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The Thirteen Colonies were the British Colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America founded between 1607 (Virginia) and 1733 (Georgia). Individual colonies began collaborating at the Albany Congress of 1754 to demand more rights and set up a Continental Congress that declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 and formed a new nation, the United States of America. The thirteen colonies were: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey were formed by mergers of previous colonies. All the colonies had similar political and legal systems, with a high degree of self government. Most white men could and did vote for local and legislative officials. The colonies were all prosperous and had high growth rates based on immigration from Britain and Germany, together with ample food supplies and land for new settlers. Most families operated subsistence farms. All the colonies had legal slavery, with slave-based plantations in the South producing valuable exports such as tobacco and rice. The Northern and Middle colonies concentrated on trade. The frontier districts often confronted Indian wars, but by 1700 the colonists greatly outnumbered the Indians. The British officials in London practiced a policy of mercantilism, and believed the colonies should be operated for the benefit of the mother country, while the colonists after 1760 resisted British demands for more control especially over taxes. The colonies were religiously diverse, with the Anglican Church of England officially established in most of the South, but there were no bishops and the churches had only local roles. Education was widespread in the northern colonies, which had established colleges such as Harvard and Yale, while the College of William and Mary trained the elite in Virginia.
Each of the thirteen colonies developed its own system of self-government, based largely on independent farmers who owned their own land, voted for their local and provincial government, and served on local juries. In some of the colonies, especially Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, there were also substantial populations of African slaves. Following a series of protests over taxes in the 1760s and 1770s, these colonies united politically and militarily in opposition to the British government and fought the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783. In 1776, they declared their independence, and achieved that goal with the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783).
Before independence, the thirteen were among two dozen separate colonies in British America. Those in the British West Indies, Newfoundland, the Province of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and East and West Florida remained loyal to the crown throughout the war (although Spain reconquered Florida before the war was over). Although there was a degree of sympathy with the Patriot cause in several of them, their geographical isolation and the dominance of British naval power precluded any effective participation. Especially in the case of Quebec and Florida, the British crown had only recently acquired those lands, and many of the issues facing the Thirteen Colonies did not apply to them.
In 1775, the British claimed authority over the red and pink areas on this map and Spain claimed the orange. The red area is the area of settlement; most lived within 50 miles of the ocean.
Contemporary documents usually list the thirteen colonies of British North America in geographical order, from the north to the south.
(Note: the population figures are estimates by historians; they do not include the native tribes outside the jurisdiction of the colonies; they do include Natives living under colonial control, as well as slaves and indentured servants.)
By 1776 about 85% of the white population was of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh descent, with 9% of German origin and 4% Dutch. These populations continued to grow at a rapid rate throughout the 18th century primarily because of high birth rates, and relatively low death rates. Immigration was a minor factor from 1774 to 1830. Over 90% were farmers, with several small cities that were also seaports linking the colonial economy to the larger British Empire.
Slavery was legal and practiced in each of the Thirteen Colonies. In most places it involved house servants or farm workers. It was of economic importance in the export-oriented tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland, and the rice and indigo plantations of South Carolina. About 287,000 slaves were imported into the Thirteen Colonies, or 2% of the 12 million slaves brought across from Africa. The great majority went to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil, where life expectancy was short and the numbers had to be continually replenished. Life expectancy was much higher in the U.S. Combined with a very high birth rate, the numbers grew rapidly by excesses of births over deaths, reaching nearly 4 million by the 1860 census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American slaves was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as rapid as that of England. However, Tadman attributes this to very high birth rates: "U.S. slaves, then, reached similar rates of natural increase to whites not because of any special privileges but through a process of great suffering and material deprivation".
