MIA: Writers Archive: Mary Beard

History of the United States. Charles Beard, Mary Beard, 1921

Chapter III


Colonial life, crowded as it was with hard and unremitting toil, left scant leisure for the cultivation of the arts and sciences. There was little money in private purses or public treasuries to be dedicated to schools, libraries, and museums. Few there were with time to read long and widely, and fewer still who could devote their lives to things that delight the eye and the mind. And yet, poor and meager as the intellectual life of the colonists may seem by way of comparison, heroic efforts were made in every community to lift the people above the plane of mere existence. After the first clearings were opened in the forests those efforts were redoubled, and with lengthening years told upon the thought and spirit of the land. The appearance, during the struggle with England, of an extraordinary group of leaders familiar with history, political philosophy, and the arts of war, government, and diplomacy itself bore eloquent testimony to the high quality of the American intellect. No one, not even the most critical, can run through the writings of distinguished Americans scattered from Massachusetts to Georgia – the Adamses, Ellsworth, the Morrises, the Livingstons, Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Marshall, Henry, the Randolphs, and the Pinckneys – without coming to the conclusion that there was something in American colonial life which fostered minds of depth and power. Women surmounted even greater difficulties than the men in the process of self-education, and their keen interest in public issues is evident in many a record like the Letters of Mrs. John Adams to her husband during the Revolution; the writings of Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren, the sister of James Otis, who measured her pen with the British propagandists; and the patriot newspapers founded and managed by women.

The Leadership of the Churches

In the intellectual life of America, the churches assumed a rôle of high importance. There were abundant reasons for this. In many of the colonies – Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New England – the religious impulse had been one of the impelling motives in stimulating immigration. In all the colonies, the clergy, at least in the beginning, formed the only class with any leisure to devote to matters of the spirit. They preached on Sundays and taught school on week days. They led in the discussion of local problems and in the formation of political opinion, so much of which was concerned with the relation between church and state. They wrote books and pamphlets. They filled most of the chairs in the colleges; under clerical guidance, intellectual and spiritual, the Americans received their formal education. In several of the provinces the Anglican Church was established by law. In New England the Puritans were supreme, notwithstanding the efforts of the crown to overbear their authority. In the Middle colonies, particularly, the multiplication of sects made the dominance of any single denomination impossible; and in all of them there was a growing diversity of faith, which promised in time a separation of church and state and freedom of opinion.

The Church of England. – Virginia was the stronghold of the English system of church and state. The Anglican faith and worship were prescribed by law, sustained by taxes imposed on all, and favored by the governor, the provincial councilors, and the richest planters. “The Established Church,” says Lodge, “was one of the appendages of the Virginia aristocracy. They controlled the vestries and the ministers, and the parish church stood not infrequently on the estate of the planter who built and managed it.” As in England, Catholics and Protestant Dissenters were at first laid under heavy disabilities. Only slowly and on sufferance were they admitted to the province; but when once they were even covertly tolerated, they pressed steadily in, until, by the Revolution, they outnumbered the adherents of the established order.

The Church was also sanctioned by law and supported by taxes in the Carolinas after 1704, and in Georgia after that colony passed directly under the crown in 1754 – this in spite of the fact that the majority of the inhabitants were Dissenters. Against the protests of the Catholics it was likewise established in Maryland. In New York, too, notwithstanding the resistance of the Dutch, the Established Church was fostered by the provincial officials, and the Anglicans, embracing about one-fifteenth of the population, exerted an influence all out of proportion to their numbers.

Many factors helped to enhance the power of the English Church in the colonies. It was supported by the British government and the official class sent out to the provinces. Its bishops and archbishops in England were appointed by the king, and its faith and service were set forth by acts of Parliament. Having its seat of power in the English monarchy, it could hold its clergy and missionaries loyal to the crown and so counteract to some extent the independent spirit that was growing up in America. The Church, always a strong bulwark of the state, therefore had a political rôle to play here as in England. Able bishops and far-seeing leaders firmly grasped this fact about the middle of the eighteenth century and redoubled their efforts to augment the influence of the Church in provincial affairs. Unhappily for their plans they failed to calculate in advance the effect of their methods upon dissenting Protestants, who still cherished memories of bitter religious conflicts in the mother country.

