c. 1640-1660: English Civil War drives many colonists to the colonies, and leads to a temporary reduction in attention to the colonies
Mid-1600s: Mercantilism says that each nation should try to get and keep as much bullion (gold and silver) as possible—exports should exceed imports so that money comes into the country. This is not a new theory, but having colonies gives it a new twist.
Nations should have colonies from which to draw resources and raw materials (like furs), and to whom finished goods (like hats) can be sold. In turn, only the mother country should have many factories (the colonies should not make their own goods), and the colonies should only buy from the mother country.
1660: Charles II approves a stronger version of the Navigation Act. Certain goods (including sugar, tobacco and cotton) could only be sold to England, and anything else sold to other countries had an extra duty laid on it. This was meant to discourage trade with other country.
During this time, England wages war with the Dutch over land and trading rights. England conquers New Amsterdam (New York) and swops Palo Ai and Palo Run in the East Indies for it.
1686: James II establishes unpopular Dominion of New England under Governor Edmund Andros uniting New England, New York and New Jersey. This is the first attempt to unite several American colonies under one goverment.
1689: Glorious Revolution puts William III and Mary II on the throne, and the colonists also revolt against Andros, and the Dominion is dissolved
The Colonies, on the whole, had a strong tradition of local government. All had their own legislatures, who served under the governor. Some governors were elected, some were the owners or the appointees of the owners of the colony, and some were appointed by the King. However, all legislatures were made up of important local men, and, in the tradition of Parliament, these legislatures had the power to raise money through taxes—the governor, like the King, did not. Most colonies were proud to be English, but after decades of salutary neglect, they were used to running their own show locally.
Because overland travel between colonies was usually difficult, and because most colonies are directed towards selling goods to England, most colonist are better connected to England than to each other—they are English more than they are Americans.
The Southern Colonies (Georgia through Maryland and Delaware) grow staple crops (tobacco and rice, primarily) on plantations with many slaves
The Middle Colonies grow crops (especially grains) in their fertile soil, and also engage in commerce and trade
New England has a shipbuilding industry and a valuable fishing industry, but they are especially involved in trade. They carried raw materials to England and fancy goods back, and in Triangular Trade carried rum and firearms to Africa where they were traded for slaves, who were taken through the Middle Passage to the West Indies where they were swopped for sugar, which was taken to New England and distilled into rum.
Benjamin Franklin is considered perhaps the quintessential American, because he rose, through hard work, from poverty to wealth and fame. In America, most white people could do the same things—gain wealth, land and power.
The colonists, like most Europeans at the time, believed in hierarchy: some people are better than others. The rich are better than the poor, men are better than women, adults are better than children, white are better than blacks and Indians, and there are many other fine distinctions within that system.
The best folk were called ‘gentry’ and could be told apart by their education, manners, houses, clothes, and the company they kept.
For the English at this time, wealth was based in ownership of land. It was thought if one owned land, he could grow enough food to support himself, thus making him independent of control by others. In time, most land in the colonies, especially along the prosperous seacoast, came into the hands of a wealthy elite, who controlled trade and commerce.
There were many trades in the colonies for folks who were not landed gentry. Many folks in town were artisans. They had served as apprentices, learning their trade in the home and shop of a master, trading their work for learning skills. Paul Revere, a silversmith, was such an artisan.
Printers were important members of society, producing newssheets, pamphlets, and almanacs. Benjamin Franklin got his start as a printer. Peter Zenger was another, who was tried for libel when he printed bad stories about the New York Governor, but he won his case because the court said the truth could not be libel.
Many colonists were also farmers (ranging from wealthy planters to New England rock farmers) and fishermen (especially in New England).
Finally, many immigrants were indentured servants, working in the household or on the farm of the men who had paid for their passage to America.
Women in the colonies were legally dependent upon men—either fathers, brothers, or husbands. Women could not vote or serve on juries. Married women could not own property—it belonged to their husbands—but widows could inherit property and had more rights and protection in America than in England or most of Europe. Women had many responsibilities: they managed their households, educated their children in the home, and, in some cases, even ran giant plantations for their families.
Education was important in the colonies, especially in New England. There, any town with at least 50 families had to pay for a school to teach basic skills and towns with 100 or more had to provide a school to teach Latin and Greek. Harvard (1636) and Yale (1701) were also founded early in New England. In the south, education was primarily for the rich through private tutors and education in England, although the College of William and Mary was founded in (1693).
One in five non-Indian Americans were African-Americans, almost all of them slaves. They were captured or bought all along the west coast of Africa. Thence they were shipped across the Atlantic through the dreaded ‘Middle Passage’ in which they were packed in so tight they could not move. They were rarely if ever taken out for exercise in case they jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. It was expected that up to half of them would die, and slave traders planned accordingly.
In America, most slaves went to the West Indies, but about 400,000 went to the 13 colonies. They made up more than half the population of South Carolina, about a third of Georgia’s and a significant percentage of the population of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. There were also slaves in all the middle colonies and in New England as well, and many slave traders were New Englanders.
Slave laws were very harsh on the whole,
and most slaves, especially in South Carolina, were not treated very well.
These laws got worse several small but scary slave revolts in New York
throughout the 1700s, and especially after the Stono Rebellion in 1739,
in which 20 whites were killed near Charleston South Carolina.
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This page last updated 30 August, 2003.