Essay on Changes in American Society, Economy, Culture, and Politics Between 1688 and 1755


America had been through multiple struggles since its settlement and it took many decades for even little change to occur at times. But between the years of 1688 and 1755 is where America matured the most. Developments and improvements were made in society, culture, and politics throughout this time that corresponded to the expansion of the nation. 

During this period, England’s North American colonies grew in population, prosperity, and confidence, and society as a whole became a more important part of the British empire. Physically speaking, the American population rapidly increased during this time, doubling every 25 years. It grew from 250,000 to 1,200,000, as opposed to the stagnant population in Britain during this time. This rapid increase in population was due largely to immigration, a life span increase in free and unfree populations, and a healthier environment. Prior to this period, 90% of the population in the American colonies were English, but by the end of the period, that number was down to 60% due solely by the increase in immigration.

The largest immigrant populations came from Africa, but new sources of immigration also became apparent at this time. These other sources included Scots-Irish, Irish, German, Swiss, and the French. Many of the Germans settled in Pennsylvania, after being invited by William Penn to avoid persecution in Germany.  All of this led to a more diverse population developing in the American colonies during this time, as people had to learn how to get along with people of different backgrounds. 

Another source of the rising population was a lifespan increase and an extremely high birth rate. Most people at this point in history were now known as British-Americans because they were born in America; not coming over as immigrants from Britain. Therefore, people did not have to deal with the deadly process of getting accustomed to conditions on the ground in America from England; they were born in America and thus were already immune. Moreover, the sex ratios had also evened out at this time. For example, by 1755 the Chesapeake region no longer had to worry about the 3:1 male to female ratio that was present in the 1600s, where married life was seen as a luxury. This increased lifespan and easier accessibility to find a partner led Americans to have the opportunity to get married earlier and have more children throughout their lives, which continued the trend in population increase. 

The last reason for the extreme increase in population at this time was that Americans were living in a healthier environment. They had a far more nutritious diet, especially in protein, as opposed to their British counterparts. They were able to grow better food for themselves because of the quality of land in areas like the Middle Colonies region. To put it in perspective, by the time of the American Revolution, American men were on average 3 inches taller than British men due to their nutrition alone. All of these reasons explain why there is a booming increase in the American population between the years 1688 and 1755, but with the population increase also came the need for more sustainable urban communities. 

Between the years 1688 and 1755, America saw major improvement of urbanizations in the colonies. Specifically, the colonies saw an increase from 1% of the population to 10% of the population living in cities during this time. Because of this, cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania saw more physical growth. Philadelphia became a major urban center in the British Empire, growing to house 20,000 people, the second largest city at this time. Meanwhile, cities arose where they hadn’t been before. In regions like the Chesapeake in the 1600s, one of the distinguishing factors was that they had no urban communities, but by 1755 urban communities were present in the Chesapeake region. All of these reasons that resulted from the increase of the population directly correlated not only to the growth of urban communities, but the economy as well. 

The economy grew dramatically throughout the period between 1688 and 1755 in order to keep up with the demands of the growing population. Export values rose 500%. Although British-North Americans never became as rich as British-Caribbean did growing sugar cane, by the end of this period British-North Americans became a widely important part of the British mercantile empire. Regionally, New England, still being recognized at this time for farming, also became known for engaging in commercial agriculture. They became the mediator for the slave trade in the Americas, especially Rhode Islanders. In the Middle Colonies region, people continued to grow the food needed to feed themselves and the rest of British America at this time. In the Chesapeake region, tobacco was still the major cash crop.

Although it didn’t provide the same profit as it used to in the 1600s, it still produced enough wealth for some to live in luxury. Towards the middle of the century, however, some people in Virginia got rid of tobacco production entirely and chose to farm wheat, as it was a much less labor-intensive crop to maintain and allowed them to settle in one place longer. The Low Country region still relied on rice as their main source of income, but the population increase caused rice production to drastically increase. However this also required more slaves for labor. Slave holdings in this region were the largest it had ever been at this point in history. It was not uncommon for the grandest plantations to house about 1,000 slaves, as men like Robert Alestan did at the time. It was because of these reasons that the economy saw extreme growth during this time. It was still a predominantly rural and agricultural based economy nonetheless, but it also grew to become more complex in order to meet the needs of the growing country.

