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Diversity in Colonial America Previous Next
Digital History ID 3585


Even in the colonial era, the distinguishing characteristic of American society was the diversity of its population. By European standards, America was extraordinarily diverse ethnically, religiously, and regionally. The first federal census, conducted in 1790, found that a fifth of the entire population was African American. Among whites, three-fifths were English in ancestry and another fifth was Scottish or Irish. The remainder was of Dutch, French, German, Swedish, or some other background.

This astonishing diversity was in large part a product of the way that colonial America was originally settled. During the early seventeenth century, the most dynamic countries in Europe scrambled to establish overseas colonies and trading posts. The Dutch set up outposts in Brazil, Curacao, New Netherlands, the Pennsylvania region, and West Africa; the English in the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Nova Scotia, as well as along the mainland Atlantic coast; the French in the Caribbean, Canada, Guadaloupe, St. Domingue, Louisiana, and Martinique. The first phase of colonization was highly decentralized. The earliest settlements were established not under the direction of government, but by commercial companies, religious organizations, and individual entrepreneurs.

By the mid-seventeenth century, however, it became apparent that the colonies could be an important source of national wealth for the parent nation. Mercantilist thinkers saw colonies as a source of revenue and raw materials, a market for manufactured goods, and a way to strengthen a nation's economic self-sufficiency. The English government adopted a more systematic approach to colonization; it moved aggressively to annex Jamaica, New Netherlands, and New Sweden and began to grant territory to a specific person or persons called proprietors.

Although major goals of the new colonial system were to expand trade and assert greater control over the colonies, many of the proprietors projected utopian fantasies onto the lands they were granted. George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, established the first proprietary colony. He envisioned Maryland as a haven for Roman Catholics and as a place where he could recreate a feudal order. A group of eight nobles who received a gift of land in the Carolinas envisioned a hierarchical manorial society with a proprietary governor and a hereditary nobility. William Penn sought a refuge for himself and other Quakers. A group of proprietors led by James Oglethorpe envisioned Georgia as a haven for debtors and a buffer against Spanish Florida.

In practice, it proved impossible to confine colonial development to a predetermined design. To attract settlers, it proved necessary to guarantee religious freedom, offer generous land grants, and self-government through a representative assembly. But it was not merely schemes to set up feudal manors or to maintain proprietary rule that failed. The proprietors of Georgia banned the importation of hard liquor and outlawed slavery (not out of a moral concern about slavery, but an anxiety that slavery would promote economic inequality and discourage industrious habits among white settlers). Yet within a few years, mounting opposition from Georgians and migration out of the colony led the trustees to revoke the restrictions on liquor and slaves.

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