CHAPTER 4 Experience of Empire: Eighteenth-Century America
Colonial Americans in the eighteenth century were aware of living on the edge of a great
and growing empire. Even as American society became more diverse, England exerted a
more dominant political, economic and cultural force. As the colonists became more
British, they became American for the first time.
I. GROWTH AND DIVERSITY
Between 1700 and 1750, the population of the colonies increased from 250,000 to over
2 million, much of it through natural increase, but also through the immigration of non-
A. Scots-Irish Flee English Oppression
The Scots, many of whom came from Northern Ireland, concentrated on the
Pennsylvania frontier and filled the Shenandoah Valley. They were often
regarded as a disruptive element because they refused to pay rent or taxes.
B. Germans Searching for a Better Life
Many Germans left their homeland because of the wars that racked
Germany, and settled mainly in Pennsylvania. Because there were so
many of them and because Germans attempted to preserve their own
customs, they aroused the prejudice of their English neighbors.
C. Convict Settlers
After 1715, the English government began transporting convicts to the colonies.
The colonists generally resented the policy and ended it during the American
Revolution, but not before about 50,000 felons had arrived.
C. Native Americans Stake Out a Middle Ground
The immigration of non-English people added to the diversity of American
society, but so did Native Americans who had survived conquest and disease.
Many Indians moved into the trans-Appalachian region, a "middle ground"
where no colonial power was yet established. In this middle ground, remnants
of different Indian peoples regrouped and formed new nations that successfully
interacted with each other and with Europeans. In time, however, the lure of
European goods encouraged Indians to deal individually with traders, thus
weakening collective resistance to European aggression.
II. SPANISH BORDERLANDS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Spain still occupied a large part of America north of Mexico and developed there a
A. Conquering the Northern Frontier
The Spanish had explored and colonized the area north of Mexico in the
sixteenth century, but Indian resistance and a lack of interest limited the Spanish
B. Peoples of the Spanish Borderlands
Spain never had a secure political or military hold on her borderlands, but
Spanish cultural influence persisted, especially in architecture and language.
Those Indians who agreed to live under Spanish rule suffered economic
discrimination, but not racial segregation.
III. THE IMPACT OF EUROPEAN IDEAS ON AMERICAN CULTURE
The seaboard colonists also lived in an expanding, changing world.
A. Provincial Cities
The vast majority of Americans lived in small towns or isolated farms, but some
urban areas began to develop. Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and
Charleston had lifestyles distinct from rural America. Their economies were
geared to commerce; they were not industrial centers. Because of their more frequent
contacts with Europe, city people led the way in the adoption of new
fashions and the latest luxuries. Emulating British architecture, they built grand
homes and filled them with fine furniture. However, American cities could
merely hint at the grandeur of London, and it was to that city that talented
colonists, such as John Singleton Copley, traveled for opportunity and
B. American Enlightenment
Unlike the European Enlightenment, the colonial American version was
less radical. Science was esteemed, but mainly because of its practical
uses, and only if it did not threaten religious ideas.
C. Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (1706--1790) epitomized provincial, urban culture.
Enraptured as a boy by British literature, Franklin became a writer himself,
offering practical advice in a witty way. Uninterested in religion, he dedicated
himself to reason and science, always with the practical use of scientific theory
D. Economic Transformation
America's prosperity created a rising demand for English and West Indian goods.
The colonists paid for their imports by exporting tobacco, wheat, and rice and
by purchasing on credit. Because so much of their standard of living depended
on commerce, the colonists resented English regulations. In addition to the laws
described in Chapter 3, England restricted colonial manufacture or trade of
timber, sugar, hats and iron.
E. Birth of a Consumer Society
As England entered the Industrial Revolution and began to mass-produce items
of everyday use, American imports of English goods rose, and wealthy
Americans began to build up large debts to English merchants. Americans also
traded extensively with the West Indies and with each other. These trades
usually earned a surplus and enabled the colonists to pay for English imports.
Inter-colonial commerce also gave Americans a chance to learn about one
IV. RELIGIOUS REVIVALS IN PROVINCIAL SOCIETIES
The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals, occurred at different places at
different times. These revivals, like the one led by Jonathan Edwards at Northampton,
Massachusetts, encouraged the "awakened" to question their own values and the values
of their society.
A. The Great Awakening
George Whitefield, an itinerant minister from England, made revivalism a mass
movement. Using his abilities as an orator, Whitefield preached outdoor
sermons to thousands of people in nearly every colony. Whitefield and his
many imitators urged congregations to desert unconverted ministers, thereby
disrupting established churches. Laypeople, including women and blacks, finally
had a chance to shape their own religious institutions. The Awakening thus
promoted a democratic, evangelical union of national extent before there was an
American political nation.
