Why America is Free is a new history of the American Revolution for high school students, teachers, and curious Americans of any age. It explains how colonial British Americans came to fight a war to free themselves from the British Empire, created the first nation in the history of the world based on the idea of natural rights, and laid the foundation for the continuing expansion of freedom that has defined American history. The first installment—Why is America Free?—frames the interpretation of the American Revolution that defines the American Revolution Institute Curriculum. This second installment—British America—presents the first part of Why America is Free, which interprets the origins of the American Revolution in a colonial society characterized by deep inequalities and limited freedom.
Chapter 1 The People of British America
The story of the American Revolution begins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the major powers of western Europe established overseas empires through much of the world. Dramatic improvements in sailing ships and advances in navigation made it possible for European vessels to reach ports many thousands of miles from home and return with goods to sell as well as gold and silver from distant lands. Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England each established settlements and trading outposts wherever their ships could sail. They became global powers. Overseas trade made them rich.
The English began building an overseas empire later than the others. They settled on islands in the Caribbean the other powers had overlooked and on the coast of North America, which attracted little interest from other imperial powers. Their first settlement on the North American mainland was on Roanoke Island, in the coastal waters of what became North Carolina. An initial effort to establish a colony there in 1585 failed and the colonists were evacuated. A second party, including men, women, and children, arrived in 1587. They occupied a small fort, built simple wooden houses, and cleared land to grow food. Their ship went back to England. When another ship arrived with supplies in 1590, the settlement was empty. The people had all left. To this day no one knows what happened to them.
The mysterious fate of the Roanoke settlers should not surprise us. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing ship took two months or more. When the first settlers arrived, they found what looked to them like endless forests, interrupted here and there by broad rivers, wetlands, and little streams. When the ship that brought them departed the settlers were left in a strange land they did not understand, a very long way from home.
The English and the Indians
They were not alone. There were people living in North America, but they were unlike any people the English had ever seen. The English called them all Indians, though they belonged to many different tribes, spoke many Indian languages, and lived in different ways. The Eastern Woodland Indians the English encountered lived in small villages and spent their time in simple farming, gathering wild food, hunting wild game, and fishing. They had done so for many thousands of years and their way of life was well adapted to the natural world. They knew when and where to gather oysters and clams, when the fish were abundant and how to catch them, where to hunt for deer, and how to grow corn, beans, pumpkins, and other foods that were native to North America. They made their simple clothing from animal skins and their tools and weapons from wood, stone, shell and bone.
The English were not sure what to make of these Indians. They had chiefs, who the English imagined were like their kings, though in truth the Indians were much more loosely organized than Europeans and their chiefs were not much like kings at all. Traditions, much more than the authority of any chief, governed Indian life.
This was only one of many ways the Indians were strange to the English who landed at Roanoke, and that was strange to the thousands of European migrants who came to America later. Indians, the English learned, had no written language and no written law. Their ideas about property and trade were very different than those of the English. Indians owned things and would give them to the English and take things from the English in trade, but the Indians had no traditional understanding of money—the idea that a thing or a service can have a value defined using numbers and that this value can be traded using something like gold or silver.
This idea was the basis of commerce, which was common to European people but was strange to the Indians. The Indians would give things they owned to get things they needed, but if they needed something else they might expect the English to give it to them without giving the English anything in trade. They might, if the English needed something, give it without taking anything in return. Buying and selling, in the way Europeans did it, was unknown among the Indians. The Indians engaged in trade, but in ways Europeans did not understand.
Cultural traditions and not law or European ideas about ownership and buying and selling shaped the way Indians thought about the land they occupied. The Indians did not imagine land as something to trade. They occupied land, in many cases in regions their tribes had lived in for centuries. To the English as to other Europeans most of eastern North America looked like an unoccupied wilderness, but the land and water was essential to the Indians, whose way of life required a lot of both
The English, like other Europeans, occupied the land in a completely different manner than the Indians. They grew wheat or some other grain on farms devoted to little else, and they raised cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other domesticated animals for food. This way of living did not always work well. When the weather was bad or crops failed for some other reason, people in Europe sometimes starved. But when it did work well European agriculture produced more food per acre than the people could eat.
The extra food, or surplus, was stored or sold, and the money it generated supported a life that included all kinds of activities the Indians could not even imagine. The surplus supported craftsmen who made things out of metal, which the Eastern Woodland Indians could not make, and it supported people who made cloth, which the Indians could only make in very small amounts by much simpler methods. The way the English and other European people raised food made it possible for them to build towns and cities out of brick and stone, to use metal tools and to invent and make things like clocks, guns, sailing ships, and printing presses.
Eastern Woodland Indian farming produced much less food per acre, and the Indians did not generally raise animals for food. They relied on gathering and hunting the food they did not grow. To Europeans, the vast woods of eastern North America looked like empty land waiting to be cleared for farms. The same woods were essential to the Indian way of life.
Because they occupied land in different ways and used it very differently, and because as a result their cultures were so different, the European and the Indian ways of life could not coexist, at least not peacefully. The Indians naturally resisted the English occupation of the land they needed to live, and the English could never accept that what looked like a unoccupied land was essential to Indians who rarely seemed to occupy it. Despite the fact that some on each side tried to get along and learn from the other, their natural attitude toward each other was one of deep distrust.
That distrust frequently led to violence and often to war, which added anger and hatred to the distrust each felt toward the other. Both sides made war in brutal ways. It was not enough for warriors to kill one another. The Indians and the Europeans took turns slaughtering the families and burning the homes of their enemies. As long as the two sides remained in contact with one another, wars between them were common.
In between, in times of cautious, distrustful peace, the two sides traded with one another. The Indians, who were master hunters, traded the hides of beavers, deer, and other woodland animals. The Europeans traded cloth, metal tools, and guns, all of which the Indians wanted but could not make for themselves. The English learned from the Indians how to grow native plants like corn, beans, squash and pumpkins. The Indians learned how to shoot guns and use European tools. Some even built houses like the Europeans and farmed in European ways. A few Indians adopted the Christian religion of the English. A few English migrants learned to live among the Indians, and there were occasional marriages among them. But these were unusual.
The normal state of relations between the Indians and the English was one of conflict. This conflict continued through the American Revolution and beyond. War and peace alternated for more than a hundred years after the Revolution, until the Indians were driven out of every place the Europeans and their descendants wanted to occupy.
Despite this tragic conflict, there was much about the Indians that the Europeans who migrated to North America admired. The English envied the easy way the Indians managed to live in what seemed like a wilderness. The Indians were often fearless. They lived simply and faced life with courage. They had, by English standards, very few things, but they did not seem to need more. They seemed to embody personal independence, an idea many of the European migrants cherished. In time, despite the frequent wars, the Indian became a symbol of America.
The Disorderly Empire
The best guess anyone has about the English settlers who disappeared from Roanoke Island is that they went to live with the Indians, and that they may have been adopted by the Indians and lived the rest of their lives with them. The English gave up the idea of settling there and did not return for many years.
A new group of English settlers arrived in America in 1607. They landed on the James River in what they called Virginia. Like the Roanoke settlers, they built a simple fort and small wooden houses. Conditions were hard. They had trouble growing enough food. Many died from illness. After a few years of uneasy peace the Indians in the region attacked their settlements in an effort to wipe them out. But their settlements survived and grew.
Virginia was the first enduring colony in England’s overseas empire, which expanded slowly, over more than a hundred years, to include fourteen colonies spread along the Atlantic coast of North America from Nova Scotia to Georgia, in addition to several islands in the Caribbean, from the Bahamas in the north to Barbados, which is near the coast of South America. The English also had trading posts on Hudson Bay in what is now Canada—though much of what we now call Canada was under the control of France—as well as trading posts in India, southeast Asia and west Africa, and isolated colonies in Bermuda and Honduras. From the early eighteenth century, when the once independent kingdoms of England and Scotland were unified as Great Britain, these far-flung possessions were known as the British Empire.
It was a disorderly empire, created without a plan. Virginia was established by a private company, the Virginia Company of London, that received a charter from the king. It began as a business venture, aiming at profit for the company’s investors. Neighboring Maryland was established by an English aristocrat, Lord Baltimore, who secured it as a grant from the king and tried to manage the colony like a vast private estate. The Carolinas were granted to a group of eight English aristocrats who sought to enrich themselves by selling the land to migrants. New York, originally settled by the Dutch, was taken by the English during a war. The English took over the small Dutch colony that became Delaware at the same time. Georgia was established on land granted to a British general, James Oglethorpe, who wanted the colony to become a refuge for the poor and a defensive boundary between the Carolinas and the Spanish province of Florida.
As business ventures these North American colonies were, in general, disappointments. Granting land to settlers rarely produced the profits their wealthy promoters hoped for, and their efforts to control and profit from colonial trade nearly all failed. By the middle of the eighteenth century, management of most of the colonies had shifted to the British government, which did its best to oversee its distant possessions without ever investing the time and energy that would have been required to do it well. Responsibility for the colonies fell to a confusing bureaucracy of committees, boards, and officials, few of whom ever saw the colonies they were supposed to administer.
Despite the confusing way Britain’s North American colonies were managed and the disappointing returns they provided to their wealthy investors and proprietors, the colonies attracted settlers. Today we would call them migrants, because the most striking thing about them was that they left Britain and other European countries and risked their lives to move thousands of miles across a dangerous ocean to make a new life in a completely unfamiliar place. Migrants came to America by the thousands and ultimately to the United States by the millions, each with his or her own story, in individual acts of desperation and daring. Most were fleeing oppression, whether it was religious discrimination or simply the oppression of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and hopelessness. The looked to the American colonies—as millions of later migrants from every part of the world have looked to the United States—as a New World, where with hard work and luck they might make a better life for themselves and their families.
The men and women who came to Britain’s North American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth century did not understand freedom as we do. They had little voice in the decisions of government, and few of them expected to share in making those decisions. They were all the subjects of a king, and before they migrated to America they accepted that many of the decisions that shaped their lives would be made for them by the king, aristocrats, or the wealthy landowners who dominated life in every part of Europe.
Ordinary people were nowhere not free to speak their minds—least of all to criticize the government or to challenge the teachings of the official church. The idea that governments exists to serve the interests of the people as a whole—a basic principle of government in free societies—was unknown. Governments existed to serve the interests of monarchs and their aristocratic supporters, and in England, the country gentlemen and city merchants on whom the monarchs relied for tax revenue, political support, and service in time of war.
Most of the migrants who came to the colonies had an idea of rights, but that idea was limited. If arrested and put on trial by the government for some alleged crime, for example, they expected to have a trial before a jury, but they might be tortured or suffer cruel punishments. Torture was commonly employed in seventeenth-century Britain and remained common in most of Europe in the eighteenth century. Its decline in Britain was widely considered a sign of advanced thinking, but people convicted of petty crimes still faced severe corporal punishment or even death. Ordinary British subjects who owned land—most did not—were usually secure in their right to their land. Tenants were less secure in their rights, and wealthy landowners who wanted to convert farm land to grazing land could usually manage to drive their tenants off.
Freedom of movement was limited. Displaced tenants and the poor could not simply move where they wished. The labor market was limited and employment usually scarce. Parishes and counties often drove the wandering poor away to avoid adding to the burdens of relieving even their most basic needs. Homeless people able to work—“sturdy beggars” as they were called—were unwelcome everywhere. Some drifted into crime, living on the margins of society as robbers or vagrants, poaching game from private woods. Many drained off into the larger towns, especially London, which grew quickly, its slums expanding despite waves of epidemic disease that made it a deathtrap for those who lived there.
Eighteenth-century Britons—at least the wealthy and the middling sort—boasted that Britain was a free country, and were proud to call themselves “freeborn Englishmen.” But their boasted freedom was hardly what any of us would call free. Britain’s freedom rested on its long tradition, not always honored, of the rule of law—though that law could be harsh—and on its relative prosperity. Though seasons of hunger and want stalked Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was mostly spared the famines that wracked many Continental nations.
