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Our Colonial Heritage Essay

By jstanhope14 Dec 18, 2012 1270 Words
A.P. U.S. History
8-7-2012
Many things in life become easier when one is prepared.  Such preparation is required to adequately complete an essay responding to the quote “Historians sometimes view the first hundred years of the colonial experience mainly as preparation for the last fifty.” (White, p. 209).  This quote from Our Colonial Heritage by William White is more complex than meets the eye.  Key words in the sentence include “hundred”, “colonial”, “preparation”, and “fifty”.  Analyzing all four of these words is critical before jumping into a scholastic endeavor, for example developing an essay on the topic.  After doing just that, or even from just considering the context of the quote, it isn’t hard to realize that White was talking about the changing of the people who left Britain during the late 16th century and early 17th century for a new land that they would eventually name America.  Overtime, these soon-to-be-Americans would drift away from their British, or colonial heritage and begin to build the American Character.  Because of different survival, social, and religious needs, as well as needs for the general well-being of the colonies, many British traditions and attitudes would be changed to improve their standard of living in America.  In fact, Charles M. Andrews said “The half century from 1713 to 1763 is the period during which the life of the colonists attained its highest level of stability and regularity.” (p. 209).  While the colonists were just adapting their lives, and showed no major signs of intentional, deliberate changes to their culture, Vernon L. Parrington suggests that elements of our national character were quietly or even subconsciously formed, and that “The undistinguished years of the early and middle eighteenth century, rude and drab in their insularity, were the creative springtime of democratic America...” (p. 209)  With many sources agreeing, including The American Pageant and Our Colonial Heritage, the first 150 years of the colonial experience included 100 years of preparation for the next 50 years of change.

Think of when someone goes on vacation somewhere far, far away; a place they’ve never been to before.  The first couple of days at this new place, people spend their time figuring out where to go how to act, and what to do.  If there is a climate change people may have to change their dress, their diet, or other behaviors to accommodate the natural change in climate.  In these first couple of days, tourists are preparing themselves for what is ahead.  The first hundred years of the colonial experience worked basically the same way for the Britains.  They arrived, developed communities, and started to get a feel for the land.  Of course, since they were planning on living here permanently, and not just visiting like in the example, they needed more time to adapt.  After about 4 generations of people had experienced the new land, the British naturally began to change into Americans, and form the American character, which is still changing today.  100 years of the colonists living by their old, now foreign standards, and dealing with many problems that arose because of these standards, led to 50 years of change.  Many aspects of their lives were changed, including their interests in literature and the arts. Samuel Eliot Morison says it well: “...puritanism not only did not prevent, but stimulated an interest in the classics, belles-lettres, poetry, and scientific research.” (p. 214).  With this being said, White writes that “The influence of Puritans and Yankees on the American culture has undoubtedly been great, and it is difficult to determine where the influence of one leaves off and the other begins.” (p.214). Literature wasn’t the only thing that changed during the 50 year period that followed the hundred years of ‘preparation’, as other social traditions and customs were taken from the British and woven into the flag of American character.  One may agree with White, who in Our Colonial Heritage says “Many American political institutions grew out of the colonial period.” (p. 220). Many of these include two-house legislatures, written constitutions or charters, justices of peace, and representative government.  “All were borrowed from England but all were modified by the American environment and experience.” (p. 220).

Another way that someone could describe the 150 years of colonial times would be that during the first hundred, the colonists were still British, while during the next 50, the colonists were Americans.  Of course, the switch didn’t happen as suddenly as the description makes it seem, but it provides a guideline for one’s understanding.  In the last 50 years of the colonial period, slavery would come to affect the transition from British to Americans very greatly.  When the British arrived in America, they vastly increased their use of slavery..  The hardworking, self-dependent people that existed in Britain had now become lazier, more lackadaisical,  and dependent on slaves.  The overall behavior and outlook on life, including certain aspirations, were changed when the use of slavery was introduced.  Slaves to grow tobacco, slaves to run the farm, and many other types of slaves were put to work when the British arrived in America.  In reference to the colonial experience, White says “...certain attitudes became fixed and certain tendencies became apparent.” (p. 210).  Among these tendencies were laziness and the dependence of others.  The British colonists were beginning to develop the American character that is known today.   A case can be made that the American character is just an Americanized version of the Europeans style of living.  Thomas J. Wertenbaker argued that “The Virginian aristocrat, despite his conscious imitation of the English squires, despite the tenacity with which he clung to English traditions, was not really an Englishman at all, but an American.” (p. 217).  One of the meanings behind this quote is that while the colonists had gone through their 150 year transformation, and had indeed become Americans, no longer identified as being British, they still originated as Englishmen, and had been affected by the American culture that was formed after the hundred year preparatory phase from the 17th-18th centuries.   Reading and analyzing Our Colonial Heritage by William White can provide a basis for understanding why “Historians sometimes view the first hundred years of the colonial experience mainly as preparation for the last fifty.” (p. 209).  With some thought and a little research, even someone who doesn’t have good background knowledge on the history of the colonial experience can understand how “Many ideas and traditions that developed during the colonial period had English roots,” (p. 223) and that “The colonial experience modified them, however, producing a new economic, social, and political entity.” (p. 223).  The transition of ideas and the way of the life for the colonists is hard to make identifiable with being for the better or for the worse, and it would depend on who is testifying and what their personal biases are.  What is certain though is that “This new American entity offered a man seemingly unlimited resources and opportunities, and for the average man this meant that his future was far more important than his past.” (p. 223).  Some of the remnants of the transition from being British to being American during the colonial period are still present today.  Just as Americans were being viewed as lazy and dependent back in the eighteenth century, Americans are still viewed as extremely dependent in terms of goods and materials. Some of the effects of those 150 years that make up the colonial time period have been carried into the 21st century, and are still being changed and formed.

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