A Rock and a Hard Place (1608-1733). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

A Rock and a Hard Place (1608-1733). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Puritans, Separatists, Pilgrims.

Settlement of Plymouth and Massachusetts By colonies.

Religious tolerance in Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Oglethorpe’s utopia experiment.

Introduction of slavery.

 The settlement of Virginia was motivated by a combination of commercial enthusiasm and the intense social and economic pressures of an England that had outgrown its ancient feudal system. Farther north in America, in the area still known as New England, settlement was motivated more immediately by religious zeal.

As early as the reign of Elizabeth I, certain members of the Church of England (which the queen’s father, Henry VIII, severed from the Roman Catholic Church during 1536-40) had become extremely critical about what they considered compromises made with Catholic practice. A group of Anglican priests, most of them graduates of Cambridge University, advocated such articles of religion as direct personal spiritual experience, rigorously sincere moral conduct, and radically simple worship services. They felt that the mainstream Anglican church had not gone far enough in reforming worship and purging it of Catholic influence. When James I ascended the throne in 1603, Puritan leaders clamored for reform, including the abolition of bishops. James refused, but Puritanism (as the new reform movement came to be called) gained a substantial popular following by the early 17th century. The government and the mainstream Anglican Church, especially under Archbishop William Laud, reacted with repressive and discriminatory measures amounting to a campaign of persecution. Some Puritans left the country, settling in religiously tolerant Holland, while others remained in England and formed a powerful bloc within the parliamentarian party that, under the leadership, of Oliver Cromwell, ultimately defeated (and beheaded!) Charles I in the English Civil War (1642-46).

The New Israel. The Puritans who left England were, logically enough, called Separatists. Most of them were farmers, poorly educated, and of lowly social status. One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Reverend Richard Clifton in the village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. This group left Scrooby for Amsterdam in 1608, then, the following year, moved to another Dutch town, Leyden, where they lived for 12 years. Although the Scrooby group had found religious freedom, they were plagued by economic hardship and were concerned that their children were growing up Dutch rather than English. In 1617, they decided on a radical course of action. They voted to immigrate to America.

Brewster knew Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company of London, and, through him, the Scrooby congregation obtained a pair of patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company’s American territory. With supplementary financial backing from a London iron merchant named Thomas Weston, somewhat less than half of the congregation finally chose to leave Leyden. They boarded the Speedwell, bound for the port of Southampton, England, where they were to unite with another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. However, both groups were dogged by delays and disputes. Ultimately, 102 souls (fewer than half of whom were Separatists) piled into a single vessel, the Mayflower, and embarked from Plymouth on September 16, 1620.

After a grueling 65-day voyage, the Pilgrims (as their first historian, William Bradford, would later label them) sighted land on November 19. Apparently, rough seas off Nantucketforced the Mayflower’s skipper, Captain Christopher Jones, to steer away from the mouth of the Hudson River, where the Pilgrims were supposed to establish their “plantation,” to a landing at Cape Cod. This lay beyond the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction, and some historians believe that the Pilgrims actually bribed Captain Jones to alter course precisely in order to insure the group’s independence from external authority. Be that as it may, the Mayflower dropped anchor off present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts, on November 21.

There remained two problems. First, the settlers consisted of two distinct groups: the Separatists, united by their religious beliefs, and the others (whom the Separatists called “Strangers”) united by nothing more or less than a desire for commercial success. Second, neither group had a legal right to settle in the region, which was beyond the boundary of their charter. While riding at anchor, the two groups drew up the “Mayflower Compact”—in effect, the first constitution written in North America-in which they all agreed to create a “Civil Body Politic” and abide by laws created for the good of the colony.

Plymouth Rock. The settlers probed for a good place to land and soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. They set foot on shore-supposedly on a rock now carved with the year 1620—on December 21, with the main body of settlers disembarking on December 26. They could hardly have picked a less favorable time and place for their landing. A bitter New England winter was already under way, and the site boasted neither good harbors nor, given its flinty soil, extensive tracts of fertile land. As at Jamestown, people began to die: during the first winter, more than half of them. But these settlers were also very different from their earlier Jamestown counterparts. They were neither moneyed gentlemen, on the one hand, nor indentured servants on the other. Most were yeoman farmers, hard workers who were by right and inclination free.