Britain’s boasted freedom rested ultimately on geography. Britain is an island nation, separated from the European mainland. The chief powers on the Continent maintained large standing armies to engage in frequent and expensive wars with one another and taxed their people mercilessly to pay the costs of the military. France—Britain’s chief rival in the century before the American Revolution and for a generation thereafter—was a vast military state with an aristocracy dedicated to military service and aristocrats hungry to distinguish themselves in war. The British distrusted large standing armies and avoided the expense of paying for them by relying on their navy to fend off invaders. With a long coast and an abundance of ports, the British were a seafaring people. In wartime merchant seamen could be recruited—or forced into service by press gangs—to man the king’s warships, which they did remarkably well. The Atlantic coast of France, by contrast, offers few useful harbors and had a much smaller merchant marine. Its sailors were no rivals for the British.
Britain’s success in defending itself at sea spared its people the confiscatory taxation imposed elsewhere. The money that was absorbed by the state in most of Europe was, in Britain, invested in trade, which in time made British merchants fabulously rich. That wealth, reinvested in banks that loaned money to the government, gave the British government the means to create an empire that by the late nineteenth century covered a very large part of the Earth. But wealth and freedom are not the same thing and national wealth is no guarantee of a people’s freedom. The British Empire of the nineteenth century demonstrated little regard for the rights of the many people it ruled.
Many of the early colonists were refugees from religious oppression. Britain, like other European countries, had an official religion. Everyone was required by law to attend the Church of England and accept its teachings, which included unquestioned loyalty to the king, who was the head of the church. People who disagreed with the teachings of the established church or who questioned the authority of its ministers, bishops, or the king, were harassed and punished for their beliefs. Many of them formed churches of their own and were persecuted for not accepting the authority of the established church. Others practiced their religion in secret to avoid punishment. All of them wanted to worship in their own way without interference by the government.
Some of these groups left Britain and migrated to North America, where the government would not harass them. The first were the Pilgrims. In 1620 they settled in Plymouth in what later became Massachusetts. A few years later much larger groups of English Puritans settled what became the towns of Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and other towns along the shores of Massachusetts Bay. They were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the all the churches in England by creating a society in which the people were devoted to their religion and practiced it faithfully. They hoped the Church of England would follow their example—a hope in which they were disappointed. Massachusetts Puritans later settled what became Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, which became separate colonies.
At about the same time, Roman Catholics settled Maryland. Practicing the Roman Catholic religion was illegal in Britain, in part because Catholics regarded the pope, rather than the king, as the head of their church. Catholics were never the majority in Maryland, but many of the wealthiest landowners were Catholic. From the start, Maryland had a policy of religious toleration, which means that people were permitted to practice their religion without interference from the government as long as they conformed to certain rules.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers, an unusual religious sect established in Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century. Quakers believed that all people possess an “Inner Light” of goodness. They believed in the equality of all people before God, refused to swear oaths and refused to participate in war. Massachusetts Puritans, even though they had come to America to practice their religion as they wished, refused to allow Quakers to remain in Massachusetts. They were welcomed in nearby Rhode Island and settled in small groups elsewhere, but most of the Quaker refugees settled in Pennsylvania, where Quakers controlled the colonial government for many years. People of all faiths were welcomed in Pennsylvania, and the religious refugees from other parts of Europe settled there.
All of the religious refugees who fled to America from Britain did so to establish their personal independence from the tyranny of the Church of England. Few of them favored universal religious freedom. The Puritans of New England established their own faith as the official religion in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut and for many years imposed penalties and punishments on those who refused to accept the authority of their churches. Such efforts to impose religious orthodoxy gradually cooled in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, but a passion for independence from the Church of England and devotion to the their own churches characterized New England through the eighteenth century.
Most of the religious refugees came to the colonies from Britain, but many came from other countries in western Europe in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among them were Lutherans and other German Protestants fleeing persecution and unrest in central Europe. French Protestants, called Huguenots, fled France in the late seventeenth century after the French king made the practice of their religion a crime and ordered their church schools closed and their churches destroyed. They included merchants or tradesmen who settled in or near the larger towns of several colonies. Many settled in Boston, New York, and Charleston. Among them was a thirteen year-old boy named Apollos Rivoire, who came to America alone. He settled in Boston and became a silversmith, a trade he passed on to his son, who was named after his father, but given a more English-sounding name: Paul Revere. A Huguenot in his early twenties named Benjamin Marion fled France and settled in South Carolina. His grandson Francis Marion became one of the great heroes of the American Revolution. A Huguenot named Antoine Bénézet migrated to Pennsylvania with his family at eighteen. As Anthony Benezet he became one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery in the English-speaking world.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, British America was home to people from more religious traditions than any other place in the Atlantic world. Nearly all were Christians, but there were Jewish colonists in some of the larger port cities from Newport, Rhode Island, to Savannah, Georgia. Many of them were descended from persecuted Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had fled first to London before settling in British America. Others had fled from parts of Germany. Among them were Benjamin and Perla Sheftall, who arrived in Savannah in 1733. Their son Mordecai Sheftall, born two years later, became a colonel in the Continental Army and fought for American independence.
Servants and Freeholders
Regardless of where they settled, most migrants came to Britain’s North American colonies in a daring or desperate bid for a better life. Many were poor working people who did not own land and had no hope of acquiring a farm of their own in Britain or whatever other European country they left behind. In America, they believed, land was abundant and could be acquired for little money. Their first problem was getting to America. Passage on a ship crossing the Atlantic to the colonies was expensive.
To earn their passage, many poor people agreed to work as servants without pay for several years after their reached America: three or four years if they had a useful skill, but often five to seven years if they did not. The contract between the master and servant was called an indenture, and such servants were known as indentured servants. Over half of the European migrants who came to Britain’s North American colonies arrived as indentured servants.
Masters had to provide their indentured servants with food, clothing, and shelter during their years of service, but the masters did not have to pay them. Indentured servants were bought and sold, passed from one master to another. Most indentured servants worked in the fields, growing and harvesting crops. The death rate in colonies was very high, particularly in the first decades, and most people who arrived as servants died as servants, and never acquired a farm of their own.
John Harrower, who wrote a diary of his experiences, was among them. Harrower seems to have been nearing forty when he left his wife and children behind in Scotland to secure work in London. There he found “many Hundreds are sterving for want of employment, and many good people are begging.” The little money he had ran out before he could find a job. In desperation, he indentured himself for four years to a ship’s captain bound for Virginia. When the ship reached Virginia, the captain sold Harrower’s contract to a planter near Fredericksburg, who employed Harrower as a teacher to his four children. The planter treated Harrower well and helped him secure more students. From what he earned from teaching them, Harrower hoped to save enough to bring his wife and children over from Scotland, but he died in April 1777. His experience differed from that of most indentured servants, who worked as farm laborers, but like many of them he died far from home, separated from his family.
More fortunate migrants were able to pay their passage and arrived in the colonies without any obligation to serve someone else. But even for them, life was usually hard. If they arrived with enough money they could acquire a farm, but many had to work as hired laborers for someone else to save the money to acquire their own land. Some never did and lived out their lives as farm laborers or tenant farmers.
Those who became freeholders achieved a kind of personal independence that was rare in Europe, but their path was usually hard. A freeholder often had to clear his land of trees in order to start farming. He also had to build a house—or hire a housewright to build one—and a barn or shed to store his harvest, keep his tools, and protect his animals. If he could afford it, a new landowner bought an indentured servant or two to help do this difficult work. If he had enough money, a settler acquired land on a river or a large creek that could be used to carry his harvest downstream to a market town or a waiting ship. Land beside a navigable stream was far more valuable than other land. Landlocked farmers had to move their crops to river landings on small dirt roads using wagons or by rolling his harvest along the road in large barrels. It was back breaking work.
Not all colonists were farmers, but nearly every colonist was tied to the farming economy in some way. Some ran ferries across rivers, collecting small fees for carrying people, animals, and crops to the other side. Some operated taverns in towns and country crossroads. Still others ran sawmills to make lumber for building and gristmills to grind grain. Others kept stores where colonists could buy tools, cloth, kitchen implements, metal buttons, and other goods, mostly brought from Britain. In port towns, many became sailors and worked on merchant ships. Elsewhere along the coast, fishermen made their living catching and selling fish, which was usually salted and dried so that it would keep for months.
In towns, men worked in dozens of different crafts. Blacksmiths made things from iron. Coopers made wooden barrels and buckets. Wheelwrights made wheels for wagons and carts. Whitesmiths made things out of tin. Larger towns had silversmiths and craftsmen who made fine furniture. The largest towns also had printers, who printed forms, pamphlets, newspapers, and even a few books, although most books were imported from Britain.
This pattern of small farms and towns, of farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers, repeated itself, with regional and local differences, in every colony from Nova Scotia to Georgia. By 1750 there were about 1.5 million colonists living in British North America in a band of colonies along the Atlantic Ocean. Most of them lived near the coast, but the colonists were pushing west, settling as far as the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Most of the Indians had been pushed into the mountains and the valleys to the west, though a few remained east of the mountains, closer to the colonists.
These colonies had much in common. They all owed their allegiance to the king of England. They each had a local government, with a governor, an elected legislature, and a legal system based on the laws of England. The main businesses everywhere were farming, raising livestock, cutting wood for lumber, and fishing. Each colony had its ports, where merchants bought goods and shipped them to Britain or to other British colonies, and sold goods from Britain and elsewhere to the colonists. Each colony had wealthy and influential families, middling ones with farms and businesses, and working people who labored hard for other people to survive.
The colonies had something else in common. They had no titled aristocracy. Few British aristocrats—the wealthy lords who dominated the social and political life of Britain—ever visited America, and even fewer stayed. Life in a land of hard labor without great cities or luxuries had no appeal for them. British aristocrats lived on inherited wealth and the rents collected from tenant farmers who occupied their vast estates. The dukes and earls of eighteenth-century Britain did not work, at least in the way we understand work. Hired agents collected their rents. They spent their times socializing with one another and serving in public offices or in the military, not always for the pay but because this was expected of aristocrats and because success in office or in war would add to their family’s reputation and standing in society. Aristocrats were careful to make sure that their children married the children of other aristocrats, so the land that they all depended upon remained within their social class, or that their daughters married wealthy merchants and brought some of the new money being made in trade and commerce into their families.
This way of life was impossible in the American colonies, where unoccupied land was so abundant that few people rented the land they farmed. The wealthiest American landowners were farmers who owned large estates, but their income came mostly from the sale of what they grew, not from rents paid by tenants. They had laborers who did the hard work of plowing, planting, and harvesting, but they had to manage that work very carefully in order to make a profit and maintain their wealth and social standing. They socialized with their wealthy neighbors, held public offices, served as militia officers, and worked to make sure their sons and daughters married into the families of other wealthy Americans, but their status depended, in the end, on their success or failure as farmers.
They were not aristocrats. They were mostly the sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons of men who had arrived in the colonies with little money but who had succeeded in establishing productive plantations or large farms or who had succeeded as merchants, and then passed on their wealth to their children. The most successful of these gentry families, like the Lees, Carters, and Randolphs of Virginia, Carrolls of Maryland, Schuylers, Livingstons and DeLanceys of New York, Middletons and Pinckneys of South Carolina, or Shippens and Biddles of Pennsylvania, sustained their wealth and social prominence through several generations.
Members of this American gentry lived in gracious country homes or elegant townhouses, luxurious by American standards, but very small compared to the vast country houses of Britain. Since their wealth depended on their success as farmers and businessmen, members of the American gentry could lose their fortunes and their social standing through wastefulness, mismanagement, or bad luck. At the same time, farmers and merchants who managed their affairs wisely and who enjoyed good luck might secure places for themselves and their families in the first ranks of American society, taking advantage of a degree of social mobility that was unthinkable in Britain.
