American Life in the Seventeenth Century, 1607–1692
Part I: Reviewing the Chapter
A. Checklist of Learning Objectives
After mastering this chapter, you should be able to:
1. Describe the basic economy, demographics, and social structure and life of the seventeenth-century colonies.
2. Compare and contrast the different forms of society and ways of life of the southern colonies and New England.
3. Explain how the practice of indentured servitude failed to solve the colonial labor problem and why colonists then turned to African slavery.
4. Describe the character of slavery in the early English colonies and explain how a distinctive African American identity and culture emerged from the mingling of numerous African ethnic groups.
5. Summarize the unique New England way of life centered on family, town, and church, and describe the problems that afflicted this comfortable social order in the late seventeenth century.
6. Describe family life and the roles of women in both the southern and New England colonies, and indicate how these changed over the course of the seventeenth century.
To build your social science vocabulary, familiarize yourself with the following terms.
1. headright The right to acquire a certain amount of land granted to the person who finances the passage of a laborer. “Masters—not servants themselves—thus reaped the benefits of landownership from the headright system.”
2. disfranchise To take away the right to vote. “The Virginia Assembly in 1670 disfranchised most of the landless knockabouts. . . .”
3. civil war Any conflict between the citizens or inhabitants of the same country. “As this civil war in Virginia ground on. . . .”
4. indentured servant A laborer bound to unpaid service to a master for a fixed term, in exchange for benefits such as transportation, tools, and clothes. “There they boarded ship for America as indentured servants. . . .”
5. tidewater The territory adjoining water affected by tides—that is, near the seacoast or coastal rivers. “Bacon . . . had pitted the hard scrabble backcountry frontiersmen against the haughty gentry of the tidewater plantations.”
6. middle passage That portion of a slave ship’s journey in which slaves were carried from Africa to the Americas. “. . . the captives were herded aboard sweltering ships for the gruesome ‘middle passage.’. . .”
7. fertility The ability to reproduce and bear abundant young. “The captive black population of the Chesapeake area soon began to grow not only through new imports but also through its own fertility. . . .”
8. menial Fit for servants; humble or low. “But chiefly they performed the sweaty toil of clearing swamps, grubbing out trees, and other menial tasks.”
9. militia A voluntary, nonprofessional armed force of citizens, usually called to military service only in emergencies. “[They] tried to march to Spanish Florida, only to be stopped by the local militia.”
10. hierarchy A social group arranged in ranks or classes. “The rough equality . . . was giving way to a hierarchy of wealth and status. . . .”
11. corporation A private group or institution to which the government grants legal rights to carry on certain specified activities. “. . . the Massachusetts Puritans established Harvard College, today the oldest corporation in America. . . .”
12. jeremiad A sermon or prophecy recounting wrongdoing, warning of doom, and calling for repentance. “Jeremiads continued to thunder from the pulpits. . . .”
13. lynching The illegal execution of an accused person by mob action, without due process of law. “A hysterical ‘witch-hunt’ ensued, leading to the legal lynching in 1692 of twenty individuals. . . .”
14. hinterland An inland region set back from a port, river, or seacoast. “. . . their accusers came largely from subsistence farming families in Salem’s hinterland.”
15. social structure The basic pattern of the distribution of status and wealth in a society. “. . . many settlers . . . tried to re-create on a modified scale the social structure they had known in the Old World.”
16. blue blood Of noble or upper-class descent. “. . . would-be American blue bloods resented the pretensions of the ‘meaner sort.’. . .”
Social-class conflict is a key element in the revisionist interpretation of American historical development. Always under the surface of colonial societies, it erupts into full-scale civil war with Bacon’s Rebellion, in Virginia. American Diversity, which takes up class, is an AP theme.
The introduction of slavery into the New World transforms the social, economic, and political makeup of the colonies. (Slavery and Its Legacies in North America is an AP theme.) The primary source of African slaves is west-central Africa (see the map in The American Pageant, 13th ed., p. 71/14th ed., p. 73). A table (13th ed., p. 70/14th ed., p. 73) shows a quantitative comparison of slave imports to the colonies of the entire New World.
Religious hysteria, in the form of witch trials, plague the North American colonies, especially in the New England settlements. Religion is yet another AP theme.
European class-based customs, such as the wearing of fancy jewelry by certain segments of society, do not find fertile ground in the more democratic New World English colonies.
Take note of the following:
1. Although initially an area where settlements barely survived, the Chesapeake colony region soon spawned a powerful industry: cultivating and selling tobacco. So important was this crop that it helped maintain the economy of the region and, because of its tendency to exhaust the soil, led to westward penetration of the Chesapeake colonies.
2. The social life and customs of the North American colonists were considerably shaped and affected by where they lived. Unique cultural traits took root in the New England, middle, and southern colonies. Despite the presence of slavery in the colonies, white settlers were not so quick to nurture the type of social stratification that prevailed in Europe.
Theme: In the Chesapeake region, seventeenth-century colonial society was characterized by disease-shortened lives, weak family life, and a social hierarchy that included hardworking planters at the top and restless poor whites and enslaved Africans at the bottom. Despite the substantial disruption of their traditional culture and the mingling of African peoples, slaves in the Chesapeake developed a culture that mixed African and new-world elements, and developed one of the few slave societies that grew through natural reproduction.
