- Category: History 117 Week 1
- Published on Friday, 28 December 2012 00:31
- Written by Dr. Eric Mayer
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17A Lecture 2
Life in the American wilderness was nasty, brutish, and short for the earliest Chesapeake settlers.
Malaria, dysentery, and typhoid took a cruel toll, cutting ten years off the life expectancy of newcomers from England.
Half the people born in early Virginia and Maryland did not survive to celebrate their twentieth birthdays.
Few of the remaining half lived to see their fiftieth--or even their fortieth, if they were women.
The disease-ravaged settlements of the Chesapeake grew only slowly in the seventeenth century, mostly through fresh immigration from England.
The great majority of immigrants were single men in their late teens and early twenties, and most perished soon after arrival.
Surviving males competed for the affections of the extremely scarce women, whom they outnumbered nearly six to one in 1650 and still outnumbered by three to two at the end of the century.
Eligible women did not remain single for long.
Families were both few and fragile in this ferocious environment. Most men could not find mates.
Most marriages were destroyed by the death of a partner within seven years. Scarcely any children reached adulthood under the care of two parents, and almost no one knew a grandparent.
Weak family ties were reflected in the many pregnancies among unmarried young girls.
In one Maryland county, more than a third of all brides were already pregnant when they wed.
Yet despite these hardships, the Chesapeake colonies struggled on.
The native-born inhabitants eventually acquired immunity to the killer diseases that had ravaged the original immigrants.
The presence of more women allowed more families to form, and by the end of the seventeenth century the white population of the Chesapeake was growing on the basis of its own birthrate.
As the eighteenth century opened, Virginia, with some fifty-nine thousand people, was the most populous colony.
Maryland, with about thirty thousand, was the third largest (after Massachusetts)."
An accumulating mass of footloose, impoverished freemen was drifting discontentedly about the Chesapeake region by the late seventeenth century.
Mostly single young men, they were frustrated by their broken hopes of acquiring land, as well as by their gnawing failure to find single women to marry.
The swelling numbers of these wretched bachelors rattled the established planters.
The Virginia assembly in 1670 disenfranchised most of the landless knockabouts, accusing them of "having little interest in the country" and causing "tumults at the election to the disturbance of his majesty's peace."
Virginia's Governor Berkeley lamented his lot as ruler of this rabble: "How miserable that man is that governs a people where six parts of seven at least are poor, endebted, discontented, and armed."
Berkeley's misery soon increased.
About a thousand Virginians broke out of control in 1676, led by a twenty-nine-year-old planter, Nathaniel Bacon.
Many of the rebels were frontiersmen who had been forced into the untamed backcountry in search of arable land.
They fiercely resented Berkeley's friendly policies toward the Indians, whose thriving fur trade the governor monopolized.
When Berkeley refused to retaliate for a series of savage Indian attacks on frontier settlements, Bacon and his followers took matters into their own hands.
They fell murderously upon the Indians, friendly and hostile alike, chased Berkeley from Jamestown, and put the torch to the capital.
Chaos swept the raw colony, as frustrated freemen and resentful servants--described as "a rabble of the basest sort of people"--went on a rampage of plundering and pilfering.
As this civil war in Virginia ground on, Bacon suddenly died of disease, like so many of his fellow colonials.
Berkeley thereupon crushed the uprising with brutal cruelty, hanging more than twenty rebels.
Back in England Charles II complained, "That old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father."
The distant English king could scarcely imagine the depths of passion and fear that Bacon's Rebellion excited in Virginia.
Bacon had ignited the smoldering unhappiness of landless former servants, and he had pitted the hard-scrabble backcountry frontiersmen against the haughty gentry of the tidewater plantations.
The rebellion was now suppressed, but these tensions remained.
Lordly planters, surrounded by a still-seething sea of malcontents, anxiously looked about for less troublesome laborers to toil in the restless tobacco kingdom.
Their eyes soon lit on Africa."
Perhaps 10 million Africans were carried in chains to the New World in the three centuries or so following Columbus's landing.
Only about 400,000 of them ended up in North America, the great majority arriving after 1700.
Most of the early human cargoes were hauled to Spanish and Portuguese South America or to the sugar-rich West Indies.