Without an aristocracy, American colonists experienced a much great degree of social equality than people in Britain. The difference between the gentry and ordinary Americans, while great, was much less than the difference between an English lord and his tenants. The colonial gentry interacted with ordinary colonists, in taverns, courts, and churches, in the marketplace and at militia musters, in ways that demonstrated their higher social status, but that also drew them together in ways that rarely happened between British aristocrats and ordinary people in Britain. The American Revolution, when it came, was led by members of the gentry. The greater degree of social equality in America, and the awareness that their wealth was recently made and depended heavily on their own efforts, made it far easier for them to accept the idea that “all men are created equal” than would have been possible in Britain, or anywhere else in Europe.
On the opposite end of the social scale from the gentry were enslaved Africans, mostly purchased from native slave traders operating on the west coast of Africa. Slavery had existed in various forms for thousands of years, most often as the fate of captives taken in war. In the fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers and traders brought thousands of captive Africans to southern Europe. Enslaved Africans were common sight in southern Europe and the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. In the New World the Spanish tried to enslave Indians, but their success was limited. Indians lacked immunity to diseases common to Europeans and died at appalling rates when forced to work beside them. If they escaped captivity, Indians often evaded capture by disappearing into the familiar forests. Most were poorly suited to agricultural labor, which was largely unfamiliar to them. Enslaved Africans were the answer to the chronic labor shortage of the Spanish Empire in America. Many were captives taken in wars between African peoples and sold to European traders like any other commodity. Enslaved Africans were a fixture in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World by 1550.
The first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619, when there was a shortage of labor needed to clear new ground and plant, tend, and harvest tobacco—miserable, back-breaking labor for which there were never enough white indentured servants. Evidence of how that first group was treated is sketchy, and it is not clear that they were bound to perpetual servitude and that the colonists expected to enslave their children from birth, treatments that came to distinguish the enslaved from indentured servants. Surviving evidence suggests that some of the Africans brought in bondage to early Virginia and Maryland were bound to service for a period of years and then released. Free African-Americans appear in the records as early as 1635. But it is plain that slavery in its fully developed form—enslavement of Africans for life and the enslavement of their children from birth—was practiced by 1639.
Enslavement did not take off quickly in Britain’s mainland colonies immediately after 1619, probably because the cost of purchasing a person enslaved for life was greater than the cost of purchasing an indentured servant bound for five years, and both were likely to die within five years. In the brutal mathematics of colonial labor, the indentured servant was a better deal. In 1649 there were probably no more than three hundred Africans in Virginia, which then had a white population of about fifteen thousand.
Enslavement grew quickly in Britain’s mainland colonies in the last years of the seventeenth century, as indentured servants became more expensive and the life expectancy of servants and enslaved people increased. In 1700 there were some 28,000 enslaved people in Britain’s mainland colonies and many more in Britain’s sugar islands in the West Indies. The number of enslaved people in the mainland grew steadily. By 1740 there were over 150,000 enslaved people in British North America. In New England they were used as household servants. They also worked on farms, cut timber, loaded and unloaded ships, moved goods to market, built roads, houses, shops, and storehouses, and were involved in nearly every productive enterprise. The same was true in the middle colonies, where they were more numerous. Some were skilled artisans whose creativity enriched their owners.
The majority of enslaved people lived in the southern colonies, where most were forced to work growing tobacco, rice, and other crops that required heavy manual labor to plant, cultivate, harvest, and prepare for market. Many came from predominantly agricultural societies in Africa and were used to hard agricultural labor, but the conditions under which they were forced to live and work in British America were degrading. Most enslaved people lived on large plantations and worked in gangs under constant threat of brutal punishments. Neither indentured servants nor slaves had a natural incentive to work hard, but a stubborn, unproductive servant could be punished by having his term of service extended. People enslaved for life could not be punished with longer terms of service. Avoiding severe corporal punishment was the only incentive many of them knew.
The enslaved people of colonial British America were all unwilling migrants, enslaved by force and held against their will, and denied even a small degree of personal independence or individual liberty. In a world where freedom as we know it was barely imagined, the enslaved enjoyed no freedom at all.
Chapter 2 The Limits of Freedom
No one in colonial British America was free, at least not in the sense that we use the word free. Our idea of freedom was shaped by the American Revolution. It involves personal independence, liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and the opportunities and responsibilities of citizenship. These principles were little understood or applied in very limited ways before the American Revolution. The Revolutionaries embraced and applied them in new and expansive ways and in the process dedicated their new nation to principles of freedom that have defined our history for nearly 250 years.
The people of colonial British Americans were all subjects. None were citizens. The idea of citizenship, involving opportunities for ordinary people to participate in public life, was unfamiliar to most Europeans. So were the obligations of citizenship, including the obligation to set aside selfish interests and serve the nation, especially in war and times of crisis. Military service was regarded as a duty subjects owed their king, not service given by one citizen to all. The idea of citizenship was an ancient one, derived from the political philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and reimagined by political thinkers and writers beginning with the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, but in the centuries before the American Revolution it had been applied only in very limited ways in a few isolated places.
The idea that all people naturally possess certain rights, which we know as natural rights or human rights, was no more than a theory discussed by philosophers. No government acknowledged the existence of such rights. What we call civil rights—rights to vote, to hold public office, to trial by jury, and other rights that define our relationship to government—were extremely limited. People in Britain and her American colonies enjoyed more such rights than most people in the world, but they were far fewer than the civil rights we enjoy. As for equality, Christianity taught that all souls were equal before God. Beyond the realm of faith, profound inequalities were fundamental to the organization of earthly society, which was ordered by ranks and degrees of privilege and subordination.
Liberty—freedom from restraints imposed by government or by others on the exercise of natural and civil rights—was limited and insecure. Ultimate authority, or sovereignty, rested with the state, either literally in the person of the sovereign king or more broadly in the king’s government. That sovereign government was not restrained by a written constitution that defined and limited its powers, and thus protected liberty by limiting what government can do. Britain had no written constitution. Government operated on the basis of custom and tradition, and was subject to changes in policy and practice at the discretion of the Crown—the king and his ministers—and Parliament. In the eighteenth century the British were very proud of the “liberties” they had won from their kings and boasted loudly about “the rights of Englishmen,” but their liberty was very limited compared to the liberty defined by the American Revolution.
Colonial British Americans enjoyed more personal independence—the opportunity to make choices for themselves about their lives—than most people in their world, but little of the personal independence we take for granted today. For most of the eighteenth century the colonists also enjoyed an unusual degree of political independence. Although they were subjects of the king and subject to laws passed by Parliament, the British government demonstrated little interest in the internal affairs of its North American colonies. As a result the colonists enjoyed a period of relative independence within the British Empire.
King and Parliament
In the middle of the eighteenth century, Britain was admired by political thinkers and writers as the most enlightened, rationally governed country in Europe and the British people were widely regarded as a free people. But the enlightened rationality of the British government was impressive only in comparison to the despotic monarchies on the Continent, and the British people were free only in relation to the unfortunate people those despots ruled. Observers attributed British prosperity to the rational organization of its government and the wisdom of its policies, not considering that Britain’s prosperity was enjoyed very unevenly across British society, that few Britons had a voice in public life, and that liberty and personal independence were severely limited.
The people of Britain and its colonies were all subjects of the British king. In 1750 he was George II, King of Great Britain and Ireland. Kings ruled by hereditary right and were not accountable to their people. In theory, the king was expected to act like a royal father, the head of a great family. He was supposed to care for his subjects like a father cares for his children. In practice, kings did whatever suited their interests and ambitions and rarely put the welfare of their subjects ahead of their own. George II was born in northern Germany and concerned himself deeply in the affairs of the Duchy of Brunswick and Lüneburg, of which he was hereditary ruler. English was his third language (he learned French before he learned German) and he was more interested in the dynastic struggles of Continental Europe than in the welfare of his British subjects.
The king shared power with Parliament, which passed the laws. Parliament was divided between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Men were not elected to the House of Lords. The lords, or peers as they were known, claimed their places in the Lords by hereditary right, as the senior members of aristocratic families. The House of Lords represented the interests of the wealthiest people in Britain.
The House of Commons, reputedly the more popular house of Parliament, had existed for hundreds of years. It had increased in power and influence in the seventeenth century, when its leaders had struggled with the king for power. This conflict led to a civil war in England in the 1640s, in which the Commons had imposed its will and limited the power of the king. The power of this elected part of the British government distinguished Britain from the other countries of the time, in which royal power was almost unlimited.
The House of Commons was widely admired by European thinkers and writers as a representative of the popular interest, but it did not, in fact, represent the common people. A less representative elected legislature would be hard to imagine. In the middle of the eighteenth century about one in five members of the House of Commons were close relatives of peers. Some were knights—a title passed down in their families. Most members of the Commons were local gentry—men distinguished for wealth and important in the towns and counties where they lived. Those who represented towns were sometimes merchants or lawyers. Others were placemen, chosen by aristocrats to represent their political interests.
Through most of the eighteenth century, the House of Commons had 558 members representing 314 constituencies, including 486 members from England, 27 from Wales, and 45 from Scotland. Each county in England and Wales elected two members, regardless of the population of the county. Each county in Scotland elected one member. There were 122 county seats in the House of Commons and 432 seats representing 230 towns or boroughs, as they were called, which had been granted charters by a king. The universities at Oxford and Cambridge each chose two members.
There was nothing remotely democratic about the distribution of the seats or the way elections were conducted. Most boroughs elected two members, regardless of their population. Some boroughs that were important towns in the Middle Ages had withered to nothing by the middle of the eighteenth century, but continued to be represented by two members. The most famous was “Old Sarum,” near Salisbury, which had almost no resident population at all. The aristocrat who owned the land where the town had once stood chose the two members to represent Old Sarum in the House of Commons. At the same time, the people of Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester—rapidly growing industrial towns with thousands of residents—did not choose a single member of the House of Commons. On the eve of the American Revolution, the merchants of Leeds were responsible for a third of Britain’s woolen cloth exports; Birmingham was emerging as the center of British iron and steel manufacturing; and Manchester was a becoming a center of the cotton industry. Important as they were, they had no voice in the House of Commons.
In those places that were represented, the right to vote for members of the House of Commons was extremely limited. Only adult men were allowed to vote, and property qualifications excluded eighty percent or more of them. In many towns, the right to vote was limited to men who occupied particular pieces of property. But none of this mattered much, because in most places elections often went uncontested. Spirited contest for seats in the House of Commons took place in London and some of the larger towns and the counties close to the city, but elsewhere aristocrats and their networks of relatives and clients controlled elections. The county seats for Nottinghamshire went uncontested for a hundred years. The members of the House of Commons rarely concerned themselves with the interests of ordinary people. They usually represented the interests of rich country gentlemen and city merchants or the interests of the aristocrats who secured their election.
Many in Britain were very proud of their government of king, lords and commons, which they said balanced the three great interests in the realm and thus represented all the king’s subjects in a fair way. They celebrated this “mixed government” as the source of British stability and success. In truth the British government was an oligarchy—a government controlled by a small number of powerful people and conducted for their benefit. The growing wealth and influence Britain enjoyed had little to do with mixed government, which was a polite fiction.
The Rulers and the Ruled
Eighteenth-century Britain had no written constitution defining and limiting the powers of its most important officials. Written constitutions are a distinctive contribution of the American Revolution to public life. In the absence of a written constitution, Britain was governed by custom and tradition and by the policy preferences of whatever group of aristocrats could secure a working majority in Parliament for policies that the king found acceptable. Many of the functions of government were carried out by a complex and ever-shifting bureaucracy made up of ministers and other officials who were, in theory, appointed by and responsible only to the king.
