HIST 116: The American Revolution

Lecture 2

 - Being a British Colonist


Professor Freeman discusses what it meant to be a British colonist in America in the eighteenth century. She explains how American colonists had deep bonds of tradition and culture with Great Britain. She argues that, as British colonists with a strong sense of their British liberties, settlers in America valued their liberties above all else. She also explains that many Americans had a sense of inferiority when they compared their colonial lifestyles to the sophistication of Europe. Professor Freeman discusses the social order in America during the eighteenth century, and suggests that the lack of an entrenched aristocracy made social rank more fluid in America than in Europe. She ends the lecture by suggesting that the great importance that American colonists placed on British liberties and their link with Britain helped pave the way for the Revolution.

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The American Revolution

HIST 116 - Lecture 2 - Being a British Colonist

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Joanne Freeman:  Today we’re going to be talking about being a British colonist, which means we’re going to be discussing how you would feel if you were part of the British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, living in the North American colonies shortly before the onset of the Revolution. And for those of you who were not here on Tuesday, I talked for a little while — I’ll just mention it here — about how this course was really going to be exploring the mindset of the people who were experiencing the Revolution to really try to get at the logic behind both what the British colonists and the British authorities were doing, and how that ultimately resulted in a war.  So we’re really — we’re going to try to really kind of create two opposing forms of logic and understand how they came to oppose each other and how that ended up leading in to conflict.

So it makes sense that as a starting point we’re going to start by essentially talking about some of the basics about being a British colonist in North America: what their world would have been like, what your world would have been like if you had been a colonist, what your feelings would have been about yourself as part of the British Empire if you were a colonist in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Now I’ll note here just in passing that the first part of Gordon Wood’s Radicalism — which I already mentioned once — that actually deals a lot with a topic that I’ll be talking about today and I think in one or two more lectures, the sort of idea about what the colonies were like prior to the Revolution. That book overall presents an argument about how the colonies went from monarchy — The first third of the book is monarchy and then the second third of the book is republicanism and then the third is democracy, and I think I said — Tuesday I said, “Think about what words mean,” and I’m sure that will come into play in Gordon Wood, but the monarchy section not surprisingly goes into some depth about some of the things I’m going to be talking about today and on Tuesday, which is, kind of:  life in the colonies before the war, sort of just basically what did it mean, how did it work, how did society function.

Chapter 2. Association of Colonists’ Identity to English Monarchy [00:02:02]

Okay. So let’s actually start with some of the basics. The first and most basic:  If you were a British colonist here in North America, you would be living somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard. The colonial population was largely clustered right along the shoreline for really practical reasons. I’m sure you don’t have to be very imaginative to think why. Obviously, for reasons of trade, for reasons of shipping and even just for reasons of communication it made sense, not to mention the fact that people had a pretty healthy fear of potentially unfriendly Indians who were not particularly pleased with the idea of losing land to potentially advancing settlers.

Now if you were male, you might very well be a small landholder because about sixty percent of the white male colonists owned land and, as I’ll talk about down the road a little bit, that’s — actually when you compare that with the rates of land ownership in Europe, that’s actually pretty high, it’s a pretty high rate of ownership, and even in today’s lecture you’ll see how that actually has an impact on how things are functioning in the American colonies. You probably would be a small landholder. You might be if you were living in one of the small cities along the coast maybe a merchant or an artisan. As a non-enslaved person, you would probably have decent clothes. You’d probably have a decent home. You probably would have some degree of economic and personal independence, and right around the turn — let’s say 1770 — you would be one of about two million North American colonists, which is actually if you think about it — Certainly, if you — if I asked you to guess how many colonists there were in 1770, you probably would not say two million. It’s a lot.  And that includes both free people and slaves, and you would have been living in a society that was so booming with prosperity that between the years 1700 and 1770 — so we’re just talking about a seventy-year period — the population increased from 200,000 to over two million in just a seventy-year period, which is amazing. So basically, things were increasing. Every decade the population was increasing at a rate of roughly thirty to forty percent. That’s a huge rate of growth.

