Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution



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1Life in the 1700s British American colonies – Ch. 5 of The American Pageant, “Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution,” pp. 84-97
Overall main idea: Life in colonial America included a growing diverse population, social mobility, agricultural-based economy, slow travel and a revival of Christianity.
32 British colonies in North America in 1775, but only 13 rebelled, because of social, economic and political structures that were developing a distinctly American way of life
Conquest by the Cradle

Main idea: The American population boomed in the 1700s due to immigration and slavery, but especially due to natural family growth, leading to a shifting balance of power with Britain.

1700 American population: 300,000 people; 20,000 (1/15) were black slaves

1775 American population: 2,500,000 people; 500,000 (1/5) were black slaves

Less than one million of this increase was due to immigration and slavery; most was due to natural fertility of Americans, who were doubling the population every 25 years

Why is it important? American population numbers were approaching English population numbers, causing a shift in economic and political power

Vast majority of the population was still east of the Appalachian Mountains, near the coast, but some were beginning to move west, even beyond the mountains to today’s Tennessee and Kentucky

Major cities: Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston; still, about 90% lived in rural areas


A Mingling of the Races

Main idea: America became a cultural melting pot as numerous European and African groups immigrated there during the 1700s.

Germans made up around 6% of the 1775 population:

Came to America to escape religious persecution, economic problems, and war

Mostly Protestant, but of different denominations

Often known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as the German word for “German” is Deutsch; many settled in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania backcountry


Scots-Irish (a.k.a. Scotch-Irish) made up around 7% of the 1775 population:

From the northern part of Ireland that had been colonized by the English and Scottish Lowlanders (not ethnically Irish at all, just mostly Scottish people who lived in northern Ireland)

Came to America to escape conflict with Irish and English and because of economic problems

Tried to settle mostly in Pennsylvania but found best land taken already, so they moved out onto the backcountry of PA and down the Appalachian Mountains to MD, VA, and the Carolinas

Known as frontier-people and “hillbillies”; reputation of being independent, stubborn, rowdy and having a dislike of authority, especially English; many participated in frontier rebellions and the eventual American Revolution
Other Europeans made up 5% of the 1775 population:

French Protestants (Huguenots), Welsh, Dutch, Swedish, Jewish, Irish, Swiss and Scottish (Highlanders)


Africans made up 20% of the 1775 population; heavily concentrated in the plantation South, of course

While the colonies still had an English majority, they were perhaps the most ethnically diverse in the world; middle colonies were the most diverse; New England was the least diverse

“What then is the American, this new man?” – Jean de Crevecoeur, French writer describing American melting pot; very diverse and mixed population created a new American cultural identity
Makers of America: The Scots-Irish

Main idea: The Scots-Irish migrated to escape religious and economic oppression, eventually settling along the Appalachian Mountains in America.


The Structure of Colonial Society

Main idea: Though it started basically classless and continued to be more equal than Europe, in the 1700s America developed social classes due to slavery, war profits, and land availability.

1700s America seemed like a shining land of equality and opportunity to many Europeans; it had no official nobility or a large body of poor people; most Americans were middling class land-owning farmers or village artisans; the exception of course was slavery

As 1700s continued, more social stratification emerged:

Plantation owners in the South – still owned the majority of land, wealth and power

Wealthy merchants – in cities in the Middle and New England colonies, many merchants grew wealthy from supplying the military

Landowning (“yeoman”) farmers – land was becoming scarcer in the East; many holdings were divided up; others went farther west for land

“Poor whites,” farmers without land – most likely to be tenant farmers on someone else’s land

Indentured servants – continued in the 1700s but not near as significant as in the 1600s

Debtors and convicts – often shipped to America as “indentured servants”

Homeless poor, widows and orphans in cities; some cities built almshouses to aid them

African slaves – some colonies tried to stop the slave trade, for moral reasons as well as fearing rebellion; yet the English government, Southern planters and New England slave traders continued to benefit from it, so their efforts were vetoed


Clerics, Physicians, and Jurists

Main idea: In colonial America, ministers still enjoyed prestige, doctors were rudimentary and lawyers were not highly regarded.

Ministers did not have the power and prestige they did in the early 1600s, but were still esteemed and honorable

Doctors were poorly trained to deal with the difficult diseases of the time, like smallpox and diphtheria; some smallpox inoculation was available but resisted by some ministers; high disease mortality may have led to Great Awakening

Lawyers were considered noisy windbags who did not do honest, manual work
Workaday America

Main idea: The American colonial economy was primarily farming but also included other growing industries whose exportation was limited by English trade controls.