British settlers did not come to the American colonies with the intention of creating a democratic system, yet by doing so without a land-owning aristocracy they created a broad electorate and a pattern of free and frequent elections that put a premium on voter participation. The colonies offered a much broader franchise than England or indeed any other country. White men with enough property could vote for members of the lower house of the legislature, and in Connecticut and Rhode Island they could even vote for governor. Legitimacy for a voter meant having an "interest" in society – as the South Carolina legislature said in 1716, "it is necessary and reasonable, that none but such persons will have an interest in the Province should be capable to elect members of the Commons House of Assembly." Women, children, indentured servants and slaves were subsumed under the interest of the family head. The main legal criterion for having an "interest" was ownership of property, which was narrowly based in Britain, and nineteen out of twenty men were controlled politically by their landlords. London insisted on it for the colonies, telling governors to exclude men who were not freeholders (that is, did not own land) from the ballot. Nevertheless land was so widely owned that 50% to 80% of the white men were eligible to vote.
The colonial political culture emphasized deference, so that local notables were the men who ran and were chosen. But sometimes they competed with each other, and had to appeal to the common man for votes. There were no political parties, and would-be legislators formed ad-hoc coalitions of their families, friends, and neighbors. Outside Puritan New England, election day brought in all the men from the countryside to the county seat to make merry, politick, shake hands with the grandees, and meet old friends, hear the speeches and all the while toasting, eating, treating, tippling, gaming and gambling. They voted by shouting their choice to the clerk, as supporters cheered or booed. Candidate George Washington spent £39 for treats for his supporters. The candidates knew they had to "swill the planters with bumbo (rum)." Elections were carnivals where all men were equal for one day and traditional restraints relaxed.
The actual rate of voting ranged from 20% to 40% of all adult white males. The rates were higher in Pennsylvania and New York, where long-standing factions, based on ethnic and religious groups, mobilized supporters at a higher rate. New York and Rhode Island developed long-lasting two-faction systems that held together for years at the colony level, but did not reach into local affairs. The factions were based on the personalities of a few leaders and an array of family connections, however, had little basis in policy or ideology. Elsewhere the political scene was in a constant whirl, and based on personality rather than long-lived factions or serious disputes on issues.
The colonies were independent of each other before 1774 as efforts led by Benjamin Franklin to form a colonial union through the Albany Congress of 1754 had failed. The thirteen all had well established systems of self-government and elections based on the Rights of Englishmen, which they were determined to protect from imperial interference. The vast majority of white men were eligible to vote.
The British Empire at the time operated under the mercantile system, where all trade was concentrated inside the Empire, and trade with other empires was forbidden. The goal was to enrich Britain—its merchants and its government. Whether the policy was good for the colonists was not an issue in London, but Americans became increasingly restive with mercantilist policies
Mercantilism meant that the government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires. The government protected its merchants—and kept others out—by trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries in order to maximize exports from and minimize imports to the realm. The government had to fight smuggling—which became a favorite American technique in the 18th century to circumvent the restrictions on trading with the French, Spanish or Dutch. The tactic used by mercantilism was to run trade surpluses, so that gold and silver would pour into London. The government took its share through duties and taxes, with the remainder going to merchants in Britain. The government spent much of its revenue on a superb Royal Navy, which not only protected the British colonies but threatened the colonies of the other empires, and sometimes seized them. Thus the British Navy captured New Amsterdam (New York) in 1664. The colonies were captive markets for British industry, and the goal was to enrich the mother country.
Britain implemented mercantilism by trying to block American trade with the French, Spanish or Dutch empires using the Navigation Acts, which Americans avoided as often as they could. The royal officials responded to smuggling with open-ended search warrants (Writs of Assistance). In 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis argued that the writs violated the constitutional rights of the colonists. He lost the case, but John Adams later wrote, "Then and there the child Independence was born."
However, the colonists took pains to argue that they did not oppose British regulation of their external trade, they only opposed legislation which was thought to impact them internally.
In 1762, Patrick Henry argued the Parson's Cause in the Colony of Virginia, where the legislature had passed a law and it was vetoed by the king. Henry argued, "that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience".
Following their victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, Great Britain took control of the French holdings in North America, outside the Caribbean. The British sought to maintain peaceful relations with those Indian tribes that had allied with the French, and keep them separated from the American frontiersmen. To this end, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 restricted settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains as this was designated an Indian Reserve. Disregarding the proclamation, some groups of settlers continued to move west and establish farms. The proclamation was soon modified and was no longer a hindrance to settlement, but the fact that it had been promulgated without their prior consultation angered the colonists.
