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Essays on American History: Jamestown to the French and Indian War

The Varieties of European Colonialism

Comparison is one of the most powerful methods in historical writing, especially since history is clearly not an experimental science. One cannot, of course, hold variables constant as one can in the laboratory, but with a bit of warranted modesty about the results, the comparative method is usually quite fruitful. In that spirit, let's compare and contrast Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonialism in the Americas.


Of Spain's experience and impact, we have already seen much. The Spanish aimed to settle down and extract resources. They did not much mind "mixing" with the Indians, as long as racial categorizations yielded destines accordingly. Having acquired, literally, a gold mine in South America (silver, too), they had little impetus to press on northward to less metallically gifted regions: a little push into the American southwest, with terrible consequences for the Indians living there, and a gesture at holding Florida was about all they could muster over a century or so.

In the American southwest, the Spanish were on the receiving end of one of the few major pushbacks by American natives, the Pueblo Revolt. The short version is that the Pueblo peoples were under sufficient threat by the Spanish to put aside internal difficulties and, in 1680, rise up against their conquerors, laying siege to Santa Fe in New Mexico and driving out the mostly mestizo colonial population. Independence lasted exactly twelve years, at which point the Spanish were back in New Mexico, half-welcomed by the Pueblo peoples, who, lacking a common enemy, had begun once again to fight amongst themselves, with many a Navajo and Apache raid thrown into the bargain.


The French aimed to find a Northwest Passage to East and Southeast Asia. In this they were not alone, of course -- Dutch and English, too, searched for this ultimate outflanking of Afro-Eurasian trading routes and regimes. Plus, finding no precious metals in North America, the French wisely settled for furs. In fact, they hardly settled in the other sense at all, at least compared to the Spanish and English. France was doing relatively well in the seventeenth century and those who emigrated chose warmer climes than Canada. It seems likely that a relatively low population heavily incentivized the French to treat the Indians comparatively well: mutual trade was the goal, not settlement and expulsion. 

Of course, European rivalries spilled over into the Americas. In the next chapter we shall review the American phase of the first world war (that is, The French and Indian War/Seven Years's War) which was one of a series of Franco-British conflicts over the centuries. That is, long before George Washington's mostly ignored Farewell Address, America was embroiled in entangling alliances with Europe. These ebbed and flowed but were never absent; it's important not to mistake political independence, and even a large insulating ocean, for isolation. Though many Americans have done just that over the centuries, itself an important fact in American history and historiography.

The Netherlands

The Dutch also sought out a Northwest Passage, but under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, inventors of the joint-stock company described in the previous chapter. In the process of this search, the Dutch managed to found New Amsterdam, later New York City. Like the French, the Dutch were far less interested in settlement, what with a Golden Age burgeoning at home itself based in large part on international trade. The Dutch carried over to their American colonies their relatively liberal views on religious freedom and even female rights, neither of which ever threatened their core economic interests. That is, relatively liberal as the Dutch were, the Dutch West India Company was not a democracy.

Competition between Protestant Netherlands (and later Protestant England/Britain) and Catholic Spain was fueled by religious differences, yes, but it's always hard to tell where religious motivation ends and economic motivation begins. And vice versa -- suffice it to say that they usually pointed in the same direction. In any event, in the sixteenth century, The Netherlands had won its independence from Spain. Part of the Protestant battle against Catholicism was to paint the Spanish as atypically awful in their treatment of Native Americans, the so-called Black Legend. Thus did dominated Native Americans become pawns in the nonstop propaganda war between European powers; the French, too, would soon avail themselves of a version of this kind of propaganda and deploy it against their main rivals, the British. To be sure, Native Americans were of course sophisticated enough to see these rivalries and use them to their own tribal advantage.


