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Life in the Colonies

Gordon Wood's new book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Pulitzer prize winner Bernard Bailyn writings and teaching in the book The transformation of Early American History [a book of essays that discusses Bernard Bailyn's studies, edited by James A. Heneretta, Michael Kamman, & Stanley N. Katz] shed new light on my thinking about the origins of the American revolution and the life style of the colonial people.

After reading the essays and the book, I was reminded of the importance of the king to the lives of the colonists. I have used and mixed passages from both books throughout this story;

America started as a colony of England. All aspects of life were intertwined. The household, the society, and the state, private and public spheres, scarcely seemed separable. Authority and liberty flowed not as today from the political organization of society but from the structure of its personal relationships. Living in a monarchical society meant all were subjects of the King. This had all sorts of social cultural, and even psychological implications. The allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter. Persons related to each other only through their common tie to the King, much as brothers and sisters related only through their common parentage.

Many of the characteristics for which the colonists were noted were just an exaggeration of English characteristics. Americans may have had a multiplicity of religious groups and a reputation for religious tolerance, but so too did England. Voltaire in his Philosophical Letters wrote "If there were only one religion in England, we should have to fear despotism; if there were two, they would cut each others throats; but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."

So too in the colonies, not only were the early colonialists very religious with strict morals, but each settlement had different beliefs and went to great lengths to enforce them.

These close ties and beliefs were very necessary to enable the early Colonialists to survive the harsh living conditions and the Indians. Later around the Revolutionary war period, the people and the country became a more pure commercial free market culture. The Revolution destroyed the old ties, but was unable to build the new ties the founding fathers expected, and instead started America on the way to becoming the egalitarian, materialistic culture it is today.

For example, in the 17th and early 18th century, most of the citizens believed it was the duty of each person to pursue his life, including his or [her] work, morals, or other activities in a manner that would be for the good of the community, the colony and the King, not just for his or [her] personal gain.

The citizens were ruled by the King and his representatives and may not have had a say in the day to day governing of the community, but community beliefs and morals were taken seriously. The community worked together and everyone (rich or poor) was expected to do his or her part and share in the work for the good of the community.

While this was more or less true in England, the American colonies had free land beyond the town borders, even the poor could expect to some day improve their lot, even become land owners, as opposed to life in England, where once a pauper always a pauper. In the first settlements this cooperative effort and hope for the future was necessary just to survive the winters and the Indians.

This did not mean there were not rich and poor citizens. In fact, indentured servants, poor farm hands and other workers were common. The rich in general were land owners, and represented the gentry and privileged class of the American Colonies.

The church communities solved problems in a practical manner. For example, unwed mothers were a problem then also. They dealt severely with the mothers of children born out of wedlock, unless the mother could prove the father had promised marriage beforehand. When the father was named, the father (married or not) was forced to pay the cost of raising the child. If it was a female servant of the house who was pregnant, the master of the house paid, father or not.

The fear of Indians, and fighting from time to time between the English, French and Dutch, as well as power struggles within the colonies, forced the communities to be cooperative, religious and strict. From the beginning of the early colonies until about 1750, community life was more or less the same. About 1750, with the fear of Indians all but gone, this gradually changed and the people began to became more interested in personal comfort and possessions.


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