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Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

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Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Course No. 8510
Professor Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
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Course No. 8510
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 500 3-D graphics, maps, portraits, and illustrations. You'll enjoy portraits of colonial figures including John Smith, Mary Rowlandson, Olaudah Equiano, and Patrick Henry; maps detailing the historical layout of Jamestown, the Atlantic slave trade, the expansion of European colonies along the coast of North America, and more; and illustrations that capture the feel of events including the Salem Witch Trials and the Great Awakening.
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Course Overview

The history of colonial America is a story of extraordinary scope, with Europeans, Africans, and the native peoples of North America interacting in a drama of settlement and conflict that lasted nearly three centuries. In the midst of it, no one would have predicted that the profoundly different English colonies along the East Coast, separated by religion, politics, economics, and many other factors, would eventually join to form the United States of America.

Yet the seeds for this outcome and the future character of the United States were germinating in developments such as these:

  • The Mayflower Compact: As the Mayflower lay anchored in Massachusetts Bay in 1620, the Pilgrims drew up an agreement committing themselves to self-government. No other colony in the New World—French, Spanish, or Dutch—asserted such a right.
  • The Quaker colony: America's core ideals of democracy, fair trade, religious freedom, and social mobility first came together in the 1680s with the founding of William Penn's Quaker colony of Pennsylvania—"the best poor man's country in the world," praised one early visitor.
  • The Great War for Empire: Also called the French and Indian War, this global clash of empires began in North America with an attack led by the young militia captain George Washington. Lasting from 1754 to 1763, it ended with England and her colonies as the preeminent power on the continent.

Indeed, the events that led from the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, on the eve of the American Revolution, tell us who we are as citizens of the New World, what ideas and traditions shaped us, what our ancestors experienced, and how the United States came to be.

In addition, they tell a larger story of geopolitical rivalries that spread across the globe, as the major European powers competed to build vast empires based on their voyages of discovery and colonization—a struggle that forged the modern nations of Europe, the idea of empire, and the mercantile system of global trade.

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies tells this epic story in 36 spellbinding lectures by Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University in Boston. An acclaimed teacher, Professor Allison is also an eminent scholar who has served as an advisor to several prestigious museums and historical societies in Massachusetts, including the Commonwealth Museum at the State Archives in Boston.

Building a New World

While concentrating on British North America, Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies also covers developments in the colonial outposts of Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Britain's possessions in the West Indies loom large in this story as well, since the mainland colonies developed primarily to serve the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, which were the source of the most lucrative crop in the New World and the reason for the enormous growth in the slave trade.

You begin by examining the state of Europe, Africa, and the Americas in 1500, when the full extent of the New World was just becoming clear. After investigating Spain's initial dominance in the region, you turn to the earliest English efforts to establish a colony, resulting in the Jamestown settlement—a near-disaster that was saved by the discovery that a breed of tobacco from South America could flourish there.

Then you trace the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the society that they and the later-arriving Puritans built in New England. In recounting the ensuing settlement of North America, Professor Allison notes that the British crown had no grand plan for creating a unified political entity. Each colony had its own genesis. For example, South Carolina was founded by English planters from the West Indies, New York was won from the Dutch in a war over international trade, and Georgia was established from a private philanthropic concern for English debtors.

You also look at the settlement of the New World from the point of view of the native peoples, who responded to the colonists with a mixture of cooperation and fierce resistance. And you probe how the importation of African slaves transformed the civilization of the colonies with new traditions, skills, foods, and other aspects of the cultures represented by these unwilling immigrants.

The colonies were often turbulent, dangerous places, and you learn about Indian wars, slave revolts, witch persecutions, rampant piracy, and other upheavals, as well as the gradual cementing of social order and the development of customs that made the colonies distinct—and difficult for the British government to rule.

The course builds toward a discussion of the roots of the rebellion that succeeded in toppling the colonial system—the American Revolution—covering its long gestation and closing with an examination of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

Conflict, Hardship, and Adventure

Drawing on a wealth of illustrative material, including period engravings and maps showing the New World as it was known at the time, Professor Allison weaves a captivating story. His gift for conveying complex material in an entertaining and enlightening way has earned him teaching awards at both Suffolk University and the Harvard Extension School.

