(Originally written in 2007 and edited in 2021)
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day,” (Franklin 101). Benjamin Franklin intended that quote to describe the gains of one man, but it can also be applied to the gradual independence of the American colonies. The American colonies, beginning with Jamestown in 1620, were an extension of the British empire but, by “little” variations in important institutions, became the United States of America. Modifications relating to the economy, slavery, and religion in the 17th to 18th century fostered this distinct colonial identity.
The most significant change between the centuries was the economic transformation. After arduous years of settling on the land, the colonists were experiencing economic success in the 18th century. Cities were now thriving from Boston all the way to Charleston. Proprietors, like William Penn, used the industrial appeal to promote his colony and attract settlers: “[T]he plantations employ many hundred of shipping and many thousands of seamen…industrious husbandmen and day laborers…laborious handicrafts…ingenious spirits…younger brothers…and men of universal spirits,” (Penn, Hoffman, 71). The colonies became a top competitor among the trade networks. These economic opportunities also trickled down to the individual colonists. Such employment and social mobility were also unique to the colonies compared to England. Lax British regulations fostered this phenomenon.
The growth of the colonial economy was nevertheless then met with increased British dominance and oversight. Salutary neglect was abandoned and the British began enforcing trade laws that were not previously enforced. For instance, the Board of Trade was created to tax the colonists for the Seven Years War. The taxation created a rift as most of the colonist shared the views of Franklin and Thomas Paine: “I had always understood from our charters that our laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them,” (Franklin 133). “In America the law is king…” (Paine, Hoffman, 101). The colonists wanted to preserve their liberties with collectively-made law not based on the whims of the king.
The changes in the economy fostered the changes in the second most significant institution—slavery. There were changes in enslaved Africans' population, how the enslaved population increased, and the culture of the enslaved Africans. More enslaved Africans were allegedly required to support the trade demand from overseas markets. At the turn of the century, there was even already a black majority in South Carolina. “Plantation slavery –growing cash crops on a massive scale for distant markets –developed on a large scale during the early colonization of the Western Hemisphere and became a distinctive New World phenomenon,” (Countryman 8).
“The North American slave population began to sustain itself, and the transatlantic slave trade became less and less necessary to its continuation,” (Countryman 5). The increased enslaved population also led the majority of the enslaved Africans living in separate quarters instead of in the main house, as they did in the 17th century. Their distance from the master allowed the enslaved to create their own culture, much of which was a common bond against the brutality they all encountered.
Brutality against the enslaved increased in the 18th century. Southern planter William Byrd kept a diary and recounted his brutality: “I threatened Anaka with a whipping if she did not confess…Eugene was whipped for running away… Eugene was whipped for pissing in his bed… Eugene pissed abed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…L-s-n was whipped for beating his wife Jenny,” (Byrd, Hoffman, 41-42). Thus, the colonies’ large-scale slavery furthered its uniqueness from Britain.
Finally, the third significant change that occurred from the 17th to 18th century was religious change. During the 18th century, the colonies were now composed of rational thinkers and religious zealots. The Enlightenment first came to the colonies in the 18th century and the power of human reason to solve problems rapidly gained momentum. Franklin, even though he had a religious upbringing, considered himself a rational thinker: “Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Diests, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist,” (Franklin 43). Franklin also came up with his list of thirteen virtues that paralleled religious commandments (Franklin 65).
At the same time that the Enlightenment was growing, the Great Awakening arrived. God, under this movement, was an angry God who could brutally punish sinners. These preachers, unlike the 17th century, used dramatic tactics and “fire and brimstone” speeches to convince the masses. Unlike in England, colonial culture allowed for both the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening.
In conclusion, the intertwined economic and social changes from the 17th to 18th century laid the foundation for a distinct American culture. The colonists used logic and religion to defend slavery, which in turn appeared to bolster the economy. These changes in the 18th century led to an American identity that would no longer be able to resist independence from the crown.
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Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree.
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