United States Of America

The United States Of America

Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

This is the story of how the American Republic developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European explorers arrived, until modern times.

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As the nation developed, it expanded westward from small settlements along the Atlantic Coast, eventually including all the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the middle of the North American continent, as well as two noncontiguous states and a number of territories. At the same time, the population and the economy of the United States grew and changed dramatically. The population diversified as immigrants arrived from all countries of the world. From its beginnings as a remote English colony, the United States has developed the largest economy in the world. Throughout its history, the United States has faced struggles, both within the country—between various ethnic, religious, political, and economic groups—and with other nations. The efforts to deal with and resolve these struggles have shaped the United States of America into the late 20th century.

Early American history began in the collision of European, West African, and Native American peoples in North America. Europeans "discovered" America by accident, then created empires out of the conquest of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. Yet conquest and enslavement were accompanied by centuries of cultural interaction—interaction that spelled disaster for Africans and Native Americans and triumph for Europeans, to be sure, but interaction that transformed all three peoples in the process.

Native America in 1580
The lands and human societies that European explorers called a New World were in fact very old. During the Ice Ages much of the world’s water was bound up in glaciers. Sea level dropped by hundreds of feet, creating a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Asians walked across to become the first human inhabitants of the Americas. Scientists disagree on when this happened, but most estimates say it was around 30,000 years ago. When the last glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago (thus ending this first great migration to America), ancestors of the Native Americans filled nearly all of the habitable parts of North and South America. They lived in isolation from the history—and particularly from the diseases—of what became known as the Old World.

The Native Americans who greeted the first Europeans had become diverse peoples. They spoke between 300 and 350 distinct languages, and their societies and ways of living varied tremendously. The Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru built great empires (see Aztec Empire; Inca Empire). In what is now the United States, the Mississippians (see Mound Builders) built cities surrounded by farmland between present–day St. Louis, Missouri, (where their city of Cahokia was larger than medieval London) and Natchez, Mississippi. The Mississippians’ "Great Sun" king ruled authoritatively and was carried from place to place by servants, preceded by flute–players. The Pueblo peoples of the Southwest lived in large towns, irrigated their dry land with river water, and traded with peoples as far away as Mexico and California.

In the East, the peoples who eventually encountered English settlers were varied, but they lived in similar ways. All of them grew much of their food. Women farmed and gathered food in the woods. Men hunted, fished, and made war. None of these peoples kept herds of domestic animals; they relied on abundant wild game for protein. All lived in family groups, but owed their principal loyalties to a wider network of kin and to their clans. Some—the Iroquois in upstate New York and the Powhatan confederacy in Virginia—formed alliances called confederacies for the purposes of keeping peace among neighbors and making war on outsiders. Even within these confederacies, however, everyday political organization seldom extended beyond villages, and village chiefs ruled their independent–minded people by consent.

West Africa in 1580

In Central and West Africa, the great inland kingdoms of Mali and Ghana were influenced (and largely converted) by Islam, and these kingdoms had traded with the Muslim world for hundreds of years. From the beginning, slaves were among the articles of trade. These earliest enslaved Africans were criminals, war captives, and people sold by their relatives to settle debts. New World demand increased the slave trade and changed it. Some of the coastal kingdoms of present–day Togo and Benin entered the trade as middlemen. They conducted raids into the interior and sold their captives to European slavers. Nearly all of the Africans enslaved and brought to America by this trade were natives of the western coastal rain forests and the inland forests of the Congo and Central Africa.

About half of all Africans who were captured, enslaved, and sent to the Americas were Bantu–speaking peoples. Others were from smaller ethnic and language groups. Most had been farmers in their homeland. The men hunted, fished, and tended animals, while women and men worked the fields cooperatively and in large groups. They lived in kin–based villages that were parts of small kingdoms. They practiced polygyny (men often had several wives, each of whom maintained a separate household), and their societies tended to give very specific spiritual duties to women and men. Adolescent girls and boys were inducted into secret societies in which they learned the sacred and separate duties of women and men. These secret societies provided supernatural help from the spirits that governed tasks such as hunting, farming, fertility, and childbirth. Although formal political leaders were all men, older, privileged women exercised great power over other women. Thus enslaved African peoples in the New World came from societies in which women raised children and governed each other, and where men and women were more nearly equal than in America or Europe.

