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For an Englishman choosing where to settle in the new colonies during the 1600s, the Northern colonies, with their cold climate, did not offer much money-making potential compared with the chances of growing tobacco in the South or sugar in the West Indies. What the North did have was a place to raise a family and own land. As the country grew up, the Northern colonies made up for what they lacked in agricultural riches with smart money from commerce and industry. Meanwhile, they attracted early settlers interested in a search for religious freedom.

Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia all developed as large plantation colonies focused on growing and exporting agricultural products. Whereas independent North Carolina and reform-born Georgia protected the rights of small farmers, overall, the economic system of the South favored large landowners. With lots of slaves and not many citizens, developing a system of schools or even alternative types of religion was hard. The standard Church of England dominated the South and collected taxes to ensure its support. By growing tobacco, rice, and eventually cotton, the South made a lot of money for a limited number of rich planters. These planters controlled politics because only landowners voted. Because big planters lacked interest in factories and public education, the South had virtually no industry and no public school system until after the Civil War.

The Middle colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware fell midway between small-farm New England and the big-plantation South. Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey came to be known as the bread colonies because they grew grain for the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. But their industry wasn't all agriculture. They had forests of big trees to cut down, and the lumber from these trees built houses, businesses, and ships. All these crops and construction opportunities gave business to the growing ports of New York City, Philadelphia, and Albany. The government system fell midway between the democratic town meetings of New England and the autocratic rich-man's government of the South. The Middle colonies weren't middle in freedom. Especially in Pennsylvania, people enjoyed religious freedom and a cosmopolitan tolerance for minorities.

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