You would be living in the midst of a host of British colonies, so it’s not just you along the seaboard but obviously to the north there is Canada, to the south there were British islands in the West Indies which were known as the Sugar Islands, and to the west was the vast ‘scary wilderness’ populated by potentially unfriendly Indians with what felt to you as though it was an entirely foreign culture, and then of course to the east — there is civilization to your east. There is the metropolis, there is England, there is culture in the minds of the colonists and probably to many people in England as well, the height of cultural and political sophistication.  When you looked to the east, and it really was — if you were a colonist it was looking to the east towards England that you really got a sense of yourself as a British colonist and really felt that you belonged to something that was powerful and admirable and world-shaping and victorious. Basically, you understood yourself as being part of an empire by identifying with that center of empire to the east.

As an example of this, just listen to someone who ends up being a rather prominent American revolutionary, and I mentioned him as a matter of fact on Tuesday. I called him the doctor to the stars and that’s kind of unfair to him, but Benjamin Rush. He actually was a really prominent man of science at the time. He moved in very high political circles. When I was thinking about this lecture today I remembered, or at least I hope I remembered — I think I’m not leading you astray — I think that actually Rush helped Thomas Paine edit Common Sense, and I think he edited out a sentence that I wished Paine had left in, so I don’t like Rush as an editor very much. I think I’ll — we’ll wait until we get to Common Sense but — and supposedly, allegedly, it’s Rush who came up with the title Common Sense, that Paine was going to call it Plain Truth, and Rush — I think Rush wins on that. I think Plain Truth is not as snazzy as Common Sense but either way — So Rush — The — My main point here in blathering happily about Rush is he’s not some little modest humbug of a guy. Right? He’s someone of status.

So this is Rush’s response when he saw the throne of the King of England.  So Rush said, “I felt as though I were on sacred ground. I gazed for some time at the throne with emotions that I cannot describe.”  Okay. He’s just dumbstruck at the throne of the King of England, just looking at it. Now we sit here and we think back. We’re: “Oh, boy, aren’t those monarchists really cute,”  [laughs] “those cute monarchists, those silly people who are amazed at a throne,” which is pretty much I think what I thought was — wow, what an interesting phase in American history when they were dazzled by a throne.

Then, a couple of years ago I ended up being lucky enough to have a Member of Parliament show me around the Houses of Parliament.  And I was excited; it was pretty neat and I’m being all American historian-ish, you know: “Oh, how similar, how interesting when you compare.” So I’m doing the geeky historian thing and then this member of Parliament who’s showing me around takes me in to what he describes to me as the robing chamber for the Queen where she puts on her crown and ceremonial robes before she goes in to the House of Lords, which I gather she does at the beginning of every session of Parliament. Okay. So I walk in to [laughs] the robing chamber and at the head of that room there’s a throne, sort of an elevated throne, so instantly, without even thinking, in my head, I’m thinking: wow, [laughs] that’s the throne, [laughs] and then I thought, I just became Benjamin Rush. Just like that, I went right into the monarchy vortex. It didn’t really take me very long, so I can’t chortle at Rush anymore. So there is something impressive, and particularly at this moment if you had been a colonist — and not that many people I should say necessarily even got to travel to Europe; I’ll talk a little bit about that later on too — but you certainly would have been awestruck and impressed by something like the throne of the King of England.

Okay. So, as suggested by Rush quavering in front of the throne, as a colonist you would be proud to be British. You would have a really deep affection for the mother country and it would be an affection that was really rooted in bonds of culture and tradition and language. Basically, you would really consider yourself lucky to belong to a powerful nation that granted its citizens, you believed, more liberty than any nation on earth.