European Exploration

In the century before Columbus sailed to America, Western Europeans were unlikely candidates for worldwide exploration. The Chinese possessed the wealth and the seafaring skills that would have enabled them to explore, but they had little interest in the world outside of China. The Arabs and other Islamic peoples also possessed wealth and skills. But they expanded into territories that were next to them—and not across uncharted oceans. The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and by the 1520s had nearly reached Vienna. These conquests gave them control over the overland trade routes to Asia as well as the sea route through the Persian Gulf. The conquests also gave them an expanding empire to occupy their attention.

Western Europeans, on the other hand, were developing the necessary wealth and technology and a compelling need to explore. A group of new monarchs were making nation-states in Britain and in continental Europe—states with unprecedentedly large treasuries and military establishments. The population of Western European nations was growing, providing a tax base and a labor force for new classes of large landholders. These "elites" provided markets for goods that were available only through trade with Asia. When the expansion of Islam gave control of eastern trade routes to Islamic middlemen, Western Europeans had strong incentives to find other ways to get to Asia.

They were also developing sailing technology and knowledge of currents and winds to travel long distances on the open sea. The Portuguese led the way. They copied and improved upon the designs of Arab sailing ships and learned to mount cannons on those ships. In the 15th century they began exploring the west coast of Africa—bypassing Arab merchants to trade directly for African gold and slaves. They also colonized the Madeira Islands, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands and turned them into the first European slave plantations.

The European explorers were all looking for an ocean route to Asia. Christopher Columbus sailed for the monarchs of Spain in 1492. He used the familiar prevailing winds to the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, and then sailed on. In about two months he landed in the Caribbean on an island in the Bahamas, thinking he had reached the East Indies. Columbus made three more voyages. He died in 1506, still believing that he had discovered a water route to Asia.

The Spanish investigated further. Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci sailed to the northern coast of South America in 1499 and pronounced the land a new continent. European mapmakers named it America in his honor. Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and in 1513 became the first of the European explorers of America to see the Pacific Ocean. That same year another Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, explored the Bahamas and Florida in search of the fountain of youth.

The first European voyages to the northern coast of America were old and forgotten: The Norsemen (Scandinavian Vikings) sailed from Greenland and stayed in Newfoundland for a time around 1000. Some scholars argue that European fishermen had discovered the fishing waters off eastern Canada by 1480. But the first recorded voyage was made by English navigator John Cabot, who sailed from England to Newfoundland in 1497. Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524, and Jacques Cartier, in 1534, explored nearly the whole Atlantic coast of the present United States for France. By that time, Europeans had scouted the American coast from Newfoundland to Brazil. While they continued to look for shortcuts to Asia, Europeans began to think of America for its own sake. Spain again led the way: Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519, and Francisco Pizarro did the same in Peru in 1532—nearly a full century before English or French colonization began.

Cultural Interaction: The Columbian Exchange

What was to become American history began in a biological and cultural collision of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Europeans initiated this contact and often dictated its terms. For Native Americans and Africans, American history began in disaster.

Native Americans suffered heavily because of their isolation from the rest of the world. Europe, Africa, and Asia had been trading knowledge and technologies for centuries. Societies on all three continents had learned to use iron and kept herds of domestic animals. Europeans had acquired gunpowder, paper, and navigational equipment from the Chinese. Native Americans, on the other hand, had none of these. They were often helpless against European conquerors with horses, firearms, and—especially—armor and weapons.

The most disastrous consequence of the long-term isolation of the Americas was biological. Asians, Africans, and Europeans had been exposed to one another’s diseases for millennia; by 1500 they had developed an Old World immune system that partially protected them from most diseases. On average, Native Americans were bigger and healthier than the Europeans who first encountered them. But they were helpless against European and African diseases. Smallpox was the biggest killer, but illnesses such as measles and influenza also killed millions of people. The indigenous population of Mexico, for example, was more than 17 million when Cortés landed in 1519. By 1630 it had dropped to 750,000, largely as a result of disease. Scholars estimate that on average the population of a Native American people dropped 90 percent in the first century of contact. The worst wave of epidemics in human history cleared the way for European conquest.

