Life in the Thirteen Colonies

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Compare and contrast the New England, Middle, and Southern Colonies.

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The English colonies in North America are generally divided into these three regions. The New England, Middle, and Southern Colonies all shared certain elements, but they also had differences based on their climate, geography, and demographics.

All the colonies were based on some sort of business enterprise in which the colonists were expected to make a profit for shareholders and/or the British Crown. All three regions harvested raw materials and cash crops for export to Great Britain. While the types of these exports varied by region, all proved to be profitable. New England sent large amounts of timber and fish across the Atlantic. The Middle Colonies produced tobacco, grains, and livestock. The Southern Colonies shipped large amounts of grain and tobacco in addition to indigo and sugar. All three regions were highly dependent on Great Britain for their supplies of manufactured goods.

Land ownership was highly valued throughout the English colonies. It was seen as a means and symbol of liberty. English settlers saw their homes and property as an extension of their natural rights as a free people. They also came to view the Native American populations as uneasy allies at best; more often they were viewed as a dangerous obstacle and were pushed to the peripheries of the colonies.

Most of the original English settlers in New England were religious dissidents. More so than the other regions, New England colonists came hoping to set up their own theocratic version of what they felt a proper and godly English society should look like. While many of the colonists in the other regions were religious too, they were more concerned with establishing profitable enterprises to enrich themselves and their shareholders.

For the most part, the Middle colonies had a two-tiered social system with wealthy landowners controlling rural areas and a thriving middle class in the cities. They also had many indentured servants during their early years. The Southern colonies also had similar social divisions as the Middle colonies in addition to poor white settlers in the backcountry and a larger population of enslaved Africans working on the plantations.

Differences in geography were also notable. The short growing season and poor soil quality of New England meant that little more than subsistence farming could take place there. Trade and timber came to dominate the New England economy. The Southern and Middle Colonies, on the other hand, had much better conditions for large-scale agriculture. Consequently, their economies were based more on farming.

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Historians divide the American colonies into three distinct regions: the New England Colonies, Middle Colonies, and Southern Colonies. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary distinctions based on the date of the settlement, regional economy, and to some extent the cultural orientation of the region (for example, southern culture differs from that of New England). It is important to remember these are arbitrary distinctions in that Europeans settled the colonies with similar skill sets and ideas about religion, governance, and trade. The colonies interacted with one another, and there were no drawn boundary lines between the regions.

The New England colonies were the earliest permanent settlements. The climate of New England and the general topographic features did not lend the land to being easily farmed. Agriculture, though important, was second to the fishing, shipbuilding, and industries associated with having deep water access. Timber became an essential product as the colonies became more urbanized. Lumber was required in the construction of buildings. Industrialization of the American colonies probably began in the New England colonies and then expanded to the northern parts of the Middle colonies.

The Middle Colonies are interesting because the colonies maintained some of the early New England cultural roots but adapted them to fit a region with a less harsh climate. The middle colonies were comprised of a mixture of farmers and tradesman. The topography of the Middle Colonies was less rocky, and the soil was of better quality for farming. Middle colonists enjoyed a strong trade relationship with their New England counterparts. Unlike the New England colonists, the Middle colonists produced food surpluses which they traded for goods. Middle Colonists had access to deep water and were able to transport their products by the ocean.

The Southern Colonies developed an economy entirely based on agriculture. The Southern colonies had long growing seasons, very short winters, and fertile soil. Southern colonists were encouraged to plant and farm large tracts of land. The primary source of labor for the Southern colonies was slave labor. Slave labor was part of all the colonies at some point in their history, but due to the need for manual labor, slavery was more prominent in the Southern than Middle and New England Colonies. The New England colonies, because of their large ports, were the primary entry points for the slave industry, and large slave auction houses were located near the main ports of the colonies. Small farms dominated the Southern colonies, and most were family enterprises with few slaves or none at all.

Though we tend to contrast the colonies, the one critical element in all of the colonies is the culture for representative forms of democracy. Even in colonies started by proprietors, the colonists had a voice in the government. The investors chose the governor, but colonists were allowed to meet and discuss issues important to their daily lives. The issues were presented to the governor and acted upon by his administration. Representative government in the colonies did not represent everyone. White male property owners were the only voters and controlled most of the institutions supporting the colonies.

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