Average American standard of living was higher than the majority of other countries

Farming – 90% of Americans were still farmers; the South grew cash crops with slaves, tobacco in VA and MD, rice and indigo in SC and GA; the middle and New England colonies grew wheat; many raised cattle and grew diverse crops

Fishing and whaling – especially along the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Canada

Commerce and trade – New Englanders were known as good sailors and traders by ship

Triangular trade – trade between three different locations, especially between the American colonies, the West Indies, and Africa; the most famous version was “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” as sugar (molasses) from the West Indies was shipped and traded in New England for rum, which was shipped and traded in Africa for slaves, which was shipped and traded in the West Indies for molasses again; the shipper made a profit each time too

Small manufacturing – America had more iron forges than England, but smaller ones; craftsman were highly valued

Lumber and shipbuilding – largest manufacturing industry; endless forests in America were used for ships; Carolinas supplied other naval products; New England was especially known for shipbuilding

Multitude of American products flooded English markets so they looked to other countries for trade; yet England controlled and limited American trade (Trade and Navigation Acts) with these other countries, causing American resentment as early as the early 1700s


Horsepower and Sailpower

Main idea: Travel and communication was slow and inefficient in America, due to their reliance on waterways and terrible roads.

Major roads between cities were not even built until the 1700s, and they were terrible; dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter with little upkeep; very slow and dangerous

Most major travel was done by boat along rivers and coastlines; majority of early cities and settlements were therefore along waterways

Taverns sprang up along major travel routes; they served as entertainment and sources of communication and socializing

Inter-colonial postal service was established by the mid-1700s; also private couriers; both were slow, inefficient, and not very private either


Dominant Denominations

Main idea: The differences between the dominant Anglican and Congregationalist churches would contribute to tension between England and its colonies.

Anglican and Congregationalist churches were the most dominant tax-supported churches; yet only a minority actually belonged to them; a large portion of Americans did not go to any church

Anglican Church was more dominant in the South; Congregational in New England; mixed or none in the middle colonies

Anglican Church was more worldly and relaxed than the Puritanical Congregational churches, but it had more ties to the royal crown, so Anglicans usually sided with the crown over locals; Congregational Church disliked hierarchy and authority from above and contributed to independently-minded colonists, resenting royal involvement; Presbyterians also

Religious tolerance was greater than anywhere in Europe, though Catholics and non-Christians were still discriminated against; but because of their rarity, discrimination was less severe or prevalent


The Great Awakening

Main idea: In response to waning church interest, the Great Awakening burst forth in America, reviving Christianity with emotionalism, splitting churches, and producing the first American mass movement.

In the early 1700s, religion had basically slowed down from what it had been in the 1600s; churchgoers complained of boring, over-intellectual sermons; ministers complained of waning attendance and passion among their churches; conflicts arose over theology

Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield helped ignite the First Great Awakening in the 1730s-1740s – a revival of Christianity focused on emotionalism, passion and new ideas

Jonathan Edwards – intellectual Puritan preacher; known for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” speech

George Whitefield – fiery, loud, passionate preacher that ignited emotions; could make audiences weep merely by how he pronounced “Mesopotamia”; inspired other preachers in style

Revival meetings like that of Whitefield’s were boisterous and emotional with shrieking, yelling, weeping, flickering torches, etc.

Old Lights vs. New Lights – “Old Lights” were the old-style Christian ministers who were skeptical of the new Great Awakening ideas and movements; “New Lights” were the new-style preachers who defended the new movement; churches split over disagreements about the Awakening

The Great Awakening sometimes broke down sectional and denominational boundaries and united many Americans with a common purpose and sense of shared religious experience
Overall main idea: Life in colonial America included a growing diverse population, social mobility, agricultural-based economy, slow travel and a revival of Christianity.

1Life in the 1700s British American colonies and the clash of empires – Ch. 5-6 of The American Pageant, “Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution,” and “The Duel for North America,” pp. 97-111


Overall main idea: Life in colonial America included developing education, culture, freedom of the press, democratic government, entertainment and war between competing European empires.
Schools and Colleges

Main idea: Originally based on religious doctrine, schools and colleges existed across Colonial America, especially in New England.

Education was regarded as a blessing for the few—mostly males and upper class; for leadership and religious education

New England had more education than the rest of America because of religion, dense population, town structure and educated immigrants; Congregational Churches stressed the need for Bible reading

The middle colonies and the South also had schools, but the South lagged behind, especially due to farm focus and widely-spread farm structure; most wealthy Southerners employed private tutors

Education was mostly focused around religion, classical languages, doctrine and dogma, not independent thinking and reason

Colleges had small enrollments; some wealthy would send their kids to English colleges

Harvard University was the first English university in America; Univ. of Pennsylvania was the first non-religious



A Provincial Culture

Main idea: American artistic culture in the 1700s was largely borrowed from England as it developed its own merits.

