Most of us imagine that the early colonists were a group of middle class white people fleeing religious oppression. Nothing could be further from the truth. While some of the colonial elites matched that popular stereotype, most colonists were not middle class, were not white, and were not fleeing religious difficulties. A majority were either slaves or indentured servants who were fleeing poverty. Although the colonies had lots of natural resources, most notably but not exclusively land, labor shortages plagued colonial leaders. Most early colonist came to America to work.
Between 60% and 75% of immigrants into the English Colonies were indentured servants. Until the mid 1600s, even immigrants of African origin usually came to the Americas as indentured servants. America’s indentured servants came from a variety of sources. Some volunteered to escape poverty. Some were shipped to America as punishment for not paying debts or for being chronic beggars or vagrants. In the words of an early chronicler of colonial history, “ America was populated by the poorest, idlest and worst of mankind, the refuse of England and Ireland.”
England had plenty of poor people. In the early 1700s, there were roughly 10 million people living in England, and an estimated two million were, “vagrants, rogues, prostitutes, beggars or indigents.” Living conditions for the very poor were meager in the mother country. In one Parliament study of 18th century workhouses, only 7 out of 100 orphans survived more than three years. Working people found day-to-day life challenging in the initial phase of industrialization. Predictably, alcohol consumption was a serious problem. The Average Englishman consumed more than a gallon of spirits a week. This was at a time when the average workday was 12 hours and the average workweek was seven days.
Once in America, indentured servants were sold to colonist for between 25 and 50 dollars and they were then indentured for seven to fourteen years. Upon completion of the “contract”, the servant would ideally be given a small grubstake and, if he or she was lucky, a few acres of land. While many servants were treated fairly, many more were cheated, abused and then punished when they objected. The main avenues of escape for most indentured servants were to flee to another colony or join one of the Native American tribes. If captured, the servant usually had their “contract” extended.
By the late 1600s, slavery was replacing indentured servitude as the primary supply of colonial labor. A census of New York City in 1741 counted 10 thousand whites and two thousand slaves. By the turn of the 19th century, at least 50% of those living in the Southern States were slaves. Initially, slaves were shipped to the colonies from the Indies, but in the 1700s the African Slave Trade became the primary source of America’s slaves. Boston, Salem, and ports in Rhode Island were heavily involved. Profits were high, often amounting to more than 100% on each trip. The institution of slavery, a practice that was to last roughly 200 years in America, brought needed labor to the Southern plantations and was a source of huge profits for Northern merchants.
Even before the English colonies were established disease had devastate Native American tribes. Native Americans had little resistance to European diseases; diseases to which they had no previous exposure. Smallpox was an especially efficient killer, however it was only one of a series of infections that Europeans brought to America. Some estimate that the Native American population of the early colonial period was only half of what it was before contact with Europeans.
Initially, colonists attempted to enslave the native population, but Native Americans proved to be ill suited to slavery, and they often choose to die rather than submit to slavery. After discovering that slavery was impractical, colonist then turned to exploiting Native American tribes through a series unbalanced treaties, and when the those treaties were resisted, extermination. Using weaponry that was far more advanced than that possessed by the native population, early colonists attempted to eliminate the indigenous population. For example, before colonists arrived an estimated three thousand Native Americans lived at Martha’s Vineyard. After a decade of “settlement” there were fewer than three hundred Native Americans remained in the area.
THE PEOPLE & RESISTANCE
When reading the many histories of early America it is easy to forget that approximately 80% of early American immigrants were either indentured servants or slaves. If Native Americans are included in this mix, we see that the vast majority of people living in early America lived a life remote from that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and most of our “founding fathers”. It should not be surprising that many of these people chose to resist their exploitation.
The preferred mode of resistance for Native Americans was, of course, warfare. The first Virginia colony was almost completely destroyed in 1620. American tribes were ill prepared for the total war waged by the early Americans; a form of warfare that embraced tactics including biological warfare and the massacres of women and children. In spite of a severe imbalance of power, the so-called “Indian wars” would be, for the next 250 years, a constant theme in American history. Native American tribes were frequently used as pawns in the almost continuous conflicts between the French and English colonists during the 18th century. During the American Revolution, most Native American tribes sided with the British. When the British left, the conflicts were continued in a lopsided series of hopeless battles.
Servants and slaves usually choose flight as their preferred type of resistance. Early American newspapers were peppered with reward notices for escaped servants and slaves. Many sought refuge in Native American villages; a strategy that was effective but over the long run, only reinforced the enmity between colonial leaders and indigenous Americans. The penalty for attempted escapes was grave. Servants usually received additional years of servitude, while runaway slaves were usually beaten. Still, in spite of the severe consequences of failure, escape was common and sometimes successful. In 1740, escaped slaves from Carolina built a town in Florida called Fort Mose. The settlement served as a haven for escaped slaves for several decades before residents were forced to flee after being attacked by troops from Georgia.
In an environment where they were a small minority, white landholders clung to their elite status only with assistance from the British army. Organized resistance, in the form of rebellions and riots, were common before the Revolution. Colonial leaders were constantly aware of the all too real threat that escaped slaves and servants might join Native Americans. In fact, many escaped slaves and indentured servants did indeed find a safe harbor among the Indian tribes. An even more serious threat to the ruling establishment, however, was the periodic joining of slaves and servants into organized rebellions. Armed rebellion, though not as common as escape, was more frequent than is commonly believed.
Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 was just such an uprising of slaves and indentured servants. It started when a group of ex-indentured servants on the frontier started a war with neighboring Native American tribes. The small army quickly grew to a sizeable force when local slaves and servants joined the group. The rebels then turned their hostilities on the wealthy landholders. By the summer of 1676, the rebels burned the then capital of Virginia, Jamestown, to the ground. Colonial policies that followed this rebellion dramatically changed, and more efforts were made to separate servants and slaves. Southern plantations also relied less on indentured servants and more on slaves.
While Southerners were contending with uprisings among slaves, riots became a recurring problem in the Northern colonies. For example, Boston played host to a food riot in 1713, when food prices rose to exorbitant levels. Ships and warehouses that housed basic commodities were destroyed. Again in 1747, a large group of Bostonians rioted when the British commander was caught forcing local seamen into compulsory service in the Royal Navy. When a local official sided with the British, locals set fire to his home while chanting, “let it burn”.
REVOLUTION and AFTER
The American Revolution was, in some ways, a class war. England was far wealthier than the colonies. Affluent colonialists were neither rich by English standards, nor did they have as high a social status as their English counterparts. In the American colonies, the gap between the rich and poor was smaller than in England, and America’s poverty was not as harsh as England’s. General Washington initially discouraged servants and slaves from joining the army, but as the war stretched on, he recruited servants and slaves into the army, promising them their freedom in return for their service.
The framers of the Constitution were among the most affluent citizens of the colonies. Almost all of the fifty souls who participated in drafting the Constitution were rich. Half the men had money loaned out at interest. Forty held government bonds, many owned slaves, and all were significant landholders. George Washington, often referred to as the father of our country, was exceptionally well off. He owned hundreds of slaves and had a huge estate that included thousands of acres. Consequently, it is not surprising that women, indentured servants, working people, tenant farmers and Native Americans, a substantial majority of the population, were expressly excluded from the phrase “all men are created equal”. The Constitution replaced an elite British class with an elite American class.
Laborers and small landholders living in the western and Southern colonies and who had supported the revolution were surprised when the new government adopted many of the same land and fiscal policies that they despised under British rule. Predictably, small landholders in New England, after a series of poor harvests that threatened them with bankruptcy, became angry. The New England farmers first petitioned the government, hoping to delay the foreclosures and force the government to issue paper money that would ease their debt payments. When this strategy failed, these Revolutionary War veterans resorted to more violent measures. While the most famous of these disturbances were Shay’s Rebellion (1786-1787) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), armed conflict by small landholders, rebelling against elitist fiscal policies and unfair taxes, grew to be a common feature in the years immediately following the Revolution.
CARING FOR THE INDIGENT: EARLY AMERICAN POOR LAWS
Poverty was a constant threat to a preponderance of colonial residents. Poor harvests, Indian wars, sickness and other difficulties were all too familiar trials that could plunge colonial residents into indigence. Consequently, the American attitudes concerning poverty were more benign than in England. Most early settlements had adopted the major elements of the English outdoor relief programs. The primary concern of these early efforts was directed to the plight of widows and orphans who were boarded out to neighbors, or in the case of older boys, put into apprenticeships. Relatives were given primary responsibility for their poor relations. Local relief programs were administered by town officials and paid for by local taxes.
Early American poor laws had some qualities that were unique. There was a strong inclination to keep the church and state separate. Local administration of indigent programs fell to the town or city rather than the parish. Self-help organizations and charities played a larger role in early America than in Europe. The private charities offered employment assistance, burial funds, and direct relief for widows and orphans. The first and most famous of these was the Scot’s Charitable Association, but similar ethnically based relief programs were common resources in the emerging cities. Local reliance on private charity to assist in the caring for the poor was a hallmark of early American relief policy.
One of the more distinctive aspects of early America was the existence of the frontier. The availability of cheap land significantly shaped American attitudes and policies. The Frontier provided a safety valve for citizens who could not or would not fit into the more civilized settlements and gave the early leaders a powerful instrument for dealing with able-bodied relief applicants. Free, or nearly free, land also led to the shaping of a distinctive set of American values that were centered on such concepts as personal responsibility and individual achievement. These values were to profoundly influence American relief policies.
Even before the Revolution, urban poverty was creating fiscal challenges. In addition to the constant threat of sickness and injury, working people were susceptible to periodic layoffs due to weather and economic downturns. Most working people were unemployed for at least several months a year. Relief expenses in America’s major cities increased exponentially. By the mid- 1700s, relief programs represented the largest single expenditure in the cities of Philadelphia, Boston and New York. By the time of the American Revolution, religious and political leaders were advocating for new policies. As in England, America would turn away from outdoor relief and place greater reliance on indoor relief programs. The next chapter in American poverty policy would become the era of the workhouse.
By the end of the American Revolution, poverty programs were beginning to have a definite American flavor. Relief programs were primarily based on the concepts of the English Poor Law with considerable reliance on the role of private charities. While most early American cities had created poorhouses, working people avoided these early institutions, preferring to rely on self-help and petty crime. Poorhouses were a last resort reserved for those poor souls who did not have the capacity to avoid them. Local communities had administrative authority for relief programs and an emphasis on states rights prevented the passage of any national poor laws. Public relief was regarded as a minimal safety net reserved for only the deserving poor. There was little or no help available for able-bodied men who could not find work. Poverty was a dark cloud that hung over the heads of most early Americans regardless of whether they worked on their own land or labored in small towns and cities for wages.