The key feature of English/British colonialism was that it was intended for settlement. (Why "English/British"? Because in 1707, England, including Wales, and Scotland united to form the United Kingdom, or "Britain.") This is not a trivial difference: there is no settlement of "new" people uninterested in "mixing" without the removal of the "old" people. No rough equivalence of trading partners here; just constant pressure. The conquest was finished by 1900, an event of no small importance for American historiography, as we shall see. Unlike the Spanish of Black Legend, the British (and subsequent waves of immigrants) never considered melding their culture, let alone themselves, with that of the natives beyond borrowing some agriculturally useful procedures and the odd canoe. Native Americans gained metals, horses, and alcohol, among other things; these new ingredients changed their cultures, too. But separation was the theme.

Racked with internal politico-religious problems, England was late to the colonization game, though it got a lot of practice dominating Ireland in the sixteenth century, which was a sort of testing ground for subsequent American efforts. And not just internal problems: in 1588, a Spanish Armada that would likely have crushed England had fortuitously sunk off the coast of England, thus preserving English Protestantism -- and independence -- and merchant shipping. Envious of Dutch success, desiring to use American wealth to leapfrog into the leading ranks of European power, eager to strike blows against both Spain and France, England was further incentivized to colonize by a population pressure mostly absent from its rivals.

England was caught in a demographic-economic pincer of its own making. The demographic pincer was that the population had significantly increased during the sixteenth century. The economic pincer was that despite this population boom, English elites were rapidly reducing the amount of available and public land through a series of land "enclosures" that consolidated small farms into large ones. This process continued well into the nineteenth century and helps to explain why English men would sign up for indentured servitude to pay their way toward possible land-acquisition in the Americas. Many, if not most, indentured servants earned through the cost of their passage only to find disappointment, but some did indeed earn both their freedom and some land. Keep in mind that English population pressure created inevitably westward-pushing American settler-colonial population pressure, banging into not just Indians but French-friendly Indians.

The Varieties of British Settler-Colonialism

As we all know, the historical cookie crumbled such that the British ended up dominating what would later become the United States, so let's slow down a little and expose the British colonial experience to closer inspection. As usual, geography strongly shaped the economy, culture, and society of these pre-industrial settlers. As we tour around what would become the United States, keep in mind the geographical seeds from which would sprout future economic and cultural development -- and conflict. 

This is not to bracket out culture as an independent cause: geography doesn't determine economy which doesn't determine culture and the rest, of course -- with "of course" of course meaning "in the author's considered opinion." But nature does set a kind of boundary to economy which sets a kind of boundary to culture and society. They frame the canvas of culture and society, so to speak, within which one is forced to paint. To be frank, no one really knows what drives what, given all the complex feedback loops. To be even more frank, it's not clear if anything ever does in that simple monocause-and-effect sense which hardly applies in the natural sciences. Various historiographical and ideological traditions will privilege this or that feature -- ideas, culture, geography, economics, etc -- as "the most important," and often, though not always, in some global sense above and beyond local contexts.

New England

The familiar story: settled by Puritans who wanted religious freedom (for themselves, that is) and inculcated an ethic of work, sobriety, and, for the times, a near-totalitarian system (at least at first) of top-down social control in small towns and surrounding family farms. It's worth noting that the Puritans struck even contemporaries as fanatical about their beliefs: Rhode Island would not exist were it not for Puritan excesses. (Nonconforming people like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson either left or were thrown out.)

However, one consequence of Puritan settlement was that many more immigrants came as part of families than in other parts of the Atlantic seaboard. That is, it wasn't mostly men who had no inclination to "mix" with the natives as the Spanish did in South America. This made natural population increase much easier, and the population duly exploded. Moreover, this natural increase was encouraged by a setting far enough north to avoid malaria and other death-rate-spiking illnesses that dogged regions further south.

Agriculture indeed persisted even in the stony New England soil, but was always difficult enough to make alternative options attractive, especially given the natural bays and harbors in the region that fairly invited trade, not to mention natural fisheries not far off the coast and already well-frequented by Europeans before 1600. Disease-bearing Europeans, that is -- to the Natives's depopulative cost and thus the later colonists's ultimate benefit.

