A Vast Experiment

Early America was a different world. There was a lot more going on back then than typically makes it into history textbooks and popular historical accounts. It was a world or rather set of worlds that was in a constant state of turmoil and conflict. Wars, rebellions, riots, and other fights for power were regular events.

The diversity both within, between, and at the edge of the imperial territories was immense. This diversity was racial, ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic. The vast tracts of land, populated to varying degrees, were controlled by various empires and tribes. Several different countries had colonies in the Mid-Atlantic region of New York, New Jersey, etc—a key region fought over in the seeking to control the Eastern seaboard. Of course, there was the French and Spanish settlers all over the place—in Canada, the Ohio Valley, Florida, New Orleans, Southwest, and West Coast. Even the Russians had colonized or otherwise claimed large areas of North America, from Alaska down to Northern California.

Many Native Americans had adopted some of the culture from or developed particular kinds of relationships with these other Europeans (and they influenced European culture in return). William Penn was able to have peaceful relationships with the tribes in the region because he was building off of the trust the French traders had developed. But Penn deserves much credit, as he was a tolerant guy. Even though he was English, he welcomed people from all over into his colony, which led Germans to be the majority in Pennsylvania. Places like South Carolina also had a non-British majority, which in this case was black majority that lasted until after the Civil War.

African-Americans, it could be easily argued, had more freedom before the American Revolution than immediately after it, more freedom before the Civil War than with the ending of Reconstruction. It wasn’t a continuous increase of benefit and opportunity for all involved—far from it. Race and gender identities were more fluid prior to the Revolution. There was a surprising amount of tolerance or simply gray area. It took the American Revolution to more clearly begin the process of demarcation of social roles and the racial hierarchy, which then was further solidified a century later during Jim Crow. In particular, the American Revolution had the sad result of effectively shutting down the growing abolition movement, until it was forced back to mainstream concern with the events that led to the Civil War. It turns out that African-Americans who fought for the British were the greatest defenders of liberty, as they had the most at stake.

Plus, in early America, there was less government control. Individuals and communities were to varying degrees left to their own devices. This was particular true in distant rural areas and even more true at and beyond the frontier. The colonies and later the states weren’t isolated from the other societies on the continent (imperial, native, and creole). Mixing was fairly typical and being multilingual was a necessity for many.

A significant number of Native American tribes retained independence for most of American history. Large scale federal oppression and genocide of natives didn’t begin until the major Indian Wars following the Civil War. The last free Native Americans weren’t fully suppressed, either killed or forced onto reservations, until the first half of the twentieth century. In the century or two before that, there was no certainty that the European immigrants and their descendants would rule most of the continent. If a few key battles had been won by the other side, history would have gone in entirely different directions. Native Americans and other independent societies didn’t give up freedom without a fight. It is easy to imagine Native Americans having combined forces to develop their own nation, and in fact that is precisely what some visionary leaders tried to do.

Even for white women and men, there was in many ways more freedom in early America. There was often a live-and-let-live attitude, as people were maybe more focused on basic issues of daily living and survival. Local issues and personal relationships were often more determinant on how people were treated, not large-scale societal norms and laws. There was also a growing movement, during the late colonial era, for rights of women, the poor, and the landless. This included a push toward universal suffrage or at least closer toward it. During the American Revolution, women in some places had won the right to vote, only to have it be taken away again after the oppressive patriarchs regained control.

Early America included immense diversity: racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, etc. This is on top of the diversity of gender, marriage, and family life. This was at a time when social norms hadn’t fully been set. Such things as the independent nuclear family was first established among Quakers. Also, premarital sex was typical, many marriages following after pregnancy, but some people simply lived in sin. Single parents and ‘bastards’ were common.

Enforcement of social order was relatively minimal and mostly remained a responsibility of neighbors and communities. There were no prisons and police forces until after the American Revolution. Also, the promotion of family values as part of religious morality and patriotic duty didn’t fully take root until this later era, when the ideal of making good citizens became more central. Prior to that, the focus was on communities and they often were loose associations. Many people lived far apart. Churches and established congregations were fairly rare. Most Americans didn’t attend church regularly and one’s religion was largely a personal and private issue, except in certain urban areas where people were highly concentrated, especially where the local ruling elite demanded and had the power to enforce religious conformity.