Beginning with the intense protests over the Stamp Act of 1765, the Americans insisted on the principle of "no taxation without representation", representation being understood in the context of Parliament directly levying the duty or excise tax, and thus by-passing the colonial legislatures, which had levied taxes on the colonies in the monarch's stead prior to 1763. They argued that, as the colonies had no representation in the British Parliament, it was a violation of their rights as Englishmen for taxes to be imposed upon them. Those other British colonies that had assemblies largely agreed with those in the Thirteen Colonies, but they were thoroughly controlled by the British Empire and the Royal Navy, so protests were hopeless.
Parliament rejected the colonial protests and asserted its authority by passing new taxes. Trouble escalated over the tea tax, as Americans in each colony boycotted the tea and in Boston, dumped the tea in the harbor during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Tensions escalated in 1774 as Parliament passed the laws known as the Intolerable Acts, which, among other things, greatly restricted self-government in the colony of Massachusetts. In response the colonies formed extralegal bodies of elected representatives, generally known as Provincial Congresses. Colonists emphasized their determination by boycotting imports of British merchandise. Later in 1774 twelve colonies sent representatives to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. During the Second Continental Congress the thirteenth colony, Georgia, sent delegates. By spring 1775 all royal officials had been expelled from all thirteen colonies. The Continental Congress served as a de facto national government through the war that raised an army to fight the British and named George Washington its commander, made treaties, declared independence, and recommended that the colonies write constitutions and become states.
At the time of the war Britain had seven other colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America: Newfoundland, Rupert's Land (the area around the Hudson Bay), Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, East Florida, West Florida, and the Province of Quebec. There were other colonies in the Americas as well, largely in the British West Indies. These colonies remained loyal to the crown.
Newfoundland stayed loyal to Britain without question. It was exempt from the Navigation Acts and shared none of the grievances of the continental colonies. It was tightly bound to Britain and controlled by the Royal Navy and had no assembly that could voice grievances.
Nova Scotia had a large Yankee element that had recently arrived from New England, and shared the sentiments of the Americans about demanding the rights of the British men. The royal government in Halifax reluctantly allowed the Yankees of Nova Scotia a kind of "neutrality." In any case, the island-like geography and the presence of the major British naval base at Halifax made the thought of armed resistance impossible.
Quebec was inhabited by French Catholic settlers who came under British control in the previous decade. The Quebec Act of 1774 gave them formal cultural autonomy within the empire, and many priests feared the intense Protestantism in New England. The American grievances over taxation had little relevance, and there was no assembly nor elections of any kind that could have mobilized any grievances. Even so the Americans offered membership in the new nation and sent a military expedition that failed to capture Canada in 1775. Most Canadians remained neutral but some joined the American cause.
In the West Indies the elected assemblies of Jamaica, Grenada, and Barbados formally declared their sympathies for the American cause and called for mediation, but the others were quite loyal. Britain carefully avoided antagonizing the rich owners of sugar plantations (many of whom lived in London); in turn the planters' greater dependence on slavery made them recognize the need for British military protection from possible slave revolts. The possibilities for overt action were sharply limited by the overwhelming power of Royal Navy in the islands. During the war there was some opportunistic trading with American ships.
In Bermuda and the Bahamas local leaders were angry at the food shortages caused by British blockade of American ports. There was increasing sympathy for the American cause, including smuggling, and both colonies were considered "passive allies" of the United States throughout the war. When an American naval squadron arrived in the Bahamas to seize gunpowder, the colony gave no resistance at all.
East Florida and West Florida were territories transferred to Britain during the French and Indian War from Spain by treaty. The few British colonists there needed protection from attacks by Indians and Spanish privateers. After 1775, East Florida became a major base for the British war effort in the South, especially in the invasions of Georgia and South Carolina. However, Spain seized Pensacola in West Florida in 1781, then recovered both territories in the Treaty of Paris that ended the war in 1783. Spain ultimately transferred the Florida provinces to the United States in 1819.