Colonial American Culture

SEVERAL European nations contributed materials for the English-American colonies. They were people of varied and opposite tastes, habits and theological views, but, as a rule, they commingled without asperity; and when the time came for a political union, no serious antagonisms were apparent. Churchmen and Dissenters, Roman Catholics, Puritans and Friends, finally settled down quietly together, and labored with a generous faith in each other for the public good. The Puritans of New England, the Friends of Pennsylvania, the Roman Catholics of Maryland and the Churchmen of Virginia, though often narrow in their theological views, manifested a common love of liberty, and acted upon the common rule that the majority should govern.

A great majority of the emigrants who settled the English domain in America were of Teutonic origin. The English, Lowland Scotch, Dutch and Swedes, were decidedly of German blood. The Irish and French were few at first. Denmark and the Baltic regions contributed a considerable number, and natives from Africa were soon scattered among the white population of all the colonies. With the exception of Georgia, the emigrants had founded settlements and colonies without the aid of the British government, and often in defiance of its expressed wishes and absolute decrees. Subjects of the same perils and hardships, there grew up among them, insensibly, a brotherhood of feeling that prepared the people of thirteen of the colonies, after uniting in resistance to the aggressions of the French during a war of more than seven years duration, to resist, almost as one man, every form of oppression, when the government to which they acknowledged their allegiance became an oppressor.

There was a great diversity of character seen among the inhabitants of the several colonies, owing, chiefly, to their origin, early habits, and the climate. Those of Virginia were from classes in English society wherein a lack of rigid moral discipline allowed free living and its attendant vices. This circumstance, combined with the influence of a mild climate, produced a tendency to voluptuousness and ease among the Virginians and their southern neighbors. They generally exhibited less moral restraint, more hospitality, and greater frankness and social refinement, than the people of New England. The latter were from the middling classes of society. They included a great many religious enthusiasts, possessing more zeal than knowledge. Very rigid in their manners, shy and jealous of strangers, they were extremely strict in their notions, and attempted to regulate the habits and tastes of society by formal standards. Their early legislation, as we have seen, recognizing as it did the right to control the most minute regulations of social life, often presents food for merriment for their descendants. The General Court of Massachusetts, on one occasion, required the proper officers to notice the "apparel" of the people, especially their "ribbands and great boots." Drinking of healths in public or private; wearing funeral badges; celebrating the Church festivals of Christmas and Easter, and many other things that seemed quite improper to magistrates and legislators, and especially to the Puritan clergy, were forbidden. At Hartford, the General Court kept an eye constantly upon the conduct of the people. Freemen were compelled to vote under a penalty of six-pence; the use of tobacco was prohibited to persons under twenty years of age, without the certificate of a physician; and no others were allowed to use it more than once a day, and then they must be more than ten miles from any house. The people of Hartford were compelled to rise in the morning when the watchman rang his bell. And so, in a great variety of enactments, the law-makers, with pure intentions, noble purposes and virtuous aims, tried to make the whole people Christians after their own pattern. If they did not accomplish these higher designs, they erected strong bulwarks against the smaller vices which compose, in a great degree, private and public evils. They dwelt upon a parsimonious soil. Possessing neither the means nor the inclination for sumptuous living indulged in by their southern brethren, the New Englanders lived in very plain houses and their habits were frugal.

The ideas, manners, customs and pursuits of the Dutch made a deep impression upon the colonists of New York and portions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which is not yet effaced, but appears conspicuous in many places. They were a race of industrious, frugal, plodding money-getters, loving personal ease and freedom from disturbance. They possessed very few of the elements of progress. They were constitutionally averse to change, and had very little faith in anything not known to their fathers. They were distinguished by many of the more substantial virtues that are necessary in giving health to society and stability to a State. The Swedes and Finns on the Delaware did not differ much from the Dutch in their general characteristics; but the habits of the Friends, whose influence predominated in West Jersey and Pennsylvania, were quite different. There was a refined simplicity in the manners and habits of the latter that won the esteem and confidence of virtuous and cultivated people, and the respect of every class. They made no ostentatious display in their dress or of their piety. They were governed in their daily life by a religious sentiment without fanaticism, which was a powerful safeguard against vice and immorality.

The Maryland settlers were greater formalists in religion and less restrained in their conduct than the New Englanders or the Dutch. They were generally more refined than the colonists of the East, and equally industrious, but they lacked the unwearied perseverance in pursuits of the latter. As in New England, so in Maryland, the peculiarities of the inhabitants had been greatly modified by inter-migration at the middle of the last century. Religious intolerance had been subdued; and when common danger called for common defenders of the soil and of the chartered rights of the colonists, they stood shoulder to shoulder in battle-array and in legislative halls.