Europeans used the new lands as sources of precious metals and plantation agriculture. Both were complex operations that required labor in large, closely supervised groups. Attempts to enslave indigenous peoples failed, and attempts to force them into other forms of bound labor were slightly more successful but also failed because workers died of disease. Europeans turned to the African slave trade as a source of labor for the Americas. During the colonial periods of North and South America and the Caribbean, far more Africans than Europeans came to the New World. The slave trade brought wealth to some Europeans and some Africans, but the growth of the slave trade disrupted African political systems, turned slave raiding into full–scale war, and robbed many African societies of their young men. The European success story in the Americas was achieved at horrendous expense for the millions of Native Americans who died and for the millions of Africans who were enslaved.


Beginning in 1519, Spain, Portugal, France, The Netherlands, and England established colonies in the Americas. Spain made a great mining and agricultural empire in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Portugal created a slave-based agricultural colony in Brazil. In North America the French and Dutch established rudimentary European societies and—more importantly—elaborate, long-term trading networks with the indigenous peoples. Among the European invaders of North America, only the English established colonies of agricultural settlers, whose interests in Native Americans was less about trade than about the acquisition of land. That fact would have huge implications in the long struggle for control of North America.

New Spain
Spain was the first European nation to colonize America. Cortés invaded Mexico and (with the help of smallpox and other Native Americans) defeated the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521. By 1533 Pizarro had conquered the Incas of Peru. Both civilizations possessed artifacts made of precious metals, and the Spanish searched for rumored piles of gold and silver. They sent expeditions under Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca as far north as what is now Kansas and Colorado. They were looking for cities made of gold and did not find them. But in 1545 they did discover silver at Potosí, in what is now Bolivia, and in Mexico around the same time. New World gold and silver mines were the base of Spanish wealth and power for the next hundred years.

Shortly after the conquests, Catholic missionaries—Jesuits until 1571, Franciscans and Dominicans after that—attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. They established missions not only at the centers of the new empire, but also in New Mexico and Florida. Spanish Jesuits even built a short–lived mission outpost in Virginia.

After defeating indigenous peoples, Spanish conquerors established a system of forced labor called encomienda. However, Spanish governmental and religious officials disliked the brutality of this system. As time passed, Spanish settlers claimed land rather than labor, establishing large estates called haciendas. By the time French, Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists began arriving in the New World in the early 17th century, the Spanish colonies in New Spain (Mexico), New Granada (Colombia), and the Caribbean were nearly 100 years old. The colonies were a source of power for Spain, and a source of jealousy from other European nations.

New France
By the 1530s French explorers had scouted the coast of America from Newfoundland to the Carolinas. Samuel de Champlain built the foundations of what would become French Canada (New France). From 1604 to 1606 he established a settlement at Acadia in Nova Scotia, and in 1608 he traveled up the Saint Lawrence River, made contact with the Huron and Algonquin peoples, and established a French settlement at Québec.

From the beginning, New France concentrated on two activities: fur trade and Catholic missions. Missionaries and traders were often at odds, but both knew that the success of New France depended upon friendly relations with the native peoples. While Jesuits converted thousands of Native Americans, French traders roamed the forests. Both were among the first white explorers of the interior of North America, and France’s ties with Native Americans would have important implications for the next 150 years. By 1700 the French population of New France was 14,000. French Canada was a strategically crucial brake on English settlement. But the much smaller sugar islands in the Caribbean—Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Guadeloupe, and Martinique—were economically far more valuable to France.

Dutch Settlements
Another contender for influence in North America was the Dutch, inhabitants of the leading commercial nation in the early 17th century. Sailing for the Dutch in 1609, Henry Hudson explored the river that now bears his name. The Dutch established a string of agricultural settlements between New Amsterdam (New York City) and Fort Orange (Albany, New York) after 1614. They became the chief European traders with the Iroquois, supplying them with firearms, blankets, metal tools, and other European trade goods in exchange for furs. The Iroquois used those goods to nearly destroy the Huron and to push the Algonquins into Illinois and Michigan. As a result, the Iroquois gained control of the Native American side of the fur trade.

