As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.
History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Today we leave our first unit of study - Intrusions into an Old World and the Beginnings of a "New World" - during which we learned about why Europeans settled in north America, the colonial patterns of settlement in the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies, the Indian nations removed from the areas of Euro-American settlement, and the conditions under which Africans were kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery in the "New World."
The second unit of study in our story - Foundations of a New Nation and Experiments with Freedom - begins with an understanding of how the North America colonists gradually begin to think of themselves as different from and eventually as independent from their colonial rulers in England. This unit, then, shapes the story of how and why the colonists decided to proclaim their independence, entered into and won a war with England, and began a new nation.
Our first discussion in this new unit focuses on colonial discontent - the rising awareness of the colonists that only a few among them were becoming very wealthy while the majority were not getting what they believed was their share of colonial wealth.
Discussion Goals: Colonial Discontent
- To get a glimpse of life in the colonies in 1775, the year before the colonists claimed their independence from Britain.
- To discuss wealth distribution in colonial America.
- To discuss the changes in colonial society in the 18th century.
- To examine the changing economic characteristics in 18th century colonial America.
- To demonstrate how such changes, combined with the growing divisions
among the colonists and between the colonies, led to a great deal of discontent
- To illustrate that despite such discontent and disunity,
the colonists were able to unite under the banner of several
shared characteristics and beliefs in order to defeat the British.
- To understand contemporary wealth distribution in America and compare it with wealth distribution in colonial America.
Goal #1: To get a glimpse of life in the colonies in 1775, the year before the colonists claimed their independence from Britain
The average child had a 50% chance of surviving to adulthood.
Slavery was legal and protected in all 13 colonies.
All cooking was done in or around the fireplace.
Women could not vote, hold public office, and in most colonies, could not own property unless they were widowed.
Travel was slow, unsafe, and uncertain. By water, ships relied upon the wind for locomotion; by land, a rider on horseback might cover
30 miles a day while a passenger in coach might cover 20 miles a day.
The sole source of heat, aside from sunlight, was fire, usually in an open fireplace. After sunset, illumination was either by moonlight or candlelight.
There was no indoor plumbing. Chamber pots, outhouses, and buckets were a way of life.
Privacy was a rare privilege for all but the wealthy. People, including children at home and strangers in inns, routinely shared beds.
Almost everybody was a farmer, with the exception of a small minority of city dwellers.
There was no anesthesia for surgery or childbirth.
Every household produced some, and in many cases all, of the food, soap, candles, and clothing required for daily living.
The medieval notion of the four humors dominated medical theory. Good health required bloodletting and purging which restored the balance of black and yellow bile, blood, and phlegm.
Goal #2: To discuss wealth distribution in colonial 18th century America
How was wealth measured in colonial America? By land ownership! And who were these colonists who owned land just prior to the American Revolution?
About 30% of the colonists were free, white men and about 50% of these Euro-American men owned land. However, only a small percentage of those men owning land owned a great deal of land - land that provided them with large profits.
- About 20% of all the colonists were slaves and about 50% were indentured servants. And a quick review of indentured servants is helpful here. While in your book, Voices of a People's History, you read two documents about how bad it was for indentured servants and Zinn explains that it was a difficult life for many, the majority of people who were indentured ended up with some land and a life of some upward mobility.
How was wealth distributed in colonial America. We only have a few cities with statistics, Boston being one of these.
- Of a population of 6,000 people, about 1,000 or 1/6 owned property.
- Of these, about 50 people, or 1% of the population, owned 25% of all the wealth in Boston.
- Of the white adult males, 14% were extremely poor, had no property, and could not vote.
- In Boston, 1770...
- Of the top 1% of the population, 44% owned all the city's wealth.
- Of the white adult males, 29% were extremely poor, had no property, and could not vote.
This graph demonstrates that throughout much of the colonial period:
- In 1690, the wealthiest 10% of all the colonists owned about 47% of all the wealth; by 1775, they owned about 65% of all the wealth.
- In 1690, the next 30% owned between 37% of all the wealth; by 1775, they owned 28% of all the wealth.
- In 1690, the poorest 60% owned between 16% of all the wealth; by 1775, they owned 7% of all the wealth.
In short, for the top 10%, the percentage of wealth steadily increased throughout the colonial period while for the remaining 90% of the colonists, the percentage of wealth steadily decreased.
We can see this trend more clearly with these comparison statistics from Boston, Philadelphia, and Chester County, Pennsylvania.
So, if the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer in colonial North America, we can see that colonial society was quite unequal. In fact, the term equality - which the colonists began to liberally use during the pre-revolutionary period - had a very different meaning in the 1700s.
