Colonial American Culture
Writing in 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur tried to define "the American, this new man." He was, Crèvecoeur argued, "neither a European nor a descendant of a European" but an "American, who, leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds." Crèvecoeur presumed that America was a melting pot, that the environment created a homogeneous American culture, with similar values, beliefs, and social practices. Such cultural uniformity is inherently plausible. After all, most white colonial Americans worked the soil, enjoying the fruits of their labor, and practiced similar Protestant faiths. Moreover, they believed in private ownership of the means of production by individual cultivators. Generations of scholars, following the lead of Frederick Jackson Turner in the early twentieth century, argued that free and open land on the frontier created an American people whose identity was shaped by the independence land ownership provided and whose ideology was characterized by individualism, democracy, and equality of opportunity.
Colonial cultures, however, were far less uniform than Crèvecoeur imagined. The women and men who peopled early America--Native Americans, Africans, East Anglians, Welsh, Germans, Dutch, among many others--invented conflicting popular cultures, meshing the beliefs and practices of their birthplaces with the demands of the American environment and the cultures of their neighbors. Indians and Africans, a substantial part of the colonial population, have been ignored in models of cultural uniformity. Even white Protestant immigrants created diverse cultures. While sharing a common religious vision, Puritans and Anglicans, Baptists and Quakers, differed vehemently in the particulars of their faiths. In America, without the pressure of a strong Anglican established church, the particularities of each group were accentuated. By the end of the seventeenth century, the main lines of most of American popular cultures could be clearly seen.
Notwithstanding continuing cultural differences among ethnic groups, there was some cultural convergence in the eighteenth century, a tendency for division among white colonists between a popular culture of the vast majority and a high culture of the ruling few who emulated their peers in England. Such cultural convergence within social classes had several sources. Waves of evangelical revivalism touched every colony at different times between the 1730s and 1780s, democratizing and personalizing religion, Christianizing the unchurched everywhere. Newly rich merchants, great planters, and lawyers received similar educations, built mansions in the English manner, and indulged in conspicuous consumption far beyond the reach of middling farmers.
The development of vernacular cultures in the colonial era depended upon two contrasting geographic facts: widely dispersed settlement and concentrated ethnic enclaves. Even on the eve of independence, most Americans--Indians and settlers alike--lived in isolated farm neighborhoods or villages, separated from neighbors a few miles away by almost impenetrable forests. Most were surrounded by people like themselves: Iroquois lived with Iroquois, Germans settled in Pennsylvania villages, East Anglians dominated many New England towns. Under such circumstances, contrasting popular cultures could flourish. An examination of three cultural indicators--forms of agriculture, patterns of social order, and family and gender mores--before colonization and after American settlement among Indians, New Englanders, white Virginians, and backcountry residents will suggest the ways that the interplay of received culture and environment made new popular cultures. Such an analysis, however, hardly exhausts the diversity of cultures in early America, ignoring, for example, African-Americans in the Chesapeake colonies and coastal South Carolina; Quakers, Dutch, and Scots in the Middle Colonies, and various Germanic ethnic groups. Moreover, there were class conflicts in all the seventeenth-century colonies that common regional cultures did little to hide.
Despite extraordinary differences among groups of Native Americans, they shared some general cultural similarities. Indians insisted upon communal ownership and sovereignty over land; temporary "ownership" came with use. Eastern Woodland Indians, with the exception of those living in the far Northeast, practiced subsistence agriculture, growing corn and vegetables to feed themselves, using extensive slash-and-burn techniques. Each year, men burned stubble and underbrush; then women did the planting, hoeing, and harvesting of crops. The work of women provided the vast majority of the food the tribes ate. Although they sometimes paid corn as tribute to chiefs, there was minimal exchange of agricultural goods beyond the community. While women farmed and cared for children, men hunted or went to war. Men killed animals for meat and skins (for clothing) for the community as well as pelts to trade with whites. Indians maintained social order through governance by tribal elders; although men made most decisions about war and peace, women participated in some tribes, such as the Iroquois. But white settlement profoundly affected Indian cultures. Indians traded with the first colonists, exchanging furs and corn for iron goods and cloth. As settlers farmed land, chasing animals away, and as they conquered the Indians' lands, Native Americans either had to move west to preserve their cultures or accommodate to the market economies and male agriculture of the whites.
English colonists left East Anglia in the 1630s for New England to escape depression in the cloth trade and to create a covenanted society free from Anglican persecution. Mostly middling textile workers and farmers, they traveled in family groups. Once in New England, communal leaders readily formed communities and distributed land confiscated from Indians among the inhabitants by social rank, holding some land in common for future generations. Communal land thereby became private property, a pattern very different from that of Indians. After all the land had been distributed, those without left to found new communities. Using family labor, New England farmers grew crops for subsistence, trading small surpluses at local markets to pay for taxes and consumer goods. They devised a complex system of local exchange of labor and goods between area families. These exchanges were predicated upon a division of labor in which men farmed and governed while wom- en--considered subservient--gardened, cared for children, and acted as deputy husbands when their spouses were away. A strong sense of order pervaded the society: mutual obligations were expected to tie parents and children together, and when they overstepped communal norms, they faced discipline from church or town; disreputable outsiders were forced to leave the community.