From their number emerged a succession of able leaders, including John Carver (ca. 1576-1621), the first governor of Plymouth Colony; William Bradford (1590-1657), governor for more than 30 years and the colony’s most able early historian, the author of History or Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647; William Brewster (1567-1644); Edward Winslow (1595-1655), the colony’s indispensable diplomat, who negotiated a treaty with local Indian chief Massasoit, established vital fur-trading enterprises, and managed relations with England; and Myles Standish (ca. 1584-1656), a professional soldier who served as the colony’s military adviser, established its defenses, negotiated with Indians, represented the interests of Plymouth in England (1625-26), and was a founder of Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1632. But even able leadership would have failed to bring the colony through the first dreadful winter without the aid and succor of the neighboring Wampanoag Indians. Two in particular, Squanto (a Pawtuxet living among the Wampanoags) and Samoset (an Abnaki), gave the Pilgrims hands-on help in planting crops and building shelters. Samoset introduced the settlers to Massasoit, principal leader of the Wampanoags, and Squanto served as interpreter between the chief and the Pilgrim leaders. Throughout his lifetime, Massasoit (that was what the English called him; his Indian name was Wawmegin, “Yellow Feather”) treated the settlers as friends.

Massachusetts Bay. Inspired by the success of the settlement of Plymouth (and overlooking the hardships involved in it), another group of Puritans—these only somewhat less radical than the Pilgrims—landed at Massachusetts Bay in five ships in 1630. Eleven more ships arrived the next year. Under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint stock trading organization chartered by the English crown in 1629, 20,000 immigrants, mostly Puritans, would arrive by 1642, authorized to colonize a vast area extending from three miles north of the Merrimack River to three miles south of the Charles River. Led by John Winthrop, the new Massachusetts Bay Colony was centered in a city called Boston, and it soon prospered.

City on a Hill. The Puritans wanted to create in the New World a new center of right religion, to build what their sermons (with reference to the Old Testament) frequently called a “city on the hill”—a place of holiness that would be an example for all humankind. Toward this end, the Puritans laid great emphasis on family life and, in particular, on the education of children as well as the education of a class of clergymen sufficiently learned to interpret the Scriptures as authentically as possible. For the Puritans intended to guide their actions by an intensive interpretation of the Bible, since they saw themselves as living out a kind of Biblical allegory and prophecy in which they were on an “errand into the wilderness,” chosen by God to build the “New Jerusalem.” The most immediate practical effects of these beliefs were the creation of Boston’s High and Latin Schools as early as 1635, and Harvard College the very next year. Moreover, the Puritan character rapidly evolved into an unlikely combination of a limitless appetite for brilliant religious disputation and flinty intolerance of nonconforming beliefs. Needless to say, although they were smart folks, you wouldn’t want to spend a cocktail evening with one.

Rhode Island: Haven for the Heterodox. One of the most brilliant masters of religious disputation was the Reverend Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683), who immigrated from England to Boston in 1631. He declined an offer to become minister of the first Boston congregation because it had not formally separated from the Anglican Church. Instead, Williams moved first to Salem, then to Plymouth, and back to Salem. In each place, he was criticized for his “strange opinions,” which included a conviction that the lands chartered to Massachusetts and Plymouth belonged by right to the Indians, that a civil government could not enforce religious laws, and that religion itself ultimately rested on profoundly individual conscience and perception. Ordered by the Puritan hierarchy to change his views, Williams refused and was finally expelled from the colony by the Massachusetts General Court in October 1635. He and a handful of followers found refuge in January 1636 among the Indians on Narragansett Bay. At the head of that bay, Williams purchased from his protectors a small tract and founded a town he called Providence-the first settlement in Rhode Island.

During the next four decades, Williams welcomed to Rhode Island those of all persuasions. In 1644, during the English Civil War, he secured a patent for the colony from the Puritan-controlled Parliament, and he established a genuinely representative government founded on the principle of religious freedom. Williams returned to England again, where he successfully defended his colony’s grant against the onslaught of Puritan objections, and after the restoration of Charles II to the British throne, he secured a royal charter in 1663, sanctioning the liberal institutions he had created.

