This chapter discusses briefly the English colonies established in the seventeenth
century. Its theme is the diversity of religious practices, political institutions and
economic arrangements that characterized the English empire in America.
I. BREAKING AWAY
The English came to America for different reasons and with different backgrounds. Some
wanted an opportunity to worship God in their own way; others wanted land. Some
came in the early part of the century when England was relatively stable; others came at
the end of the century after England had experienced a civil war. In America, the
colonists had to adjust to different environments. The result was the development of
different subcultures: the Chesapeake, New England, the Middle Colonies and the
II. THE CHESAPEAKE: DREAMS OF WEALTH
The English colonized the Chesapeake because they believed they could obtain instant
profits. These dreams faded, but left behind the colony of Virginia, England's first
successful effort in America.
A. Entrepreneurs in Virginia
The London Company settled a colony at Jamestown in 1607 that met
immediate disaster. The location in a swamp had been a mistake, but even worse
was the failure of the colonists to work together for the common good.
B. Spinning Out of Control
Captain John Smith, a tough professional soldier, saved the colonists by
imposing order. The London Company helped, too, by reorganizing the
government of the colony and by investing more money in the enterprise. Even
so, Jamestown was actually abandoned for a few days in 1610 and was saved
only by the coincidental arrival of a new shipload of colonists.
C. "Stinking Weed"
Tobacco had been growing as a common weed in the streets of Jamestown before
John Rolfe recognized its value. He improved its quality and found a market for
it in England. Finally, Virginians had discovered the way to wealth. The London
Company, under Sir Edwin Sandys, encouraged large-scale immigration to
Virginia by offering "headrights," a grant of land given to those who paid for the
cost of immigration and by giving the colonists a form of self-government in an
elected body called the House of Burgesses.
D. Time of Reckoning
After 1619, a rush of immigrants arrived in Virginia; few, however, survived for
long. It was impossible to establish a normal family life because men
outnumbered women by about six to one. The colony, therefore, could not count
on a natural increase in its population. Disease and Indian attacks continued to
take their toll, especially the sudden outbursts of violence in 1622 that almost
wiped out the colony. Virginia remained a place to make a quick fortune and then
leave before becoming one of the mortality statistics.
E. Corruption and Reform
As the colonists died in large numbers, the London Company sank into
mismanagement and corruption. In 1624, King James I dissolved the London
Company and made Virginia a royal colony. Despite this change, life in Virginia
went on as before. The House of Burgesses continued to meet because it had
become so useful to the ambitious and successful tobacco planters who
dominated Virginian life. The character of daily life also remained unchanged. A
high death rate, a feeling of living on borrowed time, and the constant grabbing of
Indian lands so that more and more tobacco could be grown were the themes of
early Virginia history.
F. Maryland: A Troubled Refuge for Catholics
The founding of Maryland resulted from the efforts of George Calvert to find a
place of refuge for his fellow English Catholics. After his death, his son, Cecilius
(Lord Baltimore), received a charter to settle Maryland in 1632. He expected
that he would govern the colony along with a few of his wealthy Catholic
friends, but he knew that most of the immigrants who would come from England
would be Protestant. He therefore issued a law requiring Christians to tolerate
Lord Baltimore failed to create the society he wanted. His wealthy friends were
unwilling to relocate to America, and the common settlers in Maryland
demanded a greater voice in the government. Above all, religious intolerance
wrecked Baltimore's plans. Protestants refused to tolerate Catholics, and the
Protestants were strong enough to rise up in arms and seize control of the
colony in 1655. Maryland's early history differed from Virginia's, but aggressive
individualism, an absence of public spirit, and an economy based on tobacco
characterized both colonies.
III. REFORMING ENGLAND IN AMERICA
Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were the most important of the New England
colonies. Plymouth was settled by the Pilgrims, a group of Separatists who refused to
worship in the Church of England and who had fled to Holland to escape persecution.
As they saw their children grow more Dutch than English, the Pilgrims decided to leave
Holland for the new English colony of Virginia. They landed instead at Cape Cod and
remained there. Led by William Bradford and helped by friendly Indian neighbors, the
Pilgrims survived and created a society of small farming villages bound together by
mutual consent (the Mayflower Compact). The colony, however, attracted few
immigrants, and Plymouth was eventually absorbed into Massachusetts Bay.
