Life in Colonial America Prior to the Revolutionary War (2023)

When we peel back the layers of American history, we are often tasked with trying to identify what people of the time were thinking and doing to survive. They were people, just like us, but who lived in a time that would be perceived as backward in many ways to the modern American. But that doesn’t mean we cannot understand their world and how it set up what would eventually give way to the American culture we’ve come to know.

(Video) How did the English Colonize America?

For one thing, colonists did not identify themselves as Americans. At least, they did not view themselves as a continental people. Most colonists viewed themselves as members of whichever town or colony they resided in. This tribal-way-of-thinking is reminiscent of rooting for your favorite sports team or showing pride for your hometown. You place far more value in your own club or community than you do in a rival’s or strangers. Regional identities were about as far as it went for much of the early to mid-eighteenth century. It wasn’t that people despised other colonists from different regions. It was that, in a time before the internet, commuter travel and before much of the continent had been explored and developed, isolation drove many attitudes. Someone from Boston might read about the people in South Carolina, but to them, they were as far away and impossible to visit as someone on the other side of the world. The first real attempt to ‘unite’ the colonies came in 1754 with the Albany Congress in upstate New York. Wary of the escalating tensions between France and Great Britain, a meeting was called for all of the colonists to discuss how to proceed. Headed by Benjamin Franklin, the Albany Plan was put forward, but ultimately rejected, which would have created a Congressional body for the colonies to act and impose legislative directives over continental affairs. This is also where we received the infamous ‘Join or Die’ snake design.

Life in Colonial America Prior to the Revolutionary War (1)

Politically speaking, the colonies shared many similarities in their governing makeup. Nearly all of the colonies held Royal charters with Parliament or the British monarch. Each colony had a Royal governor appointed by the King. This individual held ultimate say over the decisions in the colony. However, most colonies also had colonial assemblies, bodies of elected officials who conducted local affairs and business. For much of the eighteenth century, this relationship was at peace with one another. Colonists enjoyed the full wealth and protection of the British government, including the British army and navy. Colonists, who inherited a large amount of English common law and thoughts on rights and liberties, tended to discuss local affairs in the town tavern. Far from being just a place that served ales and alcohol, taverns also were gathering spots that offered a neutral place to discuss the hot topics of the day.

(Video) Life in Colonial America

Regional economies differed tremendously. New England was primarily a merchant based economy where fishing and trade provided the backbone of everyday life. Farming, too, played a huge role in rural life. Port cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charles Town, South Carolina, were the hubs for all trade from the Caribbean and European markets. The middle colonies tended to be more farm based than New England, even though they too benefited from merchant imports. The Southern economy was primarily agrarian and based on the plantation culture of forced labor to raise crops and livestock. African slavery came to North America in 1619, but it remained largely a mixed part of the culture for much of the seventeenth century. It was not uncommon to see African and white laborers working side by side. Indeed, indentured servitude (the practice of laboring for a specified period of time under a contract, and earning release/freedom when that time was completed) was the main component to plantation life until about 1705. Africans themselves could win their freedom, and many who did started their own free communities, such as the one on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Policy changes and cultural shifts moved away from indentured servitude in the eighteenth century, and the economic incentive to own property over paying for labor began the long and terrible saga of chattel slavery among African peoples. While slavery existed in every colony for much of the eighteenth century, it was not popular in northern states. Part of the reason for this were religious beliefs. But the main reason was that farms in New England did not require the same type of labor as Southern plantations did.

Familial ties also played a distinct role in the development of colonial townships and successful businesses. Indeed, among the wealthy and land-gentry, arranged marriages were a way of keeping wealth within the top-tier families. Virginia society demonstrated this better than anyone. Take for example George Washington, a wealthy inheritor of his father’s, then step-brother’s, inheritance. But Washington did not bring near the amount of land and wealth to his marriage as his wife Martha Dandridge Custis did. Before she was Martha Washington, she had been married to Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy Virginia planter. Herself coming from a wealthy family background, when her first husband died, Martha inherited his estate, possessions (including enslaved peoples), and his vast tracts of land. When she married Washington in 1759, he suddenly became the benefactor to her inheritance. This was not uncommon or unique to the couple, for in an age where death could strike a young couple at any moment, second or third marriages were often welcomed as a means of security for the individual and their wealth.

