Introduction to Colonial American History – Culture

October 2, 2014

Colonial Cinema

In what ways had colonial society, by 1750, diverged from English society ?

There has been great controversy over whether colonial society diverged at all from English society by the mid eighteenth century. The Progressive school and the post WW II American studies movement tended to take part in an anachronistic search for the colonial roots of later American culture and to analyze colonial developments largely in terms of what they contributed towards the process of Americanization.

Ideas of American exceptionalism by notions of consensus. The Progressives then would argue that colonial society started to diverge long before 1750 from English society and that this was all part of the build up to the Revolution. However, Breen, Murrin and others would argue for the Anglicization of the American colonies in the eighteenth century. It is the purpose of this essay to question this so called Anglicization, or in other words the convergence of American and English society prior to 1750. This will be followed by a discussion of some marked divergences from English society before any conclusions are drawn.

In the field of culture Bushman’s conclusions seem ambivalent. The higher orders sought to become part of English society rather than diverge from it. London was the cultural centre for the colonies as West and Copely’s defection testifies. Architecture shows the similarity of the two societies with the Governor’s place at Williamsberg being the centerpiece. The ideas of cultivation were all English as William Boyd, Washington and Jefferson write. So too with the lower orders. The vernacular culture was placebound and enduring as D.G. Allen shows continuities between Old England and New England. However, this does not deny that there were some very real divergences from English culture. In a new land how were the migrants from many places to mediate their differences ? In this situation many old customs disappeared.

There was also a distinct lack of gentry to sponsor cultural activity and the thinly scattered colonial population rendered many communal events useless. Bushman thinks that New England was weak on customary, folk forms of expression and overbalanced on the side of literate, ecclesiastical and civil culture. However, New Englanders were quick to think of new customs e.g. apple parings, timber rollings, sheep shearings, huskings and Harvard commencement days. By 1750 it is hard to conclude whether colonial culture was diverging from or converging to the English world. Perhaps slightly firmer conclusions can be reached when we consider colonial social structure. Historians examined the English roots of eighteenth century American society and the alterations induced by the conditions of life in the New World such as easily available land (more on this later), high mortality and fragmentary family systems. Some historians suggested the slow Americanization of transplanted English customs but Edward Morgan and D G Allen stressed the continuities as much as the differences between the European and the colonial American social orders.

Some go even further and propose the increasing Anglicization or American society. Jack Greene and Bernard Bailyn demonstrated the impact of English practices and ideology on politics. John Murrin describes the general standardization of procedures, tastes and the Anglicization of early American society. Breen attributes this to centralized administration and legal procedure, unity in face of war with France, the eighteenth century increase in international trade and high quality English consumer goods furthering English taste. He sees the Staffordshire pottery as the eighteenth century equivalent of Coca-Cola. The arguments for increasing Anglicization are convincing and this turns the question posed on its head.

Colonial society was perhaps converging towards the English world. This certainly seems to be the case in politics and religion. The Progressive School suffered revision in the 1960s by Greene. The decline of royal government had been their chief theme and this fits in well with the idea that by 1750 colonial and English society were drifting apart. Some events indeed fit into this scheme. The Dominion of New England had endured less than three years and once resistance had begun it collapsed quickly. By contrast the imperial system created in the eighteenth century survived for a decade after 1765 under immense pressures.

This contrast demonstrates how imperial power had grown in the intervening generations. J Murrin concludes persuasively that the long term trend in America had not been toward Revolution but towards closer integration with Britain. In the field of religion historians such as Sidney Mead used to argue for Americanization due to the lack of state control over the colonial churches . Handlin writes that the expectations of the colonists were badly matched to the realities of their new environment which led to a lack of stability – an example of which was the Keithian schism in Pennsylvania in the 1690s. But such ideas of the Americanization of religion were axed in the 1960s as colonial historians rediscovered the connections between the Old World and the New.

