H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 5

The last two weeks we discussed a specific and important phase of any transition — the effort to stabilize something new.  Those of you in your first years at college have surely been undergoing the same process:  a quest for some measure of stability, alongside some measure of change, hopefully in the right balance.  For some colonists in New England this effort to stabilize meant a commitment to strict social hierarchies and boundaries; for others, however, it meant adapting more loosely to new circumstances.  Awfully, and tragically, these efforts included an escalating displacement of coastal Native Americans — in other words, catastrophic damage to communities, and to families, and to individuals.  In more southern colonies, as well as in the Caribbean, these efforts included an escalating commitment to slave labor, and to the slave trade.  In other words, more catastrophic damage to communities, and to families, and to individuals.

This week we will shift our attention from stabilization to growth, especially the growth of population, of consumerism, of print culture, of self-improvement and social improvement projects, and of religious fervor.  White colonial American society in the eighteenth century would be characterized by an acceleration in the speed of change, whereas in the seventeenth century it had been characterized by an amplification in the magnitude of change.  In other words, the seventeenth century had seen greater change, whereas the eighteenth century would see faster change.  Faster change will, I suspect, make this period of history begin to look more recognizably modern to you.  Just as in the present, people in the past greeted such change in very different ways — some full of eagerness, as an opportunity; others full of anxiety, as a burden or threat.  As we shall see, people sought new ways to anchor themselves in an increasingly geographically and socially mobile world, and in that process they generated new, more “modern” cultural expectations.  That’s for lecture, though; the documents for this week concern three more traditionally-oriented elite men daunted by change and “modernity.”


Byrd, diary (1709-1712):  In this diary written in secret code (later deciphered by historians), William Byrd described his daily life on the bountiful Virginia plantation he inherited from his father, as well as his visits to the capital of Virginia as one of the leading politicians in the colony.  What kinds of work did Byrd do in his days?  How did he reinforce his authority over his various social subordinates, such as his spouse, his ship captains, his overseers, and his slaves?  What were the limits to his power to dictate the lives of others?  How did violence fit into his world?  How did sexuality?  How did piety?

NOTE:  I am providing enough of an excerpt of this diary so that you can feel the context of Byrd’s everyday life, and how violence and sexuality fit percussively into that everyday life.  Please be sure to read through it all, to feel that dailiness and that abruptness.  Warning:  The violence and sexuality may/should be somewhat troubling.

Washington, school exercise (ca. 1744):  In these rules of personal behavior that George Washington studiously wrote down as an adolescent (his family was wealthy enough for him to be home-tutored; he never attended college), long before he became famous as a “Founding Father,” what was the relationship between his personal self-discipline, and social evaluation by others?  What room was left for individuality?


Woodmason, diary and sermon notes (1767-1768):  Charles Woodmason was an Anglican missionary from England dispatched to and stationed, to his dismay, in the North Carolina backcountry.  There he encountered very little of what he deemed to be proper religion, and much more of what he deemed to be either no religion or wrong religion, among the colonists.  What were the boundaries that distinguished the people Woodmason preferred from the people he disliked?  (Consider social status, self-discipline, intellectualism, piety, sexuality, cleanliness, manners, et cetera.)