The most important was the prime minister, the most powerful office in the British government but one that was not described or defined in law until the twentieth century. The office emerged during the eighteenth century and grew in importance, at first because King George I, to whom the Crown had passed, was a German prince who spoke little English. Unable to preside effectively over meetings of his leading ministers and uninterested in the details of government, he accepted one of them, Sir Robert Walpole, as the leader of his government. Walpole held the post for twenty years, maintaining his influence mainly through his use of the royal power of appointment, which he used to build up a party loyal to him. Enjoying the power of an office that did not formally exist, Walpole refused to call himself the prime minister. One of his successors, George Grenville, call it “an odious title.”
Walpole and Grenville, along with the others who wielded the powers of prime minister, presided over governments that routinely deprived British subjects of religious freedom, denied them rights of free speech and assembly, taxed them without their consent, searched their homes, shops, and warehouses without just cause or proper warrants, denied many of them the right to bear arms, and in time of war employed roaming armed gangs to force men into naval service.
Their governments were little concerned with the welfare of the king’s subjects. Except for men permanently disabled in war, the king’s government was indifferent to veterans and to the widows and orphans its wars produced. It took no action to discourage aristocrats and other wealthy landowners from depriving their tenants of land their families had worked for centuries, and indeed facilitated it through acts of Parliament. The total number of landholders in Britain declined dramatically during the eighteenth century. The landless poor streamed into London, filling slums with an impoverished underclass, or migrated to the colonies as indentured servants.
Life was hard for those who remained. Serious efforts to ensure public health were nonexistent. Thomas Percival, a Manchester physician, estimated that half the children born in London before the 1770s died before they reached two. The health of the people was slightly better in the countryside and in provincial towns, but underemployment was chronic and poverty was commonplace. In difficult years as much as a third of the British population was destitute. Private charities, growing in number and resources since the seventeenth century, were insufficient to solve the growing problem of poverty.
Life was held cheap. The use of torture to extract confessions had declined by the eighteenth century, but brutal punishments had not. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, British law recognized sixty capital crimes—crimes for which a convicted person could be executed. By the end of the century there were over two hundred. The Murder Act, passed in 1752, provided that the bodies of executed murderers should be dissected by doctors or hung in chains and left to rot in public view. For lesser crimes, fierce corporal punishment, including public whipping and branding, remained the rule.
Penal transportation to Britain’s American colonies was employed as a sentence to rid Britain of people convicted of petty theft and other non-capital crimes. More than half of the all English migrants to America between 1718 and 1775 arrived as convicts and were sold by the merchants who transported them into indentured servitude, usually for terms of fourteen years. Most were sold to planters in Virginia and Maryland. The planters grumbled—William Byrd of Virginia complained to a British friend, “I wish you would be so kind as to hang all your felons at home”—but they bought the convicts up. Penal transportation was interrupted by the American Revolution but later renewed by sending convicts to Australia, turning a continent on the opposite side of the planet into a prison from which no one could return.
British and British American merchants also sold West Africans into perpetual servitude in America. The brutal practice of enslaving Africans grew dramatically from the last quarter of the seventeenth century with little opposition in Britain or the colonies. Their appearance, what contemporaries called “heathen” religious practices, inability to speak English, and African customs made them, in the eyes of all but a few people in Britain, distinguished for nothing but perpetual servitude. For the British and colonial slave traders who took over the British market from the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, the slave trade itself became a source of wealth. Opposition to enslavement on humanitarian and religious grounds began to take shape in the middle of the eighteenth century, but its spokesman offered no practical alternative to enslavement as a means to procure the labor the colonies needed. Distasteful as enslavement seemed to increasing numbers in Britain, to most it seemed different only in degree from the more familiar experience of the poor, indentured servants, and transported convicts.
Governing the Colonies
To the people of British America, the government that presided over the empire was both distant and almost incomprehensible. Except for merchant sailors, few Americans traveled to Britain. Colonial newspapers, which relatively few colonists read, were often filled with reports of European politics and gossip about royal marriages, but most of it was months old by the time it was published and had little practical importance for British Americans. The few mid-eighteenth-century colonists who concerned themselves with the government in Britain seem to have subscribed to the view that the British government had achieved a happy balance between the interests of the king, the aristocracy, and the commons.
The patchwork of colonies that made up the British Empire were governed by a patchwork of institutions and officers. In Britain, an eight-member body call the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, often called the Board of Trade, was responsible for advising the Crown and Parliament on colonial affairs. The Board of Trade had no executive powers or important powers of appointment, but it conducted hearings and interviewed colonial officials, merchants, and colonial agents, and the ministry (from which its members were typically drawn) often followed its guidance.
No single government in America governed the colonies on behalf of the king and Parliament. The idea of creating a single government for the colonies was suggested from time to time, but the British never acted on the idea. Each of the British colonies in North America had its own government, with a governor, an upper house of the legislature or an appointed governor’s council, and an assembly.
The governor was usually a British native appointed by the king and sent to America as the king’s representative in the colony. The upper house or council was typically a small group chosen by the governor. It usually included some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the colony. The council advised the governor and, in most colonies, voted to approve or reject laws adopted by the colonial assembly. In some colonies the council also served as a supreme court.
The assembly passed laws for the colony. The assemblies went by a variety of names. In Virginia the colonial assembly was called the House of Burgesses. In Massachusetts it was called the General Court. Elsewhere it was called the House of Delegates. Members of the assembly were elected, although in most of the colonies voting was a privilege of free adult men over twenty-one who owned property. Women, servants, enslaved people, and many people who worked for wages could not vote, and in several colonies the allotment of seats in the assembly did not kept pace with the expansion of the population to the west, leaving the more recently settled areas under represented. The opportunity to vote was nonetheless more widely enjoyed in the colonies than in Britain.
William Douglass, a Boston physician who published a history of the British colonies in 1740, compared the organization of their government to the mixed government of Britain. With “the governor, representing the King,” he explained, “the colonies are monarchical; by the Council, they are aristocratical; by a house of representatives or delegates from the people, they are democratical. . . . The concurrence of these three forms of government seems to be the highest perfection that human civil government can attain to in times of peace.”
The analogy was commonly advanced, but colonial government actually bore little resemblance to the British government. Governors appeared to wield considerable power. They typically appointed the upper houses and could call meetings of the assemblies, veto their legislation, and dissolve them at will. They appointed judges, commanded the militia, and often commanded any of the king’s soldiers stationed in their colonies. But the governors were not as powerful as they seemed. Most were British natives who made their livings as colonial officials. Many were appointed without ever having been to the colonies they were to govern. They arrived with no friends on the councils or in the assemblies, which made it difficult for them to get things done. They needed the assemblies to pass laws and the assemblies often controlled their salaries. In practice, the assemblies governed the colonies.
Through the first half of the eighteenth century, the Crown and Parliament devoted little attention to the affairs of their North American colonies. The British government imposed few taxes or regulations, and invested little effort in enforcing the regulations it did impose. The result of this long period of salutary neglect was that the colonists grew used to managing their own affairs. The assemblies established their influence at the expense of the governors. Merchants evaded the customs laws by smuggling or bribing customs officials. By the middle of the century the colonies had become an important source of wealth for Britain. Tobacco, rum, molasses, sugar, and indigo reached British consumers and provided British merchants with goods to trade on the Continent. Timber, tar, and pitch from America’s forests reached the Royal Navy, along with hemp for ropes and staves for barrels. In return Britain provided the colonists with credit and sent them woolen fabrics, creamware dishes, buttons, silk, printed cotton, iron goods, clocks, furniture, guns, musket balls, and gunpowder. Money was made and no one looked very hard at how it was done.
Under the circumstances, local government had more influence in the lives of ordinary colonists than the governors or assemblies. In the southern and middle colonies, the county courts, which were dominated by wealthy planters, were the most important institutions of local government. Members of these county courts were usually the officers of the local militia and served on the vestries of churches. In New England, town governments, local courts, and churches had similar influence, but town meetings, in which all the freemen of the town could participate and express themselves, were even more important.
Local government was equally important to the lives of ordinary men and women in Britain. Despite the growing importance of London and the larger towns, the majority of British subjects lived in village communities of a few hundred people, tied to other villages. The parish and the market towns were centers of rural life in Britain, just as church and courthouse were the centers of rural life in America. It was at the local level that the dominant institutions of public life defined and protected the limited rights of the king’s subjects in Britain and America alike.
The Rule of Law
Life in Britain and its American colonies was not free, as we understand freedom, but the people of both benefited from the rule of law—the idea that society should be governed by established, just, and widely understood legal principles enforced consistently and without regard to social status, and that those principles apply to rulers as well as the people they rule.
The king’s British and American subjects claimed the rule of law was an ancient English tradition confirmed in the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, a thirteenth century agreement between King John and a group of rebellious English barons that limited the powers of the king and guaranteed certain rights to his subjects, including the right to trial by jury and protection against arbitrary or lengthy imprisonment without trial. Magna Carta also limited the power of the Crown to impose taxes, providing that new taxes could not be imposed without the “general consent of the realm.”
Magna Carta was over five hundred years old by the middle of the eighteenth century, and its importance as a foundation of British rights was mostly symbolic. More important was the English Bill of Rights of 1689, in which Parliament defined the terms upon which it offered the vacant throne of England jointly to William of Orange and his wife, Mary. The Bill of Rights forbid kings from suspending laws or preventing their execution, and forbid raising an army in time of peace, or imposing taxes without the consent of Parliament. These provisions severely limited the powers of the Crown and provided for the powers of government to be shared by the king and Parliament.
To protect the independence of Parliament, the Bill of Rights specified that the “election of members of Parliament ought to be free,” though it did not define what a free election would be like, and guaranteed “freedom of speech” in Parliament for members, ensuring that no member could be punished for anything he said there. The English Bill of Rights also guaranteed trial by jury and forbid excessive bail, excessive fines, and “cruel and unusual punishments.” This language was repeated in the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.
The English Bill of Rights was an important foundation for the liberties British Americans claimed as their birthright, but it is as conspicuous for the rights it did not assert as for those it claimed. It did not provide for freedom of speech or expression, including freedom of the press, for the king’s subjects, except for a very limited right to petition the king without fear of punishment or penalty. It did not provide for religious freedom. Indeed it required that the no Roman Catholic should sit on the throne and guaranteed a limited right to bear arms for Protestants only. While it asserted the right of trial by jury it did not prohibit torture or warrantless searches, nor did it protect the accused from being forced to incriminate themselves or endure repeated trials for the same alleged offense. It did not guarantee due process, which is the application of laws in a consistent, orderly, and fair way. The English Bill of Rights provided for a very limited right to bear arms, specifying that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” The limitations “suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law” gave the British government legal grounds to disarm the king’s subjects at will.
Despite these limitations, the English Bill of Rights defined the rights of people in Britain and in British America more clearly than any other document. When Britons and British-American colonists spoke of the “rights of Englishmen,” these were the rights they meant. They did not think of these as universal or natural rights, benefitting everyone. They were distinctively British. Possession of these rights was one of many ways eighteenth-century Britons distinguished their country from others, especially France, where the powers of the king were much greater than those of the British monarch and which had no representative legislative body comparable to the British Parliament.
The Conditions of Freedom
The rule of law and a government that recognizes and protects the basic rights of its people are essential to freedom, but freedom requires more than rules and rights to flourish. It requires personal independence—the opportunity to choose how to live your life. Freedom is only meaningful when people have choices, including choices that can improve their circumstances. People who are very poor, who do not have the basic necessities of life and have little or no chance of getting them, are not free. They have no choices that might lead to a better life.
The people of colonial British America enjoyed a higher standard of living than almost any people in the world, and had more personal independence than most people in Britain. While there were unemployed and laboring poor in some American cities, their numbers were small, rarely more than two or three percent of the population. In British America, labor shortages were a frequent problem. In the towns, work was generally available to able-bodied men and women, and at higher wages than in Britain. While acquiring land and setting up a farm required savings, it was within reach for a larger percentage of the population in British America than anywhere in Europe.
