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Colonial Identity: English or American?

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) Malcolm Gaskill, University of East Anglia; (Claim B) Phillip Hamilton, Christopher Newport University

Suggested Sequencing:

This Point-Counterpoint is best used at the end of this unit, as it sets up the tension between Patriots and Loyalists in the coming American Revolution and will help students consider that conflict as a civil war.

Issue on the Table

Did the colonists have an English or American identity?


Read each historian’s argument in response to the question presented, paying close attention to each author’s supporting evidence and reasoning. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the views in these essays are not necessarily the views of the scholars themselves but illustrative of larger historical debates.

Claim A

It is easy to assume that settlers in English North America had always felt alienated from Britain and its empire—why else would they have left home to start a new life abroad? But their transition in identity was slower and more complicated than it first appears. Throughout the seventeenth century, when the first permanent colonies were established in America, most settlers’ identities remained stubbornly “English” rather than anything that could meaningfully be called “American.”

English people lived within an intricate structure of ideology, institutions, laws, and customs. The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) promoted a sense of national pride, especially in opposition to Catholic Spain. By the time of the exploratory voyages to America in the 1580s, most English people were content with the unitary rule of a Protestant queen and her Church of England. Away from the center of government in London, England was governed by a hierarchy of unpaid amateur officials, from justices of the peace down to village churchwardens and constables. This dispersed network of power, where local custom tempered centralized law, was popular and effective. Common law was in any case closely related to custom, rooted in the “ancient constitution” dating back to the Magna Carta (“the Great Charter”) of 1215, which curbed royal excesses.

Most migrants to North America just wanted a better standard of living and were eager to recreate English institutions and cling to English identity. In addition, many returned to England after a few years, either because they had never intended to stay or because their plans went awry. The English Civil War that erupted in 1642 between Parliament and King Charles I prompted one-sixth of the men who had arrived in the colonies over the previous decade to go home to fight. Even those who stayed in America preserved strong emotional ties with England, reinforced through connections of family and friendship lasting many decades. Many settlers, more so in Virginia and Maryland than in Massachusetts, remained loyal to the king. On both sides of the political divide, men were bound to England by trade and property interests, religious affiliations, and sheer nostalgia for what they persisted in calling “the motherland.”

The middle years of the seventeenth century divided loyalties in English America much as they did in England. The anxious desire of colonists to remain culturally English can be seen in petitions to the crown, asserting the political rights of freeborn Englishmen. These petitioners were more volubly English than their brethren at home who took their liberties for granted. Pledges of allegiance to Magna Carta and the ancient constitution became even more explicit when colonists protested the hated Navigation Acts of the mid-1600s. The passage of the acts made Englishmen abroad feel like foreigners, hardening anxieties of no longer being English—at least in the same way that people in England felt English. Yet the Navigation Acts, like all unpopular English legislation, were hard to enforce at a distance of three thousand miles. This created a kind of de facto autonomy in economic life, reinforced by the hard commercial fact that the colonies had raw materials that England had to buy.

Economic assertiveness was bound up with political self-determination. By 1700, local assemblies across English America, legitimately created for day-to-day administration, had grown in confidence. Impositions by the English government only reinforced the sense that it neither understood what life was like in America nor appreciated the sacrifices made by settlers, who saw themselves as “voluntary exiles.” These differences emerged as arguments during Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. For the rest of the seventeenth century, England redoubled its efforts to make its colonies toe the line and was successful in limiting the power of their elected assemblies. And yet by 1700, the power of royal governors clearly depended upon the compliance of prominent colonists, whose power came from having a stake in the land. Governors who behaved like despots achieved little or were deposed. The charters that had given life to American plantations continued to frame colonial affairs, both legally and politically, English political ideology was upheld.

During the French and Indian War, the British fought alongside the American colonists and defended them with a massive war effort. In the wake of the war, the British asked the American colonists, the least taxed in the British empire, to pay a fair share of their defense. They protested the taxes, but most did not object to British regulations in the colonies and simply wanted to return to the status quo before the war. Very few colonists argued for separation before 1776, and most wanted to remain British subjects and retain a British identity. After independence, tens of thousands of Tories fled to the British Empire.

Claim B

Colonial Americans of the mid-eighteenth century were loyal members of the British empire who paid faithful homage to their king in London. They were also proud of the many liberties they enjoyed and understood that those freedoms had originated in the mother country; however, despite their devotion to their British heritage, Americans felt significantly more pride in the colonies they and their ancestors had established. Indeed, over the generations, they had built more than a dozen flourishing self-governing provinces along the eastern seaboard, where settlers largely directed their own economic, military, social, and political affairs. Without these long-established patterns of self-governance, British Americans would never have embarked upon independence in 1776.

