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Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution
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Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

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by Thomas P. Slaughter

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An important new interpretation of the American colonists' 150-year struggle to achieve independence

"What do we mean by the Revolution?" John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson in 1815. "The war? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an effect and consequence of it." As the distinguished historian Thomas P. Slaughter shows in this landmark history,


An important new interpretation of the American colonists' 150-year struggle to achieve independence

"What do we mean by the Revolution?" John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson in 1815. "The war? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an effect and consequence of it." As the distinguished historian Thomas P. Slaughter shows in this landmark history, the roots of the Revolution went back even further than Adams may have realized.
In Slaughter's account, colonists in British North America starting in the early seventeenth century chafed under imperial rule. Though successive British kings called them lawless, they insisted on their moral courage and political principles, and regarded their independence as a great virtue. Their struggles to define this independence took many forms: from New England and Nova Scotia to New York and Pennsylvania and south to the Carolinas, colonists resisted unsympathetic royal governors, smuggled to evade British duties, and organized for armed uprisings.
In the eighteenth century—especially after victories over France—the British were eager to crush these rebellions, but American opposition only intensified. In Independence, Slaughter resets and clarifies the terms of this remarkable development, showing how and why a critical mass of colonists determined that they could not be both independent and subject to the British Crown. By 1775–76, they had become revolutionaries—willing to go to war to defend their independence, not simply to gain it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/24/2014
Only bold historians will attempt one-volume histories of the American Revolution’s origins; Slaughter brings his off brilliantly. Rarely, if ever, has this history been told with such graceful readability, freshness, and clarity. It’s mostly narrative history, with Slaughter, a biographer and historian of American naturalists and the early republic, avoiding academic arguments while introducing some of the latest academic perspectives. The major one is to place the coming of the Revolution in its world-historical context and show how colonial events were linked to developments in India, Europe, and elsewhere. Slaughter’s principal interpretive scheme is to show how the colonies had become separate from Britain long before becoming independent. But this organizing theme is applied lightly and never intrudes on the hard-to-put-down tale, filled with apt quotations and captivating human portraits. If there’s a limitation to the book, it’s Slaughter’s conventional top-down approach. Yes, those who rioted in Boston and dumped tea into Boston Harbor play their necessary roles here. But overall, the author too much slights the common people’s part in bringing on independence, then war; and colonial society is absent from the scene. Nevertheless, as a political, event-filled history of its subject, this masterful work is unsurpassed. Maps. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
There was a lot more to gaining independence from Britain than the Boston Tea Party.Tangled is the operative word in Slaughter's (History/Univ. of Rochester; The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, 2008 etc.) finely researched, arduously plotted study, a tortuous progression of arrogant strictures by an out-of-touch motherland that only led to increasing colonial disgruntlement. The first immigrants to Cape Cod were an oppositional, authoritarian lot: middlebrow, family-oriented, forming "closed, corporate communities of believers, who accepted the covenant that bound them to each other and collectively to God." As long as they were allowed to worship freely and practice their "acetic work ethic" and trade, they prospered, yet tensions grew into the early 18th century. These included a fear of Native Americans and outside influences, an opening up of a trans-Atlantic market economy, the French expansion to the north, sectarian fissures within New England forms of worship and even "a democratization of information" in the form of the proliferation of newspapers. Slaughter looks carefully at the influence on the colonies of Britain's empire-making across the globe, from India to the Ohio Valley, Nova Scotia to the Caribbean. The defeat of the French at Plassey (Bengal) in 1757 and Quebec in 1759 allowed the British crown to turn its administrative attention to the colonies, especially in terms of much-needed revenue, yet checks in legal and economic policy (the nuances of which Slaughter draws in stultifying detail) only heightened the colonists' paranoia and sensitivity. The author underscores the vastly different views about "independence" versus "separation" held by the British and the colonists. The British were bewildered by the colonists' pursuit of "anarchy and confusion," while the colonists were first and foremost deeply rooted in a sense of personal liberty of conscience above any act of government.Erudite and fascinating but occasionally too dense and difficult to follow.
professor of history at Rice University and histor Douglas Brinkley

Thomas P. Slaughter has done a magnificent job in reinterpreting how the United States was born, and he ably shows us how inflamed the American colonists were by the British Crown from the seventeenth century on. His scholarship is impeccable. I highly recommend his book.
From the Publisher

“Thomas P. Slaughter has done a magnificent job in reinterpreting how the United States was born, and he ably shows us how inflamed the American colonists were by the British Crown from the seventeenth century on. His scholarship is impeccable. I highly recommend his book.” —Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University and historian for CBS News

“Part of the task of the historian is to navigate the reader through the mists of the past and arrive at a new place of understanding. Thomas Slaughter has done just that with his new interpretation of the American Revolution, Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution. The book takes the reader beyond the familiar area of what happened in the revolution and instead focuses on the less familiar areas of why . . . Slaughter's book provides a wealth of research that is fastened together into a coherent, brisk narrative. Anyone interested in learning about the roots of conflict that help explain the American Revolution should make sure to read this book.” —Kasey S. Pipes, The Dallas Morning News

“Slaughter's achievement, bringing together an enormous amount of material in a readable . . . narrative, is formidable.” —Andrew Cayton, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Only bold historians will attempt one-volume histories of the American Revolution's origins; Slaughter brings his off brilliantly. Rarely, if ever, has this history been told with such graceful readability, freshness, and clarity. It's mostly narrative history, with Slaughter, a biographer and historian of American naturalists and the early republic, avoiding academic arguments while introducing some of the latest academic perspectives. The major one is to place the coming of the Revolution in its world-historical context and show how colonial events were linked to developments in India, Europe, and elsewhere. Slaughter's . . . organizing theme is applied lightly and never intrudes on the hard-to-put-down tale, filled with apt quotations and captivating human portraits . . . As a political, event-filled history of its subject, this masterful work is unsurpassed.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Mr. Slaughter's book makes one thing refreshingly clear. Americans of the 1770s did not seek to destroy or to cast off but to claim what they assumed had been theirs all along.” —Barton Swaim, The Wall Street Journal

