The American colonies : Religion and Politics
175 years after the arrival of the first English-speaking settlers in North America until the Declaration of Independence laid the foundation of a new model of nation.
The distinctive characteristic ideals and contradictions of colonial America shaped the civilization of the United States until very recently.
The Puritans’ Promised Land
Those who migrated to New England for religious reasons after the Pilgrim Fathers believed that they had been called to take part in an event of both historical and spiritual importance.
They thought that God had kept America secret and hidden until the day when it would provide mankind with one last chance for regeneration.
The Puritans insisted on individual effort and morality as the only way of achieving both economic success and personal salvation. They also insisted on saving money and sizing opportunities in what they considered as a hostile environment.
Therefore, by providing a refuge from the corruption of Old England, America was to become a New World of opportunities, the last Promised Land for the new people of God who saw their voyage across the Atlantic as a new biblical exodus.
Politically speaking, the Puritans also brought with them the foundations of new institutions: mixture of democracy and authoritarian theocracy.
Their community was to be organized by contract between responsible individuals but under God’s eyes.
As soon as they saw the American coast, the Pilgrim fathers of 1620, while still onboard their ship, the Mayflower- signed the first political agreement.
The Mayflower Contract was approved by all three men but excluding women and servants. The contract secured the colonies’ legal existence beyond the Royal Charter by insisting on the individual free decision to enter a contract with each other and with God.
The contract also gathered very different groups of migrants. Thus, the colonists had organized a form of freedom both collective and individual from the American forms of government.
Similarly, in 1629, before migrating to America, 20 Puritans, members of the Massachusetts Bay Company, signed an agreement by which they intended to protect themselves against any outside control.
John Winthrop, first governor of the new colony based in Boston, also insisted on the providential nature of the colonial experience: “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in relation with God”. Winthrop decided that only church members would become citizens. –
Freedom, as expressed in the covenant, was restricted by a religious ideal, a theocracy that imposed the responsible and holy authority of a religious elite. In that context, political differences were unthinkable.
In 1635, when the minister of the town of Salem, Roger Williams, claimed the right to every man to follow his own conscience, he was banished by the General Court and forced to leave the country. He took refuge among the Indians, from who he bought land. He later obtained a Royal Charter for a colony he called “Rhode Island”, granting freedom of consciousness to all.
In the 1690s, in Salem, after two young girls became ill, 400 people were arrested, 20 executed and 5 died in prison for disturbing public order conscience on suspected allegations of witchcraft.
In protestant churches, it resulted in two opposite trends:
- Independence, responsibility and contractual freedom
- Intolerance and authoritarianism
Expansion and opportunities
In the New World, a relative material abundance and the spreading of wealth enabled a majority of white citizens to live in relative comfort in a land of plenty.
American society was a fluid structure in which origins counted for less than individual achievement, except in the South for there was no privileged class and upward mobility was possible. America was a land of opportunities. Education was available to a greater number of people than in England.
Instead of Oxford and Cambridge, which opened to Anglicans only, several institutions were created in the early days of the settlement to answer the need of the population for further education:
- 1636: Harvard College in Boston
- College of William and Mary in Virginia founded by the Anglicans
- Brown College outside Providence, by the Baptists
- Princeton in New Jersey, by the Presbyterians
The new institution which started as training colleges for ministers evolved into centers of political reflection in which the 18th century’s ideas of national freedom and universal happiness soon influenced the cultural elite of the colonies.
Several Founding Fathers of American democracy like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attended these institutions.
But the American colonists were often self-made and self-educated men such as Benjamin Franklin, the son of a Boston soap maker, who became a scientist, an inventor, and also a prominent statesman.
The American experiment very often started as a movement of emancipation from European religious establishment but the persecuted soon became persecutors.
In 1639, Thomas Hooker was forced to move from the Boston colony to the Connecticut by the moral rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Tolerance spread progressively, simply because religious persecutions proved to be impractical. New settlement needed man power. They couldn’t avoid turning away immigrants for religious reasons. Trading companies soon found it easier to welcome all the “able-bodied”, whatever their beliefs or origins.
Therefore, away from the English model of Church-State, the colonies started to elaborate on the theory of the separation between the Religious Church and the Secular State.
Yet, the religious factor remained an essential feature of a society, as demonstrated in the American motto: “in God we trust”.
Because of the new conditions created by the colonial experiment, both in the economic and social themes but also in the organization of the independent churches, a relatively high percentage of white adults male had access to political participation.
Most colonists were free holders and not tenants. Individual liberty and belief in equality were wildly accepted. At the same time, the colonists shared a colon frustration because they were forced to accept British legislation and taxation without being represented in Parliament.
Local organization was encouraged. Each of the 13 colonies was supervised by governors appointed by the King. The colonies’ charters made it possible for them to make laws if they did not contradict acts of Parliament.