(Video) Women Before the American Revolution, by Professor Rosemarie Zagarri

Life in Colonial America Prior to the Revolutionary War (2)

For the lower sorts in society, familial ties still played crucial parts in the development of community and regional identities. In a time where rural areas far outnumbered developed townships, the scarcity in people often produced mixed families where all of the sons of one family would marry all of the daughters of another. For instance, if we look through the historical record of New Jersey, we can find many overlaps between a handful of family last names that populate portions of eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, and portions of northern New Jersey and New York state. But beyond this, to assume that neighboring colonies, and even colonies themselves, held cohesive identities and relationships would be inaccurate. To understand this further, recall that different cultures of European descendants started communities throughout the thirteen colonies. English settlers dominated New England and Virginia while a mixture of Dutch, Swedish, Irish, and German settled in the mid-Atlantic colonies. Aside from living on the same continent under lax British authority, and dependent on trade, there wasn’t much to unite everyone. New Jersey, for instance, was divided between East and West Jersies for much of its early history. An imaginary boundary line running from north to south divided the state in two, with East Jersey falling into the sphere of influence of New York City, and West Jersey falling into the sphere of Philadelphia. Differences in economy, politics, religious practices, and culture could be found within the small colony. To this day, the state still retains this pluralism in regional thought and culture because of the heavy influences of the major cities at either end.

We cannot look at and discuss colonial America without acknowledging its diverse religious identities that populated the continent in the eighteenth century. From the outside looking in, we may conclude that Christianity dominated the colonial world. And this would be partially true. Colonists who were literate and who could write often learned to read from the English Bible, the most widely read book in the colonies. But within the communities were numerous divisions that formed their own churches, and interpreted Scripture in their own ways. Much of this came from the original Puritan reason for leaving England in the early seventeenth century. Fearing persecution for not confiding to the Church of England and the influences of the Catholic Church, many of the first generations of colonists established communities that could freely worship their religious views. Puritans dominated much of New England while Quakers established communities in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Protestantism was widespread throughout much of the colonies, which in time saw individual sects break off and start their own congregations. Anglican, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodist, Moravians, Episcopalian, and Southern Baptist churches all sprung up in new communities. But it would be wrong to conclude that European Christianity and its dominations were the only forms of religious practice in the colonies. Native Americans, who worshipped different spirits depending on the tribe, were prevalent on the western fringes of society. African slaves brought their religious beliefs with them to the New World. Many found solace in practicing their faith from their homeland as a way of keeping their African identity. Others were converted to Christianity and combined many elements from both religions. Jews and Muslims were also present in colonial America. Both were minorities, while South Carolina had one of the first successful Jewish communities. Deism was also popular, particularly among the educated and followers of the Enlightenment. Deists believed in the existence of God, but that the laws of nature dictated events in life. As we can see, the free practice of religion was very important to the colonists, and one of the primary reasons why its protection was included by James Madison in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

(Video) First Colonies: 1565-1700 | American Colonial History | Jamestown, Plymouth, Puritans, Quakers

Life in Colonial America Prior to the Revolutionary War (3)

The roles of men and women were also distinct for their time. Men were supposed to provide for the family in which he belonged. Artisan professions were quite common in the major cities and towns. Other men took to the merchant trades or became wanderers on the frontier. A military career might provide fame and notoriety, but it rarely provided a stable income to sustain a family. Women, for the most part, were in charge of the household and child-rearing. Women could receive an education, in that they could learn to read and write in their youths at home for the sole purpose of passing down these skills to her children. Most women had no political rights of any kind. Few held property, and the ones who did had inherited it from their deceased husbands. This may have provided them with more wealth and influence than the majority of women, but it did not allow them to do much of anything but claim their holdings. Male children of wealthy and well-off parents received an education and were expected to enter careers in law, medicine, or the military. Less well-off male children usually found work before their teenage years as artisan apprentices in the trades. Girls were raised to find a suitable husband and prepare for motherhood. For the children of farmers, work usually started at a young age as boys were put to the field while girls were instructed on how to plant crops. Because of the threats of disease and early death, many farming families had large numbers of children to help assist in the daily duties of work. This practice continued well into the twentieth century.