“The panoramic narrative moves from clashes with the French in Canada, to dark alleys in Manhattan, to conflicts in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, disputes over land claims in New Jersey, discussions of internal political struggles in Maryland, various Colonial-wide boycotts, religious controversies in Virginia, then across the globe to India, back again to the waters of Narragansett Bay and Boston's rowdy waterfront taverns, and ending with an in-depth analysis of the debates in Parliament over what to do with the ‘American spirit,' as Edmund Burke put it . . . Slaughter's skills as a writer keeps the narrative moving. Slaughter will force even the most veteran student of the Revolution to reconceptualize the always captivating origin story.” —Eric J. Chaput, The Providence Journal

“While the book bears a superficial resemblance to a more general work on the subject . . . it goes significantly beyond by maintaining a clear concentration on the transformation of the concept of independence into the reason for armed resistance and warfare. The scope of the book is impressive, covering beyond the original 13 colonies. For example, Slaughter uses Nova Scotia to illustrate the emerging tension between British desire to control and colonists' de facto independence on the fringe of the empire . . . A notable and stimulating title for both general readers and specialists interested not just in the immediate years leading to revolution but the many decades before.” —Charles K. Piehl, Library Journal

“Brilliantly written and researched . . . An extraordinary biography.” —Douglas Brinkley, Austin American-Statesman (Best Books of 2008) on The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

“A thoughtful, scrupulous, enlightening, and engrossing masterpiece.” —Booklist (starred review) on The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

“Finely researched . . . Slaughter looks carefully at the influence on the colonies of Britain's empire-making across the globe, from India to the Ohio Valley, Nova Scotia to the Caribbean . . . The author underscores the vastly different views about "independence" versus "separation" held by the British and the colonists. The British were bewildered by the colonists' pursuit of "anarchy and confusion," while the colonists were first and foremost deeply rooted in a sense of personal liberty of conscience above any act of government. Erudite and fascinating.” —Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Slaughter presents what he calls a "focused synthesis" of the era during which the idea of independence became firmly rooted in the American colonies. Covering more than a century of history, he draws on published primary sources as well as the insights of a multitude of specialized studies on the period. While the book bears a superficial resemblance to a more general work on the subject (e.g., in its lack of footnotes), it goes significantly beyond by maintaining a clear concentration on the transformation of the concept of independence into the reason for armed resistance and warfare. The scope of the book is impressive, covering beyond the original 13 colonies. For example, Slaughter uses Nova Scotia to illustrate the emerging tension between British desire to control and colonists' de facto independence on the fringe of the empire. What the book lacks in research citations it makes up for in a valuable list of sources. VERDICT A notable and stimulating title for both general readers and specialists interested not just in the immediate years leading to revolution but the many decades before.—Charles K. Piehl, emeritus, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

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BY THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, both French and English fishermen were working the waters around Cape Breton, or Île Royale, today part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, and trading with the Abenaki and Micmac peoples who had lived and fished there for centuries.2 Norse or Viking, possibly Irish, and other European fishermen and explorers had also frequented the region for hundreds of years. The Venetian explorer Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, passed that way in the fifteenth century; the English captain Charles Leigh recorded making landfall in 1597 along the Atlantic coast at a place whose first French name acknowledged his discovery, Havre à L’Anglois (English Harbor); and Samuel de Champlain at least passed it as he headed south.

By the early seventeenth century, the treacherous six-to-eight-week crossings of the Atlantic to these parts had already become part of maritime lore. “I have been to Canada seven times,” wrote one French captain, “and I venture to state that the most favorable of those voyages gave me more white hairs than all those that I have made elsewhere. It is a continual torment for mind and body.” Another Frenchman admitted his fear of sailing “over the unstable sea, every moment within two fingers of death [à deux doigts de la morte], as the saying goes.” He was mindful of the “muttering, snorting, whistling, howling, storming, rumbling” seas that lifted the ships “aloft upon mountains of water, and thence down as it were into the most profound depths of the world.” But the French and English kept coming for the fish, furs, land, adventure, independence, and wealth that they imagined awaiting them.

French explorers and fur traders founded Port Royal, a post on the Bay of Fundy coast of what we now call Nova Scotia, in 1605. That was less than two years before the first colonists landed at Jamestown, Virginia, establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America, and three years before the French founded another outpost at Quebec. And men from the two nations started fighting almost immediately. Virginia was nine hundred miles away from l’Acadie, as the French called their territory, but that was too close, and the continent of North America was too small, at nine million square miles, for the French and English to coexist peacefully. From the early 1600s through the middle of the eighteenth century, the islands and peninsulas of what we now call the Canadian Maritimes—New Brunswick, l’Acadie (Nova Scotia), Cape Breton Island, Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), and Placentia (Newfoundland)—were a borderland, the front line of conflict between the French and English in the New World.

The French abandoned Port Royal in 1607 rather than winter there. It was difficult to recruit traders and trappers, never mind settlers, and its promoters had to agree to some Huguenots (French Protestants) along with the Catholics, who said they would give it another try in 1610. Both groups survived only because the Micmacs suffered their presence, sustained them with trade, and created enduring connections based on intermarriage—all on the Indians’ terms. Beginning in 1611, when the first two Jesuits arrived in New France, there were actually more conflicts between the missionaries and the men at the trading posts than either had with the Indians. During the winter of 1612–1613, when no supplies arrived from France, the trappers had to disperse to live with the Micmacs in their hunting camps. In the spring, a French ship removed the troublesome Jesuits and took them down the coast of what is now Maine to Mount Desert Island. There men under the command of Samuel Argall—an English pirate who had a commission from the governor of Jamestown to drive out the French—attacked and captured the Jesuits, and, in November 1613, with the help of a Jesuit guide, went on to plunder Port Royal. That effectively ended France’s first settlement in the New World, but in 1608 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain had founded a settlement he called Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River, and so the French maintained footholds on the North American continent with their scattered outposts even after abandoning Port Royal to the English.

