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From British Colony to Independence:
the American Revolution, 1701 to 1791

The Colonists | Conflict with the Mother Country | From Lexington to the Negotiated Settlement, 1775-83 | Articles of Confederation and Hard Times to Shay's Rebellion | Inventing the United States Constitution | The Bill of Rights and Constitution's Ratification

American Revolutionary War

The Colonists

Between 1707 and 1775, 145,000 Scots are counted as having entered England's colonies along the Atlantic coast of the Americas. In this same period, around 100,000 Germans came, looking for economic opportunity, running from war and, to a lesser extent, from religious persecution. England had few people interested in migrating to the colonies. England's courts sent around 50,000 convicts, who were employed as field hands largely on tobacco plantations and treated as slaves, including punishment by whipping. Some of the descendants of the English settlers from the 1600s looked upon the arrival of Scots and Germans as a buffer against the Indians, French or Spanish or as labor for their farms. And some were worried about their English culture being diluted.

A population of roughly 275,000 whites in 1700 grew to around 1.5 million in 1755. New Englanders grew from 33,000 in 1660 to around 700,000 in 1780, more than ninety percent of them direct descendants of those who had arrived by 1660. The number of slaves grew from around 25,000 in 1700 to roughly 470,000 in 1755 and to 567,000 by 1775.

The decades after 1700 had great slave importations and auctions. By mid-century, white convict labor was overwhelmed by slaves from Africa. The northern colonies were approximately two percent slave. At mid-century, the populations around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia were about 40 percent slave, and slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina by two to one. Slaves worked the plantations in field gangs, many of their masters leaving control of them to overseers and African slave-drivers. In South Carolina, owners stayed away from their rice fields, where the death rate from malaria was high. In Charlestown an afro-white population developed, white men having fathered numerous children of African mothers. Slaves were more than half of Charlestown's population, working as house servants, dockworkers, boatmen and artisans. And a few of those of African heritage were free.

Where slaves were more numerous, they were more feared, and control over them was more intense and brutal. In New England, where slaves were few and less feared, slaves could own, transfer and inherit property, and whites and blacks were considered equal before the law. The Puritans in New England viewed slaves as part of the master's family and due what they thought of as liberties granted by God – which, of course, did not include freedom from slavery. In New England, most slaves were farmhands. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, some worked in ironworks.

Those slaves recently bought at auction blocks often tried to escape, frequently in groups, encouraged by their numbers and on a few occasions they killed a few of their oppressors in the process. In 1733, a decree by Spain gave slaves that had escaped from a British colony refuge in its colony of Florida, and by 1738 the Spanish were employing escaped slaves from the British colonies as militiamen.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, painted by Jean-Baptiste Greuze in 1777

Benjamin Franklin, a slave owner in Philadelphia, described the reaction of people to their enslavement. Some slaves, he wrote, are mild tempered and kind people. "But the majority," he added, "are of a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest degree." note15


Colonists had brought with them from Europe that continent's concerns about the hereafter, salvation of the soul and brotherly love, but many slave owners resisted slave conversions to Christianity. They feared that baptism would give their slaves with a sense of equality or that their slaves would consider baptism a stepping-stone to freedom.

Some Quakers were slave owners, but in the 1730s a few Quakers had begun to challenge slavery. The Quakers were the third largest Protestant denomination after the Congregationalists and Anglicans – and before the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed. The Quakers were opposed to violence and favored humility and hard work. Some believed that whites should do their own work rather than have slaves do it for them. And they believed that everyone was capable of receiving the "light" of God’s spirit and wisdom, including people from Africa. In 1758, the Quaker John Woolman traveled through the colonies spreading an anti-slavery message. In New York, New Jersey and New England, where it was easier to be against slavery, the Quakers enacted rules for themselves that forbade their trading in or holding slaves. Quakers also opposed the enslavement of Indians and expansion against Indians in Western Pennsylvania. The Quakers were most numerous in Eastern Pennsylvania and were opposed to disturbing the tradition of good relations with the Indians that had been created by William Penn.

The majority of free persons in the colonies read only the Bible. Other books available in the colonies were largely religious tracts and sermons. A few Christians might read some of the ancients such as Cicero and Seneca or authors of the Enlightenment.

Different interpretations of scripture continued, and among the ranks of various denominations a split developed between those called rationalists and those called evangelicals. The rationalists had a little more respect for the inquiries of science, and they tended to view God as more forgiving. The Evangelicals focused more on God's punishments. They were more into fervor, and they complained about the loss of intensity in faith.

The Evangelical tradition produced "born again" revivals, including the Great Awakening, which began in the 1720s in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the 1730s a Great Awakening appeared in the Massachusetts colony where thousands gathered to see the evangelist George Whitefield from England deliver his dramatic "divine fire" performances.

