A Society is no more than a union of individuals, all of whom have their own special needs and interests. If a society is to survive, it must succeed in balancing the self-interest of its members against the demands of the society as a whole. To accomplish this, a society offers rewards for adherence to its cultural standards. These rewards assume the form of social acceptance in each of the three cultural eras I will be discussing, Dominions, Republics and Democracies.
Along with the patterns or models of each era, such as Patriarchy or Republicanism, I will discuss the organized means that each society develops to meet its basic needs better known as social institutions such as the organization of work, structure of the politics and the nature of religion in relationship to each cultural era. Revolutionary forces such as social change, invention, discovery and diffusion are all factors that influence how one cultural paradigm gives way to another. The first I will look at is the Dominions dating from 1490-1750 and this era in relationship to North America when settlement of the country was new.
The term Dominions was used to describe countries that belonged to the British Empire and the Commonwealth. Each empire had autonomy in internal as well as external affairs, but had common bonds and allegiances to the Crown. Sir Walter Raleigh first settled in 1584-1587 on an Island in what is now North Carolina. At the time the settlement was known to reach from Maine to Florida, which encompassed the whole eastern coast of North America. This colony was created from a religious revolution that was taking place in England. By the end of the sixteenth century conditions within England has changed dramatically.
Tudor monarchs developed a strong central government and transformed England into a Protestant nation. These changes affected all aspects of public life. They propelled England into a central role in European affairs and were crucial to the creation of England’s North American empire. Changes occurring throughout the period of settlement helped to explain the diversity of English Colonization. English colonists crossed the Atlantic for many different reasons. Some wanted to institute a purer form of worship, others dreamed of owning land and others for bettering their social positions.
Common law as well as English customs treated women as inferior to men and followed patrilineal decent. Even though during this era women worked along side their husbands, but necessarily didn’t do the same types of jobs that men performed. In patrilineal societies, the males are far more important than the females, for it is they who are responsible for the perpetuation of the group. The kin of both mother and father are important components of social structure. Patrilineal descent is more widespread than matrilineal. In political and legal matters, society sharply curtailed the rights of colonial women.
According to common law practice a wife exercised no control over property. During the seventeenth century, the New England colonies attracted neither nobleman nor paupers. The absence of those social groups meant that the American social structure seemed incomplete by contemporary European standards. The colonist gradually sorted themselves out into distinct social groupings. According to the prevailing hierarchical view of the structure of society, well placed individuals were natural rulers, people intended by God to exercise political authority over rank and file.
Their daily lives, especially for those who settled New England, centered upon scattered little communities where they participated in village meetings, church-related matters and militia training. It was in 1684 that the first sign of revolution this was the debate over the colony’s relation to the mother country ended abruptly. The court of chancery, sitting in London and acting upon a petition from the king, annulled the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. This decision forced the most stubborn of Puritans to see that they were part of an empire run by people who did not share their particular religious vision.
Early in 1689 news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston. Colonial Americans had become more, not less, English. They had been drawn into an imperial system, Carolinians, Virginians, New Englanders, all regulated now by the same commercial statutes. But profound sectional differences remained, indeed had grown stronger, so that during the eighteenth century, the colonists felt increasingly torn between the culture of the mother country and the culture of their own region. American’s phenomenal growth during the eighteenth century was amazing.
The population doubled approximately every twenty-five years. If the expansion continued at such a high level for another century or so it was thought that the majority of Englishmen would be in America. Not only was the total population increasing at a very rapid rate, it also was becoming more dispersed and heterogeneous. Considering the rate of population growth it is surprising how few eighteenth century Americans lived in cities. Yet despite the limited urban population, cities profoundly influenced colonial culture. It was in the cities that Americans were exposed to the latest English ideas.
The colonial economy kept pace with the stunning growth in population. At mid-century colonial exports flowed along well established routes. Over half of American goods produced for exports went to Great Britain. This was when the first concept for a republic was introduced into the colonial society. They wanted sovereignty to reside in the people or a certain portion of the people and this was the seed for Democracy to take hold. Certain statues were an attempt to limit the production of colonial goods that competed with British exports.
These statutes might have created tensions between the colonist and the mother country that revolutionized the social structure into a Democracy. Two great forces, one intellectual and the other religious, transformed the character of eighteenth-century American life. At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, it seemed inconceivable that the colonists would challenge the supremacy of Parliament. But the crisis in imperial relations that soon developed forced the Americans first to define and then to defend principles that were rooted deeply in the colonial political culture.
For more than a century the colonist’s ideal about their role within the British Empire had remained a vague, untested bundle of assumptions about personal liberties, property rights and representative institutions. All through this period of Republicanism, 1750-1815 tensions in society were dictating change. It was said that only fools and visionaries were optimistic about America’s prospects of winning independence in 1776 and becoming a Democratic system. No one knows exactly why men and women rebel against governments.
Economic deprivation and political frustration contribute to unrest, but the spark that ignites popular passions, that causes common people to risk their lives in battle often arises from a society’s most basic traditions and beliefs. The American Revolution illustrates this complex process of revolt. The educated elite in the colonies may have found their inspiration in reading classical history or political pamphlets, but the common people, those who protested British taxation in the streets, seemed to have gained resolution from a deep Protestant tradition, a set of religious values recently reinforced during the Great Awakening.
For ordinary men and women, the American Revolution may have seemed a kind of morality play, a drama that transformed complicated issues of representation and sovereignty into a stark conflict between American good and British evil.
Saveth, E. N. (1964). American History and the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.