The French were colonizing North America at precisely the same time as the English were, and this was no coincidence: They did it to challenge the English and establish Catholic settlements in the face of English Protestant ones, and as one front line in the commercial and military warfare that punctuated the creation of the two empires competing with each other and with the Spanish and Dutch. At its peak in 1712, New France stretched from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains, and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, a vast territory divided into five colonies—Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Louisiana. New France was always sparsely populated and financially modest in comparison to the English colonies on the mainland of North America.

In 1629, about seventy Scottish Presbyterians landed at the former Port Royal and established a trading mission. “We eat lobsters as big as little children,” one of them raved, “plenty of salmons and salmon trouts, birds of strange and diverse kinds, hawks of all sorts, doves, turtles, pheasants, partridges, black birds, a kind also of hens, wild turkeys, cranes, herons, infinite store of geese, and three or four kinds of ducks, snipes, cormorants, and many sea fouls, whales, seals, castors [beavers], [and] otters.” They, too, got along fine with the ever-flexible Micmac. Nonetheless, the Scottish enterprise failed and, in 1632, an Anglo-French treaty returned l’Acadie and Quebec to France.

The Micmacs, small bands and family groups rather than a unified tribe, were the principal Indian occupants of what is now Nova Scotia, and apparently they never numbered more than three thousand souls spread over the fifty thousand square miles that included what we now call New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the southern part of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. They ranged in concert with the seasons. January brought them to the seacoast to fish for smelt and cod, and to hunt walruses and seals. In February and March they moved inland to hunt beaver, moose, and bear. From April through October, they were back at the seaside villages, where they gathered shellfish, lobster, crabs, and eels, as well as migratory wildfowl in the spring and fall; between July and September they picked nuts, berries, and dry roots. As winter approached, they broke into smaller units to hunt and fish before beginning the annual cycle again in January.

Lines of authority in Micmac bands were vague and variable. Women gathered, cooked, and cared for children, who, unlike those of the European settlers, were not subject to corporal discipline. Men hunted and fished in season, and occasionally waged war on each other, on the Abenaki who lived south of them in what is now Maine, or on the French and English. They were not used to cooperating beyond the level of the band and so battled in small groups with limited aims and without coordinated strategy. They lived in an active spiritual world—surrounded by animal and human manitous (spirits), and ever conscious of their individual and collective ginap (spiritual power). Their shamans easily accepted and used Catholic artifacts—crosses and rosary beads—and adopted Catholic rituals like communion, with its wafers and holy water. The Catholic missionaries tolerated this syncretistic spirituality, realizing they could not expunge native ceremonies and beliefs. When Puritans came to these parts, however, they saw the lives of the Indians around them as being in sharp contrast with their own—with their Christian faith and their conflicted relationship to the earthbound world, against which they were at constant war—against animals and plants, the native people, even their own inherent natures.

Micmac beliefs in the three souls of each being—the life soul, brain soul, and free soul—prepared them for the trinitarian concepts taught by the Catholic missionaries. They believed that the life soul dies when the body dies, that death of the brain soul leaves one witless, and that the free soul roams in life, in death, and in dreams. Unlike the Puritans, they accepted the natural world as it was, adapting themselves to its demands rather than trying to alter it. They had no interest in visiting Europe, in learning to manufacture the items they purchased or received as gifts from the French and English, or in changing their ways in emulation of them. The French, whom they encountered in smaller numbers than the English, became the Micmacs’ natural allies; they agreed to pay “rent” on the land and were more generous gift givers than the impecunious New Englanders.

A French ship brought women and children to Port Royal for the first time in 1636, making it a true colony rather than just a trading outpost. These immigrants became the first genuine Acadians. By 1650, the fifty French families who lived, hunted, trapped, farmed, and fished there were developing a distinctive culture bound not only by their shared experiences in the New World but also by kinship. They remained as vulnerable as ever, though, and in 1654, when Oliver Cromwell’s government in London commissioned Major Robert Sedgwick, in Boston, to attack New Amsterdam (soon to become New York) as part of its war against the Dutch Republic, Sedgwick seized the opportunity to attack Port Royal instead, even though it had nothing at all to do with the Dutch. Perhaps the best explanation for this unexpected action is that Sedgwick’s son-in-law, the future Massachusetts governor Captain John Leverett, had invested in the Maine-Acadia trade, and, as Leverett explained to London officials, the expedition’s goal was to enlarge Great Britain’s “dominions in these western American parts.” True enough; any old excuse to invade French settlements furthered the interests of New England traders and their London counterparts.

A three-day siege of Port Royal ended in French surrender. The victorious New Englanders seized booty estimated to value £10,000 and captured 220 French soldiers. Boston declared “a public and solemn thanksgiving to the Lord for his gracious working.” Sedgwick offered Acadians a choice between being shipped back to France with their troops or continuing on their farms “unmolested,” with “liberty of conscience allowed to religion,” a concession that reflected the invaders’ greater interest in commerce than in souls. The Acadians chose to keep their farms in 1654. Under English rule, in comparative isolation and thus independent of France and the Catholic Church, a distinctive Acadian creole culture was beginning to form, an amalgam of Catholic and Huguenot French, Micmac, English, Irish, and even some Spanish influences.

Sixteen years later, in 1670, France regained Port Royal in a diplomatic exchange for some British territorial concessions in the West Indies, a bargain that angered New Englanders, who believed they had captured the prize on their own initiative and were safer without a French military presence in Nova Scotia. A high birthrate among Acadians (six to seven children per woman), peaceful relations with the Indians, a generally healthful climate, and an absence of epidemic disease contributed to the colony’s growth from about five hundred in 1670 to fifteen hundred by the end of the century.

