Thesis: Social and Political Differences Among the American Colonies

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¶ … Social and Political Differences Among the Pre-Revolutionary American Colonies

The United States of America has a name that might be historically misleading. Though this year marks the two-hundred-and-twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the current government of the country, the term "united" is still in some ways more of an ideal than a reality. The differentiation between "red" and "blue" states that pundits and politicians alike refer to in every national election is only the most obvious and prevalent example of how political operations in the many states of this union vary. Differences in social practices and norms based on region and even state identity are arguably even greater than the political differences; Texas culture and cooking could hardly be considered normative in the liberal swathes of Oregonian forest, to list just one extreme example. Though largely united now, the United States of America still retains much of the division that has characterized the country from its birth.

There are many examples throughout this nation's history that attest to an even greater divisiveness between the states than exists in the modern era. Most notable, of course, is the Civil War, when the differences and disparities grew to the point of actual secession and the formation, however short lived, of a separate country. But the problems did not start their either, but rather the Civil War in many ways reflected the large differences that existed in the various colonies at the time they declared their independence from England and the monarchy. The Articles of Confederation that established the first federal government on this continent attempted to maintain a union with loose central powers to accommodate the pre-Revolutionary differences among the New England, middle, and southern colonies. The most important factors in the colonies were social rather than political in nature, but were still enough to threaten the union and the Revolution.

Much of the division, especially in the years immediately before the Revolution, was caused by the same issues -- or at least similar ones -- to those that existed in the lead up to the Civil War.

Kirsten E. Wood notes that Georgian society, typical of southern slaveholding societies, grew increasingly restrictive as time wore, on particularly in regards to women.

This was one aspect of Southern society that was noticeably different from the New England and even the Middle colonies. Though strictly defined gender roles certainly existed in the North as they did almost everywhere else on Earth at that time, the Southern colonies' general society was more hierarchical and rigidly defined than the other colonies in many regards, not the least of which was gender. Slavery was another obvious societal division that existed in the South but not in most of the New England and Middle colonies. This social institution had a profound effect on Southern society that is difficult to overstate, making Southern society markedly different.

The parallels between slavery and the gender differentiation in the South have been noted before by Kathleen M. Brown, but her assertion is that existing gender hierarchies paved the way for an easy establishment of racial hierarchies. Ben Marsh, on the other hand, convincingly asserts that "the framework was slavery and the shifting code was that of gender," which if true has much deeper implications for other aspects of Southern society as well. Regardless of whether the gender hierarchy led to a racial hierarchy or vice versa, both certainly existed in the Southern colonies to a much greater extent than in the other colonies, and both indicate a much more rigid and unyielding culture, which did not bode well for increased unity.

This rigidity was sometimes beneficial, however, as the hospitality in many parts of the South was an oft-lauded aspect of Southern culture at the time. Virginian gentlemen in particular were known for their generosity towards guests. At first glance, this might seem incongruous with the idea of the strict Southern society, but in fact this was another extension of it. Rules of courtesy in social situations were considered as important as rules of conduct in other situations, even military affairs, and often perceived slights and discourtesies would be resolved by violence -- in honorable duels with strictly adhered-to rules, of course. In fact, this was not the only area of Southern social society that had military implications, and in fact such rigidity in rules of conduct and courtesy shaped the Southern political landscape for generations to come.

Land was the mark of success and wealth and the means to power in the South far more than in the other colonies. Though farming existed in the colonies situated further north, trade and mercantilism, followed by industry, were the keystones of their economy, whereas the plantation farming made possible and profitable by slavery was the primary means of subsistence and economic growth in the Southern colonies. Land ownership affected appointments to political and military positions, and Kierner maintains that the rules of conduct and courtesy that dictated much of Southern society's practices "strengthened the reciprocal networks of patronage and dependence that fostered elite authority and popular deference."

This created a different worldview and system of promotion than existed in the other colonies, and set the stage for conflict before, during, and after the Revolutionary struggle.

Another effect of rigid Southern mores was the increasing number f conflicts that occurred as immigrants from many different places in Europe began to flood the New World. This create some problems in the North as well, but in an area where land is key, issues of crowding seem worse even when the population is less dense. Nationalistic disputes between English and German settlers in Georgia forced the German Lutherans to take land without any access to water, which severely limited their trade and travel potential. Similar problems led to increasing conflicts within the Southern colonies themselves, which in turn only exacerbated differences of opinion with the North when the time for unity and collective action came.

The nature of the various waves of immigration to the Southern colonies in particular led to a fierce independence that is in many ways still observable today. The main constituents of the Carolinas were English-speaking Dissenters, as in the North, but they were also joined by the already mentioned German Lutherans -- dissidents in their own country -- and French Huguenots, who themselves had left France after suffering religious persecution. These groups all had their own reasons for distrusting centralized power structures, and their compression into one geographical locale -- combined with emerging rules of courtesy that were often unknowingly trampled by newcomers -- allowed for quick violence to emerge out of the typical Southern genteelness.

Religious differences, though an impetus for movement to the New World, did not appear to create too many noteworthy conflicts in the South during the pre-Revolutionary era. In some colonies, however, it played an important role in the rationales both for declaring independence and entering the Revolutionary War and for remaining with Great Britain, who at the time of the Revolution was the sole European power holding sway over the thirteen colonies. It has even been suggested that the rhetoric and reasoning used both publicly and privately by the policy debaters on both sides of the issue "was shaped by legal and sociopolitical concepts rooted primarily in religion." Perhaps nowhere was this felt more potently than in the Middle colonies, who with their more mixed economy and variegated religious beliefs found yet one more thing to divide them. It is true that the decision to declare independence from England was by no means given a public mandate in any of the colonies, but the independence issue caused some especially contentious conflicts in the Middle colonies.

Religion was incredibly ingrained in many of the people inhabiting the Middle colonies, and though the religion was overwhelmingly Christian, it was not the same type of Christianity, and so these ingrained differences invariably led to misunderstanding and conflicts. It has been suggested, in fact, that religion played such a large role in the political affairs of the Middle colonies precisely because it remained just under the surface; "generally the bonding of religious to civil polity fell in the realm of 'implicit knowledge,' as the anthropologists call it: 'shared, unspoken assumptions' or self-evident truths."

Religion also played a direct and overt role in the negotiation between the colonies in the build-up to the Revolution. When Virginia found itself home to a large population of Highland Scots who remained loyal to Great Britain, a delegation was sought from and sent by the Presbyterian church of Philadelphia to appeal to their religious brothers to join in the Revolutionary cause. This was just one instance of many acts by the Presbyterians in all of the colonies where their presence was significant to convince others in the more reluctant Southern states to join them in the Revolution. Most of their pleas, though made in the name of religious fraternity, fell upon deaf ears, providing further evidence that the differences between… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Social and Political Differences Among the American Colonies.  (2009, February 28).  Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/social-political-differences-among/9821436

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