Professor Allison conducts you through a subject unusually rich with absorbing personal narratives. The very nature of the colonial enterprise ensured that there would be no end of conflict, hardship, and adventure, providing a stage for many heroic and colorful characters. Among the historical figures you learn about are the following:

  • Captain John Smith: Professor Allison calls Smith "one of the most interesting characters in the history of Great Britain and North America." Smith's alleged rescue by Pocahontas (which may not have happened) almost pales beside his other exploits.
  • Anne Hutchinson: A brilliant theologian, Hutchinson took on the Puritan establishment of Massachusetts, arguing against its punitive interpretation of scripture. Banished, she moved to Rhode Island where she founded the town of Portsmouth. She later died in an Indian massacre in New Netherland.
  • Mary Rowlandson: Taken captive by the Wampanoag leader King Philip during his uprising against the Puritan settlers in the 1670s, Rowlandson wrote a remarkable memoir about her ordeal. King Philip's War was the bloodiest conflict per capita in American history.
  • Olaudah Equiano: Kidnapped as a boy from a West African village in the 1750s, Equiano spent years being sold from owner to owner throughout the New World and England. He eventually bought his freedom and became a powerful advocate for the abolition of slavery.
  • Benjamin Franklin: This celebrated Founding Father shows up in numerous lectures in the course—dealing with his impoverished upbringing, his youthful clash with Cotton Mather over smallpox inoculation, a famous and misunderstood political cartoon, and his diplomatic genius.
  • Patrick Henry: Henry was a failure at everything he tried until he bluffed his way into the Virginia legal profession, took on a hopeless case, and achieved renown for his bold argument that the king of England could not veto an act of the Virginia legislature—a startling view that resonated with the public mood.