B. The Voice of Popular Religion
Some of the revivalists were anti-intellectual fanatics, but most were well-trained
ministers whose concern for learning led them to found several colleges:
Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown and Rutgers. In addition, most of the revivalists
had optimistic attitudes toward America's religious role in world history, thus
fostering American patriotism and preparing for the development of a
V. CLASH OF POLITICAL CULTURES
The colonials tried to copy British political institutions, but in doing so, discovered how
different they were from the English people.
A. The English Constitution
The British Constitution was universally admired because it seemed to perfectly
balance monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, thus guaranteeing the liberties of
B. The Reality of British Politics
In reality, very few of the English people were represented in the political
system. Over 80 percent of the adult males had no right to vote, and members
of Parliament were notorious for corruption and bribery. "Commonwealthmen,"
like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, railed against the degeneracy of
English politics and urged a return to a truly balanced constitution.
C. Governing the Colonies: The American Experience
Americans liked to think that their colonial governments were replicas of
Parliament, but they were not. Royal governors, as a rule, were incompetent
political hacks who could not have governed the colonies even if they had taken
an interest. They were so bound by instructions from England and had so little
patronage with which to buy votes that they were, in effect, given the task of
ruling as despots without having the power to force their will on the colonists.
The colonial assemblies bore no resemblance to the House of Commons. Most
white males could vote in America, so elected officials knew they could not do
something too unpopular without suffering at the polls. The assemblies were,
therefore, more interested in pleasing their constituents than in obeying the
D. Colonial Assemblies
The assemblies controlled all means of raising revenue and quickly protested any
infringement of their rights. When a governor did succeed in controlling an
assembly, the public reacted with alarm and flooded the colonial press with
arguments for a return to balanced government.
America's ties with the mother country became closer in the eighteenth century,
especially in the law courts, where English usage became more common.
Americans grew increasingly aware that they shared similar political ideas,
institutions and problems with England and with each other.
VI. CENTURY OF IMPERIAL WAR
In the eighteenth century the colonies participated in four major imperial wars that
pitted England against France. The Americans, with English aid, attempted to take
Canada, but were unsuccessful, despite the fact that they vastly outnumbered the
French in Canada. French Canada was later subdued in 1759 by an English army. This
section shows how the wars led to greater inter-colonial association and cooperation.
A. King William's and Queen Anne's Wars
From 1689 to 1713, England and France struggled for the mastery of Europe,
and their colonists fought one another in America. These wars settled nothing,
and the grounds for a new conflict were laid when France extended her American
empire from Canada into Louisiana.
B. King George's War and Its Aftermath
From 1743 to 1748, another imperial war dragged Americans into conflict. New
England troops won an impressive victory when they captured Louisbourg on
Cape Breton Island, but the fort was returned to France in the peace treaty.
In the 1750s both sides realized the strategic importance of the Ohio Valley,
which became the cockpit for the next round of skirmishes. The French built a
fort at the head of the Ohio River, at present-day Pittsburgh. Virginia considered
the area its own and sent its militia under a young officer, George Washington, to
expel the French. Washington was defeated.
C. Albany Congress and Braddock's Defeat
Some Americans, such as Ben Franklin, realized that France could not be
defeated by a single colony. He proposed, in 1754, a new arrangement between
Great Britain and her colonies that would give America a central government (the
Albany Plan). Neither the English government nor the colonial assemblies liked
the plan, and it came to nothing.
In 1755, England sent an army under General Edward Braddock to drive the
French out of the Ohio Valley. On his march west, Braddock fell into an
ambush, and his army was destroyed.
D. Seven Years' War
In 1756 England declared war on France and the two nations fought in every
corner of the globe. The English, led by William Pitt, concentrated their efforts in
North America and captured Quebec in 1759. The century of struggle for control
of the wealth of a continent was now ended.
E. Perceptions of War
The English and Americans learned two opposite lessons during the imperial
wars. The colonists realized how strong they could be when they worked
together; the English learned that the Americans took forever to organize and
that it was easier to just command them to obey orders.
VII. CONCLUSION: RULE BRITANNIA?
In 1763, most colonial Americans believed that they were bound in brotherhood with
the English people. British culture, British consumer goods, British evangelists and
British military victories swept all Americans, even the non-English, into what seemed
to be a great empire tied together by admiration and affection.
August 6, 2008