It’s not that there weren’t punishments for transgressions. But it just wasn’t systematic and fully institutionalized. People tended to take care of their own problems and so it depended on how a local population perceived behavior, dependent on personal and communal experience. People living near each other were often times close relations, such as kin and long time friends, and they were highly dependent on one another. These people were more forgiving and tolerant in certain ways, even as vigilante justice could lead them to be cruel at other times, especially toward perceived outsiders.

A more general point is that early America was a time of nearly constant change. The world often dramatically shifted from one generation to the next. Social order and social norms were in constant flux. Along with the autonomy of relatively isolated lives, this led to a certain kind of freedom in how people lived and organized their communities. This is what attracted so many religious and political dissenters and hence much radical politics leading to regular challenges to power and the status quo, including riots and rebellions, along with peaceful protests and petitions.

It was a highly unstable society, even ignoring the constant fighting with Native Americans and other imperial subjects. England, in trying to maintain its own stability, ended up initially sending most of its convicts to the American colonies. Around a fifth of all British immigrants during the 18th century were convicts. This included political prisoners, but also common criminals and simply the desperately poor.

For the first centuries of American society, there were regular waves of poor immigrants, political dissidents, religious dissenters, indentured servants, and slaves. These were the defeated people of the world and the dregs of society. That is the broad foundation that America was built upon. These people were survivors in a brutal world. In response, some became brutal in kind, but for others they saw opportunity and hope. Either way, they were forced to make the best of their situation.

It was a fertile time of new ideas and ideals. Diverse people were thrown together. They experienced ways of life and ways of thinking that they otherwise would have never known about. Without fully established authority and entrenched government, they had to figure things out on their own. It was a vast experiment, quite messy and not always ending well, but at other times leading to fascinating and unpredictable results.

Early America held great potential. The world we live in wasn’t inevitable. Forces collided and in the struggle a new social order began to take shape, but the contesting of power has been endless and ongoing. The consequences of that prior era still haven’t fully settled out, for good and ill.

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For your edification and reading pleasure:

England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642
by David Cressy

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661
by Carla Gardina Pestana

Fire under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution
by John Donoghue

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
by Christopher Hill

The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660
by Alison Games

Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World 
by Alison Games

Diversity and Unity in Early North America
by Phillip Morgan

American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1
by Alan Taylor

The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution
by Alan Taylor

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America
by James Axtell

Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America
by James Axtell

Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire
by Bernard Bailyn (Editor) and Philip D. Morgan (Editor)

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction
by Bernard Bailyn

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
by Bernard Bailyn

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution
by Bernard Bailyn

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard

The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America
by Kevin Phillips

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans
by Malcolm Gaskill

Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776
by Jon Butler

Crossroads of Empire
by Ned C. Landsman

At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763
by Jane T. Merritt

The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
by Richard White

Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America
by Warren R. Hofstra (Editor)

Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire
by Jay Gitlin (Editor), Barbara Berglund (Editor), and Adam Arenson (Editor)

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent
by Kathleen DuVal

At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America
by Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall

Breaking The Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War In Virginia And Pennsylvania 1754-1765
by Matthew C. Ward

Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier
by James H. Merrell

William Penn and the Quaker Legacy
by John Moretta

Wild Yankees: The Struggle for Independence along Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Frontier
by Paul B. Moyer

Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815
by Kerby A. Miller (Editor), Arnold Schrier (Editor), Bruce D. Boling (Editor), and David N. Doyle (Editor)

The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764
by Patrick Griffin

The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley
by Warren R. Hofstra

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia
by Michael A. McDonnell

The Virginia Germans
by Klaus Wust

The Story of the Palatines: An Episode in Colonial History
by Sanford H. Cobb

The Germans In Colonial Times
by Lucy Forney Bittinger

Early Eighteenth Century Palatine Emigration: A British Government Redemptioner Project to Manufacture Naval Stores
by Walter Allen Knittle

German Immigration to America: The First Wave
by Don Heinrich Tolzmann

Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic
by Steven M. Nolt

Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial British America
by A. G. Roeber

Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America
by Susanah Shaw Romney

The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley
by Jaap Jacobs (Editor) and L. H. Roper (Editor)

The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America
by Jaap Jacobs

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
by Russell Shorto

Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture
by Roger Panetta (Editor) and Russell Shorto (Foreword)

Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664
by Janny Venema

Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710
by Jr. Burke Thomas E.

Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York
by Donna Merwick

Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York
by Judith L. Van Buskirk

A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
by Edward Countryman

Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution
by Ruma Chopra

The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedeman (Editor) and Eugene R. Fingerhut (Editor)

Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763-1776
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

The Other Loyalists: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War
by Thomas B. Allen

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
by Kathleen DuVal

Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century
by April Lee Hatfield

Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America
by James D. Rice

The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia
by Wilcomb E. Washburn

Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina
by Marjoleine Kars

Farming Dissenters: The Regulator Movement in Piedmont North Carolina
by Carole Watterson Troxler

A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina
by David S. Cecelski

These Daring Disturbers of the Public Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey
by Brendan McConville

Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean
by Matthew Mulcahy

On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World
by Paul M. Pressly

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America
by Richard R. Beeman

The Glorious Revolution in America
by David S. Lovejoy

1676: The End of American Independence
by Stephen Webb

Lord Churchill’s Coup: The Anglo-American Empire and the Glorious Revolution Reconsidered
by Stephen S. Webb

Marlborough’s America
by Stephen Saunders Webb

The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution
by Owen Stanwood

Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution
by Thomas P. Slaughter

When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation
by Francois Furstenberg

The Radicalism of the American Revolution
by Gordon S. Wood

Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation
by Alfred F. Young (Editor), Ray Raphael (Editor), and Gary Nash (Editor)

Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution
by Alfred F. Young

Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism
by Alfred F. Young

A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
by Ray Raphael

The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord
by Ray Raphael

The Spirit of 74: How the American Revolution Began
by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael

Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution
by Terry Bouton

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People
by T. H. Breen

From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776
by Pauline Maier

The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams
by Pauline Maier

Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic
by Seth Cotlar

Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World
by Janet Polasky

Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War
by Les Standiford

The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America
by Gary B. Nash

Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era
by Patrick Griffin (Editor), Robert G. Ingram (Editor), Peter S. Onuf (Editor), Brian Schoen (Editor)

The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution
by Benjamin L. Carp

Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the Lower Sort during the American Revolution
by Steven J. Rosswurm

Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia
by Jessica Choppin Roney

The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding
by Eric Nelson

The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America
by Barbara Clark Smith

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America
by Chris Beneke (Editor) andChristopher S. Grenda (Editor)

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past
by Margaret Bendroth

Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism
by Chris Beneke

Liberty of Conscience and the Growth of Religious Diversity in Early America, 1636-1786
by Carla Gardina Pestana

On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren
by Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman

Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America
by Katherine Carté Engel

Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
by Craig D. Atwood

Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800
by Dee E. Andrews

Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution
by Joseph S. Moore

Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690
by Antoinette Sutto

Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600-1800
by Crawford Gribben (Editor) and R. Spurlock (Editor)

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
by Matthew Stewart

The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America
by Paul B. Moyer

Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend
by Herbert A. Wisbey Jr.

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy
by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

Gender and the English Revolution
by Ann Hughes

The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty
by Jean Zimmerman

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World
by Emily Clark

Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834
by Emily Clark

Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia
by Karin Wulf

Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England
by Susan Juster

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

First Generations: Women in Colonial America
by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
by Linda K. Kerber

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World
by Mary Beth Norton

Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800
by Mary Beth Norton

Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society
by Mary Beth Norton

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820
by Susan E. Klepp

Women & Freedom in Early America
by Larry Eldridge

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia
by Susan Branson

Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic
by Susan Branson

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830
by Clare A. Lyons

Sexual Revolution in Early America
by Richard Godbeer

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
by Rachel Hope Cleves

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina
by Kirsten Fischer

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America
by Sharon Block

The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South
by Catherine Clinton (Editor) and Michele Gillespie (Editor)

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
by Thavolia Glymph

The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South
by Catherine Clinton

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South
by Martha Hodes

The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier
by Turk McCleskey

Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America
by Peter H. Wood

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion
by Peter H. Wood

Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800
by Allan Kulikoff

Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry
by Philip D. Morgan

Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora
by Edda L. Fields-Black

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas
by Judith A. Carney

Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina
by Daniel C. Littlefield

For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England
by Allegra di Bonaventura

