and construct some sort of habitation. This system was adopted in all the colonies south of New York.
More often than not, those most eager to come could not afford passage across the Atlantic. To bring together those with money who sought land and labor and poor people who wanted to get to America, the indentured servant system was developed. Indenture resembled apprenticeship. In return for transportation, the indentured servants agreed to work for a stated period, usually about five years. During that time they received no compensation beyond their keep. Indentured women were forbidden to marry and if they became pregnant, the time lost from work was added to their terms of service. Servants lacked any incentive to work hard, whereas masters tended to "abuse their servants ... with intolerable oppression." In this clash of wills, the advantage lay with the master; servants lacked full political and civil rights, and masters could administer physical punishment and otherwise abuse them. An indenture, however was a contract; servants could and did sue when planters failed to fulfill their parts of the bargain.
Servants who completed their years of labor became free. Usually the ex-servant was entitled to an "outfit" (a suit of clothes, some farm tools, seed, and perhaps a gun). In the Carolinas and in Pennsylvania, servants also received small grants of land when their service was completed.
Most servants eventually became landowners, but with the passage of time their lot became harder. The best land belonged to the large planters, and low tobacco prices and high local taxes combined to keep many ex-servants in dire poverty. Some were forced to become "squatters" on land along the fringes of settlement that no one had yet claimed. When someone turned up with a legal title to the land, the squatters demanded "squatters' rights," the privilege of buying the land from the legal owner without paying for the improvements they had made on it. This led to lawsuits and sometimes to violence.
In the 1670s conflicts between Virginians who owned choice land and ex-servants on the outer edge of settlement brought the colony to the brink of class warfare. The costs of meeting the region's ever-growing need for labor with indentured servants were becoming prohibitive. Some other solution was needed.
"Solving" the Labor Shortage
The first African blacks brought to English North America arrived on a Dutch ship and were sold at Jamestown in 1619. Early records are vague and incomplete, so it is not possible to say whether these Africans were treated as slaves or freed after a period of years like indentured servants. What is certain is that by about 1640 some blacks were slaves (a few, with equal certainty, were free) and that by the 1660s local statutes had firmly established the institution of slavery in Virginia and Maryland.
Whether slavery produced race prejudice in America or prejudice produced slavery is a hotly debated, important, and difficult-to- answer question. Most seventeenth-century Europeans were prejudiced against Africans; the usual reasons that led them to look down on "heathens" with customs other than their own were in the case of Africans greatly reinforced by their dark skin, which the English equated with dirt, the Devil, danger, and death. Yet the English knew that the Portuguese and Spaniards had enslaved blacks-negro is Spanish for black. Because the English adopted the word as a name for Africans, their treatment of Africans in the New World may also have derived from the Spanish, which suggests that they treated blacks in their colonies as slaves from the start. Probably the Africans' skin color lay at the root of the tragedy, but prejudice and existing enslavement interacted with each other as both cause and effect, bringing about the total debasement of the African.
Slavery soon spread throughout the colonies. As early as 1626 there were 11 slaves in New Netherland, and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 provided that "there shall never be any bond-slavery ... amongst us; unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars [i.e., Indians] and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us." However, relatively few blacks were imported until late in the seventeenth century, even in the southern colonies. In 1650 there were only 300 blacks in Virginia and as late as 1670 no more than 2,000.
White servants were much more highly prized. The African, after all, was almost entirely alien to both the European and the American ways of life. In a country starved for capital, the cost of slaves-roughly five times that of servants-was another disadvantage. For these reasons, so long as white servants could be had in sufficient numbers, there were few slaves in the Chesapeake, and those that were generally worked alongside white servants and shared roughly the same food, clothing, and quarters.
In the 1670s the flow of new servants slackened, the result of improving economic conditions in England and the competition of other colonies for labor. At the same time, the formation of the Royal African Company (1672) made slaves more readily available. The indenture system began to give way to slavery as the "permanent" solution to the region's chronic need for labor. An additional inducement causing planters and politicians to switch was the recognition that, unlike white servants, black slaves (and their offspring) would be forever barred from competing with whites for land or political power.
Prosperity in a Pipe: Tobacco
Labor and land made agriculture possible, but it was necessary to find a market for American crops in the Old World if the colonists were to enjoy anything but the crudest sort of existence. They could not begin to manufacture all the articles they required; to obtain from England such items as plows and muskets and books and chinaware, they had to have cash crops, or what their English creditors called "merchantable commodities." Here, at least, fortune favored the Chesapeake.
The founders of Virginia tried to produce all sorts of things that were needed in the old country: grapes and silk in particular, indigo, cotton, oranges, olives, sugar, and many other plants. But it was tobacco, unwanted, even strongly opposed at first, that became for farmers on both sides of Chesapeake Bay "their darling."