Finally, over time New England shed much of the Puritan-totalitarian heritage, keeping and expanding notions of proto-self-government that also had its roots in that tradition (like most traditions, Puritanism was full of contradictions). Moreover, the "mixed" economy of agriculture and trade prevented the kind of planter-domination typical of the South. 

The Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania

Here, too, the economy was a mix of agriculture and trade, but the immigrant population was more culturally varied than in New England. For example, thanks to William Penn, Pennsylvania became Quaker territory; Quakers were far more religiously tolerant than the Puritans. Thus, anyone not Puritan, or not English for that matter, who wanted to emigrate to America naturally chose places like Pennsylvania, and, as diversity rose and tolerant attitudes persisted, that encouraged even more immigration, and so on. (Note that in this case at least the contingent arrival of people with a very different culture played a crucial role in establishing a different kind of society: it's impossible to see Pennsylvania's geography determining Quaker values that predated interaction with that geography.)

Here, too, existed fantastic harbors, such as that of New Amsterdam/New York, that begged for trade. However, the land in general was far more easily arable, so farming was relatively easier. Additionally, these colonies enjoyed vast forests which naturally encouraged lumbering; lumber was necessary for maritime trade, of course. Labor was initially white-indentured-servant, later and increasingly African-slave.

Why, incidentally, was New England's soil more stone-filled than that of the Middle Colonies? The answer is deeply interesting: the southernmost line of glaciation, which necessarily dragged lots of rocks along with it, depositing numberless tons as the glaciers retreated, ended just about at the border between New England and the Middle Colonies (northern New York of course excepted). The moral is that one could, and probably should, say that human societies are a co-production, as it were, of both nature and culture.

The South: the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), the Carolinas, and the West Indies

Here's what the Chesapeake colonial economy was based on: tobacco. And that's almost literally about it. Tobacco cultivation is very labor-intensive; hence more reliance on African slaves as white-indentured servitude waned. Hence, the greater justification of the nature of the labor force upon which the entire socioeconomic structure was based. Moreover, tobacco just happens to exhaust the soil a bit more than many other crops, so land-hunger was more pitched in these colonies; thus, pressure to move west was that much higher.

Why tobacco? Well, this "new-world" plant is a notoriously addictive drug, so once it caught on in England and Europe, it became quite a profitable cash crop. The Columbian Exchange's effects are deep and durable.

This kind of near-monoculture -- reliance on one crop -- also marked the economy of the deeper south (as well as that of the West Indian colonies that were not to become part of the United States) where the growing season was longer: the Carolinas, and later Georgia. North Carolina, like the Chesapeake, was and is a center of tobacco cultivation; South Carolina moved into rice cultivation -- a brutally labor-intensive staple-crop to cultivate. Hence, again, the unsurprising reliance on African slave labor.

Thus, for a variety of reasons both geographical and cultural, the North was developing a post-feudal, proto-capitalist economy with a relatively more urban and bourgeois-"democratic" politics, whereas the South was settling into a more feudal, agrarian economy dominated by large plantation-owners. The conflict was obvious even by the founding of the country; it may be considered an ironic achievement that the conflict that ultimately came was held at bay for as long as it was.

The Importance of the Atlantic Slave Trade and Interactions with the Native Populations

There is an interesting historiographical debate over whether the Civil War was "about" slavery or "about" economic systems. Since slavery is by definition a system of labor, it's hard to see how one can maintain the dichotomy, but in any event, to the extent that how economies are supported by labor is important, the Atlantic slave trade is important, and beyond moral judgment of slavery as an institution which almost no one in 2017 would try to justify. It's simply central to the development of the American colonies, just as the interaction of those colonies with the American Indians was also central. Both features had their international implications; both were driven by expansion, development, and an apparently unquestioned goal of the ex-colonists's God-given right to continually expand what Thomas Jefferson was to call, oddly if one thinks about it, a continental "empire of liberty."