Literacy was more widespread in Britain’s American colonies than almost anywhere else. Other acquired skills, like the ability to do basic mathematics, seem to have been more common in British America than elsewhere. Eighteenth-century schools focused on those basic skills. Students also learned some Biblical and ancient history, but not much about the history of their own time. John Adams taught such a school when he was a young man. He wrote in his diary that he could look out over his students and imagine he was looking over a whole society in miniature. Among them, he wrote, were “several renowned generals but three feet high,” as well as “kings, politicians, divines, fops, buffoons, fiddlers, sycophants, fools, coxcombs, chimney sweepers, and every over character drawn in history or seen in the world.” He enjoyed thinking how each student “will turn out in future life.”
Like nearly everything else in colonial British America, access to education was not enjoyed equally. There were more schools in New England than to the south, and the quality of instruction was generally better in New England, where schools were maintained at public expense. There, John Adams wrote with pride, an adult “who cannot read or write . . . is as rare as a comet or an earthquake.” Though Adams exaggerated, New Englanders were probably the most literate people in the world in the middle of the eighteenth century. But even in New England, access to education was limited. Everywhere in British America, the education of girls ended before that of boys. Enslaved children did not attend school. It was a crime in some colonies to teach an enslaved person to read or write. The children of laborers and indentured servants received little or no formal education. The children of the poor often did not attend school because their parents could not pay the schoolmaster. They learned only what their parents could teach them. If parents could not read or write their children might never learn to read or write.
Education gives people choices about how to spend their lives by introducing them to ideas they could not have imagined on their own. Education provides people with new skills to earn their living and enrich their lives. Education gives freedom greater value by exposing people to new possibilities. The freedom to live where you like is more valuable if you have learned what other places are like. The freedom to choose the kind of work you do is more valuable if you have learned enough to do something other than the work your parents do. The freedom to worship as you choose is more valuable if you have learned enough about other faiths to make an informed choice. Education is essential to freedom. Without it, opportunities often go unrecognized.
Degrees of Freedom
Although the people of British America enjoyed more freedom than most people in the mid-eighteenth century, it was not enjoyed equally. Freedom was fragmented and limited along social lines. At the bottom of colonial society, enslaved people enjoyed no freedom at all. They had few legal protections. They were bought and sold. They were forced to work for the benefit of their owners all their lives. Their children were enslaved from birth and forced to work as soon as they were old enough to do chores of any kind. Their owners provided them with rough clothes, plain food, and perhaps a crowded cabin or hut to sleep in. Very few enslaved people learned to read or write. Even during their few hours off work, they were rarely permitted to leave their master’s property or the surrounding area without a pass. They could be subjected to fierce punishments for the slightest infractions or simply to drive them harder. The lives were ruled by violence and threats of violence. House servants and those who lived in towns often had a better life than those who worked in the fields, but no enslaved person had the freedom enjoyed by others.
A small number of white colonists believed slavery was unjust, but most did not. Slavery was brutal and degrading, but so was ordinary life at the lower levels of colonial society. Restrictions on freedom were common among white colonists. Indentured servants enjoyed much more freedom than enslaved people, but little compared to others. The typical indentured servant was a laborer who wanted to come to the colonies to make a better life, but who lacked the money to pay for his passage to America. In return for his passage, an indentured servant agreed to serve a master in the colonies for several years. If he knew a craft he could often bargain for a short period of service. But if he was unskilled, as most were, he was usually set to work in the fields for five to seven years. Transported convicts, who made up a large proportion of indentured servants in the eighteenth century, usually served twice as long. A master could flog his servants and ask magistrates to extend their service it they failed to work hard enough. Indentured servants often died before the end of their service. They were never free.
Apprentices were bound by law to serve their masters for several years, much like indentured servants. Apprenticeship was the usual way to learn a craft, but a young person was required to obey a master’s commands just like an indentured servant and could be subjected to the same punishments. Apprentices often lived in the craft shop where they worked and were required to do all kinds of menial work in exchange for learning their trade.
Unskilled and lightly skilled workers, whether in towns or in the countryside, were usually free to come and go as they liked, but they often worked alongside indentured servants and were more likely to live in poverty than other colonists. Many worked for farmers and plantation owners in exchange for basic food, plain clothing, and simple shelter. They might be paid some agreed upon amount of money after completing a term of service or finishing some assigned task, but their everyday lives differed little from indentured servants. Sailors and fishermen—very common occupations at a time when most people lived close to the sea—were bound to obey their captains and accepted harsh discipline and rough conditions as a natural part of life.
Women of all ages and social ranks were the largest group of unfree people in British America. Women had few legal rights—none if they were enslaved. Women could not vote, serve on juries, or hold public office. Young women had less access to education than young men. Illiteracy was more common among women and most work was closed to them. An unmarried woman might own property, make contracts, and bring suits in court, but lost these rights when she married. All her property then came under the control of her husband.
Indians had few legal rights. Those who lived near or among the colonists were often treated with hostility. They might own property, but they were not permitted to vote and the courts generally refused to hear their complaints or their testimony. Most Indians lived beyond the frontier, outside the reach of British law.
Men who owned their own farms or craft shops enjoyed more freedom than most other people in British America. They could go wherever they liked. The government required them to pay very little in taxes. They were permitted to vote for a few public offices, though they were not considered eligible to hold most offices themselves. In New England they could express their views in town meetings.
The freest people in British America were the gentry. The gentry included planters and farmers who owned hundreds of acres of land, merchants who owned ships, warehouses and stores, as well as a lawyers, physicians, and growing number of successful entrepreneurs who had created flourishing businesses. The gentry included the wealthiest people in British America. They had the benefit of better education than most other British Americans. A few of the wealthiest were educated in Britain. Others attended one of the several colleges that had been established in the colonies or were educated by private tutors. Some were largely self-taught. Many accepted public service as a responsibility that went with their wealth and social status. They served as militia officers, on church vestries, and in the assemblies. Many of them were proud and protective of the freedoms they enjoyed. When those freedoms were threatened, they protested, resisted, and ultimately rebelled.
Chapter 3 A World of Ideas
Britain’s American colonies grew and prospered during a time of enormous intellectual and practical creativity in Europe known ever since as the Enlightenment. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, European philosophers and scientists dedicated themselves to understanding the natural world and man’s place in it. They were building on the ideas and discovers of philosophers and scientists over previous centuries, but they approached their work with new energy and the conviction that the insights into the natural world offered by philosophy and science could be applied to improve the quality of life for everyone.
The Enlightenment encouraged a new faith in progress—that the conditions of life, the institutions of government, and the organization of society could all be reformed and improved by the deliberate application of reason. The movement bound philosophers and scientists together in a common enterprise aimed at understanding the natural world and harnessing the insights of philosophy and science to improve health and safety, harness power and make work less laborious, relieve suffering and injustice, and reform institutions to make them more rational, humane, and efficient. The philosophers of the Enlightenment disagreed about many things, but they were unified in their conviction that mankind should not be governed by inherited practices and traditions that no longer served the interests of ordinary people.
The Enlightenment was a movement without borders that attracted creative minds all over Europe and even European colonies in the Americas. Influenced by the Enlightenment, Americans embraced new ways of thinking about their rights, as well as the new faith in reason, rational improvement, and progress, and the new spirit of inquiry and experimentation. They eventually applied them to create a new nation unlike any that had ever existed.
Hundreds of philosophers, scientists and writers from all over Europe—and eventually America—contributed to the Enlightenment. Many were inspired by two great British thinkers of the late seventeenth century. The first was the scientist Isaac Newton. In his most important book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton explained that the universe is governed by unchanging laws of nature like the law of gravity. By discovering and describing these laws of nature, he believed, we can understand how the world around us works. Newton’s work inspired generations of scientists to study the natural world to understand the principles, or laws, governing the universe. Great advances were made in physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and other branches of science during the eighteenth century. These advances were applied to engineering, medicine, and other practical activities that improved the quality of life for everyone.
The other British thinker whose work inspired the Enlightenment was the philosopher John Locke. In his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explained that everything people know they learn through the use of their senses. Locke taught that people are naturally equal at birth, and that what they become is simply a result of what they learn. Locke’s work inspired generations of thought on education and led philosophers and writers to consider the rights of individuals and the proper basis of government. If everyone was born knowing nothing, as Locke said, then people were born equal. No one was born smarter or braver or better in any way than anyone else. If people were born equal, there was no basis to discriminate among people. They should all have the same rights.
Philosophers called these natural rights, because they are the result of our natural condition. The theory of natural rights—of rights inherent in the human condition rather than the possession of a particular people, won through their historical experience—had been growing since the seventeenth century. It was shaped by a Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, and his German follower, Samuel Pufendorf, and given more complete formulation by a Swiss theorist, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, who summarized thinking on natural rights in a book called The Principles of Natural Law, published in 1747.
The philosophical literature on natural rights was well known to thoughtful Americans like George Mason, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The idea that all people possess certain fundamental rights seems obvious to us, because we live in a world in which the idea is widely accepted, but it was, as late as 1770, a theoretical construct. No government acknowledged the existence of natural rights before the American Revolution. The acceptance of this idea, and its central role in American thinking about government, is a fundamental reason America is free.
The Science of Government
The development of natural rights theory was only one of many intellectual accomplishments of the Enlightenment. Philosophers also worked to discover the natural laws that govern human behavior in the way the Newtonian laws governed the physical world and to apply those laws to shape social organization and government. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics—fields of inquiry so new that they had not yet been named—are all rooted in this drive to discern patterns in human behavior. Scottish philosophers—Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kames, Thomas Reid, and Adam Ferguson—led the way in these fields, pursuing inquiries to discover what Hume called “the constant and universal principles of human nature” that would enable men to reduce government to a science.
Challenging centuries of tradition, philosophers of the Enlightenment called on people to consider the purposes, just foundation, and most effective organization of government. European writers who considered these subjects generally agreed that the main purpose of government was to promote the public good, and most thought a just political order would be reasonable, humane, peaceful, and free.
Many thought the only just foundation of government was the consent of the governed. They theorized that governments originated in an implied contract between the rulers and the ruled, by which the people gave up some of the individual freedom they enjoyed in a “state of nature,” in return for enjoying the good order and protection of a society governed for their benefit. This contract theory of government, which was most closely associated with John Locke, defied the traditional view that the rule of kings, the superior status of hereditary aristocrats, and the authority of established churches had been ordained by God, and that ordinary people owed them their obedience.
While Enlightenment ideas about the most effective organization of government differed considerably, most political writers agreed that the best governments balanced the powers and interests of the king, aristocrats and church leaders, and ordinary people. Many Enlightenment thinkers praised the informal British constitution, dividing power between king, lords, and commons, as the ideal of “balanced government.” This idea was most closely associated with the French theorist Charles, Baron Montesquieu, whose chief work, The Spirit of the Laws, was well known in America.
Montesquieu argued that governments and the laws they enforce should be adapted to the people they govern, and that the distribution of power in government should reflect the natural distribution of influence and wealth in society. No radical, Montesquieu accepted that kings and aristocrats, due chiefly to their wealth, enjoyed more influence than others. Maintaining a just political order, he believed, required a stable government, which could only be maintained if kings, aristocrats, and commoners each held their proper proportion of political power.
While praising Britain’s allegedly “balanced constitution,” Enlightenment thinkers argued that in many other countries, unchecked monarchical power upset the proper balance of government and resulted in tyranny. In most European countries, established churches supported the claims of monarchs to rule by divine right and demanded obedience to kings and aristocrats. Many philosophers, particularly in France, regarded established churches, with their official dogmas and rigid, authoritarian hierarchies, as major obstacles to the creation of free societies.
