History of the United States: Social Conflict and Ideological Tensions in pre-Colonial America—Part 3 The Middle Colonies


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.    It covers the four culture zones of early American history; this post covers the third zone, that of the Middle Colonies (colonial New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware).  


iii. The Middle Colonies

a.  Ethnic Diversity

The third region to be settled, the Middle Colonies (consisting of colonial New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware), were characterized by ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity, in stark contrast to both the Chesapeake and New England. New England overwhelmingly was settled by English people from one small portion of England, East Anglia. Virginia, with the exception of the African slaves (who in the 17th century made up a fairly small percentage of the population), was overwhelmingly English.

Not so in the Middle Colonies. New York had initially been settled by the Dutch. But even during the Dutch period of New Amsterdam, it was not purely a Dutch settlement. There were German Baptists and Lutherans, as well as New England Puritans who settled parts of Eastern Long Island, and who would settle parts of the Jersey tract throughout the Raritan and Hackensack River valleys. There were of course a host of other ethnic communities as well; Swedes and Finns in the lower Delaware, Scots and Irish would arrive in small numbers, not to mention the large numbers of Amerindians.

b.   Religious Diversity

The diversity was not only ethnic but also religious. Indeed New Amsterdam in the first 20 years of settlement, meaning specifically the island of Manhattan was reputed to have no less than 18 different languages spoken in the streets, and many different religious establishments; Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reform, New England Congregationalists, and even a small community of Sephardic Jews.

Despite all of this diversity, political life was rent with factional strife for the simple reason that in fact most people’s political identities back in the 17th century were based on their religious creeds. The phrase for this is “confessional politics,” where politics was based on one’s sectarian identities. The result was twofold: one the one hand, since no one constituted a clear majority of the religious community, there was de facto religious toleration, which the Dutch called “connivance.” This became not just de facto but de jure with the settlement of Pennsylvania. William Penn made a very important point in his Quaker settlement to establish the freedom of religion of not just his Quaker immigrants to the Delaware valley, but also the Germans who settled the Susquehanna valley and the various sects that come from the Palatine during the Religious Wars.

c.  Development of Stable Political System

So while there is religious toleration, each of these ethnic religious groups has its own political goals and ambitions. The result is all of this political conflict led to the development of fairly stable partisan factional opposition, and the development of fairly unique means of political mobilizations, such as the development of newspaper campaigns, public marches and demonstrations.

In the beginning of the 18th century, you begin to see the development of balanced tickets, so that for example in Pennsylvania, where there’s a distinction between the Quaker and the Proprietary Parties, both parties will try to woo the German vote by putting a handful of German citizens on their tickets. They will woo the working man’s vote by putting a couple of artisans on their tickets. They will woo the Welsh vote by putting a couple of Welshmen on the electoral ticket, or the Scottish vote with a couple of Presbyterians. So the development of balanced tickets, electoral campaigning, and stable factional loyal oppositions all suggest that one of the distinctive features of the Middle Colonies was the development of one of the first stable two-party systems, a two-party system that would in fact characterize and be the model for early national political development. Indeed when the first two parties emerge, the Federalists and Republicans, both would be able to control distinct regions. The Federalists controlled New England for some period, and the Jeffersonians controlled the Chesapeake; it was only in the Middle Colonies that there was a stable two-party system which would subsequently expand from the Middle Colonies to the rest of the North American states, ultimately resulting in the stable two-party system that we enjoy today.

The society was remarkably egalitarian, in much the same way as New England was, and yet it was slightly less nucleated. In many ways, we can think of the Middle Colonies as a middle stratum between the extreme nucleation and egalitarianism of New England, and the extremely widespread plantation settlement of the Chesapeake, with its social hierarchy and materialism. So Middle Country society was both egalitarian, in the sense that very few elites except for the manors and patroons of New York, and yet at the same time it was extremely materialistic. From the beginning, farming was not only geared towards subsistence but also the provisioning trade for the West Indies and the creation of lumber supplies, horses, cattle, and foodstuffs to provision the Caribbean slave societies. So we see a mixed economy that was even more mixed than in New England, and the growth of large urban seaports such as Philadelphia, New York, which quickly in the 18th century outstripped Boston. By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia emerges as the 2nd largest English-speaking city in the world, and New York emerges as the fastest-growing English-speaking city in the world.

Part of the diversity and richness of the Middle Countries comes from the fact that it has almost every possible social arrangement within it. Parts of Northern New Jersey in fact begin to appear to look like a plantation society. There are significantly large concentrations of slaves, particularly for a Northern context. There are also tracts which are remarkably egalitarian. There are frontier tracts, and of course in New York, there are quasi-feudal lordships known as patroonships, and manor land holdings. Despite all of this diversity and despite the existence of patroonships and feudal privileges, throughout the 18th century the Middle Colonies was a “poor man’s country.” Indeed, one of the reasons why such a large concentration of African slaves were imported to the Chesapeake in the 18th century was because the opening of the Middle Colonies was a magnet drawing any potential white servant or immigrant where they knew they could find rich lands in abundance for fairly low prices.

The next post deals with the last culture zone, that of the Deep South.


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