Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Okay, welcome back to the show. We are now, as you know, jumping a 100 years forward and 3,000 miles to the left to play out the tumultuous drama of the American Revolution. A tumultuous drama that occasionally parallels and sometimes even explicitly recalls the tumultuous drama of the English Revolution. But before we can get into the guts of it, we need to do a survey of the stage and the players. So today we’ll do a quick and necessarily blunt tour of colonial North America. Who lived there? Why did they live there? What did they do when they got there? Then we can get into the good stuff about the colonists going crazy after Parliament started randomly taxing stuff at the end of the French and Indian War.
Broadly speaking, we divide the future United States into three big colonial chunks: New England, the middle colonies and the southern colonies. Above New England was French Canada, and below Georgia was Spanish Florida. There is a map of all this at revolutionspodcast.com for those of you who would like to follow along at home.
Now, each of these colonial regions was settled at a different time and for different reasons. And on the eve of the Revolution, the inhabitants of each live very different lives from one another. Indeed, one of the great feats of the Revolution was binding together the separate colonies into a single unit, something many revolutionary leaders feared was impossible.
Starting up in the north, we have New England, which includes Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. These days, New England also includes Maine and Vermont. But on the eve of the Revolution, Maine was still a part of Massachusetts, and Vermont was populated by a bunch of unruly squatters who had not yet succeeded in breaking away from New York. For our purposes, colonization of New England is a nice place to start because it is an offshoot of the same Puritan movement that eventually led to the English Civil Wars that we just covered.
Shortly after King James I came to power, a group of Puritan separatists decided they couldn’t hack the ungodly ways of the Church of England anymore and decamped for the Netherlands. But a decade in Holland only convinced this congregation that Dutch was a really hard language to learn and by 1617, they got it into their heads to maybe start over again in the New World. As we’ll see in a moment, the English had by now planted a permanent settlement at Jamestown in Virginia and the Puritan dissenters applied for and received permission to set up a colony of their own in Virginia. But of course, when the first hundred colonists, known to all American schoolchildren as ‘the Pilgrims’, set sail on the Mayflower in 1620, they were blown off course and wound up landing on Cape Cod instead. Undeterred, they elected to stay and found the Plymouth Colony.
The early years were of course tough for our fanatical Puritans, but with the help of some friendly American Indians, they managed to survive, establish the permanence of the colony and invite their brethren to follow. And follow their brethren did. Between 1628 and 1642, about 20,000 Puritans abandoned England for the New World. And of course, as we all know by now, that period corresponds exactly to the era of Personal Rule, when both the monarchy and the Church started drifting in a tyrannical direction, at least according to the Puritans.
There is even a nice little story that I passed over that during the early days of the Long Parliament, an obscure backbench MP Oliver Cromwell, noted that had Parliament not pass the grand Remonstrance in 1642, that he and his friends were prepared to pack up and move to America. Which means that world history was about ten votes shy of Oliver Cromwell becoming an American.
As the Puritan diaspora continued through the 1630s, the other core New England colonies were founded. Connecticut came along officially in 1636, founded by men looking for a little more religious freedom than the men running Massachusetts allowed. Because remember, religious freedom doesn’t really mean religious freedom. Shortly thereafter, the Earl of Warwick granted a patent to Lords Brooke and Saye and Sele to establish a settlement in Connecticut called Saybrook. And as you’ll recall, all three of those guys were in the inner circle of the Parliamentary revolt against Charles I. The connections between New England and the men who were about to start a war with the King ran very deep.
The little colony of Rhode Island was also founded in 1636 by a guy named Roger Williams, who was looking for more religious freedom than the men running Massachusetts allowed. Rhode Island was the smallest colony and is the smallest state, and it wound up being populated by a group of obnoxious freethinkers who just didn’t fit in anywhere else. As a result, Rhode Island tended to go its own way. As we will see, they were very difficult to convince of the utility of non-importation agreements. They were the first colony then to declare independence from Britain and the last state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. There is just no accounting for Rhode Island.
