History of the United States: Social Conflict and Ideological Tensions in pre-Colonial America—Part 1 Virginia and the Chesapeake

This is a summary of the first lecture of seventy in the course on the History of the United States by The Teaching Company. This is the 1st edition which is currently out of print, but for those who are interested in purchasing the current 2nd edition of this course and listening to the complete lecture series, please go to www.thegreatcourses.com.

This first lecture is given by Dr. Darren Staloff, Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He earned his B.A. from Columbia College and his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University.

The original title of this lecture was just “Introduction” since it was the first in the series, but I have retitled this summary based on the contents of the lecture.

1. Introduction—Traditional early American history

Prof. Staloff says that the approach to the study of early American history has been transformed in the past forty-five years. The traditional approach to studying early American history was to treat as an inevitable run towards independence. There was the initial period of exploration and settlement, followed by epoch of “Whiggish” development. This term means that it assumed that the history of pre-colonial America led inevitably towards the development of institutions of representative government, with colonial autonomy demanding increasing liberties and rights of representation (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of print, and freedom of religion) culminating in the great conclusion of the American revolution. This was how students were taught early American history up until the 1960s and 1970s.

Here’s the typical progression of events according to this version of history.

Major events in Early American History (as traditionally taught)




1. Mayflower Compact 1620 First Pilgrium fathers agreed to set up self-government among themselves.
2. Bacon’s Rebellion 1676 First people of colonial Virginia fought for their independence, a “dress rehearsal” for the American revolution.
3. Culpepper’s Rebellion 1677-1679 Rebellion in colonial North Carolina provoked by the British Navigation Acts.
4. Leisler’s Rebellion 1689-1691 Rebellion in colonial New York against the policies of King James II.
5. Glorious Revolution 1688-1689 Overthrow of King James II of England by William and Mary; led to Bill of Rights in 1689, and the overthrow of the government in colonial Maryland.
6, Zenger Trial 1735 His trial in colonial New York led to establishment of the freedom of the press.

Each of these events was presented in a grand narrative often called Whig history, which said that they led inexorably towards the establishment of the United States as a great nation of liberty during the American revolution.

2. Early American history revisited

Some things were absent from this grand narrative, such as:

  • Displacement of Amerindians
  • Development of African-American slavery
  • The status of women
  • The role of the family
  • The role of urban workers and indentured servants
  • Social conflict, social tension and ideological rifts

Now early American history is taught on its own terms and not through the “wrong end of the telescope” from the standpoint of what occurred later at the time of the American revolution. There developed several distinct regional styles, cultural mores or norms, and family structures. Early American history is not just the predecessor to American history, but actually represents about the first half of American history. One of the rewards of studying this period on its own terms is that what emerges are a set of patterns that reveal not only much about the nature of early American society but that persist long after independence, and even to the present day.

3. Four Regional Cultures in Early American Society

The following is a chart which represents the four different regional cultures in early American society. They are listed in order from North to South, but the descriptions that follow are based on the order in which they were settled.

Four Regional Cultures in early American society

Society Economics Politics
1. New England (NH, MA, MA, CT, VT) Commonwealth, religious zealotry Subsistence family farming at first, later traders and merchants Communitarian, religious
2. Middle Colonies (NY, PA, NJ, DE) Ethnic, religious, cultural diversity Farming, trading (same mix as in New England) Fractional strife which led to emergence of stable system of partisan politics
3. Chesapeake (MA, VA, parts of NC) Hierarchical, materialistic Staple crop (tobacco) Extractive government, aristocratic
4. Deep South (coastal NC, SC, GA) Plantation owners and slaves Provisioning of West Indies, staple crops (indigo, rice)

i. Chesapeake Society

Chesapeake was the first to be settled and it was hierarchical and materialistic in its orientation. Its economy was geared towards staple crop production, specifically tobacco. The society was extractive in that it was trying to draw from the soil and from the Amerindian population as much profit as possible and as quickly as possible. It was exploitive not just of these resources but of its own members. Governments were corrupt.

It was a rough, frontier society with a boom-town feel to it. It was characterized by extremely high rates of mortality. It was ironically the fact that it was death trap that led to the first stability that you find in the Chesapeake. Precisely because mortality was so high, those who didn’t die off found themselves with great opportunities of land after they had completed their indentured servitude. It was only after that mortality rate dropped that large social conflict emerged, because a larger number of people were competing for a smaller number of resources.

Further complicating this picture was a collapse in tobacco prices which ultimately made debts hard to repay and land difficult to acquire. The result was an intense social conflict within the white settler community which recapitulated the circumstances that promoted emigration from England to Virginia in the first place. One of the issues that lies behind the early settlement of the Atlantic seaboard by 17th century Englishmen is the sense that there was dramatic overpopulation in England, and a growing class of rural proletarians who were potentially insurrectionary. That’s exactly what came to exist in Virginia and in the Chesapeake, and the result was an insurrection known as Bacon’s Rebellion which occurred in 1676.

The response to that social conflict took the form of eliminating the white laboring class and replacing it with a black slave laboring class, the advantage of which was that they would never complete their terms of servitude, and therefore never become free to engage in insurrectionary activity. So one of the distinctive features of Chesapeake society, aside from materialism, exploitative government, and extractive economies, was the growth of African-American slavery.

The culture of the Chesapeake was oriented towards very aristocratic ethos of honor and display. This had a lot to do with the regional origins of much of the planter elite, many of whom were south and west English aristocrats, or sons of gentry. They recapitulated those cultural mores in the Chesapeake. It was also reinforced by the existence of slavery, which requires an ethos of mastery, domination, and self-assurance. Moreover, slavery had accentuated what had already been an extremely violent tenor to social relations. One of the things that distinguishes this region of Virginia and the Chesapeake is a pervading violent tone to social relations, the ubiquity of things like blood sports, dueling, horse racing, cock fighting, and other entertainments. The society was dominated by a sophisticated and educated planter elite whose mores were all about honor, display, fine clothing, and cultivated manner and taste.

This planter elite was challenged at essentially two distinct moments in its history. The first was during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The challenge then came from two sources, from a) those lower in the social scale who resented the extractive and exploitative relations of the planter oligarchy, and b) some of the so-called Cavalier immigrants to Virginia who had noted that much of the planter oligarchy actually lacked the breeding associated with the true social elite.

The second challenge came during the late 18th century with the rise of the Separate Baptists in the aftermath of the Great Awakening. The Separate Baptists challenged the mores of the planter elite not through politics or organized protests, but by creating a counterculture based on love, compassion, and non-violence, the exact inversion of the value system of the dominant elite.

The next post will deal with the next regional area to be colonized, that of New England.


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