Society and Culture in Colonial America

If Americans in the 1760s constituted a new kind of society, what were its characteristics

and what forces went into shaping its “new people”?

A. Diverging Societies

  • As the colonies grew and become more prosperous, they also became more English
    • Adopted the tastes, styles, and customs of England
    • Modeled most of their political, cultural, and educational institutions on their English equivalents
  • Yet their were differences from their British counterparts
    • Physical environment very different
    • Population was more diverse
  • Also differences between the colonies themselves

I. The Colonial Population

A. Population Explosion

Two factors:

  • High Birthrate
  • Immigration
    • Push – escape religious persecution and  wars
    • Pull – econ.  opp.
    • Most settled in Middle Colonies & western frontier of the southern colonies

B. Indentured Servants


  • dev. out of existing practices from Br.
  • Labor shortages in Chesapeake
  • Fixed term of servitude: 4-5 yrs
  • Headright System

Realities of Servitude

  • Some became successful
  • Most found themselves w/o land, families, and prospects
  • Source of social unrest in South

C. The Importance of Family

ü  Economic and social center of colonial life

ü  90% of people lived on farms

ü  rural society

ü  Higher standard of living than in Europe

D. Women in the Colonies


ü  Economic and social center of colonial life

ü  90% of people lived on farms

ü  rural society

ü  Higher standard of living than in Europe

New England-

ü  Family structure more stable – b/c sex ratio more balanced

ü  Women often had less independence

ü  Family relationships & status of women defined in part by religious beliefs

ü  Wife expected to devote self to serving needs of husband & family

ü  Important to agricultural econ.

E. African Immigrants

ü  Largest single group of non-European immigrants

ü  20% of the colonial population

ü  90% living in the south as slaves

  • F. The Middle Passagot common in the early 1600s
    • 1620 – first Africans arrived on Dutch slave ship
    • 1690s – turning pt; Royal African Company lost monopoly
  • Originally status similar to indentured servants
    • By early 18th c that changed
    • Slave codes passed by colonial assemblies
  • Slavery legal throughout colonies e

G. European Immigration in the 18th Century

  • English
    • Continued to come but in smaller numbers
  • German
    • 6% of the pop.
    • Settled on farmland west of Philly
    • Showed little interest in English politics
  • Scotch-Irish
    • 7% of the pop.
    • Settled along the frontier
    • Didn’t respect British gov’t
  • Other Europeans
    • 5% of the pop.
    • Huguenots (Fr. Protestants)
    • Swedes
    • Dutch

II. Colonial Economy

Mercantilism was the rule. 

Remember: most colonies were started as commercial ventures.

A. Comparing Colonial Economies

  • South
    • Varied geography & climate
      • Farms ranged fr. subsistence to 2,000 acre plantations
    • Cash crops (tobacco, indigo, rice)
    • Use of slaves
  • Middle
    • Rich soil = larger farms (up to 200 acres)
    • Wheat & corn
    • Indentured servants
    • Some manufacturing
    • Some trading led to growth of cities
  • New England
    • Diverse agriculture
    • Rocky soil = small farms (< 100 acres)
    • Limited manufacturing
      • Saugus Ironworks
    • Shipbuilding
    • Logging, Fishing, Trading, Rum

B. The Rise of Colonial Commerce

Obstacles in the 17th c:

ü  Shortage of currency (no specie/gold or silver coins)

ü  Fragmented commercial world made it difficult to find markets to sell goods

ü  Fierce competition

ü  Trade managed to stabilize & thrive by 18th c

C.  Triangular Trade

D. Emerging Merchant Class

  • Concentrated in the port cities (Boston, NY, Philly)
  • Mercantilism
    • Pros J:
      • protected from foreign competition in the colonies
      • Access to markets in England
    • Cons L:
      • not allowed to trade w/any other countries besides England
      • Growth of smuggling

III. The Structure of Colonial Society

A. General Characteristics

ü  Dominance of English Culture

ü  Self-Government

  • Gov’t of each colony had a rep. assembly elected by eligible voters
  • Rhode Island & Connecticut elected governor too

ü  Religious toleration

  • Massachusetts least tolerant
  • Rhode Island & Pennsylvania most tolerant

ü  No hereditary aristocracy

ü  Social Mobility

B. The Plantation Culture of the South

  • Highly stratified society
    • Main social unit = farm
    • Very few plantation owners but they dominated the economy and politics
  • Plantation Slavery
    • Beginnings of a slave culture
      • Gullah, slave religion,
    • Mistreatment of women
    • Resistance
      • Stono Rebellion
  • C. The Puritan Community
  • Main social unit = town
    • “Covenant” settlements
    • Towns able to run selves w/little gov’t interference
  • Puritan Democracy
    • Must we one of the “elect”
  • Population pressure
    • No primogeniture
    • Younger residents would break off to form towns of their own where land was more plentiful
    • Father = absolute ruler of the family

D. Salem Witch Trials

Most famous outbreak of hysteria that swept New England in the 1680s & 1690s

IV. Awakenings and Enlightenments

Intellectual climate of colonial America was shaped by the tension between desire for the traditional outlook of the 16th and 17th c which emphasized the role of God and the new spirit of the Enlightenment

A. Protestant Dominence

Established churches = a church financed by a colonial gov’t tax on the people

Anglican Church

ü  Middle & South colonies

ü  Tended to be prosperous farmers & merchants in NY

ü  Plantation owners in the South

ü  Symbol of English control of colonies


ü  Successors of Puritanism

ü  Mainly in New England

ü  Critics found the ministers domineering & its doctrines too complex

B. The Great Awakening, 1730s & 40s

What was it?

