America at the time of the Revolutionary War

At the founding of the republic the colonists were accustomed to boast that their territory extended fifteen hundred miles in length, and was already the seat of a powerful nation. But of this vast expanse the larger part even along the sea-coast was still an uninhabited wilderness. Although more than a century and a half had passed since the first settlements in Massachusetts and Virginia, only a thin line of insignificant towns and villages reached from Maine to Georgia. In the century since the Declaration of Independence a whole continent has been seamed with railroads and filled with people; but the slow growth of the preceding century had scarcely disturbed the reign of the savage on his native plains. On the coast the province of Maine possessed only a few towns, and an almost unbroken solitude spread from Portland to the St. Lawrence. A few hardy settlers were just founding a State among the Green Mountains destined to be the home of a spotless freedom. In New York, still inferior to several of its fellow-colonies in population, the cultivated portions were confined to the bay and shores of the Hudson. The rich fields of the Genesee Valley and the Mohawk were famous already, but the savages had checked the course of settlement. . Pennsylvania, a frontier State, comparatively populous and wealthy, protected New Jersey and Delaware from their assaults; but Pittsburg was still only a military post, and the larger part of the population of the colony was gathered in the neighborhood of the capital. Woods, mountains, and morasses filled up that fair region where now the immense wealth of coal and iron has produced the Birmingham of America.

The Southern colonies had grown with more rapidity in population and wealth than New York and Pennsylvania. Virginia and the Carolinas had extended their settlements westward far into the interior. Some emigrants had even wandered to western Tennessee. Daniel Boone had led the way to Kentucky. A few English or Americans had colonized Natchez, on the Mississippi. But the settlers in Kentucky and Tennessee lived with rifle in hand, seldom safe from the attacks of the natives, and were to form in the war of independence that admirable corps of riflemen and sharp-shooters who were noted for their courage and skill from the siege of Boston to the fall of Cornwallis. The Virginians were settled in the Tennessee mountains long before the people of New York-had ventured to build a village on the shores of Lake Erie or the Pennsylvanians crossed the Alleghanies. But still even Virginia is represented to us about this period as in great part a wilderness. . In the North the line of cultivated country must be drawn along the shores of the Hudson River, omitting the dispersed settlements in two or three inland districts. The Delaware and a distance of perhaps fifty miles to the westward included all the wealth and population of Pennsylvania. The Alleghanies infolded the civilized portions of Virginia, and North and South Carolina cannot be said to have reached beyond their mountains. So slowly had the people of North America made their way from the sea-coast. .

Of the inland country very little was known, while the region beyond the Mississippi was "a land of fable, where countless hosts of savages were believed to rule over endless plains and to engage in ceaseless battles." Long afterwards it was supposed that the waters of the Missouri might extend to the Pacific.

Within the cultivated district a population usually, but probably erroneously, estimated at three millions were thinly scattered over a narrow strip of land. The number can scarcely be maintained. The New England colonies could have had not more than eight hundred thousand inhabitants; the middle colonies as many more; the Southern a little over a million. New York had a population of two hundred and forty-eight thousand, and was surpassed by Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and was at least equalled, if not exceeded, by North Carolina. Its growth had been singularly slow. The small population of the Union was composed of different races and of almost hostile communities. There was a lasting feud between the Dutch at Albany and the people of New England. . The Germans settled in Pennsylvania retained their national customs and language, and were almost an alien race. Huguenot colonies existed in several portions of the country. The north of Ireland had poured forth a stream of emigrants. Swedish settlements attracted the notice of Kalm along the Delaware. In North Carolina a clan of Highlanders had brought to the New World an intense loyalty and an extreme ignorance. The divisions of race and language offered a strong obstacle to any perfect union of the different colonies. But a still more striking opposition existed in the political institutions of the various sections. In the South, royalty, aristocracy, and the worst form of human slavery had grown up together. In no part of the world were the distinctions of rank more closely observed, or mechanical and agricultural industry more perfectly contemned. In New England the institutions were democratic, and honest labor was thought no shame. In the South episcopacy was rigidly established by law; in New England a tolerant Puritanism had succeeded the persecuting spirit of Cotton Mather and Winthrop. .