In addition to an expanding economy, the economy in British America also became more complex. In the 1600s, it was not uncommon for everyone, including women and children, to work in the fields; labor was always needed. But at the end of the century, new agricultural practices were introduced in America such as heavy plows, and women were unable to run these new machines. More and more, they became sequestered into the homes to take up domestic tasks, while the men and boys worked in the fields. This sexual division of labor was seen all across America at this time but was not the only reason why the economy became more complex. More professions such as lawyers, doctors, bankers, and ministers, were beginning to work in specialized offices instead of working out of their homes. Economic life began to spread out of the homes and into society. 

Additionally contributing to the complexity of the economy in the regions were plantation complexes, which were increasingly systematic complex organizations of labor producing sugar cane, tobacco, and rice in mass quantities. The rise of merchants and other professions also contributed to the complexity of the economy. These communities were now elaborate enough to support lawyers, doctors, bankers, ministers, and school teachers, when in the 1600s all that these societies could support were laborers such as carpenters and bricklayers, which shows the rising influence of these societies, as well as the rising complexity of these economies. As British America became more integrated into the British mercantile system through things like Navigation Acts, lawyers were needed to navigate authority and complex systems.

Merchants took over the major urban communities, which was a large change as opposed to the 1600s, where they were seen as a threat. By 1755, merchants and lawyers dominated cities like Massachusetts. These cities were also home to “leather apron men”, or men who work with their hands. These workers included artisans, welders, and mechanics who all wore leather aprons while they worked. This was the first time America had seen clothing signify someone’s worth. 

It was these types of populations that fostered the transition from “brotherly love” to “self-love” during this time. Rather than focusing on the well being of the community, these individuals focused on the advancement of themselves first. Individuals went out to pursue their own ambitions on their own. With the rise of self-love came the rise of economic inequality for the first time in America. This period in American history saw the widest gap emerge between the rich and the poor. This led to the emergence of the “poor class”, who became known for their inability to contribute to society.

This is ironic because many of the people who first settled in America from England did so because they were seen as irrelevant in English society and the king forced them to leave England. To put it in perspective, in 1687, the top 10% of people owned 46% of the wealth in America, by 1755, they owned 63%. More money began consolidating at the top of the class. To put into perspective how problematic the poor class was, in 1686, 200 pounds were spent annually on poor relief in Boston, but in 1737, that number increased to 4,000 pounds. This increase in poor class caused class conflict to emerge for the first time in American history. This period also saw the first food riots in America. These reasons show the effect that a vastly growing population has in an urban community during this time. It was due to all of these reasons that the economy became more complex during the years 1688 and 1755. 

Many historians call the period between 1688 and 1755 in America the “refinement of America” and for good reason. People during this time experienced a culture purification both internally and externally. One reason why the British-Americans took to their external refinement was because they felt an urge to preserve their British culture and English identities. Many people lived in such close proximity to Africans and native Americans that they began to share the same food, dress like them, and fight like them; and they feared that they were losing hold of their English roots.

Determined to look the part as their British counterparts back in England, British-Americans began to buy more items from Britain to prove to themselves that they were still rooted in British culture. They wore British clothes, bought British furniture, and read British books, causing imports to increase by 400% at this time. This becomes possible due to the beginning of the industrial revolution, the introduction to machines, and division of labor, all of which significantly reduced the price of goods. For the first time, more and more consumers could make free choices to buy things, where many people prior to this period did not have that economic power. This point in history shows that people during this time started becoming known for their material “things” that they possessed rather than their religious, ethnic, or national identity. 

In addition to refining their culture values externally, people also began to refine themselves internally. This point in American history reflects the beginnings of widespread use of politeness in public, fostering a civil society. As it became more common for people to interact with others in a social setting, many recognized that they needed to act more civilized. In addition to external politeness, sensibility also became prevalent at this time. People started to empathize with others. It was not a coincidence that this behavior started to occur as more people read novels at this time. Novels in the first person showed people that human beings think and feel alike. People could identify with others and found that their certain emotion was not just unique to them. All of these reasons show the importance of internal and external refinement on the culture of America between the years 1688 and 1755. 

