Chapter Themes

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American Life in the Seventeenth Century,

Chapter Themes

Theme: In the Chesapeake region, seventeenth-century colonial society was characterized by disease-shortened lives, weak family life, and a social hierarchy that included hardworking planters at the top and restless poor whites and black slaves at the bottom. Despite the trauma of the “middle passage” and the mingling of African peoples, slaves in the Chesapeake developed a culture that mixed African and new-world elements and sustained family life, becoming one of the few slave societies that grew through natural reproduction.
Theme: By contrast, early New England life was characterized by healthy, extended life spans, strong family life, closely knit towns and churches, and a demanding economic and moral environment. The combination of a rigorous Calvinism with economic struggles produced a high-minded idealism, but also generated social and cultural tensions that deepened during the colonial era.

chapter summary

Life was hard in the seventeenth-century southern colonies. Disease drastically shortened life spans in the Chesapeake region, even for the young single men who made up the majority of settlers. Families were few and fragile, with men greatly outnumbering women, who were much in demand and seldom remained single for long.

The tobacco economy first thrived using the labor of white indentured servants, who hoped to work their way up to become landowners and perhaps even become wealthy. But by the late seventeenth century, this hope was increasingly frustrated, and the discontents of the poor whites exploded in Bacon’s Rebellion.

With white labor increasingly troublesome, slaves (earlier a small fraction of the workforce) began to be imported from West Africa by the tens of thousands in the 1680s, and soon became essential to the colonial economy. Slaves in the Deep South died rapidly of disease and overwork, but those in the Chesapeake tobacco region survived longer. Their numbers eventually increased by natural reproduction and they developed a distinctive African-American way of life that combined African elements with features developed in the New World.

By contrast with the South, New England’s clean water and cool air contributed to a healthy way of life, which added ten years to the average English life span. The New England way of life centered on strong families and tightly knit towns and churches, which were relatively democratic and equal by seventeenth-century standards. By the late seventeenth century, however, social and religious tensions developed in these narrow communities, as the Salem witch hysteria dramatically illustrates.

Rocky soil forced many New Englanders to turn to fishing and merchant shipping for their livelihoods. Their difficult lives and stern religion made New Englanders tough, idealistic, purposeful, and resourceful. In later years they spread these same values across much of American society.

All of seventeenth-century American society was relatively simple and almost entirely agrarian. Would-be aristocrats who tried to recreate the social hierarchies of Europe were generally frustrated.

developing the chapter: suggested lecture or discussion topics

  • Explain the search for a suitable labor supply in the plantation colonies, contrasting the relative advantages and disadvantages of white indentured servants and slaves (from the planters’ point of view). Perhaps use Bacon’s Rebellion as the clearest illustration of why planters feared uncontrolled laborers and turned increasingly to slavery.

    reference: Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975).

  • Explore the origins of American race relations by examining the closely linked development of slavery and racial prejudice in the seventeenth century. The emphasis might be on how slavery, once established, tended to reinforce prejudice, while prejudice justified slavery.

    reference: Winthrop Jordan, White over Black (1968).

  • Provide a portrait of a “typical” New England town, focusing on the close connection between town and church and on family life, particularly the role of women and the relation of farming and trade in the region. Several towns have been studied in detail and the various social roles of men and women can be traced over time.

    reference: Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (1995).

  • Explore the Salem witch trials in more depth. The rich literature on the trials can be used to illuminate seventeenth-century New England history from numerous perspectives: town life, religion, the beliefs and actions of common people, generational conflict, and so on. Perhaps the most interesting is the light it sheds on the condition of women—both ordinary women and the extraordinary “witches”—and on gender relations and ideas in seventeenth-century America.

    reference: Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987).

for further interest: additional class topics

  • Focus on the nature of colonial family life, particularly as it was affected by different demographic patterns (for example, frequent childbearing, frequent remarriage, and strong competition for women). A particular focus might be on attitudes toward children in an age of large families and infant deaths.

  • Focus on the slave trade from Africa, considering how it affected those Africans who were caught in it as well as their descendants. A particular question might be that of the survival of African cultural elements among the slaves.

  • Discuss women’s lives in the seventeenth century, including economic functions, religion, marriage, and child raising. The focus might be on the economic and social importance of women in agrarian colonial communities, as well as on the legal and political restrictions that kept them tied to men.

  • Explore the values of the traditional New Englander as both morally rigid “Puritan” and hard-bargaining “Yankee.” Examine the “expansion of New England” in the spread of settlements west. (Places like northern Ohio, Kansas, Oregon, and later Hawaii had a high proportion of New Englanders in their populations.)

character sketches

Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676)

Although his followers were mostly poor, landless white farmers who hated the planter aristocrats, rebel leader Nathaniel Bacon was himself a well-off planter.

