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Growth in Britain's American Colonies

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

With the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, Britain's American colonies began to expand economically. Per capita incomes rose steadily and imported goods would be visible evidence of economic growth. Better food and more wealth allowed for larger families. The population of the colonies was to quadruple by 1754, much of it non-English migration — Irish, Scots, Germans and French. Prosperity was changing the appearance of the older towns and villages. Writes the historian Samuel Eliot Morison:

Merchants built themselves dwelling of a style and stature before unknown, and set the fashion for a change of architecture in farmhouses as well.

Different cultures were developing North and South, both dominated by agriculture. South Carolina as 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. And the crafts and trades were developing. There was the iron industry, commerce in whiskey, rum, shipbuilding, supplies for ships, trade in animal hides and timber, and there was fishing.

In the South, slaves worked the plantations in field gangs, controlled by 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 (It became Charleston in 1783) 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. Many slave owners resisted slave conversions to Christianity, fearing that it would give their slaves with a sense of equality or that their slaves would consider baptism a stepping-stone to freedom.

In the South, encouraged by their number, slaves recently bought at auction blocks often tried to escape, frequently in groups, on a few occasions killing their oppressors in the process. In 1733, a decree by Spain gave slaves that had escaped from an English colony refuge in Spain's colony of Florida, and by 1738 the Spanish were employing escaped slaves from England's colonies as militiamen.

In the South, plantation owners enjoyed entertaining their peers, avoiding the common people who lacked self-confidence and felt awkward in their presence in of the more refined and wealthy. Down south, plantation owners hired tutors for their children or sent them to England for schooling.

On the frontier, small communities of Scott-Irish living in small cabins were interested in learning and in having learned ministers join their settlement. 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.

The North had fewer slaves. Some of the slaves worked as farmhands. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey some worked in ironworks. Blacks could own property and were considered equal before the law. Blacks who were not slaves were viewed as deserving the liberties granted by God. And slaves, being fewer than those on plantations, might be viewed as part of the master's family.

The North was 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 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. In Pennsylvania, Franklin was in the most religiously tolerant and science-oriented of colonies. 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. He dismissed the traditional interpretation of lightning as a manifestation of God’s anger and instead looked into its physical properties.

The "Great Awakening"

But many who prospered were attributing their success to favor from God — in addition to their hard work. Many others were concerned about their standing with the Almighty. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1720s "born again" revivals occurred. In the coming years these revivals would be giving participants — described as evangelicals — a sense of personal revelation as to their need of salvation and redemption. The meetings were a pull away from ritual, ceremony, sacramentalism and hierarchy. They were held in fields and barns and 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."

In the 1730s what was called a "Great Awakening" appeared in the Massachusetts colony. Thousands gathered to see the evangelist George Whitefield of England deliver his dramatic "divine fire" performance. What was to be known as the "First Great Awakening" was to endure (according to Wikipedia) to 1755. (The "Second Great Awakening" is described as between 1795 and 1840, a couple of decades before the US Civil War.) Whitefield had been ordained an Anglican cleric after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree at Oxford. The Church of England didn't assign him a pulpit, so he began preaching in parks and fields in England on his own, reaching out to people who normally did not attend church. He did the same in the colonies, North and South, and became a celebrity. He included slaves in his revivals, historians to see this as "the genesis of African-American Christianity" (Mark Galli, 2010).

Whitefield was often ridiculed and occasionally physically attacked. There was hostility to the Church of England and there were Protestants opposed to Calvinism. Whitefield had been leaning toward Calvinism and to be described as a moderate Calvinist. The Great Awakening has been described, as has evangelicalism, as "trans-denominational," alongside a variety of denominations. The Quakers were the third largest Protestant denomination after the Congregationalists and Anglicans 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. There were the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed. The differences between them were not always well understood by the common colonist. Many Americans couldn’t read let alone plunge into Calvin’s Commentaries. But they had been drifting away from the older Calvinism of the Puritans.

In the colonies was another revivalist preacher, a philosopher and Congregationalist Protestant theologian: Jonathan Edwards. The Congregationalists were a collection of congregations unified as an organization that believed in each congregation running its own affairs without having to submit its decisions to a higher body — no bishops or presbyteries. Edwards was influenced by the Enlightenment and described as having held to a "Reformed theology." His many books were to influence others and are still in university libraries today. Edwards the evangelist was a rationalist, a believer in reason as the way to truth, a believer in religion and science in the tradition of Descartes back in the 1600s. (There was also the liberal Catholic rationalist and man of the Enlightenment from France, Montesquieu, who was a contemporary of Edwards). Edwards hedged his rationalism, holding that emotion and will were "the mainsprings" of humanity. Edwards saw the Great Awakening as "the first robin of spring." He was referring to an early sign of the Second Coming of Christ — the Millennium — which he thought would come around the year 2000.

The revivalists had a lack of respect for hierarchies like the Church of England and other churches that insisted on college-educated ministers — Protestantism that some viewed as Roman Catholic-lite. The revivalists were not preaching political revolution, but circumstances were about to develop that would turn some colonists to rebellion and revolution.

CONTINUE READING: Age of Enlightenment

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