Map of Boston, 1650 / Public Domain
Being a British Colonist
We begin by talking about being a British colonist, which means we’re going to be discussing how you would feel if you were part of the British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, living in the North American colonies shortly before the onset of the Revolution. And for those of you who were not here on Tuesday, I talked for a little while — I’ll just mention it here — about how this course was really going to be exploring the mindset of the people who were experiencing the Revolution to really try to get at the logic behind both what the British colonists and the British authorities were doing, and how that ultimately resulted in a war. So we’re really — we’re going to try to really kind of create two opposing forms of logic and understand how they came to oppose each other and how that ended up leading in to conflict.
So it makes sense that as a starting point we’re going to start by essentially talking about some of the basics about being a British colonist in North America: what their world would have been like, what your world would have been like if you had been a colonist, what your feelings would have been about yourself as part of the British Empire if you were a colonist in the middle of the eighteenth century.
Association of Colonists’ Identity to English Monarchy
Portrait of Benjamin Rush, by Charles Wilson Peale, c.1818 / Yale Art Gallery
If you were a British colonist here in North America, you would be living somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard. The colonial population was largely clustered right along the shoreline for really practical reasons. I’m sure you don’t have to be very imaginative to think why. Obviously, for reasons of trade, for reasons of shipping and even just for reasons of communication it made sense, not to mention the fact that people had a pretty healthy fear of potentially unfriendly Indians who were not particularly pleased with the idea of losing land to potentially advancing settlers.
Now if you were male, you might very well be a small landholder because about sixty percent of the white male colonists owned land and, as I’ll talk about down the road a little bit, that’s — actually when you compare that with the rates of land ownership in Europe, that’s actually pretty high, it’s a pretty high rate of ownership, and even in today’s lecture you’ll see how that actually has an impact on how things are functioning in the American colonies. You probably would be a small landholder. You might be if you were living in one of the small cities along the coast maybe a merchant or an artisan. As a non-enslaved person, you would probably have decent clothes. You’d probably have a decent home. You probably would have some degree of economic and personal independence, and right around the turn — let’s say 1770 — you would be one of about two million North American colonists, which is actually if you think about it — Certainly, if you — if I asked you to guess how many colonists there were in 1770, you probably would not say two million. It’s a lot. And that includes both free people and slaves, and you would have been living in a society that was so booming with prosperity that between the years 1700 and 1770 — so we’re just talking about a seventy-year period — the population increased from 200,000 to over two million in just a seventy-year period, which is amazing. So basically, things were increasing. Every decade the population was increasing at a rate of roughly thirty to forty percent. That’s a huge rate of growth.
You would be living in the midst of a host of British colonies, so it’s not just you along the seaboard but obviously to the north there is Canada, to the south there were British islands in the West Indies which were known as the Sugar Islands, and to the west was the vast ‘scary wilderness’ populated by potentially unfriendly Indians with what felt to you as though it was an entirely foreign culture, and then of course to the east — there is civilization to your east. There is the metropolis, there is England, there is culture in the minds of the colonists and probably to many people in England as well, the height of cultural and political sophistication. When you looked to the east, and it really was — if you were a colonist it was looking to the east towards England that you really got a sense of yourself as a British colonist and really felt that you belonged to something that was powerful and admirable and world-shaping and victorious. Basically, you understood yourself as being part of an empire by identifying with that center of empire to the east.
As an example of this, just listen to someone who ends up being a rather prominent American revolutionary. I called him the doctor to the stars and that’s kind of unfair to him, but Benjamin Rush. He actually was a really prominent man of science at the time. He moved in very high political circles. When I was thinking about this lecture today I remembered, or at least I hope I remembered — I think I’m not leading you astray — I think that actually Rush helped Thomas Paine edit Common Sense, and I think he edited out a sentence that I wished Paine had left in, so I don’t like Rush as an editor very much. I think I’ll — we’ll wait until we get to Common Sense but — and supposedly, allegedly, it’s Rush who came up with the title Common Sense, that Paine was going to call it Plain Truth, and Rush — I think Rush wins on that. I think Plain Truth is not as snazzy as Common Sense but either way — So Rush — The — My main point here in blathering happily about Rush is he’s not some little modest humbug of a guy. Right? He’s someone of status.
So this is Rush’s response when he saw the throne of the King of England. So Rush said, “I felt as though I were on sacred ground. I gazed for some time at the throne with emotions that I cannot describe.” Okay. He’s just dumbstruck at the throne of the King of England, just looking at it. Now we sit here and we think back. We’re: “Oh, boy, aren’t those monarchists really cute,” [laughs] “those cute monarchists, those silly people who are amazed at a throne,” which is pretty much I think what I thought was — wow, what an interesting phase in American history when they were dazzled by a throne.
Then, a couple of years ago I ended up being lucky enough to have a Member of Parliament show me around the Houses of Parliament. And I was excited; it was pretty neat and I’m being all American historian-ish, you know: “Oh, how similar, how interesting when you compare.” So I’m doing the geeky historian thing and then this member of Parliament who’s showing me around takes me in to what he describes to me as the robing chamber for the Queen where she puts on her crown and ceremonial robes before she goes in to the House of Lords, which I gather she does at the beginning of every session of Parliament. Okay. So I walk in to [laughs] the robing chamber and at the head of that room there’s a throne, sort of an elevated throne, so instantly, without even thinking, in my head, I’m thinking: wow, [laughs] that’s the throne, [laughs] and then I thought, I just became Benjamin Rush. Just like that, I went right into the monarchy vortex. It didn’t really take me very long, so I can’t chortle at Rush anymore. So there is something impressive, and particularly at this moment if you had been a colonist — and not that many people I should say necessarily even got to travel to Europe; I’ll talk a little bit about that later on too — but you certainly would have been awestruck and impressed by something like the throne of the King of England.
Okay. So, as suggested by Rush quavering in front of the throne, as a colonist you would be proud to be British. You would have a really deep affection for the mother country and it would be an affection that was really rooted in bonds of culture and tradition and language. Basically, you would really consider yourself lucky to belong to a powerful nation that granted its citizens, you believed, more liberty than any nation on earth.
Map of the British North American Colonies, 1773-1776 / From, Wikimedia Commons
Unlike other modern empires at the time, England seemed, particularly to the English, to be an empire that was bound together not by force but by bonds of interconnectedness and affection as well as a joint appreciation, a real love, of liberty and order. And we’re going to come back to this idea of liberty a little bit later in the course where we start to really talk about the logic of revolution, but for now I’ll just highlight the fact that if you asked an English-speaking person of the eighteenth century about liberty he or she would have told you that liberty was worth more than life. Right? Liberty was it. Liberty was what mattered. It was the most important possession of a civilized people, and of course the British people, colonists and all, felt that they were at the peak of the civilized world. As somebody at the time wrote, “What signify riches? What signifies health, or life itself without liberty? Life without liberty is the most errant trifle, the most insignificant enjoyment in the world.” Okay, extreme, but something to think about. I suppose it’s related to what I said on Tuesday.
I think it’s also easy to hear some of this talk that sounds really inflated and to dismiss it as mere rhetoric, and I’m sure there is some mere rhetoric floating around here, but it’s important I think not to dismiss things that sound extreme and emotional as simply emotional and extreme. Some of this actually represents sincere thought so I think before you think these guys are sort of overexcited about things, think to yourself that they actually honestly may be overexcited; it might just be that they’re dramatic, but that they sincerely feel these things.
