Pursuing Political, Religious, and Individual Freedom

Consumption, trade, and slavery drew the colonies closer to Great Britain, but politics and government split them further apart. Democracy in Europe more closely resembled oligarchies rather than republics, with only elite members of society eligible to serve in elected positions. Most European states did not hold regular elections, with Britain and the Dutch Republic being the two major exceptions. However, even in these countries, only approximately 1% of males could vote. In the North American colonies, by contrast, white male suffrage was nearly universal. In addition to having greater popular involvement, colonial government also had more power in a variety of areas. Assemblies and legislatures regulated businesses, imposed new taxes, cared for the poor in their communities, built roads and bridges, and made most decisions concerning education. Colonial Americans sued often, which in turn led to more power for local judges and more prestige in jury service. Thus, lawyers became extremely important in American society, and in turn, played a greater role in American politics.

American society was less tightly controlled than European society. This led to the rise of various interest groups, each at odds with the other. These various interest groups arose based on commonalities in various areas. Some commonalities arose over class-based distinctions, while others were due to ethnic or religious ties. One of the major differences between modern politics and colonial political culture was the lack of distinct, stable, political parties. The most common disagreement in colonial politics was between the elected assemblies and the royal governor. Generally, the various colonial legislatures were divided into factions who either supported or opposed the current governor’s political ideology.

As far as political structure, colonies fell under one of three main categories: provincial, proprietary, and charter. The provincial colonies included New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The proprietary colonies included Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. The charter colonies included Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The provincial colonies were the most tightly controlled by the crown. The British king appointed all of the provincial governors. These crown governors could veto any decision made by the legislative assemblies in the provincial colonies. The proprietary colonies had a similar structure, with one important difference: governors were appointed by a lord proprietor, an individual who had purchased or received the rights to the colony from the crown. This generally led to proprietary colonies having more freedoms and liberties than other colonies in colonial America. The charter colonies had the most complex system of government, formed by political corporations or interest groups who drew up a charter that clearly delineated powers between executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government. As opposed to having governors appointed, the charter colonies elected their own governors from among the property-owning men in the colony.

A map of Philadelphia

Nicholas Scull, “To the mayor, recorder, aldermen, common council, and freemen of Philadelphia this plan of the improved part of the city surveyed and laid down by the late Nicholas Scull,” Philadelphia, 1762. Library of Congress.

After the governor, colonial government was broken down into two main divisions: the council and the assembly. The council was essentially the governor’s cabinet, often composed of prominent individuals within the colony, such as the head of the militia, or the attorney-general of the colony. The governor appointed these men, often subject to approval from Parliament. The assembly was composed of elected, property-owning men whose official goal was to ensure that colonial law conformed to English law. The colonial assemblies approved new taxes and the colonial budgets. However, many of these assemblies saw it as their duty to check the power of the governor and ensure that he did not take too much power within colonial government. Unlike Parliament, most of the men who were elected to an assembly came from local districts, with their constituency able to hold their elected officials accountable to promises made.

An elected assembly was an offshoot of the idea of civic duty, the notion that men had a responsibility to support and uphold the government through voting, paying taxes, and service in the militia. Americans firmly accepted the idea of a social contract, the idea that government was put in place by the people. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke pioneered this idea, and there is evidence to suggest that these writers influenced the colonists. While in practice elites controlled colonial politics, in theory many colonists believed in the notion of equality before the law and opposed special treatment for any members of colonial society.

Whether or not African Americans, Native Americans, and women would also be included in this notion of equality before the law was far less clear. In particular, women’s role in the family became more complicated. Many historians view this period as a significant time of transition. Importantly, Anglo-American families during the colonial period differed from their European counterparts. Widely available land and plentiful natural resources allowed for greater fertility and thus encouraged more people to marry earlier in life. Yet while young marriages and large families were common throughout the colonial period, family sizes started to shrink by the end of the 1700s as wives asserted more control over their own bodies.

New ideas governing romantic love helped to change the nature of husband-wife relationships. Deriving from the sentimental literary movement, many Americans began to view marriage as an emotionally fulfilling relationship rather than a strictly economic partnership. Referring to one another as “Beloved of my Soul” or “My More than Friend,” newspaper editor John Fenno and his wife Mary Curtis Fenno illustrate what some historians refer to as the “companionate ideal.” While away from his wife, John felt a “vacuum in my existence,” a sentiment returned by Mary’s “Doting Heart.” Indeed, after independence, wives began to not only provide emotional sustenance to their husbands, but to inculcate the principles of republican citizenship as “republican wives.”

