History of the United States: Social Conflict and Ideological Tensions in pre-Colonial America—Part 2 New England Colonies


This is the second part of the first lecture in the course on the History of the United States (1st edition) by The Teaching Company. 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.   The first part covered the colonies of the Chesapeake, namely, Virginia and Maryland, the first region to be settled.  This post covers the second region to be colonized, that of New England.  

ii. The New England Colonies

a.  Society

Rather than settled by poor, young indentured servants and Cavaliers, New England was settled by Puritan zealots was not materialistic. They did not seek great wealth; if they did, they would have been quite foolish to land on the rocky shores of New England. Rather, they sought the seclusion to create a wholly Bible-based Commonwealth, a religious community that would essentially codify the arrangements that the Lord had had in mind for his latter-day saints, for his new Zion in the wilderness. So instead of a society that was hierarchical, and elitist, New England produced a society that was communitarian and organized around nucleated towns. Everybody lived in close proximity to one another, and everybody looked in on everyone else’s affairs to make sure that community mores and religious values were respected and honored. Whereas religion was an afterthought in the Chesapeake, it was the prime motivation in the founding of New England.

New England Puritans not only sought pure religion, but unanimity of thought with regards to religion. This had two sides to it: on the one hand, the government was not exploitative. It was if anything inclusive and idealistic. The average yeoman farmer had no small amount of impact in his political affairs as long as he belonged to the Church. He participated in town government; he might likely hold small local offices and was able to vote for both deputies and magistrates. On the other hand, it also led to a social structure and government structure that could often be quite repressive towards dissent. Those who could not follow the orthodox preachings of the Puritan divines might find themselves flogged, fined, imprisoned, with their ears cropped, noses slit, and tongues bore through with a hot iron. They might find themselves banished to a wilderness which, before the establishment of fixed communities, might be the equivalent of a death sentence. So there were two sides to the Puritan settlement: it was inclusive and unified, but this came at the price of difference and diversity.

b.  Economy

Settlement was focused in nucleated towns. But what was even more striking about New England was the distribution of property. Relative to the Chesapeake, it is strikingly egalitarian. There is extremely little poverty, extremely little indentured servitude, not is there a great disparity of wealth when it comes to land ownership: there are very few extremely large landowners. Social mores are in many ways egalitarian. There are differences in social rank, there are gentlemen, squires, and simply goodmen and goodwives (a lesser social rank than those addressed as Mister and Mistress). The difference is one that has to be maintained and almost fictively created by allowing people to have larger allotments of land, for example, or more prime spots within a town lot. In fact, the differences in literacy, education and wealth are not as dramatic than elsewhere, and certainly far less dramatic than one would find at the time in the Chesapeake and back in England.

The economy was remarkably different than that of the Chesapeake. Initially, it was geared towards subsistence family farming. The vast bulk of New England settlers for most of the 17th century and well into the 18th century spent most of their time producing foodstuffs and commodities for their own immediate family consumption or for barter within their town communities. Nonetheless, by the second decade of settlement, as the great migration to New England came to an end, and as trade of provisioning new immigrants dried up, New England merchants began to establish what would soon prove to be a thriving provisioning and carrying trade throughout the Atlantic economy. So much so that by the late 17th century, the Yankee trader would be a famous character in North American and even South American waters. By the 18th and 19th century, he would be a legendary world trader and merchant.

One of the features of New England society was not only unity of thought, unity of feeling, religious devotion and communitarianism, but also economic diversity including subsistence farming at one end of the scale and far-flung carrying and mercantile trade at the other.

The next region to be settled were the Middle Colonies, which are covered in the next post.


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