Unlike other modern empires at the time, England seemed, particularly to the English, to be an empire that was bound together not by force but by bonds of interconnectedness and affection as well as a joint appreciation, a real love, of liberty and order. And we’re going to come back to this idea of liberty a little bit later in the course where we start to really talk about the logic of revolution, but for now I’ll just highlight the fact that if you asked an English-speaking person of the eighteenth century about liberty he or she would have told you that liberty was worth more than life. Right? Liberty was it. Liberty was what mattered. It was the most important possession of a civilized people, and of course the British people, colonists and all, felt that they were at the peak of the civilized world. As somebody at the time wrote, “What signify riches?  What signifies health, or life itself without liberty?  Life without liberty is the most errant trifle, the most insignificant enjoyment in the world.” Okay, extreme, but something to think about. I suppose it’s related to what I said on Tuesday.

I think it’s also easy to hear some of this talk that sounds really inflated and to dismiss it as mere rhetoric, and I’m sure there is some mere rhetoric floating around here, but it’s important I think not to dismiss things that sound extreme and emotional as simply emotional and extreme. Some of this actually represents sincere thought so I think before you think these guys are sort of overexcited about things, think to yourself that they actually honestly may be overexcited; it might just be that they’re dramatic, but that they sincerely feel these things.

There was a time when historians did assume that a lot of revolutionary rhetoric from the colonists was actually kind of inflated, kind of for propaganda purposes, and it took a while — Actually, the Faces of Revolution book by Bailyn, part of the book that I mentioned before that comes from his larger book on the ideology of the Revolution, he’s the guy who said, “I’ve read several hundred Revolutionary War pamphlets and I actually think they’re serious. I think we have to take them seriously. I don’t think it’s propaganda or rhetoric. I think they actually feel these things.”  So again, to us it might sound a little inflated but their feelings are really strong, and again liberty is one of the things that we’ll find they’re feeling very strongly about.

So as a colonist, you would be proud to be British, you would be really obviously proud of British liberties, and you would have been particularly proud about being British after the French and Indian War in the 1760s, when North American colonists fought right alongside the British army and helped them defeat England’s great enemy, the French — and more on that to come for sure, but that was a really proud moment for the colonists, that they felt that they were right there with the British army fighting against the French.

Chapter 3. The British Colonists’ Inferiority Complex [00:11:52]

Above all else, as British colonists you would of course consider yourselves to be British subjects through and through, equal to all other British subjects, even those living off in the east in the metropolis. You were a British subject and you deserved the rights of a British subject, but as a colonist living on the peripheries of the British Empire, on the edge of what was perceived at the time to be a howling wilderness, which is one of those great eighteenth-century ways of referring to North America, you also would be a little nervous about your status as a British subject, worried about how you rated in comparison with people living in the mother country at the center of the empire.

Everything seemed more sophisticated in England, and I suppose everything was more sophisticated [laughs] in England, but it definitely seemed that way to the colonists. The clothes were more fashionable; the homes were grander and more stately; the intellectual life was rich and challenging. In comparison with the sophisticated people in England, you as a North American colonist pretty much felt like a country bumpkin; you felt kind of dull, kind of primitive, somewhat rude, and certainly you felt potentially irrelevant. You really did feel that you were on the edge of a howling wilderness.

So in essence, like most British colonists in North America, if you were there at the time, you would have had an ongoing inferiority complex. Now there were a number of ways in which you might deal with your insecurities. One way to deal with that would have been to become really apologetic for what would have been labeled as American speech patterns or American manners, and I’ve already given you one arrogant British quote by that fellow on Tuesday who said that he was mortified that these crude colonists spoke English and could trace themselves to us because they speak our language. So that’s sort of the ultimate nasty stab at the colonists.

