The diversity of the United States goes back to its beginning as a collection of northern, middle, and southern colonies. Their differences in religion, politics, economics, and social issues, and the way they dealt with them, are what shaped our country into what we are today.
The Puritans founded the northern colonies of New England. Puritanism evolved from the Protestant Reformation in England after King Henry VIII outlawed the Catholic Church in order to control religion in his country (Roark 68). Not all New England colonists were Puritans, but the Puritan religion was a major influence in the seventeenth-century New England way of life (Roark 70). In the last half of the seventeenth century the Quakers began to populate Massachusetts. Quakers believe that neither preachers nor Bibles are necessary to worship God, which is the polar opposite of the Puritan religion. Many New England communities treated Quakers poorly and many Quakers saw acts of violence inflicted on them in the name of God (Roark 79).
Quakers began to populate the middle colonies around 1700, after the English crown had seized the colony of New Netherland, renamed it New York, and encouraged the creation of a Quaker colony led by William Penn (Roark 79). In addition to the Quakers, many other religions began to settle in the middle colonies. Orthodox, Puritans, Baptists, and Lutherans all helped to settle and populate New Jersey (Kelley 51). After William Penn founded Pennsylvania he declared that every settler would “enjoy the free possession of his or her faith and exercise of worship towards God” (Roark 82).
Religion in the southern colonies was not practiced with the enthusiasm that it was in New England. While most colonists of the south were Anglicans, their true faith lay in their tobacco plantations. The same was true for the Catholic founders of Maryland. As their population grew, Protestants began to outnumber Catholics, though the Catholics continued to hold the power and influence. Just as in the other southern colonies, religion eventually took a back seat to tobacco in Maryland (Roark 57).
Politics in the colonies were as varied as their religious preferences. “Seventeenth-century New England was governed by Puritans for Puritanism” (Roark 76). The Massachusetts Bay Company stockholders, known as freemen, were empowered by charter to meet as a body called the General Court. The General Court made laws and governed the company. The colonists of New England took the General Court concept and used it to govern their colonies. The General Court ruled that freemen could only be male church members to make sure only godly men could decide government issues. The number of freemen eventually grew too large so they agreed to send two deputies from each colony to the General Court to act as representatives for the colony (Roark 76).
The middle colonies were ruled largely by the British monarchy until William Penn was granted land by the throne and formed Pennsylvania. Voters had to be Christian, as well as anyone wishing to hold office, but the local government did not force settlers to attend church or to pay taxes to support the church, as in other colonies. Penn was free to rule his colony as he saw fit, and was answerable to only the king of England. Penn developed a colonial council made up of tax-paying landowners that had the power to develop laws and administrate the government. He also appointed a governor who had the power to veto any laws passed by the council. “A popularly elected assembly served as a check on the council; its members had the authority to reject or approve laws framed by the council” (Roark 82).
The southern colonies, like Virginia, were ruled by the oldest legislative body in America, called the House of Burgesses (Handlin 155). The king of England appointed a royal governor, who in turn selected his council. This body was the upper house. Representatives from each region in the colony were selected by their inhabitants to form the lower house; the House of Burgesses. Counties were established to provide government on the local level and were administered individually by a board of commissioners known as the county court. These men were responsible for judicial and administrative matters in their area. A large majority of the southern colonies followed the Virginia model of government (Kelley 20-1).
The rocky soil of New England did not permit the type of farming that was done in other regions. For the first ten years, colonists were forced to trade with the Indians for animal pelts that were in demand in Europe (Roark 77). As settlers drove east in search of fur-bearing animals, they discovered vast forests, from which lumber would be exported to England. “A lasting source of income was found in the rich fishing waters that lay off the coast of New England…” (Kelley 40). The codfish eventually became the symbol of Massachusetts for its part in the prosperous New England economy (Kelley 40).
Unlike the soil of New England, the soil of New Netherland was rich enough to produce “food in many forms” for export throughout the world (Kelley 48). Wheat was grown in abundance, with flour milling being the number one industry and flour being the number one export, making up almost three quarters of all exports from the middle colonies (Roark 96). Indentured servants who sold their services for periods of up to six, or more, years did much of the work. Family labor also made up a large workforce for the colony. Slave labor was a long-term investment that was unattractive to all but the more affluent colonists of the area (Roark 95-6).
The southern colonists learned, quickly, how to make a living growing tobacco. They built huge plantations to grow massive crops of tobacco to be exported to England. Growing tobacco requires a large labor force, and at first the colonists were forced to rely on family members and indentured servants (Roark 46). Around 1670, the number of African slaves being sent to the southern colonies began to dramatically increase. Plantation owners started purchasing slaves rather than servants because, though a slave would cost much more than a servant, the slave was owned for the rest of his life. Another advantage to the slave owner was that all children born of slaves also became slaves (Roark 62-3).
Northern colonial society was built on conformity based on the Puritan religion. “The meetinghouse was the central feature” of any northern colonial village, and “both government and religious observance went on within its walls” (Kelley 37). The Puritans passed laws that required each settlement to construct schools, so that each resident would be able to read the Bible (Kelley 37). Community leaders attempted to form a completely pious society and to eliminate sin from within its boundaries. Those that did not conform were cast out or met with ridicule and violence, as is evident by the Salem witch trials (Roark 79).
The Quakers of the middle colonies believed that “in souls there is no sex,” and that all people were equal in God’s eyes (quoted in book, Roark 81). Women were equal to men and were even allowed to assume leadership positions within the church. Quakers shook hands when they met people and called them “friend.” Many people who were not Quakers were angered by their different customs and the Quakers were often beaten, or worse (Roark 81).
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the southern colonists lived their lives in much the same way. Most were farmers with small plots of land that were maintained by family members and possibly a couple servants. Eventually, the mortality rate in the colonies began to decrease and most indentured servants survived long enough to be free. This caused a class system to develop that polarized the social structure of the south (Roark 57-8).
The people of the United States are as diverse today as they were as a collection of colonies in the seventeenth century. The ways they worshiped, governed, made a living, and lived their lives continues to influence the way we do those same things today.
Handlin, Oscar. The History of the United States. Vol. 1. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
Kelley, Robert. The Shaping of the American Past. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1978.
Roark, James L., et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.