Incidentally, an empire of liberty is inescapably an imperial project, no matter what the political system of the nation-state itself: Rome, Athens, and Venice, after all, had each expanded nearly to their greatest extents under one or another form of an aristocratic or oligarchical republic. To this end, some historians question what they call "the salt-water fallacy": that American imperialism only began when American power took to the seas in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Some historians question whether it ever ended, as opposed to taking on another, non-political form after the early twentieth century.

But to return to Africans and American Indians. African slave importation spiked as economies both north and south required labor in their different ways and to their different extents. Of course, since the north's economy concentrated more on trade, the slave trade ran through and undergirded much of the north's economy, too. Nice, relatively liberal Rhode Island was a major center of the slave trade. Labor supply or trading good -- both aspects of slavery are features of an economy. The main difference is that the south's ability to drop slavery was simply far more difficult than the north's -- the substitution cost for northern traders, who could carry anything profitable without any fundamental change, was far lower than for southern planters, who simply had no other labor source to turn to without revolutionary change. In fact, the quick collapse of Reconstruction into a kind of technically non-slave-based serfdom that didn't really die until well into the twentieth century indicates how deep such economic roots can run, with all their attendant cultural justifications which often take on lives of their own that persist long after the economic conditions that created them have disappeared.

Population pressure, itself a feature of economic success and agricultural needs (as well as maritime-trade lumber needs), could be released in one direction: west, which was where the Indians had been forced to retreat, there to form alliances and trade relations with the "mother country's" main enemy: France. There is nothing particularly unique about this displacement; as was already noted, much of the history of our species has been the movement of peoples, usually violent.

What is important to understand as we approach the French and Indian war of the 1750s is how all of the trends noted in this chapter led fairly close-to-inevitably to a conflict between the French and the British, including of course the still-British colonists. Given the ultimately divergent economic interests of colonists and British, which we are about to review but which are probably already apparent, and how the war contingently proceeded, which will be discussed in the next chapter, it should not be as surprising as it often is to students of American history that the colonies declared independence a mere twelve years after the British victory in which they took part and jointly celebrated.

Consolidation and Division

Regardless of the increasing ethnic diversity of immigrants, the English remained culturally dominant and "Anglicization" proceeded apace. Anglicization meant what parts of English culture, politics, and society were deemed "English" and fostered, consciously or not, in colonial society. Concrete examples include Protestant evangelism and British notions of political rights and other governing arrangements; concrete means center around communication: a transatlantic commerce of both goods and (printed) ideas.

The commerce of goods led to paired interests for a time, but later, due to the mercantilist system itself, interests diverged, as will be discussed below. But for a time, economic interests knitted together the two societies. More interesting was the effect of the commerce of ideas, which mostly fell into two categories: religious trends in Protestantism known as the Great Awakening (the first of many) and far more secular trends known as the Enlightenment

The Great Awakening was a mostly bottom-up, grassroots religious uprising of a sort, a reaction against the dominant hierarchy of the Church of England. It could be seen as a Protestant Reformation of the Protestant Reformation insofar as it took a person's individual, subjective, unmediated experience of faith even further than the Anglican Church, which was, after all, relatively close to Catholicism. The familiar features of contemporary, post-1970 American evangelical Protestantism (which itself could be seen as another Great Awakening) originated in this movement: fiery, "hell-and-brimstone" preaching by charismatic traveling preachers; large-scale revival meetings; emotional and enthusiastic responses; Biblical near-literalism. It was oddly progressive insofar as it opened up space for different kinds of religious and social attitudes, but the content was considered, even at the time, to be a bit retrograde. However, those considering it to be such were part of the older church hierarchies. What it does look like, functionally speaking, is a sort of quasi-democratic, self-governing grabbing of the reins of power -- social and religious power, in this case. One must prefix a quasi- to the noun insofar as this form of religion was based on the charismatic leadership of a small number of individuals, like George Whitefield, who was arguably the first transatlantic celebrity and was admired even by deists like Benjamin Franklin, who was also typically shrewd enough to see an opportunity and thus published Whitefield's sermons.