The Dutch settlements, known as New Netherland, grew slowly at first and became more urban as trade with the indigenous peoples outdistanced agriculture as a source of income. The colony was prosperous and tolerated different religions. As a result, it attracted a steady and diverse stream of European immigrants. In the 1640s the 450 inhabitants of New Amsterdam spoke 18 different languages. The colony had grown to a European population of 6,000 (double that of New France) on the eve of its takeover by England in 1664.

First English Settlements

The Spanish, French, and Dutch wanted to find precious metals in the Americas, to trade with the indigenous peoples, and to convert them to Christianity. Their agricultural colonies in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America were worked by African slaves and by unwilling native peoples, and relatively few Europeans settled permanently in those places. In contrast, England, a latecomer to New World colonization, sent more people to the Americas than other European nations—about 400,000 in the 17th century—and established more permanent agricultural colonies.

English migrants came to America for two main reasons. The first reason was tied to the English Reformation. King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. Through a series of political and religious twists and turns, the new Church of England developed a Protestant theology, but it retained much of Catholic liturgy and ritual forms. Within the Church of England, radical Protestants, later called Puritans, wanted to suppress the remaining Catholic forms. The fortunes of the Puritans depended on the religious preferences of English monarchs. Queen Mary I, who ruled from 1553 to 1558, was a committed Catholic who tried to roll back the tide of religious change; she executed hundreds of Protestants and chased many more into exile. Her successor, Elizabeth I, invited the exiles back and tried to resolve differences within the English church. The Stuart kings who followed her, James I and Charles I, again persecuted Puritans. As a result, Puritans became willing to immigrate to America.

The second reason for English colonization was that land in England had become scarce. The population of England doubled from 1530 to 1680. In the same years, many of England’s largest landholders evicted tenants from their lands, fenced the lands, and raised sheep for the expanding wool trade. The result was a growing number of young, poor, underemployed, and often desperate English men and women. It was from their ranks that colonizers recruited most of the English population of the mainland colonies.


Permanent English settlement began in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1607 and in Massachusetts in 1620. The histories of the two regions during their first century and a half are almost opposite. Virginia began as a misguided business venture and as a disorderly society of young men. Massachusetts settlers were Puritans. They arrived as whole families and sometimes as whole congregations, and they lived by laws derived from the Old Testament. Over time, however, Virginia was transformed into a slave-based tobacco colony where slaves were carefully disciplined, where most white families owned land, and where a wealthy and stable planter-slaveholder class provided much of the leadership of revolutionary and early national America. New England, on the other hand, evolved into a more secularized and increasingly overpopulated society based on family farms and inherited land—land that was becoming scarce to the point that increasing numbers of whites were slipping into poverty.

The Chesapeake, Virginia

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, began as a business venture that failed. The Virginia Company of London, a joint stock company organized much like a modern corporation, sent 104 colonists to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. The company wanted to repeat the successes of the Spanish: The colonists were to look for gold and silver, for a passage to Asia, and for other discoveries that would quickly reward investors. If the work was heavy, the colonists were to force indigenous peoples to help them. The composition of the group sent to Jamestown reflected the company’s expectations for life in the colony. Colonists included silversmiths, goldsmiths, even a perfumer, and far too many gentlemen who were unprepared for rugged colonial life.

The colonists found a defensible spot on low ground and named it Jamestown. None of their plans worked out, and the settlers began to die of dysentery and typhoid fever. At the end of the first year, only about one-third remained alive. The Native Americans were troublesome, too. Organized into the large and powerful Powhatan confederacy, they grew tired of demands for food and launched a war against the settlers that continued intermittently from 1609 to 1614.

In 1619 the Virginia Company reorganized. The colony gave up the search for quick profits and turned to growing tobacco. Under the new plan, colonists received 50 acres from the company for paying a person’s passage to Virginia. The new settlers were indentured servants who agreed to work off the price of their passage. Thus settlers who could afford it received land and labor at the same time. In 1624 King James I of England made Virginia the first royal colony. He revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and appointed a royal governor and council, and established a House of Burgesses elected by the settlers. Despite fights with the Powhatan confederacy (about 350 settlers died in one attack in 1622), the Virginia colony began to prosper. It had found a cash crop, a source of labor, and a stable government.