Bacon, descended from a famous English family, immigrated to Virginia in 1674 after obtaining a gentlemanly education at Cambridge University and the Inns of Court in London. After the initial phase of his “rebellion,” which consisted of leading unauthorized attacks on Indians, he was arrested by Governor Berkeley but then pardoned and even appointed to the colonial council in an attempt to appease him. But he and his supporters refused to be conciliated, and when Berkeley tried to suppress them, they went on a rampage that ended in the burning of Jamestown. Bacon seemed on the verge of seizing complete control of the colony when he suddenly died of illness—a development that enabled Berkeley to crush the leaderless rebels.

Quote: “For having upon specious pretences of publick works raised greate unjust taxes upon the commonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends…for having wronged his Majesty’s prerogative and interesting by assuming monopoly of the beaver trade…and for having protected, favored, and imboldened the Indian’s against his Majesty’s loyall subjects…we do demand that the said Sir William Berkeley…be forthwith delivered up or surrender [himself] within four days of this notice forthwith.” (Declaration of the People, 1676)
reference: Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676—The End of American Independence (1984).

Cotton Mather (1662–1728)

Cotton Mather’s notorious involvement in the Salem witch trials was only one episode in his long remarkable career, and has probably unfairly tarnished his historical reputation. Yet this event did reveal many of the contradictions of his complex personality as well as the tensions surrounding his Puritan faith.

The influential Puritan minister’s role in the Salem witch trials arose partly because he was not content to accept traditional dogma on its own terms, but rather displayed a strong “scientific” interest in spirits and the invisible world. Even before the trials, he took into his home a girl believed to be a victim of witchcraft so that he could study her case in detail. By seventeenth-century standards Mather was actually quite cautious about witchcraft. He believed that where witchcraft existed, it should be treated by prayer and fasting, not by prosecutions and executions. But once the Salem trials got under way and developed political momentum, he defended them in public, despite his apparent private belief that the evidence was questionable and the executions unjust.

Mather was hot-tempered, arrogant, and power-hungry but also extremely introspective and given to anxiety and self-doubt. Although he sometimes experienced hallucinations and severe depressions, and engaged in harsh attacks on his enemies, some of his writings are brilliant.
Quote: “Albeit the business of this witchcraft may be very much transacted upon the stage of imagination, yet we know that, as in treason, there is an imagining which is a capital crime, and here also the business, though managed in imagination, yet may not be called imaginary. The effects are dreadfully real.… Our neighbors at Salem Village are blown up, after a sort, with an infernal gunpowder; the train is laid in the laws of the kingdom of darkness…. Now the question is, who gives fire to this train? And by what acts is the match applied?” (1692)
reference: Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).

Rachel Clinton (1629–1694)

Clinton is one of the few Salem “witches” whose biography historians have been able to reconstruct. Her childhood was extremely unhappy, as, evidently, was the rest of her life. First her mother and then her father died when she was very young, and she was then placed under the control of her mentally unstable stepmother. Her father had left a substantial estate; but Clinton was never able to get a fair share of it because she was constantly exploited by others, including Thomas Clinton, her brother-in-law, whom she eventually married at age thirty-six (he was twenty-two at the time). After her divorce from Thomas Clinton, she was reduced to poverty and dependency, which further embittered her and reinforced her hostility to others. It is known that she threw stones at people and called them names like “hellhound” and “whoremasterly rogue.” Among the “witchcraft” activities that she was accused of, even before the Salem trials, were taking away a girl’s power of speech for three hours, sending animals to cross people’s paths, and making beer disappear from kegs.

Although convicted in the Salem trials and imprisoned for several months, Clinton was not executed. Released from prison in 1693, she died the following year.

reference: John Demos, Entertaining Satan (1982).

questions for class discussion

1. Why was family life in New England so different from family life in the South?
2. Why did slavery grow to be such an important institution in colonial America? What were the effects of slavery on the Africans who were brought to the New World?
3. What was attractive and unattractive about the closely-knit New England way of life?
4. Were the Salem witch trials a peculiar, aberrant moment in an age of superstition, or did they reflect common human psychological and social anxieties that could appear in any age? How harshly should those who prosecuted the “witches” be condemned?

makers of america: From African to African-American

Questions for Class Discussion

1. How did African-Americans work to adapt their native traditions under the conditions of New World slavery? What kinds of traditions were most successfully preserved?
2. What enabled African-Americans in the Chesapeake region to develop societies where—unusually for the history of slavery—the population reproduced and grew through natural increase? What does this suggest about the nature of families under slavery? How might these circumstances have affected the relationship between slaves and slaveholders?

Suggested Student Exercises

  • Use photographs of art objects or other materials from one of the particular cultures or regions of Africa from which a substantial number of slaves came to America (e.g., the Guinea Coast, Benin, Ivory Coast, or Angola), and have students consider characteristics that may have passed into African-American culture.

  • Examine some of the areas along the Atlantic coast where economic and social conditions, including the density of slave populations, made for a more extensive survival of African elements within African-American cultures. (The most famous and well studied is the Gullah culture on the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands.)

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