The using the term “British North America” to describe the English and British colonies of the eastern Atlantic seaboard is especially fitting. As J.H. Elliot puts it, like New Spain, New England was not Old England. Yet, simultaneously it was not such a radical departure from English (and later, British) norms as to be unrecognizable. The English and British settlers who crossed the Atlantic brought with them their European culture and sought to oppose it upon their new landscape. Yet, this effort was stymied by the presence of Native Americans and, later, enslaved Africans who brought their own, non-European, norms into the equation. Thus the societies that emerged out of the colonial period of British North America were polyglot and dynamic – the product of cultural, economic, and political collusion between European, African, and Native American norms. The remainder of this essay will provide some examples of how society that was truly British and American emerged along the eastern Atlantic seaboard.
The tension between the “Britishness” and “Americaness” of colonial North America was present from day one of English settlement in the New World. Both the first settlers of Virginia and New England attempted to remake their new societies in the image of the society they left behind. [Fischer, Horn] They were immediately checked by the presence of Native Americans in Massachusetts and the Chesapeake, who sought to leverage the presence of these newcomers for their own economic and political advantage. The earliest English societies in North America were shaped by the dynamic of European and Native groups jockeying to use each other to further their own agenda. We see this in several famous encounters between Native Americans and English colonists; John Smith being “saved” by Pocahontas was likely an attempt by her father to ritually adopt Smith and use the English to further strengthen Powhattan (sp) rule in the Chesapeake, the later move by colonists in Virginia to “crown” Powhattan as a subject king to James I was part of English attempts to work Native Virginians into English networks of power, the Pequot War in New England shows the ways in which both Indians and the New English sought to leverage each other into positions that granted them economic and political privileges. In this war the Native enemies of the Pequots sought to bring the New English into war against the Pequot in order to secure a paramount access to European trade goods while the New English warred against the Pequots to establish their firm rule over all Native peoples in New England. [Richter]
Thus the societies that gradually developed over the course of the colonial period (and, of course, beyond) were shaped deeply by this push and pull between red, white, and black for dominance. By “looking east from Indian country” we can see the Native peoples were constantly attempting to work European goods and practices into their preexisting networks of trade and power. [Richter] Thus Natives could at once further European imperial struggles while also furthering their traditional practices and needs, as the story of the “Unredeemed Captive” shows with Natives translating an imperial struggle between England and France (“Queen Anne’s War”) as part of their traditional raiding for captives to incorporate into their society. [Demos] Then tension between these groups could prove culturally creative but also explosive. King Philip’s War provides a great example of this. The war was largely a product of English and Native attempts to control the livestock brought to the New World by the English. Natives attempted to incorporate livestock into their traditional ways of life and the English attempted to do the same with their own norms of animal husbandry. By English ideas proved disruptive as free-ranging hogs ate into unfenced Native crops. When Natives stuck back against the livestock, the New English attempt to punish these “criminals” through traditional English justice. Incompatibility between Native and English norms proved tragic as King Philips’s War – which devestated the Native and English populations – exploded out of these tensions. [Anderson]
After Africans were brought to the eastern seaboard as slaves they were incorporated into this tension as well. Like Native Americans “who looked east from Indian country”, these Africans viewed their enslavement and encounter with Europeans and Native Americans in the New World through their pre-existing African culture. [Gomez, Johnson] Even as Africans gradually began to incorporate “European” culture into their lives (such as Christianity), these elements became thoroughly “Africanized” through cultural practices like the ring shout and, even, baptism (which built on pre-existing African water emersion rituals). [Gomez]