In 1634 Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, founded Maryland under a royal charter, which made the colony Baltimore’s personal property. Baltimore, a Catholic nobleman, hoped to establish a refuge for English Catholics and sell large estates to individuals who would operate as feudal lords.

Neither the plans for feudalism nor for a Catholic refuge worked out, however. More Protestants than Catholics immigrated to Maryland. In 1649 Baltimore granted religious toleration to all Christians, but Protestants did not stop opposing him. They even overthrew Baltimore’s government on several occasions. Baltimore’s dreams of feudalism failed as well. Freed servants preferred farming on their own to staying on as tenants, and the colony quickly evolved as Virginia had: Planters (many of them former servants) imported servants from England and grew tobacco.

Mortality Rate

Chesapeake tobacco growers needed able–bodied servants. Most of those imported to Virginia and Maryland were young, poor, single men. Disease, bad water, and hostile native peoples produced a horrific death rate. In 1618 there were 700 English settlers in Virginia. The reorganized Virginia Company sent 3,000 more before 1622. A headcount that year found only about 1,200 still alive. Still, surviving planters continued to import servants. Some servants lived long enough to end their indentures, but many others died. In addition, there were too few women in the Chesapeake to enable surviving men to build families and produce new Virginians. More than two-thirds of men never married, and the white population of Virginia did not begin to sustain itself until at least the 1680s. Before that, the colony survived only by importing new people to replace those who died.

Introduction of Slavery

White servants worked Chesapeake tobacco farms until the late 17th century. But earlier in the century, English tobacco and sugar planters in the Caribbean had adopted African slavery, long the chief labor system in Portuguese and Spanish sugar colonies in the Caribbean. By 1700 the English islands were characterized by large plantations and by populations that were overwhelmingly African. These African slaves were victims of a particularly brutal and unhealthy plantation system that killed most of them. It was not a coincidence that these islands produced more wealth for England than its other colonies. See also Slavery in the United States:Introduction of Slavery

Before the 1680s, Chesapeake planters purchased few African slaves, and the status of Africans in Virginia and Maryland was unclear. Some were slaves, some were servants, some were free, and no legal code defined their standing. The reasons for the slow growth of slavery in the Chesapeake were not moral, but economic. First, slave traders received high prices for slaves in the Caribbean—higher than Virginians could afford, particularly when these expensive laborers were likely to die. White indentured servants cost less, and planters lost little when they died. But Chesapeake colonists—both English and African—grew healthier as they became "seasoned" on their new continent. At the same time, the English economic crisis that had supplied servants to the colonies diminished. These changes made African slaves a better long–term investment: The initial cost was higher, but the slaves lived and reproduced.

Beginning around 1675, Virginia and Maryland began importing large numbers of African slaves. By 1690 black slaves outnumbered white servants in those colonies. Virginia now gave white servants who survived their indentures 50 acres of land, thus making them a part of the white landholding class. At the same time, the House of Burgesses drew up legal codes that assumed a lifetime of bondage for blacks. In the early 18th century, the Chesapeake emerged as a society of planters and small farmers who grew tobacco with the labor of African slaves. There had been slaves in Virginia since 1619. But it was not until nearly 100 years later that Virginia became a slave society.

The Beginnings of New England
New England began as a refuge for religious radicals. The first English settlers were the Pilgrims. They were Separatists—Protestants who, unlike the Puritans—seceded from the Church of England rather than try to reform it. They sailed for the New World in 1620. After difficult early years, they established a community of farms at Plymouth that was ultimately absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Company.

Religion in the New England Colonies
A much larger Puritan migration began in 1630. The Puritans objected to the corruption and extravagance of the Stuart kings, who considered alliances with Catholic monarchs and paid no attention to Puritan demands for religious reform. The Puritans came to believe that God would destroy England for these sins. They obtained a charter from the Massachusetts Bay Company and made plans to emigrate—not to hide in the wilderness from God’s wrath, but to preserve Protestant beliefs and to act as a beacon of truth for the world. A thousand Puritans migrated to Massachusetts in 1630. But this Great Migration ended in 1642, when the Puritans became involved in a civil war against the Stuart kings. The Puritans eventually won and ruled England until 1660. When the migration ended, Massachusetts had 13,000 European inhabitants.

