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Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

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Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Course No.  8510
Course No.  8510
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.
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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
  • 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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Robert J. Allison
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 Government Association's Distinguished Faculty Award in 2006, and the Suffolk University Outstanding Faculty Award in 2007. His books include The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 (2000); A Short History of Boston (2004); Stephen Decatur, American Naval Hero (2005); The Boston Massacre (2006); The Boston Tea Party (2007); and the upcoming A Short History of Cape Cod. He has edited books on American history spanning from the colonial period to the 20th century. Professor Allison was a consultant to the Commonwealth Museum at the State Archives in Boston, and he is on the board of overseers of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He is vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, an elected fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and president of the South Boston Historical Society.

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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 67 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by I really liked the lectures but: In the early 18th century, Ulster Scots started to emigrate to New England, many as indentured servants. The religious toleration in Pennsylvania then attracted many of them to there. They were not well thought of there compared to the Scots and Germans. They were regarded as uncouth and too inclined to resort to the gun in disputes. They tended to move from place to place beyond the reaches of the law and polite society. They would sometimes try to settle on land not of their legal ownership. They slaughtered and were slaughtered by the Indians. They did not like the term Scotch Irish as they did not want to be associated through it to Roman Catholic Irish. They referred to themselves as Frontier Inhabitants. I am surprised that the excellent Professor Allison seems to have a blind spot about this 'People With No Name'. By 1790 there were an estimated 3.17 million European Americans and between 0.5 and 0.6 African Americans In the American colonies. Between 440,000 and 517,000 of them were of Irish origin. Over 350,000 of those were first or subsequent generation Ulster Presbyterians; 11% of the Euro-American population. Even today Americans speak with variations of the Ulster accent that this people brought with them to the New World. September 15, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding Survey of Pre-1776 America This is an outstanding course covering the colonial period in America. If the course has a weakness, it is that it only briefly discusses the colonial period of areas other than the original thirteen states with the exception of one lecture dedicated to Spanish settlement in New Mexico. That being said, this course was exactly what I hoped and expected it would be—a discussion about the origins and development of the original thirteen states and the lead-up to the American Revolution. The course did a particularly good job describing the causes and events surrounding the famous Salem Witch Trials. The course stops on the verge of the Revolution and only touches on a few of the events that are directly part of the Revolution. It left me wanting to take the course on the American Revolution next to pick-up the story where this course stopped. The professor is clearly very knowledgeable and well-prepared. The professor is obviously interested in the material and does a good job conveying the history in a concise and informative manner. This is what a Great Courses class should be. August 19, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent First Course for American History This is an excellent course on American History up to the Declaration of Independence. In this course, Professor Allison does a wonderful job of explanatory the environment in both England and the Colonies up to 1776. Professor Allison explanations include physical factors such as geography and climate as well as social factors such as politics, education, economics, social interactions, etc. I learn many items that I would not aware of from my K-12 schooling or from my college classes. The American Revolution was not as simple as sometimes portrayed and England could have avoided the American Revolution if they had handled the situation directly. However, England did learn after the fact because they changed how they were treating their other colonies in order to avoid additional revolutions (see The Great Courses class “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire”. The Great Courses have many other excellent courses on American History and this course provides good solid background information for these other courses. Professor Allison does an excellent presentation. However, I am not able to give this course 5 stars in presentation due to some technical flaws in the videos. For example, when Professor Allison is discussing the settlements around Massachusetts Bay, the video is showing a world map instead of a map of Massachusetts Bay. Also on several other videos, there are problems with the maps and graphics where the outline of the area is shown but the labels of the locations or landmarks are not visible. However, despite these technical flaws, I still consider this to be an excellent course and it is highly recommended for anybody interesting in American history. August 9, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very thorough and illuminating treatment I use these courses to transform my 35 minute commute each day into a productive time. I had read extensively about our Revolutionary War period but had only rudimentary knowledge of the 150 years in North America that preceded the French and Indian War. This course filled that void. It was both entertaining and informative. I would recommend it to anyone in a similar circumstance. July 10, 2015
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