Marriage opened up new emotional realms for some but remained oppressive for others. For the millions of Americans bound in chattel slavery, marriage remained an informal arrangement rather than a codified legal relationship. For white women, the legal practice of coverture meant that women lost all of their political and economic rights to their husband. Divorce rates rose throughout the 1790s, as did less formal cases of abandonment. Newspapers published advertisements by deserted men and women denouncing their partners publically. Known as “elopement notices,” they catalogued the various sorts of misbehavior of deviant spouses, such as wives’ “indecent manner,” a way of implying sexual impropriety. As violence and inequality continued in many American marriages, wives in return highlighted their husbands’ “drunken fits” and violent rages. One woman noted how her partner “presented his gun at my breast… and swore he would kill me.”

That couples would turn to newspapers as a source of expression illustrates the importance of what historians call print culture. Print culture includes the wide range of factors contributing to how books and other printed objects are made, including the relationship between the author and the publisher, the technical constraints of the printer, and the tastes of readers. In colonial America, regional differences in daily life impacted the way colonists made and used printed matter. However, all the colonies dealt with threats of censorship and control from imperial supervision. In particular, political content stirred the most controversy.

From the establishment of Virginia in 1607, printing was regarded either as unnecessary within such harsh living conditions or it was actively discouraged. The governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, summed up the attitude of the ruling class in 1671: “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing…for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy…and printing has divulged them.” Ironically, the circulation of hand-written tracts contributed to Berkeley’s undoing. The popularity of Nathaniel Bacon’s uprising was in part due to widely circulated tracts questioning Berkeley’s competence. Berkeley’s harsh repression of Bacon’s Rebellion was equally well documented. It was only after Berkeley’s death in 1677 that the idea of printing in the Southern colonies was revived. William Nuthead, an experienced English printer, set up shop in 1682, although the next governor of the colony, Thomas Culpeper forbade Nuthead from completing a single project. It wasn’t until William Parks set up his printing shop in Annapolis in 1726 that the Chesapeake had a stable local trade in printing and books.

Print culture was very different in New England. Puritans had an established respect for print from the very beginning. Unfortunately, New England’s authors were content to publish in London, making the foundations of Stephen Daye’s first print shop in 1639 very shaky. Typically printers made their money from printing sheets, not books to be bound. The case was similar in Massachusetts, where the first printed work was a Freeman’s Oath. The first book was not issued until 1640, the Bay Psalm Book, of which 11 known copies survive. His contemporaries recognized the significance of Daye’s printing, and he was awarded 140 acres of land. The next large project, the first bible to be printed in America, was undertaken by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, published 1660. That same year, the Eliot Bible, named for its translator John Eliot, was printed in the Natick dialect of the local Algonquin tribes.

Massachusetts remained the center of colonial printing for a hundred years, until Philadelphia overtook Boston in 1770.  Philadelphia’s rise as the printing capital of the colonies began with two important features: first, the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1723, equal parts scholar and businessman, and second, waves of German immigrants created a demand for German-language press. From the mid 1730s, Christopher Sauer, and later his son, wholly met this demand with German-language newspapers and religious texts. Nevertheless Franklin was a one-man culture of print, revolutionizing the book trade in addition to creating public learning initiatives such as the Library Company and the Academy of Philadelphia. His Autobiography offers one of the most detailed glimpses of life in a print shop available. Given the flurry of newspapers, pamphlets, and books for sale in Franklin’s Philadelphia, it is little wonder that in 1775 Thomas Paine had his Common Sense printed in hundreds of thousands of copies with the Philadelphia printer Robert Bell.

A bill printed by Benjamin Franklin and David Hall.

Benjamin Franklin and David Hall, printers, Pennsylvania Currency, 1764. Wikimedia.

