Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
Since many North American indigenous societies also built and inhabited towns, America was not an entirely rural continent before the arrival of Europeans. Nevertheless, when Europeans set out to colonize their “wilderness,” they arrived with a practical and ideological commitment to recreating cities of the sort with which they were familiar on their home continent. The result of their ambitions was the rapid founding and development of European-style cities, the vast majority of which clustered on large bodies of water, either directly on the Atlantic Ocean or on the seas and river estuaries adjacent to it. The pace of city expansion was closely linked to the levels of support for cities among colonists and an economic environment that stimulated urban growth. Some cities grew faster than others, but by the middle of the 18th century even Virginia and Maryland, the most rural colonies, had towns that played a critical cultural, political, and economic role in society. By the revolutionary era, the centrality of North America’s seaports was cemented by their status as crucibles of the conflict. The issue of which seaport was the new United States’ premier city was contested, but the importance of cities to North American society was no longer debated.
Although often attributed to the Odawa ogima, or headman, Pontiac, the conflict that bears his name was the work of a large and complicated network of Native people in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Mississippi Valley. Together Native Americans from this wide swath of North America identified their collective dissatisfaction of British Indian policy and, through careful negotiation and discussion, formulated a religious and political ideology that advocated for the Britons’ removal. In 1763, these diverse peoples carried off a successful military campaign that demonstrated Native sovereignty and power in these areas. Although falling short of its original goal of displacing the British, the coalition compelled the British Empire to change its policies and to show, outwardly at least, respect for Native peoples. Many of the peoples involved in the struggle would wage another such pan-Indian campaign against the United States a generation later.
In many ways, the anti-British campaign of 1761–1766 mirrored another anti-imperial campaign that followed a decade later. Like the American Revolution, the anti-British advocates of Pontiac’s War developed an ideology that specifically critiqued not only British policy but often questioned imperialism altogether, built an unstable and delicate coalition of diverse and sometimes antagonistic peoples, and sought to assert the participants’ independence from the British. However, the participants in Pontiac’s War were sovereign and autonomous indigenous nations, only recently and nominally allied to the British Empire, not British colonists, as in the American Revolution. Together these anti-British activists mounted a serious challenge to the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West and forced the British Empire to accede to many of their demands.
Alexander B. Haskell
Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) was an uprising in the Virginia colony that its participants experienced as both a civil breakdown and a period of intense cosmic disorder. Although Thomas Hobbes had introduced his theory of state sovereignty a quarter century earlier, the secularizing connotations of his highly naturalized conceptualization of power had yet to make major inroads on a post-Reformation culture that was only gradually shifting from Renaissance providentialism to Enlightenment rationalism. Instead, the period witnessed a complicated interplay of providential beliefs and Hobbist doctrines. In the aftermath of the English civil war (1642–1651), this mingling of ideologies had prompted the Puritans’ own experimentation with Hobbes’s ideas, often in tandem with a Platonic spiritualism that was quite at odds with Hobbes’s own philosophical skepticism. The Restoration of 1660 had given an additional boost to Hobbism as his ideas won a number of prominent adherents in Charles II’s government.
The intermingling of providentialism and Hobbism gave Bacon’s Rebellion its particular aura of heightened drama and frightening uncertainty. In the months before the uprising, the outbreak of a war on the colony’s frontier with the Doeg and Susquehannock peoples elicited fears in the frontier counties of a momentous showdown between faithful planters and God’s enemies. In contrast, Governor Sir William Berkeley’s establishmentarian Protestantism encouraged him to see the frontiersmen’s vigilantism as impious, and the government’s more measured response to the conflict as inherently godlier because tied to time-tested hierarchies and institutions. Greatly complicating this already confusing scene, the colony also confronted a further destabilizing force in the form of the new Hobbist politics emerging from the other side of the ocean. In addition to a number of alarming policies emanating from Charles II’s court in the 1670s that sought to enhance the English state’s supremacy over the colonies, Hobbes’s doctrines also informed the young Nathaniel Bacon Jr.’s stated rationale for leading frontiersmen against local Indian communities without Berkeley’s authorization. Drawing on the Hobbes-influenced civil war-era writings of his relation the Presbyterian lawyer Nathaniel Bacon, the younger Bacon made the protection of the colony’s Christian brotherhood a moral priority that outweighed even the preservation of existing civil relations and public institutions.
While Berkeley’s antagonism toward this Hobbesian argument led him to lash out forcibly against Bacon as a singularly great threat to Virginia’s commonwealth, it was ordinary Virginians who most consequentially resisted Bacon’s strange doctrines. Yet a division persisted. Whereas the interior counties firmly rejected Bacon’s Hobbism in favor of the colony’s more traditional bonds to God and king, the frontier counties remained more open to a Hobbesian politics that promised their protection.
The story of the pre-Columbian Mississippi Period (1000
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.
Michael A. McDonnell
The American War for Independence lasted eight years. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in America’s history, and yet it was not such a protracted conflict merely because the might of the British armed forces was brought to bear on the hapless colonials. The many divisions among Americans themselves over whether to fight, what to fight for, and who would do the fighting often had tragic and violent consequences. The Revolutionary War was by any measure the first American civil war. Yet national narratives of the Revolution and even much of the scholarship on the era focus more on simple stories of a contest between the Patriots and the British. Loyalists and other opponents of the Patriots are routinely left out of these narratives, or given short shrift. So, too, are the tens of thousands of ordinary colonists—perhaps a majority of the population—who were disaffected or alienated from either side or who tried to tack between the two main antagonists to make the best of a bad situation. Historians now estimate that as many as three-fifths of the colonial population were neither active Loyalists nor Patriots.
When we take the war seriously and begin to think about narratives that capture the experience of the many, rather than the few, an illuminating picture emerges. The remarkably wide scope of the activities of the disaffected during the war—ranging from nonpayment of taxes to draft dodging and even to armed resistance to protect their neutrality—has to be integrated with older stories of militant Patriots and timid Loyalists. Only then can we understand the profound consequences of disaffection—particularly in creating divisions within the states, increasing levels of violence, prolonging the war, and changing the nature of the political settlements in each state. Indeed, the very divisions among diverse Americans that made the War for Independence so long, bitter, and bloody also explains much of the Revolutionary energy of the period. Though it is not as seamless as traditional narratives of the Revolution would suggest, a more complicated story also helps better explain the many problems the new states and eventually the new nation would face. In making this argument, we may finally suggest ways we can overcome what John Shy long ago noted as the tendency of scholars to separate the ‘destructive’ War for Independence from the ‘constructive’ political Revolution.
John M. Dixon
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.