American History: The 17th Century


Figure 1.--This portrait of the Mason children by an unknown Massachusetts artist illustrates how Pilgram children would have dressed for church. Note that theie outfits are essentally scaled-down versions of their parents' outfit. The pilgrams were one of the two major cultural traditions in the English colonies.

The central issue in American history during the 17th century was what Europan power would control North America. At first the issue was contested between England an Spain, but in the early 17th century with the decline of Spanish seapower and the founding of English and French colonies, it developed primarily in a struggle between France and Britain. (The Act of Union between England and Scotland created Britain during the reign of King James, the monarch for which Jamestown was named.) At the time the Caribbean took on an enormous importance because of the huge profits to be had from sugar. And here labor had to be imported giving rise to the iniqutous slave trade. The struggle for North America was much more than a dynastic struggle. It was in the end to be a struggle between royal absolutism and representative government. The colonial experience in representative government went beyond even that of Britain itself. The open frontier created opportunities not available to most British people. The English Civil War ledft the American colonists largely to their own devices during the formative period of the principle colonies. The Spanish and French colonies remained firmly under royal control.

European Contest for North America

The major European powers fought for control of North America among themselves and with the Native Americans. The people arriving in North America were a mixed lot from different countries and a mix of social religious, and cultural origins. The Spanish were already well established in Mexico and the Caribbean by the time the Emglish readed what is now the United States. The Caribbean became a center of conflict because of the emense profits to be had for sugar on even a small island. The French established a colony in Canada based on the fur trade. The Dutch and the Sweeds also founded small colonies. It was the English who gradually became dominant along the temperate shores of the continent. In a small area east of the Apalachins, the English colonies developed the largest population based on agriculture. This and the Royal Navy was to give them English a powerful advantage when the decisive struggle for North America came in the 18th century. The first immigrants generally experienced failure. One historian discusses the loss of civility and the vilonence as the Europeans struggled with each other and the Native Americans. The introduction of Africans added to the first century. [Bailyn]

English Colonies

The first permanent English colony was Jamestown in Viginia (1609). The second was Plymouth in Masschusetts (1620). The two were very different. Jamestown was set up to exploit the natural resources much as the Spanish had done in South America. Only after gold was not found did the colony shift to agriculture, especially tobacco. The colony developed on a rather aristocratic basis and the established Anglican church of England prevailed. The agricultural system shifted in the 17th century from endentured English workers to African slaves working large plantations. The Plymouth Colony was established by the Pigrims, puritanical religious desenters entent on separation from the established Church of England and the agriculural developed on the basis of small family plans. Other colonies followed and ge colonies became more diverse. The two original colonies were the two basic poles around which the northern and southern colonies developed. Despite the differences there were some important common threads. First, all the colonies adopted English law and representative government. Second, the prevailing religion was Protesantism in all its many forms with the stress on individual conscious and responsibility. Third, a spirit of toleration gradually developed, primarily because so many different Protestant denominations developed that no one denomination could dominate.

The First Frontier

American and Europens tend to think of the Frontier as the Ameican West, the land west of the Mississippi. This is the Frontierthat Hollywood concentrated on with Conestogaagons, mounted Indians, vast heards of bufallo, cowboys, gun fights, and the calvary riding to the resuce. This glamorized eoiside in American history represents a short period in the second half of the 19th century. There was, however, a first frontier, the wild East that the early colonists encountered when they landed on the Eastern seabord. It was equally vast, at first streaching from the coast to the Appalachins and eventually further west to the Mississippi and north south from the Maritimes to Florida. Before the West was won, the Eat had to won first. The early colonists encountered a sophisticated people, much more capable of resisting encroachmnt thn the Planes Indians of Wild West fame. The conquest of the East was a much lengthier historical period from the founding of Jamestown (1609) to General Jacksons defeat of the Creeks and Harison's defeat of the Inin Confederation at Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812. The early encountes were historic with both the colonist and the Native Ameticans adopting and adapting to each other. [Weidensaul] The struggle for the land was in large measuire determined by the collapse of Native American populations as a result of lack of resistance to European diseases. There were periods of peaceful coexistence. But as European populations increased, conflict was inevitable. Contemporary literature is full of reports od Native American savegry. In fact the settlers military campaigns against the Nstive Americans were every bit as brutal, if not more so.

Economy

The early colonists had different goals, but the first practical task was to produce food. The colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth almost starved the first year. Most of the colonisdts all through the colonisal period were primarily involved with groweing their own food. Plymouth was primarily a religious community, but Puritans also saw economic success as a sign of God';s favor. other colonies were founded by investors who wanted a return on their substantial capital investment. Some colonists came to America wih the dream of disdcovering golkd and silver like the Spsanish. Virginia colonidsts soon found a valuavle cash crop--tobacco (1612). It led the colony from near failure to real rosperity in only a few years. Plymouth Colony was too fsar north for tosacco. An early success was the fur trade with the Native Americans. The Dutch, already engaged in the Hudson River fur trade, founded their colony, New Netherland, with the primsry bpurpose of expsanding the trade. This was also thegoial of the Swedish colony on the Delaware River. Beavers and other fur animals were quickly depleted. New Englanders found lumbering to be a more long-term undertaking. England was running out of timber to build s\hips ad had to import it from the Baltic. Iron ore was discovered in New England and a successful iron industry developed in Massachusetts (1640s). Euyropeans had fished the Grabnd Babks before the English colonies were founded. The New England colonists began their own fishiung industry, opmarily focused on cod.

Slavery

No survey of American history would be complete without an examination of slavery. The early colonists did not bring race slavery with them. It was am institution that developed in America. Here the development of the emensely profitable sugar islands was a major fsactor. That is perhaps one of the great ironies of America. The great irony in American history is that colonists who came to America seeking economic and religious freedom would develop a system of chattel slavery. It became critical in the South, but also existed and benefitted the North. Slavery continued as a legal institution and a key part of the American economy until the Civil War (1861-65).

Growth of Representative Government

The primary difference between the English and Catholic colonies (France, Portugal, and Spain) was representative government. But just as in England itseld, representative developed in the English colonies as aresult if the course of events and not by any grand design. The Tudors did a great deal to strengthen the authority of the monarchy. They were deft politicans and managed Parliament carefully. The Stuarts had a different mindset. They were commited to not only divine-right monarchy, but royal absolutism as well. Rather than attempting to mamage Patliament, the Stuarts were conronted by Parliament's perogatives. The conflict between the Stuart monarchy and Parliament culminated in the English Civil War (1642-51). The Civil War was a major step in the development of English democracy. Less commonly noted is that it also had a profound impact on American democracy. In large measure, representative government in America was ironically a gift of the Stuarts. During the 17th century with political turmoil in England, the colonists were left largely to their own devices. This meant at an early stage of colonial development, the new colonial legisltures had to exercise considerable authority independent of royal control. This opened a heady bottle of democracy that the Crown would never be able to recork. The Stuart monarchy even when reestablished after Cromwell's death faced considerable challenge which evetually led to the Glorious Revolution. Thus it was not until the 18th century that a more stable monarchy could begin to attempt to establish royal control.

Sources

Bailyn, Bernard. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America--The Conflict of CIvilizations, 1600-1675 (2012), 656p.

Weidensaul, Scott. The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery & Endurance in Early America (2011).






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Created: 8:29 PM 5/12/2007
Last updated: 7:34 AM 1/9/2013