Thanks to the contributions of these and many other notable inhabitants of the New World, the American colonies became a crucible of social ferment and innovation, testing new ideas about society, religion, agriculture, and economics. Some ideas caught on; others did not. But the resulting change was rapid and profound—not only in the colonies themselves but around the globe. In fundamental ways, the world we know today emerged from the tempestuous and eventful history of colonial America. Deepen your appreciation for this formative era with Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2009
  • 1
    The World before Colonial America
    What was the world like in 1500? Begin your investigation of colonial America by exploring the European discovery of the New World. What was happening in the Americas, West Africa, and Europe, where seemingly unrelated events would converge to change history? x
  • 2
    Spain's New World Empire
    Newly united under the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain accidentally found itself in possession of previously unknown lands. Learn how Spain set about exploiting the New World and how it acquired the mineral wealth of Mexico, which excited the ambitions of other European powers. x
  • 3
    John Smith, Pocahontas, and Jamestown
    Investigate the varied life of Captain John Smith, a prototypical Englishman in an age of expansion. After a career as a mercenary fighting Turks, he was assigned to the London Company's venture to Virginia, where he helped found Jamestown and was famously saved by Pocahontas—a story he may have fabricated. x
  • 4
    Virginia and the Chesapeake after Smith
    Discover how tobacco seeds from South America rescued the Virginia colony from extinction but also caused increased conflict with Native Americans. Virginia remained a death-trap for Europeans brought to work in the tobacco fields, which led to a greater reliance on slave labor. x
  • 5
    The Pilgrims and Plymouth
    Who were the Pilgrims, and how did this small devout religious community revolutionize the colonization of North America? Learn how a crisis aboard the Mayflower prompted the Mayflower Compact, which asserted a principle claimed by no other colony in the New World: self-government. x
  • 6
    The Iroquois, the French, and the Dutch
    Expansion by the Dutch and the French into New Netherland and New France brought them into contact with the Iroquois, the most powerful people in eastern North America. See how the goals and principles of these three peoples collided as they competed for pelts and power. x
  • 7
    The Puritans and Massachusetts
    The Puritans represented a different religious sect from the Pilgrims and were from a more prosperous social class. Learn what motivated them to migrate to New England in the 1630s, and how they developed self-governing institutions such as the town meeting. x
  • 8
    New England Heretics—Religious and Economic
    Study three figures who disrupted the social order of New England. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were religious heretics in the 1630s. In the 1640s, merchant Robert Keayne also challenged Puritan orthodoxy—not on religious grounds, but because the Puritan hierarchy disputed his right to trade. x
  • 9
    The Connecticut Valley and the Pequot War
    Although the founders of Massachusetts believed they were coming to save the native people, they were soon involved in a bloody war to exterminate the Pequot of eastern Connecticut. Examine the causes of this conflict and its consequences for the Indians and for the Puritans themselves. x
  • 10
    Sugar and Slaves—The Caribbean
    Focus on an area where the colonization venture flourished: the Caribbean. Barbados and Jamaica produced sugar that enriched English investors. Other European powers fought for control of the West Indies, and here the Europeans developed a system of slavery unknown in the Old World. x
  • 11
    Mercantilism and the Growth of Piracy
    Sail the seas with a notorious byproduct of the newfound colonial wealth: pirates. During its golden age in the 1600s, piracy was a big business, fueling the economies of countries that harbored freebooters. The need to suppress pirates ended up strengthening the authority of the imperial powers. x
  • 12
    South Carolina—Rice, Cattle, and Artisans
    The only North American colony founded from the West Indies, South Carolina had a different social fabric from its neighbors. Professor Allison explains how rice, a crop essentially unknown to the English, became a lucrative export, thanks to the importation of African slaves skilled in its cultivation. x
  • 13
    New Netherland Becomes New York
    The Iroquois alliance in the fur trade made New Netherland a prosperous colony of the Dutch West India Company. Discover how conflict between the Dutch and English led to the British conquest of New Netherland, though many of the Dutch chose to stay under the new regime. x
  • 14
    King Philip's War in New England
    Encounter the bloodiest war per capita in American history, a rebellion of native people led by Metacom, also known as King Philip. Bands of Indians attacked half of the English towns from Maine to Connecticut, burning 17 to the ground. The conflict caused thousands of deaths among settlers and Indians. x
  • 15
    Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia
    Nathaniel Bacon, an English aristocrat, led a military force of former indentured servants that nearly toppled the Virginia government. Learn that in the aftermath, Virginia planters turned more toward African slaves for their labor force, bringing Virginia's era of indentured servitude to a close. x
  • 16
    Santa Fe and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680
    Examine Spain's strategy of securing the remote upper Rio Grande as a protective buffer for its rich mines in Mexico. Conflict with the Pueblo Indians led to a Spanish policy that resulted in a hybrid culture in the region—part Native American, part Spanish. x
  • 17
    William Penn's New World Vision
    In 1681, King Charles II granted to William Penn, an English Quaker, all of the land west of the Delaware River. Gauge the success of Penn's goal of establishing a place of fair trade, benevolence, religious freedom, and peaceable relations between Europeans and native people. x
  • 18
    The New England Uprising of 1689