A. "The Great Migration"
The second colony planted in New England was Massachusetts Bay, the home
of the Puritans. The Puritans often have been caricatured as neurotics and
prudes; in fact, they were men and women committed to changing the major
institution of their society. Unlike the Separatists, the Puritans wished to remain
within the Church of England, but they wanted the Church to give up all
remaining vestiges of her Roman Catholic past. Puritans were also intensely
nationalistic and desired a foreign policy that would align England with the
Protestant states of Europe. They hoped to accomplish their goals by working
within the system, but when King Charles I decided to rule the country without
consulting with Parliament, the Puritans despaired. Some of them, led by John
Winthrop, decided to establish a better society in America. The Massachusetts
Bay Company was formed, and Charles, thinking the company no different from
other joint-stock companies, granted it a charter in 1629. Ordinarily, the
company should have kept its headquarters in England, where the king could
supervise it, but the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Company secretly agreed
to bring the charter with them to America.
B. "A City on a Hill"
The Winthrop fleet established settlements around Boston in 1630. The first
settlers were joined within a year by two thousand more, and the Bay Colony
enjoyed a steady stream of immigration during its first decade. Because the
settlers usually came as family units, because the area was generally healthy, and
because most of the Puritan colonists were willing to sacrifice self-interest for
the good of the community, Massachusetts Bay avoided the misery that had
characterized colonization in the Chesapeake.
Puritans proved to be pragmatic and inventive in creating social institutions.
They had no intention of separating from the Church of England, but
immediately dispensed with those features of the Church they found
objectionable. The result was Congregationalism, a system that stressed
simplicity and in which each congregation was independent. Puritans created a
civil government that was neither democratic nor theocratic. A larger proportion
of adult males could vote in Massachusetts Bay than in England because the
only requirement for voting was a spiritual one. If a man was "born again" he
became a "freeman," or voter, whether he owned property or not. The rulers of
the Bay Colony were not democratic in our sense, however; they did not believe
that elected officials should concern themselves with the wishes of those who
had elected them. On the local level, Puritans created almost completely
autonomous towns, and it was on this level that most men participated in public
life. Village life was intensely communal even though townships were
commercial properties, shares of which could be bought and sold.
C. Limits of Religious Dissent
In order to protect individual rights and to clarify the responsibilities of
citizenship, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay issued the Laws and
Liberties of 1648. This code of law marked the Puritans' considerable progress in
establishing a stable society.
Not everyone was happy in Massachusetts Bay. The two most important
dissidents were Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams, an extreme
Separatist, condemned all civil states, even one governed by Puritans. He was
expelled and settled in Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson believed she was directly
inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that once a person was "born again" he or she
need not obey man-made laws (Antinomianism). Because of her religious ideas
and because an assertive woman threatened patriarchal authority, she too was
expelled and went to Rhode Island.
D. Mobility and Division
Massachusetts Bay spawned four other colonies: New Hampshire, New Haven,
Connecticut and Rhode Island. Of them, New Hampshire remained too small to
be significant in the seventeenth century, and New Haven became part of
Connecticut. Rhode Island received the Bay Colony's outcasts (religious
dissenters and Quakers for the most part), who continued to make as much
trouble in Roger Williams' colony as they had in John Winthrop's. Connecticut, a
well-populated colony that owed its first settlement to Thomas Hooker,
duplicated the institutions and way of life of its mother colony.
IV. DIVERSITY IN THE MIDDLE COLONIES
No section of the English empire was more diverse in its history, its ethnic and religious
pluralism, or its political institutions than the Middle Colonies of New York, New
Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
A. Anglo-Dutch Rivalry on the Hudson
The Dutch settled New York after the voyages of Henry Hudson. The colony
became the property of the Dutch West Indies Company, which gave New York
little attention and sent incompetent officials. New York was Dutch in little
more than ownership. Few immigrants came from Holland, so the Dutch population
remained small. Even so, it was polyglot. Finns, Swedes, Germans and
Africans made up sizable minorities in the colony, and these people felt no
loyalty to the Dutch West Indies Company. When England sent a fleet to take
New York in 1664, the colony fell without a shot being fired.