The principal pursuit of the English-American colonists was agriculture. At the time we are considering, commerce and manufactures were struggling here against unwise and unjust laws for existence. With forced self-reliance, the people had been compelled, from the beginning, to make their own apparel, their simple furniture, and their implements for labor, which they could not buy from the looms and workshops of Old England; and manual labor was regarded as honorable and dignified, especially in New England and the immediately adjoining provinces. The evil example of an idle privileged class was never before the settlers in the forests of America.

The commerce of the English-American colonies had a feeble infancy, and was stunted in its growth by oppressive navigation laws. Indeed, their trade may not properly be dignified with the name of commerce before the Revolution. So early as 1636, a Massachusetts vessel of thirty tons made a voyage to the West Indies; and two years later another vessel went from Salem to New Providence, and returned with a cargo of cotton, salt, tobacco and negroes. This was the beginning of negro slavery in New England. It was recognized by law in Massachusetts, in 1641; in Connecticut and Rhode Island, about the year 1650; in New York, in 1656; in Maryland, in 1663; and in New Jersey, in 1665. There were but a few slaves in Pennsylvania. Some were there as early as 1690, and were chiefly in Philadelphia. At about the same time a few appeared in Delaware. In Virginia, as we have seen, they were introduced in 1619; and in the Carolinas, at the time of their settlement. By an evasion of law they were taken into Georgia about the year 1752.

The successful voyages of these vessels from Massachusetts were regarded with joy, as the harbingers of a flourishing American commerce; and the New England people, especially, looked forward with expectations of much wealth to be derived from the ocean, for they were then quite extensively engaged in fishing. But a navigation act passed by the republican parliament in 1651, gave them warning of English jealousy; and its restoration, with more stringent clauses, by the royal parliament in 1660, satisfied the colonists that their commerce was doomed, because it seemed to be regarded as a promising rival of that of Great Britain. After that the attention of parliament was called from time to time to the industries of the American colonies, and laws were made to regulate them. In 1719, the House of Commons declared that "erecting any manufactories in the colonies tended to lessen their dependence on Great Britain, " and they were discouraged. A little earlier a British author had written: "There be fine iron works which cast no guns; no house in New England has above twenty rooms; not twenty in Boston have ten rooms each; a dancing-school was set up here, but put down; a fencing-school is allowed. There be no musicians by trade. All cordage, sail-cloth and mats, come from England; no cloth made there worth four shillings per yard; no alum, no salt made by their sun."

Later, woolen-goods, paper and hemp were manufactured in New England, and almost every family made coarse cloth for domestic use. A heavy duty had been laid on pig-iron sent from the colonies to England, and the Americans made successful attempts to manufacture it into bars for native blacksmiths, and to make steel. Hats, also, were manufactured and sold in different colonies; and small brigantines (square-rigged, two-masted vessels) were built in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and exchanged with West India merchants for rum, sugar, wines, and silks. Again the jealousy of the British government was awakened, and greater restrictions upon colonial manufactures were imposed, they being foolishly considered as detrimental to the interests of the English at home. It was ordained by a law that all manufacturers of iron and steel in the colonies should be considered "a nuisance" to be abated within thirty days after notice being given, under a penalty of one thousand dollars. A law was enacted in 1750 which prohibited the "erection or continuance of any mill or other engine for slitting or rolling-iron, or any plating-forge to work with a tilt-hammer, or any furnace for making steel in the colonies." The exportations of hats from one colony to another was prohibited; and no hatter was allowed to have more than two apprentices at one time. The importation of sugar, molasses and rum was burdened with exorbitant duties; and the Carolinians were actually forbidden to cut down a tree in their vast pine forests for the purpose of converting its wood into staves, or its juices into turpentine. The raising of sheep in the colonies was restrained, because wool was then the great staple of England. The interests of the landed aristocracy were consulted more than justice. In the preamble to a restraining act, it was avowed that the motive for its enactment was a conviction that colonial industry would "inevitably sink the value of lands in England." And so, for about a hundred years, the British government had attempted, by restrictive laws, to confine the commerce of the colonies to the interchange of their agricultural products for English manufactures only. The trade of the colonies was certainly worth preserving, for the exports from Great Britain to them averaged, in value, at that period, about three-and-a-quarter million dollars annually. But the unrighteous measures adopted to secure that trade produced (as unrighteousness generally does in the end) a great loss. These acts of oppression constituted the chief item in the "bill of particulars" presented by the Americans in the account with Great Britain when, on the fourth of July, 1776, they gave to the world their reasons for declaring themselves "free and independent" of the British crown.