So you actually for good reason might feel kind of embarrassed about your manners and your speech. You probably would feel equally embarrassed at the meanness of your architecture, your buildings — they’re smaller and less impressive — at the pallor of your intellectual life, at the relative unimportance of your public affairs. Like a lot of colonial writers who wrote pamphlets or books addressed to an English audience, you probably would apologize for the poor quality of your work by reminding readers, as one writer did, “I live in the uncultivated woods of America, far from the fountains of science and with but very rare opportunities of conversing with learned men.”  That almost sounds like someone who feels sorry for himself. ‘I am so far from civilization.’

Or, you might boast about colonial society, not claiming to be better than the mother country but instead bragging that the colonies represented Britain in miniature; that colonial legislatures in this sense were kind of like mini-Parliaments. Or, you might admit that the colonies were different from England but boast that in the same way that England once had been pure and virtuous, you in the colonies were maintaining the sort of pure, virtuous England, and that England itself was becoming corrupt and its cities were becoming cesspools, but there in the colonies you were preserving the true British heritage.

Still, whichever you chose to rationalize or understand your status as a colonist, you could not escape the fact that you were a colonist and that you were far away from the center of the civilized world. As the young John Dickinson of Pennsylvania put it, and we’re going to meet John Dickinson again for sure later on in the course, he wrote to his father while he was studying law in London and he said that when colonists went to England and saw “the difference between themselves and the polite part of the world they must be miserable.” He actually thinks if people — any colonist goes to London and sees what the polite part of the world lives like, they’ll never be able to hold their head up in the colonies ever again.

And Jefferson felt the same way. Thomas Jefferson actually — as much as he adored being particularly in France, he actually said more than once that he thought that young American men should not be allowed to go to Europe because if impressionable young men went to Europe they would be so impressed by Paris and London that they would never be able to hold their heads up in Massachusetts or Virginia. It would look so puny and insignificant in comparison that they would never be good Americans ever again and that they’d have to go back to Europe.

Now of course the British agreed generally with this assessment of colonial society. Colonists obviously were inferior and rough and rustic and crude, so as promised, here is yet another arrogant British quote in my series of arrogant British quotes. In this case one British observer noted, “American colonists may try to ape British habits and customs but they’re no more than ruffled dunces.”  I just think there’s — these guys have a real vim and vigor for finding the little zippy, stingy, nasty statement. I think “ruffled dunces” is a pretty good one.  “What else could be expected from aggrandized upstarts in those infant countries of America who never have an opportunity to see, or if they had, the opportunity [correction: capacity] to observe the different ranks of men in polite nations?” Notice how the colonies are never polite. [laughs] There are the polite nations, and then there’s these scary, howling wilderness colonists.

Along these same lines, there’s actually another professor here at Yale, Kariann Yokota, and some of her work shows — I found this really fascinating — that the British regularly sent damaged or second-rate goods to the colonists because they figured the colonists wouldn’t know the difference. They just kept the first-rate stuff for themselves, like:  Broken? Massachusetts. [laughs] They’ll never know. Last week’s, last year’s style?  Massachusetts. So basically all of this shows that if Americans had an inferiority complex, they had some reason to have one.

Now let me add at this point that this anxiety about how the colonists rated in comparison with England, specifically in Europe, the polite world, generally doesn’t end with the Revolution. It’s not as though suddenly we win the Revolution and we don’t really care what the rest of the world thinks. Even after the colonies and then the states had fought and defeated the great power of the British empire and successfully created a new national constitution, Americans were still worried about looking sophisticated enough in the eyes of the world.

And my favorite example of this — It’s a little bit down the road from the moment that we’re at in this course but I just can’t resist adding it in because it’s just — it makes me happy and it’s John Adams — and it’s actually from 1789. It’s right when this new national Constitution has gone into effect and the Senate is debating what the title should be for the new national executive. Right? We know there’s going to be a national executive. We don’t know what we’re going to call him. And so the Senate is debating this, and someone in the Senate says, “Well, why don’t we call him President of the United States?”  Okay. This horrifies John Adams, absolutely horrifies him, and as he says at the time — He says, “For God’s sake, there are presidents of cricket clubs.” [laughs] President of the United States: and I’ll quote him exactly here. He does say there are presidents of cricket clubs but he says in the Senate — Where is it here? — “What will the common people of foreign countries, what will the sailors and soldiers say?  George Washington, President of the United States?  They will despise him to all eternity.”  [laughter]  Right? So Adams is thinking in a world where you have His Royal Highness, protector of the realm: President of the United States — he’s just thinking that there’s no comparison; it doesn’t rank.