- Equality meant that no man held greater rights by birth than any other man.
- Equality meant eliminating the British practice of hereditary privilege - especially the extraordinary privilege granted to members of the House of Lords (who until 1911 could any veto legislation from the House of Commons).
- Thus, as we have already learned, the colonists did not believe that all men were truly equal. What they really believed is that all men were created equal and should have an equal opportunity to earn social privilege. The belief that all men were truly equal under the law did not become part of the American experiment until the 14th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War.
Goal #3: To discuss the changes in colonial society in the 18th century
Throughout the 18th Century, the colonies were becoming more diverse as their populations expanded. In fact, the population doubled every generation, largely because of high fertility, increased immigration, and lower mortality rates:
- in 1700, population was approximately 290,000;
- in 1750 = 1.3 million;
- in 1780 = 2.7 million.
It is important to remember that the colonies remained primarily English; thus, most of the colonists continued to think of themselves as Englishmen and women - as subjects of the British Empire. This began to change in the early 1800s. after North Americans won their freedom from England and when more immigrants were non-English - primarily German and Scots-Irish.
Except for large parts of Virginia and South Carolina, the colonial population was primarily white, European, and Protestant.
Most Indians had been pushed into areas of non-white settlement. Only a few Jews and Catholics arrived during this period. (To see a great timeline of the history of religion in America from colonial times to the present, go to http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/religion/blrel_amrel_chron.htm
By 1790 during the first Federal Census, less than half of Americans were English in origin; approximately 20% were African; 15% were Scot or Irish; 7% were German; and the remainder were of other ethnic backgrounds.
Goal #4: To examine the changing economic characteristics in 18th century colonial America
1. Economic growth dramatically increased, giving British colonists
a higher standard of living than their European counterparts. In
general, colonists engaged in four types of work:
2. Capitalist enterprise grew, diversified, and became more specialized,
leading to the growth of three colonial capitalist classes:
Agriculture -the primary way to earn a living: plantation agriculture based
upon commercial single-crop commodities; commercial farming on smaller
farms raising crops for sale; and self-sufficient family farming growing
diversified crops for familial needs and using any surplus to pay taxes
and buy necessary goods.
Crafts - blacksmiths, coopers, weavers, carpenters, shipwrights worked
part time as part of their household trade, or full time as a master craftsman
Mercantilism - buying and selling of goods for profit
Service provision - hair cuts, markets, butchers, etc.
3. Land purchase and allotment became more speculative and profit-motivated.
From the 1700s forward, land in all the colonies was increasingly sold
for profit and speculation rather than small settlement. By 1720,
so much land had been taken up by speculation in all colonies that a poor
man who did not have money was forced to "squat" on Crown or proprietary
land and repeat the process if he were forced to move on.
Rural capitalists - southern planters and speculators who invested
in more land, slaves, buildings, lands, tools, seeds.
Merchant capitalists - traders and sellers of goods and services
who invested in commercial enterprises.
Wage earning capitalists - wage earners in various professions and
industries who invested in industrial stock or various enterprises.
In New England, the colonial legislatures granted six-mile-square townships
beyond the settled frontier to groups of veterans of earlier colonial wars.
In turn, the veterans sold their shares to small groups of proprietors
who then granted some lots to a select number of pioneers and sold the
remaining land for profit
In the Middle and Southern Colonies, proprietors or assemblies sold small
lots of land, or gave huge amounts of acreage to colonial land speculators
who promised to bring settlers.
Goal #5: To demonstrate how such changes, combined with the growing divisions
among the colonists and between the colonies, led to a great deal of discontent and divisiveness.
Discontent and division among the colonists and between the colonies was common by the mid-1700s. The colonists had never been a homogeneous lot of people who looked, thought, acted, worshiped, or worked alike. There were differences and divisions among them from the very beginning.
- Many of the colonists were divided among themselves. Many were an intolerant and litigious lot
- The colonies were also divided - geographically, socially, and even politically.
- Political Divisions.
None of the colonies were democratically ruled; just over half of all white colonial men could vote.
While this number was much higher than their European contemporaries, almost half of all white men, all non-white men and all women could not vote. Thus, a minority of the population was eligible to vote.
Further, democracy was not something that most colonial leaders sought. To them, the word usually implied mob rule and the overthrow of the natural political order.
- Societal Divisons. By the 1700s, five distinct societies had emerged: colonial farming societies, urban seaport societies, frontier societies, plantation/slave societies, and Native American societies.
