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Running Head: Colonial American History

Colonial American History

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Colonial American History

     The colonial era in America and the Caribbean began in the late 15th century with the first voyages of discovery to the New World and ended in the 19th century with successful movements for independence from the European powers.

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     History of Colonial America, colonial possessions or dependencies in the western hemisphere formed by European nations. European countries developed colonies for many reasons, but primarily to generate income. They used colonies to provide raw materials for trade and to serve as markets for finished products. English colonies eventually became dominant in North America because many settlers were drawn to their political systems. These systems encouraged representative government, religious toleration, economic growth, and cultural diversity. (Richard Middleton 2002)

     History of Colonial America, colonial possessions or dependencies in the western hemisphere formed by European nations. European countries developed colonies for many reasons, but primarily to generate income. They used colonies to provide raw materials for trade and to serve as markets for finished products. English colonies eventually became dominant in North America because many settlers were drawn to their political systems. These systems encouraged representative government, religious toleration, economic growth, and cultural diversity.

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     Yet within two centuries the number of European nations with colonial possessions in America began to dwindle as a result of conquests by rival nations. By 1700 England had pushed the Dutch out of North America, and in 1763 England and Spain divided the French empire in North America (Richard Middleton 2002). Shortly thereafter, most of the British colonies on the mainland of North America revolted against imperial control and established their independence in 1776 as the United States of America. Three decades later, many of the colonies controlled by Portugal and Spain followed the example of the British colonies and gained their independence. By 1820 few European colonies remained in the western hemisphere. (Lewis Hanke 2006)

      This article focuses on the history of the English settlements that achieved independence as the United States of America. It covers their experience during the colonial period, which lasted from 1607 to 1763; a separate article covers the era of the American Revolution, which began in 1763. (Eric Hinderaker and Kirsten Fischer 2002)

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    Four themes are central to the colonial period of American history. First, property-owning settlers created an increasingly free and competitive political system based on representative institutions of government. Second, the diversity of religious belief among the settlers gradually eroded support for an established church and promoted a new ideal of religious toleration. Third, the settlers created a bustling economy based on communities of independent farm families in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies and plantations owned by wealthy planters and worked by English indentured servants and African slaves in the Southern colonies (Eric Hinderaker and Kirsten Fischer 2002). Fourth, colonial culture became more diverse after 1700 because of the influx of many African peoples—Senegalese, Gambians, Ibo, Yoruba, Kongo, among others—and various European ethnic groups—Scots, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and German. However, by 1763 the settlers had begun to fashion a common cultural identity rooted in the English language, English legal and political institutions, and the shared experience of life in America.

     The colonial holdings of each European country developed in a distinct way. The Spanish established an authoritarian regime in Mesoamerica and imposed strict controls over the native peoples. The French and the Dutch in North America created fur-trading empires in which the native peoples retained their lands and their political autonomy. The English created settler-colonies, which were populated primarily by migrants from Europe and by slaves from Africa. British colonists excluded Native American peoples and pushed them ever further to the west. (Lewis Hanke 2006)

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     Until 1600 Spain and Portugal were the only European powers with colonies in the New World, the term used by Christopher Columbus to describe previously unexplored lands in North and South America. In the 1520s Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) subdued the wealthy Aztec empire that ruled much of what is now Mexico. Over the next decade, they began to expand Spain’s control over the Inca Empire in Peru and over the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica (Eric Hinderaker and Kirsten Fischer 2002). During and after these conquests, millions of native peoples died because they lacked immunity to European diseases such as measles and smallpox. Thousands of Spanish migrants settled on Native American lands and used local people as laborers to raise wheat and livestock and to mine gold and silver. All of these products were sent back to Europe or sold to enrich Spain. The Spanish also forced native peoples to convert to Catholicism.

     Portugal focused on Brazil as its main colony in the New World. In the 1550s the Portuguese established a plantation economy in Brazil; they raised livestock and grew sugar and other agricultural products for export to Europe. The Portuguese tried to force indigenous peoples to work on these plantations, but the people resisted. European diseases devastated the native population. The Portuguese eventually met their labor needs by importing tens of thousands of enslaved African workers.

     In 1628 the Company of One Hundred Associates, a joint-stock enterprise run by merchants and court officials, took control of Québec and the surrounding region. Armand Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, a French cardinal and statesman, founded the company. He was a strong advocate of colonization, and with his associates, he hoped to bring settlers to the area. The colony was known as New France, and eventually encompassed Acadia, the island of Newfoundland, Canada (the area drained by the St. Lawrence River), as well as French claims along the Mississippi River valley that were collectively known as Louisiana. Company members also wanted to exploit the rich resources of the region, and the king of France gave them exclusive rights to develop a trade in furs. (Richard Middleton 2002)

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     However, few French men and women made permanent homes in the new colony. The climate was harsh, and the French government discouraged the migration of Huguenots (French Protestants) and of young men who were potential military recruits in France. As a result, New France never developed as a colony for settlers. In 1698 its European population was only 15,200, whereas the population in the neighboring English colonies had already risen to 250,000.

