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Growth of the English Colonies, Colonial Society

Puritan society, northern colonies, capital crime, middle colonies, Scots-Irish

The colonies over which the English were beginning to exercise control were growing rapidly. In 1700 approximately 250,000 Europeans and Africans were living in what would become the United States. In 1775 there were approximately 2.5 million. Much of the increase was due to immigration: the forced migration of enslaved Africans, and the willing migration of English, Scots-Irish, and Germans.

The middle colonies were much more diverse than the northern colonies. The English majority contended with a variety of European settlers, with a large Native American presence on the western edges, and with a significant minority of African slaves. In Maryland and Virginia, the early English settlers had been joined, particularly in the western counties, by Scots, Scots–Irish, and Germans. In the eastern counties, African slaves—many of them natives of Africa—often outnumbered whites.

South Carolina and Georgia had white populations as diverse as those in the Chesapeake, and their slave populations were African–born and ethnically diverse. One historian has noted that a slave would have met more different kinds of Africans in one day in South Carolina rice fields than in a lifetime in Africa.

By far the greatest source of population growth, however, was a phenomenal birth rate and a relatively low death rate. Americans in the 18th century had many children, who in turn survived to have children of their own. American population growth in these years may have been unprecedented in human history.

The household was the central institution of colonial society. In Puritan society in particular, families were the cornerstone of godly government. As one historian put it, Puritans experienced authority as a hierarchy of strong fathers—beginning with God, descending down through government officials and ministers, and ending with the fathers of families. These families were patriarchal: Fathers ruled households, made family decisions, organized household labor, and were the representatives of God’s authority within the family. Fathers passed that authority on to their sons. Puritan magistrates inspected families to ensure that they were orderly, and it was a capital crime (at least in the law books) to commit adultery or to strike one’s father.

Households in other 18th–century colonies may have been less godly, but they were almost equally dominated by fathers, and most white men had the opportunity to become patriarchs. Land was relatively abundant, and Americans seldom practiced primogeniture and entail, which gave oldest sons their fathers’ full estates and prevented men from dividing their land. Fathers tended to supply all of their sons with land (daughters received personal property as a dowry). Thus most American white men eventually owned their own land and headed their own households.

As populations grew and as colonial economies developed, however, that independence based on property ownership was endangered. Good farmland in the south came to be dominated by a class of planters, while growing numbers of poor whites became tenants. The pressure of a growing population on the supply of farmland made tenancy even more common in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (research puts the proportion at about 25 percent by mid-century), while in New England more and more fathers found themselves unable to provide for their sons. On the eve of the American Revolution (1775-1783), American white men prided themselves on a widespread liberty that was based on economic independence. Meanwhile, the land ownership that upheld that independence was being undermined.

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