So as we’re going to be seeing in future weeks of this course, there’s a constant thinking about what — how we are being looked upon and that doesn’t go away. It shifts, it’s different, but it remains for quite some time. America in one way or another always assumes they’re being watched and judged. In the 1760s, we’ll see soon how these sort of colonial feelings of inferiority would help fuel the hypersensitivity of the colonists to infringements on their rights by the mother country.

Chapter 4. The Fluidity of American Social Order: Gentry Minorities, Prisoners, and Religious Exiles [00:20:35]

Now despite all of this anxiety, all of this inferiority complex that I’m talking about here, as a colonist you did share a base of assumptions and values with your counterparts in England. So, first of all, as an individual you assumed that you lived in a great hierarchy, a sort of natural order, everyone in his or her place, deferent to those that were beneath you, respected but — I’m sorry — deferent to those above you — That’s a nifty order, to be deferent to those beneath you and respected. You would be respectful to those above, and people below you would be deferential to you, so basically everyone is in their place and everybody is acting respectful and deferential as they properly should, and this — you’ll see a lot of this in Gordon Wood.

Now of course the American version of this great social order, this great hierarchy, is different in some ways from its British equivalent because the colonies lacked both the top-most and the bottom-most rungs of society in England. So in the colonies there wasn’t a titled entrenched aristocracy and there wasn’t an entrenched peasant class. Instead the colonies had what some called a middling society which was populated mostly by either middling folk, logically enough, who had migrated from England to better their lot in life, by the English poor who hoped to better themselves, and by some of the lower ranks of the English gentry like third or fourth sons of the English gentry, who basically knew they weren’t going to inherit anything in England and so their thought was: well, maybe if I head out to the colonies I — it’ll be easier for me to get some land there; I’ll be able to better myself; I’ll be able to basically make something of myself there easier than I can here.

Now if you were thinking about going to the colonies and you really wanted to get rich quick, the West Indies was the place to go, though it also offered some of the absolute worst living conditions in the British colonial world. Life there was extremely hard. There was unbearable heat. All energies were focused on gaining money and little else. West Indian planters were so focused on money, money crops, they actually didn’t even bother to grow their own food. They imported food because they didn’t want to waste land, energy, and resources on growing their own food. They were really focused on their money crop. If you went to the Indies to get rich quick, typically you either made it big or failed miserably, and either way typically what happened is you would go to the Indies, you would establish a plantation, you would find an overseer, you would put him in charge, and then you would flee back to England and be an absentee landlord and let the people live in misery in the West Indies while you collected the profit off of your sugar crop back home in England. Now the Indies, not surprisingly, might seem a little intimidating. If you wanted to get rich quick, you might choose not to go down to the scary sugar islands.

You might decide instead to go to the southern colonies to get rich quick, and for example it was largely sons of the lesser gentry in England who went to Jamestown at the start of the seventeenth century in Virginia. And, logically enough, since these are sons of the lesser gentry and they consider themselves to be above hard labor, they show up to this rather primitive new colony in Jamestown, they refuse to work to grow their own food, and they starve to death.  [laughs] That’s a serious commitment to your status. ‘I’m sorry. I’m above plowing. I’m going to die now.’  [laughter]  You think sooner or later they kind of figure:  a little plowing — life. It’s kind of — I don’t know.

