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During the last two decades of the sixteenth century, the English Crown granted various proprietors and chartered companies authority to establish colonies in America.
The American colonial economy was export-driven, although by far the largest share of output was consumed internally.
Notwithstanding continuing differences and the persistence of colonial loyalties, a high culture that transcended local peculiarities began to develop in the early eighteenth century.
During the American Revolution, Great Britain's 13 American colonies rose up in insurrection and won their independence.
Among the European Atlantic states, England was notably slower than Spain, Portugal, or France to become interested in the New World. The early Tudor monarchs did very little to encourage exploration. And when English adventurers during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) finally began to reconnoiter the North American coast and to plunder Spanish shipping in the Caribbean, they operated as private entrepreneurs, with minimal support or supervision from the Crown. Queen Elizabeth mobilized large armies at great expense to conquer Ireland, but she made no equivalent investment in America. Instead, she granted Sir Walter Raleigh the authority to colonize at his own expense--and he failed at Roanoke in 1584-1587.
Under James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649), the English established a dozen permanent colonies in America, but the home government paid little heed to any of these ventures. The settlement of Virginia was undertaken in 1607 by a privately financed joint stock company. Although the Crown took direct control of the colony in 1624, it provided no real supervision. A number of other colonies--such as Barbados and Maryland--were started by individual proprietors who managed their settlements as semifeudal principalities. And the Puritans who founded the New England colonies openly challenged the Crown. They had come to America in order to get away from Charles I's rule, and they set up religious and political institutions in repudiation of the establishment at home. Thus each English plantation in the early seventeenth century was essentially autonomous. And because the pioneer settlers were free to do as they pleased, the Caribbean, Chesapeake, and New England colonies developed distinctive regional characteristics, many of which are still observable today.
In the 1640s, with king and Parliament absorbed in civil war at home, the English colonists in America achieved maximum independence. In New England, the four chief colonies formed a military confederation and conducted their own foreign policy. In the West Indies, the Barbados planters entered into a lucrative partnership with the Netherlands, selling their sugar to Dutch traders in exchange for thousands of African slaves.
During the 1650s and 1660s, the English government finally began to play a more active role in American colonial development. Parliament passed a series of Navigation Acts, designed to exclude the Dutch from trading in English America and to channel the shipment of all Chesapeake tobacco and Caribbean sugar to the mother country. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653-1658) seized the Spanish island of Jamaica in 1655, and Charles II (1660-1685) seized the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1664. But the king handed over this colony to his brother, the duke of York, and permitted other court favorites to establish proprietary colonies in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. By the mid-1670s, only seven of the twenty English colonies in America were under direct Crown control. In the royal colony of Jamaica, the governor was conducting his own privateering war against Spanish commerce. In the royal colony of Virginia, the governor was nearly overthrown in a rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon. In Puritan New England, the colonists ignored the Navigation Acts and fought a long and bloody Indian war--King Philip's War--without bothering to consult the home authorities.
Faced with this evidence of colonial chaos and disobedience, the royal government from 1675 onward made serious efforts to regulate the American colonies and establish an imperial system. A colonial office was finally created, and agents were dispatched to America to enforce the Navigation Acts. In the 1680s, energetic royal governors with military experience pressured the legislative assemblies of Virginia and Jamaica into granting permanent tax revenues, and Massachusetts lost its chartered powers of self-government.
The trend toward centralized authority accelerated under James II (1685-1688), who aimed at a Spanish style of viceregal colonial administration. His most spectacular innovation was to combine seven colonies into a single unit, the Dominion of New England, which was ruled by a royal governor backed by troops and unimpeded by a representative assembly. James's authoritarian style, however, proved to be as unpopular and ineffectual in the colonies as at home. The Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 spread to America in 1689. The colonists in Boston and New York City dismantled the Dominion of New England and asked the new king William III to restore their lost privileges.
The postrevolutionary reorganization of the American colonies in the 1690s proved to be of great importance. It established a new imperial formula that for sixty years satisfied all interested parties reasonably well but then failed disastrously in the 1760s and 1770s. The royal policymakers under William III (1689-1702) and Anne (1702-1714) abandoned James II's autocratic mode while retaining his policy of central planning and administration. They were much influenced by strategic considerations. From 1689 to 1713, Britain was almost continuously at war with France, and the Crown invested heavily for the first time in American military and naval operations, particularly in the Caribbean. Many of the royal governors in America during these years were military men, who tried zealously to enforce orders from home. A number of previously self-governing or proprietary colonies, including Massachusetts and Maryland, were brought under direct royal rule. A new supervisory body, the Board of Trade and Plantations, was created in 1696, and in this same year Parliament legislated the most comprehensive of its Navigation Acts, which effectually tied colonial commerce to the mother country.
London was now the acknowledged imperial entrepôt. On the fringes of the empire the North American and Caribbean colonies settled into a mutually beneficial trading partnership, in which merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia supplied food and timber to the sugar islands in exchange for molasses and rum. In 1707 England entered into political union with Scotland, which further strengthened the empire by opening the colonies to Scottish talent; by the 1760s, Glasgow merchants were surpassing London merchants in the Chesapeake tobacco trade.
