In the first section on America in the mid-1700’s, we are going to look at intellectual, economic and religious trends in the American colonies. For intellectual trends, we need to understand more about a worldwide philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, in which people were embracing science and rejecting religion. In America, part of the response to the Enlightenment was for some people to reject science and double-down on religion – we call this “The Great Awakening”. And as regards economics – the 18th Century saw the American colonies develop two distinct regional economies: one in the South based on cash crops, plantations and slavery and another, in the North, based on small farms.
Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematical (published in 1687) may be the first great work of the Enlightenment. In that book, Newton used mathematical models to describe and predict the operation of forces in the universe, especially gravity. He did this with human reason and no reference to a God or gods. While this is standard practice in science today, in 1687 it was revolutionary. Newton himself, as he liked to say, "stood on the shoulders of giants” – geniuses like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes who did their work in the first half of the Seventeenth Century.
Rene Descartes was born in France and lived all over Europe during his lifetime in the 17th Century, He moved so frequently because his ideas faced strong opposition from the Catholic Church. Descartes believes that there are things in the world that are universally true for everyone (think about things like mathematical proofs and theorems). These universal truths can be understood through the application of the human mind, through logic and reason. Once we understand these great universal truths, we can then work down from there to understand the rest of the world (this is what I mean by saying Descartes was a “top-down” thinker). This belief that the human mind is the tool with which we can unlock the great secrets of the universe from the top down is known as “rationalism”.
Bacon lives and works at the same time as Descartes. Bacon rejects the idea of universal truths that can be understood with the mind alone. For Bacon, truth requires hard work. You have to get out there and observe and collect data, you have to use that data to accept or reject hypotheses regarding what is or isn’t true. Bacon helps found the scientific method and his bottom-up philosophy will become known as empiricism. Note that empiricism doesn’t immediately lead us to universal truth like the rationalism of Descartes. Empiricism only gives us a version of the truth –a version that we make more and more accurate over time as we collect more data and refine our theories. Also note that both rationalism and empiricism allow humans to understand the univese without any God or religion to guide them. These philosophies are completely based on humans and human abilities.
Hobbes wrote his book Leviathan (1651) during the English Civil War and that conflict affected his writing. Hobbes argues that a strong central state (preferably a monarchy) is necessary to protect the citizens from crime, mayhem and disorder. Life in Hobbes’ words is “nasty, brutish and short.” For Hobbes, man in a state of nature is savage. For Rousseau writing almost a hundred years later, man in a state of nature is noble and the government exists as a trick of the powerful played upon the weak to maintain the status quo and keep the strong and wealthy in control. Both of these points of view will have an influence on the Founding Fathers.
John Locke, writing in the late 1600’s, is a bridge between Hobbes and Rousseau. Locke believed in the idea of a social contract, that the people gave their consent to be governed to their rulers – and could withdraw that consent if the rulers failed to live up to their end of the bargain. This is quite a big departure from the older concept of the Divine Right of Kings, which held that God directly gave the power and the right to rule to the king and that the king’s subjects were bound by divine law to obey him. Locke also wrote about the idea of natural rights that all men were born with and which, if infringed upon, was reason enough to have the governed withdraw their consent. Examples of these rights would be the right to life, health, liberty and property. Sound familiar? Locke’s ideas will have much influence on the Founding Fathers.
Education and literacy was very important in the Northern colonies where almost all children had access to an elementary school in their town. In the South, education was a private affair, handled within the family or – for wealthy landowners – hired out to professional tutors. Literacy rates in the Colonies were significantly higher than literacy rates in England and every town had at least one newspaper.
Plutarch wrote this book about 2000 years ago and it was rediscovered and reprinted in the 1500’s, becoming an international bestseller. Plutarch took an ancient Greek leader and an ancient Roman leader and wrote their biographies, looking for comparisons and contrasts. This book was how most people in the 18th Century learned about Roman and Greek history. Most popular were the stories about the Roman dictator Julius Caesar who seized power in Rome and the story of Cato, the noble freedom-loving patriot who opposed him and who committed suicide rather than live under the rule of Caesar. The story of Cincinnatus as also popular. Cincinnatus was a farmer who was given dictator powers to help the Romans through a crisis. Once the crisis was over, Cincinnatus gave back his powers to the Roman Senate and went back to his farm. Every literate American had some exposure to Plutarch and these stories about the noble Romans had a huge influence on American thought during the 18th Century. One of the most popular plays of this time period was based on the story of Cato and contained the line “Give me liberty or give me death”.