The Enlightenment, while hardly atheist except around the fringes, was surely secular, at least according to the standards of the time. Faith was mostly relegated to a kind of calm, rational deism of the Newtonian clockmaker sort; religions and religious institutions, however, were often the target of vicious attack, with no better example than that of Voltaire. The Enlightenment was centered on what was called "man" -- on the mundane, not the divine; on experimental science; on rationality; on the belief in progress or at least the possibility of progress in human affairs; on, if not democracy (again, a fringe notion), either a kind of enlightened kingship or even an oligarchical, aristocratic republic usually on what was understood to be the Roman model. Not even for Enlightened churchmen was the rabble-rousing emotionality of the Great Awakening, though Franklin's attitude toward Whitefield reminds us of how broad-brushed these generally-accurate distinctions are.

In fact, it's worth pausing to note that two mostly contradictory movements of ideas coexisted, even within individual minds. This should not be at all surprising. The norm is internal contradiction, and not only in the history of ideas. As we will now explore, the seeds of economic and political dissension lay in the very structure of the mercantilist system that, for a time, welded the colonies to England/Britain.

What did Britain want from its American colonies? Very simply, raw materials. Britain wanted American raw materials to come to Britain and only Britain so that the British could manufacture value-added products thereform and export them, including back to the colonies who were prevented from procuring such manufactured products from anyone else or making them for themselves. One key method by which Britain discouraged both competition and independent economic development was through high import tariffs on manufactured goods and subsidized exports of the same. The intended result was a positive balance of trade for the home country and a steady ingress of money (ie, precious metals) to balance the budget, fund wars with European competitors, finance further colonial imperialism, and so on. The system was known as mercantilism and it was the dominant economic form until Adam Smith's free-trade critique began to actually affect policy formation in the early nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the colonial process, when life was precarious, few colonists would think to complain about this guaranteed market for raw-material export. But as colonial life became less precarious, as wealth built up, it became clear that mercantile colonialism put a glass ceiling on further development. Closely related to this economic issue was the fact that colonists had no control over home-country policy-formation: no representation, but plenty of taxation. This struck not only the colonists (at least the powerful merchant class) but also people like Adam Smith and even Edmund Burke as deeply unfair, and even "un-English." The spread of industrialized production in the eighteenth century only made the domineering economic relationship all the more obvious.

Moreover, the home country set limits on colonial expansion westward. After all, Britain had its own problems to contend with in Europe, so if it could cut a deal with, say, France that its colonists didn't like, too bad for the colonists. It often dragged its feet on protecting colonists from Indian pushback, which struck people as dereliction of duty to save money. Finally, despite the English roots of self-governing communities, colonists were ruled over by appointed governors -- pretty much the equivalent of the Roman proconsuls of old, most of whom were mostly interested in profiting as much as possible from their tenure and little else. The system invited corruption then and it did so 1500-odd years later, too. Finally, it's very difficult even with the best of intentions to govern a society at that distance with the available technologies: essentially, sea travel. As the colonial societies grew more complex, this time lag -- akin to that of Earth-bound NASA scientists communicating with far-distant space probes -- became all the more problematic.

Across this thin ice came marching the French and Indian War, a story that we will pick up in the next chapter. A preview of its effect on British fortunes in America can be encapsulated by a wonderfully wise line from an old British miniseries based on the reign of the first few emperors of Rome, The Caesars. The emperor Tiberius cautions his overly bellicose future successor, Germanicus, with the following: "It is possible to win battles; I am not at all sure it is possible to win wars."