Essay on The Role of Race, Religion, Violence, and Gender on Early America

The English colonists, regardless of what ship they boarded to immigrate to the New World, all had a common purpose in coming – to start a new life. However, as the different colonies began to develop, the difference in background and heritage began to manifest. After reading Everyday Life in Early America by David Freeman Hawke, one could infer that the way of life in the North was very different from the South, due to several factors. Difference in race invariably led to violent outbreaks. Gender was another aspect in early America. Although these factors shaped the way of life in colonial America, none did so much as religion.

Men and women of the colonial days are mostly, and wrongly associated with their great difference in daily roles. There were only a few differences, none of which were very impacting on the overall way of life. Gender was the least important factor. The men and women performed the same duties on the farm. Their roles differed in the house, however, but only in the way one would expect. The women took care of the cooking and children, while the men went hunting and brought in firewood. In the Chesapeake area, where the men outnumbered the women three to one, an intelligent, strong and farm-handy woman was a rare “commodity” and women were therefore viewed with as much respect as men. The law also saw men equal to women. According to Hawke’s, “[the men] were punished with an equally even and harsh hand [as the women].” In terms or social rank, a woman’s rose equally with her husband’s. “If he progressed to a higher office, he might sign the record as ‘Mr. Jones, Esq.’ and his wife thereby dared to call herself ‘madam’” The settler’s priority was survival, not the separation of classes. Peter H. Wood wrote, “Common hardships and the continuing shortage of hands put the…separate sexes upon a more equal footing than they would see in subsequent generations.”

The difference in race was both beneficial to the growth of the colonies and a malevolent force. However, the English colonies were not very diverse, so the differences within could not be too impacting. As Hawke puts it, “‘Melting pot’ is a myth America cherishes. No such thing existed in early America, with the exception of the blacks…Only the blacks were forced to meld.” Blacks, although considered inferior to whites, were not discriminated against at first. The colonists’ mother country had no precedents for dealing with slaves, so the only guidelines they had were the white indentured servants. The indecisiveness of the colonists on the issue of blacks slowed the growth of blacks, as well as the discrimination against them. The geography of the colonies also slowed the process. In the North, the land was of worse quality, and farming wasn’t the main industry, so slaves or an extra labor force were not needed. In the South, the life expectancy was short, making the purchase of a slave cost prohibitive and risky. Paying for an indentured servant was more reasonable. Only when the health in the South improved did the slaves begin to make up a substantial portion of the population.

The Native Americans were a completely different story. The English resented them from the beginning. They were “bad people having little of humanity but shape, ignorant of civility or arts, or religion; more brutish than the beasts they hunt; more wild and unmanly than that unmanned wild country…their treacheries exceed Machiavelli’s.”. The whites were not much better, however. They stole, killed and cheated the Indians out of almost everything they had. Just because the law prohibited the selling of alcohol to Indians didn’t mean that the settlers didn’t use it to bait them. The whites made many efforts to force themselves upon the Indians, almost all of which were failures because of the Indian’s loyalty to his culture. This refusal of cultural assimilation made the factor of race almost insignificant in the shaping of America. The white man would in later centuries push the natives away from their home lands, forcing them into small and infertile reservations.

On the same token, the refusal brought in another very important and significant factor – war and violence. The belligerent Indians posed a major threat against the colonists. They used guerilla warfare, catching the colonists off guard. They were used to the more “honorable” method from their mother country of lining up in neat rows and firing at the whites of their enemies’ eyeballs. Where the threat of Indian attack was most serious, the colonists formed their militia to keep themselves prepared. The militia mustered every month or week, depending on the threat, and “practiced” their marksmanship, battle maneuvers, etc. Unless the threat was serious, a flashy brandishing of the musket sufficed as a muster day and the only line of defense for the colonies was reduced to a line of drunken singing men. However, when the colonists willed it, their military could be a formidable force. The Puritans in New England successfully defended their borders while defeating the Pequot tribe in the Pequot War of 1636. In the Indian’s most successful war, King Phillip’s War in 1675-76, “it was not uncommon for a soldier to come upon a murdered pregnant woman with the embryo ripped from her womb and elevated on a stick or pole, as a trophy of victory and an object of horror to the survivors.” Such brutality performed by the Indians only furthered the British theory of the Indians being savage beasts.

While gender, race, and violence set early America apart, the most impacting factor was religion. Many of the colonies had been founded for religious purposes. The New England colonies were a refuge for the Puritans. Pennsylvania and New Jersey became refuges for the Quakers. In Maryland, a refuge for Catholics, Lord Baltimore issued the Act of Toleration. Rhode Island was a refuge for any religion. Religion had a large role especially in Puritan New England. They led relatively strict lives compared to the drunkenness of the Virginia colony. They were so zealous in their beliefs that they went as far as burning women at the stakes on charges of witchcraft. Religion also played an important role in the rites and ceremonies. Hawke reports that because of all the diverse beliefs and environments in early America, “several holidays were observed only by specific colonies, but four marked the seasons and were generally accepted everywhere: Lady’s day – March 25, Midsummer – June 24, Michaelmas – September 29, [and] Christmas – December 25.” The lack of religious observance seemed to disturb several people. A traveler stranded at Boston on a Sunday deplored what he saw, “…all their religion consists in observing Sunday by not working or going to the taverns that day…Saturday evening the constable goes round into the taverns [to stop] all noise and debauchery, which frequently causes his search…to stop.” On a darker note, the strict following of these observances often led to the death of many colonists for things that today would be punishable only by imprisonment or compensation fees, such as slander, adultery, robbery, buggery, sodomy, rape, fornication, and insurrection. Hawke mentions a rather disturbing instance “where a teenage lad who ‘was detected of buggery and indicated for the same, with a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey. Accordingly he was cast by the jury and condemned…the [cow was killed in front of him], then he was executed.’” A Virginian found guilty of slander was “disarmed and had his arms broken and his tongue bored through with an awl. [He then] pass[ed] through a guard of forty men and [was] butted by every one of them, and at the head of the troop kicked down and [trampled over;] that he shall be banished out of James City…” The falsely triggered mass hysteria in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, known to us today as the Salem Witch Trials, resulted in the death over five hundred thousand innocent people by hanging, drowning, being slowly crushed to death, and other gruesome methods of execution. People, for fear of having their shoulders dislocated, nostrils seared, and tongue pierced, tended to steer away from trouble, leading to the strict and simple lives, still evident today in the Amish society.

The formation of America was slow and gradual. Over time, the difference in gender and race, which led to violence, helped shape the colonies to what they were like when the Revolution broke out. Religion molded society the most, however, with strict precepts and punishments that would only be disregarded as cruel and unusual today.

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