Historical Continuity Between the American Colonies and the “New” United States

One event often melts into another. Over any period of time historians can often reflect to a point of causation for the effect they’re studying. In this case we’re able to study relatively recent history in the comparison of the British colonies of the 17th century to the newly established United States of America in the 1790s. In this instance, we’ll look at the continuity of events from one period to another.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is when we observe the forms of government. Britain held a top-down view of government with a monarch at the executive position. The monarchy enforced its hold over the colonies with extensions of the branch by appointing governors. “Increasingly the Crown strengthened cultural ties between Quality and government by appointing local-born men to the prestige and wide powers of governorship” (Furnas, 1969, p. 196). In this way the monarchy could maintain a firm grasp over it’s hold on the executive branch, and, it’s power.

With the legislative branch, the people could form assemblies which could affect the pay of the appointed governors. However, every colony or region was different and was made up of varying laws especially when looking to the early 17th century. The judicial branch decided if laws had been broken, and, if necessary, would refer their rulings to a council.

The “new” America looked at government differently. The founding fathers saw the executive branch as a position that “…could throw its weight against the irrational and oppressive measures of either branch of the legislature, especially against the usurpations of the aristocracy segregated in the upper house” (Wood, 2009, p.215). It was intended as an arm that would block tyranny rather than enforce it.

The legislative and the judicial branches remained alike in their nature. The legislative branch would still make the laws and the judicial branch would decide if they had been broken. On the legislative side, however, it acted as a barrier against aggressive executive power as they had the strength to confirm or deny treaties, presidential appointments along with having the power to impeach (Powers & Procedures). Meanwhile, the judicial branch could send court cases to the Supreme Court which would decide if laws had been broken.

When it came to voting the colonists had a lot of leeway since they were still living under a monarchy. However, in colonial America, only adult white males could vote. This idea extended to the new republic where only adult white land-holding males could take part in elections.

Generally, those who held office in colonial America were appointed, or as Furnas pointed out, people of “Quality.” These were people who were generally of the upper echelon of society. In the latter half of the 18th century, while elections had largely replaced appointments, only a certain type of person could vote and the republic ended up with mostly the same results. However, almost anyone was allowed to run for various offices provided they met the basic criteria of such things as age limits and citizenship.

Turning toward a more nuanced difference, as we note the economies between eras, there’s a striking contrast. Comparing the colonial south to the north there was already a contrast between agriculture and industry. The south was heavily reliant of tobacco and other cash crops while the north didn’t have such a temperament. As written by Furnas, the north “…arduously raised farm crops but also vigorously exploit[ed] the sea as both fishpond and trade highway” (Furnas, 1969, p 60). The northern colonies had even expanded their craftsmanship with trades such as carpenters.

By the time of the new republic, the American south had begun cultivating cotton. “Between 1790 and 1800, South Carolina’s annual cotton exports rose from less than 10,000 pounds to some 6,000,000, and most of it came from the upcountry” (Berlin, 2003, p. 130). The north, meanwhile, began getting farther and farther away from agriculture as it produced refined and industrial products. This would put them in prime position to join industrialization while the south lagged behind.

This structure also made quite a difference. In the colonial south tobacco was a difficult crop to grow and therefore, they sought the use of slaves. This was in part due to a manpower issue. Meanwhile, the north had a more varied structure and was beginning to extend its skilled labor, “The local forest was shipped overseas in the shape of spars, clapboard, staves for cooperage and shingles, and of New England-built deep-sea vessels not only carrying local goods but themselves often sold in foreign ports, where sound design and construction brought good prices” (Furnas, 1969, p. 60). Beyond fields, the north was already beginning to diversify itself and expand beyond a single product.

In the new America the old ideas remained. While the south switched from tobacco to cotton, relatively little had changed. However, in the north, there were already ideas of importing industry. George Washington spoke during his first State of the Union address, “But I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home…” (State of the Union Address (1790)). Indeed, things were beginning to change as new workshops were being built or expanded upon.

The economic world had fundamentally transformed between the 1600’s and the late 1700’s. Mercantilism was a major, deciding thought throughout the European empires where they sought to protect their capital and keep it within their grasp using high tariffs. In the monumental year of 1776, however, Adam Smith released his novel idea of free trade in his book Wealth of Nations. Smith’s philosophies preached free trade, the lowering of tariffs and in return, all nations who participated would find increased wealth. This was decisive as David Morotta wrote in What Our Founding Fathers Got Wrong, many of the founding fathers either wanted to adopt Smith’s ideas in part or in whole. This put the United States on a completely different economic trajectory than the colonies had experienced.

Turning away from the economics and to the social structure, we note that there was a clear and significant difference in the classes. Slaves remained at the bottom in colonial America, while indentured servants were slightly raised, followed by landless whites, landed whites, and finally men with prestige and larger land holdings who were likely to hold higher office. After the Revolution, it had become muddled. While slaves and blacks remained on the lowest tier, along with landless whites, beyond that point there began to be confusion because there no longer existed an established aristocracy. Considering the idea that Wood puts forth, “If only acquired and learned attributes and not those of blood and birth separated one man from another, then these challenges [of maintaining the social structure] were hard to resist” (Wood, 2009, p. 27). It must then be noted that people were allowed more movement within the social structure. There were still obvious limitations, however, at a certain point they could become limitless.

Slavery was an even bigger issue. The colonies under Britain had already begun importing Africans by the end of the 1600’s. As Zinn writes, “Slavery grew as the plantation system grew… By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population” (Zinn, 2005, p. 32). Even before slavery became an established norm during this time a clear bias was shown, for by 1639 “all persons except Negroes” would be given arms and ammunition (Zinn, 2005). However, the colonies did have an extended indentured servitude plan which also involved poorer whites, both male and female. The colonies even attempted to make Native American Indians slaves but over time this proved fruitless as it was much easier for them to runaway and escape.

