HIST 116: The American Revolution
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The American Revolution
HIST 116 - Lecture 3 - Being a British American
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Joanne Freeman: Okay. So Thursday, last — long ago, last week, we began to set the scene for this course by talking about the experience of being a British colonist, and as you remember we talked about the connection the colonists had with England both positive and negative; we talked about their sense of England — and particularly London — as being the sort of the center of the empire and almost the center of the universe; and we talked about the colonists’ simultaneous concerns about maybe not quite being as good as the people who were at that wonderful sophisticated center of the universe. And I closed the lecture by noting that in many ways the colonists were never as British as when they began to object and then ultimately rebel against their mother country for not being given their full rights as British subjects.
Okay. So if Thursday’s lecture was about how the colonists identified with the mother country, today’s lecture sort of does the opposite. And what I’m going to be talking about today is the ways in which the colonists and the colonies were different from people back in the mother country. Basically, as the title of this lecture suggests, I’m going to be talking about being a British American as opposed to being a British colonist, which was last week. Now connected with what I suggested on Thursday, it’s important to note that the American colonists weren’t necessarily aware of the ways in which some of their ideas and attitudes were different, or certainly were evolving differently from those in England, and I’ll come back to this again in this lecture but I’ll mention it here. By the mid-eighteenth century, the period that we’re really talking about now, there had already been several generations of colonists in the colonies. So certainly there were people in the colonies who themselves had never been to England, perhaps they didn’t know very many people who had been to England, and so they didn’t necessarily have an amazingly accurate sense of really what it meant to be a British subject in England, living in England proper, as opposed to their experience of being in the colonies. And that’s going to be an important thing to think about as we continue on in this course, this idea that ideas are evolving differently in the colonies than they’re evolving in England, and the colonists didn’t necessarily realize that these differences existed. Okay.
Chapter 2. From Dr. Hamilton’s Diary: Religiosity, Diversity, and Coloniality [00:02:31]
So I want to begin this lecture on being a British American with just a handful of examples and — really, kinds of snapshots of life in the colonies in the 1740s. And as you’ll see with these little examples, they’re going to each be demonstrating something that I’m going to come back to later in the lecture, but I at least wanted to give you sort of a sense of what it looked like before I actually talked about it. And I’ve pulled all of these examples — there’s three or four of them — all from the same source, which is from a really well-known diary by a Dr. Alexander Hamilton. And this is not the Alexander Hamilton. I always feel bad for this guy because [laughter] he’s gone down to posterity as not the real Alexander Hamilton. [laughter] He’s the not real — he’s the unknown, unimportant Alexander Hamilton, poor guy — who lived in Maryland as a doctor, and actually he does have a really interesting diary. I’ll be reading a couple of sections from it, but he’s not the founder, tough break for Alexander Hamilton. Okay.
So in 1744, he decided to take a trip north from Maryland for his health, and that’s when he keeps this sort of a travel diary, and in it he recorded his observations with a lot of detail, as you’ll hear, that show a lot about habits of behavior and thought in the colonies or certain — and they also will show a lot, as you’ll see, about Mr. Hamilton, but also they sort of show you what he saw through the lens of him — but still they’ll give you a sense of some trends. Okay. And I’ll — Actually, I’ll add here one little brief point, and that is I’m — in a sense this is touching on something that I’m going to be focusing on in Thursday’s lecture — and that’s the idea that to many people — and you’ll hear it sort of underlying what he’s saying here — to many people, their individual colony really was what felt to them like their country, and people often referred to — Jefferson called Virginia “my country” well into the 1790s, if not beyond. So you’ll be hearing how people really feel about their colony versus those other foreign colonies, that people often felt as though they were different countries with strange habits and weird speech patterns, so you’ll kind of hear that, beneath what I’m going to read here by Hamilton.
Okay. So one thing that Hamilton wrote about in his diary shows the impact of the Great Awakening. During the time that he was traveling, which is the 1740s, the colonies were actually right in the middle of the Great Awakening, which was this really vast religious revival that really swept through the colonies, and in the course of Hamilton’s travels he said he could always tell when he came across a revivalist because they always had a really dour expression on their face as though they were just about to ask you to repent for your sins.