Africans had been brought to Jamestown as early as 1619, but as late as 1670 they numbered only about 2,000 in Virginia (out of a total population of some 35,000 persons) and about 7 percent of the 50,000 people in the southern plantation colonies as a whole.
Hard-pinched white colonists, struggling to stay alive and to hack crude clearings out of the forests, could not afford to pay high prices for slaves who might die soon after arrival.
White servants might die, too, but they were far less costly.
Drastic change came in the 1680s.
Rising wages in England shrank the pool of penniless folk willing to gamble on a new life or an early death as indentured servants in America.
At the same time, the large planters were growing increasingly fearful of the multitudes of potentially mutinous former servants in their midst.
By the mid-1680s, for the first time, black slaves outnumbered white servants among the plantation colonies' new arrivals.
In 1698 the Royal African Company lost its crown-granted monopoly on carrying slaves to the colonies. Enterprising Americans, especially Rhode Islanders, rushed to cash in on the lucrative slave trade, and the supply of slaves increased steeply.
More than ten thousand Africans were pushed ashore in America in the decade after 1700, and tens of thousands more in the next half-century.
Blacks accounted for nearly half the population of Virginia by 1750. In South Carolina they outnumbered whites two to one.
Most of the slaves who reached North America came from the west coast of Africa, including the area stretching from present-day Senegal to Angola.
They were originally captured by African coastal tribes, who traded them in crude markets on the shimmering tropical beaches to itinerant European--and American--flesh merchants.
Usually branded and bound, the captives were herded aboard sweltering ships for the gruesome "middle passage," on which death rates ran as high as 20 percent.
Terrified survivors were eventually shoved onto auction blocks in New World ports like Newport, Rhode Island, or Charleston, South Carolina, where a giant slave market flourished for more than a century.
A few of the earliest African immigrants gained their freedom, and some even became slaveowners themselves.
But as the number of Africans in their midst increased dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century, white colonists reacted remorselessly to this supposed racial threat.
Earlier in the century the legal difference between a slave and a servant was unclear.
But now the law began to make sharp distinctions between the two--largely on the basis of race. Statutes appeared that formally decreed the iron conditions of slavery for blacks.
These earliest "slave codes" made blacks and their children the property (or "chattels") for life of their white masters.
Some colonies made it a crime to teach a slave to read or write.
Not even conversion to Christianity could qualify a slave for freedom.
Thus did the God-fearing whites put the fear of God into their hapless black laborers.
Slavery might have begun in America for economic reasons, but by the end of the seventeenth century, it was clear that racial discrimination also powerfully molded the American slave system."
In the Northern Colonies
Nature smiled more benignly on pioneer New Englanders than on their disease-plagued fellow colonists to the south.
Clean water and cool temperatures retarded the spread of killer microbes.
In stark contrast to the fate of Chesapeake immigrants, settlers in seventeenth-century New England added ten years to their life spans by migrating from the Old World.
One settler claimed that "a sip of New England's air is better than a whole draft of old England's ale."
The first generations of Puritan colonists enjoyed, on the average, about seventy years on this earth--not very different from the life expectancy of present-day Americans.
In further contrast with the Chesapeake, New Englanders tended to migrate not as single individuals but as families, and the family remained at the center of New England life.
Almost from the outset, New England's population grew from natural reproductive increase.
The people were remarkably fertile, even if the soil was not.
Early marriage encouraged the booming birthrate.
Women typically wed by their early twenties and produced babies about every two years thereafter until menopause.
Ceaseless childbearing drained the vitality of many pioneer women, as the weather-eroded colonial tombstones eloquently reveal.
A number of the largest families were borne by several mothers, though claims about the frequency of death in childbirth have probably been exaggerated.
But the dread of death in the birthing bed haunted many women, and it was small wonder that they came to fear pregnancy.
A married woman could expect to experience up to ten pregnancies and rear as many as eight surviving children.
Massachusetts governor William Phips was one of twenty-seven children, all by the same mother.
A New England woman might well have dependent children living in her household from the earliest days of her marriage up until the day of her death, and child raising became virtually her full-time occupation.
The longevity of the New Englanders contributed to family stability.
Children grew up in nurturing environments where they received love and guidance not only from their parents but from their grandparents as well.
This novel intergenerational continuity has inspired the observation that New England "invented" grandparents.