- Colonial Farming Societies. The vast majority of New
Englanders, as well as many inhabitants of the middle colonies and most
farmers in the southern colonies still lived on small, family run and self-reliant
- Urban Seaport Societies. Cities like Boston, New York,
Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston became major urban seaports and commercial
centers populated by rich and poor alike.
- In the 1700s, such cities were small and densely settled places characterized
by congestion, ethnic and cultural diversity, high rates of poverty, and
the many dangers of disease, fire, protest and riots.
- Wealthy merchants and traders became economically and politically powerful,
and the pathway to their profession was upwardly mobile
- Frontier Societies. As the next generation of colonists
moved westward to find new, fertile land, they encountered plentiful acreage
at cheap prices. Frontier families lived with the bare necessities
acquired through subsistence farming, created a widely dispersed society
of equals, and were subjected to a disorganized existence without organized
law and order, community institutions, or organized churches. Thus,
frontier communities became volatile and violent places where deep divisions
festered between its residents and those of the eastern seaboard.
- Ethnic Divisions - east tended to be English while frontier population
was increasingly "foreign" - German, Scot-Irish, etc.
- Economic Divisions - east tended to be small self-sufficient farmers or
commercial farmers with greater security; frontier dramatically subsistence
with little security.
- Political Grievances of frontier farmers against eastern seaboard:
inadequate protection of settlers; unequal political representation of
settlers in assembles; failure of east to provide courts for frontier;
and disputed colonial boundaries.
- Plantation/Slave Societies. No colonial environment
was so deeply unequal and violent as those of the southern plantations.
It was a world of free and slave, rich and poor - a world in which upward
mobility was difficult if not impossible - and a world that was uniquely
- Native American Societies. Throughout the colonial period,
the white settlers systematically excluded Native Americans from their
society and dispossessed them of their lands. Indian peoples
continued long-term population decline. Estimates show that in 1500,
about 10 million Indians lived in North America; about 1 million
remained by 1800. Native tribes with a century or more of colonial
contact most dramatically affected in 18th century with decreases of 50%
or more. Indian societies of the eastern coastal plain moved into
or beyond the Appalachian Mountains. As tribes were dispossessed,
survivors moved west. Societies of the interior, however, had not
yet been dramatically affected.
Goal #6: To illustrate that despite such discontent and disunity, the colonists were able to unite under the banner of several shared characteristics and beliefs in order to defeat the British
Common beliefs of the majority of the population:
White social, political, and economic supremacy over nonwhites.
Sanctity of private property. Regardless of economic status, colonists
believed property was the source of life and liberty - and to take
it way meant the loss of liberty.
Trial by jury was a fundamental liberty.
A standing army was dangerous because it could use its power to control
citizens and undermine their liberties.
There could be no taxation without actual representation.
- Actual representation - citizens elected their constituents who were, in
turn, directly responsible to such constituents.
- Virtual representation - the type of representation used in the colonies
- was based upon the belief that even though colonists did not directly
elect members of Parliament, each MP virtually represented the interests
of all the people in the empire, not just those of their constituency.
According to revisionist historians, such characteristics and beliefs temporarily bound many colonists together.
They argue that many colonists temporarily united largely because of their desire to destroy a common enemy - not because they
were a united people. And who were those who did not choose to join the cause of independence - the
substantial minority who did not join the War effort but remained Loyalists?
- Almost one-third of the entire population remained opposed or neutral
to the Revolution throughout the struggle.
- At least two classes of people had more to gain by remaining loyal through
the revolution - the large landowning proprietors who had been given their
land by the King (like the Penns); and the merchants who had much to gain
by trade with England - and much to lose by breaking with England.
- Loyalists existed in every class - people who worshiped the King and respected
their membership in the British Empire, backwoodsmen (like the North Carolina
Regulators) who had been ill-served by colonial governors; blacks who felt
they had a better chance for freedom under British rule.
- Out of a colonial population of 2,500,000, at least 100,000 left the nation
for either Canada or Europe - or 4% of the total population.
- Despite their numbers and their loyalty to the King, they were not a unified
lot - and of course, the Patriots were. Thus, their loyalty was ineffective.
Goal #7: To understand contemporary wealth distribution in America and compare it with wealth distribution in colonial America
You should have all gained an understanding of the contemporary income inequality in the U.S. after watching Inequality for All and listening to the podcast "Upward Mobility". Now, let's look at this map derived from CIA statistics that illustrates how our wealth distribution compares with other nations:
Blue countries are more equal than the U.S., red countries are less equal. The above map gives you a sense of just how severe economic inequality is in the United States; much higher than in any other developed country, and most developing countries as well.