Finally, we have New Hampshire, which started being settled shortly after Massachusetts and basically became its own thing after 1629, though, the on-again off-again political connection to Massachusetts wouldn’t be settled until 1691. New Hampshire was defined predominantly by small farming hamlets cut off from each other by the local terrain.
Economically, the New England colonies were limited by the harsh land they planted themselves on. Land that would never support the kind of huge cash crop plantations that were growing up in the southern colonies. So through the colonial period, they survived on small plots of land for food and started to engage in transatlantic trade with England, mostly providing fish, lumber and fur to the mother country.
Through it all, the New Englanders, except Rhode Islanders, of course, ran quasi theocratic communities dominated by church leaders who were trying to put into practice beliefs that had been stifled in England. There were more than a few Puritans on both side of the Atlantic who saw the colonies as a laboratory for ideas that could be put into practice back in England. But, of course, the Restoration put an end to all that. And rather than being the vanguard of a Puritan revolution in England, New England became something of a time capsule, as England resettled into its old familiar traditions.
The dominant city of New England was, of course, Boston, first settled in 1630, it soon became one of the main trading centers in North America, as the surrounding towns and villages shipped their produce overland to Boston for transit back to England. On the eve of the Revolution, Boston had a population of about 15,000, and believe it or not, they were not all fire breathing radicals.
Moving south, we find the middle colonies: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The middle colonies were settled under very different circumstances from New England and under different circumstances from each other. New York was, of course, initially populated by the Dutch, who arrived in 1613, in between the founding of Jamestown and the founding of Plymouth. Dutch interest was focused on the fur trade, and they built a series of forts up the Hudson River to barter with the native Indians for the lucrative furs. In 1626, the leader of the Dutch merchants allegedly purchased the island of Manhattan for 60 Dutch guilders. Though the details of that deal are way more complicated than the old legend about buying Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.
Anyway, the Dutch built New Amsterdam on the southern tip of the island, serves as the capital of the New Netherlands. But the Dutch hold in North America was always precarious, and after a series of wars with Britain, the New Netherlands were handed over to the English in 1674. In exchange, the Dutch got to hold Suriname, which probably seemed like a better deal at the time than it does today. The English promptly renamed everything New York after James, Duke of York, the future James II. Aside from the trade operating out of the now renamed New York City, the economy of New York was dominated by huge, essentially feudal estates up the Hudson River, where the landlords were able to wield extensive legal power over their tenants.
South of New York was New Jersey. Starting in 1638, the area was actually colonized by the Swedes and called New Sweden, until it was absorbed by the Dutch in 1655, who then handed it over to the English in 1674. King Charles II then gave it to his brother James as a gift, and James turned the territory into a proprietary colony, wherein huge tracts of land are handed over to individuals or corporations who then act as a sort of private government.
Colonial New Jersey wound up being defined by a running conflict between smallholding farmers who trace their claims back to the initial Dutch and Swedish settlements, and the newly arrived English aristocracy who traced their claims to the proprietary grants from the King. It was a conflict that would run right into and then get merged with the unrest of the Revolution.
New Jersey would be reorganized as a Royal colony, that is, one directly under the Crown in 1702, which I mentioned, so that I can mention that the first Royal governor of New Jersey was none other than Edward Hyde, the third Earl of Clarendon, grandson of the Edward Hyde, who was so instrumental in the history of the English Revolution. Of course, this Edward Hyde wound up being so corrupt that he was stripped of his title in 1708, whereupon New Jersey was governed by New York for the next 30 years.
Speaking of proprietary colonies, the biggest was established right next door to New Jersey in 1681. To clear out old debts to the Penn family, Charles II granted William Penn control of an enormous tract of land in the New World, making Penn the single largest landowner in terms of square miles of any man in the British Empire. William Penn was also a Quaker, one of those dissenting sects that had flourished in the chaos of 17th century England. By now, though, the Quakers were defined mostly by their quiet pacifism. And it was along those lines that Penn founded his colony, achieving probably the most enlightened relationship with the native Indians of any of the North American colonies. Though in time, that pacifism became a huge sticking point, because many of the settlers who started filling up the colony were not Quakers. Many indeed were German Lutherans settling on the western edges, who dealt constantly with Indian attacks. The tension within Pennsylvania between the Quaker leadership and everyone else came to a head in a series of political battles that saw the Quakers essentially admit that their principles were incompatible with the rough business of actual governance.