In the course of a century, within their narrow fringe of country the colonists had transformed the wilderness into a fertile and productive territory. Agriculture was their favorite pursuit. Travellers from Europe were struck with the skill with which they cultivated the rich and abundant soil, the fine farm-houses that filled the landscape, the barns overflowing with harvests, the cattle, the sheep. The Northern and middle colonies were famous for sheep and corn. Pennsylvania was the granary of the nation. In New Jersey the fine farms that spread from Trenton to Elizabethtown excited the admiration of the scientific Kalm. Long Island was the garden of America, and all along the valleys opening upon the Hudson the Dutch and Huguenot colonists had acquired ease and opulence by a careful agriculture. The farm-houses, usually built of stone, with tall roofs and narrow windows, were scenes of intelligent industry. While the young men labored in the fields, the mothers and daughters spun wool and flax and prepared a large part of the clothing of the family. The farm-house was a manufactory for all the articles of daily use. Even nails were hammered out in the winter, and the farmer was his own mechanic. A school and a church were provided for almost every village. Few children were left untaught by the Dutch dominie, who was sometimes paid in wampum, or the New England student, who lived among his patrons, and was not always fed upon the daintiest fare. .

The progress of agriculture at the South was even more rapid and remarkable than at the North. The wilderness was swiftly converted into a productive region. The coast from St. Mary's to the Delaware, with its inland country, became within a century the most valuable portion of the earth. Its products were eagerly sought for in all the capitals of Europe, and one noxious plant of Virginia had supplied mankind with a new vice and a new pleasure. . Tobacco was in Virginia the life of trade and intercourse; prices were estimated in it; the salaries of the clergy were fixed at so many pounds of tobacco. All other products of the soil were neglected in order to raise the savage plant. Ships from England came over annually to gather in the great crops of the large planters, . . [and] Virginia grew enormously rich from the sudden rise of an artificial taste.

Other crops replaced tobacco farther south. In South Carolina the cultivation of rice, brought thither in 1694 from Madagascar, had become greatly developed. Indigo, sugar, molasses, tar, pitch, were other valuable Southern products, but cotton, which was destined to assume the place farther south which tobacco then held in Virginia, was as yet cultivated only in small quantities for the use of the farmers. The commercial restrictions imposed by England acted detrimentally upon American agriculture, yet it flourished in spite of them.

The commerce of the colonies flourished equally with their agriculture. It was chiefly in the Northern colonies that ships were built, and that hardy race of sailors formed whose courage became renowned in every sea. But the English navigation laws weighed heavily upon American trade. Its ships were, with a few exceptions, only allowed to sail to the ports of Great Britain. No foreign ship was suffered to enter the American harbors. . [Yet] the colonists contrived to build large numbers of ships, and even to sell yearly more than a hundred of them in England. The ship-yards of New England were already renowned. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were seats of an important trade. On the island of Nantucket the whalefishery had been established that was to prove for a brief period a source of great profit and a school of accomplished seamen. The spermaceti-whale was still seen along the American coast, but the New England whaler had already penetrated Hudson Bay, and even pierced the Antarctic. . In consequence of the rigid navigation laws, smuggling prevailed all along the American coast, and swift vessels and daring sailors made their way to the ports of France and Spain to bring back valuable cargoes of wine and silks. Boston was the chief seat of ship-building, and its fast-sailing vessels were sent to the West Indies to be exchanged for rum and sugar. In 1743 it was estimated that New England employed one thousand ships in its trade, besides its fishing-barks. .

The rise of American commerce had seemed wonderful to Burke, Barre, and all those Englishmen who were capable of looking beyond the politics of their own narrow island; but no sooner had America become free than its trade doubled, and soon rose to what in 1775 would have-seemed incredible proportions. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia became at once large cities, and England was enriched by American freedom. .

