The Cultural Life of the American Colonies

The Cultural Life of the American Colonies

by Louis B. Wright

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Authoritative and perceptive, this sweeping survey covers 150 years of cultural evolution in colonial America, from 1607 to 1763. Developments in religion, literature, education, and social thought receive a thorough analysis, enlivened by a blend of wit and panache that captures all the excitement of forming a new civilization.
Written by a distinguished scholar


Authoritative and perceptive, this sweeping survey covers 150 years of cultural evolution in colonial America, from 1607 to 1763. Developments in religion, literature, education, and social thought receive a thorough analysis, enlivened by a blend of wit and panache that captures all the excitement of forming a new civilization.
Written by a distinguished scholar and educator who served as director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and specialized in the colonial era, this volume addresses a broad array of topics: the region's agrarian society and leadership; influence of non-English elements; variety of religions and zeal for education; reading habits and the desire for learning; literary production in the North and South; drama, music, and other diversions; architecture and the decorative arts; scientific interests and observations; and many other fascinating subjects.
"A significant contribution to early American history that will be appreciated alike by the amateur and the professional." — American History Review.

Editorial Reviews

<:st>Cited in , this work was first published in 1957; Dover again does service with an important reprint. The study begins with the development of commerce and aristocracy in each colony, one revelatory bit being that Native Americans were enslaved in South Carolina and sent to the West Indies. Wright (fmr. director, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC) proceeds to discussions of religion, diversions, architecture, education, communications, and books. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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The Cultural Life of the American Colonies

By Louis B. Wright, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Brandon Morris

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13660-8


Agrarian Society and Leadership

FOR TWO hundred and fifty years after the first settlement at Jamestown in 1607, life in America was profoundly influenced by the nearness of the people to the soil. During the colonial period, even the largest cities were never very far removed from the back country that supported them, and town dwellers were in close contact with the farmers. In many instances they shared a large proportion of the interests and some of the activities of country folk. A prosperous tradesman of Boston might graze his cows on Boston Common and drink milk from his own dairy. A New York or Philadelphia merchant would expect to eat vegetables grown in his own kitchen garden, and he might own a nearby farm upon which he kept a watchful eye. In Charleston, South Carolina, even the wealthiest shipping magnates frequently owned plantations on which they lived during the cooler parts of the year. The highly organized division of labor which we know in a modern urban society did not exist. The country was close to the town, and the town knew country ways. The impact of the country was subtle and far-reaching upon both social and political life. Even yet many Americans will not concede that an urban civilization is superseding the mores and habits of an agrarian state, and many political clichés carry over from the time when America was predominantly a nation of farmers. At the beginning of settlement and for many generations thereafter, agrarian society and the leadership that an agrarian society developed played a paramount part in the civilization of North America.

Tales about the New World and propaganda for settlement overseas convinced many of the colonists who came to Jamestown that they would find a land flowing with milk and honey. Consequently most of the settlers were ill prepared for the realities of life, but those who survived learned to adapt themselves to wilderness conditions. Although the newcomers showed little initial enterprise and skill in coping with nature, they gradually learned how to live off the land, even to eat Chesapeake Bay oysters, a hardship that brought complaints from some of them. In 1614 John Rolfe, famous for his marriage to Pocahontas, made a more notable contribution by shipping to London a cargo of tobacco and pointing the way to a money crop that would establish the colony's prosperity. By 1617 the inhabitants were planting tobacco even in the streets of Jamestown, and from this time onward the Chesapeake Bay area was committed to a one-crop system that determined the quality of its society. By chance the colonists had discovered a commodity that fitted perfectly into the mercantilist theories of the day. They were able to produce a raw product that could be shipped to England, processed there, and distributed at home and abroad at a profit.

The relative ease with which tobacco could be grown and transported, thanks to the country's innumerable waterways, made Virginia and Maryland a land of planters whose commercial interests focused on London and Bristol. And since it was discovered that tobacco exhausted the soil in about seven years, planters had to be sure of a succession of fresh soil, a fact that accentuated the normal land hunger. Much of the subsequent social history of the region may be explained in terms of this obsession with land.

A society of farmers, scattered over a wide area, labored under an immense handicap in developing the normal amenities that we associate with a civilized life. The maintenance of schools and churches, for example, posed a particular problem in a region where the principal method of transportation was along the waterways. Roads were poor and travel in the interior was slow and difficult. In times of bad weather the churches were often so inaccessible that funeral parties could not reach them; a condition that accounts for the development of family burying grounds so unlike anything in England. The isolated lives of the planters explain in part their openhanded hospitality, for any chance visitor might bring a bit of news from the world beyond the borders of the host's plantation. These planters could not ride to the nearest trading post, as the pioneers in the West were wont to do, and trade products of the land for manufactured goods. Although the larger planters frequently imported small quantities of goods for barter with their less prosperous neighbors, not until near the end of the colonial period would the Chesapeake Bay region have merchants with adequate stocks. The Virginian and the Marylander in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had to depend upon ship captains from England for their merchandise, and London and Bristol were their nearest market towns.