Pennsylvania also boasted the city of Philadelphia, which on the eve of the Revolution had a population just north of 30,000, was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in North America, thanks in no small part to the efforts of its most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin, who, I assure you, we are about to have extensive dealings with.
The last of the middle colonies was Delaware, and is the one that earns you trivia bonus points if you say that technically, there were only 12 original colonies, not 13, because Delaware, known as the Three Lower Counties, were included in the 1681 land grant to William Penn. Though Penn quickly saw the utility of allowing the Lower County’s their own legislative assembly. Its attachment to Pennsylvania was always a little strange, because, as you can see from the map, if anything, Delaware should have been a part of Maryland, but it wasn’t. And though it was technically a part of Pennsylvania, it achieved more than enough de facto autonomy to be considered by everyone, both past and present, to be its own colony.
The economy of the middle colonies was a mix of agriculture and trade. The land was better than New England, and the barons of Hudson Valley, for example, were able to run their operations like little kingdoms. The western frontier became populated with small-hold farmers, while the coastal areas became dominated by merchants operating out of New York City and Philadelphia. These two groups did not necessarily see eye to eye on how to run things, with the Western farmers always chafing under the thumb of the coastal elites. That is to say nothing, of course, of the battles fought between the colonies themselves over boundary lines and access to resources, as migrating families simply settled places and dared anyone to try to kick them off.
So finally, we come to the southern colonies: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, with Maryland sort of hanging out as a border state. The southern colonies, of course, developed a very different and far more pernicious social and economic life. But even still, there were differences among them.
First, we’ll clear out the unique border colony of Maryland, the land for which was handed over to the family of Lord Baltimore in 1632. Lord Baltimore was a devout Catholic, and he saw Maryland, which was probably named after Queen Henrietta Maria, catholic wife of Charles I, as a refuge for his rich Catholic buddies. Because as much as the Puritans of England saw King Charles and Archbishop Laud engaged in some popish plot, the Catholics of England knew better. And like the Puritans on the other side of the religious spectrum, Lord Baltimore saw the New World as a place to escape persecution. But soon enough, that original intent was washed away by the flood of Protestant settlers coming up mostly from Virginia. By 1649, Baltimore had to give way, and he granted freedom of worship, making Maryland the second colony after, you guessed it, Rhode Island to do so.
The great colony of the south, and indeed the great colony of British North America, was, of course, Virginia. Occasionally known as the Prussia of America. By the time of the Revolution, it would be the oldest, largest, richest and most populous colony in North America, and its leaders knew it. After the mysterious false start that is the lost colony of Roanoke, a new settlement called Jamestown was constructed beside the James River in 1607. For those of you who are interested in the whole sordid history of early Virginia should read American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan, which has surprisingly little to say about slavery, but a great deal about the struggles, failures and hardships of 17th century Virginia, including their persistent inability to grow enough food to live, despite having planted themselves in some of the most fertile soil in the world. Initially, this was the result of the colonists themselves: a mix of indentured servants and gentlemen adventurers just not doing what it took to survive. But then John Rolfe discovered the miracle of tobacco, which became the cash crop of British North America. From then on, it wasn’t so much about screwing around when you were supposed to be working, so much as refusing to be distracted from tobacco long enough to grow some food.
So early Virginia was a mess. But by the 1700s, it had established itself as the Old Dominion, and more than any other colony resembled the socioeconomic structure of England, with large landowners, really a collection of about 100 families, dominating a population of indebted freeholders, indentured servants and African slaves. These large landowners propped up the established Anglican Church, Virginia being the one place in North America that the Church of England really took root, and they all believed mightily in their rights as Englishmen, especially their rights as gentlemen landlords.
But the truly defining feature of economic life in Virginia, besides the complete reliance on tobacco as both export commodity and means of internal exchange, was that everyone from the largest plantation owner to the smallest little free holder was deeply in debt. Everyone bought on liberally extended credit from England, that would always come due with the next tobacco crop. And this caused more than a little tension, I promise you.