ü  Religious revival

ü  Emphasized human sinfulness & perils of damnation

ü  Also emphasized  potential for every person to break away from constraints of the past & start a new relationship with God


ü  Swept through the colonies

Women and younger sons

C. Jonathan Edwards

ü  His series of sermon started Great Awakening

  • “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
  • Focused in NE

ü  God was angry w/human sinfulness

ü  if you did not repent you would suffer damnation.

D. George Whitfield

ü  Spread Great Awakening across the colonies.

ü  Preached to audiences as large as 10,000

ü  Stressed God was                   all-powerful and                             would only save                              those who believed                       in Jesus.

E. Impact of the Awakening


ü  Emotionalism became common part of Protestant services

ü  Ministers lost some of their former authority

ü  Old Lights vs. New Lights

ü  Incr. competition to attract followers

ü  More religious diversity (Baptists, Methodists, etc.)

ü  Calls for a separation of church and state


ü  1st shared “American” experience

ü  Changed the way people viewed traditional authority

ü  They could make their own religious decision w/o relying on ministers

ü  Might they make their own political decisions w/o deferring to authority of landowners?

F. Enlightenment

What is it?

ü  Product of the scientific and intellectual discoveries in Europe in the 17th c

ü  Argued that reason, not faith could create progress and advanced knowledge

Challenged Traditional Authority

ü  Encouraged emphasis on education

ü  Heightened interest in politics and government

ü  Gained in popularity in the 18th c

G. Enlightenment Philosophers

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    • Argued gov’t was a social contract between the leaders & the people.  People therefore held the ultimate authority (popular sovereignty)
  • John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government
    • Argued people were born w/natural rights (life, liberty, & property). If gov’t didn’t protect your rights you could overthrow it
  • Baron Montesquieu
    • Argued there must be a separation of powers to protect citizens from government abuse of power

H. Education in the Colonies

New England

ü  Tax-supported public schools

  • so you could learn to read the bible

ü  1647 à MA Law required towns w/over 50 families to est. primary schools for boys


ü  Schools were either church-sponsored or private

ü  Teachers often lived with the families of their students


ü  Parents gave children whatever education they could

ü  Plantation owners hired private tutors to provide instruction

By the time of the Revolution, 50% of all white men could read and write

I. Higher Education

ü  Colleges est. for candidates for the ministry

  • 1636 Harvard College
  • 1694 William and Mary
  • 1701 Yale College

ü  Great Awakening led to the creation of 5 new colleges

  • Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth

J. Literature

ü  Most American authors wrote on serious subjects: religion           & politics

ü  Most popular  and successful   American writer of the 18th century was Benjamin Franklin

K. Literature Cont.

-Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, John Adams, James Otis, Thomas Jefferson, James Dickinson, Thomas Paine

L. The Zenger Trial

ü  John Peter Zenger charged w/libel for criticizing NY royal governor

  • His lawyer argued Zenger told truth
  • Problem: English libel law said illegal to criticize governor even if statement true
  • Colonial jury ignored law à acquitted Zenger

ü  Impact

  • Encouraged papers to take greater risks in criticizing colonial gov’t
  • Freedom of the press?

V. Colonial Governments

ü  A time of salutary neglect

  • Royal gov’t so far away, Americans had to create a group of institutions which gave them a large measure of self-gov’t
  • Colonists grew accustomed to running their own affairs w/little interference from higher authorities
  • Colonial assemblies came to exercise many of the same powers as Parliament
  • Over time came to view these privileges as rights
  • The Problem for Royal Governors
  • On paper had broad powers but in practice power was limited
  • Many were not familiar w/colonies they were meant to govern

A. Structure of Government in 18th Century

ü  8 Royal Colonies

  • Governor was appointed by the king
  • New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, & Georgia

ü  3 Proprietary Colonies

  • governor was appointed by proprietor
  • Maryland & Lord Baltimore, Pennsylvania & William Penn, Delaware

ü  Connecticut & Rhode Island

  • elected governors by popular vote

B. Historical Dilemma Was Colonial Society Really Democratic?

ü  Religious restrictions were removed

ü  White women, poor white men, slaves & most freed blacks barred from voting

ü  Property requirements for voting & holding office

ü  Did the representative assemblies represent the privileged elites or the larger society of plain citizens?

VI. Cultural Life

A. Architecture, 1740s & 1750s

ü  Georgian style on east coast

ü  One-room log cabin on the frontier

B. Benjamin West


C. John Singleton Copley


D. Emergence of a National Character

Colonists’ motives for leaving Europe, the political heritage of the English majority, & the influence of the natural environment in America combined to bring about a distinctly American viewpoint & way of life

E. Colonial Americans Were….

ü  Practical

ü  Enterprising

ü  Restless

ü  Fairly Tolerant

ü  Used to Civil liberties

ü  Always seeking ways to improve their situation


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