Writing in 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur tried to define "the American, this new man." He was, Crèvecoeur argued, "neither a European nor a descendant of a European" but an "American, who, leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds." Crèvecoeur presumed that America was a melting pot, that the environment created a homogeneous American culture, with similar values, beliefs, and social practices. Such cultural uniformity is inherently plausible. After all, most white colonial Americans worked the soil, enjoying the fruits of their labor, and practiced similar Protestant faiths. Moreover, they believed in private ownership of the means of production by individual cultivators. Generations of scholars, following the lead of Frederick Jackson Turner in the early twentieth century, argued that free and open land on the frontier created an American people whose identity was shaped by the independence land ownership provided and whose ideology was characterized by individualism, democracy, and equality of opportunity.
Colonial cultures, however, were far less uniform than Crèvecoeur imagined. The women and men who peopled early America--Native Americans, Africans, East Anglians, Welsh, Germans, Dutch, among many others--invented conflicting popular cultures, meshing the beliefs and practices of their birthplaces with the demands of the American environment and the cultures of their neighbors. Indians and Africans, a substantial part of the colonial population, have been ignored in models of cultural uniformity. Even white Protestant immigrants created diverse cultures. While sharing a common religious vision, Puritans and Anglicans, Baptists and Quakers, differed vehemently in the particulars of their faiths. In America, without the pressure of a strong Anglican established church, the particularities of each group were accentuated. By the end of the seventeenth century, the main lines of most of American popular cultures could be clearly seen.
Notwithstanding continuing cultural differences among ethnic groups, there was some cultural convergence in the eighteenth century, a tendency for division among white colonists between a popular culture of the vast majority and a high culture of the ruling few who emulated their peers in England. Such cultural convergence within social classes had several sources. Waves of evangelical revivalism touched every colony at different times between the 1730s and 1780s, democratizing and personalizing religion, Christianizing the unchurched everywhere. Newly rich merchants, great planters, and lawyers received similar educations, built mansions in the English manner, and indulged in conspicuous consumption far beyond the reach of middling farmers.
The development of vernacular cultures in the colonial era depended upon two contrasting geographic facts: widely dispersed settlement and concentrated ethnic enclaves. Even on the eve of independence, most Americans--Indians and settlers alike--lived in isolated farm neighborhoods or villages, separated from neighbors a few miles away by almost impenetrable forests. Most were surrounded by people like themselves: Iroquois lived with Iroquois, Germans settled in Pennsylvania villages, East Anglians dominated many New England towns. Under such circumstances, contrasting popular cultures could flourish. An examination of three cultural indicators--forms of agriculture, patterns of social order, and family and gender mores--before colonization and after American settlement among Indians, New Englanders, white Virginians, and backcountry residents will suggest the ways that the interplay of received culture and environment made new popular cultures. Such an analysis, however, hardly exhausts the diversity of cultures in early America, ignoring, for example, African-Americans in the Chesapeake colonies and coastal...
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