Puritanism in New England. – If the established faith made for imperial unity, the same could not be said of Puritanism. The Plymouth Pilgrims had cast off all allegiance to the Anglican Church and established a separate and independent congregation before they came to America. The Puritans, essaying at first the task of reformers within the Church, soon after their arrival in Massachusetts, likewise flung off their yoke of union with the Anglicans. In each town a separate congregation was organized, the male members choosing the pastor, the teachers, and the other officers. They also composed the voters in the town meeting, where secular matters were determined. The union of church and government was thus complete, and uniformity of faith and life prescribed by law and enforced by civil authorities; but this worked for local autonomy instead of imperial unity.

The clergy became a powerful class, dominant through their learning and their fearful denunciations of the faithless. They wrote the books for the people to read – the famous Cotton Mather having three hundred and eighty-three books and pamphlets to his credit. In cooperation with the civil officers they enforced a strict observance of the Puritan Sabbath – a day of rest that began at six o’clock on Saturday evening and lasted until sunset on Sunday. All work, all trading, all amusement, and all worldly conversation were absolutely prohibited during those hours. A thoughtless maid servant who for some earthly reason smiled in church was in danger of being banished as a vagabond. Robert Pike, a devout Puritan, thinking the sun had gone to rest, ventured forth on horseback one Sunday evening and was luckless enough to have a ray of light strike him through a rift in the clouds. The next day he was brought into court and fined for “his ungodly conduct.” With persons accused of witchcraft the Puritans were still more ruthless. When a mania of persecution swept over Massachusetts in 1692, eighteen people were hanged, one was pressed to death, many suffered imprisonment, and two died in jail.

Just about this time, however, there came a break in the uniformity of Puritan rule. The crown and church in England had long looked upon it with disfavor, and in 1684 King Charles II annulled the old charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. A new document issued seven years later wrested from the Puritans of the colony the right to elect their own governor and reserved the power of appointment to the king. It also abolished the rule limiting the suffrage to church members, substituting for it a simple property qualification. Thus a royal governor and an official family, certain to be Episcopalian in faith and monarchist in sympathies, were forced upon Massachusetts; and members of all religious denominations, if they had the required amount of property, were permitted to take part in elections. By this act in the name of the crown, the Puritan monopoly was broken down in Massachusetts, and that province was brought into line with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, where property, not religious faith, was the test for the suffrage.

Growth of Religious Toleration. – Though neither the Anglicans of Virginia nor the Puritans of Massachusetts believed in toleration for other denominations, that principle was strictly applied in Rhode Island. There, under the leadership of Roger Williams, liberty in matters of conscience was established in the beginning. Maryland, by granting in 1649 freedom to those who professed to believe in Jesus Christ, opened its gates to all Christians; and Pennsylvania, true to the tenets of the Friends, gave freedom of conscience to those “who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and Eternal God to be the creator, upholder, and ruler of the World.” By one circumstance or another, the Middle colonies were thus early characterized by diversity rather than uniformity of opinion. Dutch Protestants, Huguenots, Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, New Lights, Moravians, Lutherans, Catholics, and other denominations became too strongly intrenched and too widely scattered to permit any one of them to rule, if it had desired to do so. There were communities and indeed whole sections where one or another church prevailed, but in no colony was a legislature steadily controlled by a single group. Toleration encouraged diversity, and diversity, in turn, worked for greater toleration.