In manufactures the colonists can be said to have made but little progress. The English government had vigorously forbidden them to attempt to make their own wares. A keen watch had been kept over them, and it was resolved that they should never be suffered to compete with the artisans of England. The governors of the different colonies were directed to make a careful report to the home government of the condition of the colonial manufactures, in order that they might be effectually destroyed. From their authentic but perhaps not always accurate survey it is possible to form a general conception of the slow advance of this branch of labor. South of Connecticut, we are told, there were scarcely any manufactures: the people imported everything that they required from Great Britain. Kalm, indeed, found leather made at Bethlehem, in Pennsylvania, as good as the English, and much cheaper. He praises the American mechanics; but, in general, we may accept the reports of the governors that all manufactured articles employed in the family or in trade were made abroad. Linens and fine cloths, silks, implements of iron and steel, furniture, arms, powder, were purchased of the London merchants. But this was not always the case in busy New England. Here the jealous London traders discovered that iron-foundries and even slitting-mills were already in operation; that fur hats were manufactured for exportation in Connecticut and Boston; that the people were beginning to supply their own wants, and even to threaten the factories of England with a dangerous rivalry. The English traders petitioned the government for relief from this colonial insubordination, and Parliament hastened to suppress the poor slitting-mills and hat-manufactories of our ancestors by an express law. The hatters, who seem to have especially excited the jealousy of their London brethren, were forbidden to export hats even to the next colony, and were allowed to take only two apprentices at a time. Iron and steel works were also prohibited. Wool and flax manufactures were suppressed by stringent provisions. American factories were declared "nuisances." No wool or manufacture of wool could be carried from one colony to another; and, what was a more extraordinary instance of oppression, no Bible was suffered to be printed in America.

Pig-iron was produced to some extent in Pennsylvania and some other colonies, but for export only, not for manufacture. Coal was mined in Virginia. No conception, however, was yet attained of the vast stores of mineral wealth which slept beneath the ground, and which were destined to make the new nation immensely rich within a few generations.

The chief cities of our ancestors were all scattered along the sea-coast. There were no large towns in the interior. Albany was still a small village, Schenectady a cluster of houses. To those vast inland capitals which have sprung up on the lakes and great rivers of the West our country offered no parallel. Chicago and St. Louis, the centres of enormous wealth and unlimited commerce, had yet no predecessors. Pleasant villages had sprung up in New England, New Jersey, and on the banks of the Hudson, but they could pretend to no rivalry with those flourishing cities which lined the sea-coast or its estuaries and seemed to our ancestors the abodes of luxury and splendor. Yet even New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, extensive as they appeared to the colonists, were insignificant towns compared to the English capitals, and gave no promise of ever approaching that grandeur which seemed to be reserved especially for London and Paris. In 1774 the population of New York was perhaps twenty thousand; that of London six hundred thousand. The latter was thirty times larger than the other, and in wealth and political importance was so infinitely its superior that a comparison between them would have been absurd.

Boston, which has crowned Beacon Hill, pressed over the Neck, and even covered with a magnificent quarter a large surface that was once the bed of the Charles River, was in 1774 a town of fifteen thousand or eighteen thousand inhabitants, closely confined to the neighborhood of the bay. . The Boston of 1774, which proclaimed freedom and defied the power of England, would scarcely rank to-day among the more important country towns. New York was more populous, but it was still confined to the narrow point of land below the Park. The thickly-built part of the town lay in the neighborhood of Whitehall. Some fine houses lined Broadway and Broad Street, but to the west of Broadway green lawns stretched down from Trinity and St. Paul's to the water. Trees were planted thickly before the houses; on the roofs railings or balconies were placed, and in the summer evenings the people gathered on the house tops to catch the cool air. Lamps had already been placed on the streets. Fair villas covered the environs, and even the Baroness Riedesel, who had visited in the royal palaces of Europe, was charmed with the scenery and homes of the citizens. Extravagance had already corrupted the plainer habits of the earlier period. The examples of London and Paris had already affected the American cities. The people of New York drank fiery Madeira, and were noted for their luxury. Broadway was thought the most splendid of avenues, although it ended at Chambers Street. And twenty years later, when the City Hall was built, it was called by Dwight (a good scholar) the finest building in America.

