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Article

Atlantic History  

Alison Games

The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.

Article

The British Army in Colonial America  

John G. McCurdy

The British army was an important part of colonial America and contributed to the coming of the Revolution. Although the number of British soldiers in North America was meager in the 17th century, this changed with the creation of a standing army and expansion of the British Empire. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) brought thousands of regular troops to the colonies, and many remained in America after the war ended. Life as a redcoat reflected contemporary society and the soldiers had a tenuous relationship with Indigenous peoples. The army became a flashpoint between Britain and the colonies in the 1760s and, with the Boston Massacre, a cause for independence. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), British soldiers fought in numerous theaters, aided at times by Hessians and Loyalist militias. Despite victories at Charlestown, Long Island, and Philadelphia, the British army was defeated at Yorktown. Following the Revolution, the British army slowly evacuated the United States but remained in Canada and the Caribbean until the 20th century.

Article

Early American Foreign Relations, 1775–1815  

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

From 1775 to 1815, empire served as the most pressing foreign relationship problem for the United States. Would the new nation successfully break free from the British Empire? What would an American empire look like? How would it be treated by other empires? And could Americans hold their own against European superpowers? These questions dominated the United States’ first few decades of existence and shaped its interactions with American Indian, Haitian, Spanish, British, and French peoples. The US government—first the Continental Congress, then the Confederation Congress, and finally the federal administration under the new Constitution—grappled with five key issues. First, they sought international recognition of their independence and negotiated trade deals during the Revolutionary War to support the war effort. Second, they obtained access to the Mississippi River and Port of New Orleans from Spain and France to facilitate trade and western settlement. Third, they grappled with ongoing conflict with Indian nations over white settlement on Indian lands and demands from white communities for border security. Fourth, they defined and protected American neutrality, negotiated a trade policy that required European recognition of American independence, and denied recognition to Haiti. Lastly, they fought a quasi-war with France and real war with Great Britain in 1812.

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Early American Slave Law  

Sally Hadden

Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.

Article

Law in Early America  

Sally Hadden

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.

Article

Material Culture in the 18th Century  

Jennifer Van Horn

Material culture refers to human-manufactured, human-altered, or human-used physical things of all sizes and materials, from houses to domestic artifacts to tools to landscapes. Material culture also refers to the study of artifacts and scholars’ use of objects as a form of evidence to ask and answer questions about the 18th century. Material culture studies is not limited to physical examination of artifacts. It also involves consideration of an array of documentary, literary, and visual sources that provide information about material life. In 18th-century colonial America, the meanings and uses of material goods changed radically. Anglo-American colonists obtained greater numbers and novel types of objects through transatlantic and global trade networks. The British manufactures that flooded the colonies fulfilled colonists’ desire to assert social status and to participate in social rituals that demonstrated refinement. Scholars have labeled these changes the “Consumer Revolution” and the system of “gentility.” Artifacts also built communities and buttressed political beliefs, particularly through non-importation or boycotts of British goods during the imperial crisis. Ideas of gender shaped how women’s growing activity of shopping was understood and critiqued, as well as the association of fashion with women. The importation of Asian and Indian goods, primarily textiles and porcelain, fulfilled fantasies of the exotic while enabling American consumers to demonstrate their worldliness and status. Material goods facilitated cultural exchange and trade between those of different races and ethnicities. At the same time, oppression and political and economic disenfranchisement shaped American material culture. Indigenous peoples expressed consumer preferences for manufactured goods during negotiations within the fur trade. They incorporated British manufactures into preexisting material practices. Enslaved African Americans entered the market as both commodities and consumers. Through their purchases and creative use of refined artifacts, bond people expressed individual identity despite their legal status as property.

Article

A Military History of the American Revolution, 1754–1783  

Stephen Conway

The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened. The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.

Article

Philadelphia  

Timothy J. Lombardo

Officially established by English Quaker William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia’s history began when indigenous peoples first settled the area near the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Since European colonization, Philadelphia has grown from a major colonial-era port to an industrial manufacturing center to a postindustrial metropolis. For more than three centuries, Philadelphia’s history has been shaped by immigration, migration, industrialization, deindustrialization, ethnic and racial conflict, political partisanship, and periods of economic restructuring. The city’s long history offers a window into urban development in the United States.

Article

Piracy in Colonial North America  

Mark G. Hanna

Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers. Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.

Article

Prisoners of War in the American Revolution  

Susan Brynne Long

When battles end, the challenges continue for both prisoners and their captors. During the American Revolution, British and American forces took thousands of enemies captive. Officers and rank-and-file soldiers experienced captivity differently. While officers could expect parole allowances, private accommodations, and even social opportunities, enlisted men often lived in crowded barracks and jails, experienced food shortages, and ran a higher risk of dying in captivity from diseases and neglect. Both the British and the Americans balanced diplomatic imperatives against moralistic considerations in their approaches to prisoner management. The many responsibilities associated with caring for prisoners led the Continental Congress to create an office of Commissary General of Prisoners. For the British, prisoner management was an exercise in long-distance military support operations. At the end of the war, historians enshrined the horrific experiences of American prisoners in historical memory, but British prisoners also suffered while in captivity.