The government and faith of the dissenting denominations conspired with economic and political tendencies to draw America away from the English state. Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and Puritans had no hierarchy of bishops and archbishops to bind them to the seat of power in London. Neither did they look to that metropolis for guidance in interpreting articles of faith. Local self-government in matters ecclesiastical helped to train them for local self-government in matters political. The spirit of independence which led Dissenters to revolt in the Old World, nourished as it was amid favorable circumstances in the New World, made them all the more zealous in the defense of every right against authority imposed from without.

Schools and Colleges

Religion and Local Schools. – One of the first cares of each Protestant denomination was the education of the children in the faith. In this work the Bible became the center of interest. The English version was indeed the one book of the people. Farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans, whose life had once been bounded by the daily routine of labor, found in the Scriptures not only an inspiration to religious conduct, but also a book of romance, travel, and history. “Legend and annal,” says John Richard Green, “war-song and psalm, state-roll and biography, the mighty voices of prophets, the parables of Evangelists, stories of mission journeys, of perils by sea and among the heathen, philosophic arguments, apocalyptic visions, all were flung broadcast over minds unoccupied for the most part by any rival learning.... As a mere literary monument, the English version of the Bible remains the noblest example of the English tongue.” It was the King James version just from the press that the Pilgrims brought across the sea with them.

For the authority of the Established Church was substituted the authority of the Scriptures. The Puritans devised a catechism based upon their interpretation of the Bible, and, very soon after their arrival in America, they ordered all parents and masters of servants to be diligent in seeing that their children and wards were taught to read religious works and give answers to the religious questions. Massachusetts was scarcely twenty years old before education of this character was declared to be compulsory, and provision was made for public schools where those not taught at home could receive instruction in reading and writing.

Outside of New England the idea of compulsory education was not regarded with the same favor; but the whole land was nevertheless dotted with little schools kept by “dames, itinerant teachers, or local parsons.” Whether we turn to the life of Franklin in the North or Washington in the South, we read of tiny schoolhouses, where boys, and sometimes girls, were taught to read and write. Where there were no schools, fathers and mothers of the better kind gave their children the rudiments of learning. Though illiteracy was widespread, there is evidence to show that the diffusion of knowledge among the masses was making steady progress all through the eighteenth century.

Religion and Higher Learning. – Religious motives entered into the establishment of colleges as well as local schools. Harvard, founded in 1636, and Yale, opened in 1718, were intended primarily to train “learned and godly ministers” for the Puritan churches of New England. To the far North, Dartmouth, chartered in 1769, was designed first as a mission to the Indians and then as a college for the sons of New England farmers preparing to preach, teach, or practice law. The College of New Jersey, organized in 1746 and removed to Princeton eleven years later, was sustained by the Presbyterians. Two colleges looked to the Established Church as their source of inspiration and support: William and Mary, founded in Virginia in 1693, and King’s College, now Columbia University, chartered by King George II in 1754, on an appeal from the New York Anglicans, alarmed at the growth of religious dissent and the “republican tendencies” of the age. Two colleges revealed a drift away from sectarianism. Brown, established in Rhode Island in 1764, and the Philadelphia Academy, forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania, organized by Benjamin Franklin, reflected the spirit of toleration by giving representation on the board of trustees to several religious sects. It was Franklin’s idea that his college should prepare young men to serve in public office as leaders of the people and ornaments to their country.

Self-education in America. – Important as were these institutions of learning, higher education was by no means confined within their walls. Many well-to-do families sent their sons to Oxford or Cambridge in England. Private tutoring in the home was common. In still more families there were intelligent children who grew up in the great colonial school of adversity and who trained themselves until, in every contest of mind and wit, they could vie with the sons of Harvard or William and Mary or any other college. Such, for example, was Benjamin Franklin, whose charming autobiography, in addition to being an American classic, is a fine record of self-education. His formal training in the classroom was limited to a few years at a local school in Boston; but his self-education continued throughout his life. He early manifested a zeal for reading, and devoured, he tells us, his father’s dry library on theology, Bunyan’s works, Defoe’s writings, Plutarch’s Lives, Locke’s On the Human Understanding, and innumerable volumes dealing with secular subjects. His literary style, perhaps the best of his time, Franklin acquired by the diligent and repeated analysis of the Spectator. In a life crowded with labors, he found time to read widely in natural science and to win single-handed recognition at the hands of European savants for his discoveries in electricity. By his own efforts he “attained an acquaintance” with Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, thus unconsciously preparing himself for the day when he was to speak for all America at the court of the king of France.