Further Reading

(Video) Life in the 13 Colonies Explained

FAQs

What was life like for colonial Americans before the Revolution? ›

The vast majority lived in rural farming villages on their own property–less than 10 percent lived in cities. Family farms dominated the north. Large plantations that grew cash crops like tobacco and rice dominated the mid-Atlantic and southern landscape.

What happened prior to the Revolutionary War? ›

The Boston Tea Party was a political protest by the Sons of Liberty against the Stamp Act. On December 16 1773 a shipment of tea was dumped into Boston Harbor. The British overreaction to this event led to the start of the American Revolution.

What was life like in early colonial America? ›

Most of the people living in Colonial America lived and worked on a farm. Although there would eventually be large plantations where the owners became wealthy growing cash crops, life for the average farmer was very hard work. They had to work hard all year long just to survive.

What was life like in the colonies during the Revolution? ›

Poor people often lived in one room homes. Wealthier people would live in two story houses which typically had four rooms downstairs and two upstairs. Many homes had the kitchen in a separate building in order to try and prevent the spread of fires. Homes during colonial times didn't have running water or electricity.

What was life like before the Declaration of Independence? ›

Before America was an independent state, it was a dependent colony. Before Americans expressed support for equality, their government and society were aristocratic and highly hierarchical.

What is colonial life history? ›

The colonial history of the United States covers the history of European colonization of North America from the early 17th century until the incorporation of the Thirteen Colonies into the United States after the Revolutionary War.

What was the period before the American Revolution? ›

The Confederation period was the era of United States history in the 1780s after the American Revolution and prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution.
...
Confederation period.
United States of America
• 1789 ConstitutionMarch 4, 1789
CurrencyContinental Currency
Preceded by Succeeded by Thirteen Colonies United States
26 more rows

How did England treat the colonies prior to the Revolution? ›

They had to pay high taxes to the king. They felt that they were paying taxes to a government where they had no representation. They were also angry because the colonists were forced to let British soldiers sleep and eat in their homes. The 13 original states.

What are 3 main causes of the American Revolution? ›

The Taxation Acts, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Intolerable Acts were the four main causes that lead to the American Revolution.

Why was life difficult for the early colonists? ›

The settlers did not plant their crops in time so they soon had no food. Their leaders lacked the farming and building skills needed to survive on the land. More than half the settlers died during the first winter.

What problems did early colonists face? ›

The winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown is referred to as the "starving time." Disease, violence, drought, a meager harvest followed by a harsh winter, and poor drinking water left the majority of colonists dead that winter.

How did early colonists survive? ›

the early colonists survive in their new land during the initial years by creating large agricultural communities to grow food as soon as they arrived.

Was life in the colonies hard? ›

Article. Life in Colonial America was difficult and often short but the colonists made the best of their situation in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their families.

What were 3 things the colonists were angry about? ›

The Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Townshend Acts, and Intolerable Acts are four acts that contributed to the tension and unrest among colonists that ultimately led to The American Revolution. The first act was The Sugar Act passed in 1764.

How did the revolution change people's lives? ›

Political and social life changed drastically after independence. Political participation grew as more people gained the right to vote. In addition, more common citizens (or “new men”) played increasingly important roles in local and state governance. Hierarchy within the states underwent significant changes.

What happened before the colonists get freedom? ›

Much happened between the years of 1763 and 1776. The colonists felt unfairly taxed, watched over like children, and ignored in their attempts to address grievances. Religious issues rose to the surface, political ideals crystallized, and, as always, economics were the essence of many debates.

What were the colonists most upset about before declaring Independence? ›

Many colonists were unhappy with laws that collected taxes but did not give them a say in government. The Stamp Act of 1765, for example, collected taxes on items made of paper such as legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards.

What rights did American colonists have before 1776? ›

Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.

What is colonial very short answer? ›

Colonialism is a practice or policy of control by one nation over the people living in different areas or countries, often by establishing colonies and generally with the aim of economic dominance.

What do you mean by colonial short answer? ›

1. adjective [ADJECTIVE noun] Colonial means relating to countries that are colonies, or to colonialism.

What did colonists do in their free time? ›

Shooting and woodchopping competitions were popular, and, making the most of two important forms of colonial transport, boat races and horse races became common forms of entertainment. However, indoor activities relied more on things the settlers had done back in Britain.