Yet the reorganized British imperial system represented a compromise. The colonists accepted their dependent and provincial status while preserving a great deal of local autonomy. Although the Board of Trade wanted to abolish all proprietary governments in America, it failed to do so. And mutual jealousies between Crown and Parliament discouraged the Crown from initiating any policies in America that required legislative enforcement, beyond the strictly commercial regulations established by the Navigation Acts.
During the reigns of George I (1714-1727) and George II (1727-1760), the home authorities administered the American colonies in a deliberately low-key style until the renewal of war with France in the 1740s and 1750s. The Board of Trade instituted no policy changes. The royal ministers who made colonial appointments were more interested in exercising patronage than in rewarding talent. The governors they sent to America were hard-pressed to combat colonial assemblies with rising pretensions to power. These were years of enormous population growth and economic expansion in America and of self-conscious efforts by the provincial colonists to acquire fashionable British consumer goods and to adopt British cultural standards in education, religion, and the law.
Yet psychologically the transatlantic gulf was widening rather than shrinking. Most of the new eighteenth-century immigrants to the colonies came from Ireland, Germany, and Africa rather than from England and Scotland. The Americans developed a political outlook emphasizing fear of centralized power and corruption that the ruling elite at home dismissed as old-fashioned and irrelevant. And though transatlantic trade was booming as never before, most Britons retained an indifferent and condescending attitude toward their distant colonial cousins.
It was against this background that Britain entered into another long war with France, one that lasted from 1740 to 1763. Both nations had extensive colonial holdings in America, developing at asymmetrical rates. While the thirteen mainland British colonies were growing far more rapidly than French Canada, the British sugar colonies in the West Indies were being overtaken by their French rivals. In consequence, the merchants in the British mainland colonies felt increasingly constricted by British commercial regulations and sought to do business with the French sugar planters. The British sugar interest, having strong political leverage at home, tried to block this competition by getting Parliament to legislate the Molasses Act of 1733, which taxed French molasses prohibitively--but the northern merchants countered by trading illicitly with the French, even during wartime.
Fighting between the two imperial powers broke out in America in the 1740s. At first they sparred inconclusively, but the combat gradually intensified. The French alarmed the mainland colonists by invading Pennsylvania and New York in 1755-1757. The British responded to this challenge by mounting a massive and decisive counterattack. Under the dynamic leadership of William Pitt, the home government abruptly terminated its low-key management of American affairs. Mobilizing an unprecedented war effort with generous parliamentary subsidies to the colonies, a large expeditionary army, and a powerful fleet, the British not only conquered French Canada but also captured every major French island except St. Domingue in 1759-1763. Indeed, they gained so much territory that at the 1763 peace conference they returned Guadeloupe and Martinique to France, largely at the insistence of the British sugar planters who continued to fear new competition.
Ironically, the smashing imperial victory over France in 1757-1763 undermined the political compromise that had been worked out in the 1690s and led directly to the breakup of the British Empire in America in 1763-1783. George III (1760-1820) and his ministers felt unable to revert to their traditional hands-off policy. They wanted to retain a military presence in North America in order to govern their new French subjects and to manage restive Indian tribes. And they expected the colonists to help cover the increased costs of imperial administration, since the Crown was now saddled with a huge war debt. The American colonists, on the other hand, saw an opportunity in the 1760s to enlarge their already extensive political and economic liberties. With the removal of the French military threat, they saw less need than ever for centralized imperial government, and they refused to accept responsibility for the king's war debt.
The transatlantic gap between British and American political expectations was suddenly revealed to be very large, and spokesmen for the two sides were unable to communicate and unwilling to negotiate effectively. When George Grenville secured parliamentary passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the colonists refused point-blank to pay this new tax. They insisted that the colonial assemblies had the exclusive right to raise revenue and that Parliament's sole imperial function was to regulate commerce. Although the royal government acceded to pressure from the British merchant community and repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, Parliament declared that it had full power to legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." Britons and Americans had now staked out irreconcilable interpretations of their imperial relationship.
The ideological impasse of 1765-1766 quickly triggered civil war within the empire. As George III's ministers kept trying to levy taxes in America, a rebel movement gained momentum in the thirteen mainland colonies, driven by petitions and riots and boycotts and intercolonial congresses. But the Americans were by no means united in rebellion. As the crisis deepened, many people in the mainland colonies chose to remain loyal to the Crown. The rebel cause attracted little support in the island colonies, where imperial protection was much more highly prized than political freedom. And in the mother country, as Lord North's ministry veered toward open war with the rebels in 1775, most Britons--including the merchants who had pressed for repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766--heartily endorsed the home government's decision to preserve centralized imperial authority.
The American War for Independence turned out to be a longer and more difficult struggle than either the royalists or the rebels anticipated. The British, although they generally beat George Washington's amateur troops in pitched battle, were unable to conquer the rebel army or to occupy the rebels' far-flung territories. And the rebels, being allergic to taxes and suspicious of central planning, were poorly equipped to sustain an effective war effort. The turning point in the war came when the rebels entered into alliance with the French whom they had fought in 1757-1763. At the peace conference of 1783, the British accepted the breakup of their empire by recognizing the political independence and territorial sovereignty of the newly created United States of America.
Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788 (1986); Alison Gilbert Olson, Anglo-American Politics, 1660-1775: The Relationship between Parties in England and Colonial America (1973).
RICHARD S. DUNN
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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