At any rate, there’s a reason why Jamestown didn’t do so well and there’s — a great example of this weird mentality is Nathaniel Bacon, who is a gentile colonist. He’s a younger son of a member of the British gentry and in the seventeenth century sure enough he migrates, he ends up in Virginia, and he arrives in Virginia like a lot of people assuming that he deserved power, he deserved land, and he deserved status. He’s among the lesser gentry but he still is among the upper crust in England and now he’s arriving among the rude, ruffled dunces [laughs] of the colonies. He assumes he’s someone who deserves what he wants. Lo and behold, he gets there and he finds that actually in Virginia there’s a kind of an inner core of men, self-made men, who had been there for awhile, or their families had been there for awhile, and basically they controlled most of the land, they controlled most of the government offices, they had most of the power, and thus they could exclude Bacon and others from getting what they wanted.

Bacon obviously is a person who’s much more interested in making money than in the good of the colony so he responded to his frustration at not being able to get land or power by surrounding himself with a pack of equally-frustrated angry young men who also wanted land and also wanted power, and eventually they came up with the brilliant idea that they would stage an enormous attack on Indians, massacre them all and steal their land. Brilliant plot.

So Bacon and his pack of guys sort of go off and actually start this in action. The governor of the colony sees that this is rapidly spinning out of control and becoming wild, crazy Indian warfare so he tries to stifle it and Nathaniel Bacon and his friends did what I suppose appeared logical to them at the time. They burned Jamestown to the ground because they were angry.  [laughs]  Well, that’s serious anger. ‘Oh, you’re going to stop us?  We’ll just destroy the capital.’ [laughter]  ‘You’re gone.’  Now the story is kind of anticlimactic because Bacon ultimately dies miserably of dysentery while running away from authorities so there’s not a lot of glory [laughs] in Bacon’s ultimate end, but he’s definitely a really good example of greedy self-interest and of the sense of deservedness because of his social rank and this disgust at the power of these self-made men in Virginia. There were some gentry who would have migrated to the colonies who would have had some kind of a similar feeling about what they saw and what they expected.

But the gentry was only a minority of the people who migrated to the colonies. Most were lower in status, some were of the lowest rank of all, landless people and sometimes criminals. So if you committed a crime in England, you might be offered the option between prison in England and being sent to the colonies, and to some this was actually a really hard choice. Right? ‘Prison, the colonies, prison, the colonies. I don’t know.’  The howling wilderness was very scary. Now some people opted for the howling wilderness, obviously, and some people, poorer people, decided to take their chances on the colonies, sold themselves into servitude as indentured servants for five to seven years at a time, and in exchange their passage was paid, they owed a certain amount of work, and at the end of their time of indenture they would get some plot of land. So there were a good number of indentured servants, and as a matter of fact some of those Virginia power mongers who were blocking Bacon out had started out actually as indentured servants. That’s — When you talk self-made you’re really talking self-made, people who came, did their indenture, got some land and then really built their way up. So self-improvement obviously is one reason to head to the colonies.

Another reason, another thing that might drive you to head off to the colonies, would have been if you belonged to a religious minority that was seemingly increasing unpopular in England. So if you were a Puritan, if you were a Quaker, if you were Catholic, again probably middling in status, you might decide to try your luck in the colonies where either you thought there might be more religious tolerance, or just as likely there’d be land so empty of people that it wouldn’t really be a worry of yours. There wouldn’t be people around there to be intolerant of you and so it probably would be better than what you were experiencing in England. Obviously, a lot of New England was settled by Puritans with that mindset. Pennsylvania had the Quaker faith at its cure — at its core. It was founded by William Penn, who was actually a member of the aristocracy. He became a Quaker and then he used his high connections to get a royal charter from the King to found a colony for Quakers. And Maryland began as a place that was distinctly friendly to people of the Catholic faith.