Lesser lights than Franklin, educated by the same process, were found all over colonial America. From this fruitful source of native ability, self-educated, the American cause drew great strength in the trials of the Revolution.

The Colonial Press

The Rise of the Newspaper. – The evolution of American democracy into a government by public opinion, enlightened by the open discussion of political questions, was in no small measure aided by a free press. That too, like education, was a matter of slow growth. A printing press was brought to Massachusetts in 1639, but it was put in charge of an official censor and limited to the publication of religious works. Forty years elapsed before the first newspaper appeared, bearing the curious title, Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic, and it had not been running very long before the government of Massachusetts suppressed it for discussing a political question.

Publishing, indeed, seemed to be a precarious business; but in 1704 there came a second venture in journalism, The Boston News-Letter, which proved to be a more lasting enterprise because it refrained from criticizing the authorities. Still the public interest languished. When Franklin’s brother, James, began to issue his New England Courant about 1720, his friends sought to dissuade him, saying that one newspaper was enough for America. Nevertheless he continued it; and his confidence in the future was rewarded. In nearly every colony a gazette or chronicle appeared within the next thirty years or more. Benjamin Franklin was able to record in 1771 that America had twenty-five newspapers. Boston led with five. Philadelphia had three: two in English and one in German.

Censorship and Restraints on the Press. – The idea of printing, unlicensed by the government and uncontrolled by the church, was, however, slow in taking form. The founders of the American colonies had never known what it was to have the free and open publication of books, pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers. When the art of printing was first discovered, the control of publishing was vested in clerical authorities. After the establishment of the State Church in England in the reign of Elizabeth, censorship of the press became a part of royal prerogative. Printing was restricted to Oxford, Cambridge, and London; and no one could publish anything without previous approval of the official censor. When the Puritans were in power, the popular party, with a zeal which rivaled that of the crown, sought, in turn, to silence royalist and clerical writers by a vigorous censorship. After the restoration of the monarchy, control of the press was once more placed in royal hands, where it remained until 1695, when Parliament, by failing to renew the licensing act, did away entirely with the official censorship. By that time political parties were so powerful and so active and printing presses were so numerous that official review of all published matter became a sheer impossibility.

In America, likewise, some troublesome questions arose in connection with freedom of the press. The Puritans of Massachusetts were no less anxious than King Charles or the Archbishop of London to shut out from the prying eyes of the people all literature “not mete for them to read"; and so they established a system of official licensing for presses, which lasted until 1755. In the other colonies where there was more diversity of opinion and publishers could set up in business with impunity, they were nevertheless constantly liable to arrest for printing anything displeasing to the colonial governments. In 1721 the editor of the Mercury in Philadelphia was called before the proprietary council and ordered to apologize for a political article, and for a later offense of a similar character he was thrown into jail. A still more famous case was that of Peter Zenger, a New York publisher, who was arrested in 1735 for criticising the administration. Lawyers who ventured to defend the unlucky editor were deprived of their licenses to practice, and it became necessary to bring an attorney all the way from Philadelphia. By this time the tension of feeling was high, and the approbation of the public was forthcoming when the lawyer for the defense exclaimed to the jury that the very cause of liberty itself, not that of the poor printer, was on trial! The verdict for Zenger, when it finally came, was the signal for an outburst of popular rejoicing. Already the people of King George’s province knew how precious a thing is the freedom of the press.