The fortunes of the Micmacs rose and fell with those of the French Acadians, no matter how delicately the Indians approached their diplomacy with the Europeans. The Micmacs were seldom united and could not muster more than eight hundred warriors even if they had acted in concert. Yet they were perceived as a threat by the colonists, as a potential makeweight between the two perennial European enemies and as a genuine force as long as the French and English had only small and scattered outposts that were weakly defended. The Indians continued to mount successful raids on English settlements for another half century, killing eight and capturing fourteen at Dartmouth in 1750, taking scalps outside Halifax in 1756 and 1757, raiding Lunenburg in 1758—and making peace only in 1761.

*   *   *

Joint-stock companies, precursors of modern corporations, played a significant role in the founding of English colonies in North America. Although joint-stock ventures were not new to England in the seventeenth century, the frequency of their creation then and the large size of their financial undertakings in a comparatively poor island nation suggested the grand ambitions England had for empire and trade. The British East India Company, granted a royal charter in 1600 and founded in 1610, was created by London businessmen pooling their resources to enter the Asian spice trade. King James I founded the Plymouth Company in 1606, to minimize the government’s risk in establishing colonies in North America. The Virginia Company, which founded Jamestown, was another from the same era. In 1620, the original Plymouth Company was resurrected as the Plymouth Council for New England with forty investors or “patentees.”

The settlers of Plymouth Colony in New England were, technically, employees of the Virginia Company to begin with. About half the original group were Separatists from the Church of England, who had founded their own church, a decision that made them vulnerable to prosecution for treason. They fled first from the village of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, then from Boston, in Lincolnshire, and thence to a more tolerant haven in the Netherlands. In Holland they felt culturally alienated and worried about the fate of their children in a foreign land, so they immigrated again, this time to North America. The Pilgrims, as we know them, agreed to pay the Virginia Company for their passage with fish, furs, and lumber that they would harvest when they reached Virginia, but storms blew their ship, the Mayflower, off course and they landed, in 1620, on what is today Cape Cod. There they occupied a Pokanoket Indian village with cleared fields that the Indians had abandoned during a recent devastating epidemic of smallpox. Half of the 102 Pilgrims died during their first winter from hunger, exposure, and disease, but by 1630 the colony had grown to fifteen hundred people and was thriving.

A decade after the Plymouth settlement, and at about the same time that women and children first arrived in Port Royal, John Dane, a tailor and one of the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, another joint-stock venture, said that he had “bent myself to come to New England, thinking that I should be more free here than there from temptations.” Dane, like others who made the Atlantic crossing to Massachusetts during the 1630s, fled what they believed to be a diluted religion and a corrupt government, and they founded independent communities based on strict Calvinist principles. They wanted to establish villages of like-minded “saints,” free of strangers and nonbelievers. This was decidedly not a heterogeneous population that could worship or not as it saw fit: Other dissenters from Anglo-Catholicism (especially Baptists and Quakers), Catholics, Anglicans themselves, and the unchurched had “free liberty to keep away from us.”

Large Puritan migrations in the 1630s brought about fourteen thousand more immigrants, principally from the east coast of England—East Anglia, eastern Lincolnshire, eastern Cambridge, and northeast Kent.3 They left a land of martyrs, not just believers: More than 80 percent of the Protestants burned at the stake during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary (1553–1558), daughter of Henry VIII, had come from those regions; during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), 75 percent of Puritan ministers were from the eastern counties.

East Anglians were exposed to marauders who attacked from the sea, and they were not above nailing the skins of Danish pirates to their church doors as warnings to others who might invade their shores to rape, loot, and kill. In the 1620s, there were at least two such raids (1626 and 1627). The East Anglians were also used to defending themselves from what they saw as arbitrary government. East Anglia was the center of several major rebellions, and its inhabitants began to resist King Charles I in 1625. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, the region sided ardently with parliamentary forces against the monarch. On either side of the Atlantic, the East Anglians were rebellious, rough, religious, stern, literate, uncompromising, devoted to their villages, and opposed to central authority, whether it emanated from Boston or London, a combination of qualities that would shape New England as much as it had East Anglia.

They crossed the ocean mostly in family groups and in the comparatively equal ratio of three men for every two women. Eighty percent of the seventeenth-century New Englanders paid their own way across the sea, making the number of indentured servants, who had signed contracts to work off the cost of their passage over a number of years, low compared to other regions in Anglo North America. As the servants’ terms of service expired, subsequent generations usually could not afford to purchase replacement slaves, so New England developed an independent, ethnically homogeneous, largely self-employed workforce. Although only twenty thousand immigrants came to New England before 1700, its robust population approached one hundred thousand when the eighteenth century began.

The Pilgrims purposefully eliminated the top and bottom of English society from their emigration. There would be no aristocracy, and New Englanders strongly discouraged the poor from joining their communities, “warning out” (ordering away) impoverished strangers and refusing to accept prison ships that brought banished British felons to North America. The distribution of wealth was comparatively wide in New England, more so in the villages of the interior than in the coastal towns such as Falmouth, Salem, Marblehead, and Boston. Outside those commercial centers, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population owned, on average, 20–30 percent of the taxable property, a significantly lower concentration of wealth than found in the colonial South or anywhere in Great Britain. New England’s wealth-distribution patterns stayed stable for almost a century before the gap between rich and poor began to grow.

New Englanders were attached to their land and local communities, as the rates of internal migration show during the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century. In Andover, for example, about 80 percent of the men stayed put in the 1600s; in Dedham, only 7 percent of the population moved during the 1670s. These were closed, corporate communities of believers, who accepted the covenant that bound them to each other and collectively to God. In theory, there was no room for dissent, and the goal was civic and church governance by divinely “elected” leaders.