Because of the diversity of their charters and population, the colonies were strongly attached to their local independence from each other. However, they experimented the benefits of the union on several occasions.
Twice between 1640 and 1680, the King and the British board of trade invited the Northern colonies to form the United Colonies of New England, in order to put their forces together against the dangers of Native and Dutch invasions.
Later, in July 1754, when Britain was at war against France both in Europe and in Canada, the colonies took the opportunity to draft a plan of union and presented it at the Albany Congress assembled by the British. But the colonies’ representatives finally refused to delegate their political power to a central body of government as B. Franklin had hoped it.
This early attempt at federalism ended in failure and the British government dismissed the Congress soon after the war. But the idea of a common central government became increasingly popular as a criticism of British centralism took a more and more violent form.
The settlers’ original dream of reforming old institutions and establishing a new civilization was both unique and dual.
On the one hand, the Puritans, inspired by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, wished to set up an authoritarian and Christian commonwealth.
On the other hand, the Founding Fathers, inspired by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, dreamt of creating a perfect political and social model of utopia.
In both cases, America wanted to become, in Shakespeare’s own words, “a brave new world in the face of the world”.
Sommaire de la série From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)
- The Reformation in the British Isles
- English Expansionism
- The Glorious Revolution of 1688
- The American colonies : Religion and Politics
- USA: Birth of a Nation
The Anglo-American World is but colonial. Its present extension is the result of England’s self-affirmation and ambition to become a major world power. Therefore, the words “empire” and “imperialism” describe England’s struggle for national and international sovereignty.
The first consequence of English expansionism was the west ward impulse of the Anglo-Saxon element, first into the Celtic periphery of the British Isles, then across the Atlantic and finally into Africa and Australasia.
The second more recent consequence is the emergence in the 20th century of multi-cultural societies both in Britain and in America but also across the British Commonwealth, which is constituted of the former British colonies.
Early English expansionism in the British Isles
The origin of British colonial adventures lies in the early step taken by English Kings towards the political, economic, and religious integration of the British Isles.
The Anglo-Norman enterprise
In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, became the master in England. His successors, the Anglo-Norman Kings, tried to increase their authority and international prestige (especially in front of France) by controlling the British Isles (first Ireland and then Wales).
In 1171, the English King Henry II landed in Ireland and was accepted by the Irish Kings as their overlord (=master). During the 13th century, many Anglo-Norman barons settled in Ireland where they were given land by the King. They introduced the French system of feudalism and forced the native Irish to become serfs.
In 1366, the English Parliament prohibited mixed marriages between Irish and Anglo-Norman and Irish laws and customs were abolished in English controlled areas. The colonization of Ireland had started.
In 1277, Edward I of England invaded Wales after the last Prince of Wales refused to acknowledge his authority. The country soon became part of the English Royal Estate and was re-organized into 5 countries, after the English model. In 1301, the English King became Prince of Wales.
The Anglo-Norman never managed to conquer Scotland. After a series of unsuccessful invasions, the English were finally forced out in 1314. Scottish independence was secured for 4 centuries.
B. Post-Reformation settlements
By consolidating royal power, the reformation indirectly encouraged England to extend her control over the British Isles.
In 1541, King Henry VIII, who has become head of the English church as wall as of the State, was proclaimed King of Ireland. The actual colonization of Ireland started in 1586 with the creation of the Munster Plantation in the South of Ireland.
Later on, in 1608, Scottish and English settlers were encouraged by the Government to cross the Irish Sea and to create farms in Ulster. This new settlement was the origin of contemporary Protestant Northern Ireland. In 1652, 2/3 of Irish land was given to Protestants.
Between 1536 and 1543, a series of administrative measures put Wales under the situation of total dependence on English legislation.
The situation of Scotland was different: between 1603 and 1707, Scotland remained a separate independent Kingdom but under the same King as England.
Formation of the old colonial empire
From trading posts to early settlements
A trading post is a place to carry on commercial business; it may be temporary and doesn’t imply settlement.
Right after the discovery of the New World in 1492, England’s self-affirmation as an independent and dominant European power led her to compete against Spanish and Portuguese colonial monopolies.
In 1494, by the treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal had divided the Western Hemisphere between Spanish and Portuguese possessions. In answer, England decided to send explorers to the New World.
In 1497, the Italian Sea Captain John Cabot explored the northern coast of America on behalf of the English King. He called the land he had recognized “Newfoundland”.
Later on, in 1577, an English Captain explored the West Coast of America: Francis Drake called the American Pacific sea coast “California”, legendary name of a mythical Eden.
Finally, in 1584, another sea captain, Sir Walter Raleigh, explored the Atlantic American coast for the Queen of England and called the place “Virginia” to celebrate his queen as the Virgin Queen.