By the time of the Revolution slavery had already become an institution in the south. Attempting to enslave Indians was no longer a primary concern and the focus was on Africans as they didn’t know the countryside, they didn’t have people to run to and they were often illiterate and had trouble organizing which made them easier to handle. There was trepidation in the north even among the abolitionists about what to do with the black slaves if they should be freed. However, it was clear that slavery was so strong within the American south that a second war would be needed to purge the injustice that had been entrenched in the society for more than a century.

When it came to women during the colonial era, it was difficult for them to achieve any type of independence unless they were along the frontier. By the time of the new Republic the idea of keeping a woman home and sending her work was changing, “There was complex movement in different directions. Now, some were being pulled out of the house and into industrial life, while at the same time there was pressure for women to stay home where they were more easily controlled” (Zinn, 2005, p. 112). When once women served a mostly homely role, after the Revolution they had begun to struggle against the tradition.

The size of the country and the colonies had also changed dramatically. Noting Table 4 of the 1790 census, it’s easy to see that the population numbers remained low with no cities above 8000 people by 1700. In contrast, by 1790 the entire population grew by 3,654,625 people and there were 6 cities which held 8000 people or more. An established society in addition to immigration due to wars, religious persecution and the like had helped the colonies, and the country, to have an incredible population boom.

Religion was also a complicated problem for later colonists. “Pilgrims, Puritans, English Catholics, Quakers, Huguenots, sectarian Rhinelanders, Moravians – all were minority come-outers, seceders from accepted religions who preferred self-uprooting to conformity” (Furnas, 1969, p. 57). While people often wanted freedom to practice their religion, these religions often conflicted with the beliefs of the Church of England and therefore, the monarchy struggled to maintain religious unity.

After independence religion had become an even more variegated sort. “By the time of the Revolution nearly 70 percent of members of the New England churches were women, and in the decades following the Revolution this feminization of American Christianity only increased” (Wood, 2009, p. 598). As the people spread farther away from their cities, new denominations and sects of those faiths began to rise in popularity. What once had been rigid, structured, and catered to had become a hodgepodge of beliefs.

One thing that remained the same was the idea of language since both colonial America and the post-Revolutionary US largely spoke and wrote in English. The home islands often had varying dialects even between cities but the accents within the colonies, even after the Revolution, remained largely static. Wood notes John Witherspoon who was President of the College of New Jersey which is now known as Princeton, had claimed that the colonists were more mobile, they often traveled, traded or traversed to other cities for work or trade (Wood, 2009). This is one thing that allowed the colonies to transform themselves into a proper post-revolutionary country without immediate fracturing. They were able to understand one another.

When it came to leisure activities one primary example can be pointed to which trespasses even to our modern day. “Horse racing had begun in the 1660’s on the Long Island barrens sponsored by Governor Richard Nicolls, who seems to have been the first to cite improvement of the breed as pretext for the sport of kings. Meets as near Old Country-style as possible soon sprang up in the Southern and Middle Colonies” (Furnas, 1969, p. 190). This activity brought a piece of Britain to the colonies and it extended through the revolution and into the new country. Likewise other activities broke through such as smoking pipes, or later, chewing tobacco among the lower classes. Dancing was also an important feature which changed over time not only between the colonies and late 18th century America, but also between whites and slaves.

Literacy in the colonies had always been an important idea. While documentation from the early 1600s isn’t always available, literacy was still important. “For a rural people, by the standards of their time, Americans were strikingly literate, surpassing most of the nations of Western Europe” (Larkin, 1989, p. 35). Literacy was high for colonial whites because they were meant to read holy works, contracts and understand the basics of mathematics.

Even in the new America, literacy was of the utmost importance. Thomas Jefferson’s A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge reads, “…experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have… perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate… the minds of the people at large…” Therefore, Jefferson believed that a highly literate society could further protect itself from a return to tyranny which the revolutionaries had overthrown.

The differences between the 17th century colonies and those of the new-formed United States of America are sometimes vast but also, in the case of language, incredibly similar. Changes occurred due to numerous reasons such as war, technological advances, immigration and religion and through inspection we can note how these changes altered the course of events between the end of the 1600s and the beginning of the new republic. The dynamic differences between these two eras is incredible yet remains connected. In displaying their continuity between one another and how the past shaped the new republic we can better understand how different parts of the past connect to one another.

Works Cited

Berkes, Anna (2009, April). A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Retrieved October 17, 2019, from https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/bill-more-general-diffusion-knowledge

Berlin, I. (2003). Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Furnas, J. C. (1969). The Americans. A Social History of the United States 1587-1914. New York: Putnams Sons.

Larkin, J. (1989). The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840. New York: Harper Perennial.

Marotta, David John (2013, June 16). What Our Founding Fathers Got Wrong. Retrieved October 18, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidmarotta/2013/06/16/what-our-founding-fathers-got-wrong/#554f1906342a

Population in the Colonial and Continental Periods (n.d.) [PDF] Retrieved October 17, 2019 from https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/colonialbostonpops.pdf

Powers & Procedures (n.d.) Retrieved October 18, 2019 from https://www.senate.gov/history/powers.htm

State of the Union Address (1790) (n.d.) Retrieved October 18, 2019 from https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources/state-of-the-union-address/

Wood, G. S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zinn, H. (2005). A Peoples History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial.

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