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia
by Eva Sheppard Wolf

Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas
by Jane G. Landers

The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves
by Andrew Levy

Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation
by Rhys Isaac

Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810
by James Sidbury

Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802
by Douglas R. Egerton

“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676
by T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes

Black Society in Spanish Florida
by Jane Landers

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization Louisiana
by Arnold R. Hirsch (Editor) and Joseph Logsdon (Editor)

Romanticism, Revolution, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868
by Caryn Cosse Bell

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
by Jill Lepore

The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence
by Alan Gilbert

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
by Douglas R. Egerton

Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
by Gerald Horne

Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic
by Gerald Horne

Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions
by Jane G. Landers

The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution
by Sidney Kaplan

Race and Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Eighteenth-Century Criminal Transportation
by Gwenda Morgan (Editor) and Peter Rushton (editor)

Emigrants in Chains. a Social History of the Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists
by Peter Wilson Coldham

Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America
by Anthony Vaver

Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775
by A. Roger Ekirch

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America
by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

To Serve Well and Faithfully : Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800
by Sharon V. Salinger

By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority
by Holly Brewer

Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America
by Ruth Wallis Herndon (Editor) and John E. Murray (Editor)

Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution
by David Waldstreicher

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England
by Ruth Wallis Herndon

Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America
by Jen Manion

Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia
by Peter Thompson

In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts
by David W. Conroy

25 thoughts on “A Vast Experiment

  1. I mostly wrote this post a while back. Maybe it was a couple of months ago or so. I got busy and forgot about it, until noticing it again in my drafts.

    The original inspiration was coming across some books. They discussed early gendered and racial relationships. Apparently, there were a fair number of examples of romantic relationships between people of the same gender and of different races. It wasn’t always a big deal. We today are probably more obsessed with sexual activity and sexual norms than were many early Americans, Puritans aside.

    There was a bit of a live and let live attitude among the earliest Americans, of course depending on where one lived. Most people were more concerned about survival, daily living, and getting along with others than enforcing oppressive social norms.

    For those who wanted to have an alternative lifestyle, there was often a place to be found where that was tolerated or simply ignored. It might require one moving to find that place, but the early American communities offered a diversity of choices. And failing all else, one could move to the frontier or find some like-minded people in order to start one’s own community.

  2. The question becomes how successful the experiment was.

    For many Natives, I would argue things did not turn out that well. That was mostly because they were ruthlessly exploited.

    • It’s an ongoing experiment, as is the entire civilization and species.

      So far, every societal experiment ever attempted has failed, eventually. Even the greatest of empires end up collapsing, being conquered, or slowly dwindling away. Even the most ancient cultures die out or are utterly transformed into something new. Nothing stays the same.

      Your point about many Natives fits into my analysis. I’ve written about that issue numerous times before.

      It’s not just Natives. The experiment didn’t turn out all that well for African-Americans. Even Hispanics have had a tough time of it. Heck, even a large number of whites are struggling. There are more whites in prison and in poverty than any other race/ethnicity.

      It was pretty fucked up from the get go. That was part of my point in this post. When people were forcibly sent to the colonies in chains as slaves or indentured servants, when people fled to the colonies because of oppression and violence, it isn’t the most optimal way to begin a society.

      I’ve noted that much of my family came from borderlands, such as that of Lowland Scotland and Alsace-Loraine. My ancestor from the former area was a slave owner (after escaping the English Civil War) and on the other family line they went to the frontier. My family included some Indian fighters.

      Violence leads to violence, ad infinitum. It’s like a contagious disease.

      Even so, none of that was inevitable. The earliest interactions between settlers and Natives weren’t always violent. But the problem was that the waves of settlers ended up overwhelming the Natives. Still, those Europeans were fleeing bad situations. For example, there was no good reason so many Irish came to the US, since during the Potato Famine there actually was’t a lack of food—it’s just that the English took away what food there was and sold it elsewhere.

      As for imperialism, it goes back and back in history. Most Europeans for most of civilization were more similar to the Native Americans than they were to the Romans, Egyptians, etc. Europeans were mostly a tribal culture for the early millennia of civilization. Even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it took centuries for the remaining European Natives to have their traditional cultures destroyed. Europeans were rather slow to join in the grand imperial project, but admittedly they took to it like ducks to water.