The streets of New York and Boston were usually crooked and narrow, but the foresight of Penn had made Philadelphia a model of regularity. Market and Broad Streets were ample and stately. The city was as populous as New York, and perhaps the possessor of more wealth. It was the first city on the continent, and the fame of Franklin had already given it a European renown. Yet Philadelphia when it rebelled against George III. was only an insignificant town, clinging to the banks of the river; and New York invited the attack of the chief naval power of the world with its harbor undefended and its whole population exposed to the guns of the enemy's ships. The Southern cities were yet of little importance. Baltimore was a small town. Virginia had no large city. Charleston had a few thousand inhabitants. Along that immense line of sea-coast now covered with populous cities the smallest of which would have made the New York and Boston of our ancestors seem insignificant, only these few and isolated centres of commerce had sprung up. The wilderness still covered the shores of Long Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Carolinas almost as in the days of Raleigh.

To pass from one city to another along this desolate shore was, in 1775, a long and difficult journey. Roads had been early built in most of the colonies. In Massachusetts they were good, except where they passed over the hills. In New York a good road ran through Orange and Ulster counties to Albany. That between New York and Philadelphia was probably tolerable. In the Southern colonies but little attention was paid to road-building, and even those in the neighborhood of Philadelphia were often almost impassable. A stage-coach ran in two days from New York to Philadelphia, but the passengers were requested to cross over the evening before to Powle's Hook, that they might set out early in the morning. Sloops sailed to Albany in seven or eight days. From Boston to New York was a tedious journey. In fair weather the roads of the time were tolerable; but in winter and spring they became little better than quagmires. There was therefore but little intercourse between the people of the distant colonies, and in winter all communication by land and water must have been nearly cut off.

The Northern cities were usually built of brick or of stone, and many of the farm-houses were of the latter material. The former had been imported from Holland for the first New York buildings; and even Schenectady, a frontier town, was so purely Dutch as to have been early decorated with Holland brick. In the country stone was easily gathered from the abundant quarries on the Hudson or along the New England hills. Many large, low stone houses, with lofty roofs and massive windows, may still be seen in the rich valleys opening upon the Hudson, almost in the same condition in which they were left by their Huguenot or Dutch builders, and apparently capable of enduring the storms of another century. Brick-making was soon introduced into the colonies, and the abundant forests supplied all the materials for the mechanic.. A general equality in condition was nearly reached. Not five men, we are told, in New York and Philadelphia expended ten thousand dollars a year upon their families. The manners of the people were simple; their expenses moderate. Yet nowhere was labor so well rewarded or poverty so rare.. Wines and liquors were freely consumed by our ancestors, and even. New England had as yet no high repute for temperance. Rum was taken as a common restorative. The liquor-shops of New York had long been a public annoyance. In the far-southern colonies, we are told, the planter began his day with a strong glass of spirits, and closed it by carousing, gambling, or talking politics in the village tavern. Our ancestors were extraordinarily fond of money, if we may trust the judgment of Washington, who seems to have found too many of them willing to improve their fortunes from the resources of the impoverished community. But in general it must be inferred that the standard of public morals was not low [as compared with the Europe of that day]

Intellectually the colonists made much progress, and statesmen, writers, and scientists appeared who vied with those of Europe. Schools for the general population were considerably more numerous than in England and France, while several colleges, of a some-what high standard, were established, though they were as yet but poorly attended. Several newspapers had been started, the earliest, The News Letter of Boston, being founded in 1704. In 1775 four papers were printed in each of the cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Books were not wanting. One Boston house had ten thousand volumes on its shelves. A public library had been founded by Franklin in Philadelphia in 1742. Medical schools and other institutions were in operation, and the first steps in most of the great enterprises of later days had been taken at the opening of the Revolution.

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