The anticlerical ideas of the Enlightenment had little relevance in America, where religious pluralism was increasingly common and where many colonists belonged to dissenting religious traditions—Puritan, Quaker, Presbyterian, and Baptist—that emphasized the individual’s relationship with God rather than obedience to a church hierarchy. In America, aspirations for an enlightened, just, and free society tended to merge with the aspiration of seventeenth-century religious refugees to create a Godly societies in the New World.
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, along with other colonists educated in American colleges in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, were familiar with the political writings of Locke and Montesquieu, as well as the works of Hume, Hutcheson, and other Scottish philosophers. In Europe their ideas provided topics for academic conversations and coffeehouse debates. In America they became guidebooks to revolution and statecraft.
The Humanitarian Impulse
Confidence that reason and the insights of science could be applied to improve the lives of ordinary people inspired new efforts to relieve suffering, to provide, in a consistent and rational way, for the needs of others, and ultimately to solve problems that had plagued mankind for centuries.
This humanitarian impulse went beyond the kinds of charity encouraged for centuries by the church. Traditional charity sought to alleviate suffering and want by encouraging people to share whatever they could spare with those less fortunate. Its aims were modest, accepting that poverty, illness, and other kinds of distress were unavoidable aspects of life and seeking to relieve the worst of the inevitable suffering. The Enlightenment encouraged people to strive for a world in which the worst of human suffering would be eliminated. People had long talked and written about societies free of poverty and distress, but they had always been utopian fantasies. By the middle of the eighteenth century, people were imagining societies without want as a reality they could shape themselves through the diligent application of reason.
Those who embraced this new humanitarian spirit were confident that many kinds suffering and want could be eliminated. Their efforts took many forms. Scientific farmers experimented with new crops, new fertilizers, and new ways to till, plant, and harvest, aiming to increase harvests and providing more, better, and cheaper food. They promoted increased reliance on root crops, extolling the virtues of carrots and above all, potatoes—more productive than wheat, wrote economist Adam Smith, easier to grow, and an “agreeable and wholesome variety of food” eaten by “the strongest mean and the most beautiful women.” A Scottish physician predicted that if the laboring population grew and ate potatoes, “Men would multiply, and poverty . . . would be unknown.”
The ambition to end suffering spurred efforts across a wide range of fields. Physicians, no longer satisfied with treating disease, searched for cures as well as methods to prevent disease through inoculation, improved sanitation, and better diets. Their efforts often failed and the medicines they prescribed sometimes did more harm than good, but smallpox inoculation, systematic effort to provide cities with clean water, and dozens of similar efforts improved the quality of life for countless people. Inventive men applied their creative energy to practical devices—efficient iron stoves for heating, mathematically constructed plows, lightning rods, and fire engines. Ambitious reformers established hospitals, orphanages, asylums for the treatment of the mentally ill, and charity schools for the education of the children of the poor. The results of these efforts were often grim. Underlying problems of disease, poverty, and mental illness did not yield easily to their efforts, but successes fueled new efforts more than failures discouraged them.
This rational humanitarian spirit washed over the Britain’s North American colonies. George Washington, anxious to make his Virginia plantation a model farm, collected books on innovative agricultural techniques and experimented with new crops and fertilizers. Having suffered through smallpox at nineteen, he advocated inoculation and required soldiers to be inoculated during the Revolutionary War. He bred mules, which can do more work, live longer, and eat less than draft horses, and worked to popularize their use. Thomas Jefferson, whose life was defined by the Enlightenment spirit of rational inquiry and scientific advancement, designed a moldboard plow to cut through soil with minimal effort. In Philadelphia, the center of the American Enlightenment, paved and illuminated streets, water pumps every fifty paces, a hospital, a fire company, and private associations to support education and provide for the less fortunate all testified to a rational, humanitarian spirit.
This newfound confidence in the potential of reason to overcome the miseries that had plagued mankind for thousands of years existed side-by-side with grim assessments of the appalling conditions under which many people lived. “More than half the habitable world,” the French philosopher Voltaire wrote in 1771, “is still populated by two-footed animals who live in a horrible condition approximating the state of nature, with hardly enough to live on and clothe themselves, barely enjoying the gift of speech, barely aware that they are miserable, living and dying practically without knowing it.” The kind of hopeless poverty Voltaire described was uncommon in Britain’s North American colonies, where labor shortages made chronic unemployment rare, but the relative prosperity of the colonists seems to have encouraged reform more than self-satisfied complacency.
The Beginning of Abolitionism
Enslaved people were the one group in Britain’s North American colonies whose wretched condition came closest to meeting Voltaire’s bleak description. The humanitarian impulse led many people to indignant opposition to slavery. Although slavery had existed for thousands of years, it had developed relatively recently in British North America. The legal status of enslaved people was defined in colonial law in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, but enslaved people made up a small part of the population of British North America before the final years of the seventeenth century, when the importation of enslaved Africans to the North American mainland took off.
Individual colonists expressed distaste for slavery as early as the seventeenth century, recognizing it as inhumane. The earliest vocal opposition to slavery gradually took shape in the middle of the eighteenth century. Quakers were the first to express their opposition to slavery, reflecting their abhorrence of violence—enslavement was usually maintained through violence—and their conviction that all people, regardless of race or gender, possess an “Inner Light” of goodness. Although some Quakers owned slaves, by the eve of the Revolution that number was very small, and Quakers led all others in principled opposition. Scottish philosopher James Millar wrote in 1771 that “the Quakers of Pennsylvania, are the first body of men . . . who seem to have thought that the abolition of this practice is a duty they owe to religion and humanity.”
No one embodied the principles of Quaker benevolence and principled opposition to slavery more fully than Anthony Benezet, who arrived in Philadelphia from London in 1731 as a seventeen-year-old Huguenot refugee who had converted to Quakerism. In Philadelphia he worked to convince his fellow Quakers that slave-owning was contrary to Christianity. He taught school to the children of white Philadelphians by day and taught the children of poor black Philadelphians in his home by night. He opened the first public school for girls in 1754 and devised a special course of study for a deaf girl who attended the school.
Combining the certainties of his religious faith with the rational principle of natural rights, Benezet became the most prolific anti-slavery pamphleteer of the third quarter of the eighteenth century and the most influential abolitionist in the Atlantic world. His work inspired the first generation of British anti-slavery advocates and persuaded many thoughtful Americans. He not only insisted that slavery was unjust and inhumane, he argued for racial equality. “I have found amongst the negroes,” he wrote, “as great a variety of talents as amongst a like number of whites and I am bold to assert, that the notion entertained by some, that the blacks are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride of ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance, as to be unable to form a right judgment of them.”
Deeply attached to the principles of Quaker non-violence and sharing few of the worldly concerns that drove American resistance to imperial authority, Benezet’s life work transcended the political controversy that led to the Revolutionary War. But that work marked the beginnings of American abolitionism and inspired the Revolutionary challenge that led to the Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780. His legacy reaches from the Revolutionary generation straight to our time. A gentle man who never served in public office or commanded men in battle, he was nonetheless among the Revolutionaries, properly understood, who made America free.
Among the people Anthony Benezet convinced of the evils of slavery was Benjamin Franklin, the American who most fully embodied the spirit of rational improvement inspired by the Enlightenment. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin learned the printing trade from his brother moved to Philadelphia as a young man. He traveled to London in 1724 and spent over a year working for printers before returning to Philadelphia. At once scholarly and practical by nature, Franklin consumed the work of contemporary scientists and philosophers. At twenty-one he organized a club of bookish tradesmen and artisans called the Junto, who met to discuss books and ideas. In 1731, with Franklin’s leadership, they founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, the nation’s first subscription library. For small annual dues, members had access to what quickly became one of the finest libraries in the Americas.
Franklin built the Pennsylvania Gazette into the most successful newspaper in the colonies and threw himself into projects to improve life in Philadelphia and shape the intellectual character of his adopted colony. He was instrumental in founding the Academy and College of Philadelphia, which opened in 1751 and is now the University of Pennsylvania. He helped organize the American Philosophical Society and served as its president, overseeing the work of a standing Committee on American Improvements. He started the publication of the Society’s proceedings, giving early scientists a way to share their ideas with one another.
Although Franklin delighted in the world of ideas, he turned continuously to their practical application, organizing the first fire company in the city and the first American hospital. He promoted smallpox inoculation, argued for the economic usefulness of paper money, and proposed a system of night watchmen. He developed an improved cast iron stove for heating and experimented with electricity, demonstrating conclusively that lightning is an electrical discharge. He applied that insight to invent the lightning rod, designed to prevent lightning strikes from causing fires by running the electricity to ground.
He retired from business in 1748 and thereafter devoted himself completely to public service. In 1750, he wrote that when he died “I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, that He died rich.” He was elected to the legislature and threw himself into the business of government. He secured appointment as postmaster general for Britain’s North American colonies, and completely reorganized postal delivery across the continent. All of these accomplishments, large and small, added, as Franklin saw them, to the sum of human happiness. This was the ultimate aim of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
Devoted though he was to the future of Philadelphia and the happiness of its citizens, Franklin was even more devoted to the future of the British Empire. In 1757 he traveled to London as agent of the Pennsylvania assembly, which wanted to tax the vast landholdings of the Penn family. His reputation as a scientist opened doors throughout Britain, and Franklin enjoyed the company of the island nation’s leading thinkers, writers, and public men. He remained in Britain for five years, and continually expressed his devotion to Britain. The Scottish philosopher David Hume paid tribute to Franklin when he prepared leave for home in 1762. “I am very sorry,” he write, “that you intend soon to leave our hemisphere. America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, etc.; but you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first great man of letters, for whom we are beholden to her.”
When his new friends suggested that the colonies might one day unite and break free of British control, Franklin scoffed at the idea. Americans, he said, would never unite “against their own nation, which protects and encourages them, with which they have so many ties of blood, interest, and affection.” The whole idea, he wrote, “is not merely improbable, it is impossible.”
The Enlightenment reached British America and shaped the way educated Americans thought about human nature, rights, and the world around them at the same time many Americans experienced a profound upheaval in their spiritual lives. The confluence of these two movements—the one intellectual and practical, the other spiritual—had a profound influence on the way Americans thought about themselves and the importance of religious liberty.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Britain’s mainland colonies were home to an extraordinarily diverse array of Protestant denominations. They were organized in something like 1,500 congregations. New England Congregationalists—the descendants of the Puritan migrants of the seventeenth century—accounted for 450 churches. The Church of England accounted for another 300 congregations, most of them in the southern colonies and scattered through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. The Quakers had about 250 meetings (the did not call their gatherings churches), mostly in Pennsylvania but scattered from Rhode Island to South Carolina. Presbyterians accounted for another 150 churches, mostly in the middle colonies but after mid-century they spread rapidly in the interior parts of the south as Scots-Irish migrants made their way there. Baptist, Lutheran, and Dutch Reformed congregations accounted for about 100 churches each. The Lutheran congregations were concentrated in Pennsylvania, along with some 50 German Reformed congregations.
The religious fervor that brought many religious refugees to the colonies in the seventeenth century had cooled by the early eighteenth century, but the churches remained central to the lives of most colonists. The majority attended church regularly, but the old emphasis on a personal conversion experience that had been so important to the early New England Puritans and to many other Protestants had faded. Religious enthusiasm was rekindled from time to time by revivals, often associated with the arrival of a new minister who called on his congregation to renew its commitment to the faith.
A series of revivals in the mid-1730s, beginning in individual congregations but quickly merging and spreading, set off a general revival since known as the Great Awakening. The revival began in the Connecticut River Valley of New England and in New Jersey, then spread as individual ministers corresponded, coordinated revival meetings, and shared their churches with one another in a concerted effort to rouse the faithful. They employed a deeply personal, spontaneous brand of preaching to appeal to the emotions, calling the faithful to acknowledge their sinful nature and accept God’s saving grace.
