Life in the Thirteen Colonies

Start Free Trial

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

Expert Answers

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

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...

See
This Answer Now

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

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

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

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.

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

Describe how the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies of North America were settled and how they developed differently.

The emergence and settlement of the different regions of Colonies foreshadowed diversity and dichotomy.  The divergence that would come to define the new nation as it matured and developed was evident, as was the challenge to balance both spiritual fulfillment and economic accumulation of wealth.  This paradigm was evident in the establishment of the New England Colonies, a dynamic that would repeat itself in the settlement and development of other colonies.  

The New England Colonies were primarily established for religious freedom. The desire to embark on a quest to establish a "redeemer nation" for spiritual salvation motivated the Puritans to settle Massachusetts.  Being Separatists, the Puritans felt the need to start anew, fueling the desire to settle in the new region of the new world.  Freedom in the spiritual sense motivated the Puritan Separatist. Roger Williams was a part of this movement in Massachusetts and when he feel out of favor with the Puritan majority, he was banished to Rhode Island and settled there out of spiritual freedom. Religious freedom also played a role in the settlement of Maine.  The development of both colonies was geared towards spiritual identity and religious freedom, evident in the emphasis on farming and "humble" living amongst its citizens.

For others in New England, the drive for freedom helped to establish new Colonies such as Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.  In these colonies, the need for freedom expanded from the spiritual into the realm of the economic.  The ability to make and keep one's money and have control over their own economic conditions of being was seen as important as spiritual freedom.  Leaders like John Mason in New Hampshire, Hooker in Connecticut, and John Mason in New Hampshire settled to enhance their scope of freedom in a broad sense.  This manifested in how these colonies developed as both spiritual freedom beacons, but also in trading and economic advancement along the New England seaboard in the form of fishing and emerging agricultural trade.

The dual settlement and advancement for economic and spiritual freedom that took hold in the New England colonies was even more evident in the Middle Colonies.  The shipbuilding and dependence on ports seen in New England continued in the Middle Colonies in cities like Philadelphia.  Colonies like New York, New Jersey, and Delaware were settled for the need to establish trade routes and economic expansion.  These areas were conceived as realms where goods could be produced, traded or sold for profit.  Taking the New England model to another level, the Middle Colonies developed and settled for economic to a greater extent than their New England Counterparts.  It became clear that the desire to make and keep money which began in New England quickly expanded into greater realms and settings in the Middle Colonies.  In the case of Maryland and Pennsylvania, religious freedom helped to establish these settings.  Catholics in Maryland and Quaker freedom in Pennsylvania were the motivating factors in the establishment and development of their colonies.  Pennsylvania perfectly embodied the dichotomy between economic advancement and spiritual fulfillment.  On one hand, groups such as the Quakers sought religious freedom, but at the same time, a bustling metropolis such as Pennsylvania served as a hub for economic advancement.

In the settlement and development of the Southern colonies, "cash was king."  The first colony settled was done so because of purely economic interests.  Jamestown in Virginia was seen as a venture designed to magnify economic profits.  Little in way of spiritual identity was its motivator.  Rather, it was about the potential to develop economic markets and generate wealth.  Certainly, with crops such as tobacco, this was realized as an economic possibility.  Such thinking motivated the settlement and development of the Southern colonies.  Virginia and the Carolinas were founded because of the crops that were in abundance.  The ability to generate profit from crops such as tobacco, rice, or indigo helped to sustain and develop trade with other colonies and England.  As the plantation lifestyle took hold, development of the Southern colonies existed in agriculture for profit and trade.  This extended into the enslavement of Africans, individuals whose job was to maintain the plantations and themselves become a valuable commodity to be traded and bartered.  Enhancing the development of the Southern colonies for economic reasons would be Georgia, which was seen as a prison for people who could not pay off their debts as well as protection from potential threats from Spanish expansionism.

Last Updated on