Benjamin Franklin is an excellent example of the Enlightenment. He sought (as you will see in the Primary Source activity) to perfect himself and through self-control and self-mastery, become the best person he could be. He is also an excellent example of the effects of literacy as Franklin had humble working-class origins but through reading books, he became an accomplished scientist and inventor. Franklin was (amongst much else) an author, printer, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat - all self-taught. The term for someone who can teach himself is autodidact and Franklin may be the best example of an American autodidact (with Lincoln and Jackson a distant second and third respectively).
Franklin’s 13 Virtues are an excellent example of Enlightenment philosophies in action. By identifying the “13 Habits of Highly Effective People” and then by tracking his progress and setting goals for himself, Franklin was slowly but surely making himself a better person. He was doing this totally under his own power, without any help from God or the Church. His ultimate goal? To become a perfect human being. To achieve his full potential as a person. I also see a connection to empiricism here. Just as empiricists are constantly refining and improving their perception of reality by collecting data and testing hypotheses, Franklin was constantly refining and improving his humanity by collecting data and testing himself. .
Puritan and Anglican ministers in colonial times gave sermons that were long, dry, intellectual and to many of their congregants, very boring. Beginning in the early 1700’s, some ministers adopted a new style of preaching – a style that focused on excitement and emotional involvement. This new style is similar to what you would find in a Baptist church today. This new style of preaching got many people much more deeply involved in their churches and many of the more famous preachers toured the country leading revivals. These charismatic preachers of the “Great Awakening” were the rock stars of their day.
This famous sermon is a good example of the emotional involvement generated by the preachers of the Great Awakening. As Edwards gave this sermon, he would be interrupted frequently by people moaning, crying, begging for mercy and asking what they could do to be saved and avoid the fires of hell.
The idea that geography controls historical outcomes is known as determinism. A determinist would look at the Northern colonies and see that the cold climate made growing crops like tobacco impossible so this would control and reduce the incentive for Northern landowners to have many slaves and servants. Instead, Northern farms are small and usually focused on growing food crops. The cultural influences of the Puritans on the Northern colonies meant that most Northern citizens bought locally and avoided contact with England. Both of these factors combine to help shape a society in the Northern colonies that is independent and egalitarian.
The warm and humid climate in the South is ideal for cash crops like tobacco. Servants are needed but they die at alarming rates from diseases like malaria. Slaves are cheaper in the long run and slaves from Africa already have a partial immunity to malaria. Thus, climate helps shape Southern society. Southern culture favors strong ties to England as it is their primary customer for their crops and where Southern landowners look to buy luxury goods. The South becomes aristocratic, has a high level of income inequality and remains profoundly connected to Great Britain.
All money in the world has used gold as its standard measure of value for thousands of years. Gold simply was money and even paper currencies could be redeemed for their value in gold. The main problem with using gold like this is that if more gold is found, prices go up. Simply put, if you increase the amount of gold in circulation but don’t change the amount of goods or services it can be exchanged for, then inflation of prices is the only possible result. The Spanish gold discoveries of the 1500’s led to inflation across Europe by the end of that century. Today, our money is no longer backed by gold (or any other type of metal). Our currency has value because our government says it does. Still, the same principles regarding inflation apply. If we increase the money supply, prices will go up.
Because every country was on the gold standard, nations needed to protect themselves from situations in which their national economies might lose gold. This could happen if a country imported more than it exported –the gold it sent out to pay for its imports far exceeded the gold coming in as their exports were sold. A country in this situation could soon find itself without gold and subject to an economic depression (as prices go up when gold supplies are high, prices go down when gold supplies are low). Thus, nations during the Enlightenment took steps to ensure their exports always exceeded their imports. These policies, when taken together, are called mercantilism. Colonies played an important role in mercantilism as they provided cheap raw materials for the home country and also a marketplace full of buyers for the home country’s finished goods.
In the 1700’s, England passes a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts to regulate American trade and help guarantee that Great Britain always had a positive trade balance. Colonists were forced by these laws to only sell their crops to English buyers and were only allowed to buy imported goods that came from England. If, for example, a Virginia tobacco farmer could make more money by selling his leaf in France, the Navigation Acts made that sale illegal. Colonists began to engage in smuggling to evade these restrictions.
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