So he says at one point he came across one of these revivalists. He said the fellow was named Mr. Thomas Quiet and, as Hamilton put it in his diary: “This fellow I observed had a particular down-hanging look, which made me suspect” that he is one of the revivalists. “I guessed right, for he introduced a discourse” concerning George Whitefield, who is the renowned preacher of the Great Awakening. He traveled throughout the colonies preaching, and in a lot of ways he was sort of the guiding force behind this Great Awakening in America. So Mr. Thomas Quiet “enlarged pretty much and with some warmth upon the doctrines of that apostle, speaking much in his praise. I took upon me, in a ludicrous manner, to impugn some of his doctrines.” Charming: he was like ‘oh, well, since this means a lot to him, I’ll just make fun of it.’ “Which by degrees put Mr. Quiet in a passion.” So — and he successfully upsets Mr. Quiet. “He told me flatly that I was damned without redemption.” [laughter] A really fun conversation. “I replied that I thought his name and behavior were very incongruous, and desired him to change it with all speed, [laughter] for it was very improper that such an angry turbulent mortal as he should be called by the name of Thomas Quiet.” Okay. This tells you a lot about Alexander [laughter] Hamilton. It just — As you’ll hear, he doesn’t sound like a really charming fellow, but certainly that passage gives you a sense of the sort of religiosity that marked this particular period.
Okay. So sometime later, Hamilton met three men from Pennsylvania and he decided he was going to treat them to punch in an off-roads tavern. Now to Hamilton, as you’ll hear, clearly these three men were not gentlemen or certainly he assumed that they were beneath him. As he noted in his diary: One of them seemed to have to think really, really hard about every word that came out of his mouth. One of them was “profuse in compliments, which were generally blunt, and came out in an awkward manner,” and the third one was a
“very roughspun, forward, clownish blade, much addicted to swearing, at the same time desirous to pass for a gentleman, notwithstanding which ambition, the conscientiousness of his natural boorishness obliged him frequently to frame ill-timed apologies for his misbehaviour, which he termed frankness and freeness. It was often,” quote, “Damn me, gentlemen, excuse me; I am a plain, honest fellow; all is right down plain-dealing, by God.”
So he manages to apologize and swear in the same sentence, which is pretty tricky. Now that fellow — that Hamilton refers to as the sort of odd cursing fellow — went on to curse Sir Robert Walpole, who was a recent British Prime Minister, as a rascal, and as Hamilton put it: “We asked him his reasons for cursing Sir R[obert] but he would give us no other” than this, “that he was certainly informed by some very good gentlemen who understood the thing right well, that the said Sir R[obert] was a damn rogue,” so he must be. [laughs] ‘Well, important gentlemen have told me he was and thus he must be, and I will now quote it to anyone I meet in random taverns by the side of the road.’
So here you see three average people trying clearly, or at least to Hamilton, trying clearly to impress or please him in some way. Clearly, he is sort of snarkily feeling as though he’s above them in social status. His tavern companions feel a little bit awkward. They’re apologizing all the time and saying, ‘Well, I’m just a plain speaker,’ all of which Hamilton clearly finds amusing. And this anecdote suggests two things. First it shows people of different social ranks obviously socializing, and shows several, well, what Hamilton would have considered common folk trying to, in his mind, pass for gentlemen. But second, you see a group of people who all perceive differences in status on all sides. So they’re hanging out together, but they also understand that there’s a little bit of a difference that’s making them feel somewhat awkward.
Okay. So at another tavern — So Hamilton’s going tavern to tavern I guess in this portion of the trip. At another tavern he said he dined “with a very mixed company of different nations and religions. There were Scots, English, Dutch, Germans,” Irish, “Roman Catholicks, Churchmen, Presbyterians, Quakers, Newlightmen, Methodists, Seventhdaymen, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew.” [laughter] I like the fact that he counted that one guy. So obviously here you see diversity, great diversity of all kinds — religious diversity, ethnic diversity — which also represents something that was typical of the colonies in a general way, though more in some places than in others. And actually Pennsylvania, which is where I think he is at this point, was known at the time for being particularly diverse.