However, David Hall’s conclusions are also ambivalent. He sees on one hand the emergence of new rituals in the colonies representing collective identity. Fast days and renewals of Covenants are part of this. It was not until the Great Awakening that a lasting structure, the revival came about. However, although continuities were important Hall writes that colonial Americas enjoyed a distinctive repertory of symbol, myth and ritual which was deeply linked with European culture but also very much their own. But where do these analyses of culture, social structure, politics and religion leave us ? I think historiographically the most convincing arguments belong to those who believe in Anglicization. If this were the end of the argument we could answer the question posed simply by saying that colonial society had drawn closer to English society by 1750.

However, it is the argument of tis essay that American society did differ markedly from England by 1750. Most significantly American society was tri-racial. If we regard social development as the changing social relations between different groups in society we should perhaps regard the social development of colonial America as sui generis because of the tri-racial development. Unlike in England in colonial America there was a meeting of cultures or a cultural interaction. Let us deal with the Indian-European interaction first. There was no precedent in England for dealing with Indians and Englishmen suffered from a whole range of misconceptions. In dealing with the Indians (themselves a heterogenous group) there was no useful experience. There were important differences between coastal and inland Indians.

The Pequots, Powhatans and Yamasecs resisted and were destroyed whereas the Iroquois played France and Britain off against each other. By the 1680s in the older colonies and by the 1720s in the newer the coastal tribes had been shattered by disease and war but they had provided an unintentional temporary buffer which allowed Iroquois, Cherokees and Creeks to adapt. Surely the Indian-European interaction is one of the main ways in which colonial society diverged form English society by 1750. I think this is shown indirectly by Winthrop Jordan’s discussion of Negro slavery. He draws contrasts between Negro and Indian and writes that the Indians became for Americans a symbol of their American experience – ‘that placed the profile of the American Indian rather than an American Negro on the famous old five cent piece.’

Indians were quick to realize the value of European metal goods but still maintained their agricultural, fishing and hunting traditions alive. The recognized the advantage of goods within the matrix of their own culture. Their involvement in the fur trade also altered the relationship of the Indians to the ecosystem depleting it of animal life, there was more disease and more war due to the coming of the white man. Nor was the interaction one sided. The Indian had a deep effect on colonial society. The Europeans were not free to develop as they pleased. Higher mortality rates due to densely settled areas, tenantry, underemployed and landless laborers may all be partially attributed to Indians hindering westward expansion. As we have already mentioned the Indians were important in forging an American identity. Confronting the Indians in America was a testing experience which all the colonies faced.

Conquering the Indian symbolized and personified the conquest of American difficulties, the surmounting of the wilderness – all a divergence from English society which offered no exact precedent. Nor was there any precedent for black slavery in English society. Slaves as active participants in society are usually forgotten. In attempting to remedy this gap historians have borrowed heavily from the work of anthropologists, particularly the encounter model of Sidney Mintz and Richard price. Unlike the European colonization Africans were immediately obliged ‘ to shift their primary cultural and social commitment from the Old World to the New ‘. The Africans came from diverse backgrounds – there were Yaroubas, Ibo, Akan and Mandingos to mention a few and they worked with whatever cultural materials they found at hand. In dealing with the Negroes via slave codes and in general American society was diverging markedly from English which only recognized slavery within England on the rarest of occasions.

A final point is worth attention. When we talk about colonial society we should remember that we are really discussing a single entity. Gary Nash points this out admirably by reference to New England, the Mid Atlantic colonies, The South and the individual cities. There were different rates of divergence from English society in each case. In New England there were perhaps more continuities than anywhere else. the South was far more economically dynamic. Here environment triumphed over imported cultural traditions more completely than in any other region with the exploitation of slaves and Indians. A labour process developed that was unknown in England and gradually articulated an ideology of racial paternalism.

Thus I have sketched out some of the ways that colonial society diverged from English society by 1750. The new environment, easy availability of land, and multiracial society were all divergencies: this is clear. A more shadowy connection exists in all the other fields discussed. In culture, politics, and religion there was a convergence or Anglicization. This even extends to the realm of ideas as Joyce Appleby points out. Bailyn and Greene treated English ideas as determinants of behavior rather than disembodied propositions. All this may seem ambivalent but at least the approach has the virtue of being flexible. There is no reason why all events should conform to a model that sought the causes of the American Revolution.


Dr Simon Harding


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