The colonial American perception that they were equal, yet separate, members of the empire developed throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. During these decades, the government in London generally ruled the colonies in a haphazard and inconsistent fashion. For instance, its efforts to regulate colonial trade, beginning with the Navigation Acts of the mid-1600s, generally failed due to erratic and irregular enforcement. Attempts to achieve political domination over particular colonies, such as James II’s Dominion of New England of 1686, foundered almost immediately in the face of widespread colonial resistance. During the reigns of the eighteenth-century Hanoverian monarchs, royal ministries generally ignored the colonies and looked upon them simply as sources of patronage offices, which officials used to consolidate power at home.

The colonies, meanwhile, developed at a rapid pace during these years. With abundant land, rich natural resources, low taxes, and a large, active middle class, British Americans became accustomed to directing their own economic, military, and political affairs, especially after 1700. In fact, they looked upon local control and self-governance as important freedoms. Colonists established, for instance, many economic practices that gave them a large degree of financial control within their colonies and communities. Provincial governments periodically printed their own currencies, owing to the virtual absence of money in the New World. Recognizing the damage this did to economic development, Virginia sanctioned the use of tobacco as legal money, while Massachusetts leaders issued paper bonds against future revenues as circulating currency. The British government tried to halt or limit these practices, but its attempts usually failed when colonial governors found themselves unable to enforce restrictions in the face of American anger. Colonists also became increasingly proficient at manufacturing locally or in their homes such basic necessities as wool and leather textiles, iron tools, and weapons, including firearms. Several seaport towns, moreover, established thriving shipbuilding yards where, because of abundant American timber, merchant ships were constructed 60 percent less expensively than in England.

Provincial governments (except for Quaker-run Pennsylvania) also organized their own military defenses to expand and protect their communities from hostile Indians as well as rival French and Spanish settlers. Before the French and Indian War, the London government typically refused to send expensive professional armies to North America. The king’s government instead relied upon colonial volunteers to fight and colonial assemblies to pay for imperial defense in the New World. British Americans knew full well that they provided for their own defense, albeit under the English flag (and, after 1707, under the Union Jack). Here too, however, Americans concluded that defending their homes, families, and communities was a fundamental responsibility of a free people.

Elected representative assemblies also exercised increasingly independent powers governing American colonies, especially in the decades before the Revolution. Filled with local leaders chosen by a broad spectrum of the white male population, these legislative assemblies controlled the public purse in terms of setting their colonies’ taxes and determining expenditures. They claimed the same rights and privileges as Britain’s Parliament, and most successfully assumed a number of executive responsibilities, particularly the appointment of colonial officials such as tax collectors, militia officers, and public printers.

Beyond robust governing institutions, the colonists’ habit of directing their own affairs also shaped religious life in North America. After the Glorious Revolution removed Catholicism as a serious threat, British Americans became increasingly vocal in expressing dissatisfaction with their established Protestant churches, which many viewed as staid and uninspiring. This eventually led to the First Great Awakening. As large, powerful revivals swept the eastern seaboard from 1720 to 1760, hundreds of previously united Protestant congregations split between emotional and evangelical “New Lights” and more traditional “Old Lights.” The Great Awakening was not a rejection of established authority (as some have asserted), but rather it pointed to the fact that pre-Revolutionary Americans expected—and often demanded—the right to choose the authority to which they would submit.

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

“Act Relating to the Biennial and Other Assemblies & Regulating Elections and Members in North Carolina.” (1715). document library.

The Administration of the Colonies:

“Commission of Sir Edmond Andros for the Dominion of New England, 7 April 1688.” The Avalon Project.

Dickenson, John. “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter 2” (1767). document library.

“The Laws & Liberties of Massachusetts” (1647). document library.

Primary Sources (Claim B)

The Administration of the Colonies:

Dickenson, John. “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter 2” (1767). document library.

Franklin, Benjamin. “The Nature and Necessity of a Paper-Currency 3 April 1729.” Founders Online.

Suggested Resources (Claim A)

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gaskill, Malcolm. Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

New England Historical Society. n.d. “The Great Boston Revolt of 1689.”

McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Greene, Jack P. The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. See especially Chapter 1, “Empire Negotiated, 1689–1763.”

Greene, Jack P. The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies, 1689–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

McDougall, Walter A. Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585–1828. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. See especially Chapter 5, “Papists, Witches, Scofflaws, and Preachers: Colonists at War, Business, and Prayer, 1689–1740.”

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010. See especially “Part II: Americanization.”

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