There was a time when historians did assume that a lot of revolutionary rhetoric from the colonists was actually kind of inflated, kind of for propaganda purposes, and it took a while — Actually, the Faces of Revolution book by Bailyn, part of the book that I mentioned before that comes from his larger book on the ideology of the Revolution, he’s the guy who said, “I’ve read several hundred Revolutionary War pamphlets and I actually think they’re serious. I think we have to take them seriously. I don’t think it’s propaganda or rhetoric. I think they actually feel these things.” So again, to us it might sound a little inflated but their feelings are really strong, and again liberty is one of the things that we’ll find they’re feeling very strongly about.
So as a colonist, you would be proud to be British, you would be really obviously proud of British liberties, and you would have been particularly proud about being British after the French and Indian War in the 1760s, when North American colonists fought right alongside the British army and helped them defeat England’s great enemy, the French — and more on that to come for sure, but that was a really proud moment for the colonists, that they felt that they were right there with the British army fighting against the French.
The British Colonists’ Inferiority Complex
Fort Amsterdam and the Founding of New York / Public Domain
Above all else, as British colonists you would of course consider yourselves to be British subjects through and through, equal to all other British subjects, even those living off in the east in the metropolis. You were a British subject and you deserved the rights of a British subject, but as a colonist living on the peripheries of the British Empire, on the edge of what was perceived at the time to be a howling wilderness, which is one of those great eighteenth-century ways of referring to North America, you also would be a little nervous about your status as a British subject, worried about how you rated in comparison with people living in the mother country at the center of the empire.
Everything seemed more sophisticated in England, and I suppose everything was more sophisticated [laughs] in England, but it definitely seemed that way to the colonists. The clothes were more fashionable; the homes were grander and more stately; the intellectual life was rich and challenging. In comparison with the sophisticated people in England, you as a North American colonist pretty much felt like a country bumpkin; you felt kind of dull, kind of primitive, somewhat rude, and certainly you felt potentially irrelevant. You really did feel that you were on the edge of a howling wilderness.
So in essence, like most British colonists in North America, if you were there at the time, you would have had an ongoing inferiority complex. Now there were a number of ways in which you might deal with your insecurities. One way to deal with that would have been to become really apologetic for what would have been labeled as American speech patterns or American manners, and I’ve already given you one arrogant British quote by that fellow on Tuesday who said that he was mortified that these crude colonists spoke English and could trace themselves to us because they speak our language. So that’s sort of the ultimate nasty stab at the colonists.
So you actually for good reason might feel kind of embarrassed about your manners and your speech. You probably would feel equally embarrassed at the meanness of your architecture, your buildings — they’re smaller and less impressive — at the pallor of your intellectual life, at the relative unimportance of your public affairs. Like a lot of colonial writers who wrote pamphlets or books addressed to an English audience, you probably would apologize for the poor quality of your work by reminding readers, as one writer did, “I live in the uncultivated woods of America, far from the fountains of science and with but very rare opportunities of conversing with learned men.” That almost sounds like someone who feels sorry for himself. ‘I am so far from civilization.’
Or, you might boast about colonial society, not claiming to be better than the mother country but instead bragging that the colonies represented Britain in miniature; that colonial legislatures in this sense were kind of like mini-Parliaments. Or, you might admit that the colonies were different from England but boast that in the same way that England once had been pure and virtuous, you in the colonies were maintaining the sort of pure, virtuous England, and that England itself was becoming corrupt and its cities were becoming cesspools, but there in the colonies you were preserving the true British heritage.
Still, whichever you chose to rationalize or understand your status as a colonist, you could not escape the fact that you were a colonist and that you were far away from the center of the civilized world. As the young John Dickinson of Pennsylvania put it, and we’re going to meet John Dickinson again for sure later on in the course, he wrote to his father while he was studying law in London and he said that when colonists went to England and saw “the difference between themselves and the polite part of the world they must be miserable.” He actually thinks if people — any colonist goes to London and sees what the polite part of the world lives like, they’ll never be able to hold their head up in the colonies ever again.
And Jefferson felt the same way. Thomas Jefferson actually — as much as he adored being particularly in France, he actually said more than once that he thought that young American men should not be allowed to go to Europe because if impressionable young men went to Europe they would be so impressed by Paris and London that they would never be able to hold their heads up in Massachusetts or Virginia. It would look so puny and insignificant in comparison that they would never be good Americans ever again and that they’d have to go back to Europe.
Now of course the British agreed generally with this assessment of colonial society. Colonists obviously were inferior and rough and rustic and crude, so as promised, here is yet another arrogant British quote in my series of arrogant British quotes. In this case one British observer noted, “American colonists may try to ape British habits and customs but they’re no more than ruffled dunces.” I just think there’s — these guys have a real vim and vigor for finding the little zippy, stingy, nasty statement. I think “ruffled dunces” is a pretty good one. “What else could be expected from aggrandized upstarts in those infant countries of America who never have an opportunity to see, or if they had, the opportunity [correction: capacity] to observe the different ranks of men in polite nations?” Notice how the colonies are never polite. There are the polite nations, and then there’s these scary, howling wilderness colonists.
Along these same lines, there’s actually another professor here at Yale, Kariann Yokota, and some of her work shows — I found this really fascinating — that the British regularly sent damaged or second-rate goods to the colonists because they figured the colonists wouldn’t know the difference. They just kept the first-rate stuff for themselves, like: Broken? Massachusetts. They’ll never know. Last week’s, last year’s style? Massachusetts. So basically all of this shows that if Americans had an inferiority complex, they had some reason to have one.
Now let me add at this point that this anxiety about how the colonists rated in comparison with England, specifically in Europe, the polite world, generally doesn’t end with the Revolution. It’s not as though suddenly we win the Revolution and we don’t really care what the rest of the world thinks. Even after the colonies and then the states had fought and defeated the great power of the British empire and successfully created a new national constitution, Americans were still worried about looking sophisticated enough in the eyes of the world.
And my favorite example of this is John Adams — and it’s actually from 1789. It’s right when this new national Constitution has gone into effect and the Senate is debating what the title should be for the new national executive. Right? We know there’s going to be a national executive. We don’t know what we’re going to call him. And so the Senate is debating this, and someone in the Senate says, “Well, why don’t we call him President of the United States?” Okay. This horrifies John Adams, absolutely horrifies him, and as he says at the time — He says, “For God’s sake, there are presidents of cricket clubs.” [laughs] President of the United States: and I’ll quote him exactly here. He does say there are presidents of cricket clubs but he says in the Senate — Where is it here? — “What will the common people of foreign countries, what will the sailors and soldiers say? George Washington, President of the United States? They will despise him to all eternity.” So Adams is thinking in a world where you have His Royal Highness, protector of the realm: President of the United States — he’s just thinking that there’s no comparison; it doesn’t rank.
There’s a constant thinking about what — how we are being looked upon and that doesn’t go away. It shifts, it’s different, but it remains for quite some time. America in one way or another always assumes they’re being watched and judged. In the 1760s, we’ll see soon how these sort of colonial feelings of inferiority would help fuel the hypersensitivity of the colonists to infringements on their rights by the mother country.
