The Southern and Chesapeake Bay Colonies were rather similar in outlook and social mores since both were built on agriculture and a slave economy from the outset. These contrast with the New England colonies which although also focusing on agriculture were far more rigorous in their social and religious outlook due to the fact that they were Puritans and as such committed to the liberty of man. Since the Chesapeake Bay colonies were more focused on agricultural production and crops such as tobacco, they were more liable to vice and maltreatment of slaves. Let us take a look at the Chesapeake and Southern colonies attitude on agriculture first.
The Head right in the Chesapeake Bay economy
An issue which was unique to the US colonies at an early stage was the granting of the Head right in the Southern and Chesapeake Bay economies. This was the absolute right to receive fifty acres of land for any immigrant who settled in Virginia and was initially intended to diversify the settlement and eventual ownership of small farms for the growing of important staple crops such as rice, indigo and tobacco with the latter being grown for profitable purposes.
A system of social standing then came into being with the result that one could be ranked according to wealth and this led to the obtaining of land for further cultivation. Since the granting of the Head right was also given to those who paid for the passage of indentured servants, there was an opportunity to acquire more land for agriculture in this manner. This led to the acquiring of massive estates of land which were put to agricultural purposes and as such the urban development of these colonies was very much on the back burner. This led to the development of large agricultural estates in the Atlantic coastal areas. Relations with Indians were also an issue since these were troublesome so the new settlers chose the country as their breeding ground.
However the lopsided creation of vast ownership created a society which was essentially quite polarised. Most of the indentured servants who had been in the colony already were priced out of the acquiring of land and this created considerable resentment and conflict. Additionally the unstable tobacco prices created a situation where economic depression was largely prevalent and this led to Bacon’s Rebellion where several farmers rose against the ruling classes as well as Indians. This led the farmers to crave for the large tracts of Indian lands which were lying fallow and also led to an explosion of the importation of slaves from Africa.
Trade on a global level in the Chesapeake economy
The global trade which was created for the Chesapeake Bay economies focused on agricultural products as might be expected. The main crops which were exported included rice, tobacco and indigo but there was also considerable trade in deerskins which was concentrated in the Charleston area of South Carolina. These exported goods ended up in Britain since trade was very restricted as these were British colonies after all.
Although there were advantages to such a restricted trade since there were always buyers for such products, the disadvantages were plentiful since trade was restricted to one country alone thus several thousand potential buyers were excluded. However there was always a growing demand for such products and prices continued to rise giving the Southern economies a boost. This obviously led to the increased importation of slaves and this disproportionately affected the farmers with Charleston becoming one of the most important slave markets. There was thus increased production of the agricultural crops and this led to more profit accordingly.
Religion and social structure
The Protestant religion remained the main one in the Southern and Chesapeake Bay colonies and everything was controlled by a rather strict social structure. Obviously those who were at the top of the social scale were the English landowning families who controlled vast tracts of land as well as hundreds, even thousands of slaves and servants. After them came what is now known as the middle class or professionals such as lawyers and doctors followed by merchants and small shop owners and moderately well off farmers. Finally there were the indentured servants who were little more than slaves although these had a certain element of liberty. However most of these came from a social underclass which was exported from Britain including convicts and common criminals so they were undoubtedly vulnerable to evil ways and vices. Due to the rigid social rules evident in the South, everyone was kept in their place with the slaves at the bottom end of the pile – these faced a terrible retribution if they wished to rise above their station and more often than not, their punishment was death if they transgressed.
The Middle Colonies – contrasts and comparisons
What were known variously as the Middle or Mid-Atlantic colonies were those which formed the bulk of the New Netherlands colony until this was taken over by the British? This eventually became the Province of New York and the Duke of York granted several tracts of land to settlers who wished to cultivate and populate the region. Eventually the colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware grew out of this large colony.
Unlike the Southern and Chesapeake Bay colonies, the Middle colonies focused more on the growing of wheat and grain due to the abundantly rich soil which was prevalent in the region. The economy also focused on lumber and shipbuilding industries and in Pennsylvania there was a growing iron and textile industry with the area also well known for its mining. Thus the focus was far more industrial in these colonies than in the South where it was typically agricultural.
Another aspect where the Middle Colonies differed from the South was its tolerance of religions. This was due to the fact that there were several displaced populations from Europe who immigrated to the United States in the mid-18th century thus bringing with them a large variety of religious beliefs. This made the Middle colonies surprisingly tolerant of other religions although they remained Puritan in their outlook.
Industry and economy
Large amounts of German and Scandinavian families began seeping into the Middle colonies in the early 18th century thus bringing with them their knowhow of industry and other related branches of production. This also meant that mind-set of the Middle Colonies had no time for slavery as practised in the South so these colonies were relatively slave free practically from the outset. There was also a considerable influx of Scotch-Irish settlers into these colonies which changed the urban landscape whilst others were French and Swiss Protestants as well as Dutch.
Politically the situation was quite similar to the Southern colonies with a Royal Governor running the colony aided by a number of elected assemblies. Occasionally there could be unrest when the governors instigated some unpopular decisions but up till the mid 1750’s the situation was relatively calm.
Population spread and social class.
The Middle Colonies were quite similar to the Southern and New England colonies in the sense that several landholdings were small and ranged from around 50 up to 150 acres. However there was no real landed class where large tracts of land were taken up by the landed gentry and the wealthy as what occurred in the South. The population spread was generally varied and there was a lot of social tolerance unlike what occurred in the South where slavery created a huge underclass which suffered considerably on every level. The influx of the Lutheran religion led the area to become strongly Protestant. The influx of Welsh Quakers let to the establishment of the Rhode Island colony however that was strictly speaking part of New England although there was an occasional conflict of boundaries. The system of indentured servitude was widely practised in the Middle England colonies since there was not much of a labour supply however although there were slaves in some of the Middle Colonies, most of these were restricted to domestic work.
Conclusion – sister colonies but different
The Southern colonies were mostly based on agriculture and had slavery as the mainstay of their economy. This was not the case in the Middle Colonies where the system of indentured servitude was mostly put in force as well as a relatively benign system of religious tolerance. Although social class was important in the Middle colonies, the Southern ones enforced this quite strictly and were thus relatively less enlightened on social issues. These could be said to be the main differences between both sets of colonies.
Channing, Edward (1908). A History of the United States: vol. 2, A Century of Colonial History, 1660-1760. MacMillan.
Doyle, John Andrew. English Colonies in America: Volume IV The Middle Colonies (1907) online
Ebeling, Walter (1979). The Fruited Plain: The Story of American Agriculture. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-03751-9. Retrieved 22 February 2010.