Now out of all of these kinds of colonists that I’m talking about here, what was missing was a titled, sort of to-the-manor-born, established aristocracy of dukes and duchesses unshakably of the highest rank in society. This doesn’t mean that colonial society didn’t have an established elite, because certainly every colony had certain great families that controlled large amounts of power and land. And as a colonist, and an average colonist, you would have had no problem differentiating these gentlefolk from the common masses — right? — these sort of gentlemen and gentlewomen. They dressed differently; they held themselves differently; they spoke differently; you addressed these people by Mister or Madame or Esquire. You actually visibly could tell who the sort of upper-crust people in society were. Some families held obvious power but again not in the unquestionable way that the aristocracy remained in control in England. A lot of these people that I just mentioned had worked their way into positions of prominence, so ultimately the line dividing sort of upper-crusty people from less upper-crusty people was less sort of absolute. It was less distinct than it would have been in a country or in a place where there was a really established aristocracy.

So basically even though you could tell who the elite are and you could tell who the masses are, there is slippage up and down between the two. It’s not as though there is a dividing line and you could never hope to become an aristocrat. It’s a little blurrier; it’s again a middling society; it’s part of what that means. And because of that, things like formal titles and fine clothing were of extreme importance in the colonies — and in a lot of ways more important in the colonies than they were in England — because they really were ways of proving your status in a place where you felt the need to prove your status.

If you think about it, your status would have been just a matter of common agreement. You were only as lofty in status as people believed you were and if someone felt compelled to call you by a title or if you were wearing fine clothing that people knew they themselves couldn’t afford, that could go a long way towards convincing people of your status and importance. So for example, if you had any military service at all, even for the briefest moment you’d served in the military, and you were an officer, you would insist forever after to the end of your days that you be called always by your title like Colonel So-and-So or Captain So-and-So. That military title counted for a lot. That was really a sort of unquestioned symbol of rank and authority, and in fact some people joined the military just because they knew by doing so they would get a title and then they would be able to hang on to that title to really claim a place for themselves in society.

And when I was researching my first book I came across a case where there were these two guys — it sounds like a bad joke — two guys in a tavern. There were these two guys in a tavern and one of them is a military officer and one of them isn’t, and I guess the guy who wasn’t a military officer wasn’t so clear on the whole rank thing and he called the fellow by a lower rank than he was: well, Captain Something instead of Colonel Something — and the guy was so insulted that his title had been lowered by who-the- hell-was-this-person that he actually challenged him to a duel right there. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m willing to kill you now.’  [laughs] ‘You called me Captain. You die.’  [laughter] It was a serious insult, a dread insult — and also he might have just been a crazy person but — [laughs] That’s possible too, but still it actually was a serious insult.

And because military titles and status went hand in hand, sometimes strangers who seemed to be high-ranking were just called Colonel or General because they seemed important and thus they must have a military rank. And I actually found a diary of someone, this sort of member of the South Carolina elite, and he was wandering around in the backcountry. And he says in his diary, no matter where he went, he was called Colonel, which amazed him because he said not only had he never had any military service but — and I don’t know what this means; I don’t know enough about him to know — but he kept saying over and over again, ‘I really don’t look like a military person, nothing about me,’ so I’m imagining this sort of sloppy, scary guy who’s wandering around in the back country of South Carolina and people are saying, ‘Colonel,’ [laughs], — wow — and people usually loved that. This made him happy. He wrote about it in his diary because he liked it so much; this made him a happy guy. So obviously titles, status, they’re important and they go hand in hand.