The Fluidity of American Social Order: Gentry Minorities, Prisoners, and Religious Exiles
Family of Isaac Royall, by Robert Feke, 1741, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons
Now despite all of this anxiety, all of this inferiority complex that I’m talking about here, as a colonist you did share a base of assumptions and values with your counterparts in England. So, first of all, as an individual you assumed that you lived in a great hierarchy, a sort of natural order, everyone in his or her place, deferent to those that were beneath you. That’s a nifty order, to be deferent to those beneath you and respected. You would be respectful to those above, and people below you would be deferential to you, so basically everyone is in their place and everybody is acting respectful and deferential as they properly should, and this — you’ll see a lot of this in Gordon Wood.
Now of course the American version of this great social order, this great hierarchy, is different in some ways from its British equivalent because the colonies lacked both the top-most and the bottom-most rungs of society in England. So in the colonies there wasn’t a titled entrenched aristocracy and there wasn’t an entrenched peasant class. Instead the colonies had what some called a middling society which was populated mostly by either middling folk, logically enough, who had migrated from England to better their lot in life, by the English poor who hoped to better themselves, and by some of the lower ranks of the English gentry like third or fourth sons of the English gentry, who basically knew they weren’t going to inherit anything in England and so their thought was: well, maybe if I head out to the colonies I — it’ll be easier for me to get some land there; I’ll be able to better myself; I’ll be able to basically make something of myself there easier than I can here.
Now if you were thinking about going to the colonies and you really wanted to get rich quick, the West Indies was the place to go, though it also offered some of the absolute worst living conditions in the British colonial world. Life there was extremely hard. There was unbearable heat. All energies were focused on gaining money and little else. West Indian planters were so focused on money, money crops, they actually didn’t even bother to grow their own food. They imported food because they didn’t want to waste land, energy, and resources on growing their own food. They were really focused on their money crop. If you went to the Indies to get rich quick, typically you either made it big or failed miserably, and either way typically what happened is you would go to the Indies, you would establish a plantation, you would find an overseer, you would put him in charge, and then you would flee back to England and be an absentee landlord and let the people live in misery in the West Indies while you collected the profit off of your sugar crop back home in England. Now the Indies, not surprisingly, might seem a little intimidating. If you wanted to get rich quick, you might choose not to go down to the scary sugar islands.
Nathaniel Bacon / Wikimedia Commons
You might decide instead to go to the southern colonies to get rich quick, and for example it was largely sons of the lesser gentry in England who went to Jamestown at the start of the seventeenth century in Virginia. And, logically enough, since these are sons of the lesser gentry and they consider themselves to be above hard labor, they show up to this rather primitive new colony in Jamestown, they refuse to work to grow their own food, and they starve to death. [laughs] That’s a serious commitment to your status. ‘I’m sorry. I’m above plowing. I’m going to die now.’ [laughter] You think sooner or later they kind of figure: a little plowing — life. It’s kind of — I don’t know.
At any rate, there’s a reason why Jamestown didn’t do so well and there’s — a great example of this weird mentality is Nathaniel Bacon, who is a gentile colonist. He’s a younger son of a member of the British gentry and in the seventeenth century sure enough he migrates, he ends up in Virginia, and he arrives in Virginia like a lot of people assuming that he deserved power, he deserved land, and he deserved status. He’s among the lesser gentry but he still is among the upper crust in England and now he’s arriving among the rude, ruffled dunces [laughs] of the colonies. He assumes he’s someone who deserves what he wants. Lo and behold, he gets there and he finds that actually in Virginia there’s a kind of an inner core of men, self-made men, who had been there for awhile, or their families had been there for awhile, and basically they controlled most of the land, they controlled most of the government offices, they had most of the power, and thus they could exclude Bacon and others from getting what they wanted.
Bacon obviously is a person who’s much more interested in making money than in the good of the colony so he responded to his frustration at not being able to get land or power by surrounding himself with a pack of equally-frustrated angry young men who also wanted land and also wanted power, and eventually they came up with the brilliant idea that they would stage an enormous attack on Indians, massacre them all and steal their land. Brilliant plot.
So Bacon and his pack of guys sort of go off and actually start this in action. The governor of the colony sees that this is rapidly spinning out of control and becoming wild, crazy Indian warfare so he tries to stifle it and Nathaniel Bacon and his friends did what I suppose appeared logical to them at the time. They burned Jamestown to the ground because they were angry. [laughs] Well, that’s serious anger. ‘Oh, you’re going to stop us? We’ll just destroy the capital.’ [laughter] ‘You’re gone.’ Now the story is kind of anticlimactic because Bacon ultimately dies miserably of dysentery while running away from authorities so there’s not a lot of glory [laughs] in Bacon’s ultimate end, but he’s definitely a really good example of greedy self-interest and of the sense of deservedness because of his social rank and this disgust at the power of these self-made men in Virginia. There were some gentry who would have migrated to the colonies who would have had some kind of a similar feeling about what they saw and what they expected.
1744 Indenture of Michael Gyger / Wikimedia Commons
But the gentry was only a minority of the people who migrated to the colonies. Most were lower in status, some were of the lowest rank of all, landless people and sometimes criminals. So if you committed a crime in England, you might be offered the option between prison in England and being sent to the colonies, and to some this was actually a really hard choice. Right? ‘Prison, the colonies, prison, the colonies. I don’t know.’ The howling wilderness was very scary. Now some people opted for the howling wilderness, obviously, and some people, poorer people, decided to take their chances on the colonies, sold themselves into servitude as indentured servants for five to seven years at a time, and in exchange their passage was paid, they owed a certain amount of work, and at the end of their time of indenture they would get some plot of land. So there were a good number of indentured servants, and as a matter of fact some of those Virginia power mongers who were blocking Bacon out had started out actually as indentured servants. That’s — When you talk self-made you’re really talking self-made, people who came, did their indenture, got some land and then really built their way up. So self-improvement obviously is one reason to head to the colonies.
Another reason, another thing that might drive you to head off to the colonies, would have been if you belonged to a religious minority that was seemingly increasing unpopular in England. So if you were a Puritan, if you were a Quaker, if you were Catholic, again probably middling in status, you might decide to try your luck in the colonies where either you thought there might be more religious tolerance, or just as likely there’d be land so empty of people that it wouldn’t really be a worry of yours. There wouldn’t be people around there to be intolerant of you and so it probably would be better than what you were experiencing in England. Obviously, a lot of New England was settled by Puritans with that mindset. Pennsylvania had the Quaker faith at its cure — at its core. It was founded by William Penn, who was actually a member of the aristocracy. He became a Quaker and then he used his high connections to get a royal charter from the King to found a colony for Quakers. And Maryland began as a place that was distinctly friendly to people of the Catholic faith.
Now out of all of these kinds of colonists that I’m talking about here, what was missing was a titled, sort of to-the-manor-born, established aristocracy of dukes and duchesses unshakably of the highest rank in society. This doesn’t mean that colonial society didn’t have an established elite, because certainly every colony had certain great families that controlled large amounts of power and land. And as a colonist, and an average colonist, you would have had no problem differentiating these gentlefolk from the common masses — right? — these sort of gentlemen and gentlewomen. They dressed differently; they held themselves differently; they spoke differently; you addressed these people by Mister or Madame or Esquire. You actually visibly could tell who the sort of upper-crust people in society were. Some families held obvious power but again not in the unquestionable way that the aristocracy remained in control in England. A lot of these people that I just mentioned had worked their way into positions of prominence, so ultimately the line dividing sort of upper-crusty people from less upper-crusty people was less sort of absolute. It was less distinct than it would have been in a country or in a place where there was a really established aristocracy.