South of Virginia were the Carolinas, founded in 1629 and named after our old friend Charles I. Carolina was established initially as one big proprietary colony. But in 1712, the disaffected northern settlements broke away and the territory was reformed as North Carolina and South Carolina. Initially, the Carolinas followed the Virginia path into plantation tobacco, with a smattering of pitch and lumber thrown in there. But eventually, South Carolina became deeply involved in the cultivation of rice and indigo, a newly discovered plant that was being used for dye. Both commodities unique to South Carolina, will become sticking points in the Continental Congress as the pan colonial alliance was taking shape. South Carolina also housed the only real city in the south, Charleston, named after guess who, which grew to about 10,000 people as the Revolution broke out.
Now, the reason the southern colonies never develop major urban centers like the northern colonies did was because the region had so many deep, navigable rivers that any landowner could just throw up a dock without needing to ship his commodities overland to a central hub like they had to do up in the north with Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.
South of the Carolinas was Georgia, the last colony established. Not founded until 1733, Georgia was a proprietary colony dreamed up by James Oglethorpe and a group of benevolent utopians who saw the colony as a way to rehabilitate and put to good use the desperate poor of England. But their excruciatingly detailed plans for how land would be allocated, what you could grow, what you could import, and what you could export ran smack into the reality of, well, life in Georgia, which was, for example, not conducive to growing silk, which the proprietors of Georgia were convinced the colony ought to be hemorrhaging by now. Facing almost certain destruction, many of the poor colonists shipped over found life in Oglethorpe’s utopia dangerously rigid, and fled to the relative freedom of Carolina. The proprietors of Georgia finally gave up in 1752 and handed control of the colony back to the crown.
So in broad terms, that covers where the colonies came from and a little bit of what they were up to economically by the time the Revolution broke out. It is important to always remember as we walk through this, though, that the colonies were very much separate entities from each other, and they bickered constantly over land and boundaries and access to resources, really only their shared attachment to England uniting them.
But there was at least one big similarity between them all: their distance from the mother country and said mother country’s disinterest in them, after all, we are talking about a collection of dissenters, sectaries and poor debtors led them all to enjoy a great deal of local political autonomy. Every colony had some kind of central assembly that engaged in practical administration, dispensing of justice, and, of course, taxing the inhabitants. It should not be underestimated just how much the roughly century and a half of English neglect influenced the course of the American Revolution. It certainly helped transform some pretty innocuous taxes into a belief that tyranny and slavery were just around the corner.
And that segues us nicely into a discussion of the two groups we haven’t talked about yet, but who represent the deep hypocrisy that unfortunately lies at the heart of the American Revolution: Slaves and American Indians. How can we reconcile the ideology of liberty and equality that fueled the Revolution with an all but genocidal policy towards the Indians and the stark reality of African slavery? The answer is you can’t, really, at least I can’t. It’s just something that is unavoidably there.
To take the American Indians first, we obviously can’t dive into a comprehensive history of native peoples in the New World because for one we’re talking about dozens of individual tribes and nations ranging from frozen Canada down to swampy Florida. The Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, these are all major nations with rich and unique histories all their own. But what they shared in common was an encounter with Europeans that generally followed a similar trajectory in all the colonies. The first white men appear in small numbers and find themselves incapable of surviving in the New World. These helpless colonists make contact with the local tribes and often begin exchanging commercial products for food. Once the European settlers establish themselves, more colonists arrive, Indian land is encroached upon leading to intermittent and increasingly better skirmishes and/or massacres on both sides. Then a combination of numbers, firepower and disease lead the Europeans to pretty quickly get the upper hand and the Indians get pushed west.