Was there an American identity before the revolution? ›

When the Constitution was drafted in 1789, Americans did not have a sense of national identity. The process toward achieving a national identity was long and fraught with conflict. Some of the most influential events on the United States were foreign affairs.

What were the two main causes of the American Revolution? ›

What were the major causes of the American Revolution? The American Revolution was principally caused by colonial opposition to British attempts to impose greater control over the colonies and to make them repay the crown for its defense of them during the French and Indian War (1754–63).

Which best describes the beginning of the American Revolutionary War? ›

The battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 signaled the start of the Revolutionary War.

What are the 4 main reasons the colonists won the revolution? ›

Factors Contributing to the American Victory
  • Alliance with France. Arguably the single most important of Benjamin Franklin's many contributions to his nation was securing a French alliance during the revolution. ...
  • British Debt. ...
  • Distance. ...
  • Familiarity with the Territory. ...
  • Hearts and Minds.

How did the British soldiers treat the colonists? ›

The colonists' views of the average British soldier varied from resentment to pity. However, while on duty, an almost guerilla war seemed to rage between the soldiers and the colonists. This, of course, eventually resulted in the most well-known and tragic action, known as "the Boston Massacre".

What are 3 reasons the colonists fought the British? ›

The colonists fought the British because they wanted to be free from Britain. They fought the British because of unfair taxes. They fought because they didn't have self-government. When the American colonies formed, they were part of Britain.

What were 5 major causes of the revolution? ›

Here are 6 key causes of the American revolution.
  • Seven Years War (1756-1763) ...
  • Taxes and Duties. ...
  • Boston Massacre (1770) ...
  • Boston Tea Party (1773) ...
  • Intolerable Acts (1774) ...
  • King George III's Speech to Parliament (1775)
14 Jan 2021

How did slavery lead to the American Revolution? ›

The predominantly southern slave-owners feared that this decision would cause the emancipation of their slaves. It did result in some slaves freeing themselves. To ensure the preservation of slavery, the southern colonies joined the northerners in their fight for “freedom” and their rebellion against England.

What were the colonists afraid of? ›

Fear of Strong Central Government

Having just won independence from Britain, many Americans feared that creating a strong federal government with too much authority over the states would only replace King George III with another tyrant.

What did the colonists fear? ›

Crucially, the colonists grew increasingly fearful over the loss of their status as free men and the dangerous prospective of their lives being reduced to a state of domination. Following the end of the French and Indian War, Great Britain was facing a debt crisis.

What was life like for a colonial child? ›

Even with all the work they did, colonial children still found time to have fun. They cared for their pets, played with dolls, shot marbles, pitched pennies, and went fishing. They also played tag, stickball, and blindman's buff. By the time they had reached age 14, most children were already considered adults.

How did colonists survive winter? ›

The main source of heat was a fireplace or stove. If they had them, the families may hang fur or textiles against the walls as an added layer against the cold and wind. Simple wooden beds were lined with straw and children often slept two or three to a bed for the benefit of added body heat.

What were the colonists most upset about? ›

Taxation without Representation

Parliament's actions upset many colonists who had grown used to being independent. The rising merchant class thought the taxes were unfair and hurt business. Many believed that Great Britain had no right to tax the colonies at all without popular consent.

What was daily life for settlers? ›

Each day, the settlers would wake up with the sunlight and work until sundown. One of the first things a farmer needed to do was to build a barn and a cabin. The barn was important to keep the animals safe from wolves and other predators and also to store farming tools and grain.

How were the first colonists called? ›

Plymouth Colony was founded by a group of Puritan Separatists initially known as the Brownist Emigration, who came to be known as the Pilgrims.

How did colonists treat natives? ›

Initially, white colonists viewed Native Americans as helpful and friendly. They welcomed the Natives into their settlements, and the colonists willingly engaged in trade with them. They hoped to transform the tribes people into civilized Christians through their daily contacts.

Who saved the colonists? ›

For every six colonists who ventured across the Atlantic, only one survived. John Smith may have saved the settlers of Jamestown from starving to death, but he wasn't exactly everyone's favorite person.

How did colonists see themselves? ›

Even after Lexington and Concord, most colonists simply saw themselves as defending their rights as citizens of the British Empire. They believed in a peaceful settlement. Others believed that if the Crown could tax them without representation, then other rights might be taken away from them.