Thanks to the schools, few and scattered as they were, and to the vigilance of parents, a very large portion, perhaps nearly one-half, of the colonists could read. Through the newspapers, pamphlets, and almanacs that streamed from the types, the people could follow the course of public events and grasp the significance of political arguments. An American opinion was in the process of making – an independent opinion nourished by the press and enriched by discussions around the fireside and at the taverns. When the day of resistance to British rule came, government by opinion was at hand. For every person who could hear the voice of Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, there were a thousand who could see their appeals on the printed page. Men who had spelled out their letters while poring over Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac lived to read Thomas Paine’s thrilling call to arms.

The Evolution in Political Institutions

Two very distinct lines of development appeared in colonial politics. The one, exalting royal rights and aristocratic privileges, was the drift toward provincial government through royal officers appointed in England. The other, leading toward democracy and self-government, was the growth in the power of the popular legislative assembly. Each movement gave impetus to the other, with increasing force during the passing years, until at last the final collision between the two ideals of government came in the war of independence.

The Royal Provinces. – Of the thirteen English colonies eight were royal provinces in 1776, with governors appointed by the king. Virginia passed under the direct rule of the crown in 1624, when the charter of the London Company was annulled. The Massachusetts Bay corporation lost its charter in 1684, and the new instrument granted seven years later stripped the colonists of the right to choose their chief executive. In the early decades of the eighteenth century both the Carolinas were given the provincial instead of the proprietary form. New Hampshire, severed from Massachusetts in 1679, and Georgia, surrendered by the trustees in 1752, went into the hands of the crown. New York, transferred to the Duke of York on its capture from the Dutch in 1664, became a province when he took the title of James II in 1685. New Jersey, after remaining for nearly forty years under proprietors, was brought directly under the king in 1702. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, although they retained their proprietary character until the Revolution, were in some respects like the royal colonies, for their governors were as independent of popular choice as were the appointees of King George. Only two colonies, Rhode Island and Connecticut, retained full self-government on the eve of the Revolution. They alone had governors and legislatures entirely of their own choosing.

The chief officer of the royal province was the governor, who enjoyed high and important powers which he naturally sought to augment at every turn. He enforced the laws and, usually with the consent of a council, appointed the civil and military officers. He granted pardons and reprieves; he was head of the highest court; he was commander-in-chief of the militia; he levied troops for defense and enforced martial law in time of invasion, war, and rebellion. In all the provinces, except Massachusetts, he named the councilors who composed the upper house of the legislature and was likely to choose those who favored his claims. He summoned, adjourned, and dissolved the popular assembly, or the lower house; he laid before it the projects of law desired by the crown; and he vetoed measures which he thought objectionable. Here were in America all the elements of royal prerogative against which Hampden had protested and Cromwell had battled in England.

The colonial governors were generally surrounded by a body of office-seekers and hunters for land grants. Some of them were noblemen of broken estates who had come to America to improve their fortunes. The pretensions of this circle grated on colonial nerves, and privileges granted to them, often at the expense of colonists, did much to deepen popular antipathy to the British government. Favors extended to adherents of the Established Church displeased Dissenters. The reappearance of this formidable union of church and state, from which they had fled, stirred anew the ancient wrath against that combination.

The Colonial Assembly. – Coincident with the drift toward administration through royal governors was the second and opposite tendency, namely, a steady growth in the practice of self-government. The voters of England had long been accustomed to share in taxation and law-making through representatives in Parliament, and the idea was early introduced in America. Virginia was only twelve years old (1619) when its first representative assembly appeared. As the towns of Massachusetts multiplied and it became impossible for all the members of the corporation to meet at one place, the representative idea was adopted, in 1633. The river towns of Connecticut formed a representative system under their “Fundamental Orders” of 1639, and the entire colony was given a royal charter in 1662. Generosity, as well as practical considerations, induced such proprietors as Lord Baltimore and William Penn to invite their colonists to share in the government as soon as any considerable settlements were made. Thus by one process or another every one of the colonies secured a popular assembly.