One last anecdote. So at one point he — Hamilton says he ended up in a conversation with some Pennsylvanians about how low Maryland was in comparison with Pennsylvania, which clearly was a much better colony. As Hamilton put it, the Pennsylvanians “enlarged upon the immorality, drunkenness, rudeness, and immoderate swearing, so much practiced in Maryland, and added that no such vices were to be found in Pennsylvania. I heard this and contradicted it not, because I knew that the first part of the proposition was pretty true.” He’s like, [laughs] ‘yeah, we are drunk and we do swear a lot and we’re rude in Maryland so, okay. I think that’s true.’ [laughter] “But what appeared most comical in their criticism was their making a merit of the stoniness of the roads.” As one put it: “ ‘One may ride … fifty miles in Maryland and not see as many stones upon the roads as [in] fifty paces of roads in Pennsylvania.’ This I knew to be false, but as I thought there was no advantage in stony roads, I … let them take the honour of it to themselves, and did not contradict them.”
Now to me, one of the interesting things about this anecdote: It makes me think about almost a century later when we’re talking about de Tocqueville, and he’s wandering around America talking with random Americans, and one of the things that drives him a little bit nuts is that no matter what American he talks to, no matter where he is, the American always tells him how everything is best in America, better than anywhere else in the world. So what Tocqueville is witnessing in the middle of the — towards the middle of the nineteenth century is national pride, and what you’re seeing here is a close equivalent, but obviously it’s colonial pride. It’s pride in your own individual colony. And in a sense, again, it’s a reminder that people are seeing their colony as their country.
So in all of these little — these snapshots, these anecdotes — we’ve seen a few things about life in the colonies. We’ve seen religiosity and the impact of the Great Awakening; we’ve seen diversity of all types, sometimes at one dinner table; we’ve seen a middling society; and we’ve seen how people saw their own colony as their own country and in a sense other colonies as other countries. To varying degrees in all of the colonies, all of these things were characteristic.
Chapter 3. Risk-Takers, Landowners, Voters: Life in British America [00:11:57]
So with that introduction, I want to turn now to really look at what was different about the American colonies. Why were people here different? Why was life here different from what it would have been like to be a British subject back in England? So that’s going to be what I mainly address for the rest of the lecture, and I’m going to talk about it by focusing on three different points. Point number one: I’m going to talk a little bit about the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies. It gives you such a sense of power when you’re lecturing and you say, “There are three reasons” and the entire room goes: “Oh.” [laughter] “Three. There are three.” So there are three. So number one is the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies. Number two is the distinctive conditions of life in British America, — and that point I’ll talk about for the longest. And then number three is the nature of British colonial administration. And I’ll repeat that: the distinctive character of the people who migrated to the colonies, the distinctive conditions of life in British North America, and the nature of British colonial administration.
So let’s start off first by looking at that first category of difference, the character of the people who migrated to the colonies — and, as you’ll see, in some ways a distinctive kind of person migrated to the colonies — or at least tended to — in ways that will make perfect sense. So for one thing — and in a way this sounds obvious once you think about it — people who migrated to the colonies tended to be risk-takers. These were people who were willing to take a risk. They were willing to make the hazardous passage across the sea, put themselves at a distance of several months’ travel from everything that they knew, and start life anew in what they assumed to be some kind of a wilderness. They were people who wanted something, maybe to better their condition, and they weren’t afraid to act on that desire, to reach for it. Obviously, these are people who are going to be pretty independent and they were often people who didn’t simply accept the status quo. Now all of these are really big, broad generalizations, but as big and broad as they are, you can see in a general sense that people who are deciding to migrate in this way — certainly, many of them would have shared some of these characteristics to some degree.
And, as we’re going to see in the next few weeks, in a general way this spirit ran through all of the colonies, this sort of sense of really being willing to push for what you wanted. In the Old World, naturally enough, things were more tradition-bound. In the New World, just by deciding to go to the colonies, you were already breaking with tradition and behaving differently from the average British subject. So if you put this different sort of person in a different kind of environment, as in the colonies, you begin to understand the slow creation of something that ends up being a kind of colonial American mindset or mentality.
And this brings us to my second category of differences in the colonies, which is: the conditions of life in British North America. You have a different kind of person. Now you’re putting them in a different kind of living situation — and there were a number of things that were different about living conditions in the colonies. First, as I mentioned last time, more people owned land in the colonies. There was a lot of land, “empty land,” some of it actually empty land, some of it land owned by Indians that people considered to be “empty,” but there was more land that was certainly accessible to settlers in the colonies. So these risk-taking types who came to the colonies could get land and set up their own farms a lot more easily than they could in England, which gave more people a more independent lifestyle in the colonies, and a sense meant they could be and maybe were raising themselves up in the world in a way that might not have been as easy to do back in England.
