Colonial America

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How did the English colonies become the most populous and powerful region in North America by 1700?

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The different European ventures in North America all had some success by the mid-1600s. The Dutch were a major maritime power that had substantial trading success, but they lacked numbers, and this allowed the English to squeeze them out of New York, which had been New Amsterdam until 1664. For...

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more on New Netherlands and New Amsterdam, see the first link below. The Dutch and the French both focused almost exclusively on commercial ventures, treating the natives as allies and trading partners, and had few colonists.

The Spaniards had some dramatic successes in the Americas, starting with the voyages of Columbus in the 1490s and 1500s, but they did not focus on North America. They conquered two major empires, the Aztec and the Inca in Central and South America, respectively, and established New Spain. They had larger numbers of colonists than the Dutch and the French, but success in North America was limited. The settlement of Florida was tenuous. Harsh policies in what is today New Mexico led to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.

As the Spaniards' treasury grew, so did their bad reputation. In 1542, Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, bringing to light appalling Spanish abuses against native populations. The revelation of Spanish abuses necessitated the publication of the New Laws by the Spanish crown, but Las Casas' tract spread far and wide. The English enthusiastically printed it in large numbers. For a full text, see the second link below. By this time, King Henry VIII of England had issued his 1534 Act of Supremacy, broken from the papacy, and established a separate Church of England with himself at the head. The English saw themselves as a kindler, gentler alternative to the Spanish "papists" for the settlement of the Americas. There was, of course, also economic rivalry.

There is more to the important prehistory of the English colonization of North America. Even before the settlement of North America, the English had a strong rationale for colonization, as articulated by Richard Hakluyt “the Elder” in 1585: to plant the Christian religion, to conduct commerce, and to conquer. Colonization and conquest, of course, were not a recipe for harmony with the natives. Sir William Herbert wrote in the early 1590s that the assimilation of the English into native cultures can best be avoided by completely destroying the culture of the natives. The English already had experience with establishing colonies and using force to impose their ways in Ireland. In North America, they followed a similar model.

There were also population pressures back home driving English colonization. The population of England grew rapidly in the 1500s, as did the number of the poor and homeless. These people were mostly able-bodied but unemployed and deemed a threat to morality and the social order. The government came to see the colonies as a place to put them.

Once the English overcame early difficulties in Roanoke and Jamestown, the colonies began to grow dramatically. There was a motive. There was a model in place. There were people to send. There were no direct competitors, except for the natives, in the areas they settled. The adoption of tobacco as a cash crop, the importation of slaves, and the early 1700s legislation of race-based slavery, which meant a big increase in numbers through procreation, all led to dramatic demographic growth in England's main colony of Virginia.

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In economics, it’s said that there are two institutional paths a government can take. One is called extractive, because resources are removed without being replaced. The people who control the resources use them to their own advantage, and they become wealthy and powerful in the process. The other path is called nonextractive, or inclusive. Resources in nonextractive economies are used to improve the lives of all citizens, not just the people who control the resources (like political or business leaders).

While the British did export sugar, tobacco, and textiles from their American colonies, pure extraction hadn’t been the primary reason for their settlement. In addition to the settlers who left England for religious freedom, there were those who wanted to develop the new world into a vast trading network. As British demand for American exports increased, the number of colonists increased to provide them. Settlements became villages, towns, and cities as more people arrived to work. Soon, the colonies were not simple outposts sending goods outward, but settlements capable of sustaining their own economies and importing their own goods.

With only a few exceptions, Spanish and French colonies did not fare well. Spain had entered the Age of Exploration in search of “gold, God, and glory.” Their mission was to extract riches and convert any indigenous peoples they encountered to Christianity, thereby achieving glory in both the economic and religious sense. The Spanish colonial empire reported to their king, an ocean away, while the British colonists established the General Assembly in 1619 to deal with local matters. The French, like the Spanish, had no representative government and were subject to laws set by the crown. The French and Spanish colonies were not developed for long-term settlement but rather as lucrative extraction economies. England’s investment in the local, nonextractive economy allowed them to expand and endure.

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Simply put, the English colonies became more powerful than the Spanish and French colonies because more English people made their homes here.  English colonists created cities and lived on large farms.  These people needed finished goods from Britain as well as military protection from Indians and potential invasion by the Spanish and French.  England saw opportunity in the New World; it was a place to send religious dissenters (New England) as well as debtors (Georgia).  These people could in turn send back tobacco, cotton, lumber, and foodstuffs to Britain.  As the number of English people increased due to immigration and the higher birth rate than in the Old World, they expanded their influence by moving farther inland, thus claiming more land for Britain.  Before 1700, people in Britain and the colonies agreed that expansion was a good thing; expansion would slowly drive out Spanish and French influences.  England was also able to possess the land by virtue of having the most powerful navy and merchant marine in the world to protect and resupply its colonies.  

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