Family stability was reflected in low premarital pregnancy rates (again in contrast with the Chesapeake) and in the generally strong, tranquil social structure characteristic of colonial New England.
Still other contrasts emerged between the southern and New England ways of life.
Oddly enough, the fragility of southern families advanced the economic security of southern women, especially of women's property rights.
Because southern men frequently died young, leaving widows with small children to support, the southern colonies generally allowed married women to retain separate title to their property and gave widows the right to inherit their husband's estates.
But in New England, Puritan lawmakers worried that recognizing women's separate property rights would undercut the unity of married persons by acknowledging conflicting interests between husband and wife.
New England women usually gave up their property rights, therefore, when they married.
And because greater longevity in New England made widowhood less common, women were generally denied rights of inheritance."
Salem Witch Trials
Yet worries plagued the God-fearing pioneers of these tidy New England settlements.
The pressure of a growing population was gradually dispersing the Puritans onto outlying farms, far from the control of church and neighbors.
And although the core of Puritan belief still burned brightly, the passage of time was dampening the first generation's flaming religious zeal.
About the middle of the seventeenth century a new form of sermon began to be heard from Puritan pulpits--the "jeremiad."
Taking their cue from the doom-saying Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, earnest preachers scolded parishioners for their waning piety.
Especially alarming was the apparent decline in conversions--testimonials by individuals that they had received God's grace and therefore deserved to be admitted to the church as members of the elect.
Troubled ministers in 1662 announced a new formula for church membership, the "Half-Way Covenant."
It offered partial membership rights to people not yet converted.
The Half-Way Covenant dramatized the difficulty of maintaining at fever pitch the religious devotion of the founding generation.
Jeremiads continued to thunder from the pulpits, but as time went on, the doors of the Puritan churches swung fully open to all comers, whether converted or not.
This widening of church membership gradually erased the distinction between the "elect" and other members of society.
In effect, strict religious purity was sacrificed somewhat to the cause of wider religious participation.
Interestingly, from about this time onward women made up a larger proportion of the Puritan congregations.
Women also played a prominent role in one of New England's most frightening religious episodes.
A group of adolescent girls in Salem, Massachusetts, claimed to have been bewitched by certain older women.
A hysterical "witch hunt" ensued, leading to the legal lynching in 1692 of twenty individuals, nineteen of whom were hanged and one of whom was pressed to death.
Two dogs were also hanged.
Larger-scale witchcraft persecutions were then common in Europe, and several outbreaks had already flared forth in the colonies.
But the reign of horror in Salem grew not only from the superstitions of the age but also from the unsettled social and religious conditions of the rapidly evolving Massachusetts village.
Most of the accused witches were associated with Salem's prosperous merchant elite; their accusers came largely from the ranks of the poorer families in Salem's agricultural hinterland.
The episode thus reflected the widening social stratification of New England, as well as the anxieties of many religious traditionalists that the Puritan heritage was being eclipsed by Yankee commercialism.
The witchcraft hysteria eventually ended in 1693 when the governor, alarmed by an accusation against his own wife and supported by the more responsible members of the clergy, prohibited any further trials and pardoned those already convicted.
The Salem witchcraft delusion marked an all-time high in American experience of popular passions run wild.
"Witch hunting" passed into the American vocabulary as a metaphor for the often dangerously irrational urge to find a scapegoat for social resentments."
The Structure of Colonial Society
The common term thirteen original colonies is misleading.
There were thirty-two colonies under British rule in North America by 1775, including Canada, the Floridas, and the various islands of the Caribbean.
But only thirteen of them unfurled the standard of revolt.
A few of the nonrebels, such as Canada and Jamaica, were larger, wealthier, or more populous than some of the thirteen.
And even among the revolting thirteen, dramatic differences in economic organization, social structure, and ways of life were evident.
All the eventually rebellious colonies did have one outstanding feature in common: their populations were growing by leaps and bounds.
In 1700 they contained fewer than 300,000 souls, about 20,000 of whom were black.
By 1775, 2.5 million people inhabited the thirteen colonies, of whom about half a million were black.
White immigrants made up nearly 400,000 of the increased number, and black "forced immigrants" accounted for almost as many again.
But most of the spurt stemmed from the remarkable natural fertility of all Americans, white and black.