A second difference in living conditions involved voting and political participation, because logically enough and generally speaking, landholding and the vote went hand in hand, the idea being in the colonies that you should only let people vote who were really invested in a community, and landholders are pretty literally invested in their communities. So in the colonies where you have a lot — a much larger number of landholders, you have a much wider franchise than in England. So an example of that: In the 1760s in England, roughly twenty percent of white men had the vote. In the colonies, roughly sixty to eighty percent of white men had the vote depending on the colony, which is a pretty big difference.
And that one fact alone represents a big shift in mindset. In the colonies you had lots of landholders who knew that they had the right to be directly involved in the political process. Equally important, not only were more people able to be active in the political process, but the process in which they were taking part was really localized, so people felt able to understand and effect that process. A lot of times you knew — or at least perhaps had met — many of the people that held government offices — and elections could be won or lost by just a handful of votes. Now when I first taught this course, that always used to be an amazing fact, ‘well, an election could be lost by a handful of votes,’ and somehow in the last ten years that doesn’t seem amazing anymore. [laughs] We do that all the time now. I don’t know why that happens.
Chapter 4. Door Persuasions and Middling Society [00:17:32]
Okay. So I want to look for just a couple of minutes at how voting actually worked in the colonies, and it varies from colony to colony, so again I’m talking in a general kind of a way here. Elections first of all — and this is generally true in all of the colonies — they had to take place over the course of a few days, because people were often traveling from very far away to get to a polling place. And once they got there, because it was such a big deal for people to get to a polling place, they generally discovered what in essence was a kind of a fair. Election Day was a big sort of celebration day. There were a lot of people mulling about. There was a lot happening. There was a lot of alcohol. The alcohol was provided by the candidates. [laughter] ‘Here. You must vote for me.’ [laughs] ‘Have another.’ And the candidates themselves would have been present, helping to pour, and mingling with prospective voters.
Now a couple of years ago — I knew this fact for myself. I hadn’t ever sort of thought about how it played out, and then a couple of years ago I was researching in the Virginia Historical Society. I was of course looking for something else, but what I came across was a bunch of documents that clearly involved some kind of legal dispute that broke out because of a problem on one of the election days in Virginia. And apparently what happened was, the brother of one of the candidates showed up with a pack of his friends, drank a lot, got really drunk and then stood at the door of the polling place with guns and threatened to shoot anyone who didn’t vote for the brother of the guy standing there. [laughter] ‘Don’t vote for my brother, you die.’ A strong persuasive component. So obviously, at least in that election, you had drinking, celebrating, and guns, which is a bad combination, [laughter] — but elections were really kind of rowdy occasions.
Now what that kind of hints of, that sort of ‘door persuasion,’ is that actually, once you went in to the polling place, assuming that you weren’t shot first, there were no secret ballots. You actually stepped to the front of the room, there usually was a table, at the table were sitting the candidates and maybe some official, perhaps a local sheriff, and you declared who you voted for in front of everybody and in front of the candidates.
So one example actually from a document from the time period: We’re in Virginia and one voter, a Mr. Blair, came forward to this table in the front of the room, a candidate on each side of the table, the sheriff in the middle, and the sheriff says, “Sir, who do you vote for?” and Mr. Blair says, “Mr. Marshall,” and Mr. Marshall responds, “Your vote is appreciated, Mr. Blair.” It’s a very personal exchange. The next voter, a Mr. Buchanan, is asked the same question and he says that he votes for Mr. Clapton and Mr. Clapton responds, “Mr. Buchanan, I shall treasure that vote in my memory. It will be regarded as a feather in my cap forever.” [laughter] That’s such a politician, [laughs] Isn’t it? Already you can hear. So obviously this is a very personal process in which certainly you could feel some pressure to vote a certain way. It’s actually a surprisingly long period of time before people figure out that maybe ballots are a great idea; maybe voting in person is not so good. Okay. So you’ve got more land holding in the colonies, which leads to a broader franchise in the colonies. You have voters taking part in a very localized, immediate political process.