As the settlers in the agrarian colonies pushed up the rivers and waterways into the interior and drove the Indians farther into the back country, the plantations in the older regions began to take on some of the look of a settled society instead of frontier outposts. Slowly the amenities of a cultivated way of life softened the crudities of the earlier days as the planters found time and opportunity for social intercourse. The quality of their houses improved; they imported more luxurious furnishings; they dressed better; a few had carriages or simpler horse-drawn vehicles; those who could imported books and hired schoolmasters for their children; they entertained their neighbors and friends with a little more attention to formality; they began to observe social "occasions"—the sovereign's birthday, the governor's ball, or some particular local holiday—and in time communities like Williamsburg, Virginia, Annapolis, Maryland, or Charleston, South Carolina, developed coherent social groups and a social season when planters and their families got together for entertainment, gaiety, and matchmaking.

In general, the upper planter class in Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina made a conscious effort to imitate the county families of England. Land had always been the symbol of aristocracy in England. When rich merchants of London wanted to improve their social status, they sought to buy freeholds in the country, and to marry their sons or daughters to country gentlemen who could assure their heirs of being landed proprietors. In time the grocer's son, or at least the son's son, would graduate into the ranks of the gentry himself. In the colonies the transition in some respects was even easier. Land, the sine qua non of aristocracy, was easier to come by. Anybody with a little capital, or a large family, for each of whom he could claim fifty acres as headrights, could become a landowner. Land was the key to social status, and the more land a planter controlled, the greater was his chance of being a person of importance. The status that land conferred helps to explain the land hunger of colonists in all those regions where agriculture was the principal occupation. Planters wanted sufficient acreage to assure to each of their heirs adequate holdings. The law of primogeniture rarely operated in the colonies to exclude the younger sons and daughters from inheriting some portion of their father's estates. Indeed, it was the hope of every provident father to make certain that each of his heirs had a piece of land as his portion. The eldest son might inherit the home place and its appurtenances, but the others might expect to receive farms that would permit them to continue to live in a style befitting their station.

It would of course be a grave mistake to assume that most of the planters were imitators of the English gentry, or incipient aristocrats. The numerical majority were plain farmers with holdings ranging from fifty to a few hundred acres. The work of the farm was performed with their own hands and those of their immediate family. Thomas J. Wertenbaker estimated on the basis of a quitrent roll of 1704 that only one Virginian in fifteen owned more than a thousand acres of land and the greater number depended on no help outside their families. A few of the smaller farmers had one or two indentured laborers but most had none. They were yeomen farmers much like the independent yeomen of England. In the first seventy years of the seventeenth century, the yeoman farmer by his own exertions could farm successfully in the tobacco colonies and hope to compete with the larger planter. But with increasing production, tobacco prices slumped and the yeoman found it ever more difficult to make a profit by the labor of his own hands. He could subsist in reasonable comfort on the products of his farm and he could sell enough tobacco to provide for the necessities that he had to buy, but he could not expect to achieve any spectacular prosperity through his own individual labor, as had happened to a few in the earlier days when tobacco was scarce and brought as much as sixpence a pound. When the price went down to a penny a pound or less, the advantage was all with the large planter who had white bond servants and black slaves to cultivate his acres, and a factor in London to look after the sale of his crop and purchase the supplies that he needed.

The growth of slavery from 1670 onward had a profound effect on the social structure of the southern colonies. It was responsible for a chasm between large planter and small freeholder, a chasm that grew wider as the eighteenth century wore on. Most of the economic and political power was in the hands of the great landowners. The small farmers sometimes accepted the situation silently, sometimes grumbled, and occasionally stirred themselves to overt hostility. But throughout the colonial period, the wealthier planters maintained political and economic control. In Virginia and Maryland they built great houses along the rivers, the James, the Rappahannock, the Potomac, the Patuxent, and other deepwater outlets to the sea. In South Carolina they established themselves at first along the Ashley and Cooper rivers, and later occupied the land along the other navigable streams. Unlike the Virginians, wealthy South Carolina planters also maintained town houses in Charleston, where they took refuge in the summer from the heat and the mosquitoes which made life unbearable inland.