How long did people live in Colonial America? ›

Life expectancy in the America of 1787 is about 38 years for a white male. But this is not as bad as it sounds. It is longer than the average life span in England. And most people who survive to 60 will live to see 75.

What was the colonists weakness? ›

A major weakness for the Continental Army was manpower; they were always short of qualified and capable men. General George Washington routinely had no more than 20,000 troops at one time and place.

What was the biggest challenge faced by the colonists? ›

Lured to the New World with promises of wealth, most colonists were unprepared for the constant challenges they faced: drought, starvation, the threat of attack, and disease. With the help of stern leadership and a lucrative cash crop, the colony eventually succeeded.

What did the colonists feel unfair? ›

"Taxation without representation" was one of the central issues colonists had with the British because all laws and taxes were imposed by the British government without any colonist involvement.

What was life like before the American Revolution? ›

The vast majority lived in rural farming villages on their own property–less than 10 percent lived in cities. Family farms dominated the north. Large plantations that grew cash crops like tobacco and rice dominated the mid-Atlantic and southern landscape.

What was the greatest impact of the revolution? ›

Perhaps the greatest effect of the Revolution was to spread the idea of liberty, both at home abroad. In 1776 the Congress had used Thomas Jefferson's assertion that "all men are created equal" to help justify a revolution. This was a radical concept in a world that had long accepted the idea of human inequality.

What impact do revolutions have on society? ›

In all these countries, the revolutions not only changed the political systems and replaced them with new ones, but they altered public belief and brought about sweeping changes in society as a whole. people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

How did American society change in the years before the Civil War? ›

These years witnessed rapid economic and territorial expansion; the extension of democratic politics; the spread of evangelical revivalism; the rise of the nation's first labor and reform movements; the growth of cities and industrial ways of life; radical shifts in the roles and status of women; and deepening ...

What was before Colonial America? ›

Pre-Colonial North America (also known as Pre-Columbian, Prehistoric, and Precontact) is the period between the migration of the Paleo-Indians to the region between 40,000-14,000 years ago and contact between indigenous tribes and European colonists in the 16th century CE which eradicated the Native American culture, ...

What was life like in the north before the Civil War? ›

The North had an industrial economy, an economy focused on manufacturing, while the South had an agricultural economy, an economy focused on farming. Slaves worked on Southern plantations to farm crops, and Northerners would buy these crops to produce goods that they could sell.

How did society change during the American Revolution? ›

Political and social life changed drastically after independence. Political participation grew as more people gained the right to vote. In addition, more common citizens (or “new men”) played increasingly important roles in local and state governance. Hierarchy within the states underwent significant changes.

What was one of the most important social changes of the American Revolution? ›

From slavery to women's rights, from religious life to voting, American attitudes would be forever changed. Some changes would be felt immediately. Slavery would not be abolished for another hundred years, but the Revolution saw the dawn of an organized abolitionist movement.

What was the social structure before the American Revolution? ›

In Colonial America, there were three main social classes. They were the gentry, the middle class, and the poor. The highest class was the gentry.

How did the American colonists identify themselves in the years before the American Revolution? ›

Throughout the seventeenth century, when the first permanent colonies were established in America, most settlers' identities remained stubbornly “English” rather than anything that could meaningfully be called “American.”

Why was life hard for the colonists at first? ›

The colony seemed about to fail from the start. The settlers did not plant their crops in time so they soon had no food. Their leaders lacked the farming and building skills needed to survive on the land. More than half the settlers died during the first winter.

What did Americans call before? ›

Two names that America could have received before the arrival of the Europeans were Zuania (of Caribbean origin) and Abya-Yala (used by the Kuna people of Panama).

What happened in the pre colonial period? ›

In the precolonial era England underwent massive governmental, religious, and cultural changes that would spur the colonization of the New World and eventually lead to the foundation of the United States. In the twelfth century King Henry II (1133–1189) codified the long tradition of common law.

Who were the first people to live in America? ›

In the 1970s, college students in archaeology such as myself learned that the first human beings to arrive in North America had come over a land bridge from Asia and Siberia approximately 13,000 to 13,500 years ago. These people, the first North Americans, were known collectively as Clovis people.

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