Colonial America: The First Half of our History

It’s surprising when you notice that the colonial period is nearly one half of American history, over 150 years. If you start the history of the national period after the ratification of the Constitution, rather than at 1776, the halves even a little more. But “nationhood” at that time still only meant the 13 original colonies. It’s worth looking at the dates states entered the union, just to remind ourselves how recent a thing our United States really is.

[The fact that this isn’t obvious to us can be attributed to 1) boring history classes in high school; and/or 2) the power of the IDEA of “these United States.” The first is probably a factor, but the second is closer to our theme. We have to consider how a Declaration of Independence, written to address very specific concerns very distant from our own situation, still possesses the power to explain our own relations to one another, and the Great Ideas which structure them. This is just what we’re about to do with our Personal Declarations of Independence.]

Colonial history is all to often a matter of a little 1620, followed by a little more 1776. We’re going to follow much the same pattern, but we should take a look at what we’re missing.

Toleration became an increasingly important issue through much of the colonial period. Some colonies, such as Rhode Island and Maryland, drafted founding documents that guaranteed some religious freedoms. Anglicans moved to Massachusetts, and had to struggle with the Puritan establishment for even basic freedoms. Pamphlets and petitions were sent back and forth across the Atlantic, as these struggles involved both the Massachusetts General Court and the English Crown and Parliament. And England was far from stable through the colonial years. 1641-1649 saw the rising of the Puritans against the Crown, leading to the Civil War, the execution of the King, and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Some colonies were obviously sympathetic to the Puritan rebels, and then to the Commonwealth. Others, particularly in the south, were aligned with the Crown. There was very little opportunity for the colonies to active support their sides, so leaders tended to mute their opinions, in the interest of maximizing their support from England during the periods of conflict. Governor Berkeley of Virginia opposed the Commonwealth, unsuccessfully, and was ousted, but was restored to power in 1660, as the Restoration (of the monarchy) occured in England. Charles II turned to the colonies as a source of resources, once the Crown was restored to power, and enacted the Navigation Act (1660), Staple Act (1673), and Plantation Duties Act (1673), as means of tightening control over trade with the colonies. Puritan colonies had to deal with lingering mistrust from the King, particularly when religious intolerance flared up in places like Massachusetts. In 1660, Mary Dyer, once banished with Anne Hutchinson and now a Quaker, returned to Massachusetts one too many times and was hung on Boston Common. (Her full story is worth a read.) She was obviously guilty of nothing other than believing differently than the leaders of the Puritan churches, and the injustice of the case fanned dissent at home and brought unwelcome attention from the mother country.

And so on. Unsettled times in England meant periods of freedom for the colonists, followed by periods of intense supervision and meddling. This was a period in which many modern institutions, such as modern currency and banks, were being invented, and their development in the colonies faced depended on the cooperation of both colonial and home governments. The case of the land banks of 1681-1740 is particularly instructive. Faced with a shortage of legal tender, Massachusetts colonists attempted to create a private, local currency secured by real estate mortgages, to supplement currencies based on gold, silver, or expected tax revenue (the three most common models of colonial currency). Both the Massachusetts General Court and, eventually, the Parliament intervened to prevent the operation of the banks, placing such heavy legal and financial penalties on the participants that some lost what they had and some were snarled in litigation for as much as 30 years. The elder Samuel Adams, father of the brewer-patriot, was involved in the 1740 experiment.

Interference with finance and commerce, limitations of markets for colonial goods, special taxes on the colonies—these fueled resentment through the middle of the 18th century. And these measures were followed by the “Intolerable Acts,” including that demanding that colonists provide quarters for English troops sent to deal with dissent. (See the Laws & Resolutions here for the texts of these acts. Jefferson’s account of the origins of the Declaration of Independence provides a linking narrative.)

By the time we reach the critical point of 1776, the questions about liberty—whether civil or religious, in relation to one another or to England—that the Declaration seeks to answer have been in play for over 150 years.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

1 Comment

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