13 Pursuing Political, Religious, and Individual Freedom

Pursuing Political, Religious, and Individual Freedom

Consumption, trade, and slavery drew the colonies closer to Great Britain, but politics and government split them further apart. Democracy in Europe more closely resembled oligarchies rather than republics, with only elite members of society eligible to serve in elected positions. Most European states did not hold regular elections, with Britain and the Dutch Republic being the two major exceptions. However, even in these countries, only approximately 1% of males could vote. In the North American colonies, by contrast, white male suffrage was nearly universal. In addition to having greater popular involvement, colonial government also had more power in a variety of areas. Assemblies and legislatures regulated businesses, imposed new taxes, cared for the poor in their communities, built roads and bridges, and made most decisions concerning education. Colonial Americans sued often, which in turn led to more power for local judges and more prestige in jury service. Thus, lawyers became extremely important in American society, and in turn, played a greater role in American politics.

American society was less tightly controlled than European society. This led to the rise of various interest groups, each at odds with the other. These various interest groups arose based on commonalities in various areas. Some commonalities arose over class-based distinctions, while others were due to ethnic or religious ties. One of the major differences between modern politics and colonial political culture was the lack of distinct, stable, political parties. The most common disagreement in colonial politics was between the elected assemblies and the royal governor. Generally, the various colonial legislatures were divided into factions who either supported or opposed the current governor’s political ideology.

As far as political structure, colonies fell under one of three main categories: provincial, proprietary, and charter. The provincial colonies included New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The proprietary colonies included Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. The charter colonies included Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The provincial colonies were the most tightly controlled by the crown. The British king appointed all of the provincial governors. These crown governors could veto any decision made by the legislative assemblies in the provincial colonies. The proprietary colonies had a similar structure, with one important difference: governors were appointed by a lord proprietor, an individual who had purchased or received the rights to the colony from the crown. This generally led to proprietary colonies having more freedoms and liberties than other colonies in colonial America. The charter colonies had the most complex system of government, formed by political corporations or interest groups who drew up a charter that clearly delineated powers between executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government. As opposed to having governors appointed, the charter colonies elected their own governors from among the property-owning men in the colony.

After the governor, colonial government was broken down into two main divisions: the council and the assembly. The council was essentially the governor’s cabinet, often composed of prominent individuals within the colony, such as the head of the militia, or the attorney-general of the colony. The governor appointed these men, often subject to approval from Parliament. The assembly was composed of elected, property-owning men whose official goal was to ensure that colonial law conformed to English law. The colonial assemblies approved new taxes and the colonial budgets. However, many of these assemblies saw it as their duty to check the power of the governor and ensure that he did not take too much power within colonial government. Unlike Parliament, most of the men who were elected to an assembly came from local districts, with their constituency able to hold their elected officials accountable to promises made.

An elected assembly was an offshoot of the idea of civic duty, the notion that men had a responsibility to support and uphold the government through voting, paying taxes, and service in the militia. Americans firmly accepted the idea of a social contract, the idea that government was put in place by the people. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke pioneered this idea, and there is evidence to suggest that these writers influenced the colonists. While in practice elites controlled colonial politics, in theory many colonists believed in the notion of equality before the law and opposed special treatment for any members of colonial society.

Whether or not African Americans, Native Americans, and women would also be included in this notion of equality before the law was far less clear. In particular, women’s role in the family became more complicated. Many historians view this period as a significant time of transition. Importantly, Anglo-American families during the colonial period differed from their European counterparts. Widely available land and plentiful natural resources allowed for greater fertility and thus encouraged more people to marry earlier in life. Yet, while young marriages and large families were common throughout the colonial period, family sizes started to shrink by the end of the 1700s as wives asserted more control over their own bodies.

New ideas governing romantic love helped to change the nature of husband-wife relationships. Deriving from the sentimental literary movement, many Americans began to view marriage as an emotionally fulfilling relationship rather than a strictly economic partnership. Referring to one another as “Beloved of my Soul” or “My More than Friend,” newspaper editor John Fenno and his wife Mary Curtis Fenno illustrate what some historians refer to as the “companionate ideal.” While away from his wife, John felt a “vacuum in my existence,” a sentiment returned by Mary’s “Doting Heart.” Indeed, after independence, wives began to not only provide emotional sustenance to their husbands, but to inculcate the principles of republican citizenship as “republican wives.”