The revival was led by young clergymen, including Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert and William Tennant, and spread across New England and the middle colonies. A popular young evangelical in Britain, George Whitefield, learned about the revival in America and at the invitation of American ministers came to the colonies to conduct a revival tour that lasted more than a year. Whitefield preached his way from Maine to Georgia, drawing audiences so large no church could hold them. He often preached outdoors, sometimes to thousands of people at a time. His tour of reflected how fully British America was tied to a trans-Atlantic world of ideas, as did his intimate friendship with the Philadelphia abolitionist Anthony Benezet, whom he had known in England when they were young.
Revival preaching was soon taken up by enthusiastic lay men and women who lacked formal theological training but who were inspired by their own conversion experience to lead others to salvation in the same way. These lay preachers traveled from town to town, gathering audience as they went and drawing people out of their usual congregations to participate in enthusiastic revival meetings. Some of them denounced the resident ministers in the towns they visited and argued that the old system of territorial parishes should be discarded in favor of a churches gathered from the faithful.
The revival divided many congregations between the traditional clergy, who prepared their sermons with scholarly care and appealed to the mind as well as the spirit, and revivalists, who denounced what one of them called the “old, rotten, and stinking routine religion” in favor of a religious experience that was highly emotional and enthusiastic, and in which worshipers cried out, wept openly, and even threw themselves on the ground. Ezra Stiles, a Connecticut minister of the old school, concluded that “multitudes were seriously, soberly and solemnly out of their wits.”
The radical evangelicals insisted that each person must assert his personal independence in matters of faith and embrace his own relationship with God, without relying on the teachings of educated ministers or participation in the traditional churches as a path to salvation. They ordained their own ministers, without regard to formal training, and preached in fields and private homes to informal congregations gathering white and black, rich and poor, and men and women, without distinction, as souls in need of salvation.
The revivals cooled in New England and the middle colonies after the mid-1740s, as revival ministers gathered their own congregations, built churches, and abandoned the itinerant preaching that had inspired and divided so many communities. The revivals shifted to the southern colonies in the 1750s, with itinerant Presbyterians drawing large crowds, to the disgust of the traditional Anglican clergy and their gentry supporters. The revival reached some of its most receptive audiences in the backcountry of Virginia and North Carolina, regions poorly served by the Anglican Church, where travelling Presbyterian and Baptist preachers found willing converts among ordinary people who had lost touch with traditional religious services. Like the northern revivalists, they preached about the equality of all souls before God and called on each listener to make an independent, personal commitment to accept God’s redeeming grace.
The gentry and better educated colonists tended to look on the evangelicals with skepticism. Under the influence of Enlightenment thought, they approach faith in increasingly rational ways. Advances in natural science had revealed the orderly working of God’s creation, they held, and they concluded that God did not interfere in the natural world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods were not evidence of God’s displeasure, but were shaped by the laws of nature ordained by God. God’s order could be understood through the application of reason, they insisted, and reflected a deity who was benign and forgiving.
This approach to matters of faith was shared, with important variations, by many of the men who led the American Revolution. Some of them regarded God like a great clockmaker, who had created the universe, established its rules, and set them all in motion, and who did not interfere in earthly affairs. Others, including George Washington, shared in this rational view, but believed that God intervened, when He chose, in the affairs of mankind. During and after the Revolutionary War, Washington referred frequently to God’s Providence—His active intervention—on behalf of the American cause.
The revivals weakened the hold of traditional churches on many communities and led many colonists to assert greater personal independence in matters of religion. Church affiliation and religious sentiments became, as a consequence of the revival, much more a matter of personal choice than they had ever been. The Enlightenment, by encouraging men and women to put their trust in reason, also weakened the hold of traditional churches and stirred distrust of established religion. Together these very different movements led to one of the most important achievements of the American Revolution—the establishment of religious liberty as a basic right of free people.
Chapter 4 The Frontiers of Empire
Until the middle of the eighteenth century, most of the colonists in Britain’s North American colonies lived within one hundred miles of the ocean. The frontier of the British Empire in North America stood on the east side of the Appalachian barrier that stretched from New England to Georgia, in most places less than two hundred miles from the sea.
This began to change in the 1740s as new migrants from Europe, anxious to acquire land, pressed on the frontier. A minority were from England. Most came from Scotland, Ireland, and the various princely states of Germany. Many were economic refugees, escaping poverty or dispossession. They moved quickly into the hinterlands—up the Hudson, into central Pennsylvania, and along the Blue Ridge of Virginia and southward along old Indian paths into the hills of North and South Carolina, settling land above the falls of the rivers flowing east through the tidewater. In some cases they formed communities of immigrants Scots, Scots-Irish, or Germans in the backcountry. Many were fiercely independent people who resented efforts of colonial bureaucrats and eastern gentry to govern them.
Difficult as some of them were to manage, they were part of a population boom that made Britain’s North American colonies an increasingly important part of the imperial economy. With a population of some 1.5 million people in 1750, the colonies were no longer an economic backwater. They had become an important market for goods manufactured in England as well as products reimported from continental Europe, India, and beyond, shipped in growing quantities by British merchants who sold American goods in British and European markets and who provided American merchants and planters with credit to buy their goods.
Many of Britain’s North American colonists benefited from their place in the web of imperial commerce. New England merchants sold timber, rope, and other supplies to the Royal Navy. New Englanders built an ever increasing number of the merchant ships to serve the imperial market. North Carolinians produced and sold tar and turpentine, essential for building and maintaining ships. North and South Carolinians grew vast amounts of rice, much of which was shipped to Britain’s Caribbean colonies to feed the enslaved people who toiled to produce sugar, the most valuable staple produced in the British Empire. The enslaved people of the sugar colonies also ate dried fish, much of it caught and sold by New Englanders. North American merchants bought slaves from African traders on the west coast of Africa and sold their human cargoes in the Caribbean and, in smaller numbers, on the North American mainland. They brought sugar and molasses back to New England, where distillers turned molasses into rum, which was sold all over the Atlantic world. All over the colonies, merchants profited by selling manufactured goods—cloth, finished metal goods from buttons to doorknobs, clocks, books, gunpowder, paint, paper, and glass—shipped from Britain.
The colonists who owned property and participated in the increasingly global market for goods benefitted from their association with the British Empire. Distant as they were from Britain, they were quick to express their loyalty to the Crown and their pride in Britain’s victories in a succession of wars, chiefly with France or Spain. They were grateful for the protection of the American coast by the Royal Navy and the broader protection afforded by Britain’s standing in a world of predatory imperial powers.
By far the largest and most populous of the European empires in the Western Hemisphere belonged to Spain, which claimed most of South and Central America, Mexico, Cuba and several other island in the Caribbean, and most of mainland North America. The Spanish maintained military and trading outposts on the coasts of Florida as well as the southern part of what is now Mississippi and Alabama and the southwest part of Georgia.
The Spanish empire reached across the future states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to southern California, but they had barely explored much of this vast domain, and Spanish settlement was thin everywhere north of Mexico. The Spanish claimed sovereignty over large regions peopled by Indians they exploited when they could, and with whom they traded and fought, but over whom they were never able to establish control. From their northern colonial capital of Santa Fe, in what is now New Mexico, they sought to dominate the Pueblo Indians surrounding them, with no consistent success. They had more trouble with the semi-nomadic Navaho and Apache peoples, and even more with the warlike, nomadic Comanche, who harassed and raided Spanish settlements and preyed on other Indians. The Spanish had barely explored the Pacific coast of North America that would become northern California, Oregon and Washington, but their claim to it was not yet challenged by other powers.
Except for its military presence in Florida, which pressed close on Georgia, the Spanish Empire in North America was largely unknown to colonial British Americans. Not so the French Empire. France claimed much of North America, including most of what is now eastern Canada and a region extending from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. This area was vast but the French hold on most of it was not very strong. The French were mainly interested in trade rather than settlement. French colonists lived along the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal and were scattered in outposts on the Great Lakes. The settlers in this region, which the French called New France, engaged in a very active fur trade with the Indians.
Although the British controlled the smallest part of North America, there were many more colonists in Britain’s North American colonies than in New France. In 1750 the population of the French colonies was about 75,000, less than five percent of the population of Britain’s North American colonies. The British navy was generally superior to the French navy and could defend the Britain’s colonies and threaten those of France. Britain and France fought over territory in North America repeatedly in the first half of the eighteenth century without a decisive result.
The French had one important advantage over the British. Because the purpose of their colonies was mainly to trade, the French seemed to pose little threat to the Indians with whom they traded. The British colonies, by contrast, attracted migrants who carved farms out of the woodlands where Indians hunted. British colonists, pressing their frontier westward, frequently came into conflict with the Indians. The tribes of the Great Lakes, western New York and the St. Lawrence River Valley often sided with the French against land-hungry British migrants. These Indians were fierce and skillful warriors, and their ties to the French balanced the numerical superiority of the British when the British and French went to war.
The Indians constituted a fourth power in North America, not to be underestimated. The most important, front an imperial perspective, were the Iroquois, a confederacy of six Indians peoples who occupied much of what became upstate New York and the eastern Great Lakes region, and south through later western Pennsylvania as far as Virginia and Kentucky and southwest into the upper Ohio Valley. They called themselves the Haudenosaunee. The French called them the Iroquois League and the British knew them as the Five Nations. They were, individually, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples. The Tuscarora people, displaced by the settlement of the Carolinas, migrated north in first third of the eighteenth century and joined the confederacy, which the British sometimes thereafter referred to as the Six Nations.
Each of these peoples had its own language and culture, closely related but distinct. Their confederacy long predated the arrival of Europeans in North America, and served to maintain peace between them, as a kind of cultural union, and as an instrument of mutual support in conflicts with neighboring peoples—with the Hurons and Wyandots to the west and southwest and with other peoples, including the British. Their leaders were as skilled at diplomacy and negotiation as any European, and their warriors were unmatched in the forests and on the waterways of their homeland, which spanned the divide between New France on the north and New England and New York to the east and south.
The Ohio Country
By 1750 the prospect of occupying land to the west of the Appalachians was beginning to stir the imagination of colonists, particularly those in Virginia and North Carolina. Both those colonies had extensive land claims west of the mountains. North Carolina’s claim extended to the Mississippi River and included what became Tennessee. Virginia’s claim, based on the charter granted to the Virginia Company of London in 1609, ran from “from sea to sea.” The original grant to the Virginia Company had been diminished by the grant of Maryland to Lord Baltimore and the grant of Pennsylvania to William Penn, but those colonies had established western limits. The western limit of the Pennsylvania grant was a meandering line five degrees west of the Delaware River. Virginia claimed everything to the west, including what is now the southwest part of Pennsylvania (including the site of Pittsburgh) and everything beyond—including all of what became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin—as well as the land south of the Ohio that became West Virginia and Kentucky.
By the 1740s the British and the French were aware of the potential value of the Ohio Country, a swath of forests stretching from what is now northwestern Pennsylvania south and west along the Ohio River and northward from the river across the modern states of Ohio and Indiana to the Great Lakes. It was a region of obvious fertility, much of it level and drained by small rivers, most of them flowing south into the Ohio. It was also the key to controlling the trans-Appalachian West, a larger region embracing later Kentucky and Tennessee, which are also watered by rivers flowing into the Ohio.
Britain and France each claimed the Ohio Valley, but neither had a military hold on the region. Each moved, at very nearly the same time, to assert its claim, setting up a conflict that led directly to an imperial war. In 1749, Virginia colonists formed the Ohio Company and made plans to divide the land up and sell it to settlers. When the French learned of these plans, they sent a military force to occupy the Ohio frontier. In 1753 the French began to build a chain of forts between Lake Erie and the place where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio, where the city of Pittsburgh stands today. Whichever power controlled that point would control the future of the Ohio Valley and the future of the trans-Appalachian West. The contest for the control of the Ohio frontier thus became a contest for future dominance of eastern North America. When he learned about the French forts, the governor of Virginia sent a twenty-one-year-old militia officer, Major George Washington, to the frontier to deliver a message to the French to leave the area.