Now if you were in college in the colonies — so if you were at Yale, if you were at Harvard, if you were at King’s College, which is now Columbia — these kinds of distinctions of rank and status would have been a part of your everyday life, because when you entered college you were listed as a member of your class in the order of your social rank. Okay. So the person of the highest social rank is listed at the top of the class and the person of the lowest social rank is listed at the bottom of the class, and at commencement ceremonies or graduation ceremonies the highest in rank was the one who got to speak the longest and give the longest public address — and obviously because, as I’ve been saying, things are less entrenched, what this meant was lots of really petty, nasty squabbling at a lot of universities because everybody had a complaint. ‘Well, I’m not on the bottom. Well, I certainly have a better rank than him. He should be at the bottom. I should be at the — ‘ 

So certainly it’s a contentious issue at colleges, and what this meant, oddly enough, is that when the grading system — when people actually figured out that you could have a grading system and base — judge people based on grades, then unbelievably this was seen as a great relief. This made people really — Grades made people really, really happy, because it meant that you could be judged based on merit and not based on rank or social class. So you can give thanks to the democracy of grades. Remember that during this semester. I’ll remind you. Give thanks for your grades.

Chapter 5. Salutary Neglect’s Effect on British Liberties in the Colonies and Conclusion [00:35:02]

Okay. So we’ve talked about some of the similarities and differences in social rank between colonists and people living in England.

I want to just take a few minutes to talk about some assumptions about government and about rights, about individual rights, because one of the periods of great migration to the colonies, which was the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, was also a period in which Parliament asserted its dominance in England. So while all Englishmen believed in the importance of political liberty and legislative representation and the rule of law and all of these things I’ve started to talk about, the colonies were full of people who either themselves had left England or were descended from people who had left England when that kind of belief was at an all-time high, so colonial governments embodied that spirit to a really extreme degree. And it’s important to realize that colonial talk of liberty wasn’t some kind of colonial innovation. It was the most heartfelt of British traditions — as I’ve suggested just in this lecture, and as we’re going to see in future weeks — it’s the precise meaning of liberty as translated into the colonies from England — and as this slowly shifts over time, it’s going to help raise conflict between the colonies and the mother country. But questions about the precise meaning of liberty wouldn’t really become an issue until the 1760s, after the French and Indian War when, as we’ll soon see, the British would end what had been a long period of what’s often called a period of salutary neglect, a period when the British largely just left the colonies alone to regulate themselves.

And throughout that period of neglect colonists had lived immersed in their sense of English rights and privileges, unaware of the ways in which the colonial experience — just the experience of living in the colonies — had suddenly altered their understanding of these rights. They’ve been able to live in that kind of a freedom largely because of the nature of the British imperial administration. Typically, rather than exerting great control over the colonization process the British Crown tended to leave colonization largely to private enterprise, so like a joint-stock company would get a grant to establish a colony, and off they’d go, and it wasn’t really necessarily the Crown that had its hand on everything. It was these private companies that were often taking care of the colonization efforts, and on a few occasions when the Crown did pass trade regulations they didn’t enforce them very rigorously, which basically allowed widespread smuggling and bribery. So in a sense, the success of the British imperial system up until the 1760s was largely due to what was not really a policy, but the absence of a policy — right? — this neglect of the colonies by the mother country.

Not until the British began to actively regulate the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century did it really become apparent that colonial and British ideas about the role of the colonies and the rights of colonists had really begun to drift apart. Had the colonists forfeited some of their English liberties by migrating to the New World or not?  Were they dependent on the mother country or were they just contributors to the greater empire? 

And some colonists would come to have a clear answer to those kinds of questions. They would argue — and we’re going to see this in weeks to come, and specifically people writing this argument and offering it to the public — that the original settlers of the colonies had been free-born subjects of England who had left England with the authorization of the monarchy and, taking a good many personal risks, had created thriving English settlements at little cost to the English government, bringing England great riches in the process.

So essentially some colonists would argue not only were they English, but they made personal sacrifices for England; they had tamed a wilderness for England, for the sake of the empire. And ironically it would be that mentality — that kind of outcry for the rights of Englishmen — that would help lead the colonists to revolt against England. As we’ll see, in a sense, the colonies were never as English as when they rebelled against the mother country for the rights of Englishmen. And I will stop there. On Tuesday we will be looking at some things that were distinctly American about the colonial experience. Have a good weekend.  

[end of transcript]

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