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.