      I’d also point out that Canada is in the same boat with the US. We’ve inherited the same basic influences of multiple imperial projects. And Natives in both countries didn’t fare as well as they could have.

      The US experiment isn’t entirely unique. Like Canada, the US inherited much from the British experiment. The British were a mix of ethnicities, cultures, political traditions, and languages. I suspect it was because of this mixed up history that the British made such effective imperialists. US imperialism inherited that tradition, and the British inherited it from the Normans who inherited from the Romans who inherited it from still others.

      The Romans did have an interesting experiment, while it lasted. I was reading about how the Roman empire transitioned from an ethno-nationalist project to a truly multicultural project. I think it was in 212 AD or around then. The emperor declared every free male anywhere in the empire was then a Roman citizen. Instantly, the empire was transformed into something new, although of course still violent.

      The world is full of experiments. Not all of them good. But such massive experiments once set into motion are impossible to reverse course. No matter what anyone thinks, this experiment will play itself out. All of civilization is an experiment that may or may not end well. None of us alive right now will likely see the final outcome.

    • It does make me wonder.

      For example, how does one tell the difference between corporatism and inverted totalitarianism? Both involve collusion between big gov and big biz. But the former is where big gov has the upper hand. And the latter is where big biz calls the shots. From an outside perspective, though, they can look exactly alike because the actual source of power is often hidden.

      Many people have argued that the US has a shadow government. I tend to believe that is the case. It doesn’t require a complicated conspiracy theory to explain it. It’s well within the range of ‘normal’ human behavior under conditions of vast wealth and power without transparency and accountability. It is simply a fact that some of the most powerful positions in the US government are not elected and operate under secrecy, from the Pentagon to the alphabet soup agencies.

      I’ve also argued that the US, for all intents and purposes, is an empire. But what kind of empire is it? Not all imperialism is intentional, per se. The US, after WWII, found itself in the position of the last standing major industrial economy and global superpower. I was reading about Rome and how it’s imperialism partly happened unintentionally. The Roman ruling elite were often reluctant to governing conquered territories. The ancient world was a place of constant wars and the Romans kept finding themselves the victors and all that went with it. Eventually, they had an empire.

      I’ve thought Americans should at least have the honesty and self-awareness to admit that this is an empire. Then we could decide what we wanted to do about it. I’m not sure most Americans really want to have their country in the role of empire, but it ends up being the default position of what our system has become. If we are going to be the world’s police force, we better take our job more seriously.

      This is all part of the experiment. The problem with experiments like this that they aren’t planned. They just sort of happen. That is the history of America, from being colonies of an empire to being an empire in its own right. Most of the early settlers had no idea what they were doing, besides trying to live their lives. Yet collectively their choices and actions led to where we are today.

      I’m suggesting that maybe we should be more consciously intentional. If we are going to have an experiment, let’s make it interesting and worth all the effort. There is no point in repeating all the same mistakes of the past. Let’s try something entirely new. The same goes for other countries. I’d like to see more experimentation on all levels.

    • Anyway, I wasn’t defending what the country became. The point of my blog was a focus on early America.

      Before there was any kind of national experiment (imperial or otherwise), there were all kinds of local experiments. This included settlers and Natives living in peace, even creole societies. One of those interesting experiments happened in Canada with the French. It was because of that experiment that Pennsylvania’s experiment went so well initially.

      There were many early examples of different possibilities. More generally, I find it fascinating how much the past is a foreign land, far unlike most people assume.

    • Before the American Revolution, there was no United States, no Canada, and no Mexico. There were colonies of various empires. But there were also independent native tribes, creole societies, maroon communities, etc. There were various people either escaping oppression or trying to maintain the freedom they already had.

      It wasn’t inevitable that oppression would win, and I want to emphasize that point. Many people at that time did genuinely see a world of promise and hoped a better society would form. I feel compelled to honor their memory, even after their moral examples having been trampled upon for so long and now forgotten by most.

  3. Arguably until the wage stagnation began, people were making real progress in terms of economic rights. It has only been in the past couple of decades that we have seen such drastic reversals.

    I think it’s especially true with the Reagan Revolution. The left accusation of large segments of the population voting against their economic interests reigns true. I think that the very rich must live in fear of real socialism, as it could mean real advances for society.

