During the seventeenth century

During the seventeenth century, the social and economic pressures within England that generated the Chesapeake colonies also spawned the colonization of a region to the north named New England. But the New English colonists differed markedly from their Chesapeake contemporaries. Where most Chesapeake settlers were poor and short-lived indentured servants, New England attracted primarily “middling sorts” who preserved their freedom because they could pay their own way across the Atlantic. And most of the New English espoused a more demanding faith than the Anglicanism practiced in the Chesapeake. Known as Puritans, they meant to purify the Protestant faith, in England if possible, in a New End-land if necessary. This separate set of colonists adapted to a colder, less abundant, but far healthier environment. A northern and hilly land of dense forests, sharp slopes, stony soils, and a short growing season, New England demanded hard labor to make a farm and offered little prospect of getting rich. A critic insisted that in New England, “the air of the country is sharp, the rocks many, the trees innumerable, the grass little, the winter cold, the summer hot, the gnats in summer biting, and the wolves at midnight howling.” But in classic Puritan fashion, the New English thanked their God for leading them to a land where they had to work hard. One explained:
If men desire to have a people degenerate speedily, and to corrupt their minds and bodies too … let them seeecake a rich soil, that brings in much with little labor; but if they desire that Piety and Godliness should prosper … let them choose a Country such as New England which may yield sufficiency with hard labor and industry.
Emigrants who preferred a chance to get rich could head farther south to the Chesapeake. Puritan values helped the colonists prosper in a demanding land. In the process, they developed a culture that was both the most entrepreneurial and the most vociferously pious in Anglo-America. Contrary to the declension model promoted by some historians, the increasing commercialism of New England life at the end of the seventeenth century derived from Puritan values rather than manifested their decay. As Max Weber later noted, the Puritans worked with a special zeal to honor their God and to seek rewards that offered reassurance that God approved of their efforts. New England farms, workshops, counting houses, and gristmills – as Well as churches and schools – constituted the Puritans’ effort to glorify God. In crowded England, labor was plentiful and cheap, but land was scarce and expensive. New England reversed that relationship, offering abundant land but precious little labor to develop those tracts into productive farms. Where England provided too little employment for too many people, the New England colonies had too much work for too few colonists. Most New England farmers had to rely on their own families for the labor to build their especially demanding farms. That reliance on family labor kept New England more egalitarian in the distribution of property and power than was the case in the richer Chesapeake, where an elite of great planters exploited the labor of servants and slaves. The New England colonies granted lands to men who banded together as a corporate group to find a town. This town system contrasted with the Chesapeake colonies, where the leaders allocated land directly to individuals and usually in large tracts to the wealthy and well-connected. The Chesapeake practice dispersed settlement, which rendered it more difficult to sustain schools and churches and to repel Indian attacks. New English leaders favored relatively compact settlement in towns to concentrate people sufficiently for defense, to support public schools, to promote mutual supervision of morality, and, above all, to sustain a convenient and well-attended local church. The colonial legislature defined the town boundaries but left to each town corporation the allocation of land for household farms and the location of a village center with church and school. More than simply a tract of land, the town was also a local government, fundamental to New England politics – in contrast to the Chesapeake colonies, which relied on the larger county. Gathered in town meeting, the male property holders elected their local officials, principally a board of selectmen. Favoring a gradual and modest distribution of land, the town founders initially awarded each household only ten to fifty acres (depending upon social status). Eventually, however, most seventeenth-century families acquired between one hundred and two hundred acres of farmland. Although about half the size of most Chesapeake plantations, the average New England farm was significantly larger than most landholdings in England, where few farmers owned so many as fifty acres and where over half the men possessed no land. And in New England almost all farmers enjoyed complete ownership, known as a freehold, in contrast to the leaseholds that prevailed in England. Freehold lands offered security from the rising rents charged by English landlords or Chesapeake great planters. The New English also avoided paying the quitrents charged by the lords proprietor or the crown in more southern colonies. A Puritan emigrant to New Jersey “swore – godsons, he would have nothing to do with land as payed quitrents, for they paid none in New England.” To make farms, the colonists had to cut clearings in the forest, chop firewood, erect fences, build barns and houses, plow and plant fields, harvest crops, and construct mills – all from scratch by hand labor. This work was more demanding in cold and rocky New England than in the flatter, warmer, and fertile Chesapeake. And while demanding more labor to build, the New England farm generated smaller profits than the Chesapeake plantation. The shorter growing season and rougher land precluded the cultivation of the colonial staples in greatest European demand, tobacco and sugar. Instead, the New English farmers raised a northern medley of small crops – wheat, rye, maize, potatoes, beans, and garden plants. None could be profitably shipped for sale in England, where a similar climate permitted the same crops. The New England farm family also tended a modest but critical herd of livestock – com two only two oxen, five other cattle, a horse, two sheep, and six pigs. Because livestock needed more land than grains, the New England farm had large pastures and hayfields but relatively small fields of grain. The farm families consumed most of their own crops and butchered animals or traded them for the goods and services of local artisans, principally carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. New England’s diversified farms were less prone to disruption by the boom-and-bust price cycle than were the southern plantations specializing in a staple crop for an external market. Unable to afford servants or slaves, the New English instead relied upon the family labor of their sons and daughters. A seventeenth-century Englishman reported, “Virginia thrives by keeping many servants, and these in strict obedience. New England conceives that they and their Children can do enough, and so they have rarely above one Servant.” The healthy climate and good diet enabled parents to raise six or seven children to maturity. By age ten, boys worked with their fathers in the fields and barn, while daughters assisted their mothers in the house and garden. Most sons remained unmarried and working on the paternal farm until their middle or late twenties, retained by the prospect that their father could eventually provide each with a farm from the family rights in the town lands. Diligent and realistic, most New England families sight an “independent competency.” “Independence” meant owning enough property – a farm or a shop – to employ a family, without having to work for someone else as a hired hand or servant. A “competency” meant a sufficiency, but not an abundance, of worldly goods: enough to eat, adequate if simple clothing, a roof over their heads, some consumer goods, and an ability to transmit this standard of living to many children. Although nor land of riches, New England provided many independent farms and a secure household competency to hard and persistent labor. Edward Johnson of Massachusetts noted that even “the poorest person … hath a house and land of his own, and bread of his own growing, if not some cattle.” Puritans regarded such a broad-based prosperity as more compatible with a godly life than the extremes of wealth and poverty found in England, the Chesapeake, and the West Indies. The puritan minister John White observed, “Nothing sorts better with Piety than Competency.” Compared with those in the Chesapeake or West Indies, social gradations were subtle among the New English, who overwhelmingly belonged to the middling sort. Their modest and diversified farms produce less wealth than did the staple plantations of the Chesapeake and the West Indies, but the New England economy distributed its rewards more equitably among many farmers and tradesmen. In New English country towns the leading men were substantial farmers, who worked with their hands on properties only two or three times larger than the local average. And the leading rural men possessed few if any imported servants or slaves. The largest seaports Boston, Salem, and Newport – did host a wealthy elite of merchants, lawyers, and land speculators. But they enjoyed less collective power than did the great planters in the Chesapeake and West Indies, because the New England system of many nearly autonomous towns dispersed political power in the countryside. Because New England had the most decentralized and popularly responsive form of government in the English empire, royalists despised the region as a hotbed of “republicanism