So basically even though you could tell who the elite are and you could tell who the masses are, there is slippage up and down between the two. It’s not as though there is a dividing line and you could never hope to become an aristocrat. It’s a little blurrier; it’s again a middling society; it’s part of what that means. And because of that, things like formal titles and fine clothing were of extreme importance in the colonies — and in a lot of ways more important in the colonies than they were in England — because they really were ways of proving your status in a place where you felt the need to prove your status.
If you think about it, your status would have been just a matter of common agreement. You were only as lofty in status as people believed you were and if someone felt compelled to call you by a title or if you were wearing fine clothing that people knew they themselves couldn’t afford, that could go a long way towards convincing people of your status and importance. So for example, if you had any military service at all, even for the briefest moment you’d served in the military, and you were an officer, you would insist forever after to the end of your days that you be called always by your title like Colonel So-and-So or Captain So-and-So. That military title counted for a lot. That was really a sort of unquestioned symbol of rank and authority, and in fact some people joined the military just because they knew by doing so they would get a title and then they would be able to hang on to that title to really claim a place for themselves in society.
And when I was researching my first book I came across a case where there were these two guys — it sounds like a bad joke — two guys in a tavern. There were these two guys in a tavern and one of them is a military officer and one of them isn’t, and I guess the guy who wasn’t a military officer wasn’t so clear on the whole rank thing and he called the fellow by a lower rank than he was: well, Captain Something instead of Colonel Something — and the guy was so insulted that his title had been lowered by who-the- hell-was-this-person that he actually challenged him to a duel right there. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m willing to kill you now.’ [laughs] ‘You called me Captain. You die.’ [laughter] It was a serious insult, a dread insult — and also he might have just been a crazy person but — [laughs] That’s possible too, but still it actually was a serious insult.
And because military titles and status went hand in hand, sometimes strangers who seemed to be high-ranking were just called Colonel or General because they seemed important and thus they must have a military rank. And I actually found a diary of someone, this sort of member of the South Carolina elite, and he was wandering around in the backcountry. And he says in his diary, no matter where he went, he was called Colonel, which amazed him because he said not only had he never had any military service but — and I don’t know what this means; I don’t know enough about him to know — but he kept saying over and over again, ‘I really don’t look like a military person, nothing about me,’ so I’m imagining this sort of sloppy, scary guy who’s wandering around in the back country of South Carolina and people are saying, ‘Colonel,’ [laughs], — wow — and people usually loved that. This made him happy. He wrote about it in his diary because he liked it so much; this made him a happy guy. So obviously titles, status, they’re important and they go hand in hand.
Now if you were in college in the colonies — so if you were at Yale, if you were at Harvard, if you were at King’s College, which is now Columbia — these kinds of distinctions of rank and status would have been a part of your everyday life, because when you entered college you were listed as a member of your class in the order of your social rank. Okay. So the person of the highest social rank is listed at the top of the class and the person of the lowest social rank is listed at the bottom of the class, and at commencement ceremonies or graduation ceremonies the highest in rank was the one who got to speak the longest and give the longest public address — and obviously because, as I’ve been saying, things are less entrenched, what this meant was lots of really petty, nasty squabbling at a lot of universities because everybody had a complaint. ‘Well, I’m not on the bottom. Well, I certainly have a better rank than him. He should be at the bottom. I should be at the — ‘
So certainly it’s a contentious issue at colleges, and what this meant, oddly enough, is that when the grading system — when people actually figured out that you could have a grading system and base — judge people based on grades, then unbelievably this was seen as a great relief. This made people really — Grades made people really, really happy, because it meant that you could be judged based on merit and not based on rank or social class. So you can give thanks to the democracy of grades. Remember that during this semester. I’ll remind you. Give thanks for your grades.
Salutary Neglect’s Effect on British Liberties in the Colonies and Conclusion
Okay. So we’ve talked about some of the similarities and differences in social rank between colonists and people living in England.
I want to just take a few minutes to talk about some assumptions about government and about rights, about individual rights, because one of the periods of great migration to the colonies, which was the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, was also a period in which Parliament asserted its dominance in England. So while all Englishmen believed in the importance of political liberty and legislative representation and the rule of law and all of these things I’ve started to talk about, the colonies were full of people who either themselves had left England or were descended from people who had left England when that kind of belief was at an all-time high, so colonial governments embodied that spirit to a really extreme degree. And it’s important to realize that colonial talk of liberty wasn’t some kind of colonial innovation. It was the most heartfelt of British traditions – the precise meaning of liberty as translated into the colonies from England — and as this slowly shifts over time, it’s going to help raise conflict between the colonies and the mother country. But questions about the precise meaning of liberty wouldn’t really become an issue until the 1760s, after the French and Indian War when, as we’ll soon see, the British would end what had been a long period of what’s often called a period of salutary neglect, a period when the British largely just left the colonies alone to regulate themselves.
And throughout that period of neglect colonists had lived immersed in their sense of English rights and privileges, unaware of the ways in which the colonial experience — just the experience of living in the colonies — had suddenly altered their understanding of these rights. They’ve been able to live in that kind of a freedom largely because of the nature of the British imperial administration. Typically, rather than exerting great control over the colonization process the British Crown tended to leave colonization largely to private enterprise, so like a joint-stock company would get a grant to establish a colony, and off they’d go, and it wasn’t really necessarily the Crown that had its hand on everything. It was these private companies that were often taking care of the colonization efforts, and on a few occasions when the Crown did pass trade regulations they didn’t enforce them very rigorously, which basically allowed widespread smuggling and bribery. So in a sense, the success of the British imperial system up until the 1760s was largely due to what was not really a policy, but the absence of a policy — right? — this neglect of the colonies by the mother country.
Not until the British began to actively regulate the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century did it really become apparent that colonial and British ideas about the role of the colonies and the rights of colonists had really begun to drift apart. Had the colonists forfeited some of their English liberties by migrating to the New World or not? Were they dependent on the mother country or were they just contributors to the greater empire?
And some colonists would come to have a clear answer to those kinds of questions. They would argue — and we’re going to see this in weeks to come, and specifically people writing this argument and offering it to the public — that the original settlers of the colonies had been free-born subjects of England who had left England with the authorization of the monarchy and, taking a good many personal risks, had created thriving English settlements at little cost to the English government, bringing England great riches in the process.
So essentially some colonists would argue not only were they English, but they made personal sacrifices for England; they had tamed a wilderness for England, for the sake of the empire. And ironically it would be that mentality — that kind of outcry for the rights of Englishmen — that would help lead the colonists to revolt against England. As we’ll see, in a sense, the colonies were never as English as when they rebelled against the mother country for the rights of Englishmen. And I will stop there. On Tuesday we will be looking at some things that were distinctly American about the colonial experience. Have a good weekend.
Being a British American
So we’ve set the scene by talking about the experience of being a British colonist, and as you remember we talked about the connection the colonists had with England both positive and negative; we talked about their sense of England — and particularly London — as being the sort of the center of the empire and almost the center of the universe; and we talked about the colonists’ simultaneous concerns about maybe not quite being as good as the people who were at that wonderful sophisticated center of the universe. And I closed the lecture by noting that in many ways the colonists were never as British as when they began to object and then ultimately rebel against their mother country for not being given their full rights as British subjects.