    • I do think it is relevant that people are becoming more aware of their own history. It’s amazing the kind of books that are being written and discussed right now. The internet has fundamentally changed the dynamic of society. There is also a lot of crap on social media, but the quality media is having an impact, even if it is hard to see sometimes. I think the long term impact will be massive. I just hope enough shift can happen in public awareness before the problems get much worse.

  4. I still find it amazing that people seem to think that unions are somehow bad for them or that low taxes for the rich are good for them.

    The Internet has enabled both thought and greater entrenchment of the status quo. My big fear is that the government will censor the Internet.

    • Many divides are growing in many ways, between: classes, races, generations, ideologies, media, etc. But the internet also has a way of mixing things up like never before. Even where divides are growing, they are often taking new forms. This has allowed some new alliances or at least emerging sympathies among previously divided groups.

      Alternative media, in particular, doesn’t always follow along the old divides that mainstream media obsesses over. For that reason, I’m sure various governments will try to clamp down on the internet, both within and across national populations.

  5. It seems to me that attitudes of people towards each other were relaxed because people were mostly left alone, like you said. I suspect that when people are forced to mingle with those not like them, then resentment and oppression ensues.

    • There was that to some degree. And if people didn’t leave you alone, you could simply leave. There were always other places to go. No single government or ruling elite had much power beyond some limited areas.

      Still, it was far from a libertarian or anarchist utopia. Sometimes escape was hard and violence common. Sometimes there was no better place to go to, especially during times of conflict and war. Trying to move to a new place might just lead to an even worse fate than what was left behind.

      Yet there was much genuine opportunity amidst all the uncertainties and dangers. Life wasn’t easy. But for those who took chances it did on occasion end well or well enough. Niches could be found for those who sought them out.

      Often diverse people in early America chose to mingle, sometimes even marry or form communities together. But other than slaves and indentured servants, it wasn’t forced. Many people had relative freedom, more freedom than is generally assumed, imperfect as it was.

      This freedom creatd a safety valve for social tensions. Even slaves and indentured servants could escape into the wilderness or into another colony or imperial territory.

    • Too many people are stuck in old mentalities. I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that a basic income is one of the few things that could change the power dynamic of our society.

      There is no way to effectively organize workers, with so many people unemployed and underemployed, with so many people without job security and benefits, with so many people working on the black market and incarcerated. Trying to organize powerless workers is the wrong strategy.

      Labor unions were only effective when employment was high and factories were dependent on local economies. Under those conditions, workers had immense leverage and could make demands with real threat behind them.

      Sadly, we no longer live in that world. People need to wake up to the changed reality.

      The important part is to empower the citizenry. Or rather people need to empower themselves. No one is going to give the people democracy. Voting for politicians won’t gain them democracy. Democracy has to be demanded with people protesting in the streets, striking at workplaces, and marching on the centers of political power.

      Organizing is good. But people need to see a larger vision. The Populist Era laid the groundwork for the Progressive Era by being a national grassroots force of change. The ruling elite were scared and so relented to massive reforms.

      People are too afraid right now, too apathetic and cynical. Maybe people aren’t quite desperate enough yet. Those past generations of activists were normal people who had become fed up with the system. They put their lives on the line at a time when power could be much more brutal than it is today. They were willing to fight for democracy because the alternative seemed worse.

      I’m not sure what will push the present population to take action like that.

  6. I think that it is human nature that ultimately brought the rich to do what they did. Just like it is preventing a large scale effort at building a more egalitarian society.

    That and the very rich seem to have largely perfected the black art of propaganda. Keeping most people ignorant, distracted, or struggling to get by seems to have been a strategy that has made them very rich indeed.

    Sure the Internet offers great possibilities, but many still rely on Fox news for example. I think things may be changing with my generation.

  7. I suspect that the US is not going to see much real change until we have a real shift in government. Someone like Sanders but also we need people in larger numbers to wake up.

    Voter turnout especially amongst the young is low. There also seems to be a built in level of anti intellectualism in America that other nations don’t have anywhere near as much of.

    • Because of my recent readings, I’ve been thinking along slightly different lines. Climate change puts things in a different perspective. I suspect the change will have to come from social shifts, scientific discoveries, technological innovations, and development of energy sources, The ruling elite (in govt and biz) will follow changes, not lead them.

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