Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution

 In 1700, the colonies had fewer than
300,000 people, 20,000 were black
slaves. By 1775, 2.5 million people
inhabited the colonies of which
500,000 were slaves (the average age
was 16). On average, the colonists
were doubling their numbers every
25 years.
 The bulk of the population lived
east of the Allegheny Mountains,
although some pioneering colonists
had begun to settle in Tennessee
and Kentucky. In 1775, the most
populous colonies were Virginia,
Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North
Carolina and Maryland—in that
order. 90% of the population lived
in rural areas.
 Colonial America was a melting
pot. Germans constituted about
6% of the total population by 1775.
Many of them had chosen to settle
in Pennsylvania. They were and are
still known as the Pennsylvania
Dutch (Deutsch). In parts of
Philadelphia, the street signs were
painted in both German and
 The Scots-Irish constituted about
7% of the total population in 1775.
They were not Irish at all but were
Scots who had been transplanted to
Northern Ireland, where they had
not prospered. The Irish Catholics
that were there hated Scottish
Presbyterianism and the Scots who
brought it, and still do.
 Early in the 1700s, tens of thousands of embittered
Scots-Irish came to America and many settled in
Pennsylvania. They eventually pushed south into
Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. They were
superb frontiersmen who regularly clashed with
Indian tribes. About a dozen future presidents were of
Scots-Irish descent.
 About 5% of the colonial population consisted of
other European groups such as French, Welsh, Dutch,
Swedes, Jews, Irish, Swiss, and Scots Highlanders.
Many of these colonial groups felt no loyalty to the
British crown.
 The largest single non-
English group was
African, accounting for
nearly 20% of the colonial
population in 1775.
 The population of the
thirteen colonies was
probably the most mixed
anywhere in the world. As
these various immigrant
groups mingled, they laid
the foundations for a new
multicultural American
national identity unlike
anything known in Europe.
 Agriculture was the leading industry, involving 90% of the
population. Tobacco was the staple crop in Maryland and
Virginia. The middle colonies produced large quantities of grain
and by 1759, New York was exporting 80,000 barrels of flour a
 Fishing was a major industry in New England. The fishing fleet
also stimulated a shipbuilding industry and served as a nursery
for the seamen who manned the navy and merchant marine.
 A bustling commerce, both up and down the coast and
overseas, enriched all the colonies. Yankee seamen were famous
in many areas not only and skilled mariners but as tightfisted
traders. They provisioned the Caribbean sugar islands with food
and forest products. They hauled Spanish and Portuguese
gold, wine and oranges to London, to be exchanged for industrial
goods, which were then sold for a juicy profit in America.
 Another example of this overseas commerce has been
called the triangular trade. Ships would leave New
England with rum and sail to the west coast of Africa where
they would barter the rum for slaves. With the slaves on
board, the ship would sail to the Caribbean where the
slaves would be bartered for molasses.
 Loaded with molasses, the ship would sail north to New
England where it would be distilled into rum and the
process would start all over again. Most captains made a
handsome profit on each leg of the trip.
 In 1773, Parliament passed the Molasses Act, aimed at
stopping North American trade with the French West
Indies. American merchants responded to the act by
bribing and smuggling their way around the law.
 In all the colonial churches,
religion was less fervid in the early
18th century than it was a century
earlier. Some Puritan ministers
worried that many of their
parishioners had gone soft and that
their souls were no longer kindled
by the hellfire of orthodox
Calvinism. Some worshipers
proclaimed that human beings were
not necessarily predestined to
damnation and might save
themselves by good works.
 The religious revival known as the
Great Awakening exploded in the
1730s and 1740s and swept through
the colonies like wild fire.
 It started in Northampton,
Massachusetts by an intellectual
pastor, Jonathan Edwards. He
preached against believing in
salvation through good works and
stressed the necessity of complete
dependence on God’s grace. In his
sermons Edwards painted a vivid
picture of hell and eternal
 In 1738, gifted English preacher
George Whitefield began to preach
in the colonies. Whitefield was an
amazing orator. His voice boomed
over thousands of enthralled
listeners in an open field.