The Puritans left England because of religious persecution, but they, too, were intolerant. In Massachusetts they established laws derived from the Bible, and they punished or expelled those who did not share their beliefs. The Puritans established a governor and a general court (an assembly elected by adult male church members) and governed themselves. Although they refused to secede from the Church of England, they did away with bishops and church hierarchy and invented congregationalism. In this type of Protestantism, each congregation selected its own minister and governed its own religious life (though outside authority sometimes intervened to punish heresy).

Government officials were expected to enforce godly authority, which often meant punishing religious heresy. Roger Williams was a Separatist who refused to worship with anyone who—like nearly all Puritans—remained part of the Church of England. Massachusetts banished him, and he and a few followers founded Providence in what is now Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson was a merchant’s wife and a devout Puritan, but she claimed that she received messages directly from God and was beyond earthly authority. This belief was a heresy, a belief contrary to church teachings, known as Antinomianism. She, too, was banished and she moved to Rhode Island. Puritan magistrates continued to enforce religious laws: In the 1650s they persecuted Quakers, and in the 1690s they executed people accused of witchcraft.

Growth of New England’s Population

Once the Puritan migration to New England stopped in 1642, the region would receive few immigrants for the next 200 years. Yet the population grew dramatically—to nearly 120,000 in 1700. Two reasons explain this. First, in sharp contrast to the unhealthy Chesapeake, Massachusetts streams provided relatively safe drinking water, and New England’s cold winters kept dangerous microbes to a minimum. Thus disease and early death were not the problems that they were farther south. Second (again in contrast to the Chesapeake) the Puritans migrated in families, and there were about two women for every three men, even in the early years. Nearly all colonists married (typically in their mid–20s for men and early 20s for women), and then produced children at two-year intervals. With both a higher birthrate and a longer life expectancy than in England, the Puritan population grew rapidly almost from the beginning.

The Restoration Colonies
By 1640 England had founded 6 of the 13 colonies that would become the original United States. In 1660, after the end of Puritan rule, Charles II was crowned king of England, an event known as the Restoration. Charles founded or took over six more colonies: New York (taken from the Dutch in 1664), New Jersey, Pennsylvania (including what became Delaware), and North and South Carolina. All were proprietary colonies—huge land grants to individuals or small groups who had been loyal to the king during the civil war.

These colonies shared other similarities as well. None of them was well–funded; they could ill afford to import colonists from overseas. Thus they tried to attract settlers from other colonies as much as from the Old World. These colonies made it easy to own land, and they tended to grant religious toleration to all Christians. The result (even though Pennsylvania began as a Quaker colony under the wealthy proprietor William Penn) was a more ethnically mixed and religiously pluralistic European population than had come to New England or to the Chesapeake. These new colonies were populated not only by the English, but also by the Dutch and eventually by Scots, Scots–Irish, and Germans. Their populations included Quakers and other religious dissenters.

Settlers and Native Americans
The French and Spanish came to the New World to trade with the indigenous peoples, to convert them to Christianity, and sometimes to turn them into a labor force for mining and agriculture. In contrast, the English settlers wanted farmland. Thus they posed a far greater threat to the Native Americans. Wars were the result. In New England a Wampanoag chief named Metacomet (the English called him King Philip) became worried about English intrusion on his land and ordered attacks on the settlements in 1675. For the next year Metacomet and his allies destroyed 12 of 90 Puritan towns and attacked 40 others—capturing or killing one in ten adult male English settlers. The Puritans counterattacked in the summer of 1676. They killed Metacomet, sold his wife and chief supporters into slavery in the West Indies, and scattered his coalition. With that, the power of coastal Native Americans in New England was broken.

