• How did the English empire in America expand in the mid-seventeenth century?
• How was slavery established in the Western Atlantic world?
• What major social and political crises rocked the colonies In the late seventeenth century?
• What were the directions of social and economic change in the eighteenth-century colonies?
• How did patterns of class and gender roles change in eighteenth-century America?
On the last quarter of the seventeenth century, a series of crises rocked the European colonies of North America. Social and political tensions boiled over in sometimes ruthless conflicts between rich and poor, free and slave, settler and Indian, and members of different religious groups. At the same time, struggles within and between European empires echoed in the colonies. Aggrieved groups seized upon the language of freedom to advance their goals. Although each conflict had its own local causes, taken together they added up to a general crisis of colonial society in the area that would become the United States.
The bloodiest and most bitter conflict occurred in southern New England, where in 1675 an Indian alliance launched attacks on farms and settlements that were encroaching on Indian lands. It was the most dramatic and violent warfare in the region in the entire seventeenth century.
New Englanders described the Wampanoag leader Metacom (known to the colonists as King Philip) as the uprising’s mastermind, although in fact most tribes fought under their own leaders. By this time, the white population considerably outnumbered the Indians. But the fate of the New England colonies hung in the balance for several months. By 1676, Indian forces had attacked nearly half of New England’s ninety towns. Twelve in Massachusetts were destroyed. As refugees fled eastward, the line of settlement was pushed back almost to the Atlantic coast. Some 1.000 settlers, out of a population of 52,000, and 3,000 of New England’s 20.000 Indians, perished in the fighting.
A scene from King Philip’s War, included on a 1675 map of New England.
In mid-1676, the tide of battle turned and a ferocious counterattack broke the Indians’ power once and for all. Although the uprising united numerous tribes, others remained loyal to the colonists. The role of the Iroquois in providing essential military aid to the colonists helped to solidify their developing alliance with the government of New York. Together, colonial and Indian forces inflicted devastating punishment on the rebels. Metacom was captured and executed, Indian villages destroyed, and captives, including men, women, and children, killed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. Most of the survivors fled to Canada or New York. Even the “praying Indians”—about 2,000 Indians who had converted to Christianity and lived in autonomous communities under Puritan supervision—suffered. Removed from their towns to Deer Island in Boston Harbor, supposedly for their own protection, many perished from disease and lack of food. Both sides committed atrocities in this merciless conflict, but in its aftermath the image of Indians as bloodthirsty savages became firmly entrenched in the New England mind.
In the long run, King Philip’s war produced a broadening of freedom for white New Englanders by expanding their access to land. But this freedom rested on the final dispossession of the region’s Indians.
As the New World became a battleground in European nations’ endless contests for wealth and power, England moved to seize control of Atlantic trade, solidify its hold on North America’s eastern coast, and exert greater control over its empire. By the middle of the seventeenth century, it was apparent that the colonies could be an important source of wealth for the mother country. According to the prevailing theory known as “mercantilism,” the government should regulate economic activity so as to promote national power. It should encourage manufacturing and commerce by special bounties, monopolies, and other measures. Above all, trade should be controlled so that more gold and silver flowed into the country than left it. That is, exports of goods, which generated revenue from abroad, should exceed imports, which required paying foreigners for their products. In the mercantilist outlook, the role of colonies was to serve the interests of the mother country by producing marketable raw materials and importing manufactured goods from home. “Foreign trade,” declared an influential work written in 1664 by a London merchant, formed the basis of “England’s treasure.” Commerce, not territorial plunder, was the foundation of empire.
Under Oliver Cromwell, as noted in Chapter 2, Parliament passed in 1651 the first Navigation Act, which aimed to wrest control of world trade from the Dutch, whose merchants profited from free trade with all parts of the world and all existing empires. Additional measures followed in 1660 and 1663. England’s new economic policy, mercantilism, rested on the idea that England should enjoy the profits arising from the English empire.
By the early eighteenth century, numerous English colonies populated eastern North America, while the French had established their own presence to the north and west.
According to the Navigation laws, certain “enumerated” goods—essentially the most valuable colonial products, such as tobacco and sugar—had to be transported in English ships and sold initially in English ports, although they could then be re-exported to foreign markets. Similarly, most European goods imported into the colonies had to be shipped through England, where customs duties were paid. This enabled English merchants, manufacturers, shipbuilders, and sailors to reap the benefits of colonial trade, and the government to enjoy added income from taxes. As members of the empire, American colonies would profit as well, since their ships were considered English. Indeed, the Navigation Acts stimulated the rise of New England’s shipbuilding industry.