Okay. So if Thursday’s lecture was about how the colonists identified with the mother country, today’s lecture sort of does the opposite. And what I’m going to be talking about today is the ways in which the colonists and the colonies were different from people back in the mother country. Basically, as the title of this lecture suggests, I’m going to be talking about being a British American as opposed to being a British colonist, which was last week. Now connected with what I suggested on Thursday, it’s important to note that the American colonists weren’t necessarily aware of the ways in which some of their ideas and attitudes were different, or certainly were evolving differently from those in England, and I’ll come back to this again in this lecture but I’ll mention it here. By the mid-eighteenth century, the period that we’re really talking about now, there had already been several generations of colonists in the colonies. So certainly there were people in the colonies who themselves had never been to England, perhaps they didn’t know very many people who had been to England, and so they didn’t necessarily have an amazingly accurate sense of really what it meant to be a British subject in England, living in England proper, as opposed to their experience of being in the colonies. And that’s going to be an important thing to think about as we continue on in this course, this idea that ideas are evolving differently in the colonies than they’re evolving in England, and the colonists didn’t necessarily realize that these differences existed. Okay.
From Dr. Hamilton’s Diary: Religiosity, Diversity, and Coloniality
A young Alexander Hamilton / Library of Congress
So I want to begin this lecture on being a British American with just a handful of examples and — really, kinds of snapshots of life in the colonies in the 1740s. And as you’ll see with these little examples, they’re going to each be demonstrating something that I’m going to come back to later in the lecture, but I at least wanted to give you sort of a sense of what it looked like before I actually talked about it. And I’ve pulled all of these examples — there’s three or four of them — all from the same source, which is from a really well-known diary by a Dr. Alexander Hamilton. And this is not the Alexander Hamilton. I always feel bad for this guy because [laughter] he’s gone down to posterity as not the real Alexander Hamilton. [laughter] He’s the not real — he’s the unknown, unimportant Alexander Hamilton, poor guy — who lived in Maryland as a doctor, and actually he does have a really interesting diary. I’ll be reading a couple of sections from it, but he’s not the founder, tough break for Alexander Hamilton. Okay.
So in 1744, he decided to take a trip north from Maryland for his health, and that’s when he keeps this sort of a travel diary, and in it he recorded his observations with a lot of detail, as you’ll hear, that show a lot about habits of behavior and thought in the colonies or certain — and they also will show a lot, as you’ll see, about Mr. Hamilton, but also they sort of show you what he saw through the lens of him — but still they’ll give you a sense of some trends. Okay. And I’ll — Actually, I’ll add here one little brief point, and that is I’m — in a sense this is touching on something that I’m going to be focusing on in Thursday’s lecture — and that’s the idea that to many people — and you’ll hear it sort of underlying what he’s saying here — to many people, their individual colony really was what felt to them like their country, and people often referred to — Jefferson called Virginia “my country” well into the 1790s, if not beyond. So you’ll be hearing how people really feel about their colony versus those other foreign colonies, that people often felt as though they were different countries with strange habits and weird speech patterns, so you’ll kind of hear that, beneath what I’m going to read here by Hamilton.
Okay. So one thing that Hamilton wrote about in his diary shows the impact of the Great Awakening. During the time that he was traveling, which is the 1740s, the colonies were actually right in the middle of the Great Awakening, which was this really vast religious revival that really swept through the colonies, and in the course of Hamilton’s travels he said he could always tell when he came across a revivalist because they always had a really dour expression on their face as though they were just about to ask you to repent for your sins.
So he says at one point he came across one of these revivalists. He said the fellow was named Mr. Thomas Quiet and, as Hamilton put it in his diary: “This fellow I observed had a particular down-hanging look, which made me suspect” that he is one of the revivalists. “I guessed right, for he introduced a discourse” concerning George Whitefield, who is the renowned preacher of the Great Awakening. He traveled throughout the colonies preaching, and in a lot of ways he was sort of the guiding force behind this Great Awakening in America. So Mr. Thomas Quiet “enlarged pretty much and with some warmth upon the doctrines of that apostle, speaking much in his praise. I took upon me, in a ludicrous manner, to impugn some of his doctrines.” Charming: he was like ‘oh, well, since this means a lot to him, I’ll just make fun of it.’ “Which by degrees put Mr. Quiet in a passion.” So — and he successfully upsets Mr. Quiet. “He told me flatly that I was damned without redemption.” [laughter] A really fun conversation. “I replied that I thought his name and behavior were very incongruous, and desired him to change it with all speed, [laughter] for it was very improper that such an angry turbulent mortal as he should be called by the name of Thomas Quiet.” Okay. This tells you a lot about Alexander [laughter] Hamilton. It just — As you’ll hear, he doesn’t sound like a really charming fellow, but certainly that passage gives you a sense of the sort of religiosity that marked this particular period.
Okay. So sometime later, Hamilton met three men from Pennsylvania and he decided he was going to treat them to punch in an off-roads tavern. Now to Hamilton, as you’ll hear, clearly these three men were not gentlemen or certainly he assumed that they were beneath him. As he noted in his diary: One of them seemed to have to think really, really hard about every word that came out of his mouth. One of them was “profuse in compliments, which were generally blunt, and came out in an awkward manner,” and the third one was a “very roughspun, forward, clownish blade, much addicted to swearing, at the same time desirous to pass for a gentleman, notwithstanding which ambition, the conscientiousness of his natural boorishness obliged him frequently to frame ill-timed apologies for his misbehaviour, which he termed frankness and freeness. It was often,” quote, “Damn me, gentlemen, excuse me; I am a plain, honest fellow; all is right down plain-dealing, by God.”
Sir Robert Walpole, painting by Sir Geoffrey Knesser / Wikimedia Commons
So he manages to apologize and swear in the same sentence, which is pretty tricky. Now that fellow — that Hamilton refers to as the sort of odd cursing fellow — went on to curse Sir Robert Walpole, who was a recent British Prime Minister, as a rascal, and as Hamilton put it: “We asked him his reasons for cursing Sir Robert but he would give us no other” than this, “that he was certainly informed by some very good gentlemen who understood the thing right well, that the said Sir R[obert] was a damn rogue,” so he must be. [laughs] ‘Well, important gentlemen have told me he was and thus he must be, and I will now quote it to anyone I meet in random taverns by the side of the road.’
So here you see three average people trying clearly, or at least to Hamilton, trying clearly to impress or please him in some way. Clearly, he is sort of snarkily feeling as though he’s above them in social status. His tavern companions feel a little bit awkward. They’re apologizing all the time and saying, ‘Well, I’m just a plain speaker,’ all of which Hamilton clearly finds amusing. And this anecdote suggests two things. First it shows people of different social ranks obviously socializing, and shows several, well, what Hamilton would have considered common folk trying to, in his mind, pass for gentlemen. But second, you see a group of people who all perceive differences in status on all sides. So they’re hanging out together, but they also understand that there’s a little bit of a difference that’s making them feel somewhat awkward.