Marriage opened up new emotional realms for some but remained oppressive for others. For the millions of Americans bound in chattel slavery, marriage remained an informal arrangement rather than a codified legal relationship. For white women, the legal practice of coverture meant that women lost all of their political and economic rights to their husband. Divorce rates rose throughout the 1790s, as did less formal cases of abandonment. Newspapers published advertisements by deserted men and women denouncing their partners publicly. Known as “elopement notices,” they catalogued the various sorts of misbehavior of deviant spouses, such as wives’ “indecent manner,” a way of implying sexual impropriety. As violence and inequality continued in many American marriages, wives in return highlighted their husbands’ “drunken fits” and violent rages. One woman noted how her partner “presented his gun at my breast… and swore he would kill me.”

That couples would turn to newspapers as a source of expression illustrates the importance of what historians call print culture. Print culture includes the wide range of factors contributing to how books and other printed objects are made, including the relationship between the author and the publisher, the technical constraints of the printer, and the tastes of readers. In colonial America, regional differences in daily life impacted the way colonists made and used printed matter. However, all the colonies dealt with threats of censorship and control from imperial supervision. In particular, political content stirred the most controversy.

From the establishment of Virginia in 1607, printing was regarded either as unnecessary within such harsh living conditions or it was actively discouraged. The governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, summed up the attitude of the ruling class in 1671: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing…for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy…and printing has divulged them.” Ironically, the circulation of hand-written tracts contributed to Berkeley’s undoing. The popularity of Nathaniel Bacon’s uprising was in part due to widely circulated tracts questioning Berkeley’s competence. Berkeley’s harsh repression of Bacon’s Rebellion was equally well documented. It was only after Berkeley’s death in 1677 that the idea of printing in the Southern colonies was revived. William Nuthead, an experienced English printer, set up shop in 1682, although the next governor of the colony, Thomas Culpeper forbade Nuthead from completing a single project. It wasn’t until William Parks set up his printing shop in Annapolis in 1726 that the Chesapeake had a stable local trade in printing and books.

Print culture was very different in New England. Puritans had an established respect for print from the very beginning. Unfortunately, New England’s authors were content to publish in London, making the foundations of Stephen Daye’s first print shop in 1639 very shaky. Typically printers made their money from printing sheets, not books to be bound. The case was similar in Massachusetts, where the first printed work was a Freeman’s Oath. The first book was not issued until 1640, the Bay Psalm Book, of which 11 known copies survive. His contemporaries recognized the significance of Daye’s printing, and he was awarded 140 acres of land. The next large project, the first bible to be printed in America, was undertaken by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, published 1660. That same year, the Eliot Bible, named for its translator John Eliot, was printed in the Natick dialect of the local Algonquin tribes.

Massachusetts remained the center of colonial printing for a hundred years, until Philadelphia overtook Boston in 1770. Philadelphia’s rise as the printing capital of the colonies began with two important features: first, the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1723, equal parts scholar and businessman, and second, waves of German immigrants created a demand for German-language press. From the mid 1730s, Christopher Sauer, and later his son, wholly met this demand with German-language newspapers and religious texts. Nevertheless, Franklin was a one-man culture of print, revolutionizing the book trade in addition to creating public learning initiatives such as the Library Company and the Academy of Philadelphia. His Autobiography offers one of the most detailed glimpses of life in a print shop available. Given the flurry of newspapers, pamphlets, and books for sale in Franklin’s Philadelphia, it is little wonder that in 1775 Thomas Paine had his Common Sense printed in hundreds of thousands of copies with the Philadelphia printer Robert Bell.

Debates on religious expression continued throughout the 18i th century. In 1711, a group of New England ministers published a collection of sermons entitled Early Piety. The most famous of them, Increase Mather, wrote the preface. In it he asked the question “What did our forefathers come into this wilderness for?” His answer was simple: to test their faith against the challenges of America and win. The grandchildren of the first settlers had been born into the comfort of well-established colonies and worried that their faith had suffered. This sense of inferiority sent colonists looking for a reinvigorated religious experience. The result came to be known as the Great Awakening.

Only with hindsight does the Great Awakening look like a unified movement. The first revivals began unexpectedly in the Congregational churches of New England in the 1730’s and then spread through the 1740’s and 1750’s to Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists in the other Thirteen Colonies. Different places at different times experienced revivals of different intensities. Yet in all of these communities, colonists discussed the same need to strip their lives of worldly concerns and return to a more pious lifestyle. The form it took was something of a contradiction. Preachers became key figures in encouraging individuals to find a personal relationship with God.