    King James II proposed reforming the New England colonies into one entity: the Dominion of New England. Witness the reaction of recalcitrant colonists when the new governor arrived to tell them that they couldn't hold town meetings, set aside common land, and otherwise govern themselves. x
  • 19
    Witchcraft in New England
    In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, experienced the most famous outbreak of witchcraft persecution in colonial America. Probe several intriguing questions: What caused these incidents? Why did people accuse their neighbors of witchcraft? And what were the long-term consequences of this public hysteria? x
  • 20
    Captives and Stories of Captivity
    New England and New France were on a collision course after the 1660s. In Canada, the French spurred their Native American allies to attack frontier settlements in New England, seizing hundred of captives who were taken to Canada. Learn why some captives, particularly women, preferred their new lives to their old. x
  • 21
    The Indians' New World
    Weigh the price that Indians paid for European colonization. While Europeans encountered a previously unknown land, rich with new plants and animals, the Indians also faced a new world—of imported crops, livestock, tools, weapons, religions, and, above all, diseases, which devastated native populations. x
  • 22
    Family Life and Labor in Colonial America
    Notions of family life and the nature of a family were undergoing a transformation during the centuries of colonization in the Americas. Here, grasp the parental and social forces that welcomed the independence of children. x
  • 23
    Smallpox, 1721—The Inoculation Controversy
    Delve into an important early episode in the battle against smallpox: the 1721 outbreak in Boston, which triggered a heated dispute over a method of inoculation recommended by Rev. Cotton Mather. The young Benjamin Franklin wrote an anonymous series of essays satirizing Mather and New England culture. x
  • 24
    France, Senegal, and Louisiana
    Shifting attention back to New France, consider France's strategy of planting colonies from Canada to the lower Mississippi, which met setbacks along the Gulf Coast. The French trading post on the Senegal River in Africa provided most of the immigrants to French Louisiana, profoundly influencing the developing culture there. x
  • 25
    Georgia—Dreams and Realities
    Learn how Georgia was born from two motives: English philanthropists hoped to found a colony in the New World where debtors could find useful labor; and the British government needed a buffer on the South Carolina border to prevent expansion of Spanish Florida and French Louisiana. x
  • 26
    The Atlantic Slave Trade and South Carolina
    By the mid-1700s, Britain was bringing more than 50,000 African slaves to the New World every year, with South Carolina providing one of the major markets. Learn how the small white population in South Carolina faced insurrection from the slaves on whose labor their survival depended. x
  • 27
    The New York Conspiracy of 1741
    Discover that New York City, too, was ripe with unrest. In 1741, a tavern frequented by slaves and free blacks, Irish servants, and Spanish dancing masters (who may have been disguised Catholic priests) was the alleged headquarters for an attempt to burn the city. x
  • 28
    The Great Awakening
    Investigate the origins of the Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept the American colonies in the 1740s and 1750s. At its root was a new relationship between worshipers and their churches, which displaced Old World traditions. The movement produced such notable evangelists as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. x
  • 29
    The Albany Conference of 1754
    Responding to moves to consolidate France's position in North America, the British government ordered its colonies to meet at Albany and restore their alliance with the Iroquois. As you'll discover, a delegate named Benjamin Franklin tried in vain to unite his fellow colonists in this cause. x
  • 30
    The Great War for Empire
    The first global war started as a frontier skirmish between a Virginia militia unit led by 22-year-old George Washington and a group of French soldiers and Native American warriors. Explore this contest of empires, which Americans call the French and Indian War—a struggle that the British won after initial reverses. x
  • 31
    Pontiac's Revolt against the British
    A confederation of native tribes under the leadership of Pontiac very nearly drove the British out of the Ohio and Great Lakes valleys. Follow the Indians' well-coordinated plan and the aftermath, which saw the rise of vigilante groups of settlers that indiscriminately killed Native Americans. x
  • 32
    Imperial Reform—The Sugar and Stamp Acts
    Regarding its colonies as a cohesive economic unit, the British Parliament set up a system to regulate colonial trade. Hear about the impact of the Sugar Act and the notorious Stamp Act, which incited violent resistance by self-proclaimed "Sons of Liberty." x
  • 33
    North Carolina Regulators Seek Local Rule
    Watch the seeds of revolution take root in North Carolina over seemingly petty local grievances. There, misrule by colonial officials spawned the Regulator movement, which sought to reduce taxation and curb the abuse of power. The movement reached a bloody climax at the Battle of Alamance in 1771. x
  • 34
    Virginia—Patrick Henry and the West
    Trace the rise of Patrick Henry from an obscure lawyer to public figure, thanks to his brilliant argument for the autonomy of the Virginia legislature in a case called the Parson's Cause. Also look at Dunmore's War, in which aggressive Virginians frustrated the Indian policy of the British. x
  • 35
    Destruction of Tea and Colonial Rebellion
    Probe behind the scenes of one of the most famous incidents leading to the American Revolution: the Boston Tea Party. The British Tea Act in 1773 focused on India, but a minor provision relating to the North American colonies provoked rebellion in Boston and other colonial seaports. x
  • 36
    Independence and Beyond
    After exploring the starkly different colonial societies in the previous lectures, consider how remarkable it was for them to sign a common Declaration of Independence in 1776. Investigate what united and divided England's North American colonies, which were about to embark on a bold new experiment in government. x