Okay. So at another tavern — So Hamilton’s going tavern to tavern I guess in this portion of the trip. At another tavern he said he dined “with a very mixed company of different nations and religions. There were Scots, English, Dutch, Germans,” Irish, “Roman Catholicks, Churchmen, Presbyterians, Quakers, Newlightmen, Methodists, Seventhdaymen, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew.” [laughter] I like the fact that he counted that one guy. So obviously here you see diversity, great diversity of all kinds — religious diversity, ethnic diversity — which also represents something that was typical of the colonies in a general way, though more in some places than in others. And actually Pennsylvania, which is where I think he is at this point, was known at the time for being particularly diverse.
One last anecdote. So at one point he — Hamilton says he ended up in a conversation with some Pennsylvanians about how low Maryland was in comparison with Pennsylvania, which clearly was a much better colony. As Hamilton put it, the Pennsylvanians “enlarged upon the immorality, drunkenness, rudeness, and immoderate swearing, so much practiced in Maryland, and added that no such vices were to be found in Pennsylvania. I heard this and contradicted it not, because I knew that the first part of the proposition was pretty true.” He’s like, [laughs] ‘yeah, we are drunk and we do swear a lot and we’re rude in Maryland so, okay. I think that’s true.’ [laughter] “But what appeared most comical in their criticism was their making a merit of the stoniness of the roads.” As one put it: “‘One may ride . . . fifty miles in Maryland and not see as many stones upon the roads as [in] fifty paces of roads in Pennsylvania.’ This I knew to be false, but as I thought there was no advantage in stony roads, I . . . let them take the honour of it to themselves, and did not contradict them.”
Now to me, one of the interesting things about this anecdote: It makes me think about almost a century later when we’re talking about de Tocqueville, and he’s wandering around America talking with random Americans, and one of the things that drives him a little bit nuts is that no matter what American he talks to, no matter where he is, the American always tells him how everything is best in America, better than anywhere else in the world. So what Tocqueville is witnessing in the middle of the — towards the middle of the nineteenth century is national pride, and what you’re seeing here is a close equivalent, but obviously it’s colonial pride. It’s pride in your own individual colony. And in a sense, again, it’s a reminder that people are seeing their colony as their country.
So in all of these little — these snapshots, these anecdotes — we’ve seen a few things about life in the colonies. We’ve seen religiosity and the impact of the Great Awakening; we’ve seen diversity of all types, sometimes at one dinner table; we’ve seen a middling society; and we’ve seen how people saw their own colony as their own country and in a sense other colonies as other countries. To varying degrees in all of the colonies, all of these things were characteristic.
Risk-Takers, Landowners, Voters: Life in British America
Map of New Amsterdam in 1600 /
So with that introduction, I want to turn now to really look at what was different about the American colonies. Why were people here different? Why was life here different from what it would have been like to be a British subject back in England? So that’s going to be what I mainly address for the rest of the lecture, and I’m going to talk about it by focusing on three different points. Point number one: I’m going to talk a little bit about the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies. It gives you such a sense of power when you’re lecturing and you say, “There are three reasons” and the entire room goes: “Oh. Three. There are three.” So there are three. So number one is the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies. Number two is the distinctive conditions of life in British America, and then number three is the nature of British colonial administration. And I’ll repeat that: the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies, the distinctive conditions of life in British North America, and the nature of British colonial administration.
So let’s start off first by looking at that first category of difference, the character of the people who migrated to the colonies — and, as you’ll see, in some ways a distinctive kind of person migrated to the colonies — or at least tended to — in ways that will make perfect sense. So for one thing — and in a way this sounds obvious once you think about it — people who migrated to the colonies tended to be risk-takers. These were people who were willing to take a risk. They were willing to make the hazardous passage across the sea, put themselves at a distance of several months’ travel from everything that they knew, and start life anew in what they assumed to be some kind of a wilderness. They were people who wanted something, maybe to better their condition, and they weren’t afraid to act on that desire, to reach for it. Obviously, these are people who are going to be pretty independent and they were often people who didn’t simply accept the status quo. Now all of these are really big, broad generalizations, but as big and broad as they are, you can see in a general sense that people who are deciding to migrate in this way — certainly, many of them would have shared some of these characteristics to some degree.
In a general way this spirit ran through all of the colonies, this sort of sense of really being willing to push for what you wanted. In the Old World, naturally enough, things were more tradition-bound. In the New World, just by deciding to go to the colonies, you were already breaking with tradition and behaving differently from the average British subject. So if you put this different sort of person in a different kind of environment, as in the colonies, you begin to understand the slow creation of something that ends up being a kind of colonial American mindset or mentality.
And this brings us to my second category of differences in the colonies, which is: the conditions of life in British North America. You have a different kind of person. Now you’re putting them in a different kind of living situation — and there were a number of things that were different about living conditions in the colonies. First, as I mentioned last time, more people owned land in the colonies. There was a lot of land, “empty land,” some of it actually empty land, some of it land owned by Indians that people considered to be “empty,” but there was more land that was certainly accessible to settlers in the colonies. So these risk-taking types who came to the colonies could get land and set up their own farms a lot more easily than they could in England, which gave more people a more independent lifestyle in the colonies, and a sense meant they could be and maybe were raising themselves up in the world in a way that might not have been as easy to do back in England.
A second difference in living conditions involved voting and political participation, because logically enough and generally speaking, landholding and the vote went hand in hand, the idea being in the colonies that you should only let people vote who were really invested in a community, and landholders are pretty literally invested in their communities. So in the colonies where you have a lot — a much larger number of landholders, you have a much wider franchise than in England. So an example of that: In the 1760s in England, roughly twenty percent of white men had the vote. In the colonies, roughly sixty to eighty percent of white men had the vote depending on the colony, which is a pretty big difference.
And that one fact alone represents a big shift in mindset. In the colonies you had lots of landholders who knew that they had the right to be directly involved in the political process. Equally important, not only were more people able to be active in the political process, but the process in which they were taking part was really localized, so people felt able to understand and effect that process. A lot of times you knew — or at least perhaps had met — many of the people that held government offices — and elections could be won or lost by just a handful of votes. Now when I first taught this course, that always used to be an amazing fact, ‘well, an election could be lost by a handful of votes,’ and somehow in the last ten years that doesn’t seem amazing anymore. [laughs] We do that all the time now. I don’t know why that happens.
Door Persuasions and Middling Society
American Sons of Liberty harassing those they didn’t agree with / Wikimedia Commons
So I want to look for just a couple of minutes at how voting actually worked in the colonies, and it varies from colony to colony, so again I’m talking in a general kind of a way here. Elections first of all — and this is generally true in all of the colonies — they had to take place over the course of a few days, because people were often traveling from very far away to get to a polling place. And once they got there, because it was such a big deal for people to get to a polling place, they generally discovered what in essence was a kind of a fair. Election Day was a big sort of celebration day. There were a lot of people mulling about. There was a lot happening. There was a lot of alcohol. The alcohol was provided by the candidates. ‘Here. You must vote for me.’ [laughs] ‘Have another.’ And the candidates themselves would have been present, helping to pour, and mingling with prospective voters.