It is true that in the provision for popular elections, the suffrage was finally restricted to property owners or taxpayers, with a leaning toward the freehold qualification. In Virginia, the rural voter had to be a freeholder owning at least fifty acres of land, if there was no house on it, or twenty-five acres with a house twenty-five feet square. In Massachusetts, the voter for member of the assembly under the charter of 1691 had to be a freeholder of an estate worth forty shillings a year at least or of other property to the value of forty pounds sterling. In Pennsylvania, the suffrage was granted to freeholders owning fifty acres or more of land well seated, twelve acres cleared, and to other persons worth at least fifty pounds in lawful money.

Restrictions like these undoubtedly excluded from the suffrage a very considerable number of men, particularly the mechanics and artisans of the towns, who were by no means content with their position. Nevertheless, it was relatively easy for any man to acquire a small freehold, so cheap and abundant was land; and in fact a large proportion of the colonists were land owners. Thus the assemblies, in spite of the limited suffrage, acquired a democratic tone.

The popular character of the assemblies increased as they became engaged in battles with the royal and proprietary governors. When called upon by the executive to make provision for the support of the administration, the legislature took advantage of the opportunity to make terms in the interest of the taxpayers. It made annual, not permanent, grants of money to pay official salaries and then insisted upon electing a treasurer to dole it out. Thus the colonists learned some of the mysteries of public finance, as well as the management of rapacious officials. The legislature also used its power over money grants to force the governor to sign bills which he would otherwise have vetoed.

Contests between Legislatures and Governors. – As may be imagined, many and bitter were the contests between the royal and proprietary governors and the colonial assemblies. Franklin relates an amusing story of how the Pennsylvania assembly held in one hand a bill for the executive to sign and, in the other hand, the money to pay his salary. Then, with sly humor, Franklin adds: “Do not, my courteous reader, take pet at our proprietary constitution for these our bargain and sale proceedings in legislation. It is a happy country where justice and what was your own before can be had for ready money. It is another addition to the value of money and of course another spur to industry. Every land is not so blessed."

It must not be thought, however, that every governor got off as easily as Franklin’s tale implies. On the contrary, the legislatures, like Cćsar, fed upon meat that made them great and steadily encroached upon executive prerogatives as they tried out and found their strength. If we may believe contemporary laments, the power of the crown in America was diminishing when it was struck down altogether. In New York, the friends of the governor complained in 1747 that “the inhabitants of plantations are generally educated in republican principles; upon republican principles all is conducted. Little more than a shadow of royal authority remains in the Northern colonies.” “Here,” echoed the governor of South Carolina, the following year, “levelling principles prevail; the frame of the civil government is unhinged; a governor, if he would be idolized, must betray his trust; the people have got their whole administration in their hands; the election of the members of the assembly is by ballot; not civil posts only, but all ecclesiastical preferments, are in the disposal or election of the people."

Though baffled by the “levelling principles” of the colonial assemblies, the governors did not give up the case as hopeless. Instead they evolved a system of policy and action which they thought could bring the obstinate provincials to terms. That system, traceable in their letters to the government in London, consisted of three parts: (1) the royal officers in the colonies were to be made independent of the legislatures by taxes imposed by acts of Parliament; (2) a British standing army was to be maintained in America; (3) the remaining colonial charters were to be revoked and government by direct royal authority was to be enlarged.

Such a system seemed plausible enough to King George III and to many ministers of the crown in London. With governors, courts, and an army independent of the colonists, they imagined it would be easy to carry out both royal orders and acts of Parliament. This reasoning seemed both practical and logical. Nor was it founded on theory, for it came fresh from the governors themselves. It was wanting in one respect only. It failed to take account of the fact that the American people were growing strong in the practice of self-government and could dispense with the tutelage of the British ministry, no matter how excellent it might be or how benevolent its intentions.


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