Thanks to romantic novels, motion pictures, and amateur history written by ancestor worshipers, we have sometimes conjured up a picture of plantation life in the South, especially in Virginia, that rarely existed except in the imagination. The very perfection of the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, with its fresh paint, polished floors, and handsome furnishings, has helped to confirm a belief in the myth of a land of gallant gentlemen and lovely ladies forever idling in a glossy paradise. In reality the members of the ruling class in Virginia, imitators of the county families of England, succeeded in establishing for a time a remarkable aristocracy that contributed some of the most effective leaders at the time of the American Revolution, but it was a hard-working aristocracy that tolerated little or no romantic nonsense.

The planters who made up this aristocracy were a diligent lot, intent upon the architecture of their own fortunes, determined to procure the means to be landed gentlemen in the English manner. Many of them had come from simple origins, but land and wealth enabled them to acquire the accomplishments and qualities of the gentry of the mother country. Most significant of all, these planters carried over into Virginia not merely the outward forms of aristocracy but a sense of social responsibility that had characterized the English county families for many generations. The so-called cavaliers of Virginia had no time to be idle fops; they were too busy making a living, establishing families, and governing the country. The best of them also felt an obligation to cultivate their minds, pay some attention to religion, and see that their children got the rudiments of a classical education. Though they were far from perfect in either manners or morals, they had the strength and ambition to establish an orderly society. The notion sometimes expressed by cynics that the wealthy planters monopolized all the civil and military power exclusively for their personal aggrandizement is demonstrably false. They had inherited from an earlier period a sense of obligation to serve the state, and they often filled tedious and unremunerative public offices without complaint. When militia duty was required, they served as a matter of course, even when it meant personal hardship and loss of valuable time. Of the heroics dear to popular romance, there was next to none. Dueling was practically unknown. That refinement of chivalry had to wait until our ancestors had steeped themselves in the tales of Sir Walter Scott.

The planters who made up the upper class in Virginia were not a numerous body, but they were enormously influential. From their group came the principal county officers, the judges, the colonels of the militia, the revenue officers on the rivers, the majority of the members of the House of Burgesses, and all of the members of the Council of State, which served as an upper house of the legislative body as well as a supreme court for the colony. These planters also served as vestrymen in the churches and as social arbiters in their respective communities.

Their economic power exceeded the mere land that they controlled and cultivated, for they often acted as agents for their poorer neighbors in the sale of their tobacco and the purchase of commodities abroad. Ship captains from England, it is true, came up the Virginia rivers and traded on their own accounts with tobacco farmers of all degrees; but since the acceptable unit of tobacco at a river landing was a hogshead of about five hundred pounds, farmers often found it more satisfactory to barter smaller quantities to the great planters who maintained regular factors abroad and imported supplies to trade with their neighbors. The rich planters thus became middlemen and made a profit on the transactions.

No colonial Virginian, however rich and grandiose, held any nonsensical notions about the taint of trade. William Byrd I laid the foundation of his prosperity by trading pots and pans, guns, and rum with the Indians in the interior. He also conducted a lively business in both Indian and Negro slaves. Charles Carter of Cleve and Nathaniel Harrison of Wakefield made money from the sale of ship biscuit to the captains of the tobacco fleet. William Fitzhugh of Stafford got rich as much from bartering commodities left with him by the ship captains as from growing tobacco. The only trade that these wealthy planters despised was that carried on by seagoing peddlers in coasting ships from New England, traders who were willing to barter even with slaves for small quantities of tobacco and other produce.

One of the most ornamental planters of the early eighteenth century was William Byrd II of Westover, who conferred a favor on posterity by keeping an intimate diary giving a daily record of life on a large Virginia plantation. Byrd's diary destroys many of the romantic delusions that lovers of fiction have treasured. He himself was one of the most cultivated Americans of the first half of the eighteenth century. He had received his education in England and had been a member of the Middle Temple. His father had also sent him to Holland to learn something about business methods there, and he had served a brief apprenticeship with Perry & Lane, merchants of London. During his residence in London, Byrd became the familiar friend of writers like Wycherley and Congreve and tried his own hand at literary exercises. In due time he was invited to become a member of the Royal Society and contributed a paper on observations of an albino Negro.

Byrd gathered one of the finest collections of books in the colonies, a library of more than 3,600 volumes, and he brought home portraits of his noble acquaintances in England, painted by some of the better artists. Throughout his life he kept up a correspondence with the Earl of Orrery, the Duke of Argyle, and other noblemen. His ancestral seat at Westover on the James was baronial in extent and luxurious in its appointments. The lord of Westover belonged to the ruling clique which controlled the colony, and he himself at one time or another held most of the important public offices. Surely here, if ever, was to be found the storybook cavalier.


Excerpted from The Cultural Life of the American Colonies by Louis B. Wright, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Brandon Morris. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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