Article

Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Americans  

Gregory D. Smithers

Settler colonial studies have enjoyed rapid growth as a field of scholarly inquiry since the 1990s. Scholars of settler colonialism distinguish it from other forms of colonialism—for example, extractive, planation, or trade colonialism—by positing that settlers move en masse to foreign lands with the intention of staying or permanently settling. Settlers therefore covet the land, not the labor, of Indigenous people, a structural dynamic that precipitates the “elimination” of Indigenous communities. Settler colonial studies have proven particularly germane to analysis of the Anglophone world during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the study of global systems and transnational histories. While elements of settler colonial studies can illuminate historical understanding of North American history since 1492, the diversity of historical experiences in what became the United States means that American historians have approached this body of scholarship with caution. As is the case with any theoretical construct, historians are well advised to engage settler colonial studies with an active and critical eye before considering how they might best incorporate it into their teaching and research.

Article

The Significance of Society in the 18th Century: Conversations about Governance  

Andrew Cayton

The American Revolution was an episode in a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. English speakers during the 18th century reflected on this constitutional crisis within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. Although many people excluded from Parliament supported political reform, if not revolution, they also sought remedies for the perversion of political power and influence in new forms of social power and influence. This article looks at the convergence of political and social discussions in a common discourse about the nature of power and the ways in which human beings influenced each other. The first section outlines the meanings of power and influence in British politics. The second section uses the novelist Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (1759) to delineate revolutionary notions about social power and influence. The third section turns to the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke in the run-up to the American Revolution to look at how English speakers deployed notions of social power to advocate for political reform.

Article

Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies  

James F. Dator

Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.

Article

Smuggling and Illicit Trade in British America  

Andrew Rutledge

Illicit trade was an endemic feature of life in 17th- and 18th-century British America, shaping economies and societies from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. Owing to the illegal nature of smuggling in British America, its scale is impossible to estimate, but surviving records from traders and imperial officials testify to the determination of merchants to exchange goods and enslaved peoples across imperial borders and their success in doing so. The same was true for British Americans’ trading partners in the French, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Contraband trade was carried out in a variety of ways, ranging from open commerce in colonial ports to clandestine landings of cargoes on barren shorelines. The lives of both free and enslaved colonists were affected by it, either directly as sailors or laborers on smuggling voyages or indirectly as consumers of illegally imported goods such as tea, molasses, rum, or cloth. Most interimperial trade was labeled illegal under a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts passed between 1661 and 1696 that sought to exclude foreigners from the trade of the British Empire and ensure its products flowed to the mother country. But hampered by insufficient resources and intransigent colonial attitudes, customs agents could do little to curtail smuggling. Yet despite the arguments of some historians seeking to tie illicit trade to the coming of the American Revolution, smugglers engaged in it, seeking profits, not political or economic independence. In British North America, merchants smuggled to French and Dutch territories because the returns outweighed the risks, and because smuggling offered a means of earning the funds needed to repay their creditors in the British Isles. While in the Caribbean, island merchants enjoyed imperial support for their trade with Spanish America even as they condemned the illicit commerce of their northern cousins.

Article

Women and Patriarchy in Early America, 1600–1800  

Kelly A. Ryan

Patriarchy profoundly affected social relations and the daily lives of individuals in early America by supporting the elaboration of both racial differences and sexual hierarchies. Patriarchal ideals held that men should supervise women and that economic, sexual, legal, and political power rested with men. Laws and religious practices demanded women’s subordination to men, and governmental and extralegal controls on women’s sexual and familial lives buttressed patriarchal ideals and practices by enforcing their dependence on white men. Women played a variety of roles within households, which differed according to region, race, generation, and condition of servitude. Marriage was central to the delineation of white women’s roles, and slavery was critical to developing ideas and laws affecting African American women’s place in society. Interactions with Europeans brought patriarchal influences into native women’s lives. Indian servitude and slavery, European missionary efforts, and cross-cultural diplomacy resulted in the transmission of patriarchal practices that undermined Indian women’s access to political, sexual, economic, and religious power Women gained esteem for fulfilling their duties within the household and community, while others resisted patriarchal customs and forged their own paths. Some women served as agents of patriarchy and used their status or positions to oppress other women. White women often held power over others in their households, including servants and slaves, and in the early republic some of the public sphere activities of middle-class white women targeted the homes of Native Americans, African Americans, and poor women for uplift. Other women resisted subordination and found autonomy by pursuing their own goals. Sexuality was a critical arena in which women could breech dictates on behavior and advance their own agenda, though not always without consequences. Women in urban communities found greater economic opportunities, and some religious communities, like the Society of Friends, allowed women a larger role in decision making and religious speech. Though patriarchal structures would change over time, the idea of men as the leaders of the household and society was remarkably resilient through the 19th century.

Article

Women and War in Early America  

Gina M. Martino

Early American women incited, fought in, and brokered peace in conflicts that ranged from regional to nearly continental in scale during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is true that in most early American societies, warfare was considered a masculine activity. Nevertheless, war making, particularly in periods of endemic war, required the active participation of men and women. In some Indigenous polities, women decided when to wage war and which enemy captives would live or die. Other Indigenous women commanded troops as leaders of their polities, forging and shattering alliances with their Indigenous and European peers. For European women attempting to colonize contested regions of the continent, military readiness was part of everyday life. Even if these women did not participate in the masculinized theater of the militia drill, they did know how to produce ammunition and fire a musket. Beginning in the 1770s, early American women would participate in a conflict that was at once a colonial war, a revolutionary war, and a civil war. The American Revolution did not distinguish between the home and the front or the frontier town and the peaceful hamlet. Women would be touched by a war that mobilized their production skills, intellects, and physical strength. That same war would also displace hundreds of thousands of women, many of whom would never return home. But as they had through the whole of early American history, women would continue to adapt, resist, and mobilize.

Article

Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.