Cultural developments regarding religion started to endure around the time of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. Not everyone was pleased to see America’s rising influence and new materialism, especially when it was coming at the expense of religion. A religious decline could be seen in America prior to 1720. For example, in Puritan New England the vast majority of people hadn't given their testimonial in the church and therefore were unable to baptize their children into the church. Because of this, leaders in Puritan New England introduced a pathway covenant in 1657, allowing those children to become baptized. The fact that leaders had to create this pathway covenant meant that there was evidence of religious decline; people struggled continuing to prioritize religion to the importance that it carried throughout the 1600s. The Great Awakening attempted to revive the lost spirituality in New England. However, these views clashed with thinkers of the Enlightenment, which became a far more important element amongst those in the Great Awakening. 

A split occurred at this time between the established and highly educated church ministers, also known as, “old lights” who emphasized reason over emotion; and the “new lights” who were uneducated followers of Enlightenment leaders and believed in emotion over reason. This division in the religious community of America changed the culture of America that helped transition to a more stable political system. Science became more renowned during the period of Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher in 1784 argued that the motto of the Enlightenment was to “have the courage to use your own understanding”. Enlightenment thinkers were inspired by the Renaissance and the scientific revolution and therefore clashed with religious leaders at this time because they either did not believe in a God, or they were deists and believed that God did not intervene with everyday life. They believed in relying upon empirical knowledge, or what is physically present, rather than something that is not. 

In addition to emphasizing science over religion as a way of understanding the world, followers of the Enlightenment were also liberals and believed that individuals had certain rights. Individualism spread throughout America as a result of the Enlightenment. This view again clashed with religious leaders at the time. Religious rulers followed the Doctrine of Unlimited Submission, which stated that they ruled because they had divine right from God; it was unheard of for people to revolt against them arguing that everyone has natural, unbreakable rights, but that is exactly what happened. More people dared to challenge and question tradition, and more people looked for universal ideas that could govern human behavior.

One of these ideas can be seen in Isaac Newton’s law of gravity from 1687. This law was seen as universal, and he argued that everything happens because of this force. Although it was still metaphysical, it was profoundly comforting to people in America because of the comprehensiveness of it. It made sense to everyone regardless of their religious belief. Another important work that supported Enlightenment beliefs was in 1690 with John Locke’s “Essay”. In it, Locke argues that human beings are all just “tabula rasa”, or blank slates, who are not born good or bad. Rather, it is the environment that shapes who people become. It was this phenomenon that shaped the rest of the Western world philosophically. To create better human beings, a better environment must be built. This too was a comforting document. These examples show the impact that the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening had on people at this time as Americans began to look for universal laws that governed human behavior. 

With the rise in influence of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment, American politics between the years 1688 and 1755 became far more stable than it had been during the first 75 years of settlement. America’s political culture changed dramatically with the rise of Whig ideology in addition to the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. Whig Ideology originated in England but became popular in America because it was centered around limiting the power of the executive, where it had more of an influence in America. Back in England, after 1688 there was a realignment of authority from executive monarchs to the Parliament, where Kings then had to work through Parliament to get legislation passed. None of this happened in America at this point in history, therefore making the executive in America far more powerful than that in Britain. Whig theorists in America believed that the government was becoming corrupt with too much power and that the government was secretly trying to cohort more power at the expense of the people and their property, which signified their freedom and value. This phenomenon shaped American politics into what is used today. 

Overall this period in American history saw the population and urban communities swell to new heights and saw the economy to do the same in complexity. Additionally, people began to create new morals for themselves physically and spiritually. America saw the transition from religion dominating people’s beliefs to rationality dominating people’s beliefs with the rise of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. Politics became more stabilized as local governments found out how to govern the growing colonies. Between the years 1688 and 1755, America matured greatly because of changes in its society, economy, culture, and politics. 

 

 

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