How were the American colonists different from the British?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The answer to this question will vary somewhat depending on the geographic region of the colonies we are looking at, the class and political orientation of the British people in question, and many other factors. It would be a mistake to regard either the British or the Americans of this...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The answer to this question will vary somewhat depending on the geographic region of the colonies we are looking at, the class and political orientation of the British people in question, and many other factors. It would be a mistake to regard either the British or the Americans of this (or any) period as a monolithic entity. So many differences existed internally among residents of both the colonies and the mother country that it's difficult to generalize about what distinguished the two peoples from each other.

That said, it's still possible to determine a few general factors that gave the residents of the colonies a unique status in the world and a growing perception of their need for political separation from Britain. Many of the colonists, or their ancestors, had come to the New World because in Britain they had been outsiders or even outcasts from the establishment, often due to religious differences. New England was settled largely by Puritans, people who did not conform to the established Church of England. Other English settlers in the Colonies were dissenters as well, such as Quakers and Roman Catholics. There were people who immigrated from continental Europe for similar reasons, such as French Huguenots and Protestants from the Catholic principalities of Germany. America, even in its colonial phase, was thus multi-ethnic.

The issue of religion was most important to those who settled New England and the Middle Colonies. In the Southern colonies, more settlers were Church of England adherents, but they shared with those elsewhere in America the general fact of having come to the colonies because there was something inadequate and unsatisfactory about living in Britain or elsewhere in the Old World. These were largely people who simply could not "make it" in Europe economically, or ones who had been exiled from Britain or the Continent for political or legal reasons. However, economic deprivation was widespread among most of the laboring class in Europe anyway, so there was inherently little difference between those who left for America and those of the same class who didn't. In the long run, those who were able to leave Europe, or were forced to, were simply more fortunate than the others. The ultimate difference was that, in America, these people had the opportunity to raise their status and to accomplish things that would have been impossible in Europe. But they did so at the expense of Native Americans and enslaved people of African descent.

The availability of seemingly endless stretches of open land attracted people from Europe who wished to own their own homesteads. In Europe, the system of farming had generally been one where land was not owned by the farming or peasant class who worked it. America gave people who had possessed little or no property an opportunity to become wealthy and to strive for a new social status. This, coupled with frontier life, created a new sense of independence of spirit.

In spite of these factors, the colonists prior to, and even after, 1776 still thought of themselves as English. They desired independence because they believed their rights as Englishmen had been violated. It's important to remember that much of the conflict between America and Britain was an extension of the internal conflict in Britain between the Tory and Whig parties. Britain was already a country in which incipient democracy existed—democracy in an imperfect form. The Whig Party represented progressivism in its time and place, and those colonists who wished to be independent of the Crown were perhaps more similar to their counterparts politically in Britain than they were to the Americans still loyal to the mother country.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is a reason the United States State Department rotates its Foreign Service Officers to different posts every two years. This is because it is human nature to "love the one you are with." Over time, diplomats would become more aligned, it is feared, with the interests of their host governments than with the interests of the US government.

The same phenomenon occurred with the American colonists and the British. Over time, American and British interests diverged. By the time of the American Revolution, many Americans had been born in the colonies, as had their parents and grandparents. They had never been to England and were not very interested in their ancestral homeland.

From the start, many of the colonists had differences with the British government. Groups like the Puritans and the Quakers settled in the colonies to avoid religious persecution. Quaker William Penn opened Pennsylvania to persecuted religious sects that did not come from England, such as German Anabaptists, who naturally had even less identification with the British government.

Because of different opportunities and hardships, the colonists developed different customs and lifestyles. One marked difference was that in the colonies, there was much more equal wealth distribution (excluding among slaves), especially in the northern colonies. London, for example, might have been the richest city in the world on the eve of the American Revolution, but Boston had the highest average per capita income in the world—wealth was more evenly distributed.

The colonists were dependent on British military might to defend them until, with British help, they won the French and Indian war. At this point, the British became largely superfluous to them, and they no longer saw any point in paying taxes to a far-off government, even if these taxes were meant to pay for the French and Indian War.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One distinct way in which the Colonists were different from the British was that they were immigrants.  Those who experienced success, landed wealth, and a sense of entitlement in their name and their experience remained in England.  They had no real reason to leave.  The individuals that left England for the New World had none of these.  Essentially, those that left England for the New World did so because they were deprived in some way.  Perhaps, they were deprived economically.  Perhaps, this deprivation was spiritual.  They left England because of some need to find something new in this land that represented the hope and opportunity that they lacked in England.

It was in this feature in which there was significant difference between the American colonists and the British.  As the New World became a realm of fulfillment for those who left England, resentment began to settle in with the theoretical underpinnings of initiatives like The Navigation Acts, which suggested that "the colonies existed for the benefit of the Mother Country (England) and that the colonies' trade should be restricted to the Mother Country."  In this, one can see how there was a distinct difference between many who lived in the new Colonial setting and those who lived in England.  It is here in which significant cultural differences between both can be seen.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team