The polyglot – British, African, and Native – nature of American society proved troublesome and unstable for those who sought order in the colonial period. As the experience of William Berkeley in the middle decades of seventeenth century Virginia bears out. Virginia society was wrought with social, political, and economic tensions as great planters, Natives, indentured servants, slaves, and freedmen (both former indentured servants and slaves) vied for power and economic clout in a deeply unstable tobacco economy. Alliances did not always break clearly on ethnic or racial lines as some indentured servants found common cause with African slaves and elite English sought to limited freedmen’s expansion into Native territories. All of this tension caused by the collision of all of these social and economic groups exploded in the (in)famous Bacon’s Rebellion. Beginning as unrest caused by conflicts between small planters and Natives on the frontiers of European settlement, the Rebellion eventually exploded into a conflict between a loose confederation of ambitious great planters locked out of Berkeley’s circle, freedmen, indentured servants, small planters, and even some slaves against those loyal to Berkeley’s regime. A new order emerged out of rubble caused by this chaos – a social order committed to traditional patriarchal values and white supremacy, African enslavement, Native exclusion, with a greater role for the small white planter but with great planters dominate. [Brown, Morgan] Despite the greater stability of this regime, which that was one part British (with a powerful landed gentry) and one part American (enslaved Africans), the collusion of different groups continued to cause problems for the elite and they needed to employ “foul means” – increased slave imports, abuse of the head right system, and an ideology of “patriarchy” – where “fair means” would not do. [Parent]
If we move the story into the final decades of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth we get a new social, economic, and cultural process called “refinement” which is at once making British North America more European and British as well as more distinctly American. “Refinement” – a cultural import from European courts and Renascence Italy – was powered a broad based “consumer revolution” that swept across the British Isles and British America in the late seventeen and, especially, the eighteenth century. This “consumer revolution” was bringing more and more British goods – from luxuries to necessities – into the colonies. This revolution was an especially marked by changes in the elite of British North America. These elites whole heartedly embraced the ideology of “refinement” – in dress, manners, and material life – as a way of justifying and expressing their dominance over the rest of colonial society. Through much of the seventeenth century the material lives of the rich and poor were not too far apart – the rich just lived in a grander sort of squalor form their poorer counterparts. That all changed in the eighteenth century as through the process of “refinement” and the “consumer revolution” elites began to build mansions, add stories to older houses, import British china, and dress in the latest metropolitan fashions. [Bushman] This process cut across geography – from William Byrd’s grand estate in Virginia to new floors in homes of rural Delaware.
This process – and its consequences – highlights both what was British and European about colonial North America and what was firmly American as well. On the British side of things, “refinement” was drawing the elite more closely to the imperial metropolis. British goods were everywhere – concentrated in the upper classes but the more humble sort was partaking in this consumption as well, to a lesser extent perhaps, but they were still consuming. Simultaneously this process highlights the distinctly American characteristics of British North America. The very idea that “refinement” was necessary to help justify the American elite over their society shows the very weakness of that elite over their British counterparts. Despite the landed wealth of men like William Byrd or Robert Carter or the merchant wealth of a man like John Hancock, the American elite lacked the entrenched power – in the form of legal, economic, and political privileges – of their British counterparts. Hence the American elites reliance on such an unstable prop as “refinement.” [Bushman]
More importantly, however, is the key way in which refinement and the “consumer revolution” in America was powered by the distinct institution of American slavery. Despite its key role in the slave trade and the spread of slavery Britain was never a slave society or a true society with slaves unlike its American procession which were through marked by the institution – from the slave societies of the Chesapeake and Carolinas to the society with slaves of New England and New York. The slave system is what powered the “refinement” of great planters in the Chesapeake and Carolinas. Owning slaves was a mark of refinement and power in the merchant cities of the Atlantic seaboard – in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Thus the very cultural process that was making British North America more like the imperial center was powered by an economic institution that most radically separated itself from Britain.
In the end, in the worlds of J.H. Elliot, the “continuous interplay between imported attitudes and skills, and often intractable local conditions” created polyglot societies along the eastern seaboard of North America that were distinctly British and American. The interplay between Native Americans, English (later Britons), and enslaved Africans created a culture that was unlikely that existed before. Yet it was not an entirely new society. Despite its demographic, political, and religious diversity and despite the importance of Native Americans and Africans to this society’s development, the colonial society along the eastern seaboard of North America still had elements that were distinctly British and European. The nomenclature for this society as “British North America” fits it perfectly – it was a society that was British and American.