In the same years (1675 to 1676) in Virginia, land–hungry settlers led by a planter named Nathaniel Bacon picked a fight with the Susquehannock people. The settlers’ goal was simply to end Native American occupation of lands that whites wanted. When Governor William Berkeley objected, the rebellious settlers forced the House of Burgesses to back their war (see Bacon’s Rebellion). Later, they marched on Jamestown and burned the colonial capital. Shortly after that, Bacon died of disease, and his rebellion sputtered out. But a new treaty signed with the Native Americans in 1677 made much of their land available to white settlers.

English and their Empire
The English had colonies before they had a colonial policy or an empire. The English government had little interest in directly governing its colonies. The government was, however, mercantilist: It wanted colonial economic activity to serve England. The Navigation Act of 1651 stipulated that imports into British harbors and colonies could be carried only in British ships or those of the producing country. A second Navigation Act in 1660 decreed that colonial trade could be carried only in English ships, and that crucial commodities such as tobacco and sugar could be sent only to England or another English colony. Further Navigation Acts in 1663 and 1696 regulated the shipment of goods into the colonies and strengthened the customs service. For the most part, the Navigation Acts succeeded in making colonial trade serve England. They also made the colonists accustomed to and dependent upon imported English goods. But the acts did not amount to a colonial administration. Private companies, wealthy proprietors, and the settlers themselves did what they wanted without official English interference.

King James II tried to change that. In 1684 he revoked the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Then in 1686 he created the Dominion of New England from the colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Plymouth, and Connecticut (all colonies that had been derived from the original Massachusetts Bay colony), along with New York and New Jersey. The king sent Sir Edmund Andros to be royal governor of this huge area. However, the king had problems at home. He was a Catholic, and he threatened to leave the throne in the hands of his Catholic son. In 1689 England’s ruling elites deposed James II and replaced him with his sister Mary and her husband, a militant Dutch Protestant, William of Orange. As part of the agreement that made him king, William issued a Bill of Rights that ended absolutist royal government in England. The ascension of William and Mary is known in English history as the Glorious Revolution.

American colonists staged smaller versions of the Glorious Revolution. Massachusetts and New York revolted against the Dominion of New England. At the same time, the Protestant majority in Maryland revolted against Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, and his Catholic elite. William could have punished all these rebels and re–established the Dominion of New England. Instead, he reorganized Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland as royal colonies with elected legislative assemblies and royally appointed governors. By 1720 William had transformed all the mainland colonies along these lines except for Pennsylvania, Maryland (William restored Protestant proprietors in 1716), and Delaware. The Glorious Revolution ended absolutism in England, and it ensured that government in the mainland colonies would be both royal and representative.

Colonial Society
The colonies over which the English were beginning to exercise control were growing rapidly. In 1700 approximately 250,000 Europeans and Africans were living in what would become the United States. In 1775 there were approximately 2.5 million. Much of the increase was due to immigration: the forced migration of enslaved Africans, and the willing migration of English, Scots-Irish, and Germans.

The middle colonies were much more diverse than the northern colonies. The English majority contended with a variety of European settlers, with a large Native American presence on the western edges, and with a significant minority of African slaves. In Maryland and Virginia, the early English settlers had been joined, particularly in the western counties, by Scots, Scots–Irish, and Germans. In the eastern counties, African slaves—many of them natives of Africa—often outnumbered whites.

South Carolina and Georgia had white populations as diverse as those in the Chesapeake, and their slave populations were African–born and ethnically diverse. One historian has noted that a slave would have met more different kinds of Africans in one day in South Carolina rice fields than in a lifetime in Africa.

By far the greatest source of population growth, however, was a phenomenal birth rate and a relatively low death rate. Americans in the 18th century had many children, who in turn survived to have children of their own. American population growth in these years may have been unprecedented in human history.

The household was the central institution of colonial society. In Puritan society in particular families were the cornerstone of godly government. As one historian put it, Puritans experienced authority as a hierarchy of strong fathers—beginning with God, descending down through government officials and ministers, and ending with the fathers of families. These families were patriarchal: Fathers ruled households, made family decisions, organized household labor, and were the representatives of God’s authority within the family. Fathers passed that authority on to their sons. Puritan magistrates inspected families to ensure that they were orderly, and it was a capital crime (at least in the law books) to commit adultery or to strike one’s father.

