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Image Regional Cultures and the Coming of Independence

In the mid-eighteenth century, the four cultures of British America suddenly faced a major challenge from a new imperial elite in London. This small ruling class developed its own special variety of English culture, which differed very much from the older folkways of British America. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, it invented its own distinctive language which is still the hallmark of England’s upper class. To American ears, the salient feature of this speech was its very broad a, which is sometimes said to have been popularized by David Garrick on the London stage. That story may be apocryphal, but the broad a became fashionable during Garrick’s life (1717-79). With other refinements of idiom and intonation, it created an elite dialect which promoted the integration of England’s ruling few.10 It also increased the cultural distance between the few and the many.11

This new dialect of England’s ruling class differed markedly from the speech ways of American colonists, to whom it seemed contrived and pretentious. On the other hand, British officers who came to the colonies remarked that natives even of high rank seemed to be speaking in archaic accents of the seventeenth century. Loyalists who fled to Britain after the Revolution were startled to discover that their old-fashioned speech and manners were far removed from the latest affectations of London drawing rooms.12

The new speech ways of England’s governing class were only one part of a complex elite culture which was also distinctive in its ideas of family life, marriage practices and especially its child-rearing customs. It also had its own ideas about order, freedom and power which became major threats to the cultures of British America.

In the century from 1660 to 1760 England’s elite created many new institutions which still dominate the life of their nation. The regimental traditions of the British army were formed in this period. The Royal Navy, despite its claims to be the “senior service” founded by King Alfred, was largely a creation of this era. So also were many legal institutions; the rituals, ceremonies, architecture and costumes of English law still preserve the fashions of the century in which they were elaborately developed. In this period the Church of England created new institutions of evangelical Anglicanism, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The Bank of England and many great commercial institutions were founded in the same time. A new national bureaucracy began its inexorable growth in Whitehall’s neoclassical buildings. Above all these various institutions hovered the King-in-Parliament, an elaborately integrated idea of sovereignty that had scarcely existed before 1689.

These new ideas and institutions were no sooner formed than they were brought to bear upon the American colonies, whose independent ways appeared to be archaic survivals from an earlier and less happy age of strife and social confusion. As late as 1903, an English historian of high rank was still raging against the narrowness and provincialism of the American colonies. “There was not one of these communities,” wrote Sir John For-tescue, “not even the tiniest of the Antilles, but possessed its little legislature on the English model, and consequently not one but enjoyed facilities for excessive indulgence of local feeling, local faction and local folly.”13

England’s governing elites mounted a major effort to bring the American colonies into line with the new national institutions. This challenge was not only political, but broadly cultural. It included proposals for an American aristocracy on the model of the Irish peerage; an American bureaucracy like that in Whitehall; and an American religious establishment like the Church of England. The folkways of British America were deeply threatened by these policies.

Shortly before the American Revolution, for example, the Anglican Society for the Propagation of Gospel sent missionaries to Massachusetts for the conversion of the “heathen.” They built one of their missions not on the frontier but across the street from Harvard College and labored to convert the sons of Congregational New England. The head of this Anglican organization, Bishop Thomas Seeker, made no secret of his contempt for the colonists, whom he collectively characterized in 1741 as “wicked, and dissolute and brutal in every respect.”14 In 1758, this man became Archbishop of Canterbury and tried to create uniform Anglican establishments in the colonies. His grand design simultaneously posed a mortal threat to the Congregational orthodoxy of New England, the Quakers’ regime of religious freedom of Pennsylvania, the powerful lay-vestries of Virginia, and Presbyterians in the backcountry.15

The new imperial elite also tried to force educational institutions and social structures in the colonies into line with its own ideas. The authors of the Stamp Act believed that

the Duties upon admissions to any professions or to the University degees should be certainly as high as they are in England; it would indeed be better if they were raised both here and there in order to keep mean persons out of those situations in life which they disgrace.16

They imposed a heavy stamp tax of two pounds on matriculation papers, and two pounds more on diplomas “in any university, academy, college, or seminary of learning within the said colonies” (compared with two shillings, eighteen pence in England). To restrict the growth of professions, they placed a duty of ten pounds on papers of admission to practice law.17

They also attempted to restrain the institutional growth of regional cultures in even more direct ways. In 1769, for example, backcountry Presbyterians in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, founded an institution (which still exists) called Queen’s College. A charter was reluctantly granted by the North Carolina legislature, only after a “considerable body” of backsettlers marched on the colonial capital. When Queen’s College began to operate it was the only such institution south and west of Williamsburg, but it was one too many for imperial authorities. In 1773 after long delay, the charter of Queen’s College was disallowed in London on the ground it gave preference to Presbyterians. At the same time, the Crown also disallowed an amended North Carolina Marriage Act which permitted Presbyterian ministers to solemnize marriages, on the ground that it did not give preference to the Church of England. These decisions became symbolic issues which infuriated the backsettlers and deepened their determination to “support the Government under which we find the most liberty,” as one Mecklenberg petition ominously threatened.18

While Bishop Seeker was trying to change the religious life of the colonies, others of the imperial elite reformed its legal institutions. Each cultural region had its own system of courts which had long remained in their own hands. Now Americans were given an expanded system of vice admiralty courts which operated without juries under Roman Civil Law which was alien to American customs. The colonists were also forced to deal with novel legal doctrines, and new hierarchies of barristers and legal officers.

England’s imperial elite also mounted another assault on the political institutions of British America. The result was a decline in the power and autonomy of regional cultures. As late as 1660, for example, five out of seven mainland colonies in British North America had elected their governors. By 1760, only two out of thirteen colonies did so. The rest were ruled by royal governors, who had been appointed in London from the ranks of England’s ruling class. One of these men, Governor Francis Bernard, was chosen governor of Massachusetts solely because he had married the cousin of a powerful peer. In 1774, Bernard formally proposed the creation of an American aristocracy. “A nobility appointed by the King for life, and made independent,” he wrote, “would probably give strength and stability to the American governments, as effectually as an hereditary nobility does to that of Great Britain.”19

These various challenges threatened all four American cultures at the same time. In response to a common danger, they forgot their differences and joined together in the movement that led to the American Revolution. The indigenous elites of New England, Virginia and the backcountry were united in that struggle. Only the Delaware elite was divided—not so much by their views of British policy as by their reluctance to use force against any provocation.

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