Another significant difference in colonial conditions of life connects with something that I had mentioned briefly on Thursday, and that’s the nature of the colonial social structure. As I mentioned last week, you did have an elite in the colonies, but the proportions of elite and laboring people was different. In England, half of the population roughly was of the laboring class, people who did not own land and labored for others. And the other half of the population — which included small farmers and gentry and nobility — owned most of the land. In the colonies, two-thirds of the white men owned land or businesses — again, which gives you a sense of why the colonies are often known as a sort of middling society.
Also in the colonies there wasn’t such a stark contrast between the top and the bottom of the social spectrum. So in England, you had the royal Court and the courtiers and opulence and court ritual and sort of kowtowing to the King at the very top of the social spectrum. Obviously, the colonies did not have something like that. They did have royal governors, and certainly royal governors lived in fine style in comparison with others, and there was certainly a distinction between average people and gentlemen, but the contrast between governors and farmers was nowhere near the extreme contrast between a member of the entrenched British nobility and a landless commoner. So in America the spectrum — It’s like the top and the bottom of that spectrum have been sort of lopped off and what’s in between is a little bit more pliable.
So more landholding, broader franchise and everything that that entails, more of a middling society, and now yet another colonial difference that I hinted about at the start of today’s lecture: the fact that several generations of colonists had lived and died in the colonies having never been to England. By the mid-eighteenth century you had a colonial society full of people who often had no actual personal tie to England except an emotional tie, and I talked about those emotional ties last week. So just think about this comparison. The length of time between the first settlement at Jamestown and the Declaration of Independence is roughly the same as the length of time between the Declaration of Independence and World War II. Okay. We tend to collapse all of early America into one big blob of early America, and we assume it’s a kind of a small blob, but if you think about that, Declaration of Independence to World War II, Jamestown to the Declaration of Independence, we are talking about a broad expanse of time. So these people, or at least many of them, are truly British Americans at this point.
Chapter 5. Free Will and Spiritual Equality: The Impact of the Great Awakening [00:23:34]
Colonists were also not Britons in yet another way — another distinctive feature of colonial society — and that’s again something I referred to at the beginning, and that’s the great ethnic and religious diversity. As our friend, Mr. Hamilton, or Dr. Hamilton, was noting, there were immigrants from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, there were Quakers, there were Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, and then later on Methodists and Baptists. So generally speaking, it’s a reasonably pluralistic society with a relatively high tolerance for diversity, although New Englanders in some ways, particularly in early colonial times, are a little bit less tolerant.
Related to this diversity is yet another colonial distinction, and that’s the religiosity in the colonies, which is really heightened by the Great Awakening, which was roughly from the 1730s to the 1760s. Now I’ve said that, but what I really want to also point out: I’m not saying that the Great Awakening is a purely colonial phenomenon, because it isn’t. And as a matter of fact it spread to the colonies from England and from Ireland, but its impact on the colonies would be different when you combined it with some of the other things that were distinctive about colonial society and life as I’m talking about here.
Now we can have a little Yale moment here. I’m always looking for a Yale moment. This is a little Yale moment, because Jonathan Edwards is someone of importance in the spread of the Great Awakening. His preaching really sparked the New England branch of the Great Awakening. Edwards preached that God was wrathful, that endless torture awaited the sinner, but God was also loving and wanted sinners to convert and turn towards God’s love and, most important, you could choose heaven or hell depending on whether you chose to repent. And I can’t resist — Whenever I get to this part of the course, I can’t resist offering a little snippet of one of Edwards’ most famous sermons, which is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. How many of you have read? A good number of you have read. That’s a great sermon, 1741. I can’t resist giving you your own Great Awakening moment because that means I get to actually be Edwards for a little bit and offer you the wrath of God, so I will offer you a tiny snippet from Edwards’ sermon. I think it’s different when you hear it from when you read it.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire. He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight. You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not go to hell the last night, that you were suffered to awake again in this world after you closed your eyes to sleep, and there was no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose this morning and that God’s — but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here. Oh, sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, ready every moment to singe it and burn it asunder, and you have no interest in any mediator and nothing to lay hold of save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do to induce God to spare you one moment.”
I think — wow, that’s sermonizing. That’s “pow” in-your-face sermonizing. So that, kind of, is the core of the Great Awakening, right? This belief in the sinfulness and helplessness of humankind and the possibility of redemption if you individually make the choice and repent. And as suggested by Edwards’ sermon, there were often some tearful emotional conversions at the big camp meetings that took place at this time.