The Evangelicals were holding their revivals in fields and barns and shattering the monopoly of the educated clergy on religious discourse. Their revival meetings were viewed with discomfort by the more educated and more wealthy as a threat from common folk. Established clergy disliked the preaching by evangelical women, and they quoted the command, "Let your women keep silence in the churches." They called evangelical preachers "haranguers" and "social incendiaries."

The Great Awakening inspired conversions to Christianity among slaves. In 1758, a slave congregation – Baptist – was allowed on the plantation of William Byrd in Mecklenburg, Virginia. Slaves adopting Christianity tended to look to Moses for his having led the Israelites from slavery.


The colonies were growing commercially, enough that in 1748 Benjamin Franklin, at the age of 42, removed himself from the daily operations of his printing business and aspired to genteel status – although he disliked pomposity. The life of a gentleman was defined in part by freedom from manual labor, but Franklin's gentility had a practical side. He continued to respect work, and he believed tradesmen and merchants as worthy as landed gentry. Franklin had acquired wealth from sales of his book, Poor Richard's Almanac, which was second in sales after the Bible, his book selling around 10,000 copies every year, beginning in 1733. With the Enlightenment and its interest in science having reached maturity in Europe, Franklin was one of those interested in science. When a young man he had stopped attending church to have more time to read on his own.

Prosperity in the colonies arose with agriculture, the crafts and trade. There was the iron industry, commerce in whiskey, rum, shipbuilding, supplies for ships, trade in animal hides and timber, and there was fishing. Agriculture dominated the economy: the growing of tobacco, rice, wheat, corn and hemp. The north was largely small farms. South Carolina was the most wealthy of the thirteen colonies, derived largely from rice plantations. Virginia prospered from tobacco growing – tobacco needing more care in its cultivation and therefore more supervision of plantation slave labor.

There was a shortage of investment capital in the colonies, but the colonists were in a land of abundant natural resources. Taxation was light, and there was the freedom of commerce that had arisen among the English and Dutch. By 1770, the median income for white colonists was as high if not higher than median incomes for people in Europe. Prosperity changed the appearance of towns and villages. Some merchants built three story homes, in New England usually with brick and in Pennsylvania usually with stone. Wooden homes for those of more modest wealth were often painted inside and out.

Northern cities had wealthy businessmen, lawyers and government officials. Below them in prestige and wealth were the shopkeepers and craftsmen. Roughly half of a city's inhabitants were without property, many of them recent immigrants from Europe. Tax records show that in the cities the bottom 30 percent owned nothing and the wealthiest ten percent owned 60 percent of the wealth. People with property and high-ranking members of the churches felt threatened by what they thought of as the envy of those without property. And those without property were not allowed to participate in the political life of the community.

Those with property were proud of their refinement, of their furniture and their other accumulations. They attributed their success to hard work and favor from God. Plantation owners enjoyed entertaining their peers, avoiding the common people who felt awkward in their presence, people who lacked self-confidence, ease and grace.

Some people of modest means disliked the leisure that appeared with prosperity and wealth. Benjamin Franklin criticized the students at Harvard for their frivolity, luxury, stealing, lying, idleness and frequent use of strong drink. Quakers, clinging to respect for work, complained about frivolity among youths, including shooting matches, singing, dancing and other gatherings that they called disorders.

The Scottish and German men on the western frontier with the Indians also had a strong work ethic. They complained that Indians were not using their lands properly and it was a violation of "the Laws of God & Nature that so much land should lie idle while so many Christians wanted it to labor on to raise their bread." note16


On the frontier, small communities of Scott-Irish living in small cabins were interested in learning and in learned ministers joining their settlement. Plantation owners hired tutors for their children or they sent their children to England for schooling. In Philadelphia, languages, mathematics, and natural science were provided the citizenry in private schools with no religious affiliations. There were also the Quaker schools, providing an elementary education for their children, and there were Quaker schools that taught classical languages, history and literature. Among the Quakers, those who could pay tuition did, but schooling was free for the poor. Germans in Philadelphia either taught their children reading and writing at home or sent them to church schools. The daughters of wealthy merchants in Philadelphia were taught French, music, dancing, painting, singing and dance. Girls in Puritan New England learned household tasks at home, and a few were taught to read. As late as the 1770s, few women in New England could sign their name.

Education among adults was altering the explanation for mental disorders and altering its treatments. Insanity was increasingly seen as the work of natural causes rather than of the devil. Medical doctors were replacing religious ministers as leading authorities on insanity. Doctors, however, were still in the twilight regarding understanding illness. For all forms of mental derangement as well as for other illnesses they were treating patients with bleedings, bowel and emetic purges.

By the 1770s, the colonies had 37 newspapers, 7 colleges and something like 4,400 college graduates – a little more than two for every thousand white persons.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.