Whitefield’s message was one of
human helplessness and divine
omnipotence. He was so eloquent
that Jonathan Edwards was reduced
to tears and thrifty Benjamin
Franklin emptied his pockets into
the collection plate.
 During these roaring revival meetings many
“sinners” professed conversion and many of the
“saved” groaned, shrieked, or rolled on the ground
from the religious excitement.
 Old lights, (orthodox clergymen) were deeply
skeptical of the emotionalism and the theatrics antics
of the revivalists. New light ministers defended the
Awakening for its role in revitalizing American
religion. Congregationalists and Presbyterians
split over this issue, and many of the believers in
religious conversion went over to the Baptists.
 The Great Awakening had many lasting effects. Its
emphasis on direct, emotional spirituality seriously
undermined the older clergy whose authority had come
from their education. The schisms it set off in many
denominations greatly increased the numbers and
competitiveness of American churches. It led to the
founding of many centers of higher learning such as
Princeton, Rutgers and Dartmouth.
 Most significant was that the Great Awakening was the
first spontaneous mass movement of the American people.
It tended to break down sectional boundaries as well as
denominational lines and contributed to the growing sense
that Americans had of themselves as a single people, united
by a common history and shared experiences.
 Puritan New England, for religious reasons, was more
interested in education than any other section. The
Puritan church stressed the need for Bible reading by the
individual worshiper. Education was primarily for boys and
at a very early date New Englanders established primary
and secondary schools (Old Deluder Satan Law).
 In the middle colonies, fairly adequate elementary
schools were also set up. Some of these were tax supported
 In the southern colonies, wealthy families relied on
private tutors to educate their children. Poorer families
received very little education at all.
 Most early colleges
were established by
religious groups for
the training of new
ministers. Many
wealthy families,
especially in the
south, sent their
boys abroad to
English colleges and
 Hand-operated printing
presses cranked out
pamphlets, leaflets, and
journals in all of the colonies.
On the eve of the revolution,
there were nearly 40 colonial
newspapers. The “news”
often lagged many weeks
behind the event, especially
in the case of overseas events.
Newspapers proved to be a
powerful agency for airing
colonial grievances and
rallying opposition to British
 In 1734-1735, significant legal case
arose in New York. Peter Zenger, a
newspaper printer, was arrested and
put on trial. His paper had printed
article about the corrupt royal
governor. Zenger was charged with
libel and was defended by Alexander
 Zenger argued that he had printed
the truth but the prosecution argued
that the jury should not even
consider the truth or falsity of
Zenger’s statements; the mere fact
that he had printed the articles was
enough to convict. The jury found
Zenger not guilty.
 The Zenger decision was a
landmark decision for the freedom
of the press. In time it helped
establish the doctrine that true
statements about public officials
could not be prosecuted as libel.
Colonial governments took a variety of
forms. By 1775, eight of the colonies had
royal governors who were appointed by
the king. Three were under proprietors
who themselves chose the governors
(Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware).
Two elected their own governors under
self-governing charters (Connecticut,
and Rhode Island).
 Practically every colony used a twohouse legislature. The upper house
was appointed by the crown or the
proprietor of the colony. The lower
house was elected by the people—or
rather those who owned enough land to
qualify as voters. Most legislatures voted
such taxes as they chose for the necessary
expenses of colonial government. Selftaxation through representation was a
precious privilege that Americans came
to cherish above most others.
 Governors appointed by the king were generally able
men but some were incompetent or corrupt. Even the best
appointees had trouble with the colonial legislatures.
 Colonial assemblies found various ways to assert their
authority and independence. Some withheld the
governor’s salary unless he yielded to their wishes. Most
governors were in need of money so this was a effective
 The London government (Parliament) was guilty of poor
administration. Control over the purse by the colonial
legislatures led to prolonged bickering which proved to be
one of the persistent irritants that generated a spirit of
 The right to vote was
not a right in
colonial America.
All colonies had
religious or property
qualifications for
voting by 1775 and
that meant that
nearly 50% of all
white males could
not vote.