Education had received special attention in most of the colonies, and particularly in New England, from the beginning. So early as 1621, schools were established in Virginia for the education of white and Indian children. This was the first provision for education made in the colonies. For reasons not clearly defined, these schools did not flourish, and the funds appropriated for their support were finally given to the trustees of William and Mary College, which was founded at Williamsburg, in Virginia, in 1692. Fifty-four years before, the Rev. John Harvard had given half his estate and three hundred of his books for the founding of the college at Cambridge, Massachusetts, which bears his name. And eight years after the establishment of William and Mary College, ten clergymen met at Saybrook, near the mouth of the Connecticut River, and each contributing some books, took measures for founding a college there. It was accomplished in 1701. The most generous patron of the institution in its infancy was Elihu Yale, then president of the English East India Company. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut. His name was given to the college, and in 1717 it was removed to the place of his nativity, where it still flourishes. King's (now Columbia) College was established in the city of New York in 1750; and these four seminaries composed the chief seats of learning in the English-American colonies when the French and Indian war broke out.

While these higher institutions of learning were struggling even for existence, the common schools--the glory and pride of New England especially--were flourishing. At the beginning of the existence of the Connecticut colony, a law provided that every town--organized religious communities--containing one hundred householders, should maintain a grammar school. Similar provision was made for popular education throughout New England, and that region was soon conspicuous for the intelligence of its people. The school teacher in many places had a variety of duties, so that his time was wholly employed in and out of school. At Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an ordinance of the selectmen defined the duties of the schoolmaster, as follows: "To act as a court messenger; to serve summonses; to lead the choir on Sundays; to ring the bell for public worship; to dig the graves; to take charge of the school, and to perform other occasional duties."

Reading took the place of frivolous amusements, which were discouraged by law in New England. History and theology were the chief topics of most of the books then read in that region, and many volumes were sold. A traveler mentioned the fact that before the year 1686, several booksellers in Boston had "made fortunes by their business."

In time newspapers began to appear in the colonies, but were of little worth, as vehicles of general information, until the period of our Revolution. The first one issued in America was published in Boston in September, 1690. It was printed on three pages seven by eleven inches square, on a folded sheet, and was entitled "Public Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic." The editor said of it: "It is designed that the country shall be furnished once a month (or if any glut of occurrences happen, oftener) with an account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our notice." And he gave warning in his first number that his paper should be the vehicle for exposing slanderers and false reporters, saying: "It is supposed that none will dislike this proposal, but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a crime." Only one number of this newspaper was published. The first permanent newspaper was "The Boston News-Letter," first issued in the spring of 1704. The first in Pennsylvania was "The American," published in Philadelphia in 1719. The first in New York was "The New York Gazette," in 1725; the first in Maryland was the "Maryland Gazette," issued at Annapolis in the summer of 1728. "The South Carolina Gazette," printed at Charleston at the beginning of 1732, was the first issued in that province; the first in Rhode Island was "The Rhode Island Gazette," printed at Newport in 1732; the first in Virginia was "The Virginia Gazette," printed at Williams burg in 1736; the first in Connecticut was "The Connecticut Gazette," printed at New Haven in 1755; the first in North Carolina was "The North Carolina Gazette," printed at New Berne the same year; and the first in New Hampshire was "The New Hampshire Gazette," printed at Portsmouth in the summer of 1756. At the period of the French and Indian war newspapers were printed in all of the colonies excepting in New Jersey, Delaware and Georgia. The printing-machines on which all the colonial newspapers and books were printed were simple in form and rude in construction, as may be seen in the picture of the Ephrata printing-press here given.

Of the number of the inhabitants of the colonies at that time, we have no exact enumeration. Mr. Bancroft, after a careful examination of many official returns and private computations, estimated the number of white inhabitants of all the colonies to be 1,165,000, and the blacks (who were mostly slaves) to be 260,000, distributed as follows:

WHITE. BLACK. Massachusetts.. 207,000 3,000 New Hampshire.. 50,000 3,000 Connecticut.. 133,000 3,500 Rhode Island.. 35,000 4,500 New York.. 85,000 11,000 New Jersey.. 73,000 5,000 Pennsylvania and Delaware.. 195,000 11,000 Maryland.. 104,000 44,000 Virginia.. 168,000 116,000 North Carolina.. 70,000 20,000 South Carolina.. 40,000 40,000 Georgia.. 5,000 2,000

Since the English Revolution in 1688--a period of only sixty-six years--the growth of the colonies in population had been marvellous. New England had increased from 75,000 to 425,000; New York, from 20,000 to 85,000; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, from 47,000 to 372,000; Virginia, from 50,000 to 168,000; and the Carolinas and Georgia, from 8,000 to 135,000. The assertion of a letter of an "American Farmer" was almost literally true when he wrote: "We are all tillers of the earth from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivation, scattered over an immense territory; communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers; united by the silken bands of mild government; all respecting the laws, without dreading their power because they are equitable."

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