In 1588, England took the status of a major sea power after defeating the Spanish fleet, the “Invincible Armada”. This early colonial experience had secured English mastery of the sea. It was the starting point of the Spanish decline.
In economic terms, several colonial joint-stock companies, in which several people invested money to found the colonial empire, were created in England. In 1600, the East India Company was created in order to favor trade with the East.
In 1606, 2 companies were created to encourage trade with America:
- Plymouth Company for the Northern part of the coast
- London and South Virginia Company for the Southern coast.
In 1672, the Royal African Company was given the monopoly of trade with Africa (and slavery). Therefore, the rise of Capitalism corresponds to that of colonial.
In human terms, the first successful and permanent English settlement in America was established in May 1607 with the creation of Jamestown in Virginia by adventurers and merchants in search of fortune.
A totally different experience took place in September 1620, when an English ship called the Mayflower reached the place later called Plymouth Rock with a small group of English dissidents on board, the famous Pilgrim Fathers.
This first successful puritan colony in America was motivated by religious reasons. From 1620 to 1640, some 25000 English independents took refuge in New England. The 3rd category of people who reached America was African slaves.
In 1619, the first shipload of slaves was brought to America on a Dutch ship. Finally, the last category of people in America is Native Americans. They proved to be essential to the survival of settlers in America.
The beginning of the European settlement gave the illusion of peaceful coexistence between European settlers and Native Americans.
In 1640, a rich colonist called John Rolfe married the daughter of a local chief, Pocahontas. Another Indian tribe helped the Pilgrim Fathers to avoid starvation by teaching them how to plant corns.
But the respected interest of both communities soon became opposed. The increase in the European population resulted in several problems over land ownership and the American settlers soon started to displace Indian population and sometimes used military action.
The original dream of peace turned into a bloody nightmare. Americans, however, were relieved to think their treatment of the Natives had never reached the savagery that was typical of Spanish colonization.
Mercantilism or the establishment of the colonial system
Apart from international prestige, the colonists constituted a vast and permanent captive market for English goods. It was also a source of raw materials and finally, it represented a convenient exile for embarrassing subjects.
The colonists played a major role in the definition of the new international economic system called mercantilism.
It was based on strict regulations protecting the home market and establishing monopolies on all exchanges with the colonies.
Between 1651 and 1662, a series of Navigation Acts gave English ships the exclusive control of all trade to and from the colonies.
This excluded all foreign nations and all colonial organizations from trading across the Atlantic: in order to secure new markets and new sources of raw materials, the system demanded a continual expansion through wars and invasions. The struggle for empire had started a long time before the late 19th century, called the Scramble for Africa.
The essential part of trade consisted in the famous “triangular trade” with the New World. Three geographical regions were involved in the triangle:
- Western Europe
- North America and the West Indies
Because of mercantilist regulations, most goods including African slaves had to transit either through England or through the West Indies.
This economic situation was considered unfair by a majority of colonists. It was one of the origins of the American Revolution.
The first British colonial empire
Lasted until the American independence, which took place between 1776 and 1783. This empire had two major poses: India and North America.
The stream of emigrants was directed namely towards America but in both cases, England and then Britain became involved in colonial wars against Holland, Spain, and France in order to protect and to extend her trading interests.
England had started trading with India in the late 18th century. The East Indian Company (EIC) was founded in 1600.
The 18th century saw the decline of the Indian Empire (Mogul) and military agreements with local leaders.
After 1757, the EIC controlled all trade with the West Coast of India, Bengal, and with Ceylan (Sri Lanka today).
In 1760, the French were defeated and driven out of India, except for a couple of trading posts that she kept on the coast such as Pondichery.
In 1773, Britain started to control India through a governor based in the town of Bombay.
In 1640, sugar cane agriculture was introduced in Barbados. In 1655, the English took Jamaica from Spain: it marked the beginning of the Spanish decline in the Caribbean.
On the American continent, the 18th century saw total domination of Britain on colonial land. In 1667, England invaded New Amsterdam, which later became New York.
After the 7-year old war with France in 1763, England took control of the French West Indies, of all French Canada, and of the whole French territory between the East Coast of America (New England) and Mississippi. Finally, England took Florida from Spain.
In 1763, the British King George III issued a royal proclamation leaving the rich Ohio valley to the Native American tribes that had helped the British against France. This political measure disappointed the settlers who feared overpopulation in New England. This was the second origin of the American Revolution.
In the 1760’s, the population of New England which was divided into 30 colonies had already reached 2.5 million inhabitants and 275 000 slaves were transported to America during the 18th century. 90 % were to be found in the South.
The loss of the American colonies in 1783 marked the end of the first colonial empire, yet, a second one was already forming in other parts of the world.
