The Middle Colonies - The Cultural Inheritance
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The American Way. The colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, unlike the Southern and New England colonies, drew their populations from diverse sources. English, Scottish and Scots-Irish, Welsh, Dutch, German, Swedish, Finnish, French, and Spanish-Jewish families settled in the region. The absence of a homogeneous society, particularly the failure of any one ethnic group to establish dominance over the other minorities, gave the Middle Colonies a diverse character. By necessity settlers there were more tolerant of differences in custom and outlook, making easy generalizations about the region difficult. Great Britain encouraged this diversity by permitting the Dutch in New York and New Jersey to retain their language, religion, and customs. Within this region, many of the characteristics one associates with modern America were present: a multiplicity of languages, customs, traditions, and religions, all kept in balance by an even-tempered tolerance.
The Growth of a Pluralistic Society. Diversity of opinion and tradition compelled the Middle Colonies to seek a middle way. They accepted the idea that a society in which each man was permitted to retain his past heritage and allowed to contribute his unique talent would ultimately benefit by extracting from each his best contribution. Today, modern sociologists describe such a society as "pluralistic." Such a society precludes emphasis upon extreme values or exclusive authority. It accepts the proposition that each national group or religious sect is of distinct value. In such a society the golden mean will command the highest respect. Its citizens will rarely be zealots, but will often lapse into the assumption that all values carry equal weight. The prime danger for such a society is that it may lose all perspective and accept the idea that what is, is right. Its prime strengths are that it provides ample room for difference of opinion; it is receptive to new ideas; and it tends to judge the implications of an idea or the achievement of a man not by abstract principles but by demonstrable results.
Religious Tolerance. James Madison, arguing before the Virginia convention called to ratify the Constitution, observed that religious freedom "arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society." Religious toleration was hardly perfect. Pennsylvania, probably the most tolerant colony, offered religious equality only to all Christians; the other Middle Colonies offered refuge to German Pietists, Scotch Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics. British official policy, which encouraged widespread toleration, was partly conditioned by the desire to extend Anglican influence, for in New England, where the Congregational Church was the established authority, Anglicanism needed official support to obtain a foothold. Perhaps of greatest significance in the increase of tolerance was the steady decline in the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century of militant Protestantism. The process was most advanced in the Middle Colonies where tolerance bred not only many sects but also religious indifference. As opposition to Britain grew in the Middle Colonies and the South, where the British had either established or attempted to establish the Anglican Church, the conviction developed that "there is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion."
The Enlightenment. In Great Britain and western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a revolution in science profoundly affected all shades of thought. Two men, the Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the Frenchman Rene Descartes (1596-1650), had questioned how man, drawing upon extant scientific texts, could have a dependable knowledge of nature. They repudiated the previous heavy reliance upon the texts of Aristotle and other thinkers of antiquity. Challenging the medieval habit of establishing as an a priori fact the truth of a given proposition which was then deductively demonstrated to be true, they contended that truth was the end product of a long effort at investigation, experiment, and analysis. From such effort, it was assumed, man could reduce natural phenomena to formulas and equations, permitting him, in the words of Descartes, to achieve "a practical philosophy by which, understanding the forces and action of fire, water, air, the stars and heavens and all other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we understand the mechanical arts of our craftsmen, we can use these forces in the same way for all purposes for which they are appropriate, and so make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature."
Isaac Newton and His Law. The supreme achievement of the new science was the discovery by the Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727) of the Law of Universal Gravitation. Newton set forth his findings in Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In this book, he demonstrated that all measurable motion fit a single mathematical formula. Matter moved as if every particle attracted every other particle with a force proportional to the product of the two masses, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The results of Newton's findings were put to immediate use. Shipping and naval operations were affected by the discovery of how tides resulted from the gravitational interplay of sun, moon, and earth. New instruments such as the chronometer, which allowed precise calculation of the longitude of a ship at sea, were invented and developed, and cartographers were enabled to draw more accurate maps. In the field of mathematics, knowledge of curves and trajectories was extended. Science had been revealed not only as setting forth abstract laws but also as having practical and beneficial applications.
The American Enlightenment. Though separated by the wide Atlantic from Great Britain and western Europe, the English colonies were kept fully abreast of the growing literature of the New Science. The improvemeats in ocean transportation alone were bound to command the respect of a people dependent on overseas commerce. The New Science also appealed to the American preference for learning from experience; learning to live in a wilderness had made many of the habits of mind, which had been suitable for living in a settled Europe, no longer tenable. Appeals to a priori solutions simply did not fit into the realities of the colonial experience. Experimentation, a willingness to accept evident results rather than abstract theories, and a feeling that the ordinary man wrestling with a practical problem came closest to the true scientific temper characterized American scientific thought. But because colonial achievements were in the realm of applied rather than theoretical science, many Europeans agreed with the Abbe Raynal when he observed much to the chagrin of the colonials, "America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science."