     Despite the lack of settlement, New France prospered as a vast fur-trading enterprise. French explorers traveled deep into the North American continent seeking new supplies of deerskins and beaver pelts. In 1673 French missionary Jacques Marquette reached the Mississippi River in present-day Wisconsin. In 1681 explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, traveled down the majestic Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. He honored the reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715) by creating the new colony of Louisiana and opening up a vast new region for French fur traders. (Lewis Hanke 2006)  

     New France, which included Canada, was the French empire in North America. By 1750 fur traders had expanded it in the northwest, although wars with the British had reduced it in the east. Isle Royale was the remnant of French Acadia, most of which the British ruled as Nova Scotia. The French still maintained forts in the part west of the Bay of Fundy (cross-hatched area). Actual French settlement was largely limited to present-day Nova Scotia, Québec province, Illinois, and Louisiana; French influence extended farther through alliances with the indigenous nations for trade and defense.

     Military and civilian officials sent from France governed the colonies of Louisiana and New France in an authoritarian but effective manner. They maintained order among the white population and assisted them in building churches and obtaining Catholic priests from France.

     English colonies differed from other European settlements because of the growth of self-government, which marked the colonies’ early political development. The rise of self-government stemmed from two factors. First, most of the English colonies were founded as private corporate enterprises called proprietary ventures, and some time elapsed before the English government imposed direct controls on them. Second, many English colonists had participated in government at home, and they carried this tradition to America. (Richard Middleton 2002)

     England began its colonies during the 17th century when Parliament, the nation’s primary legislative body, was increasing its powers at the expense of the crown. During these struggles over constitutional control, most English settlers in America supported Parliament and the idea of representative government. In the British colonies, representative government developed within three distinct types of colonies: royal colonies headed by a governor who was appointed by the king, proprietary colonies owned and managed by English proprietors, and corporate colonies that selected their own governors and political leaders.

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     As settlers set up their American colonies, a major political and religious conflict, the Puritan or English Revolution, began about 1640 in England and lasted for 20 years. Revolutionaries started an armed uprising, and after two civil wars, they deposed and executed King Charles I. They then established a republican commonwealth, led eventually by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan and military hero of the rebellion. During these two decades of political strife in England, there were no new settlements in North America. The seven existing colonies largely governed themselves and firmly established the representative institutions allowed by their charters. During these years Virginia elected its own governor, following the lead of other colonies, including Plymouth, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay. (Lewis Hanke 2006)

     By 1660 the government run by Cromwell had collapsed. During this period of turmoil, the American colonists developed their own ideas about political authority and government institutions. Three fundamental principles won broad support among the American settlers: (1) People can create their own governments by composing a written constitution or by transforming a charter into a political framework. (2) People have a right to govern themselves through representative institutions. (3) People can most effectively organize church-state relations by practicing religious toleration and by establishing either a single church or a system of multiple churches.

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     During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), England and Scotland agreed to an Act of Union (1707) that created the Kingdom of Great Britain. Subsequently, during the reigns of George I (1714-1727) and George II (1727-1760), royal bureaucrats relaxed their supervision of internal American affairs. They preferred to encourage the growth of trade with the colonies in tobacco, rice, and sugar. Two generations later, British political philosopher Edmund Burke praised this trade-based colonial policy as being one of “salutary [healthy] neglect.”

     The American representative assemblies seized the opportunity created by lack of strict imperial controls to increase their own powers. In theory, royal and proprietary governors were the dominant political forces in the colonies. They commanded the provincial militia, and they could recommend members for the upper legislative body or council, approve land grants, and appoint judges, justices of the peace, and other legal officials (Richard Middleton 2002). In reality, the governors had to share their power with the American assemblies. The colonial legislatures copied some of the methods used by English politicians to boost Parliament's authority such as insisting on controlling taxes and on being consulted on appointments to public office.

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     From 1700 to 1750 political power gradually shifted from the English-appointed governors and councils to the American-elected assemblies. British officials resisted, arguing that colonial assemblies were overstepping their bounds. First in Massachusetts and then in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the assemblies showed their strength by refusing to pay their governors any salary for several years.

     The rise of the assembly created an elitist rather than a democratic political system in America. Most white men who owned property had the right to vote, but reflecting British political customs, only men of considerable wealth and status were expected to seek election to office (Eric Hinderaker and Kirsten Fischer 2002). For example, in Virginia during the 1750s, seven members of the influential Lee family sat in the House of Burgesses, and along with other powerful Virginia families, dominated its major committees. Political elite also emerged in New England, where descendants of the original Puritans formed the core of colonial leadership.

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     By the end of the colonial period in 1763, Americans lived in a new economic, social, and political world. As a result of sustained population growth, the mainland colonies had approximately two million residents and a dynamic economy. At the top of the society stood a capable group of leaders. However, this was also a society in flux. This combination of dynamic economic development, internal social conflicts, and increased controls by British officials set the stage for a 12-year conflict over parliamentary taxes and administrative power that brought about the American Revolution (1775-1783). As historian Carl Becker suggested, the political situation in the colonies meant that the war would become both a struggle against England for “home rule” and a conflict over which social groups should “rule at home.”


Colonial America: A History, 1565-1776 by Richard Middleton; Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Limited; 3 edition (May 1, 2002).

Colonial American History by Eric Hinderaker and Kirsten Fischer; Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Limited (February 1, 2002).

People and Issues in Latin American History: The Colonial Experience: Sources and Interpretations by Lewis Hanke and Jane M. Rausch; Publisher: Markus Wiener Publishers; 3 edition (May 2006).

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