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Middle Colonies

Visions Of Discovery

During the early seventeenth century, the English developed two distinct and populous clusters of settlements along the Atlantic seaboard: the Chesapeake to the south and New England to the north. Until mid-century, the English neglected the intervening mid-Atlantic coast, despite its advantages. More fertile and temperate than New England, but far healthier than the Chesapeake, the mid-Atlantic region was especially promising for cultivating grain, raising livestock, and reproducing people. The region also boasted three navigable rivers, reaching deep into the interior: the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Hudson. The English neglect enabled the Dutch and Swedes to establish their own small colonies: New Netherland in the Hudson Valley and New Sweden in the Delaware Valley. Although the English protested, they initially lacked the power to oust their rivals, and deemed it impolitic to try, for the Dutch and Swedes were fellow Protestants and allies in the European wars of religion during the early seventeenth century.

At mid-century, however, as the English grew in power and ambition, their rulers developed a violent envy of Dutch wealth. King Charles II (1660-85) and his brother, James, the Duke of York, hoped to build the crown's clout within England by expanding the empire in America. They recognized the connection, pioneered by the Dutch, between overseas colonies, commercial expansion, and national power. By conquering New Netherland, Charles and James meant to strengthen England's commerce by weakening its principal rival, the Dutch empire. The acquisition of New Netherland (which had swallowed up New Sweden) would also close the gap between the Chesapeake and New England, promoting their mutual defense against other empires and the Indians. Finally, a conquest also promised increased crown control over its own fractious colonies.

Compared with the Spanish, French, and Dutch rulers, the English monarch exercised little power over his colonists, primarily because of the persistent reliance on a proprietary system of colonization. During the early seventeenth century, the underfunded English crown had lacked the means to launch and administer distant colonies. Instead the crown entrusted early colonization to private interests licensed by royal charters, which awarded the proprietors both title to colonial land and the right to govern the colonists - subject to royal oversight, which was sporadic at best. Most charters went to joint stock companies of merchants - for example, the Virginia Company - or to especially wealthy and ambitious aristocrats, such as Lord Baltimore, who obtained Maryland, or the Earl of Carlisle, who procured the Lesser Antilles.

The colonists compelled their distant and weak proprietors to share political power. The proprietors appointed the governor and council, but propertied colonists elected an assembly with power over finances. Throughout the empire, propertied Englishmen cherished legislative control over taxation as their most fundarnental liberty. The proprietors accepted assemblies as a means to attract or retain propertied colonists, who were essential to a colony's economic development, which was critical to the proprietors' revenues.

The New England colonies were a special case. Leading Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Company to secure a colonial charter, which they carried across the Atlantic to establish a virtually independent colonial government. Without the benefit of any charter, Puritans or their dissidents founded the adjoining colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. In 1663, Rhode Island and Connecticut belatedly obtained royal charters; Plymouth never so succeeded. By virtue of their especially indulgent charters, the New England colonies were virtually independent of crown authority. Answering to no external proprietors, the New English developed republican regimes where the propertied men elected their governors and councils, as well as their assemblies, and where much decision-making was dispersed to the many small towns.

The proprietary system became a liability later in the seventeenth century, as the crown developed greater imperial ambitions. Noting the growing numbers and prosperity of the colonists, imperial officials sought tighter control, the better to regulate and tax colonial commerce. The officials also worried that colonial wealth would attract predation by another empire. Divided into many distinct colonies, each jealous of the other and all internally divided by factions in their assemblies, the colonial arrangement seemed designed for many separate surrenders rather than for collective defense. In a crisis with another empire, one English colony could appeal for help from the others, but it was unlikely to receive much. Imperial bureaucrats believed that the proprietary colonies should first be converted into royal colonies and then consolidated into an overarching government like the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain.

During the seventeenth century, crown officials gradually converted a few proprietary colonies into royal colonies. Such conversion primarily meant that the king, rather than a proprietor, appointed the governor and council, for the crown felt obliged to retain the elected assemblies. The crown acted first where the revenues were greatest, to secure control over tobacco-rich Virginia and the sugar colonies of Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. The crown was slower to reorganize the New England colonies because they lacked a lucrative staple critical to the royal revenue. Moreover, the numerous Puritan colonists promised to make any imperial attempt to compel their obedience expensive and difficult.

In 1664 an English naval squadron with soldiers crossed the Atlantic, bound for North America. Rurnor insisted, the New English feared, and the Dutch hoped that the flotilla was bound to Boston to subdue the Puritans. Instead, the warships sailed to the Hudson to conquer New Netherland. But the crown also meant that conquest to impress a New English audience, to intimidate the colonists into a new respect for royal authority. By smiting the Dutch, the crown hoped to strengthen its own power within a more consolidated empire. The conquest also initiated the development of a new cluster of English colonies - the middle colonies, defined by their setting between New England and the Chesapeake.

Colonial empires sowed unintended and paradoxical consequences maddening to their rulers. In 1664 the English conquered the mid-Atlantic seaboard to consolidate a more homogeneous and docile empire stretching from Carolina to Canada. But that conquest absorbed a medley of non-English peoples: Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Walloons, Flemings, Huguenots, Germans, and Norwegians. This diversity contrasted markedly with both the Chesapeake and New England, where almost all of the white colonists came from England. That diversity also violated the traditional English conviction that social cohesion and political order depended on ethnic and religious uniformity. In 1692 an English New Yorker lamented, "Our chiefest unhappyness here is too great a mixture of nations, and English the least part." Xenophobic English officials did not adjust easily to the diversity of their new subjects.

The English conquest only compounded the region's ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity as the victors created the new colonies of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which attracted more non-English emigrants. That very diversity became the defining characteristic of the middle colonies, the collective name for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania because they lay between the Chesapeake and New England. In the early eighteenth century, the middle colonists included Anglicans (mostly English), Presbyterians (Scots and Scotch-Irish), Congregationalists (relocated New English Puritans), Quakers (English and Welsh), Reformed (Dutch and German), Lutherans (the Scandinavians and some Germans), an array of pietistic sects (German and Swiss), and a few Catholics (primarily Irish) and Jews (from the Netherlands). In addition, most of the enslaved Africans preserved their traditional beliefs, which remained mysterious to their indifferent masters. Neither any single ethnic group nor any particular religious denomination enjoyed a majority in any middle colony.

Conventional political wisdcnn insisted that a polity should he organic and tradition-bound: a unified body Of unequal parts ruled hy a natural elite guided by long precedent. Defying those expectations, the middle colonies were new societies composed of diverse peoples who could not agree to give deference to a shared elite. Instead, ethnocultural groups were openly contentious and disrespectful of authorities, even within their own communities. In 1704, William Penn complained that the Pennsylvania colonists needed "to be humbled and made more pliable; for what with the distance and the scarcity of mankind there, they opine too much." In the mid-eighteenth century, a German immigrant reported, "They have a saving here: Pennsylvania is heaven for farmers, paradise for artisans, and hell for officials and preachers."

more. . .

Alan Taylor. . Penguin USA, E Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S.A., 2002


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