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Image Regional Conflict in the Colonies

From the start, the four major cultures of British America did not get on well with one another. Long before collisions of material interest developed, they were divided by conflicts of value. Puritan New Englanders detested the people of Virginia. As early as 1651 one Puritan observed of Virginians in general, “I think they are the farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.”1 This attitude of moral disapproval toward the Chesapeake settlers was shared by the Delaware colonists. When a young gentleman of New Jersey was preparing to take a job in Virginia, friends warned him that “the people there are profane, and exceeding wicked.”2

Virginians equally despised New England Puritans and Delaware Quakers. In 1736, William Byrd II expressed his contempt in a letter to the Earl of Egmont. “The saints of New England,” Byrd wrote, “I fear will find out some trick to evade your Act of Parliament. They have a great dexterity in palliating a perjury so as to leave no taste of it in the mouth, nor can any people like them slip through a penal statute. … A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.”3

One of the few points of agreement between Anglican Virginians and Puritan New Englanders was their common loathing of Quakers. However inoffensive the Society of Friends may seem today, they were genuinely hated in their own time as dangerous radicals, disturbers of the peace, and pious frauds and hypocrites who were said to “pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.”4

Many Quakers in turn not unreasonably developed an intense hatred of Puritans. Members of this sect which preached the idea of universal salvation made an exception for the people of New England. As late as 1795, a Pennsylvania Quaker collectively reviled all Yankees as “the flock of Cain.”5

The North British borderers who came to the backcountry were heartily disliked by Puritans, cavaliers and Quakers alike. New Englanders regarded them as savages and barbarians. A Pennsylvania Quaker called them the Goths and Vandals of

America; another described them as the “unlearned and uncivilized part of the human race.” Tidewater Virginians doubted that they were part of humanity at all; one cavalier defined them as “a spurious race of mortals.”6

The backsettlers reciprocated these opinions. In the Pennsylvania interior, the Paxton Boys slaughtered a group of peaceable Indians, and “made boast how they had gotten so many scalps they would go to Philadelphia and the Quakers should share the same fate.” There was also very bad blood between backcountry folk and the tidewater gentry in Virginia and the Carolinas, and between the North British backsettlers and New England Yankees.7

Familiarity did not improve these attitudes. On close acquaintance, various members of the four folk cultures were startled to discover how very different they were from one another. The New Jersey tutor Philip Fithian wrote to a Yankee friend about the Virginians, “their manner of living, their eating, drinking, diversions, exercise &c, are in many ways different from any thing you have been accustomed to.”8

On many occasions these antipathies gave rise to acts of violence. Fighting broke out repeatedly between Puritans and Quakers in central New Jersey. The inhabitants of the Delaware Valley and the people of Chesapeake region met in armed combat along what is now the Mason-Dixon Line. Backsettlers and tidewater folk came to blows in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. North Britons fought New Englanders in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Connecticut Valley after the Revolution.

These tensions were reduced by the simple expedient of physical separation. In the great American spaces, the four British folk cultures found room enough to protect their differences merely by moving apart. This process of spatial separation created a curious paradox in colonial America. “Early America,” observes John Roche, “was an open country dotted with closed enclaves.”9

To this general rule, there were many exceptions—notably in the seaport cities which collected very mixed populations. But in relative terms, the urban population of early America actually declined during the period from 1720 to 1775. At the same time, many rural parts of British America grew more uniform rather than less so, and more fixed in their traditional ways.

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