The settlers brought a town-meeting form of government with them from East Anglia. Participation was generally low, usually 10–30 percent of the men, but it increased considerably when there was important or controversial business to discuss. The goal was a consensus—that is, unanimity—rather than a majority in a democratic vote, and this process generally worked so long as the villages remained small and the populations culturally homogeneous. Consensus remained the ideal, though, long after that. The stark communalism of their seventeenth-century towns reflected the New Englanders’ distrust of outsiders, including those just like them from nearby villages. The rivalries were intense, and ill-defined boundaries frequently resulted in litigation, harsh words, and violence. Miscreants were disciplined physically and/or by humiliation, such as confinement in public stocks, whipping in the town square, or lopping off an ear.

Despite the New Englanders’ authoritarian ways, town-meeting governance empowered workingmen in a more democratic structure than could be found anywhere else in the British Empire. To royalists and other critics, New Englanders were “republicans,” which was an insult that testified to their independence. They saw themselves as diligent protectors of their autonomy from outsiders, which included imperial officials and those who wanted to compete for jobs in their communities.

Aggressive enforcement of town boundaries enabled voters to control their labor force, which maintained high wages and full employment for the colonists’ children. Magistrates enjoyed wide authority over families to intervene and rearrange households, assigning single young people where needed as servants and laborers. The annual meeting in Dedham, for example, directed the placement of “young persons in such families in the town as is the most suitable for their good”—and, it might have added, for the good of the community as determined by its elders. The town enforced work discipline, which assured comparatively fair treatment of servants, and this supervision fostered reasonably content workers, who had no incentive to migrate south or to the Caribbean. Stability grew from and enhanced attachment to the villages. Ninety percent of births in Massachusetts towns were to couples who had at least one member born there. Marriages in which both spouses were from the same village produced half the children born in the towns. When native New Englanders did move, it was generally a great distance, to Maine or the western frontier, but rarely to the next village, where they would have remained outsiders for the rest of their lives.

New Englanders did not welcome “interference,” nor were they cowed by saber rattling in London. And their republicanism translated into active participation in church affairs, often to the chagrin of their ministers, who balked at their pettiness and ungenerous interpretations of contractual obligations. They sued each other often and squabbled over such matters as how much firewood or food they owed the manse.

The Puritans, with their ascetic work ethic, had expected a mild climate, as Boston was on the same latitude as Rome, but they made the best of rocky soil, rough seas, and weather that was fierce compared to what they had known in England. Hard work and God’s blessing could keep them from starving and yield enough to support a large family, but there was no dominant export commodity during the seventeenth century, and thus no risk that their work would lead to wealth and leisure, which they abhorred as signs of moral dissipation. Their labor yielded small surpluses of many products, which led them to trade everything—eggs, milk, grain, fish, tobacco, candles, barrels, shoes, cider, clothing, and cattle—rather than a limited number of staple crops as in the South (tobacco and rice) and the Caribbean (sugar, and its processed derivatives rum and molasses).

By reputation, New Englanders were sharp traders. In 1700, Boston had the third-highest volume of shipping of any port in the British Empire, behind only London and Bristol, most of the profits being from the carrying trade, the freighting of goods between ports, rather than from the sale of locally produced commodities. More than a quarter of the men in Boston owned shares in one or more ships—a much wider investor base than was found elsewhere in the empire.

New England families were large. About 90 percent of Andover’s children survived to adulthood, for example, which meant seven to eight children per family, even though the average age at marriage was higher (early twenties for women and late twenties for men) than in England and for men in the American South. And they lived long lives. Male New Englanders in the first generation lived on average to about seventy-two and the women to seventy-one despite the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. This was an amazingly healthy place, with a mortality rate from disease of only 5 percent, which the Puritans counted as a sign of God’s grace on their holy experiment.

The Puritans did not believe that work is redemptive, that believers can earn salvation through their own efforts. Indeed, such a “doctrine of works” was abhorrent to them, smacking of Catholic “superstitions.” The Puritans believed in grace freely granted by God, which was not theirs to seek or to earn. Only God could grant salvation and did so by his own plan. God required work of everyone, the saved and the damned, both physical labor and the spiritual labor of following the Ten Commandments. They believed in the sanctity of work as a calling, a framing feature of a life purposively led within family and community contexts. They were not pursuing profit as such but worked for the moral satisfaction of working. Financial success was complicated for them. They felt morally obliged to steward their wealth but saw accumulation as a spiritual trap. This inner turmoil led Puritans to reinvest their surpluses, which made them a commercially successful people even before global commerce became their calling. They feared failure yet success troubled them.

These unresolved tensions defined New Englanders during the seventeenth century. When commercial opportunities opened up in the new century, they began to get past their self-flagellation, becoming less troubled and more genteel but still driven by the work ethic that continued to inspire their culture even as they lost the theological rationale for it. As Benjamin Franklin, an eighteenth-century product of this culture, explained, “America is the land of labor.” And as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth-century New Englander, wrote, “A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”

Other principles of New England culture also spread across space and over time. There were Massachusetts Puritans who found the colony too lax in religion, and they left to establish another colony in New Haven, an outpost of even more conservative Calvinists, which became part of Connecticut in 1664. The Puritans banished to Rhode Island radicals such as Roger Williams, who advocated paying Indians for the land taken from them, and Anne Hutchinson, who believed that the faithful, including women, could interpret the Bible for themselves without the intercession of ordained ministers. Although Williams would have liked to ban slavery from his colony, it became a center of the international slave trade. Rhode Island also received the entering wedge of dissenting groups such as Baptists and Quakers, whom the Puritans persecuted elsewhere in New England.

Jehovah was the Puritans’ model for fathers, husbands, ministers, civic officials, and the monarch, rulers of unquestioned authority who governed, when necessary, with iron fists. Out of love, New England Puritans believed they should discipline children from an early age and often “bound them out” as servants to other families, effectively swapping children as a way to ensure that they would not themselves be too soft on their offspring. They tried to maintain a godly order, with everything and everyone in its place, and did this by force when necessary. Massachusetts villages prosecuted most of their adults at one time or another for breaches of order—violating the Sabbath, disturbing the peace, idleness, drunkenness, or sexual offenses—but the homicide rate in colonial New England was less than half what it was in the Chesapeake Bay colonies. It was easy to run afoul of local authority in small ways, but the communities successfully enforced a high degree of conformity.