Maryland: Catholics Welcome. The founding and survival of heterodox Rhode Island made it clear to the Puritans that their “city on a hill” would not stand alone in America. In yet another colony, the interests of a group even more repugnant to the Puritans were taking root.

In 1632, King Charles I of England, under siege from the Puritan faction that would soon overthrow him, granted the Roman Catholic George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore a charter to settle North American lands between the 40th parallel and the south bank of the Potomac. The First Baron Baltimore died before the papers were executed, and the charter passed to his son Cecil Calvert, Second Baron Baltimore. In November 1633, 200 Catholic colonists set sail from England in the Ark and the Dove, which landed on March 24, 1634, on an island at the mouth of the Potomac they named Saint Clement (it is now called Blakistone Island). The colonists purchased the Indian village of Yaocomico and called it St. Mary’s (it is present-day St. Mary’s City), which served for the next 60 years as the capital of the colony. Under Lord Baltimore’s direction, in 1649, the Colonial Assembly passed the Act Concerning Religion, the first law in the American colonies that explicitly provided for freedom of worship-although it applied only to Christians.

Pennsylvania: Quaker Colony. Freedom of worship was the theme for the creation of yet another non-Puritan colony. The Society of Friends—commonly called Quakers—was founded in 17th-century England by a visionary leader named George Fox. His belief was in the immediacy of Christ’s teaching; that is, divine guidance was not “mediated” by Scripture, ceremony, ritual, or clergy, but came ultimately to each individual from an “inward light.” Accordingly, worship meetings were held in silence, unless some members of the meeting were “moved” or “inspired” to speak. No minister officiated.

By its nature, Quakerism is subversive of authority imposed from the outside, and although a prime tenet of Quakerism is nonviolence and supreme tolerance of all points of view, the religion was quickly perceived as a threat to the dominant order. Quakers were officially and unofficially persecuted. Some immigrated to America, settling in the Middle Atlantic region as well as North Carolina. An early enclave was established in Rhode Island.

The Quakers did have some powerful adherents, one of whom was William Penn, the brilliant young son of a prominent British admiral. On March 14, 1681, Penn obtained from King Charles II a charter granting him proprietorship of the area now encompassed by Pennsylvania. In 1682, Delaware was added to the charter. The region was occupied by some 15,000 Delaware, Shawnee, and Susquehanna Indians, as well as tribes associated with the Iroquois League. During the 17th century, it was claimed by Dutch, Swedish, and English interests. Penn landed at the site of present-day New Castle, Delaware, and performed “livery of seisin,” legally taking possession of his grant by pulling up a tuft of grassy turf in his hand. In 1682, he founded Philadelphia, a name Penn formed from two Greek words signifying “brotherly love.” The name expressed the intent of what Penn planned as a “holy experiment” of living in harmony.

Under Penn, “The Great Law of Pennsylvania” extended male suffrage to those who professed a belief in God and met modest property requirements; imprisonment for debt—one of the great scourges of life in England-was all but eliminated; and the death penalty, liberally applied in the Mother Country, was restricted to cases of treason and murder. In a combination of the best tradition of English common law and a dramatic foreshadow of the United States Bill of Rights, the Great Law specified that no person could be deprived of life, liberty, or “estate” (property) except by due, fair, and impartial trial before a jury of 12.

Georgia: Utopia and Prison. Founded on firm—though diverse—religious principles, Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were all expressions of hope, variations on a theme of desire for a better life. The origin of Georgia was even more frankly utopian.

In 1732, James Edward Oglethorpe, whose character combined military discipline (he was a general) with a passion for philanthropy, organized a group of 19 wealthy and progressive individuals into a corporation that secured a royal charter to colonize Georgia as the southernmost of Britain’s North American colonies. Oglethorpe’s bold plan was to create a colony as a haven for various Protestant dissenters, but, even more importantly, for the vast and ever-growing class of insolvent debtors who languished in British prisons and also for persons convicted of certain criminal offenses. Oglethorpe reasoned that the colony would give the debtors a fresh start and would reform and rehabilitate the criminals.

