Colonial Culture Before the American Revolution
The Great Awakening and Religious Change
The Impact of Education
When discussing causes of the American Revolution, most historians cite growing taxation, lack of representation in the national government, attempts by the King and Parliament to curb the power of colonial legislatures, and restrictions on trade as some of the primary causes. Often ignored as a cause are the changes in American colonial society that occurred in the decades before the revolution. Americans began to develop a cultural identity separate from that of Great Britain. Attitudes toward religion underwent sweeping modifications as a result of the Great Awakening. Landed aristocracy was unable to dominate society in the same way that it did in England. Education became more prevalent. New ideas concerning the nature and rights of people were debated and gradually accepted. All of these factors played a part in propelling Americans toward independence.
II. The Great Awakening and Religious Change
The Great Awakening was a revival of religious fundamentals and reinforced religion as a central aspect of life. America was a haven for religious dissenters and several colonies were dominated by religious factions. In New England, the Puritans held sway. Pennsylvania was controlled by the Quakers. The South was the province of Anglicans and Episcopalians, who looked to the Church of England for guidance. The Great Awakening began in America in the 1730’s in the Presbyterian churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Reverend William Tennent and his sons started holding evangelical revivals throughout the colonies and established a seminary to train new clergymen. Religious fervor spread through New England and some clergymen even left established churches such as the Baptists and Puritans to preach the new message. Sermons were characterized by enthusiasm, power, and vivid images of punishments in hell. They were also delivered extemporaneously and theatrically. Missionaries carried the new evangelism to the South during the 1740’s and 1750’s. This movement appealed to people of humbler means because it deemphasized the achievement of material wealth and made it irrelevant to salvation. The evangelistic movement also disputed the belief that social “betters,” such as landed gentry and government officials were entitled to respect on the basis of status. Evangelism preached the equality of men in God’s eyes, while emphasizing traditional values (Heyrman, ” The First Great Awakening”; Parkes 127-130).
Other religious changes were also taking place in the colonies. In New England, the dominance of the Puritans was being challenged by other sects and people with more liberal religious views. The population of Puritans was decreasing while the numbers of other groups were increasing. In the Middle Colonies the Quakers were also losing their power from an influx of immigrants and changes in attitudes among members. The Quaker philosophy denounced violence. But the reality of threats from Indians and French invaders made some Quakers modify their stance. Benjamin Franklin relates in The Autobiography that during the French and Indian War that the Governor of Pennsylvania asked the Quaker dominated Assembly to provide military supplies to New England (126-127). They voted funds for grain instead. But, as the Assembly knew he would, the Governor used the money for gunpowder, which is measured in grains. The Quakers provided military assistance while technically maintaining the illusion of following their philosophy. Franklin also states that a group of Quakers was ready to break ranks with their leaders, if necessary, to vote in favor of his fire company erecting a gun battery for defense (124-125). In the South, attitudes toward established religion were changing, too. Virginia required all citizens to support the Anglican Church financially. But people grew resentful of this obligation as fewer people were actually Anglican. Anglican clergy were often also viewed as lazy (Heyrman, “Religion and the American Revolution”; Langguth 38-51).
What impact did colonial society’s changing religious views have on the American Revolution? Questions about religion in light of the Great Awakening caused people to examine and challenge their most basic beliefs. It also forced them to make, in many cases, life changing decisions. Previously, colonial society was often based on obedience to religious authorities, landed gentry, and political leaders. New religious sentiments undermined this obedience. Whereas before colonists didn’t challenge authority and gave the upper class respect as a right of birth, they now challenged that authority and disputed that political leaders and the social elite were deserving of automatic respect. This made it much easier for them to later challenge, and ultimately reject, the authority of the King and the Parliament. Self-determination became a part of the cultural mix in the American colonies. In addition, proponents of independence began to use evangelical oratory and written prose techniques to spread their message, a format that colonial society was now receptive to. Particularly notable is Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in 1776 and delivered in the style of a sermon with references to Old Testament Events (Parks 138-143; Heyrman, “Religion”).