New England enjoyed comparatively low rates of all violent crimes. The seaports were more violent and less homogeneous than towns in the interior, with sailors responsible for more than their share of property crime and drunken brawls. Local law exacted terrible punishments, including burning at the stake, which happened at least twice in the seventeenth century, both times to female slaves—Maria for arson and Phyllis for poisoning her master with arsenic. There were also hangings for capital crimes, including witchcraft, idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, rape, adultery, bestiality, sodomy, bearing false witness, and striking or cursing a parent by an offspring of sixteen years or older.

Witchcraft, defined as “giving entertainment to Satan,” was a capital crime in all the New England colonies, and execution of a condemned witch was generally by hanging. Between 1630 and 1700, 232 cases resulted in 36 executions.4 There were certainly more accused, convicted, and executed witches in New England than in other regions of English North America. Virginia tried only nine, convicted one man, and whipped rather than executed him. Pennsylvania never tried anyone for witchcraft, but New England’s per capita rates were roughly the same as England’s. The main difference was that witchcraft prosecutions ceased in England by about 1650 but continued among the Puritans in New England for another half century.

People accused of witchcraft in New England were most often alienated from the community in one sense or another by virtue of their gender, age, poverty, race, or outlier status—generally powerless, disrespected, odd in appearance or demeanor. Often they cultivated their reputations for having occult powers in order to supplement their income by telling fortunes or casting spells, and to scare neighbors into giving them alms or simply leaving them alone. Many were postmenopausal women no longer actively bearing and raising children.

Physical punishments for lesser crimes included slitting nostrils, amputating ears, boring tongues with hot irons, and branding the face or hands, sometimes with an H for “heresy.” Whippings were more common; a court once ordered the sheriff to strip four Quaker women blasphemers to the waist, tie them to the back of a wagon, and lead the convicts through twelve jurisdictions to be whipped by each constable. Humiliation was the punishment of choice when the villagers passed judgment on their own people, who suffered even more if they did not mend their ways: confinement in stocks or pillories, and orders to wear cloth letters proclaiming the crime—D for “drunkenness,” T for “theft,” and the A for “adultery” immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne two centuries later. New Englanders also imprisoned those awaiting trial, those who could not pay fines, and sometimes those convicted of a crime. The “gaols,” or jails, were sometimes just holes in the ground, which provided little protection against the weather. All this would change over time, as subsequent generations of Puritans lost the edge of the founders, became more secular, loved unabashedly, and even rebelled against authority in and outside the home.

Militiamen were deputized as posses to supplement law enforcers when this was thought necessary to maintain the public peace. Violent mobs bent on revenge or punishment and lacking any such authorization occasionally disturbed the peace in the coastal towns, but they were rare in the interior. In 1677, after Indians took several fishing crews captive in Marblehead during the Indian-settler hostilities known as King Philip’s War, a mob of women seized two Indians as prisoners and literally tore them limb from limb. A witness reported that the women surrounding the Indians kept people “at such a distance that we could not see them till they were dead, and then we found them with their heads off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones. And such was the tumultation that these women made, that … they suffered neither constable … nor any other person to come near them, until they had finished their bloody purpose.”

In these alien surroundings of North America, huddled together against their fears of strangers, dark forests, ferocious winters, devils, and wolves, New Englanders cleared their fields and triangulated their identities vis-à-vis Indian “savages” and all European Catholics, the French in particular, whom they saw as pawns of a corrupt papacy. The Algonquian peoples of the Northeast likewise defined themselves negatively, as being neither Iroquois, English, nor French.

From the very founding of their colonies, New Englanders feared that the wilderness might turn them into savages, and they lived in horror that they would become one with nature. Indians might be “like the very trees of the wilderness,” but the English settlers aimed to civilize the forest by clearing it of Indians and trees, planting crops and grazing domestic animals, building roads, and using the felled lumber to build towns, shipyards, docks, and ships. Forests harbored dangers but at least had utility in providing fuel and building material. Indians were just plain scary and had to go. Early on, the English had hoped to convert and acculturate them, but they had underestimated the allure of forest over field, hard pew, and stiff leather shoes.

The colonists were not adept at discerning differences among Indian bands, tribes, or language groups, nor were they much interested in the variations. To the Puritans, all Indians were savages. The Abenakis—the largest group inhabiting northern New England, what is today Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, who had been there for ten thousand years before the Europeans arrived—introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who was to become their celebrated savior; he was a Patuxet, a member of a tributary group of the Wampanoag people. But to the English, they were all the same. A number of distinct tribes were contained under the Abenaki rubric, and the New Englanders expanded it to include both eastern and western Abenakis, Passamaquoddies, Micmacs, Wampanoags, and Maliseets, calling them all “Eastern Indians,” principally to distinguish them from the more feared and despised Iroquois. All these peoples followed the game, the tides, the sun, and the seasons, adapting in cycles that varied little if at all across the years; their circular sense of time was very different from the New Englanders’ own linear measurements of years, decades, and centuries, and they neither feared nor longed for the future, while the Puritans dwelled at the world’s end.

