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Image Rhythms of Regional Development

Every regional culture had its own history, which unfolded in its own way. But all of them passed through a similar sequence of stages which created a powerful rhythm in colonial history. The first stage was the transit of culture from Britain to America, in which individual actors played decisive roles. In Massachusetts, for example, Puritan leaders such as John Winthrop and John Cotton shaped the future of their region when they decided to bring the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company to the New World, to define church membership in a rigorous way, to create a standard model for town government, and to block the growth of a Puritan aristocracy in New England. In Virginia, Sir William Berkeley made many critical decisions when he recruited a colonial elite, encouraged the growth of slavery, drove out Puritans and Quakers, and discouraged schools and printing. In Pennsylvania, William Penn’s decisions transformed the history of a region—in the design of local institutions, the recruitment of German immigrants, and the content of libertarian laws. In the southern highlands the backcountry “ascendancy” played a seminal role. All of these cultural leaders gave a direction to regional development.

The second stage was a cultural crisis of great intensity. It always began as an internal conflict among immigrant elites who supported the founding purposes of their colony, but disagreed on issues of authority, order, and individual autonomy. In Massachusetts, the crisis came with the Separatist challenge of Roger Williams (1635-36) and the Antinomian Crisis of Anne Hutchinson (1638-39). In Virginia, the critical period was that of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) and the violent repression that followed

(1676-77). Pennsylvania’s crisis occurred in the 1690s, when William Penn briefly lost control of the colony (1692-94) and the Quaker colonists were deeply divided by the “Keithian schism” (1692). The critical time in the back settlements was the Regulation (1768-70). In each case a new clarity was brought to regional cultures by these events.

These crises were followed by a period of cultural consolidation which occurred in Massachusetts during the 1640s, in Virginia during the 1680s, in Pennsylvania during the early decades of the eighteenth century, and in the backcountry during the late eighteenth century. In every case, the dominant culture of each region was hardened into institutions which survived for many years. In Massachusetts, for example, courts, churches, towns, schools, and militia all were given their definitive shape in laws which were passed within the span of a few years, mostly in the period from 1636 to 1648. Something similar happened in most other colonies at comparable stages in their development.

This period of consolidation was followed by a complex and protracted process of cultural devolution. In New England, that trend occurred in the half-century from 1650 to 1700, when Puritans became Yankees. It happened in Virginia from 1690 to 1750, when Royalists became Whigs. It took place in the Delaware Valley during the transition from the second to the third stage of Quakerism, and the development of a more inward-looking faith in an increasingly pluralistic society. In the backcountry, it happened as backsettlers evolved into frontiersmen. In every instance, founding purposes were lost, but institutions were preserved and regional identities were given new life.17

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