New York became the personal property of James, Duke of York (later King
James II). His colony included New Jersey, Delaware and Maine, as well as
various islands. James attempted to rule this vast domain without allowing its
inhabitants a political voice beyond the local level, but he derived little profit
from the colony.
B. Confusion in New Jersey
New Jersey has an especially complex history. It first belonged to the Duke of
York, but he sold it to two friends, Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret.
When these Proprietors found how difficult it was to collect rents, Berkeley sold
his interest to a group of Quakers, a deal that made it necessary to split the
colony in two. The Quakers introduced a democratic system of government into
West New Jersey, but both halves of the colony were marked by contention,
and neither half prospered.
V. QUAKERS IN AMERICA
Pennsylvania, the most important of the Middle Colonies, owed its settlement to the
rise of a religious group, the Quakers, or Society of Friends, that was formed by George
Fox in England in the 1650s.
A. Quaker Beliefs and Practices
Quakers believed that each man and woman could communicate directly
with God. They rejected the idea of original sin and predestination, and
cultivated an "Inner Light" that they believed all people possessed.
English authorities considered Quakers to be dangerous anarchists and
B. Penn's "Holy Experiment"
William Penn, the son of an admiral and a wealthy aristocrat, converted to the
Society of Friends and became one of their leaders. He used his contacts to
obtain a charter for Pennsylvania, which he intended to settle as a "Holy
Experiment," a society run on Quaker principles. In 1682, Penn announced a
plan of government for Pennsylvania that contained some traditional features
and some advanced features. Nearly all political power would be held by men of
great wealth, but an elaborate system was designed to protect the rights of those
without political or economic power. The scheme, however, proved too complicated
C. Settling Pennsylvania
Penn successfully recruited immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland and
Germany, and Pennsylvania grew rapidly in population. Many of these
immigrants were not Quakers, however, and felt no sense of obligation to make
the "Holy Experiment" work. Even the Quakers in Pennsylvania fought among
themselves, and the people of Delaware, after Penn bought the colony from the
Duke of York, preferred to rule themselves. In 1701 he gave in to the complaints
of his colonists and granted them a large measure of self-rule. He also gave
Delaware her independence. Even though Penn owned a colony that was
becoming rich by selling wheat to the West Indies, it did him no good. Penn at
one time suffered the humiliation of being locked up in a debtor's prison.
VI. PLANTING THE CAROLINAS
Carolina differed so much from the Chesapeake Colonies that it would be wrong to
speak of the existence of "the South" in the seventeenth century.
A. Proprietors of the Carolinas
King Charles II granted Carolina in 1663 to eight friends and political allies who
expected to sit back and collect rents as the colony filled up. Unfortunately for
them, nobody went to Carolina.
B. The Barbadian Connection
One of the colony's proprietors, Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper (the Earl of
Shaftesbury), realized that a more active search for immigrants had to be made.
He and John Locke, the famous philosopher, concocted a plan of government
that would have given most power to an hereditary elite while at the same time
protecting the rights of the small landowners. He also encouraged planters in
Barbados, who were being crowded off the island, to take up land in Carolina.
Cooper was somewhat successful. A string of settlements grew up around
Charleston, but Cooper's plan of government failed. The Barbadians, who
dominated early Carolina, wanted as much self-government as they had enjoyed
in Barbados. The Barbadians, in turn, were opposed by French Huguenot
settlers, who felt loyal to the proprietors. Carolina became a colony in turmoil.
In 1729 the Crown took over Carolina and divided it into two colonies.
VII. THE FOUNDING OF GEORGIA
Georgia was founded in 1732 as a buffer to safeguard the Carolinas from the Spanish in
Florida. Although conceived by James Oglethorpe as a refuge for persons imprisoned
for debt in England, Georgia attracted few immigrants. By 1751, it had become a small
slave colony, much like South Carolina.
VIlI. CONCLUSION: LIVING WITH DIVERSITY
All of the colonies struggled for survival in their first phase, but as they developed,
distinct regional differences intensified and persisted throughout the colonial period and
even during the struggle for independence. Nevertheless, the colonists eventually saw
themselves as a distinct people, a phenomenon that historians have to explain.