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”.