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Image American Development: Immigration and Race

British America also differed from other empires in another way. It was settled mainly by voluntary migration. Most British men and women made their own way to the New World. Many raised the price of their own passage, and freely chose to settle in a colony which was congenial to their culture. This pattern changed in the eighteenth century when large numbers of involuntary immigrants appeared: transported felons, soldiers under orders, and more than 250,000 African slaves. But even when this traffic was at its peak, most people came to America as volunteers.3

This voluntary migration was unique to the British colonies. In New France, a large part of the population was descended from conscripts, soldiers, sailors, basket women, “king’s girls,” civil servants, priests and nuns, and others who had been ordered to America, sometimes much against their will.4 Once arrived, these immigrants tended to be more closely controlled, except on the fringes of the colony. In Quebec, a secret organization of females called the Congregation of the Holy Family kept watch by a system of domestic espionage which had no counterpart in the English colonies.5 In New Spain, colonists were screened for religious and social orthodoxy, and kept under continuing surveillance by imperial authorities. The Spanish Inquisition became more active in Mexico than it had been in Iberia. Its worst excesses of cruelty and persecution were committed in the New World.6

British America’s voluntary migration encouraged religious diversity rather than uniformity. It also allowed like-minded colonists of various sects to settle together and to transplant their own folkways to the New World.

Immigration also promoted regional development in another way. For many years, the American colonies effectively became their own gatekeepers. They were able to control the process of immigration themselves, and did so in very different ways.

The Puritan colonies stubbornly enforced a policy of strict exclusion despite imperial opposition. The homogeneity of New England’s population was not an historical accident; it arose from the religious purposes and social values of a regional culture.

The founders of Pennsylvania had very different ideas about immigration. William Penn and the Quaker elite of the colony made a special effort to attract European Protestants whose values were compatible with their own. English Quakers, German Pietists and Swiss Anabaptists all believed deeply in the doctrine of the inner light, religious freedom, the ethic of work and the evil of violence. The immigration policy of the Quakers expanded the community of Christian values beyond the boundaries of their own sect, and deliberately encouraged a diversity of national stocks in the Delaware Valley.

The rulers of Virginia adopted still a third immigration policy. Puritans and Quakers were not welcome; many were banished or driven out. But the Virginians actively recruited a servile underclass to support their manorial ideal, first by bringing in large numbers of English servants, and then by importing African slaves. Their object was not merely to solve a problem of labor scarcity (which might have been done in many other ways) but to do so in a manner consistent with their hierarchical values.

The backsettlers were not able to control immigration to the southern highlands in any formal way. But local neighborhoods had other methods of deciding who would go or stay. The old folk custom of “hating out” was used when necessary. The prevailing cultural climate also had a similar effect; in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for example, Quakers and Congregationalists left the southern backcountry, moving north to a more congenial cultural environment.

Local control of immigration thus tended to reinforce cultural differences between regions. Even as most parts of British America became more diverse during the eighteenth century, they did so in very different ways, according to purposes and values of their founders.

One effect of immigration was to change the racial composition of the four major regions of British America. African slaves were imported to every colony, but in very different proportions. In many parts of New England blacks were never more than 1 percent of the population before 1760; in some southern coastal counties, blacks were more than a majority by that date.

To understand the relationship between race and regional culture in British America, one must study carefully the timing and sequence of historical change. An important and neglected fact about race slavery in British America is that it developed very slowly. Africans did not begin to arrive in large numbers until the late seventeenth century. The presence of blacks did not begin to have a major cultural impact on British America until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Then, the impact was profound. The problem of race relations moved rapidly to the center of cultural history in the plantation colonies. African folkways also began to transform the language and culture of Europeans, and the “peculiar institution” of slavery created new folkways of its own.

These great and complex processes will be studied in the second volume of this work, “American Plantations.” In this first volume, the major conclusion is that race slavery did not create the culture of the southern colonies; that culture created slavery.

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