Debates on religious expression continued throughout the 18th century. In 1711 a group of New England ministers published a collection of sermons entitled Early Piety. The most famous of them, Increase Mather, wrote the preface. In it he asked the question “What did our forefathers come into this wilderness for?” His answer was simple: to test their faith against the challenges of America and win. The grandchildren of the first settlers had been born into the comfort of well-established colonies and worried that their faith had suffered. This sense of inferiority sent colonists looking for a reinvigorated religious experience. The result came to be known as the Great Awakening

Only with hindsight does the Great Awakening look like a unified movement. The first revivals began unexpectedly in the Congregational churches of New England in the 1730’s and then spread through the 1740’s and 1750’s to Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists in the other Thirteen Colonies. Different places at different times experienced revivals of different intensities. Yet in all of these communities colonists discussed the same need to strip their lives of worldly concerns and return to a more pious lifestyle. The form it took was something of a contradiction. Preachers became key figures in encouraging individuals to find a personal relationship with God.

The first signs of religious revival appeared in Jonathan Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards was a theologian who shared the faith of the early Puritans setters. In particular he believed in the idea called predestination that God had decided in advance who was damned and who was saved. However, he worried that his congregation had stopped searching their souls and were merely doing good works to prove they were saved. With a missionary zeal, Edwards preached against worldly sins and called for his congregation to look inwards for signs of God’s saving grace. His most famous sermon was called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Suddenly in the winter of 1734 these sermons sent his congregation into violent convulsions. The spasms first appeared amongst known sinners in the community. Over the next 6 months the physical symptoms spread to half of the 600 person-congregation. Edwards shared the work of his revival in a widely circulated pamphlet.

Over the next decade itinerant preachers were more successfully in spreading the spirit of revival around America. These preachers had the same spiritual goal as Edwards, but brought with them a new religious experience. They abandoned traditional sermons in favor of outside meetings where they could whip up the congregation into an emotional frenzy that might reveal evidence of saving grace. Many religious leaders were suspicious of the enthusiasm and message of these revivals, but colonists flocked to the spectacle.

Whitefield is shown supported by two women, "Hypocrisy" and "Defeat". The image also includes other visual indications of the engraver's disapproval of Whitefield, including a monkey and jester's staff in the right-hand corner.

C. Corbett, publisher, “Enthusiasm display’d: or, the Moor Fields congregation,” 1739. Library of Congress.

The most famous itinerant preacher was George Whitefield. According to Whitefield the only type of faith that pleased God was heartfelt. The established churches only encouraged apathy. “The Christian World is dead asleep,” Whitefield explained, “Nothing but a loud voice can awaken them out of it.” He would be that voice. Whitefield was a former actor with a dramatic style of preaching and a simple message. Thundering against sin and for Jesus Christ, Whitefield invited everyone to be born again. It worked. Through the 1730’s he traveled from New York to South Carolina converting ordinary men, women and children. “I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence,” wrote a socialite in Philadelphia, “broken only by an occasional half suppressed sob.” A farmer recorded the powerful impact this rhetoric could have: “And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.” The number of people trying to hear Whitefield’s message were so large that he preached in the meadows at the edges of cities. Contemporaries regularly testified to crowds of thousands and in one case over 20,000 in Philadelphia. Whitefield and the other itinerant preachers had achieved what Edwards could not, making the revivals popular.

Ultimately the religious revivals became a victim of the preachers’ success. As itinerant preachers became more experimental they alienated as many people as they converted. In 1742 one preacher from Connecticut, James Davenport, persuaded his congregation that he had special knowledge from God. To be saved they had to dance naked in circles at night whilst screaming and laughing. Or, they could burn the books he disapproved of. Either way, this type of extremism demonstrated to many that revivalism had gone wrong. A divide appeared by the 1740s and 1750s between “New Lights”, who still believed in a revived faith, and “Old Lights”, who thought it was deluded nonsense.

By the 1760s, the religious revivals had petered out; however, they left a profound impact on America. Leaders like Edwards and Whitefield encouraged individuals to question the world around them. This idea reformed religion in America and created a language of individualism that promised to change everything else. If you challenged the church, what other authority figures might you question? The Great Awakening provided a language of individualism, reinforced in print culture, which reappeared in the call for independence. While pre-revolutionary America had profoundly oligarchical qualities, the groundwork was laid for a more republican society. However, society did not transform easily overnight. It would take intense, often physical, conflict to change colonial life.