English immigrants to the Chesapeake region in the mid-seventeenth century left highly stratified societies in London and the south of England to find greater economic opportunities. The migrants, mostly poor agricultural and urban wage laborers, had worked in London or Bristol or on large rural estates, producing grain for the market. Three-quarters of them, almost all men, came as indentured servants; once they arrived they cultivated tobacco for English markets and corn for subsistence. Everyone, free and servant, male and female, performed agricultural labor. After initial distribution of land by grant, sale, and headrights (acreage given for every adult brought to the colony), a capitalist land market developed. Despite the original widespread ownership of land, Chesapeake gentlemen soon built vast estates, which they populated with servants and (later) slaves. Given the high death rate and the relatively late age of marriage in the region (servants could not marry until they were free), widows, orphans, and complex families with step- and half-siblings became common, breaking down patriarchal authority in the family, and allowing orphans' courts to replace the father.
When slaves began to replace servants as laborers in the tobacco fields after 1680, Chesapeake culture was transformed. With more laborers, white women no longer had to cultivate tobacco; and with increasing life expectancy and lower ages of marriage among whites, male patriarchal authority increased. Africans, and especially their descendants, created their own culture with African and European elements, forming complex cross-plantation communities and intense extended families in the slave quarters. Within this bicultural society, with its strict class and racial boundaries, gentlemen gained political hegemony, insisting upon the liberty to rule others--their slaves, servants, families, and white social inferiors. Acquiescing in gentry rule, poorer planters expected occasional credit from gentlemen and legal support for their dominance over their own families.
The last major group of European migrants during the colonial era came from Scotland, Ulster, and the north of England during the middle half of the eighteenth century and moved to the back parts of the American colonies, from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Mostly herdsmen, cottagers, and traditional tenants, they moved to avoid proletarianization in regions of rapid capitalist transformation. They took with them a culture constrained by generations of conflicts along the borders of England that instilled a distrust of authority and an insistence upon honor and personal integrity. Since they moved to a frontier similar to their homeland, they could invent new societies reflecting their culture. Access to or ownership of land and the open range together provided them with the means of subsistence that was quickly disappearing in their homelands. Men and women shared all agricultural labor in the mountains and valleys they settled, yet each man maintained control over his wife and family through tradition, intimidation, and violence. Fathers instilled in sons pride and independence; mothers trained daughters to be industrious and subservient to men. Insisting upon limited government, they personally attacked anyone who challenged enjoyment of their property, sometimes banding together in vigilante groups.
Waves of evangelicalism that swept over the colonies from the late 1730s to the 1780s dissolved some of these cultural differences. Starting in New England in the 1730s, they spread to the Middle Colonies in the 1740s and to the South in the 1760s and 1770s. Evangelical preachers insisted upon the spiritual equality of all people, whatever their origin, class, race, or gender. All could participate in the direct, experiential religion they mandated. Ordinary people--small farmers in the Chesapeake, urban craftsmen (masters and journeymen), blacks--interpreted spiritual equality in secular terms, allowing the free people among them to contest the hegemony of the wealthy ruling class of merchants and great planters. Widespread participation in evangelical religion provided ordinary rural Americans with a common language, thereby mitigating differences between ethnic groups.
Once whites had expropriated millions of acres of Indian land, vast areas were open to whites for settlement. By the early eighteenth century, farm families, the majority of colonists, came to expect land ownership. Out of this expectation, a yeoman ideology developed throughout the colonies. Land provided farmers with a social and political identity. Small landowners insisted upon the right to secure land tenure, arguing that they had earned ownership through their own labor. This homestead ethic was sustained in a series of conflicts that covered nearly every colony from New York to South Carolina between the 1730s and the 1770s. Whenever landlords, creditors, or venal colonial officeholders challenged the farmer's title, insisted upon early collection of debts, raised taxes, or failed to protect them from Indians or bandits, one of these conflicts resulted.
Notwithstanding continuing differences and the persistence of colonial loyalties, a high culture that transcended local peculiarities began to develop in the early eighteenth century. This high culture was predicated upon the rise of hereditary fortunes in every colony and the sustained dominance of these families in high political office. Men of wealth educated their sons at colonial colleges or in England, where students not only met their peers from other colonies but gained a taste for the writings, theater, and consumption patterns of wealthy English families. They made sure their daughters knew all the genteel female skills, from music to sewing. Thus the rich became "cultivated," building large houses, adorning their homes with the most fashionable furnishings, holding genteel assemblies, and patronizing the arts. Wherever a gentleman traveled in the colonies, he was sure to find similarly cultivated men.
The cultures of early America were complex. By the mid-eighteenth century class similarities among farmers and gentlemen pointed toward consolidated class cultures. But ethnic differences, transformed by varying economic uses colonists made of the American environment, persisted. American farmers continued to grow different crops with different forms of labor; women gained some rights in the North, but none in the South. Regional differences, within class cultures, would have a profound effect on American politics, leading ultimately to civil war.
David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989); Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (1989).
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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