Selflessly, Oglethorpe and the other philanthropists agreed to act as trustees of the colony without taking profits for a period of 21 years. To promote a utopian way of life, Oglethorpe prohibited the sale of rum and outlawed slavery in the colony. He also set regulations limiting the size of individual land holdings in an effort to create equality. The first colonists who arrived with Oglethorpe in 1733 were placed on 55-acre farms, which they were forbidden to sell or transfer. But this arrangement, key to the project, was quickly abandoned. To begin with, few of the original 100 colonists were debtors or sufferers of religious persecution or even criminals ripe for rehabilitation. They were speculators looking for opportunity. They soon found ways of circumventing the 55-acre limit to land holding, and once large plantations were established, slavery followed. Georgia was now no different from England’s other southern colonies.

The Slaves of Virginia. The introduction of slaves into Georgia was the hardest blow to Oglethorpe’s dream, and he returned to England, disgusted with the entire enterprise. Like most other even modestly enlightened individuals, Oglethorpe regarded slavery as evil. Yet it persisted—even in a would-be utopia—and would persist until it tore a nation apart. just as Georgia was a latecomer into the British colonial fold, so it had adopted slavery late in the scheme of things. In 1619, just 12 years after Jamestown got its shaky start, Dutch traders imported African slaves at the behest of the Virginia tobacco farmers. The first 20 or so were landed at Jamestown and were not racially discriminated against, but were classed with white indentured servants brought from England under work contracts. Indeed, many years passed before African slaves were brought to the colonies in large numbers. At first, they were purchased primarily to replace indentured servants who had either escaped or had served out the term of their indentures.

As the plantations of the southern colonies, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, expanded, demand for slavery grew, as did commerce in slaves. The so-called “triangle trade” developed: Ships leaving England with trade goods landed on the African west coast, traded the merchandise for African slaves, transported this “cargo” via the “Middle Passage.” to the West Indies or the mainland English colonies, where the slaves were exchanged for the very agricultural products—sugar, tobacco, and rice—slave labor produced. The final leg of the triangle was back to England, laden with New World produce. Nor were the northern colonies untouched by the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Although a later generation of New Englanders would pride themselves on being fierce abolitionists, fighters for the freedom of the slaves, their forefathers had profited from the trade. New England ports became a regular stop for vessels about to return to Old England. The sugar and molasses acquired at southern ports was often unloaded here in order to manufacture rum, an important New England export.

The Least You Need to Know

The Pilgrims were Puritans who left England, settling first in Holland and then in New England (at Plymouth) in 1620. Separatists were somewhat less radical Puritans who settled there (at Massachusetts Bay) beginning in 1630.

 The other major English colonies were also established as havens for freedom of worship; Georgia was meant to be a utopia.

 Intolerance among the Puritans and slavery in the South marred the colonies’ ideal of liberty.

Main Event. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims invited their Native American benefactors to a feast in celebration of the first harvest, in which Indian aid had been so instrumental. The event was the first Thanksgiving (unless you count the collective prayer of thanksgiving offered on December 4, 1619, by members of the Berkeley plantation near present-day Charles City, Virginia). Our first president, George Washington, proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day, on November 26, 1789, but it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an annual holiday to be commemorated on the last Thursday in November. During 1939-41, by proclamation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the day was celebrated on the third Thursday in November, but then was returned by act of Congress to the date set by Lincoln.

Main Event. In February 1692, two daughters of the Reverend Samuel Parris and le of their friends are diagnosed by a Salem, Massachusetts, physician as victims of witchcraft. Under questioning, the girls accuse certain women of being witches. The town magistrates proceed against the accused on February 29 not of the year, accusations multiply: 140 are accused, 107 of them women. The royal governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips, establishes a special court to try more than 70 of the cases. Of 26 individuals convicted, 19 are executed.

The Salem witchcraft epidemic, though extreme, was hardly unique. Witches had been tried before 1692 in Massachusetts as well as Connecticut and, even more frequently, throughout Europe. Who stood accused in all of these places? “Witches” were usually poor, elderly women (sometimes men) who quarreled with their neighbors and were generally disruptive, disagreeable social misfits.


Word for the Day. Pennsylvania, which means “Penn’s Woods,” was named by King Charles II not after the colony’s founder and proprietor, but in honor of Penn’s father, also named William, a great British admiral.


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