Households in other 18th–century colonies may have been less godly, but they were almost equally dominated by fathers, and most white men had the opportunity to become patriarchs. Land was relatively abundant, and Americans seldom practiced primogeniture and entail, which gave oldest sons their fathers’ full estates and prevented men from dividing their land. Fathers tended to supply all of their sons with land (daughters received personal property as a dowry). Thus most American white men eventually owned their own land and headed their own households.

As populations grew and as colonial economies developed, however, that independence based on property ownership was endangered. Good farmland in the south came to be dominated by a class of planters, while growing numbers of poor whites became tenants. The pressure of a growing population on the supply of farmland made tenancy even more common in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (research puts the proportion at about 25 percent by mid-century), while in New England more and more fathers found themselves unable to provide for their sons. On the eve of the American Revolution (1775-1783), American white men prided themselves on a widespread liberty that was based in economic independence. Meanwhile, the land ownership that upheld that independence was being undermined.

18th Century Slavery
In the first half of the 18th century, the mainland colonies grew dramatically but in very different ways. The Chesapeake and the Carolinas grew plantation staples for world markets—tobacco in the Chesapeake and North Carolina, rice and indigo in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia—and they were committed to African slave labor. Fully 70 percent of South Carolina’s population was black, nearly all Africans were imported directly to the colony in the 18th century. The numbers were so huge and the malarial wetlands they worked on were so unhealthy that masters encouraged slaves to organize their own labor and to work unsupervised. Because so many slaves lived and worked relatively unsupervised in this area, African cultures—language, handicrafts, religious experience and belief, and more—survived most fully among American slaves in South Carolina. Rice planters of South Carolina permitted this cultural independence because it was easier and because the slaves made them lots of money. South Carolina’s lowland planters were the wealthiest group in the mainland colonies.

Further north, the tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland were equally committed to slave labor, but slaves led somewhat different lives here than in the deep South. The African population in these colonies began to replace itself through reproduction as early as 1720 (compared with 1770 in South Carolina). Still, Chesapeake planters continued to import new slaves from Africa; about 70,000 went to Virginia in the 18th century and about 25,000 to Maryland. Slaves in these colonies tended to live and work in smaller, more closely supervised groups than slaves further south, and their cultural memory of Africa, though often strong, was less pervasive than that of Carolina slaves. In addition, white Virginians and Marylanders were turning to wheat as a secondary crop, a development that required mills and towns, and thus slave labor in construction, road building, and some of the skilled crafts.

Northern Agriculture

Around the middle of the 18th century, a heavily populated and increasingly urbanized Europe lost the capacity to feed itself, providing an important market for North American farmers. The middle colonies, particularly Pennsylvania, became the breadbasket of America. After Pennsylvania farmers provided for their families from their farms and by trading with neighbors, they sent their surplus production of corn and wheat, as much as 40 percent of what they produced, on to the Atlantic market. New England farmers worked soil that was poor and rocky, but used the same system.

Economists call this system safety–first or subsistence–plus agriculture: Farmers provided for household and neighborhood needs before risking their surplus in distant and unpredictable markets. In profitable years, farmers were able to buy finished cloth, dishes and crockery, tea and coffee, and other goods that colonial trade with England provided—goods on which more and more Americans depended by 1770.


British North America in the 18th century was a religiously and ethnically diverse string of settlements. New England’s population was overwhelmingly English, descended from the Great Migration of the 1630s. New England had a reputation for poor land and intolerance of outsiders, and immigrants avoided the region. New Englanders continued to practice congregationalism, though by the 18th century they seldom thought of themselves as the spearhead of the Reformation. A wave of revivals known as the Great Awakening swept New England beginning in the 1720s, dividing churchgoers into New Light (evangelical Calvinists) and Old Light (more moderate) wings. An increasing minority were calling themselves Baptists.

Nearly all Europeans in these colonies were Protestants, but individual denominations were very different. There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites and Quakers. While the Church of England was the established church (the official, government–supported church) in the Chesapeake colonies, German and Scottish non-Anglicans were migrating south from the middle colonies, and Baptists were making their first southern converts. Although most Chesapeake slaves were American–born by the late 18th century, they practiced what they remembered of African religions, while some became Christians in 18th-century revivals.

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