And I actually have an eyewitness account of a camp meeting, which I offer you partly because, as you’ll see, there’s an aspect of it which I consider truly ridiculous. But it’s offered by Benjamin Franklin, which I also think is interesting, and you’ll see the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening come up right against each other in this little passage. Franklin actually is in Pennsylvania and he says he sees Whitefield preaching to a crowd. As he describes it,
“In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland [correction: England] the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was [correction: was one] of that number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally “half beasts and half devils.”
Being among the crowd, “being among the hindmost of the crowd” — so he’s towards the back of the crowd” — “I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards …” Okay. So now Franklin says, ‘I wonder how far I could back away and still hear him preaching.’ Clearfully — Clearly, at this moment, he’s not really thinking about the message. So I backed away “towards the river, and I found his voice distinct ‘till I came near Front Street, when some noise in the street obscured it.” And at this point you can really hear the sort of Enlightenment come banging up against the Great Awakening. “Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius,” [laughter]
“and that it was [correction: were] filled with auditors, to each of whom I allowed two square feet. I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconciled me to the newspaper accounts of his having preached to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the [correction: the antient] histories of generals haranguing whole armies of which I had sometimes doubted.”
So he computes out the radius, an area. Wow. You can actually be preaching to 30,000 people. Now, that said, Franklin says by the end of the sermon — when clearly there was a collection plate that was going to be passed around — Franklin said,
“I first silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars and five gold pieces. As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the copper. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my whole pocket into the dish, gold and all.”
So even Franklin sort of has to admire and ultimately contribute to what’s going on there. So even this sort of true man of the Enlightenment found himself affected by this oratory.
Okay. So what was the impact of such Great Awakening sentiment in the colonies? Well, in part, given the distinctive state of affairs in the colonies, it suggested to people that they had the personal ability to change their lives through their own free will. It was personally empowering, and in that sense it was sort of a democratizing force. I almost hesitated when I was writing this to use the word “democratizing” because I didn’t want to be — As I mentioned on that first day, you put the “democracy” word out there and all kinds of lights go off, but I just couldn’t think of a better word, so democratizing I’ll stick with.
Also, the Great Awakening preached spiritual equality, and included women, African Americans and the poor — and the power of making choices, though the impact of that, as we’ll see, might not have been so great. Plus it was an anti-authoritarian force led by unorthodox preachers and people not attached to an established church. So we have here a mix of individualism and personal empowerment and throw in an emotional sort of righteousness. That’s a really kind of a heady mixture of feelings and ideas that would eventually help to encourage a real spirit of political resistance.
Chapter 6. The Power of Colonial Legislatures and the British-American Identity [00:32:14]
Okay. I’m going to mention a few more basic things about colonial life that were different from England. Very quickly. First, the realities of living on a frontier, which not only fostered a sense of independence, but also a sense of community, partly in a defensive way because of fears about Indians and because of the difficulties of forging a homestead or creating a community. On a more positive side, colonists generally had healthier living conditions than in England. Food was plentiful, there were plenty of open spaces, and you can actually see this concretely when you look at the average size of an English man and an English woman and a colonial man and colonial woman towards the turn — the middle of the eighteenth century. Basically, the average size of an Englishman in the middle of the eighteenth century was 5 foot 6. And the — This made me happy. The average size of an English woman was 5 feet, which is basically me. [laughs] It makes me so happy to think there’s a time when I was average height. I feel so tall. However, colonial men and women on average tended to be a couple of inches taller. So you could see — plentiful food, wide-open spaces — actually people are healthier and bigger, which was true also among soldiers as a matter of fact, which was interesting; you could see it.
This brings us to the third major category of things that contributed to the difference — differences in being a British American colonist. So we have the type of person who migrated; we just had a whole bunch of living conditions in the colonies. This is the third category, which is the nature of the British administration of the colonies, which, as I mentioned last week, was kind of light-handed, so colonial government and society could develop in ways that Britain might not necessarily have desired or even recognized. One of the most striking effects of this lack of imperial control was the power of the typical colonial legislature. Left alone, the colonists developed strong legislatures which often were full of very contentious individuals who felt entitled and compelled to fight for their rights, or what I discussed last week, their English liberties. Some of these colonial legislatures were so strong that they often won battles against royal governors — battles that were not taken much note of by the Crown at the time, because the Crown wasn’t administering to the colonies very closely.
