American Revolution For Dummies
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One of the lessons colonists learned in fighting Native Americans was that it was a lot more effective to coordinate their efforts than to fight as individual colonies. But deciding unification was a good idea and actually unifying turned out to be two very different things.

Confederating in New England

Almost as soon as they were done all but wiping out the Pequots, several New England colonies began talking about banding together in some sort of common-purpose group. The idea sprang at least partially from their fear that the region’s Native American tribes would beat the colonists to it and, at some point, decide to unite.

It took nearly six years of kicking it around, but in May 1643, the colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the Confederation of the United Colonies of New England.

The group’s charter declared its purpose was to be “a firm and perpetual league of friendship for offense & defense . . . both for preserving and propagating the truths of the Gospel and for mutual safety and welfare.”

Each of the colonies’ legislatures — general courts — was to elect two representatives to the confederation’s commission, which was to meet at least once a year and also on “special occasions,” such as the start of a war. The representatives had to be members of the Puritan church. The commission’s president would be selected from among the representatives on an annual basis, but had no powers other than to moderate at meetings.

The commissioners could declare war, make peace, and divvy up military expenses among the member colonies in proportion to their population. But approval of the taxes levied to pay for military operations had to be approved by all of the colonies’ general courts. The commission could also make recommendations to individual colonies, settle border disputes (of which there were many), and provide for the capture and return of fugitives, particularly runaway indentured servants.

No colony was bound by anything unless its general court approved, and the Confederation guaranteed the independence of each colony to make its own rules within its own boundaries.

Colonists argue over unification

The unification plan looked good on paper, but quarreling among the colonies began almost immediately. Massachusetts, which as the largest and most prosperous colony was something of a regional bully, vetoed a request by some communities in what is now Maine to join, mainly because Massachusetts leaders had designs on annexing the area. No one wanted to let Rhode Island in. It was full of what most Puritans regarded as weirdos and troublemakers, and it wouldn’t agree to repatriate runaway servants.

Connecticut and New Haven (the latter of which was absorbed by the former in 1664) didn’t support helping Massachusetts grab some land from the French, and Massachusetts declined to help Connecticut and New Haven get a chunk of real estate controlled by The Netherlands. Massachusetts and Connecticut argued about the land formerly owned by the Pequots. And Plymouth was so small, no paid much attention to anything it wanted. As a result, the Confederation accomplished almost nothing in its first three decades of existence.

The alliance did come in handy, however, when King Philip’s war broke out. The member colonies each agreed to supply specific quotas of draftees for the war and finance the military effort.

But once the fighting stopped, Massachusetts made clear it was sorely vexed by the fact that while the costs of mutual defense had been apportioned according to the populations of the colonies, it only got the same number of seats on the commission as everyone else. That meant its citizens paid more than the other colonies’ citizens, but didn’t get more of a say in Confederation decisions. That issue would pop up again for future Americans trying to form a representative democracy.

The issues all became moot in 1684, when the Confederation was dissolved by English officials who had begun to reassert their dominance of the region by revoking colonial charters. But the inspiration provided by the New England Confederation would far outstrip its influence at the time.

It was the first stepping stone toward forming a union of individual colonies. As can be seen in Chapter 5, it helped spur efforts in 1754 of seven colonies to form a union — and in 1776, when 13 colonies began exploring the same idea.

Getting news and getting around in the early American colonies

In addition to the political obstacles that colonies faced in getting together, there were the problems of trying to move around and communicate with each other.

Roads were few, and often not worth finding: In Massachusetts, snow actually improved travel by filling in the chasm-like potholes. It wasn’t until 1766 that regular coach service opened between Philadelphia and New York — and that took three days to travel 94 miles. New York to Boston was five to six days, and that was in good weather.

Travel by water along the coast, particularly for longer distances, was generally quicker, but unpredictable, dependent on tides, storms, dodging pirate attacks, and the vessel’s sea-worthiness. Even then, going from New York to England was often easier than going from New York to Charleston. Benjamin Franklin, for example, made eight trips back and forth across the Atlantic to Europe during his lifetime, which is almost certainly more times than he visited South Carolina.

Getting mail was akin to winning the lottery: a pleasant surprise that seldom happened. Carried by post-riders, it traveled only when enough of it piled up at one location to be deemed worth the trouble to deliver to another. It’s estimated that fewer letters were mailed in all of the American colonies for the entire year of 1753 than within New York City in one day in 1904.

Even getting local news was dicey. While the first printing press in America arrived in 1636 at Cambridge Massachusetts as an enterprise of a new college called Harvard, the first newspaper didn’t appear until 1690. Called Publick Occurrences, it promised to come out once a month “or if any glut of occurrences happen oftener.” (It only came out once and then stopped publication.) By 1740, there were only 16 newspapers throughout the 13 colonies, none of them daily. By 1776, there only 37, with a total circulation of 5,000 in a country of 2.5 million.

Most colonists therefore stayed close to home, with little knowledge of what was going on in other colonies. Human nature being what it is, that, of course, led to a region’s inhabitants developing suspicions and stereotypes about other regions. Based on one bad experience with a Boston merchant, a Virginian might regard all New Englanders as self-righteous, inhospitable, and less than honorable in business. The Bostoner, in turn, might regard all Virginians as morally lax, overly familiar, and dumber than a bag of hammers.

The English colonies had been settled at different times by different peoples and for different reasons. They had also generally been left alone by the English government. That was about to change.

13 American colonies The 13 American colonies and their dates of establishment.

About This Article

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Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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