To the amazement and dismay of Europeans, the colonists were doubling their numbers every twenty-five years.
Unfriendly Dr. Samuel Johnson, back in England, growled that the Americans were multiplying like their own rattlesnakes.
They were also a youthful people, whose average age in 1775 was about sixteen.
This population boom had political consequences.
In 1700 there were twenty English subjects for each American colonist.
By 1775 the English advantage in numbers had fallen to three to one--setting the stage for a momentous shift in the balance of power between the colonies and England.
The bulk of the population was cooped up east of the Alleghenies, although by 1775 a vanguard of pioneers had trickled into the stump-studded clearings of Tennessee and Kentucky.
The most populous colonies in 1775 were Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maryland--in that order.
Only four communities could properly be called cities: Philadelphia, including suburbs, was first with about 34,000, whereas New York, Boston, and Charleston were strung out behind.
About 90 percent of the people lived in rural areas."
Absence of classes and feudalism
In contrast with contemporary Europe, eighteenth-century America was a shining land of equality and opportunity--with the notorious exception of slavery.
No titled nobility dominated society from on high, and no pauperized underclass threatened it from below.
Most white Americans, and even some free blacks, were small farmers.
Clad in buckskin breeches, they owned modest holdings and tilled them with their own hands and horses.
The cities contained a small class of skilled artisans, with their well-greased leather aprons, as well as a few shopkeepers and tradespeople, and a handful of unskilled casual laborers.
The most remarkable feature of the social ladder was the rags-to-riches ease with which an ambitious colonial, even a former indentured servant, might rise from a lower rung to a higher one, quite unlike in old England.
Yet in contrast with seventeenth-century America, colonial society on the eve of the Revolution was beginning to show signs of stratification and barriers to mobility that raised worries about the "Europeanization" of America.
The gods of war contributed to these developments.
The armed conflicts of the 1690s and early 1700s had enriched a number of merchant princes in the New England and middle colonies.
They laid the foundations of their fortunes with profits made as military suppliers.
Roosting regally atop the social ladder, these elites now feathered their nests more finely.
They sported imported clothing and dined at tables laid with English china and gleaming silverware.
Prominent individuals came to be seated in churches and schools according to their social rank.
(Future president John Adams was placed fourteenth in a class of twenty-four at Harvard, where ability also affected one's standing.)
The plague of war also created a class of widows and orphans, who became dependent for their survival on charity.
Both Philadelphia and New York built almshouses in the 1730s to care for the destitute.
Yet the numbers of poor people remained tiny compared to the numbers in England, where about a third of the population lived in impoverished squalor.
In the New England countryside the descendents of the original settlers faced more limited prospects than had their pioneering forebears.
As the supply of unclaimed soil dwindled and families grew, existing landholdings were subdivided and the average size of farms shrank drastically.
Younger sons were increasingly forced to hire out as wage laborers--or eventually, to seek virgin tracts of land beyond the Appalachians.
In the South the power of the great planters continued to be bolstered by their disproportionate ownership of slaves.
The riches created by the growing slave population in the eighteenth century were not distributed evenly among the whites.
Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the largest slaveowners, widening the gap between the prosperous gentry and the "poor whites," who were increasingly forced to become tenant farmers.
In all the colonies the ranks of the lower classes were further swelled by the continuing stream of indentured servants, many of whom ultimately achieved prosperity and prestige.
Two became signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Far less fortunate than the voluntary indentured servants were the paupers and convicts involuntarily shipped to America.
Altogether, about fifty thousand "jayle birds" were dumped on the colonies by the London authorities.
This riffraff crowd--including robbers, rapists, and murderers--was generally sullen and undesirable, and not bubbling over with goodwill for the king's government.
But many convicts were the unfortunate victims of circumstances and of a viciously unfair English penal code that included about two hundred capital crimes.
Some of the deportees, in fact, came to be highly respectable citizens.
Least fortunate of all, of course, were the black slaves.
They enjoyed no equality with whites and dared not even dream of ascending the ladder of opportunity.
Oppressed and degraded, the slaves were America's closest approximation to Europe's volatile lower classes, and fears of black rebellion plagued the white colonists.