The second colonial empire
Australasia. In 1768, the British captain James Cook had already explored the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. After the discovery of Botany Bay that later became Sydney, a penal colony was established in Australia in 1788.
Prisoners and convicts were transported to Australia for hard labor. The settlement started much later in New Zealand, with a treaty with local Maori chiefs in 1840.
Africa. Before the 1880s, i.e. the Scramble for Africa, Britain showed little interest in the African continent. The government’s major occupation, apart from the slave market, was to secure the sea route to India. Therefore, Britain took the Dutch colony at the Cape (South Africa) in 1806.
Then, Britain insisted on receiving Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Later, Britain secured other places on the sea route to Suez (e.g.: the island of Malta). However, Britain accepted to take the responsibility of protecting a colony of liberated slaves in Sierra Leone founded in 1788.
Asia. The expansion started much later when Britain took Singapore in 1824. Later, in 1841, Britain established a trading post in Hong Kong she kept until July 1997.
Sommaire de la série From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)
From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)
- Chapter 1: The Reformation in the British Isles
- Chapter 2: English Expansionism
- Chapter 3: The Glorious Revolution of 1688
- Chapter 4: The American colonies: Religion and Politics
- Chapter 5: Birth of a Nation
The Act of Union of 1707
Scotland was never conquered by England. There were attempts but they failed. At the end of the 13th century, the wars of independence began.
In May 1st 1707, the Act of Union was ratified between England and Scotland: the Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament were suspended. They created the British Parliament and formed the Great Britain by the Union of Scotland and England.
At the time, Scotland was already a protestant country (the Reformation came in the 16th century, before then she was catholic). As England was also protestant, the two nations grew closer.
The Queen chose a number of men to represent Scotland and England in a commission to discuss the terms of the treaty of Union. Several Acts and events precipitated the Union.
1698 – 1699: expeditions to Darien
It was a total failure for the Company of Scotland :
- Scotland lost trading opportunities with France (due to the Reformation),
- the Navigation Acts (1660-1663) prevented Scotland from trading with English colonies.
In England, the East-Indian Company had monopole and money. Hence, Scotland wanted the same: that is how the Company of Scotland was set up in 1695. Its full name was “Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies”.
The East-Indian was not very happy and put pressure on English financiers who wanted to provide money to the capital of the Company of Scotland. The financiers finally withdrew and the Scots had to provide money themselves: a multitude of people giving little money.
The Company of Scotland established a trading-post in America: Darien, in the Isthmus of Panama. 1698 saw the 1st expedition to Darien. It was a terrible failure for many people died during the journey and by fighting against the Spaniards already settled there.
The 2nd expedition was also a failure and the people who had invested in the enterprise were ruined, just like the company. After that experience, the Scots thought the best thing would be a union with England (no more Navigation Acts and access to colonies trading).
1701: Act of Settlement (English Parliament)
The succession to the throne changed of line from the Stuarts to the Hanoverians. From 1689 to 1702, William and Mary ruled the country but they had no heir. Then, Mary’s sister, Anne came to the throne, from 1702 to 1714 but she had no heir either (in fact her child died in 1700). But what after Anne ?
Before William and Mary, James II was a Catholic ruling a protestant country. The English Parliament (protestant) did not want the Stuarts to rule any longer. The new monarch had to be Protestant (it is still on today).
Since 1603 (the Union of the Crowns: still 2 different states, 2 different parliaments but one king), there was one monarch over Scotland and England so if the monarch was changed by the English Parliament, it would also affect Scotland… Therefore, the Scottish Parliament decided to vote too.
1704: Act of Security
Nobody can impose a monarch on Scotland: “we’ll choose an ‘heir’ to Anne ourselves” [threatening tone]
1705: Alien Act
The English Parliament voted that Scots who lived in England would be made aliens: they would lose rights like that of inheriting land and imports of cattle, linen and coal would be prohibited.
It was an ultimatum for Scotland to accept the Union. It never came into force since Scotland agreed on discussing a treaty.
In 1706, the Treaty of Union was signed.
May 1st, 1707: the Union came into force. It was not the result of war or conquest but a treaty signed by 2 independent countries. As in a bargain, there were advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages for England:
- question of succession to the throne solved
- peace secured on its northern border
Advantages for Scotland:
- economic opportunities (new markets)
- political influence as part of the U.K.
- key institutions protected (law, education, Presbyterian Church)
- peace with England guaranteed.
Keeping the Presbyterian Church was more important than the Parliament because it was more representative of the population (plus it controlled education).
In Scotland, the Jacobites (who supported James Stuart) threatened the Union because the line had changed from the Stuarts to the Hanoverians. The Jacobite rebellions took place in 1708, 1715, and 1745. Jacobitism was crushed at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.
After 1750, the relationships between England and Scotland were reinforced by the expansion of trade with the colonies. The Union started to bring benefits for Scots at last.