By the mid-1700s, the Indians have been pretty well pushed off the eastern seaboard but they were able to maintain some kind of independent sovereignty by playing the British off the French. As long as there were two imperial powers competing for the fur trade and the affection of the tribes, there was hope of national survival. Certainly hope that the British American colonists would be confined to the land east of the Appalachian Mountains. This is what led the majority of Indians to fight with the French on the American theater of the Seven Years War which we’re about to talk about and then hop over to side with the British during the American Revolution. Because, to put it bluntly, the worst case scenario for the Indians was to be left alone on the continent with the Americans who were hungry for land and never really felt too constrained by moral or political duty when it came to the Indians. The subsequent history of Indian American relations I think pretty well establishes that those fears were not at all misplaced.
The other great hypocrisy deep in the heart of the Revolution is, of course, slavery. At the time of the Revolution there were about 400,000 slaves living in the U.S., mostly in the southern colonies. They had been present from almost the beginning with the first 19 Africans arriving in Virginia in 1619. But for the rest of the century, African slavery was more of a supplement to the far more common use of indentured servants as the colonial labor force. Since mortality rates were so high in colonial America, it was cheaper to pay for seven years labor than a lifetime of labor since the laborer was going to be dead in three years anyway. But once mortality rates began to improve it became increasingly common to invest in a slave for life, since you would never have to let them go nor deal with the pressure from ex-indentured servants who now wanted land and political rights.
So by 1700, the African slaves that had been getting mostly shipped to work in the horrific sugar plantations of the British West Indies started being funneled north to work the estates of major landowners, the kind of guys who could actually scrape together enough cash to buy a slave.
Now, this point has been made 10,000 times before, so there’s no reason to belabor it. But basically all the southern leaders of the American Revolution were slaveholders. And they weren’t conservative fence sitters either. I mean, we’re talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison. These were the guys who defined American liberty, fought a war to protect American liberty and then built a new government to preserve American liberty. And they all owned slaves. It’s ridiculous. Now, had these guys followed through on the logic of their own argument to its conclusion, that is, that all men are created equal and, like, freed their slaves, that is, had George Washington issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Revolution would have been the greatest historical event in world history, simultaneously tossing off the archaic bonds of monarchy and the evil chains of slavery. But they simply couldn’t see a way out of the economic implications of emancipation. So the legacy of the Revolution remains forever tarnished.
We’ll wrap up today with the war that set the stage for the conflict between Britain and her North American colonies. In the United States, we call it the French and Indian War; it is known elsewhere as the Seven Years War, a wide ranging conflict between France and Britain, which North America was simply one theater.
The war technically started in 1754, but it had been in the making for some time. As the British began to colonize North America, the French got in on the action and established a foothold in the far north along the St. Lawrence river. From their main bases in Quebec City and Montreal, they grew out a primarily fur-based trade network that extended deep into the interior. Now, though, it took a while, eventually, British colonials started pushing west in search of more land and they ran up against the French traders in the Ohio Valley. Both sides claimed sovereignty over the land and the local Indians were caught in the middle. The resulting war is intricate enough and dramatic enough to sustain a multi episode arc all its own, from Braddock’s initial disastrous march to Wolfe’s final victory at the Plains of Abraham. But for our purposes, we need only note that the British won and the French lost. The final peace was signed in Paris in 1763, leaving the British in sole control of North America.
The story of the American Revolution begins just as the ink is drying on the Treaty of Paris. The cost of the war and the cost of their empire led Britain’s political leadership, both in Parliament and the Royal Ministry, to reevaluate how that empire was governed and financed. In many ways, their goal was both prudent and farsighted: make the colonies self-sufficient. But the instruments they devised to achieve this goal were heavy handed, the manner they were employed clumsy and the justifications offered downright arrogant. So the story of the American Revolution owes at least as much to British bungling as it does to American bravery, patriotism, valor, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So next week, we will kick things off with the first of two episodes covering the 1760s and early 1770s, which saw American anger expand and contract in turn as the Stamp Act was passed and repealed, the Townshend Acts were passed and mostly repealed. And then the Tea Act was passed, and by then, things had gotten out of hand. Then we will move on into the campaigns of the Revolutionary War on our way to American independence. And then finally, the ratification of the United States Constitution, which is either the ultimate embodiment of the ideals of the Revolution or an abject betrayal of the ideals of the Revolution, depending on who you talk to.
Return to The American Revolution >>