Some colonial legislatures, notably South Carolina's in 1760, sensed the dangers present in a heavy concentration of resentful slaves and attempted to restrict or halt their importation.
But the British authorities vetoed all such efforts.
Many colonials looked upon this veto as a callous disregard of their welfare, although it was done primarily in the interests of imperial policy and of the British and New England slave trade.
Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, assailed such vetoes in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, but his proposed clause was finally dropped, largely out of regard for southern sensibilities."
The Great Awakening
In all the colonial churches, religion was less fervid in the early eighteenth century than it had been a century earlier, when the colonies were first planted.
The Puritan churches in particular sagged under the weight of two burdens: their elaborate theological doctrines and their compromising efforts to liberalize membership requirements.
Churchgoers increasingly complained about the "dead dogs" who droned out tedious, overerudite sermons from Puritan pulpits.
Some ministers, on the other hand, worried that many of their parishioners had gone soft and that their souls were no longer kindled by the hellfire of orthodox Calvinism.
Liberal ideas began to challenge the old-time religion, and some worshipers now proclaimed that human beings were not necessarily predestined to damnation but might save themselves by good works.
A few churches grudgingly conceded that spiritual conversion was not necessary for church membership.
Together, these twin trends toward clerical intellectualism and lay liberalism were sapping the spiritual vitality from many denominations.
The stage was thus set for a rousing religious revival.
Known as the Great Awakening, it exploded in the 1730s and 1740s and swept through the colonies like a fire through prairie grass.
The Awakening was first ignited in Northampton, Massachusetts, by a tall, delicate, and intellectual pastor, Jonathan Edwards.
Perhaps the deepest theological mind ever nurtured in America, Edwards proclaimed with burning righteousness the folly of believing in salvation through good works and affirmed the need for complete dependence on God's grace.
Warming to his subject, he painted in lurid detail the landscape of hell and the eternal torments of the damned.
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was the title of one of his most famous sermons.
He believed that hell was "paved with the skulls of unbaptized children."
Edwards's preaching style was learned and closely reasoned, but his stark doctrines sparked a warmly sympathetic reaction among his parishioners in 1734.
Four years later the itinerant English parson George Whitefield loosed a different style of evangelical preaching on America and touched off a conflagration of religious ardor that revolutionized the spiritual life of the colonies.
A former alehouse attendant, Whitefield was an orator of rare gifts.
His magnificent voice boomed sonorously over thousands of enthralled listeners in an open field.
One of England's greatest actors of the day commented enviously that Whitefield could make audiences weep merely by pronouncing the word Mesopotamia and that he would "give a hundred guineas if I could only say 'O!' like Mr. Whitefield."
Triumphally touring the colonies, Whitefield trumpeted his message of human helplessness and divine omnipotence.
His eloquence reduced Jonathan Edwards to tears and even caused the skeptical and thrifty Benjamin Franklin to empty his pockets into the collection plate.
During these roaring revival meetings, countless sinners professed conversion, and hundreds of the "saved" groaned, shrieked, or rolled in the snow from religious excitation. Whitefield soon inspired American imitators.
Taking up his electrifying new style of preaching, they heaped abuse on sinners and shook enormous audiences with emotional appeals.
One preacher cackled hideously in the face of hapless wrongdoers. Another, naked to the waist, leaped frantically about in the light of flickering torches.
Orthodox clergymen, known as "old lights," were deeply skeptical of the emotionalism and the theatrical antics of the revivalists.
"New light" ministers, on the other hand, defended the Awakening for its role in revitalizing American religion.
Congregationalists and Presbyterians split over this issue, and many of the believers in religious conversion went over to the Baptists and other sects more prepared to make room for emotion in religion.
The Awakening left many lasting effects.
Its emphasis on direct, emotive spirituality seriously undermined the older clergy, whose authority had derived from their education and erudition.
The schisms it set off in many denominations greatly increased the numbers and the competitiveness of American churches.
It encouraged a fresh wave of missionary work among the Indians and even among black slaves, many of whom also attended the mass open-air revivals.
It led to the founding of "new light" centers of higher learning such as Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth.
Perhaps most significant, the Great Awakening was the first spontaneous mass movement of the American people.
It tended to break down sectional boundaries as well as denominational lines and contributed to the growing sense that Americans had of themselves as a single people, united by a common history and shared experiences.