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Your professor

Robert J. Allison

About Your Professor

Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
Dr. Robert J. Allison is Professor of History at Suffolk University in Boston and also teaches history at the Harvard Extension School. He graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an A.L.B. before earning a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1992. Professor Allison received the Harvard Extension School's Petra Shattuck Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997, the Suffolk University Student...
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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 74 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very Entertaining Course! I REALLY enjoyed this course! The Professor has a very great of knowledge about this period in US history. I learned so much about the different colonies, their relationships with Britain and other countries, as well as each other, and the role of the native Americans in shaping this period in our history that I had never known about before. The insights into issues of economics and slavery were quite interesting (who knew where the term "cowboy" came from or that it was rice, not tobacco , that played a significant role in the agriculture of some of the southern states?). The discussion of the background of the Declaration of Independence and the background situations leading up to the idea of "separation of church and state" were very interesting. There was good use of on-screen text, pictures, and graphics without being excessive. The maps in both the video and in the guide book are excellent and helpful. That said, I think that this would be a good course in an audio format as well. The Timeline, Glossary, Biographical Notes, and Bibliography in the Guide Book are all excellent. What I REALLY enjoyed was the professor. He is comfortable with the material and speaking into the camera. He speaks in a casual, conversational style and is actually quite funny. I laughed all the way through the lecture about John Smith! I don 't see any other courses taught by this Professor in the course listings. This course was published in 2009, so it's possible that Professor Allison is no longer working with The Great Courses. However, if there is ever another course taught by Professor Allison, I would buy it immediately! October 6, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by An in-depth and comprehensive course This course provides quite an in depth view of what the American colonies were like prior to the American revolution. In the first ten lectures of “History of the United States”, Professor Guelzo provides quite a wide topical canvas of what the American colonies were like in this period, and I found them to be very well done indeed. This course is focused on a relatively short period in history; it dedicates the full thirty-six lectures to the topic and appropriately enough, the treatment is both broader and deeper. It is quite an in-depth course and is more of an advanced course than an introductory, wide survey type. I found it useful to have heard the mammoth 84 lecture course “History of the United States” before listening to this one, in order to get the general orientation. Most of the lectures have a primarily narrative subject as their central point of focus, but do contain many analytical and thematic aspects within them. The course explores many different topics, but a few major themes are covered in several lecture groups. One important theme is simply the narrative description of the formation of the different colonies; how they formed, who were their members and what kind of economy and governance did they form? Professor Allison makes a compelling case why the colonists “had” to create a slave based economy in order to succeed economically, and why this was particularly true for the South colonies as opposed to the more Northern ones. Another point which I found extremely interesting was how disjointed the colonies were – each following its own interest and all lacking an overarching governance structure. Another important and central theme is the interaction between the new colonists and the native American population. Many lectures are dedicated to this aspect and I found them to be exceptionally interesting and fascinating, and really quite tragic. A lot of time is spent on trying to understand the many complicated native American wars, and the other strategies the natives tried to adopt to best interact with the new settlers. Like other previous reviewers, I found Lecture 20, which describes the captivity of white colonists abducted by native Americans, to be one of the highlights of the course and to provide a perspective new to me. Another important theme has to do with explaining the dynamics between the colonies of the different European powers - Spain, France, Netherlands and England, and how eventually the colonies now called the United States ended up being governed by England. Finally, the last five lectures describe the friction between the colonies and England which lead us to the point ending the course – the American revolution. Some previous reviewers have commented that Professor Allison did not seem to be engaged in the lectures, even sounding bored sometimes. This is not what I felt. True – he did not go out of his way to make the lectures particularly entertaining, but there were quite generous doses of humor within the lectures. To me, he sounded enthusiastic and interested in the subject, and he presented the lectures in a sober and academic fashion. Overall I enjoyed his lecturing style a lot and really can’t think of anything I disliked about it. The course content itself was wonderful, profound and insightful, and its main topic is almost unique within the TGC library – certainly with anything close to this level of depth. August 23, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating info + tidbits. Puts the coming Revolution into broader context. Highly recommended :-) August 21, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Course, Professor Allison In the almost fifty years since I graduated from high school, my memories of American history's earliest years have grown pretty dim. That's why I thought that "Before 1776" would be a good course for me. I wasn't disappointed. I didn't realize that there was that much history! Professor Allison does a great job of narrating his way through it, visiting now one colony, now another, now the frontier, giving a holistic picture of the early growth of our nation. He explains the unique characteristics of different regions, accounting for different local forms of government, or views of slavery or economics. He tells of events that I'm sure I never learned in school, but that had a significant influence in their time. All the while it is like hearing a skilled story teller who can keep you coming back for more. I would highly recommend this course. July 6, 2016
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