Now a couple of years ago — I knew this fact for myself. I hadn’t ever sort of thought about how it played out, and then a couple of years ago I was researching in the Virginia Historical Society. I was of course looking for something else, but what I came across was a bunch of documents that clearly involved some kind of legal dispute that broke out because of a problem on one of the election days in Virginia. And apparently what happened was, the brother of one of the candidates showed up with a pack of his friends, drank a lot, got really drunk and then stood at the door of the polling place with guns and threatened to shoot anyone who didn’t vote for the brother of the guy standing there. [laughter] ‘Don’t vote for my brother, you die.’ A strong persuasive component. So obviously, at least in that election, you had drinking, celebrating, and guns, which is a bad combination, [laughter] — but elections were really kind of rowdy occasions.
Now what that kind of hints of, that sort of ‘door persuasion,’ is that actually, once you went in to the polling place, assuming that you weren’t shot first, there were no secret ballots. You actually stepped to the front of the room, there usually was a table, at the table were sitting the candidates and maybe some official, perhaps a local sheriff, and you declared who you voted for in front of everybody and in front of the candidates.
So one example actually from a document from the time period: We’re in Virginia and one voter, a Mr. Blair, came forward to this table in the front of the room, a candidate on each side of the table, the sheriff in the middle, and the sheriff says, “Sir, who do you vote for?” and Mr. Blair says, “Mr. Marshall,” and Mr. Marshall responds, “Your vote is appreciated, Mr. Blair.” It’s a very personal exchange. The next voter, a Mr. Buchanan, is asked the same question and he says that he votes for Mr. Clapton and Mr. Clapton responds, “Mr. Buchanan, I shall treasure that vote in my memory. It will be regarded as a feather in my cap forever.” [laughter] That’s such a politician, [laughs] Isn’t it? Already you can hear. So obviously this is a very personal process in which certainly you could feel some pressure to vote a certain way. It’s actually a surprisingly long period of time before people figure out that maybe ballots are a great idea; maybe voting in person is not so good. Okay. So you’ve got more land holding in the colonies, which leads to a broader franchise in the colonies. You have voters taking part in a very localized, immediate political process.
Another significant difference in colonial conditions of life connects with something that I had mentioned briefly on Thursday, and that’s the nature of the colonial social structure. You did have an elite in the colonies, but the proportions of elite and laboring people was different. In England, half of the population roughly was of the laboring class, people who did not own land and labored for others. And the other half of the population — which included small farmers and gentry and nobility — owned most of the land. In the colonies, two-thirds of the white men owned land or businesses — again, which gives you a sense of why the colonies are often known as a sort of middling society.
Also in the colonies there wasn’t such a stark contrast between the top and the bottom of the social spectrum. So in England, you had the royal Court and the courtiers and opulence and court ritual and sort of kowtowing to the King at the very top of the social spectrum. Obviously, the colonies did not have something like that. They did have royal governors, and certainly royal governors lived in fine style in comparison with others, and there was certainly a distinction between average people and gentlemen, but the contrast between governors and farmers was nowhere near the extreme contrast between a member of the entrenched British nobility and a landless commoner. So in America the spectrum — It’s like the top and the bottom of that spectrum have been sort of lopped off and what’s in between is a little bit more pliable.
So more landholding, broader franchise and everything that that entails, more of a middling society, and now yet another colonial difference that I hinted about at the start of today’s lecture: the fact that several generations of colonists had lived and died in the colonies having never been to England. By the mid-eighteenth century you had a colonial society full of people who often had no actual personal tie to England except an emotional tie, and I talked about those emotional ties last week. So just think about this comparison. The length of time between the first settlement at Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence is roughly the same as the length of time between the Declaration of Independence and World War II. Okay. We tend to collapse all of early America into one big blob of early America, and we assume it’s a kind of a small blob, but if you think about that, Declaration of Independence to World War II, Jamestown to the Declaration of Independence, we are talking about a broad expanse of time. So these people, or at least many of them, are truly British Americans at this point.
Free Will and Spiritual Equality: The Impact of the Great Awakening
Drawing of George Whitefield, Anglican cleric, preaching during the Great Awakening / Wikimedia Commons
Colonists were also not Britons in yet another way — another distinctive feature of colonial society — and that’s again something I referred to at the beginning, and that’s the great ethnic and religious diversity. As our friend, Mr. Hamilton, or Dr. Hamilton, was noting, there were immigrants from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, there were Quakers, there were Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, and then later on Methodists and Baptists. So generally speaking, it’s a reasonably pluralistic society with a relatively high tolerance for diversity, although New Englanders in some ways, particularly in early colonial times, are a little bit less tolerant.
Related to this diversity is yet another colonial distinction, and that’s the religiosity in the colonies, which is really heightened by the Great Awakening, which was roughly from the 1730s to the 1760s. Now I’ve said that, but what I really want to also point out: I’m not saying that the Great Awakening is a purely colonial phenomenon, because it isn’t. And as a matter of fact it spread to the colonies from England and from Ireland, but its impact on the colonies would be different when you combined it with some of the other things that were distinctive about colonial society and life as I’m talking about here.
Now we can have a little Yale moment here. I’m always looking for a Yale moment. This is a little Yale moment, because Jonathan Edwards is someone of importance in the spread of the Great Awakening. His preaching really sparked the New England branch of the Great Awakening. Edwards preached that God was wrathful, that endless torture awaited the sinner, but God was also loving and wanted sinners to convert and turn towards God’s love and, most important, you could choose heaven or hell depending on whether you chose to repent. And I can’t resist — Whenever I get to this part of the course, I can’t resist offering a little snippet of one of Edwards’ most famous sermons, which is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. How many of you have read? A good number of you have read. That’s a great sermon, 1741. I can’t resist giving you your own Great Awakening moment because that means I get to actually be Edwards for a little bit and offer you the wrath of God, so I will offer you a tiny snippet from Edwards’ sermon. I think it’s different when you hear it from when you read it.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire. He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight. You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not go to hell the last night, that you were suffered to awake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep, and there was no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose this morning and that God’s — but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here. Oh, sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, ready every moment to singe it and burn it asunder, and you have no interest in any mediator and nothing to lay hold of save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do to induce God to spare you one moment.”
I think — wow, that’s sermonizing. That’s “pow” in-your-face sermonizing. So that, kind of, is the core of the Great Awakening, right? This belief in the sinfulness and helplessness of humankind and the possibility of redemption if you individually make the choice and repent. And as suggested by Edwards’ sermon, there were often some tearful emotional conversions at the big camp meetings that took place at this time.
And I actually have an eyewitness account of a camp meeting, which I offer you partly because, as you’ll see, there’s an aspect of it which I consider truly ridiculous. But it’s offered by Benjamin Franklin, which I also think is interesting, and you’ll see the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening come up right against each other in this little passage. Franklin actually is in Pennsylvania and he says he sees Whitefield preaching to a crowd. As he describes it,
“In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland [correction: England] the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was [correction: was one] of that number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally “half beasts and half devils.”
Being among the crowd, “being among the hindmost of the crowd” — so he’s towards the back of the crowd” — “I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards . . .” Okay. So now Franklin says, ‘I wonder how far I could back away and still hear him preaching.’ Clearfully — Clearly, at this moment, he’s not really thinking about the message. So I backed away “towards the river, and I found his voice distinct ’till I came near Front Street, when some noise in the street obscured it.” And at this point you can really hear the sort of Enlightenment come banging up against the Great Awakening. “Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius,” [laughter]
“and that it was [correction: were] filled with auditors, to each of whom I allowed two square feet. I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconciled me to the newspaper accounts of his having preached to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the [correction: the antient] histories of generals haranguing whole armies of which I had sometimes doubted.”