Tobacco was unknown in Europe until Spanish explorers brought it back from the West Indies. It was not common in England until the time of Sir Walter Raleigh. Then it quickly proved irresistible to thousands of devotees. At first the London Company discouraged its colonists from growing tobacco. Because it clearly contained some habit-forming drug, many people opposed its use. King James I wrote a pamphlet attacking the weed, saying that smoking was a "vile and stinking" habit "dangerous to the Lungs." But English smokers and partakers of snuff ignored their king, and the Virginians ignored their company. By 1617 a pound of tobacco was worth more than 5 shillings in London. Company and Crown then changed their tune, granting the colonists a monopoly and encouraging them in every way.
Unlike wheat, which required expensive plows and oxen to clear the land and prepare the soil, tobacco plants could be set on semi-cleared land and cultivated with a simple hoe. Although tobacco required lots of human labor, a single laborer working two or three acres could produce as much as 1,200 pounds of cured tobacco, which, in a good year, yielded a profit of more than 200 percent. Under these circumstances, production in America leaped from 2,500 pounds in 1616 to nearly 30 million pounds in the late seventeenth century, or roughly 400 pounds of tobacco for every man, woman, and child in the Chesapeake colonies.
The tidewater region was blessed with many navigable rivers, and the planters spread along their banks, giving the Chesapeake a shabby, helter-skelter character of rough habitations and stump-littered fields, surrounded by forest. There were no towns and almost no roads. English ships made their way up the rivers from farm to farm, gathering the tobacco at each planter's wharf The vessels also served as general stores of a sort where planters could exchange tobacco for everything from cloth, shoes, tools, salt, and nails to such exotic items as tea, coffee, chocolate, and spices.
However, the tremendous expansion of tobacco caused the price to plummet in the late seventeenth century. This did not stop the expansion of the colonies, but it did alter their society. Small farmers found it more difficult to make a decent living. At the same time men with capital and individuals with political influence were engrossing large tracts of land. Tobacco was notorious for the speed with which it exhausted the fertility of the soil. Growers with a lot of land could shift frequently to new fields within their holdings, allowing the old fields to lie fallow and thus maintain high yields, but the only option that small farmers had when their land gave out was to move to unsettled land on the frontier. To do that in the 1670s was to risk trouble with properly indignant Indians. It might also violate colonial laws designed to slow westward migration and limit tobacco production.
Bacon's Rebellion
Chesapeake settlers showed little respect for constituted authority. The most serious challenge took place in Virginia in 1676. Planters in the outlying counties heartily disliked the officials in Jamestown who ran the colony. The royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, and his "Green Spring" faction (the organization took its name from the governor's plantation) had ruled Virginia for more than 30 years. Outsiders resented the way Berkeley and his henchmen used their offices to line their pockets. They also resented their social pretensions, for Green Springers made no effort to conceal their opinion, which had considerable basis in fact, that western planters were a crude and vulgar lot.
Early in 1676 planters on the western edge of settlement, always looking for excuses to grab land by doing away with the Indians who owned it, asked Berkeley to authorize an expedition against Indians who had been attacking nearby plantations. Berkeley refused. The planters then took matters into their own hands. Their leader, Nathaniel Bacon, was (and remains today) a controversial figure. His foes described him as extremely ambitious and possessed "of a most imperious and dangerous hidden Pride of heart." But even his sharpest critics conceded that he was well qualified "to lead a giddy and unthinking multitude."
When Berkeley refused to authorize him to attack the Indians, Bacon promptly showed himself only too willing to lead that multitude not only against Indians but even against the governor. Without permission he raised an army of 500 men, described by the Berkeley faction as "rabble of the basest sort." Berkeley then declared him a traitor.
Several months of confusion followed. Bacon murdered some peaceful Indians, marched on Jamestown and forced Berkeley to legitimize his authority, then headed west again to kill more Indians. In September he returned to Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Berkeley fled across Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore. But a few weeks later Bacon came down with a "violent flux"-probably it was a bad case of dysentery-and he died. Soon thereafter an English naval squadron arrived with enough soldiers to restore order. Bacon's Rebellion came to an end.
On the surface, the uprising changed nothing. No sudden shift in political power occurred. Indeed, Bacon had not sought to change either the political system or the social and economic structure of the colony. But if the rebellion did not change anything, nothing was ever again quite the same after it ended.
The Chesapeake now became committed to black slavery. Bacon's Rebellion scaled an implicit contract between the inhabitants of the "great houses" and those who lived in more modest lodgings: southern whites might differ greatly in wealth and influence, but they stood as one and forever behind the principle that blacks must have neither. This was the basis-the price-of the harmony and prosperity achieved by those who survived "seasoning" in the Chesapeake colonies.