Empiricism. Observation of natural phenomena was the key to understanding; similarly, the colonial assumed, observation of social behavior would instruct him on how to meet the problems of everyday existence. The consensus of every man, rather than the dictum of an intellectual elite, was most apt to establish the answer to a given question. The self-taught man commanded the highest respect from his fellow Americans, whereas the narrow scholar, intent upon achieving thorough command of a single field, was viewed with condescension. One such "self-made" man was David Rittenhouse (1732-96), who gained the awed respect of Jefferson. His astronomical research, his knowledge of munitions, metals, and mathematics - all self-taught - were sufficient to convince the Virginian that he was first in genius among the world's astronomers. But Rittenhouse's primary achievement in astronomy was drawing the boundaries between such colonies as Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, a boundary better known as the Mason and Dixon Line. The self-made record of a Rittenhouse approximated the self-made achievement of most Americans. Each had carved a home for himself from the wilderness, or had at least observed fellow Americans doing as much. Tangible evidence that the condition of life had been steadily improving was ample; it is therefore not surprising that the colonial concluded that ingenuity could subdue any obstacle. Thus Americans occupied themselves with inventing stoves, plows, and other mechanical devices with which to master their rugged environment. From observation of the American experience, the colonial drew the obvious conclusion: America possessed a unique place in the scheme of nations.
Benjamin Franklin. The emphasis upon the validity of observation was particularly strong in the Middle Colonies. The existence of numerous urban centers such as Philadelphia, New York, Newark, Lancaster, and Perth Amboy made it possible to organize societies like the American Philosophical Society. Colonial intellectuals found the absence of strong prejudices in the region also conducive to empirical inquiry. No man embodied the commitment to empiricism more completely than Benjamin Franklin. A Bostonian, born into a family of small means, Franklin went abroad to Philadelphia while still a youth. His life serves as consummate proof that self-schooled intellects could be as productive as those trained at a university.
A list of his accomplishments would form a catalogue of the pursuits open to the practical man: printer, postmaster, almanac maker, essayist, chemist, orator, tinker, inventor, professor of housewifery, ambassador, maxim monger, wit, herb-doctor - in short, he was a veritable Jack-of-all-trades. The practical and the obvious appealed to his nature. Made tolerant by his own religious indifference, Franklin practiced a philosophy of the useful and the comfortable which he believed would better the lot of the common man. His commitment to this philosophy is reflected in the practicality of his inventions; he improved such accepted conveniences as chimneys, stoves, and carriage wheels, and he devised new aids such as bifocals and the lightning rod. His observations of electricity, demography, and navigation resulted in original discoveries in each field. And fearful lest he confine himself to an ivory tower, he participated in both civic and political activity. He organized fire departments, a library, the post office, and an insurance company.
Middle Colonial Education. The respect for the self-educated man was not only a commentary on the American mind but also on the quality of higher education. Most students preparing for college devoted intensive study to the classics, learning Latin and sometimes Greek and Hebrew by rote. As Franklin realized, education in America had little relevance to the special conditions of American society. A student at college was taught the same curriculum his father had studied. In the one hundred and thirty-three years that elapsed between the founding of Harvard (1636) and Dartmouth (1769), no major changes occurred in the courses of instruction, which were derived from those offered at the two British universities and the western European institutions of higher education. The student spent his first two years studying the medieval trivium: Latin grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The last two years were devoted to mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, and natural philosophy. Under the latter heading, students were instructed in a smattering of physics, astronomy, and chemistry. The orthodoxy of colonial education was such that Benjamin Franklin, who wished to shift the emphasis of higher education toward a more practical program, failed to alter to any considerable degree the program of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania-1740). A student attending the Middle Atlantic colleges of Philadelphia, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton-1746), King's College (now Columbia-1754), or Queen's College (now Rutgers-1766) studied identical subjects. Most of these schools offered a senior course in theology which sought to provide the student with a broad basis of religious knowledge free from sectarian bias. Higher education reinforced accepted knowledge, avoided experimentation, and permitted educated Americans to communicate freely and easily with their European counterparts.
The New American. In most colonies, the colonist thought of himself as a Virginian, Carolinian, or New Englander, but in the Middle Colonies, the polyglot population had submerged its diversity by accepting a new identity, that of the American. When, in 1754, Franklin attempted to persuade the colonials at Albany to enter into a union, arguing "United we stand; divided we fall," he displayed his acute awareness of his American identity. Recognizing somewhat earlier than most that the phenomenal growth of America made it unlikely that the colonials would much longer accept a position subordinate to the mother country, Franklin pressed for the creation of an American nation. He denied that the British ought to fear such a development, contending that an expanding American population added to the wealth of the British Empire and that the observable wealth of America outmoded accepted mercantilist policies. Rather than dwell on the limits of the world's resources, he insisted that the untouched riches of America warranted energetic exploitation. It was British efforts to impede the independent economic growth of America, more than any other factor, that was to lead Franklin and like-minded men to urge independence.
In middle America, a practical, tolerant people, little given to speculation, and surrounded by a diversity of beliefs and nationalities, allowed experience to determine what should survive and what should perish. Far from being intimidated by diversity, they accepted it; and, contrary to all European experience, they flourished.