History of the United States: Social Conflict and Ideological Tensions in pre-Colonial America–Conclusion


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 is the 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; this last portion of the lecture deals with the conflicts between the Colonies and both the Amerindians and the mother Country of England, and lists 7 ideological tensions within the Colonies themselves.  

4. Societal and Ideological Tensions in early America

a. Amerindians

The political life in early America was characterized by a variety of different tensions. These tensions stemmed from the fact that everywhere authority was contested and negotiated. The authority of colonial governments, for example, was contested on the one hand quite obviously by the Amerindians. In the Chesapeake, the claim that Virginia belonged to the English was obviously disputed by the Powhatan Confederacy, which quite clearly established that they had the military resources to resist such a claim to authority. Through war, negotiation and marriage, a tenuous peace was established but often violated. A similar process occurred in New England, where the authority of the New England government to control land titles and Amerindian relations was challenged both from within the English community by figures such as Roger Williams but more important from without by the Pequot Indians in the famed Pequot Indian War.

A similar pattern would repeat itself in the 3rd quarter of the 17th century in Virginia where a challenge emerged from the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Indians known as Bacon’s Rebellion, a large-scale Amerindian uprising that decimated the frontier and resulted in the overthrow of the established government.

There was a similar Algonquin uprising at the same time in New England known as King Philips’ War or Metacom’s War, which destroyed the frontier in New England. In fact, it would take New England a full fifty years before it would reestablish the frontier that it had achieved by 1675.

Nor would the Deep South be immune to such aboriginal challenges: the Yemassee Indian War, the Cherokee War, and the Catawbas all challenged South Carolinians.

Those in the Middle Colonies, while facing more pacific relations with the Amerindians and who were much less likely to face war, nonetheless found the need to negotiate, initially with the Susquehanna, and then with the Lenape, and of course most famously in New York with the famed Iroquois Confederacy, resulting in the famous Covenant Chain of 1676.

b. Imperial Officials

Colonial governments were also challenged by imperial officials, such as with a set of Navigation Acts beginning in the 1650s, running all the way through the 1690s, and then sporadically passed in the 1730s. All these tried to mandate the flow of goods between New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, South Carolina, the West Indies, Africa, the Continent of Europe, and England. Imperial officials insisted on the right to review colonial legislation and to veto that legislation which they felt jeopardized or undermined English interests or violated the English Common Law.

By the 18th century, most governors are in fact appointed by Imperial authorities as are most of the upper assemblies of the legislature, the Councils. A whole host of colonial officials are appointed by the Imperial authorities and they consistently challenge the autonomy of the early American colonial regimes.

c. Internal Tensions

Within the early American colonial settlements, there are also political challenges, challenges between various interest groups and classes that vie for power to protect their own vision of not only the Good Society but also of their own best interest.

Here’s a list of some of the internal tensions in early Colonial American society.

i. Western Frontier Regions vs. Eastern Regions

It was precisely the tension between the Western frontier vs. the center tidewater that lay at the bottom of Bacon’s Rebellion, as frontier regions resented the exploitive taxes of the Eastern tidewater elite and even more resented their unwillingness to protect them against they considered Amerindian deprivations.

A similar dynamic occurred in the late colonial period and early National period with Shay’s Rebellion, which is also a split between, on the one hand, Western Massachusetts farmers who believe they are underrepresented and overtaxed by an Eastern mercantile elite.

In Pennsylvania, the uprising of the Paxton Boys, which is again Western Scots-Irish frontiersmen, who feel they are underrepresented within the Pennsylvania legislature,against the mercantile Quaker elite of the East that insists on pacifism and which refuses to protect them against the threats of Amerindian destruction.

ii. Debtors vs. Creditors

Another important schism of interests which occurs throughout early American political life is that between debtors and creditors, between those who were forced to buy their farms, lands, and provisions on credit, and those who held mortgages.

This schism took various forms. For example, early on in Massachusetts when the Great Migration ends, and there were no longer people to purchase the agricultural surpluses of family farmers, there was a dramatic deflation, where a cow that once may have been worth 5 pounds would now be worth less than 1 pound. The result was that if you owed a debt in cash and cash was scarce, you would not be able to repay it and would be likely to lose your farm. Politics reflected this schism. Small farmers insisted on “stay laws,” which stated that you could not collect debts until the depression came to an end. They tried to facilitate the inflation of currency so that they could pay back their debts with depreciated specie. This was not simply a feature of early Massachusetts, but was a feature that would occur throughout Massachusetts with land bank schemes in the 18th century and throughout every colonial settlement.

c. Merchants vs. Farmers

Another important conflict of interests was between merchants and farmers. Merchants tended to believe that their accumulation of wealth served to create more capital and more opportunities as a whole. Farmers tended to think that any economic arrangement must be predicated on a notion of just price and just wage, such that if a supply and demand had necessitated that an oversupply of tobacco should result in a lower price, a merchant should respect the mores of the society and offer the traditional price for the tobacco and take the loss himself. That rarely occurred in the Chesapeake, but it was a live issue in the Middle Colonies, and particularly in New England, where scarce English commodities obviously were able to fetch high prices and small farmers demanded that their governments enforce the traditional prices they had been accustomed to paying in the Old Country.

d. Clergymen vs. Laity

Another disjuncture occurred between clergymen and laity. In New England, the famous example is the discussion of the Half-way Covenant. The bulk of the clergymen sought to make the Church far more inclusive in the second and third generations by lowering the standards of Church membership, or creating a second category of membership with lower standards. This was something that was vehemently resisted by the lay full members who insisted on maintaining the original standards they had come to establish.

Similarly, the notion of an established clergy with a regular maintenance created by tithing created intense schisms not only in New England but throughout all the colonial settlements, most famously in the discussion of the Parson’s Cause in late 18th century Virginia, the cause that made Patrick Henry finally a famous political figure.