And in fact, by the 1760s most of the colonies had in place all of the conditions necessary to be self-governing states. They had elective assemblies and other institutions of local government, and these institutions had broad powers over the internal affairs of the colonies. They had a reservoir of political leaders drawn from the elite. And colonists recognized and were jealous of their power of self-government, and were not shy about fighting royal officials for this power. So by the 1760s, there’s a lot of things in place for these colonies, in a sense, to be self-governing, although obviously they were not already.
So in summary, what does all of this add up to? What do I mean when I refer to being a British American? Well, we’ve talked about a tradition of voicing opinions and grievances. We’ve talked about a sense of entitlement to owning property and land. We’ve talked about assumptions about active participation in the political process. We’ve talked about a willingness to take risks and fight for what you wanted. We’ve talked about an independent spirit and jealousy about your independence. And we’ve talked about relative tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity.
You can hear this sort of mixture of things in a comment by a British officer in the colonies during the French and Indian War. And he observed and wrote back home, “ ‘Tis the nature of this people to do all in their power to pull down every legal authority. There is no law prevailing at present here.” That’s a little bit of an exaggeration I would say — but another arrogant British quote. I always do lots of arrogant British quotes. “There is no law prevailing at present here, that I have met with, but the rule every man pleases to lay down to himself. Every man insists upon following the dictates of his own will without control.” A little bit of an exaggeration, but you can see certainly what he feels like he’s seeing as compared with what he knows from back in England.
Or as a member of the Massachusetts legislature put it, “Our people were not calculated to be kept in any particular service. They soon grow troublesome and uneasy by reflecting upon their folly” by — “in bringing themselves into a state of subjection when they might have continued free and independent.” Now that sounds like a sort of wonderful thing, impressive, admirable, like ‘oh, our people are — they like to be independent and if they commit to something, they’re not happy about that commitment, because they think — wow, I could have been free and independent; what have I done?’
The problem with that is: try putting a bunch of those people into an army and then expecting them to stay in it for a long period of time. George Washington was not a happy camper for part — a good part of the Revolution because he was stuck with a lot of soldiers who had that point of view — like, ‘Well, I’ll do this for a little while and then I’ll leave. Bye. ” And so it’s kind of hard to command that kind of an army, as we’ll see, and — I guess I can’t say I’m proud to say — Connecticut was a problem. [laughs] Connecticut — as we’ll see, Connecticut had issues; Rhode Island too. I think I mentioned that in the first lecture, but Connecticut too. Soldiers particularly had problems wanting to stick around, but that was a general problem as well, the sort of spirit of independence and ‘I’ve done what I wanted to do; I’m going to now do something different.’
So we’ve looked at being a British colonist. We’ve looked at being a British American. The next step that we’re going to be taking on Thursday is going to be looking at intercolonial relations — looking at how the colonies felt about each other, looking at how the colonies interacted with each other, how they felt about each other, what their sense was of any kind of cooperation or union between these sort of colony-states. And by the end of Thursday’s lecture, we’re going to see the first glimmers of tension with the passage of the Stamp Act. So by the end of the next lecture — You can see why, when I mentioned in that first lecture that there was someone in — when I first taught this course — who raised his hand, probably at the end of this lecture, and said, “Where are the dates?,” that we’ve had two lectures without a lot of dates, but the Stamp Act — We have an actual concrete thing coming on Thursday [laughs] and then actual events of the Revolution.
But hopefully with these three lectures you have some kind of a sense of the — sort of — foundation of where we’re working from, as we’re now going to show people basically getting upset, working themselves a logic of resistance, and then acting on that logic. I think it’s important obviously to understand where the colonists were coming from before you plunge right in to seeing them rebelling against what they’ve had and for something else. But I think certainly in these two first lectures, you do get a sense of some of the ways in which the colonies were prepared to resist, or maybe predisposed to resist, and some of the reasons why it took actually, as you’ll see, a pretty long time for the colonists to decide to actually rebel — that it took a while. People sort of let go, finger by finger, of the British Empire. They let go, piece by piece, until finally they felt that there was no alternative except a revolution. I will end there. I will see you on Thursday. If you have questions, come up and see me now at the end of class or e-mail them to me and I will see you on Thursday.
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