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Developing an American colonial identity

The English colonies in North America had a complex relationship with their mother country, Britain. They shared cultural, political, and economic ties, but also developed a sense of independence due to Britain's neglect. This led to mixed feelings, which eventually sparked the American Revolution.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] The first long-term English colony in North America was established at Jamestown in 1607. No one expected that it would last very long. It was intended to be a get rich quick scheme for its investors, who hoped they would find gold in the swamps of Virginia. They didn't, but they did find that they could grow a valuable cash crop in tobacco. Over the next century more and more English settlements began haphazardly popping up along the Atlantic seaboard of North America. Some founded as religious refuges, some as proprietary colonies, some as joint stock companies. Compared to the Spanish Empire in the New World, which had clear goals and unified colonial systems, the English Empire was pretty disorganized. Internal strife like the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, meant that the government kept changing hands, and some monarchs took a more hands on approach towards the colonies than others. This benign neglect of the American colonies left them to develop self-government and a sense of independence. But even in the early 1770s most American colonist thought of themselves as English citizens who were part of the British Empire. They read the same books, spoke the same language, drank the same tea, and fought the same enemies as their counterparts on the British Isles. Nevertheless, there was something clearly different about the 13 colonies in North America. After all, there were more than 30 British colonies in the Caribbean and North America by 1776. So why did those 13 in particular unite and rebel? So that leaves us with a question. During this period of colonial development, how British were the American colonists? What aspects of society brought them closer with the mother country, and what aspects brought on resistance to Britain's control? Let's take a look at the major political, social and economic exchanges that took place between the British Empire and the 13 colonies, and compare whether they either brought the colonies in the mother country closer together or created resentment that drove them further apart. Okay, first let's look at the political exchanges between the colonies and England. One thing that they shared was a political culture. A shared sense that all citizens, both at home and in the colonies, enjoyed the rights of Englishmen. So I would say that the political culture that the colonies, and later the United States, inherited from England was a factor that united them with Empire. But because the colonies were far away from the mother country and because the mother country was often too distracted by its own problems to take an active role in managing them, the colonies also developed their own local representative governments. This led to a tradition of self-rule and self-taxation, and the colonists were irate any time the British colonial governors attempted to interfere with their representative bodies. So I would say this tended to divide the colonies from England. What else happened politically? Well, during this time period there was also a lot of warfare against competing colonial powers in North America, particularly France and Spain, who were supported by Native American allies. For the colonists warfare against a common enemy strengthened their sense that they belonged to the British Empire. But they also felt frustrated when they didn't receive enough help defending their settlements or when British regulars insulted their colonial militias. So these conflicts were probably both a source of unity and division between the colonists and the British Government. Next, let's look at some of the social and cultural exchanges that happened between the colonies and England during this period. A big area of cultural exchange was in religion. America became the destination of choice for religious dissenters since most of the colonies were fairly tolerant of a broad range of religions. The established Church of England was pretty weak in the colonies. So religion in general didn't tie the colonies together with the mother country. But in the early 1700s both England and the colonies experienced a shared religious revival with the Great Awakening. One of the most popular preachers throughout the colonies was the English parson George Whitefield. So we might put religion down as something that both united and divided the colonies from Great Britain. Another shared cultural experience was the Enlightenment, which spread ideas about reason and self-government through books and pamphlets that were read all over the Atlantic world. Ben Franklin, the American printer and scientist, was as famous in England as he was in the colonies. So the shared ideas of the Enlightenment brought the Empire together, at least at this point. Another aspect of cultural exchange was fashion and consumer goods. The elite American colonists dressed like the English gentry, built homes in the English style, imported luxury goods from England, and drank tea like the fashionable British. So these cultural exchanges definitely were a force uniting the colonies with the mother country. Last, let's examine economic exchanges. One thing that the colonies had in common with the rest of the British Empire was their dependence on slave labor to produce cash crops. British investors and the owners of slave ships and plantations in the Caribbean were deeply involved in the system of slavery. And so were the 13 American colonies, which produced food for enslaved laborers, turned slave produced molasses into rum, and shipped enslaved people across the Atlantic, not to mention the American slave owners in the South. Slavery was central to the united economic prosperity of the British Empire. Another central aspect of the British Empire's economy was mercantilism, an economic philosophy that championed using colonies as sources of raw materials and as markets for finished goods. Mercantilism both helped and hindered the American colonies by making sure that their raw materials got preferential treatment in England, but also by preventing them from developing industries of their own. So I would say that mercantilism both united and divided the colonies from the Empire. Along with mercantilism came the Navigation Acts, a series of laws passed by Parliament that attempted to prevent the American colonies from trading with other countries. Basically a way to enforce that the benefits of mercantilism went to England alone. But there were two major problems with the Navigation Acts. First, the British Government rarely enforced them, especially when it was occupied with other matters. The other problem was that even when efforts were made to enforce the Navigation Acts, American merchants responded by smuggling and bribing officials, not by obeying the law. So the Navigation Acts worked to divide the colonies from the Empire, both because they didn't work and because they hampered American's belief in free trade. Taking a look at these three categories as a whole, you can see that the colonists had mixed feelings about their role in the British Empire. In terms of social and cultural exchanges it seems like the colonies were tied into a greater world of ideas that spanned across the Atlantic. But both politically and economically there were developments that bonded the colonies closer together with Great Britain and developments that had the colonies tugging at their leashes and trying to run free. These mixed feelings might help to explain why in 1754 the colonies had not yet pursued their independence. But are there some things that I've identified here as promoting unity that might not be so unifying by 1776? What changed between this point and the signing of the Declaration of Independence that pushed the colonists off the fence and into revolution?