- As the map indicates income inequality is more severe in the U.S. than it is in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. We're on par with some of the world's most troubled countries, and not far from the perpetual conflict zones of Latin American and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- As the documentary Inequality for All declares:
- In 2012, the U.S had the most unequal distribution of income of all "developed" nations - ranking 64th in the world on income inequality (i.e., 63 nations are more equal than the U.S.)
- The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
- The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; in 1978, the typical male worker earned $48,302 and the top 1% earned an average of $393,682; in 2010, that worker earned $33,751 and the top 1% an average of $1,101,089.
- In the U.S., 42% of children who are born into poverty will not get out; in Denmark, the figure is 25% and in Great Britain it is 30%.
- And as the podcast told us, the United States is no longer the most upwardly mobile society in the world today and upward mobility in the U.S. today can largely be determined by the region of the nation in which you live. Further, the study upon which the podcast was based, found that
- Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families.
- Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries.
The following summarizes and provides excerpts from the findings of Sociologist Dr. William Dumhoff at UC Santa Cruz in his website Who Rules America at http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html:
As this table indicates, in the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2010, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5%
In short, just 20% of the people owned a 89% of all privately owned wealth, leaving only 11% of the wealth for the bottom 80% of wage and salary workers.
In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.1%.
According to Dr. Dumhoff, "In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one percent of households have 35% of all privately held stock, 64.4% of financial securities, and 62.4% of business equity. The top ten percent have 81% to 94% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and almost 80% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America."
Was this trend typical of most of the 20th Century?
- As can be seen in the table below, the wealth distribution was fairly stable over the course of the 20th century, although we see substantial gains for the top 1% in 1929 (right before the stockmarket crash) and a gradual increase in gains beginning in the 1980s under the Reagan Presidency. The only time we see gains for the bottom 99% were during the Great Depression, after World War II, and during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Presidencies.
- By the late 1980s, wealth distribution was almost as concentrated as it had been in 1929, when the top 1% had 44.2% of all wealth.
- It has continued to edge up since that time, with a slight decline from 1998 to 2001, before the economy crashed in the late 2000s.
And who have been the wealthiest men in U.S. history? As the New York Times survey indicates, John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) - the wealthiest American to ever live - was an oil
tycoon worth $900 million when he died - a sum worth $192 billion in 2010.
He is followed by Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) who was a shipping and railroads
tycoon worth $105 million when he died - a sum worth $143 billion in 2010;
John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) who was a fur trade and real estate
tycoon worth $20 million when he died - a sum worth $116 billion in 2010.
Stephen Girard (1750-1831) who was a shipping and banking entrepreneur when a died - a sum worth $83 billion in 2010.
And "poor" old Bill Gates (1955-?) who is a computer software tycoon worth $61.7 billion in 1998 - a sum worth $82 billion in 2010 - comes in at 5th on the list.
- How would you describe the trends in wealth distribution over the last 350 years?
- Knowing how the early Protestant colonists' felt about equality - especially those with a Calvinist background - do you think they would be comfortable with this trend?
- Knowing how the Founding Fathers thought about equality, do you think they would be comfortable with this trend?
- How do most Americans feel about this trend today?
- Colonial Discontent
- Colonial society was quite unequal in terms of our modern understanding of equality.
- The term equality - which the colonists began to liberally use during the revolutionary period - had a very different meaning in the 1700s.
Equality meant that no man held greater rights by birth than any other man. When the colonists called for equality, they meant to undue to British practice of hereditary privilege.
What they really believed is that all men were created equal and should have an equal opportunity to earn social privilege.
- Americans have always witnessed deep divisions in wealth distribution.
Figures from the colonial cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York
indicate that at the end of the 17th Century, the top ten percent of wealthiest
citizens owned about 46% of all the wealth in all three cities. By
the end of the 18th Century in Boston and Philadelphia, the top ten percent
owned 63.4% and 65.7% of all the wealth respectively, while in New York,
the top ten percent owned about 3% less wealth than it had in the previous
- The nature of colonial America's society, population, and economy gradually changed throughout the 1700s. Such changes brought about social, economic, and political divisions among the colonists and between the colonies.
- Given the extraordinarily diverse makeup of American society and and the growing divisions among many colonists and between the colonies, it is amazing that by the mid-17th century, many English colonists were able to unite to declare independence and create a new nation.
- Yet, despite their divisions, the colonists shared enough common beliefs and traits to overcome their disagreements and fight the British.
- Throughout most of the 18th Century, the colonists continued to think
of themselves as Englishmen and women, or subjects of the British Empire.
Only when they stopped thinking of themselves as English and began thinking
of themselves as distinctly American - with political, economic, and social
goals and needs that were different from those of the English - did a significant
number of colonial leaders seek permanent political independence from England.