Colonial New England
Summary & Analysis
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the tightly-controlled socio-religious vision of the original Puritan settlers of New England was beset by a myriad of challenges. European political rivalries and military conflicts spilled over the Atlantic and into the colonies, where imperial officials from France and England both encouraged Indian uprisings against each another's settlements. These "French and Indian Wars" exacerbated the anxieties of New Englanders, increasing their belief that they were being punished by God for their sins and, in some cases, leading to witchcraft hysteria. Theological schisms resulted from challenges to church doctrine and authorities. Capitalism carried the promise of regional affluence and stability, but it also threatened to dilute colonists' piety and their commitment to salvation, potentially replacing the guiding precepts of Puritan faith with the worldly allure of material wealth. A demographic explosion quickly threatened to exhaust the supply of land and other precious resources, necessitating further dispersal of the colonial population westward and bringing environmental degradation to much of New England.
In short, the region was plunged into a rapid period of transition. The seeds for revolutionary new religious and political philosophies were laid with the spiritual Great Awakening at home and the political Glorious Revolution in England. It was not in 1776 but rather in 1688 that the concepts of God-given rights and liberties for all Englishmen were first articulated. Colonists seized upon the historic moment to organize and protest—even in some cases to the point of armed rebellion—against the colonial officials appointed by the deposed King James II. The revolts of 1688 were not simply precursors to the American Revolution, which after all would not come for another seventy years. Yet they clearly vented the resentments of colonists up and down the Atlantic seaboard, who took the opportunity to strike against appointed officials and their arbitrary measures. The Glorious Revolution also set an important precedent in the rightful overthrow of a monarch.
Meanwhile, the succession of four French and Indian Wars (only the last remembered by that name) highlighted other tensions as English, Irish, German, and Scottish colonists poured across the Appalachians and into the Great Lakes region, where there arrival sparked new conflict with local Indian tribes and their French imperial allies, who hoped to maintain control over the area.
Even while external pressures on New England society mounted, internal tensions also mushroomed. Puritan elders faced a loss of influence over the hearts and minds of New Englanders, as the material rewards of hard work and participation in the bustling economy led many colonists to believe that there was more to be gained in this world than in preparation for the hereafter. Even those who remained zealous adherents to the demanding faith of the Mayflower seemed to have carried its tenets to an unprecedented extreme, indulging in witchcraft hysteria. Still others remained devote, but did so as followers of sects that splintered off from the Puritans' Congregational Church, or as members of new, non-Puritan churches that arrived with an influx of immigrants in the eighteenth century. Still, certain aspects of traditional Puritan society, such as its patriarchal structure, its racist outlook, and its emphasis on individuality and hard work, remained mainstays of life and even intensified during the period.
From 1676 to 1776, as England's Parliament continuously battled with the monarchy and England itself repeatedly fought its imperial rivals in great wars, the government in London remained distracted from developing a coherent and comprehensive colonial administration, despite efforts that began to be put in place with the trade regulations of the 1660s. It was during this critical period of "salutary neglect" from the mother country that the colonists developed new institutions of government and economic prosperity, new American traditions of religious worship, and a new sense of autonomy within the empire—all crucial prerequisites for the American independence movement that grew in the 1770s.