The first signs of religious revival appeared in Jonathan Edwards’ (Figure 23) congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards was a theologian who shared the faith of the early Puritans setters. In particular, he believed in the idea called predestination that God had decided in advance who was damned and who was saved. However, he worried that his congregation had stopped searching their souls and were merely doing good works to prove they were saved. With a missionary zeal, Edwards preached against worldly sins and called for his congregation to look inwards for signs of God’s saving grace. His most famous sermon was called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Suddenly in the winter of 1734 these sermons sent his congregation into violent convulsions. The spasms first appeared amongst known sinners in the community. Over the next 6 months, the physical symptoms spread to half of the 600 person-congregation. Edwards shared the work of his revival in a widely- circulated pamphlet.

Over the next decade itinerant preachers were more successfully in spreading the spirit of revival around America. These preachers had the same spiritual goal as Edwards, but brought with them a new religious experience. They abandoned traditional sermons in favor of outside meetings where they could whip up the congregation into an emotional frenzy that might reveal evidence of saving grace. Many religious leaders were suspicious of the enthusiasm and message of these revivals, but colonists flocked to the spectacle.

The most famous itinerant preacher was George Whitefield. According to Whitefield the only type of faith that pleased God was heartfelt. The established churches only encouraged apathy. “The Christian World is dead asleep,” Whitefield explained, “Nothing but a loud voice can awaken them out of it.” He would be that voice. Whitefield was a former actor with a dramatic style of preaching and a simple message. Thundering against sin and for Jesus Christ, Whitefield invited everyone to be born again. It worked. Through the 1730’s he traveled from New York to South Carolina converting ordinary men, women and children. “I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence,” wrote a socialite in Philadelphia, “broken only by an occasional half suppressed sob.” A farmer recorded the powerful impact this rhetoric could have: “And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.” The number of people trying to hear Whitefield’s message were so large that he preached in the meadows at the edges of cities. Contemporaries regularly testified to crowds of thousands and in one case over 20,000 in Philadelphia. Whitefield and the other itinerant preachers had achieved what Edwards could not, making the revivals popular.

Portrait of Jonathan Edwards
Figure 23 — Jonathan Edwards by Unknown, Wikipedia is in the Public Domain /p>

Ultimately the religious revivals became a victim of the preachers’ success. As itinerant preachers became more experimental, they alienated as many people as they converted. In 1742, one preacher from Connecticut, James Davenport, persuaded his congregation that he had special knowledge from God. To be saved they had to dance naked in circles, at night, whilst screaming and laughing. Or, they could burn the books he disapproved of. Either way, this type of extremism demonstrated to many that revivalism had gone wrong. A divide appeared by the 1740s and 1750s between “New Lights,” who still believed in a revived faith, and “Old Lights,” who thought it was deluded nonsense.

By the 1760s, the religious revivals had petered out; however, they left a profound impact on America. Leaders like Edwards and Whitefield encouraged individuals to question the world around them. This idea reformed religion in America and created a language of individualism that promised to change everything else. If you challenged the church, what other authority figures might you question? The Great Awakening provided a language of individualism, reinforced in print culture, which reappeared in the call for independence. While pre-revolutionary America had profoundly oligarchical qualities, the groundwork was laid for a more republican society. However, society did not transform easily overnight. It would take intense, often physical, conflict to change colonial life. (3)

Seven Years’ War

Of the 87 years between the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the American Revolution (1775), Britain was at war with France and French-allied Native Americans for 37 of them. These were not wars in which European soldiers fought other European soldiers. American militiamen fought for the British against French Catholics and their Indian allies in all of these engagements. Warfare took a physical and spiritual toll on British colonists. British towns located on the border between New England and New France experienced intermittent raiding by French-allied Native Americans. Raiding parties would destroy houses and burn crops, but they would also take captives. They brought these captives to French Quebec, where some were ransomed back to their families in New England and others converted to Catholicism and remained in New France. In this sense, Catholicism threatened to literally capture Protestant lands and souls.

In 1754, a force of British colonists and Native American allies, led by young George Washington, attacked and killed a French diplomat. This incident led to a war, which would become known as the Seven Years’ War or the French and Indian War. In North America, the French achieved victory in the early portion of this war. They attacked and burned multiple British outposts, such as Fort William Henry in 1757. In addition, the French seemed to easily defeat British attacks, such as General Braddock’s attack on Fort Duquesne, and General Abercrombie’s attack on Fort Carllion (Ticonderoga) in 1758. These victories were often the result of alliances with Native Americans.