Then there was the schism between the clergymen and laity that underlay the Great Awakening in every region. Clerical elites, used to their deference due to their high cultural training through university degrees, were challenged by itinerant laymen who claimed to speak directly from the spirit without the corruption of a hireling ministry.

e. Other Disjunctures

There was another disjuncture of interests between other professionals, such as lawyers, merchants, clerks, and yeomen farmers. The famous example of this is the North Carolina regulation, where small backwoods farmers fought against the excessive fees of lawyers, the corruption of the courts, and the exploitive use that educated people took of their ability to manipulate the court system and the record system.

The most legendary schism was that between backwoods farmers and frontiersmen and traditional farmers and planters, the best example of which is probably the South Carolina Regulation. Traditional frontier woodsmen and their style of life challenged the growing slave plantation regime of settled farming populations and the result is a violent law-and-order campaign.

f. Center vs. Periphery

Finally, the last political schism and challenge to authority is the tension between the power of the center and the power of the periphery. We’ll see this exemplified throughout early Colonial America at several levels, the schism between on the one hand Imperial authorities and on the other hand individual colonial assemblies and governments, one that takes the forms of not only petitions and protests but also of armed incursions.

But there is also within the colonies that same schism between the locality and the center, the powers of the towns in New England vs. the powers of the General Court, something that is contested throughout the 17th and 18th century.

Nor is that unique to New England; in the Chesapeake the power of the County Courts vs. the power of the Governor and in the case of Berkeley, his Green Spring faction, was an important source of conflict and contestation. It is critical to remember that throughout the 17th and the 18th century, and even into the 19th and 20th century, localism and local sovereignty is fraught with all sorts of ideological associations. Many of these associations we now consider as having libertarian connotations. The average person is able to have much more impact in a period before mass communications at the local level, at the town meeting, and at the County Court, at the Municipal Court than he has at the provincial legislature. The provincial legislature is where wealthy people and urban folk can lobby and show their interests, but it is at the town meeting where the average man can show up and have his voice heard and registered.

So that struggle between locality and center will suffuse and be one of the constant sources of tension within the early American political establishments and throughout all subsequent political establishments as well.

g. Radical equality vs. extreme inequality

The last large-scale pattern is one that is not only characteristic of early America, but also of a lot of subsequent American development, and that is the extent to which early American society and culture exemplified the tension that is inherent in almost every civilized periphery, a zone of settlement at the edge of a civilization, in this case Western civilization.

What we find in almost every case of a civilized periphery is an excess of liberty, freedom and equality, which is always coupled at the same time with an excess of violence, inequality and oppression. By way of contrast or comparison, the best other example in this period is the other end of the European periphery, the settlement of the Eurasian steppe, which not only produced the freedom of the Cossack, but the second serfdom of the small farmers.

A similar process occurred at this periphery, at the Atlantic periphery. For example, with respect to extreme equality, the rates of property ownership within the white community of North American settlement, were extraordinarily high by contemporary standards. Not only was the access to land incredibly open and easy for the vast majority of white adult males, but the terms of land settlement were far more favorable than could have been found in anywhere in England or, for that matter, in Europe. People held land by fee simple, a term which would have been the absolute fantasy of the average substantial English yeoman. Even squatters, people who illegally settled on lands that did not belong to them, which belonged to others, were able to establish their sovereignty and the right of first claim to purchasing that land at reasonable rates.

The social structure of early America was remarkably flat and egalitarian, particularly with regard to the mother country of England. There was no peerage, no aristocracy, no ecclesiastical hierarchy at the top end, nor was the bottom end there. There were no landless proletarians for most of the colonial period. There were no sturdy beggars, rogues and vagabonds. There were no begging widows and orphans in the seaports.

Political institutions were incredibly inclusive and representative by 17th and 18th century standards. This was not because the access to land made the “40 shilling freehold” fairly easy to meet, but also because in many cases, that wasn’t even required. In Virginia, for much of the 17th century, you didn’t have to own any property. You could always participate in town meetings in New England. The basis of representation rather than being virtual as in England, but was quite actual in the American colonies, and in fact quite demographically representative. Institutions like Instruction and Petition were quite accessible and common in the colonies.

Moreover, their society was far more ethnically diverse and religiously tolerant than almost any other European state at this time. In fact, to sum up this side of the argument, we would have to say that for the average yeoman farmer, his status in America would have been the envy of almost any European peasant or worker.

But there’s another side to this excess as well; not only an excess of freedom and opportunity, but an excess of violence and inequality that would have been inconceivable in Europe. Unlike Europe, almost every white male head of household owned a gun and was part of a militia, which resulted all too often in the genocidal elimination of Amerindian populations, a sort of warfare that would have been inconceivable within the European continent and unheralded in contemporary European usage.

The status of African-American slaves was more degraded and defenseless than that of the most abject peasant anywhere in Europe. We must recall that African-American slaves had no legal identity, had no legal protection in the Courts. There was no penalty for a master who killed his slave during the act of correction, because it was thought that one could never be done with malice aforethought: who would kill their own property? Nor was there any protection of their religious and family rights, which is not entirely standard in the Americans. Cuban slaves did have religious protection and did have protection of family rights. By the 18th century, we will see that as colonial elites gained more economic and social security, they sought to Anglicize their community’s mores. Part of this goal of Anglicization was to mimic the elites of England, but also to eliminate the egalitarian cultural residue of that first period of settlement, and thus legitimate a growing social and economic inequality.

That is finally something we have to look at not only in early American history but also in subsequent American history, that one of the themes of social development and maturation is not only an attempt to honor our traditions of freedom, equality, and opportunity, but also growing social differentiation, articulation, commerce and inequality.

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