Such incompatible worldviews framed all the conflicts between natives and new settlers over land. From their arrival in the 1620s and 1630s, the newcomers always insisted that they were in authority. This was one reason the Wampanoags initially tried to minimize their contact with the Plymouth colonists; their previous experiences with the English had made them wary. In 1614, for example, six years before the Pilgrims landed, English sailors had kidnapped some of their tribesmen and taken them to England. Squanto was one of the few who survived the ordeal; he returned home to a people that had been all but wiped out by smallpox. But in 1636, the Wampanoags agreed to an alliance with the Plymouth colonists, whereupon their enemies the Narragansetts agreed to a treaty with Massachusetts Bay settlers. One year later, Massachusetts men together with Narragansetts attacked an Indian settlement on the Mystic River in what is now Connecticut, killing hundreds of women and children—they were Pequots, a tribe that had inhabited that region for centuries. The massacre ended the Pequots’ dominance, and fear of the colonists led five of their sachems to submit to Massachusetts Bay in 1644, agreeing to “put ourselves, our subjects, lands, and estates under the government and jurisdiction” of the colony, and to “be true and faithfull to the said government.” In 1668, ten sachems from western Massachusetts also submitted to the colony and agreed to be “ruled” by its colonists.

Revealingly, none of the Massachusetts treaties after 1643 made any mention of English rule over the colony but simply asserted the colony’s direct authority over the Indians. In 1644, the Narragansetts declined the colony’s demands for concessions on the grounds that they too were “subjects now … unto the same king, & state yourselves are.” In fact, Indians throughout the colonies continued for another century to try to enlist the Crown’s support in their conflicts with the land-hungry colonists.

By 1665, there were nearly fifty towns in Massachusetts and Plymouth, and more than thirty more in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine. There were more than fifty thousand settlers in these New England colonies, while only ten to fifteen thousand Indians remained. In 1671, the Wampanoag sachem Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, declined a summons to appear before a Plymouth magistrate. When he met with representatives of Massachusetts, he learned that his efforts to play the colonists against each other had failed, and that the English had agreed that his people were under the authority of Plymouth.5 At that point, Metacom agreed that he and his people were subject to the British king, to “the government of New Plymouth, and to their laws.” The Wampanoags and other Indians in Plymouth turned over their arms, which diminished the immediate threat of war but created a resentment that would lead to war four years later.

The continuing dispute over authority and subjection was the underlying reason for King Philip’s War, a brutal conflict that broke out in 1675, the proximate cause of which concerned land the colonists coveted. The viciousness on both sides aimed at annihilation with the same weapons—knives, tomahawks, and flintlock muskets. The Narragansetts refused to deliver Wampanoag prisoners—loyalty to family trumped diplomatic ties—so the English launched a retributive war with them, too. There was shocking savagery on both sides; the best defense New Englanders could make of their “civilization” was that the Indians had “delighted” in causing pain, while they were disgusted by the violence they had perpetrated. It was a subtle point—and untrue. They reveled in killing Indians, and within just a few years 60–80 percent of the Indian belligerents were dead. After the war, what was left of the tribes in Massachusetts and Connecticut moved north and together, which created both new conflicts and new alliances among them. The Puritans’ ferociousness, cultural arrogance, intensive hunting, and extensive land use also drove the Indians into alliance with the more tolerable French.

*   *   *

When the Catholic James II abdicated the English throne in 1688 and was succeeded by the Protestant William III the next year, France declared war on England, and soon the two imperial powers were engaged in hostilities in North America, where the Acadians supported James and the Anglo-Americans eagerly embraced William.6 This turn of events gave Acadians, who had been trying unsuccessfully to tax the New Englanders who fished off their coast, a pretext for attacking boats sailing from Salem and Boston. In response, seven hundred New Englanders under Sir William Phips, a shipbuilder and merchant (and later royal governor of Massachusetts), besieged the bastion at Port Royal, Acadia’s capital, in May 1690. Oral terms of capitulation allowed the defenders to leave the fort fully armed (they were then deported to Quebec) and the local Acadians to keep their homes and continue to practice their Catholic faith without interference. But shortly after the negotiations concluded, fights broke out among the troops, which led to the New Englanders’ disarming Acadian soldiers, pillaging the countryside, desecrating Port Royal’s Catholic church, and shipping some prisoners to Boston, where they remained incarcerated for years. They also required residents of Port Royal to swear allegiance to the new British monarchs William and Mary. This episode was the beginning of heated enmity between Acadians and New Englanders that persisted for more than a half century.

The New Englanders did not stay to defend their conquest of Port Royal in 1690, but they returned on raids in 1696, 1704, and 1707, and then made a more ambitious assault in 1710, when, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714), a combined English and New England force again took Port Royal and renamed it Annapolis Royal. The invaders garrisoned the newly named Fort Anne with 450 men over the winter, 250 of them New Englanders and the other 200 mostly Irish Royal Marines. Some of the Acadians aimed for neutrality and traded with the invaders, while others resisted as best they could. By spring 1711, locals had ceased to supply the fort. When the New Englanders responded aggressively to this treatment, the Acadians’ Indian allies ambushed them, killing sixteen, wounding nine, and taking the rest prisoner; they suffered no casualties themselves. Over the summer, Acadians and several hundred Indians from three different tribes besieged the fort. The Acadians also attacked settlements in Maine with the help of Micmac and Abenaki allies, leveled the English fishery station in Newfoundland, and captured the Newfoundland town of St. John’s. The rest of the war went badly for France, though, and in the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended it, France conceded Acadia and Newfoundland to Great Britain, keeping only Cape Breton Island and Île Saint-Jean (now Prince Edward Island). The Acadians were, under the treaty’s terms, expected to move to Cape Breton, which some of them did despite ongoing tensions with the English who now occupied Nova Scotia.

By 1719, the English in North America had settled on a policy of incorporation of the Micmac into Nova Scotia society, but also, somewhat contradictorily, of respecting their autonomy. Governor Richard Phillips offered cash and land incentives for English-Micmac marriages; not one English settler ever claimed the prize, but Micmac and Acadians intermarried frequently. And they both were provoked to anger by the many New England fishermen who tried to establish settlements on the Atlantic coast. The New Englanders also defied the Micmac by fortifying Canso, on the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. Micmacs attacked there in 1720, killing three men and destroying the fort under construction. War formally broke out between the New Englanders and Micmacs in 1722 and lasted for three brutal years, with the mutilation of corpses, killing of prisoners, and collecting of scalps for which bounties were paid by Massachusetts. Treaties in 1725 and 1726 acknowledged the Micmacs’ right to self-governance but did not settle the question of competing land claims; the two groups tried to stay away from each other on the Atlantic coast, but they got along less well on the Bay of Fundy—which the New Englanders blamed on the Acadians.

