Colonial Society and Economy

Although the colonists enjoyed a good deal of political autonomy through their elected assemblies (for example, the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Maryland House of Delegates), the colonies were part of the English imperial system. The Navigation Acts, first enacted by Parliament in 1660, regulated trade by requiring that goods be shipped on English ships with predominantly English crews and that certain commodities, called enumerated articles, be shipped to only England or its colonies. The laws reflected the economic policy known as mercantilism, which held that colonies exist for the benefit of the mother country as a source of raw materials and a market for its manufactured goods. On the international scene, the colonies could not escape the great power rivalry between England and France. Each of the wars fought between the two countries in Europe had its counterpart in North America.

By 1750, more than one million people, representing a population increase of significant proportions, were living in the thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast. Disease, which had threatened the survival of many of the early settlements, was much reduced. Infant mortality rates in the colonies were much lower than those in England, and life expectancy was considerably higher. Women married earlier, giving them the opportunity to have more children, and large families were the norm. It was not uncommon at all for a woman to have eight children and more than forty grandchildren. Natural increase, the excess of live births over deaths, was important to the population growth, but ongoing European immigration was a factor as well. Whether refugees from war (the Germans, for example) or victims of persecution or economic conditions in their homelands (the Irish and Scotch‐Irish), the new arrivals added to the ethnic and religious mosaic of eighteenth‐century America. The largest ethnic group to arrive—the African slaves—came in chains.

The expansion of slavery. At midcentury, just under a quarter million blacks lived in the colonies, almost twenty times the number in 1700. The slave numbers increased, as had the white population, through a combination of immigration, albeit forced, and natural increase. As the supply of indentured servants diminished, in part because work opportunities had improved in England, the supply of slaves either imported directly from Africa or transshipped from the West Indies was increased. Charleston, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island, were important points of entry. Competition from Brazilian and Caribbean planters kept the price of male field hands high, however, and the planters' North American counterparts responded by buying women and encouraging slave families.

The overwhelming majority of slaves lived in the southern colonies, but there was regional variation in distribution. In the Chesapeake area, slaveholding was far from universal, and many of the plantations had fewer than twenty slaves. A typical South Carolina planter, on the other hand, might own as many as fifty slaves to work in the rice fields. In some districts of the sparsely populated South Carolina colony, blacks outnumbered whites by as much as eight to one, and they were able to retain their African culture more than slaves who were taken to Virginia or Maryland. Although a mainstay of the southern economy, slavery was not unknown in the northern colonies. Slaves made up twenty percent of the population of New York in 1746, for example. Working as domestics, assistants to craftsmen, or stevedores in the port cities, they lived in their master's home, as did indentured servants and apprentices.

The slaves' resistance to their situation was often passive, involving feigning illness, breaking equipment, and generally disrupting the routine of the plantation, but it occasionally did turn violent. Given the demographics, it is not surprising that the largest colonial slave revolt—the Stono Rebellion—took place in South Carolina. In 1739, about one hundred fugitive slaves killed twenty whites on their way to Florida and were killed themselves when captured. The rebellion sparked other slave revolts over the next few years.

Colonial agriculture. The overwhelming majority of colonists were farmers. New England's rocky soil and short growing season along with the practice of dividing already small farms among siblings led families to a barely subsistent living. The crops they grew—barley, wheat, and oats—were the same as those grown in England, so they had little export value compared with the staples of the southern plantations. Many New Englanders left farming to fish or produce lumber, tar, and pitch that could be exchanged for English manufactured goods. In the Middle Colonies, richer land and a better climate created a small surplus. Corn, wheat, and livestock were shipped primarily to the West Indies from the growing commercial centers of Philadelphia and New York. Tobacco remained the most important cash crop around Chesapeake Bay, but the volatility of tobacco prices encouraged planters to diversify. Cereal grains, flax, and cattle became important to the economies of Virginia and Maryland in the eighteenth century. Rice cultivation expanded in South Carolina and Georgia, and indigo was added around 1740. The indigo plant was used to make a blue dye much in demand by the English textile industry.

Population growth put pressure on the limited supply of land in the north, while the best land in the south was already in the hands of planters. With opportunities for newcomers limited in the settled coastal areas, many German and Scotch‐Irish immigrants pushed into the interior, where available land was more abundant. Filtering into the backcountry of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, they established farms on the frontier and grew just enough food to keep themselves going.

Colonial trade and industry. The colonies were part of an Atlantic trading network that linked them with England, Africa, and the West Indies. The pattern of commerce, not too accurately called the Triangular Trade, involved the exchange of products from colonial farms, plantations, fisheries, and forests with England for manufactured goods and the West Indies for slaves, molasses, and sugar. In New England, molasses and sugar were distilled into rum, which was used to buy African slaves. Southern Europe was also a valuable market for colonial foodstuffs.

Colonial industry was closely associated with trade. A significant percentage of Atlantic shipping was on vessels built in the colonies, and shipbuilding stimulated other crafts, such as the sewing of sails, milling of lumber, and manufacturing of naval stores. Mercantile theory encouraged the colonies to provide raw materials for England's industrializing economy; pig iron and coal became important exports. Concurrently, restrictions were placed on finished goods. For example, Parliament, concerned about possible competition from colonial hatters, prohibited the export of hats from one colony to another and limited the number of apprentices in each hatmaker's shop.

The social structure of the colonies. At the bottom of the social ladder were slaves and indentured servants; successful planters in the south and wealthy merchants in the north were the colonial elite. In the Chesapeake area, the signs of prosperity were visible in brick and mortar. The rather modest houses of even the most prosperous farmers of the seventeenth century had given way to spacious mansions in the eighteenth century. South Carolina planters often owned townhouses in Charleston and would probably have gone to someplace like Newport to escape the heat in summer. Both in their lifestyles and social pursuits (such as horse racing), the southern gentry emulated the English country squire.

Large landholders were not confined just to the southern colonies. The descendants of the Dutch patroons and the men who received lands from the English royal governors controlled estates in the middle colonies. Their farms were worked by tenant farmers, who received a share of the crop for their labor. In the northern cities, wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the merchants; below them was the middle class of skilled craftsmen and shopkeepers. Craftsmen learned their trade as apprentices and became journeymen when their term of apprenticeship (as long as seven years) was completed. Even as wage earners, the journeymen often still lived with their former master and ate at his table. Saving enough money to go into business for himself was the dream of every journeyman.

Among the urban poor were the unskilled laborers, stevedores, and crew members of the fishing and whaling fleets. Economic recessions were common in the colonies during the eighteenth century, and they affected workers in the cities most. When the supply of labor outstripped demand, wages fell and the level of unemployment rose.

By and large, women in the colonies assumed traditional roles; they took care of their home and brought up their children. On small farms throughout the colonies and in the backcountry, they also worked the fields and cared for livestock alongside their husbands and children. Urban women, freed from such domestic chores as spinning and candle making (cloth and candles could be purchased in the cities), had somewhat more leisure time, and they might help their husbands in their shop or tavern. Although women gave up their property rights when they married, single women and widows could inherit property under English law. It was not uncommon for a woman to manage her husband's business after his death. Midwifery, which required years of training, was the one profession open to women.