III. The Impact of Education
In the decades leasing up to the American Revolution, colonial society was becoming more educated. Some colonies passed compulsory education laws, and literacy increased enormously. As the struggles to get the colonies established ended, and cities started to grow, more and more people had time to read and debate issues. The number of printers in the colonies increased during this time, leading to the publication of more books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Libraries also began to flourish. All of this was occurring as the Age of Enlightenment began having an impact on the colonies. Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society to encourage the debate and development of new ideas, and the writings of Locke and Rousseau were read and discussed by many. Literacy rates were high in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. A Dupont de Nemours survey conducted after the revolution found that only four people in one-thousand were unable to read and write. Franklin noted that libraries alone had ” improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges” (Peterson). Before 1721 there had been no public libraries in the colonies. Literacy and education gave colonial Americans access to information at a time when new ideas were challenging the established order. Such a change in colonial society gave the American colonies a distinctly different cultural identity and had to have had an impact on the acceptance of and participation in the movement towards independence (Peterson; Franklin 82-91).
Newspapers also became more prevalent and widespread in American society in the decades before the revolution. A general postal system was established in the colonies in 1753, making it easier to disseminate information. Newspaper publishers were also often postmasters, so they were able to send newspapers to other areas free of charge. Although, newspapers had been published in the colonies for some time, they started to take off at about that time as Americans became more literate. Colonial activists, such as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams used newspapers to spread their messages, making the newspaper a powerful too in the drive for independence (Canada).
Education and new attitudes from religious reformation made it more difficult for an upper class to dominate lower class people, as they did in Great Britain. There, land was often held in the hands of a few who also controlled political affairs. In the colonies, however, it was different. As people became more educated and wished to control their own affairs, it became easy to escape the domination of the upper class. All they had to do was move to the frontier, where there was new land and opportunity. This is what people were doing. Men, such as Daniel Boone, in 1769, were opening up new settlements in frontier areas like Kentucky to escape the reach of the upper class and British domination (Parkes 158). These people lived a different life than those in the cities and almost universally supported the movement for independence. Their attitudes had been molded to some degree by the Great Awakening and their ability to read and understand the new ideas being discussed in colonial America.
In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, American colonial culture began to develop a unique identity as a result of such events as the Great Awakening, the decline of the influence of the original religious establishments, the rise in education and literacy, the Age of Enlightenment, an increase in leisure time for some, and the rise of newspapers. This cultural change was an important factor in the drive for independence. Certainly, dissatisfaction with British administration of the colonies, restrictions on trade, and increased taxation have to be considered the primary causes of the American Revolution. But without the important changes in culture that occurred in the decades before the revolution, those who espoused independence probably wouldn’t have found a receptive audience. The new willingness among Americans to challenge authority and previously held beliefs provided the first revolutionaries with fertile ground for their new ideas.
Canada, Mark. “Journalism.” Colonial America: 1607-1783. n.d. 25 February 2003 http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/16071783/news/.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. L. Jessie Lemisch.
New York: Nal Penguin, Inc., 1961.
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “The First Great Awakening.” October 2000. National
Humanities Center. 25 February 2003 http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/grawaken.htm
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Religion and the American Revolution.” October 2000.
National Humanities Center. 25 February 2003 http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/erelrev.htm
Langguth, A.J. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Parkes, Henry Bamford. The United States of America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Peterson, Roberts A. “Education in Colonial America.” The Freeman. Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. September 1983, Vol. 33, No 9. 25 February 2003. www.libertyhaven.com/politicsandcurrentevents/educationhomeschoolingorchildren/colonialamerica.shtml http://www.libertyhaven.com/politicsandcurrentevents/educationhomeschoolingorchildren/colonialamerica.shtml.
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