At least as early as 1720, James Craggs, the secretary of state for the Southern Department, which was responsible for the North American colonies, had seriously considered expelling the Acadians from Nova Scotia. A financial crisis precipitated by a plunge in the value of South Sea Company stock in 1722 (the so-called South Sea Bubble) stalled such plans, though, and the project was not seriously revived for two decades. That same year, Nova Scotia’s own colonial council declared it a crime for Acadians to provide food, shelter, or any kind of assistance to the Micmac. The next few decades were relatively peaceful and prosperous, as a bilingual community developed at Annapolis Royal. By 1730, virtually all male Acadians had taken oaths of fealty to the British monarch, but with the reservation that they were exempt from bearing arms against French or Indian enemies of the English colonies. By the mid-1740s, there were about 10,000 Acadians, 3,000 Micmac, and 500 English settlers in Nova Scotia.

In its January 1, 1745, issue, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Acadians had taken 135 New Englanders captive in Nova Scotia during the previous five years, and that ten of these captives, now returned to Boston, said they had been “very cruelly treated” while held by the French. According to the Gazette, “It is the opinion of many of the returned prisoners that Cape Breton might be easily reduced by a small force from Great Britain, under honest and skillful officers.” In February, the Boston Evening Post reprinted an article from the London Magazine lamenting “the present state of our possessions in North America, which now seem, to the eternal disgrace of their Mother Country, to be left naked and open on all sides to the incursions and ravages of two powerful and irritated enemies.” Spain lurked to the south and in the Caribbean, while “on the northern frontier, the effect of our supineness and neglect has been too visible.” Colonists estimated that the eight to ten thousand French troops in Canada, plus their Indian allies, were always poised for an invasion. The writer went on to say, “That our colonies in North America are of great importance to the wealth and strength of their Mother Country, is too notorious, and has been too often prov’d, to afford the least pretence for a denial.”

*   *   *

Beginning in the 1720s and accelerating in the 1730s, divisions grew within New England’s churches and across sectarian lines between those who favored the Puritans’ traditional forms of sermonizing and those affected by a new emotional style of evangelical preaching. Declining church membership and a sense that their religion was emotionally dry contributed to the New Englanders receptivity to the international revivalism of the time, often called the Great Awakening. The amorphous transdenominational assault on the old ways by so-called New Light revivalists split its churches and communities along existing social and theological fault lines, and left a legacy of conflict that was to affect political styles for decades to come. Internal psychological tensions and external social ones, focused on an ever more intense pursuit of economic success, along with guilt about the growing frequency of conflicts with authority, prepared the ground for people to welcome the exorcising effects of a new kind of religious and civic conversion.

Revivalists preached that salvation was a personal responsibility, unmediated by anyone between the sinner and God—the same view that had gotten the celebrated Dissenter Anne Hutchinson and her followers expelled from Massachusetts a century earlier. The faithful heard that they were responsible for their own souls and their own communities; they should not and could not depend on others to discern right from wrong for them. This put moral and political authority in their hands. The New Light ministers also endorsed toleration of other religions, which many accepted but many more heard as an assault on existing institutions and power structures.

Congregants applied this message to their secular lives in ways that the New Light ministry never intended. Once congregants expiated their guilt in emotional revivals, they returned to producing, selling, and consuming without, or at least with less, guilt about their new involvement in the burgeoning international market economy. The Congregationalists, as the descendants of Puritans now called themselves, were less concerned with theological nuance or ministerial sanction than their ancestors had been. They understood that it was now civil authority that bound society together. The New Englanders had shared political values and a devotion to liberty and property—a shared ideology rather than theology. They retained their millennialist habits of mind; apocalyptic temperaments were embedded in their culture, but now these were focused on the battlefield and ballot rather than on the pulpit and pew.

Officers who led New England militias, ministers who pastored their flocks, politicians both appointed by the Crown and elected by the people, and merchants who delivered their goods all had to accommodate themselves to the voices of the majority. New Englanders asserted their independence within the family, town, colony, marketplace, and empire. They had not become rebels, but by comparison to New Englanders of 1690 they were more unruly and sometimes even downright rebellious. And in the communities with the greatest economic expansion, population growth, and geographical spread—like those east of the Connecticut River in the colony of the same name—alienation from authority manifested itself most dramatically.

The New England of 1750 was not that of the founders or even of the recent past. More and more the colonists felt themselves adrift; the ethnically homogeneous, ideologically unified, and socially and economically predictable world they idealized was gone. Change, rather than the stasis their traditions celebrated, unsettled them, alienated them, and destabilized their society.

It is often change rather than any actual experience of deprivation that produces potentially revolutionary environments. Fear of the future can be more unsettling than desperation about the present. Hope that an idealized past can be recovered, or despair because an imagined future is becoming more remote, can turn people’s worlds upside down. New Englanders experienced this trepidation in the mid-eighteenth century. Like others before and since, the impulse to blame “outside” forces conspiring against them had tremendous allure, and they had a history of externalizing threats and making them real: the French, Indians, kings, popes, witches, Satan, parliaments, weak-kneed Protestants, some ministers, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, strangers, and—depending on the locale—the city or the country. New Englanders would look outside to blame and to fight for the moral high ground.

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas P. Slaughter

Maps copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey L. Ward

Meet the Author

Thomas P. Slaughter is the author of The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition (Hill and Wang, 2008) and four other books. He is the Arthur R. Miller Professor at the University of Rochester and the editor of Reviews in American History.

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