In Europe, the war did not fully begin until 1756, when British-allied Frederick II of Prussia invaded the neutral state of Saxony. As a result of this invasion, a massive coalition of France, Austria, Russia, and Sweden attacked Prussia and the few German states allied with Prussia. The ruler of Austria, Maria Theresa, hoped to conquer the province of Silesia, which had been lost to Prussia in a previous war. In the European war, the British monetarily supported the Prussians, as well as the minor western German states of Hesse-Kassel and Braunschwieg-Wolfbüttel. These subsidy payments enabled the smaller German states to fight France and allowed the excellent Prussian army to fight against the large enemy alliance.

However, as in North America, the early part of the war went against the British. The French defeated Britain’s German allies and forced them to surrender after the Battle of Hastenbeck in 1757. The Austrians defeated the Prussians in the Battle of Kolin, also in 1757. However, Frederick of Prussia defeated the French at the Battle of Rossbach in November of 1757. This battle allowed the British to rejoin the war in Europe. Just a month later, Frederick’s army defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Leuthen, reclaiming the vital province of Silesia. In India and throughout the world’s oceans, the British and their fleet consistently defeated the French. Robert Clive and his Indian allies defeated the French at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. With the sea firmly in their control, the British could send more troops to North America.

These newly arrived soldiers allowed the British to launch new offensives. The large French port and fortress of Louisbourg, in present day Nova Scotia, fell to the British in 1758. In 1759, British General James Wolfe defeated French General Montcalm in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, outside of Quebec City. In Europe, 1759 saw the British defeat the French at the Battle of Minden, and destroy large portions of the French fleet. The British referred to 1759 as the “annus mirabilis” or the year of miracles. These victories brought about the fall of French Canada, and for all intents and purposes, the war in North America ended in 1760 with the British capture of Montreal. The British continued to fight against the Spanish, who entered the war in 1762. In this war, the Spanish successfully defended Nicaragua against British attacks but were unable to prevent the conquest of Cuba and the Philippines.

The Seven Years’ War ended with the peace treaties of Paris in 1762 and Hubertusburg in 1763. The British received much of Canada and North America from the French, while the Prussians retained the important province of Silesia. This gave the British a larger empire than they could control, which contributed to tensions leading to revolution. In particular, it exposed divisions within the newly expanded empire, including language, national affiliation, and religious views. When the British captured Quebec in 1760, a newspaper distributed in the colonies to celebrate the event boasted: “The time will come, when Pope and Friar/Shall both be roasted in the fire/When the proud Antichristian whore/will sink, and never rise more.”

American colonists rejoiced over the defeat of Catholic France and felt secure that the Catholics in Quebec could no longer threaten them. Of course, the American colonies had been a haven for religious minorities since the seventeenth century. Early religious pluralism served as evidence of an “American melting pot” that included Catholic Maryland. But practical toleration of Catholics existed alongside virulent anti-Catholicism in public and political arenas. It was a powerful and enduring rhetorical tool borne out of warfare and competition between Britain and France.

In part because of constant conflict with Catholic France, Britons on either side of the Atlantic and of a variety of Protestant sects cohered around a pan-Protestant interest. British ministers in England called for a coalition to fight French and Catholic empires that imperiled Protestantism. Missionary organizations such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for Propagation of the Gospel were founded at the turn of the seventeenth century to evangelize Native Americans and limit Jesuits advances in converting them to Catholicism. The previously mentioned Protestant revivals of the so-called Great Awakening crisscrossed the Atlantic and founded a participatory religious movement during the 1730s and 1740s that united British Protestant churches. Preachers and merchants alike urged greater Atlantic trade to knit the Anglophone Protestant Atlantic together through commerce. (3)

Pontiac’s War

Relationships between colonists and Native Americans were complex and often violent. In 1761, Neolin, a prophet, received a vision from his religion’s main deity, known as the Master of Life. The Master of Life told Neolin that the only way to enter Heaven would be to cast off the corrupting influence of Europeans, by expelling the British from Indian country: “This land where ye dwell I have made for you and not for others. Whence comes it that ye permit the Whites upon your lands…Drive them out, make war upon them.” Neolin preached the avoidance of alcohol, a return to traditional rituals, and pan-Indian unity to his disciples, including Pontiac, an Ottawa leader.

Pontiac took Neolin’s words to heart and sparked the beginning of what would become known as Pontiac’s War against British soldiers, traders, and settlers. At its height, the pan-Indian uprising included native peoples from the territory between the Great Lakes, Appalachians, and the Mississippi River. Though Pontiac did not command all of the Indians participating in the war, his actions were influential in its development. Pontiac and 300 Indian warriors sought to take Fort Detroit by surprise in May 1763, but the plan was foiled, resulting in a six-month siege of the British fort. News of the siege quickly spread throughout Indian country and inspired more attacks on British forts and settlers. In May, Native Americans captured Forts Sandusky, Saint Joseph, and Miami. In June, a coalition of Ottawas and Ojibwes captured Fort Michilimackinac by staging a game of stickball (lacrosse) outside the fort. They chased the ball into the fort, gathered arms that had been smuggled in by a group of Native American women, and killed almost half of the fort’s British soldiers.