So he computes out the radius, an area. Wow. You can actually be preaching to 30,000 people. Now, that said, Franklin says by the end of the sermon — when clearly there was a collection plate that was going to be passed around — Franklin said,
“I first silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars and five gold pieces. As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the copper. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my whole pocket into the dish, gold and all.”
So even Franklin sort of has to admire and ultimately contribute to what’s going on there. So even this sort of true man of the Enlightenment found himself affected by this oratory.
Okay. So what was the impact of such Great Awakening sentiment in the colonies? Well, in part, given the distinctive state of affairs in the colonies, it suggested to people that they had the personal ability to change their lives through their own free will. It was personally empowering, and in that sense it was sort of a democratizing force. I almost hesitated when I was writing this to use the word “democratizing” because I didn’t want to be — As I mentioned on that first day, you put the “democracy” word out there and all kinds of lights go off, but I just couldn’t think of a better word, so democratizing I’ll stick with.
Also, the Great Awakening preached spiritual equality, and included women, African Americans and the poor — and the power of making choices, though the impact of that, as we’ll see, might not have been so great. Plus it was an anti-authoritarian force led by unorthodox preachers and people not attached to an established church. So we have here a mix of individualism and personal empowerment and throw in an emotional sort of righteousness. That’s a really kind of a heady mixture of feelings and ideas that would eventually help to encourage a real spirit of political resistance.
The Power of Colonial Legislatures and the British-American Identity
The Albany Congress, 1754 / Wikimedia Commons
I’m going to mention a few more basic things about colonial life that were different from England. Very quickly. First, the realities of living on a frontier, which not only fostered a sense of independence, but also a sense of community, partly in a defensive way because of fears about Indians and because of the difficulties of forging a homestead or creating a community. On a more positive side, colonists generally had healthier living conditions than in England. Food was plentiful, there were plenty of open spaces, and you can actually see this concretely when you look at the average size of an English man and an English woman and a colonial man and colonial woman towards the turn — the middle of the eighteenth century. Basically, the average size of an Englishman in the middle of the eighteenth century was 5 foot 6. And the — This made me happy. The average size of an English woman was 5 feet, which is basically me. [laughs] It makes me so happy to think there’s a time when I was average height. I feel so tall. However, colonial men and women on average tended to be a couple of inches taller. So you could see — plentiful food, wide-open spaces — actually people are healthier and bigger, which was true also among soldiers as a matter of fact, which was interesting; you could see it.
This brings us to the third major category of things that contributed to the difference — differences in being a British American colonist. So we have the type of person who migrated; we just had a whole bunch of living conditions in the colonies. This is the third category, which is the nature of the British administration of the colonies, which, as I mentioned last week, was kind of light-handed, so colonial government and society could develop in ways that Britain might not necessarily have desired or even recognized. One of the most striking effects of this lack of imperial control was the power of the typical colonial legislature. Left alone, the colonists developed strong legislatures which often were full of very contentious individuals who felt entitled and compelled to fight for their rights, or what I discussed last week, their English liberties. Some of these colonial legislatures were so strong that they often won battles against royal governors — battles that were not taken much note of by the Crown at the time, because the Crown wasn’t administering to the colonies very closely.
And in fact, by the 1760s most of the colonies had in place all of the conditions necessary to be self-governing states. They had elective assemblies and other institutions of local government, and these institutions had broad powers over the internal affairs of the colonies. They had a reservoir of political leaders drawn from the elite. And colonists recognized and were jealous of their power of self-government, and were not shy about fighting royal officials for this power. So by the 1760s, there’s a lot of things in place for these colonies, in a sense, to be self-governing, although obviously they were not already.
So in summary, what does all of this add up to? What do I mean when I refer to being a British American? Well, we’ve talked about a tradition of voicing opinions and grievances. We’ve talked about a sense of entitlement to owning property and land. We’ve talked about assumptions about active participation in the political process. We’ve talked about a willingness to take risks and fight for what you wanted. We’ve talked about an independent spirit and jealousy about your independence. And we’ve talked about relative tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity.
You can hear this sort of mixture of things in a comment by a British officer in the colonies during the French and Indian War. And he observed and wrote back home, “‘Tis the nature of this people to do all in their power to pull down every legal authority. There is no law prevailing at present here.” That’s a little bit of an exaggeration I would say — but another arrogant British quote. I always do lots of arrogant British quotes. “There is no law prevailing at present here, that I have met with, but the rule every man pleases to lay down to himself. Every man insists upon following the dictates of his own will without control.” A little bit of an exaggeration, but you can see certainly what he feels like he’s seeing as compared with what he knows from back in England.
Or as a member of the Massachusetts legislature put it, “Our people were not calculated to be kept in any particular service. They soon grow troublesome and uneasy by reflecting upon their folly” by — “in bringing themselves into a state of subjection when they might have continued free and independent.” Now that sounds like a sort of wonderful thing, impressive, admirable, like ‘oh, our people are — they like to be independent and if they commit to something, they’re not happy about that commitment, because they think — wow, I could have been free and independent; what have I done?’
The problem with that is: try putting a bunch of those people into an army and then expecting them to stay in it for a long period of time. George Washington was not a happy camper for part — a good part of the Revolution because he was stuck with a lot of soldiers who had that point of view — like, ‘Well, I’ll do this for a little while and then I’ll leave. Bye. ” And so it’s kind of hard to command that kind of an army, as we’ll see, and — I guess I can’t say I’m proud to say — Connecticut was a problem. [laughs] Connecticut — as we’ll see, Connecticut had issues; Rhode Island too. I think I mentioned that in the first lecture, but Connecticut too. Soldiers particularly had problems wanting to stick around, but that was a general problem as well, the sort of spirit of independence and ‘I’ve done what I wanted to do; I’m going to now do something different.’
So we’ve looked at being a British colonist. We’ve looked at being a British American. The next step that we’re going to be taking on Thursday is going to be looking at intercolonial relations — looking at how the colonies felt about each other, looking at how the colonies interacted with each other, how they felt about each other, what their sense was of any kind of cooperation or union between these sort of colony-states. And by the end of Thursday’s lecture, we’re going to see the first glimmers of tension with the passage of the Stamp Act. So by the end of the next lecture — You can see why, when I mentioned in that first lecture that there was someone in — when I first taught this course — who raised his hand, probably at the end of this lecture, and said, “Where are the dates?,” that we’ve had two lectures without a lot of dates, but the Stamp Act — We have an actual concrete thing coming on Thursday [laughs] and then actual events of the Revolution.
But hopefully with these three lectures you have some kind of a sense of the — sort of — foundation of where we’re working from, as we’re now going to show people basically getting upset, working themselves a logic of resistance, and then acting on that logic. I think it’s important obviously to understand where the colonists were coming from before you plunge right in to seeing them rebelling against what they’ve had and for something else. But I think certainly in these two first lectures, you do get a sense of some of the ways in which the colonies were prepared to resist, or maybe predisposed to resist, and some of the reasons why it took actually, as you’ll see, a pretty long time for the colonists to decide to actually rebel — that it took a while. People sort of let go, finger by finger, of the British Empire. They let go, piece by piece, until finally they felt that there was no alternative except a revolution.