The Carolinas
The English and, after 1700, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the tidewater parts of the Carolinas turned to agriculture as enthusiastically as had their Chesapeake neighbors. In substantial sections of what became North Carolina, tobacco flourished. In South Carolina, Madagascar rice was introduced in the low-lying coastal areas in 1696. By 1700 almost 100,000 pounds of rice were being exported annually; by the eve of the Revolution, rice exports from South Carolina and Georgia exceeded 65 million pounds a year.
In the 1740s another cash crop, indigo, was introduced in South Carolina by Eliza Lucas. Indigo did not compete with rice either for land or labor. It prospered on high ground and needed care in seasons when the slaves were not busy in the rice paddies. The British were delighted to have a new source of indigo because the blue dye was important in their woolens industry. Parliament quickly placed a bounty on it to stimulate production.
Their tobacco, rice, and indigo, along with furs and forest products such as lumber, tar, and resin, meant that the southern colonies had no difficulty in obtaining manufactured articles from abroad. Planters dealt with agents in England and Scotland, called factors, who managed the sale of their crops, filled their orders for manufactures, and supplied them with credit. This was a great convenience but not necessarily an advantage, for it prevented the development of a diversified economy. Throughout the colonial era, while small-scale manufacturing developed rapidly in the north, it was stillborn in the south.
Reliance on European middlemen also retarded the development of urban life. Until the rise of Baltimore in the 1750s, Charleston was the only city of importance in the entire South. Despite its rich export trade, its fine harbor, and the easy availability of excellent lumber, Charleston's shipbuilding industry never remotely rivaled that of Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.
On the South Carolina rice plantations, slave labor predominated from the beginning, for free workers would not submit to its backbreaking and unhealthy regimen. The first quarter of the eighteenth century saw an enormous influx of Africans into all the southern colonies. By 1730 roughly 3 out of every 10 people south of Pennsylvania were black, and in South Carolina the blacks were the majority. "Carolina," remarked a newcomer in 1737, "looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people."
Given the existing race prejudice and the degrading impact of slavery, this demographic change had an enormous impact on life wherever blacks were concentrated. In each colony regulations governing the behavior of blacks, both free and slave, increased in severity as the density of the black population increased. The South Carolina Negro Act of 1740 denied slaves "freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom to raise [their own] food, to earn money, to learn to read English." The blacks had no civil rights under any of these codes, and punishments were sickeningly severe. Whipping was common for minor offenses, death by hanging or by being burned alive for serious crimes. Blacks were sometimes castrated for sexual offenses even for lewd talk about white women-or for repeated attempts to escape.
That blacks resented slavery goes without saying, but because slavery did not mean the same thing to all of them, their reactions to it varied. The white owners sought to acculturate the slaves in order to make them more efficient workers. A slave who could understand English was easier to order about; one who could handle farm tools or wait on tables was more useful than one who could not; a carpenter or a mason was more valuable still. But acculturation increased the slave's independence and mobility, and this posed problems. Field hands seldom tried to escape; they expressed their dissatisfactions by pilferage and petty sabotage, by laziness, or by feigning stupidity. Most runaways were artisans who hoped to "pass" as free in a nearby town. It was one of the many paradoxes of slavery that the more valuable a slave became, the harder that slave was to control.
Yet few runaway slaves became rebels. Indeed, organized slave rebellions were rare, and although individual assaults by blacks on whites were common enough, personal violence was also common among whites, then and throughout American history. But the masters had sound reasons for fearing their slaves; the particular viciousness of the system lay in the fact that oppression bred resentment, which in turn produced still greater oppression.
What is superficially astonishing is that the whites exaggerated the danger of slave revolts. They pictured the black as powerful, bestial, and lascivious, a cauldron of animal emotions that had to be restrained at any cost. Probably the characteristics they attributed to the blacks were really projections of their own passions. The most striking illustration was the fear that if blacks were free, they would breed with whites. Yet in practice, the interbreeding, which indeed took place, was almost exclusively the result of white men using their power as masters to have sexual relations with female slaves.
Thus the "peculiar institution" was fastened upon America with economic, social, and psychic barbs. Ignorance and self-interest, lust for gold and for the flesh, primitive prejudices and complex social and legal ties, all combined to convince the whites that black slavery was not so much good as a fact of life. A few Quakers attacked the institution on the religious ground that all human beings are equal before God: "Christ dyed for all, both Turks, Barbarians, Tartarians, and Ethyopians." Yet a few Quakers owned slaves, and even the majority who did not usually succumbed to color prejudice. Blackness was a defect, but it was no justification for enslavement, they argued.
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