Young Man Washington
Washington was then almost wholly unknown. He was the third son of a Virginia planter, Augustine Washington, who had died when George was eleven. Augustine had left the best and largest parts of his estate to his two older sons. George was to inherit a modest farm. But he was ambitious. His oldest brother, Lawrence, married into the family of Lord Fairfax, who owned a vast part of northern Virginia. Thanks to the patronage of the Fairfax family, George was made a county surveyor at seventeen and began working on the Virginia frontier, collecting fees for surveying land claims. He was naturally strong and athletic, and the work toughened him in a way that set him apart from the sons of other tidewater gentlemen. He learned to work with rough backcountry people and in time to give commands and see them obeyed. He also developed a conviction that the future of America lay in the west, and he never relinquished it.
Lawrence Washington died from tuberculosis in 1752, leaving George an interest in Mount Vernon, his Potomac River plantation. Lawrence had been a major in the Virginia militia, and George successfully maneuvered to succeed him. The next year the governor, Robert Dinwiddie, sent him to the eastern edge of the Ohio Country to warn the French off. Dinwiddie did not expect the French to obey, but he expected Washington to get a good look at the French force and report on what he learned.
Washington set out in October 1753, making his way through wooded mountains and valleys to a small fort the French had built several miles south of Lake Erie, in what is now northwestern Pennsylvania. The French commander politely told Washington that they were in French territory and that they would not leave. As winter descended, Washington returned with this message and delivered his report to Dinwiddie in Williamsburg in January 1754. The governor was impressed with Washington’s written account of his journey and ordered it published. In the narrow, provincial world of colonial Virginia, Washington became a minor celebrity.
Washington urged the governor to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to become the Ohio River. Dinwiddie immediately sent a party of about forty Virginia frontiersmen to build a small wooden fort at the forks, which they named Fort Prince George. A French force surrounded the fort in April 1754 and forced the Virginians to surrender. The French then knocked down the British fort and built a larger one they named Fort Duquesne, in honor of the governor of New France.
Dinwiddie, meanwhile, promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and dispatched him, with 160 men, to take command at the forks of the Ohio. Dinwiddie ordered Washington that if anyone attempted to interfere with the building of the fort, Washington was “to restrain all such Offenders, and in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill and destroy them.” It was an invitation to start a war, without instructions from London or the knowledge of the king’s government. Dinwiddie had issued it to a tough, ambitious young man who was unlikely to back away from a fight.
Washington learned on the march that the French had taken control of the forks. This did not dissuade him. On May 28, 1754, Washington’s men encountered a group of French soldiers from Fort Duquesne who had been sent to warn him to depart French territory. Washington ordered a party of forty men, together with a dozen or so Indians, to surround the French. A skirmish began, and within fifteen minutes ten or twelve of the Frenchmen were dead, including their commander. It was the impetuous act of an impetuous young man anxious to earn a reputation as a bold commander. These shots in the wilderness began what Americans call the French and Indian War, a war that spread to Europe and consumed Britain and France in a great war for empire that circled the globe.
Washington expected to be attacked by a larger French force from Fort Duquesne, so he moved his little force to a place called the Great Meadows, where he had his men construct a simple fort he named Fort Necessity. He wrote a hasty letter to his brother Jack that he expected his command “to exert our Noble Courage with Spirit.” Describing the skirmish, he wrote, “I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” This boast was repeated and months later reached King George II in London, the last British monarch to lead troops into battle. He is reputed to have said “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.”
A French force of six hundred men along with one hundred of their Indian allies surrounded the little fort on July 3. Washington boldly ordered his men outside the fort and attacked the enemy but was driven back into the fort. The two sides exchanged fire for several hours, until the Virginians ran low on ammunition and it began to rain. Washington was forced to surrender. The French permitted him and his men to return to Virginia.
When news of the fighting at Fort Necessity reached Britain, the king’s government decided to send troops to capture four French forts on the frontiers between British and French territory: Fort Beauséjour, on the neck of land connecting French Acadia and British Nova Scotia, Fort Saint-Frédéric, on Lake Champlain, between New France and New York, Fort Niagara, on the Niagara River, and Fort Duquesne. It was a good plan if properly executed.
The British sent a small army under General Edward Braddock to take Fort Duquesne and drive the French off the Ohio frontier. Braddock landed in Alexandria, Virginia, in early 1755. His soldiers were trained to fight on the open plains of Europe, not in the forests of America, where their bright red uniforms made them easy targets for French and Indian riflemen. Benjamin Franklin, met with Braddock and warned him about the dangers of an Indian attack in the wilderness. “These savages,” Braddock replied, “may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”
American militia joined Braddock’s march. So did George Washington, who accompanied the army as an aide to Braddock. The army struggled through forests and over mountains and rivers for almost two months. Parties worked in advance of the army, clearing a road through wilderness, a task that involved blasting boulders with gunpowder charges as well as cutting down and removing old growth trees to fashion a path twelve feet wide for men and artillery to pass. By the time the army drew close to Fort Duquesne, its soldiers were exhausted.
On July 9, 1755, a force of some 250 French Canadian militia and French Regulars, together with some 650 Indians, attacked Braddock’s army on a wooded ridge above the Monongahela River just a few miles from Fort Duquesne. Attacking downhill, the French and Indians fired from the cover of old growth trees, big enough to provide cover for two or three warriors at a time. Braddock attempted to maintain conventional military discipline and organize his men to fire volleys from compact formations and advance in line of battle, but under withering fire from unseen enemies up the ridge, unit disciple failed. British and provincial troops fell in appalling numbers, many units losing half or more of their men killed and wounded. The Indians fired carefully, taking aim as they did when hunting. “The English people are fools,” a Delaware warrior later said, “they hold their guns half man high” while “we take sight and have them at a shot.” Washington appealed to Braddock to allow him to take command of the Virginia troops “and engage the enemy in their own way,” spread out among the trees and firing from cover, but Braddock refused.
The chaotic battle went on for some three hours. Finally, Braddock fell from his horse, shot through the lungs. As other officers fell, the British Regulars faltered, fell back, and finally fled the battlefield. They “were struck with such a panic” Washington wrote, “that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive. . . . they broke and ran as sheep pursued by dogs.” Washington and British Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage bravely organized the rear guard and held the enemy off while the remnant of Braddock’s army retreated.
More than half of the army was killed or wounded. Private Duncan Cameron, a wounded British soldier, hid in a hollow tree from which he witnessed “horrors” more shocking than he had experienced on any European battlefield, as the Indians took the scalps of the dead and wounded alike. General Braddock died in great pain three days after the battle. He was buried in the middle of the road ahead of the column to prevent the Indians from digging up his body and desecrating it. Wagons and marching men packed the earth and disguised his unmarked grave. Remains believed to be Braddock’s were found by a road crew in 1804 and reburied nearby.
Braddock’s Defeat, also called the Battle of the Monongahela, was long remembered by Americans. Several men who would become generals in the Revolutionary War were at the battle, including Washington, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Daniel Morgan, Adam Stephen, and William Crawford. Other future American leaders were there, including frontiersman Daniel Boone. So were many American militiamen whose sons later went to war against the British. In 1755, twenty-five-year-old James Overton was a Virginia militiaman in Braddock’s campaign. In 1776, his twenty-three-year-old son Thomas became an officer in George Washington’s army. The men who fought with Braddock saw that the British army, for all of its impressive strength, could be beaten. They witnessed one of the most crushing defeats ever sustained by the British in America and never forgot the lesson.
The rest of the British strategy played out with mixed results. A force of 270 British Regulars and some 2,000 New England troops took Fort Beauséjour, which was poorly defended. A mixed force of New York and New England troops, joined by Mohawk warriors, acquitted itself well against the French on Lake George, but were unable to take Fort Saint-Frédéric. Some 2,500 colonial troops were assembled to take Fort Niagara, but Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, personally commanding the army, retreated without making an attempt on the fort.
The Great War for Empire
The disastrous outcome of Braddock’s campaign overshadowed the others. The defeat left the colonial frontier from New York to Virginia open to Indian attack. Thousands of frontier settlers abandoned their homes and farms and fled east.
The British government had hoped to confine the war to North America with a series of easy victories. It was ill prepared for a general European war, much less a global war for empire, but in 1756 it was drawn into both. British attacks on French shipping led the French to prepare to invade Hanover, the hereditary possession of King George II. Britain quickly concluded an alliance with Prussia to protect Hanover and declared war on France, which was allied with Austria. Most of the other powers in Europe, including Spain, Sweden, and Russia, were either drawn into the war or sought to exploit it to gain some advantage over their rivals. What began with a skirmish on the Ohio frontier became a world war, in which the British and French fought for dominance in India, the Caribbean, and North America. It became a great war for empire, with fighting over much of the known world.
At first the war went badly for Britain. The French were better prepared, since they maintained a standing army of some 200,000 men—Britain had about 30,000—and a naval that was nearly as large, and in some respects technically superior, to the Royal Navy. The new British commander in America, Lord Loudoun, failed in an attempt to take the French fortress of Louisburg, on Cape Breton Island, which controlled the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In 1757 the French took advantage of the weakness of the British forces left guarding the American frontier to capture Fort William Henry, a key to the defense of New York and the interior of New England. Britain was threatened with invasion at home and feared the loss of its valuable colonies in the Caribbean.
In 1758 the war turned in Britain’s favor. A British naval blockade of France prevented supplies from reaching New France. A British force led by General Jeffrey Amherst captured Louisburg. The British then took control of French settlements in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The British were also successful on the Ohio frontier. In the summer of 1758, the British sent General John Forbes with an army of 6,000 men to take Fort Duquesne. George Washington, by then an experienced colonel of the Virginia militia, joined the expedition. The British army marched across Pennsylvania, constructing a road and a series of forts as it moved. Unable to withstand a siege because they were short of supplies, the French blew up Fort Duquesne and retreated. George Washington and a British force entered the ruins of the fort on November 24, 1758.
British economic and naval power proved to be the difference in the war. During the war the British were able to build warships much faster than the French. By 1759 the Royal Navy had 113 ships of the line—the large warships that decided the outcome of war at sea—and the French had about half that number. The Royal Navy prevented supplies and reinforcements from reaching New France, and in 1759, British General James Wolfe led an army up the St. Lawrence River and captured Quebec, the capital. General Wolfe and the French commander, General Montcalm, were killed in the battle for the city. The French tried to retake Quebec in 1760, but failed. Meanwhile the Royal Navy captured most of the French islands in the Caribbean. Thereafter the Spanish, fearing that the British would become the major power in the world, and entered the war on the side of France. Spain was too late and lost Havana and Manila to the Royal Navy.
At a conference in 1763, Britain, Spain, and France agreed to make peace. By the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain secured control of North America east of the Mississippi River, except the city of New Orleans, including all the French possessions in modern Canada. Britain also acquired the French holdings in India. Spain surrendered Florida—then divided into two colonies, called East Florida and West Florida, extending from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River—to the British. In exchange the British returned Havana and Manila and acknowledged Spain’s claim to New Orleans and the vast territory west of the Mississippi River. Britain retained Grenada but returned Martinique and Guadeloupe to France.
The British had won a great victory. British colonists from New England to Georgia no longer had to worry about the French threatening the frontier or sending Indian allies to attack their settlements. Colonists in Georgia and the Carolina backcountry no longer had to worry about the Spanish on their frontier or that the Indians to their south and west would secure arms and ammunition from the Spanish. The colonists began making plans to settle the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Free from foreign threats on the frontier, the colonists looked forward to peace and prosperity. They happily proclaimed their loyalty to their new king, George III.
© 2021 The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, Inc.