Theme: By contrast, early New England life was characterized by healthy, extended life spans, strong family life, closely knit towns and churches, and a demanding economic and moral environment.
Life was hard in the seventeenth-century southern colonies. Disease drastically shortened life spans in the Chesapeake region, even for the young single men who made up the majority of settlers. Families were few and fragile, with men greatly outnumbering women, who were much in demand and seldom remained single for long.
The tobacco economy first thrived on the labor of white indentured servants, who hoped to work their way up to become landowners and perhaps even become wealthy. But by the late seventeenth century, this hope was increasingly frustrated and the discontents of the poor whites exploded in Bacon’s Rebellion.
With white labor increasingly troublesome, slaves (earlier a small fraction of the workforce) began to be imported from West Africa by the tens of thousands in the 1680s and soon became essential to the colonial economy. Slaves in the Deep South died rapidly of disease and overwork, but those in the Chesapeake tobacco region survived longer. Their numbers eventually increased by natural reproduction and they developed a distinctive African American way of life that combined African elements with features developed in the New World.
By contrast with the South, New England’s clean water and cool air contributed to a healthy way of life, which added ten years to the average English life span. The New England way of life centered on strong families and tightly knit towns and churches, which were relatively democratic and equal by seventeenth-century standards. By the late seventeenth century, however, social and religious tensions developed in these narrow communities, as the Salem witch hysteria dramatically illustrates.
Rocky soil forced many New Englanders to turn to fishing and merchant shipping for their livelihoods. Their difficult lives and stern religion made New Englanders tough, idealistic, purposeful, and resourceful. In later years they spread these same values across much of American society.
Seventeenth-century American society was still almost entirely simple and agrarian. Would-be aristocrats who tried to recreate the social hierarchies of Europe were generally frustrated.
Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676)
Although his followers were mostly poor, landless white farmers who hated the planter aristocrats, rebel leader Nathaniel Bacon was a well-off planter.
Bacon, descended from a famous English family, immigrated to Virginia in 1674 after obtaining a gentlemanly education at Cambridge University and the Inns of Court in London. After the initial phase of his rebellion, which consisted of leading unauthorized attacks on Indians, he was arrested by Governor Berkeley but then pardoned and even appointed to the colonial council in an attempt to appease him. But he and his supporters refused to be conciliated, and when Berkeley tried to suppress them, they went on a rampage that ended in the burning of Jamestown. Bacon seemed on the verge of seizing complete control of the colony when he suddenly died of illness—a development that enabled Berkeley to crush the leaderless rebels.
Quote: “For having upon specious pretences of publick works raised greate unjust taxes upon the commonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends…for having wronged his Majesty’s prerogative and interesting by assuming monopoly of the beaver trade…and for having protected, favored, and imboldened the Indian’s against his Majesty’s loyall subjects…we do demand that the said Sir William Berkeley…be forthwith delivered up or surrender [himself] within four days of this notice forthwith.” (Declaration of the People, 1676)
REFERENCE: Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel (1957).
Cotton Mather (1662–1728)
Cotton Mather’s notorious involvement in the Salem witch trials was only one episode in his long, remarkable career, but it showed many of the contradictions of his complex personality.
The influential Puritan minister’s role in the Salem witch trials arose partly because of his strong scientific interest in spirits and the invisible world. Even before the trials, he took into his home a girl believed to be a victim of witchcraft so that he could study her case in detail. By seventeenth-century standards Mather was actually quite cautious about witchcraft. He believed that where witchcraft existed, it should be treated by prayer and fasting, not by prosecutions and executions. But once the Salem trials got under way, he defended them in public, despite his apparent private belief that the evidence was questionable and the executions unjust.
Mather was hot-tempered, arrogant, and power-hungry but also extremely introspective and given to anxiety and self-doubt. Although he sometimes experienced hallucinations and severe depressions, and engaged in harsh attacks on his enemies, some of his writings are brilliant.
Quote: “Albeit the business of this witchcraft may be very much transacted upon the stage of imagination, yet we know that, as in treason, there is an imagining which is a capital crime, and here also the business, though managed in imagination, yet may not be called imaginary. The effects are dreadfully real.… Our neighbors at Salem Village are blown up, after a sort, with an infernal gunpowder; the train is laid in the laws of the kingdom of darkness…. Now the question is, who gives fire to this train? And by what acts is the match applied?” (1692)
REFERENCE: Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).
Rachel Clinton (1629–1694)
Clinton is one of the few Salem witches whose biography historians have been able to reconstruct. Her childhood was extremely unhappy as, evidently, was the rest of her life. After both her parents died when she was very young, she was placed under the control of her mentally unstable stepmother. Her father had left a substantial estate, but Clinton was never able to get a fair share of it because she was constantly exploited by others, including Thomas Clinton, her brother-in-law, whom she married at age thirty-six (he was twenty-two at the time). After her divorce from Thomas Clinton, she was reduced to poverty and dependency, which likely made her extremely bitter and hostile. It is known that she threw stones at people and called them names like “hellhound” and “whoremasterly rogue.” Among the witchcraft activities she was accused of, even before the Salem trials, were taking away a girl’s power of speech for three hours, sending animals to cross people’s paths, and making beer disappear from kegs.
Although convicted in the Salem trials and imprisoned for several months, Clinton was not executed. Released from prison in 1693, she died the following year.
REFERENCE: John Demos, Entertaining Satan (1982).
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