Map of tribes and areas involved in Pontiac's War
Figure 25 — Map of Pontiac’s War, 1763 by Kevin Myers, Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Though these Indians were indeed responding to Neolin’s religious message, there were many other practical reasons for waging war on the British. After the Seven Years War, Britain gained control of formerly French territory as a result of the Treaty of Paris. Whereas the French had maintained a peaceful and relatively equal relationship with their Indian allies through trade, the British hoped to profit from and impose “order.” For example, the French often engaged in the Indian practice of diplomatic gift giving. However, the British General Jeffrey Amherst discouraged this practice and regulated the trade or sale of firearms and ammunition to Indians. Most Native Americans, including Pontiac, saw this not as frugal imperial policy but preparation for war.

Pontiac’s War lasted until 1766. Native American warriors attacked British forts and frontier settlements, killing as many as 400 soldiers and 2000 settlers. Disease and a shortage of supplies ultimately undermined the Indian war effort, and in July 1766 Pontiac met with British official and diplomat William Johnson at Fort Ontario and settled for peace. Though the western Indians did not win Pontiac’s War, they succeeded in fundamentally altering the British government’s Indian policy. The war made British officials recognize that peace in the West would require royal protection of Indian lands and heavy-handed regulation of Anglo-American trade activity in Indian country. During the war, the British Crown issued the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 (Figure 26), which marked the Appalachian Mountains as the boundary between Indian country and the British colonies.

Map showing the English colonies along the Eastern seaboard, broken down into New England colonies (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut), Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware), and Southern Colonies (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia)
Figure 26 — A derivative from the original work , Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Coinciding with the end of the Seven Year’s War, the effects of Pontiac’s War were substantial and widespread. The war proved that coercion was not an effective strategy for imperial control, though the British government would continue to employ this strategy to consolidate their power in North America, most notably through the various Acts imposed on their colonies. Additionally, the prohibition of Anglo-American settlement in Indian country, especially the Ohio River Valley, sparked discontent. The French immigrant Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur articulated this discontent most clearly in his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer when he asked, “What then is the American, this new man?” In other words, why did colonists start thinking of themselves as Americans, not Britons? Crèvecoeur suggested that America was a melting pot of self-reliant individual landholders, fiercely independent in pursuit of their own interests, and free from the burdens of European class systems. It was an answer many wanted to hear and fit with self-conceptions of the new nation, albeit one that imagined itself as white, male, and generally Protestant. The Seven Years’ War pushed the thirteen American colonies closer together politically and culturally than ever before. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin suggested a plan of union to coordinate colonial defenses on a continental scale. Tens of thousands of colonials fought during the war. Of the 11,000 British soldiers present for the French surrender of Montreal in 1760, 6,500 were colonials from every colony north of Pennsylvania. At home, many heard or read sermons that portrayed the war as a struggle between civilizations with liberty-loving Britons arrayed against tyrannical Frenchmen and savage Indians. American colonists rejoiced in their collective victory as a millennial moment of newfound peace and prosperity. After nearly seven decades of warfare they looked to the newly acquired lands west of the Appalachian Mountains as their reward.

The war was tremendously expensive and precipitated imperial reforms on taxation, commerce, and politics. Britain spent over £140 million, an astronomical figure for the day. Tens of thousands of British soldiers served in America, and 10,000 were left to garrison the conquests in Canada and the Ohio Valley at a cost of £100,000. Britain wanted to recoup some of its expenses and looked to the colonies to share the costs of their own security. To do this, Parliament started legislating over all the colonies in a way rarely done before. As a result, the colonies began seeing themselves as a collective group, rather than just distinct entities. Different taxation schemes implemented across the colonies between 1763 and 1774 placed duties on items like tea, paper, molasses, and stamps for almost every kind of document. Consumption and trade, an important bond between Britain and the colonies, was being threatened. To enforce these unpopular measures, Britain implemented increasingly restrictive policies that eroded civil liberties like protection from unlawful searches and jury trials. The rise of an antislavery movement made many colonists worry that slavery, following increasing imperial involvement in trade and commerce, would soon be attacked. The moratorium on new settlements in the west after Pontiac’s War was yet another disappointment. (3)


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U.S. History I: Pre-Colonial to 1865 Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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