Many early American painters had to study in England first: John Trumbull, Charles Wilson Peale

Architecture was largely borrowed from Europe also

Phillis Wheatley – slave girl, brought to Boston, then England; wrote good poetry despite her disadvantaged background

Benjamin Franklin – “the first civilized American”; known for his autobiography, the famous Poor Richard’s Almanack, philosophy, science experiments, and inventions: bifocals, the Franklin Stove, the lightning rod


Pioneer Presses

Main idea: Books and libraries grew slowly in America, but newspapers were popular and were allowed some freedom of the press.

Franklin started the first library in America, in Philadelphia; many wealthy people had private libraries, like the Byrd family in Virginia

Pamphlets, leaflets, journals and newspapers were popular; powerful for criticism, complaints and rallying support on issues

Zenger trial – John Peter Zenger was a newspaper printer, a German, who printed criticism of the royal governor of New York; he was brought to trial for sedition and libel (printing criticism against the royal government); he was acquitted on the fact that he printed only truth, establishing a precedent for freedom of the press in America
The Great Game of Politics

Main idea: Americans established democratic political institutions that would set traditions for future democracy, despite royal rule of the colonies.

All but two colonies had royal governors; every colony had a two-house legislature, with an upper house of representatives appointed by royal governor and a lower house elected by property-owners; but property was so easy to acquire that near half of males could vote in America; set tradition of self-government

Legislatures set taxes and expenses; set standard of taxation only with representation

Some governors were corrupt and incompetent, but most weren’t

Legislatures could control governor’s salaries and have some power over them

Local government in the South was mostly county government; New England was town meetings; middle colonies was a mix; backcountry farmers complained of the rich having control over legislatures and ignoring backcountry concerns

America was far more democratic than the rest of the world at the time



Colonial Folkways

Main idea: Colonial life was drab and tedious compared to today, lacking modern comforts, but was better than most Europeans of the time.

Work time was from “can see” to “can’t see”; food was plentiful, especially compared to Europe; heating was limited and inefficient; no running water, plumbing or bathtubs

Amusement: militia musters/parties, funerals and weddings, house-raisings, bees, winter sports, cards, dancing, hunting, horse racing, lotteries, plays

Holidays were celebrated; Christmas was considered too Catholic in New England; Thanksgiving became a truly American tradition
Similarities in the colonies: English language and customs, Protestant religion, some diversity that pushed tolerance, social and economic mobility, self-government and lack of strict royal control

Chapter 6: The Duel for North America
World wars broke out in 1688 to 1763 between England, France, Spain and America; the French and Indian War would set the stage for American independence
France Finds a Foothold in Canada

Main idea: After a slow start, France founded sparsely populated colonies in North America.

France was late to colonize due to internal problems, wars and religious conflict, like England and Holland; Huguenots – French Protestants; Edict of Nantes established limited toleration of Protestants in France in 1598, ending religious wars there

King Louis XIV led France to be the most powerful nation in Europe and began its colonization of America

1608 – Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec in Canada, the first French colony; friendly with local Huron Indians, but joined them in attacking the Iroquois Confederation, who thereafter tried to block French colonization

New France government was royal and autocratic with no self-government; population was small as most French peasants had less reasons to immigrate than English; also Huguenots were denied emigration; French were more concerned about the Caribbean than North America


New France Fans Out

Main idea: The French American empire spread across Canada, to the Rocky Mountains, and down to the Gulf of Mexico in the pursuit of fur, missionary work and empire.

New France’s chief economy was the beaver fur trade; beaver fur was prized in Europe for hats and clothing

Coureurs de bois (“woods runners”) and voyageurs (“voyagers”) traveled long distances looking for beaver, recruiting and trading with Indians across North America; Indians were changed by disease and desire for European goods; beaver populations plummeted

French Catholic missionaries attempted to convert Indians to Christianity; not very successful

French settlements: Baton Rouge, Des Moines, Illinois, Montreal, Saint Louis, Detroit and New Orleans; Robert de La Salle floated down the Mississippi River in 1682 to claim it and its lands as part of New France – “Louisiana,” after King Louis; from the Mississippi the French floated fur, grain, and other exports out to the Gulf of Mexico
The Clash of Empires

Main idea: The English, French and Spanish battled in successive wars over North American colonies, pulling in American colonists as well.

King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War and the War of Jenkins’s Ear were successive wars between England, France and Spain over colonies

New England was involved in many of the northern parts of the wars versus the French and Indians, even capturing French settlements

Georgia was involved in defending the colonies from the Spanish in the War of Jenkins’s Ear

Yet overall these wars were stalemates leading up to the French and Indian War; France still clung to its vast American empire


Overall main idea: Life in colonial America included developing education, culture, freedom of the press, democratic government, entertainment and war between competing European empires.


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