Modern history

Political Awakenings

The effects of eighteenth-century religious awakenings rippled out from churches and revivals to influence social and political relations. In various areas of life, colonists began to question the right of those in power to impose their will on the community as a whole. Similar issues had surfaced before the revivals, but New Light clergy gave greater weight to political and social challenges, allowing colonists to view their resistance to traditional authorities as part of their larger effort to create a better and more just world.

Changing Political Relations

The settlements of the seventeenth century could be regulated with a small number of officials, and in most colonies male settlers agreed on who should rule. However, with geographical expansion, population growth, and commercial development, colonial officials—whether appointed by the crown or selected by local residents— found themselves confronted with a more complex, and more contentious, situation. Most officials were educated men who held property and had family ties to other colonial elites. Although they made decisions locally, ultimate political authority—or sovereignty—rested with the king and Parliament. The crown appointed governors, judges, and other royal officials and approved those elected locally. The king and Parliament held veto power over colonial legislation and made all decisions about war and peace. Finally, they set policy for the colonies in such critical areas as taxes and duties and military service.

While ultimate political sovereignty rested with authorities in England, the king and Parliament were too distant to have a hand in the daily workings of colonial life. Even royal officials appointed to carry out official policies often discovered that what sounded good in London was not practicable in North America. Another factor that weakened the power of royal officials was the tradition of town meetings and representative bodies, like the Virginia House of Burgesses, that had emerged within the colonies, giving colonists a stake in their own governance. Officials in England and the colonies assumed that most people would defer to those in authority, and they minimized resistance by holding public elections in which freemen cast ballots by voice vote. Not surprisingly, those with wealth and power, who often treated voters with food and drink on election days, continued to win office.

Still, evidence throughout the colonial period indicates that deference to authority was not always sufficient to maintain order. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Bacon’s Rebellion, the Stono rebellion, the Salem witchcraft trials, and the radical preaching of James Davenport make clear that not everyone willingly supported their supposed superiors. These episodes of dissent and protest were widely scattered across time and place. But as the ideas disseminated by New Light clergy converged with changing political relations, resistance to established authority became more frequent and more collective.

Virginia House of Burgesses This engraving depicts the Virginia House of Burgesses as it looked around 1740. Established in 1619, this legislature was the oldest institution of self-government in British North America. White men over the age of seventeen who owned land could vote for its members. After 1699, the House of Burgesses met in Williamsburg, where it remained throughout the colonial period. The Granger Collection, New York

Dissent and Protest

Protests against colonial elites multiplied from the 1730s on. The issues and methods varied, but they indicate a growing sense of political and economic autonomy among North American colonists. Some protests focused on royal officials like governors and Royal Navy captains; others focused on local authorities, merchants, or large landowners. Whatever the target of resistance, protests demonstrated colonists’ belief that they had rights that were worth protecting, even against those who held legitimate authority. Just as importantly, dissenters included the poor, women, and African Americans as well as property-owning white men.

Access to reasonably priced food, especially bread, inspired regular protests in the eighteenth century. During the 1730s, the price of bread—a critical staple in colonial diets—rose despite falling wheat prices and a recession in seaport cities. Bread rioters attacked grain warehouses, bakeries, and shops, demanding more bread at lower prices. Like similar protests in Europe, these riots were often successful in the short run, though eventually prices began to rise again. They were often led by women, who were responsible for putting bread on the table; thus when grievances involved domestic or consumer issues, women felt they had the right to make their voices heard.

Public markets were another site where struggles over food led to collective protests. In 1737, for instance, Boston officials decided to construct a public market and charge fees to farmers who sold their goods there. Small farmers, who were used to selling produce from the roadside for free, clashed with officials and with larger merchants over the venture. Many Boston residents supported the protesters because the market fees would lessen competition and raise prices for consumers. When petitions to city officials had no effect, opponents demolished the market building and stalls in the middle of the night. Local authorities could find no witnesses to the crime. Like bread riots, the success of this protest was short-lived. Officials built another market; nonetheless, the protest had demonstrated the collective power of those with limited resources.

Access to land was also a critical issue in the colonies. Beginning in the 1740s, protests erupted on estates in New Jersey and along the Hudson River in New York over the leasing policies of landlords as well as the amount of land controlled by speculators. When tenants and squatters petitioned colonial officials and received no response, they took collective action. They formed groups, targeted specific landlords, and then burned barns, attacked livestock, and emptied houses and farm buildings of furniture and tools. Eventually, they established regional committees to hear grievances and formed “popular” militia companies and courts to mete out justice to those who refused to renegotiate rental agreements and prices. When landlords and colonial officials called out local militia to arrest the perpetrators, they failed to consider that militia members were often the same poor men whose protests they ignored.

In seaport cities, a frequent source of conflict was the impressment of colonial men who were forcibly drafted into service in the Royal Navy. British officials, caught up in nearly continuous warfare in Europe, periodically raided portside communities in order to fill their complement of sailors. Not only sailors but also dockworkers and men drinking at taverns along the shore might find themselves suddenly inducted into military service. Facing high mortality rates, bad food, rampant disease, and harsh discipline on navy ships, these impressed men were unwilling to wait while colonial officials complained to the British government about the labor shortages that impressment caused. Instead, they fought back. In 1747 in Boston, a general impressment led to three days of rioting. An observer noted that “Negros, servants, and hundreds of seamen seized a naval lieutenant, assaulted a sheriff, and put his deputy in stocks, surrounded the governor’s house, and stormed the Town House (city hall).” Such riots did not end the system of impressment, but they showed that colonists would battle those who sought to deprive them of their liberty.

The religious upheavals and economic uncertainties of the 1730s and 1740s led colonists to challenge colonial and British officials with greater frequency than in earlier decades. But most protests also accentuated class lines as the poor, small farmers, and craftsmen fought against merchants, landowners, and local officials. Still, the resistance to impressment proved that colonists could mobilize across economic differences when British policies affected diverse groups of colonial subjects.

Transforming Urban Politics

The development of cross-class alliances in the 1730s and 1740s was also visible in the more formal arena of colonial politics. Beginning in the 1730s, some affluent political leaders in cities like New York and Philadelphia began to seek support from a wider constituency. In most cases, it was conflicts among the elite that led to these appeals to the “popular” will. In 1731, for instance, a new royal charter confirmed New York City’s existence as a “corporation” and stipulated the rights of freemen (residents who could vote in local elections after paying a small fee) and freeholders (individuals, whether residents or not, who held property worth £40 and could vote on that basis). A large number of artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers acquired the necessary means to vote, and shopkeepers and master craftsmen now sat alongside wealthier men on the Common Council. Yet most laboring men did not participate actively in elections until 1733, when local elites led by Lewis Morris sought to mobilize the mass of voters against royal officials, like Governor William Cosby, appointed in London.

Morris, a wealthy man and a judge, joined other colonial elites in believing that the royal officials recently appointed to govern New York were tied to ministerial corruption in England. Morris thus presented himself as the voice of the common man when he ran against a candidate approved by Cosby. On election day, hundreds of his supporters marched across the town green of Eastchester behind “two Trumpeters and 3 Violines.” His opponent also mustered followers on horseback, escorted by royal officials, including the “high sheriff.” But the voters chose Morris. The Morrisites then helped launch a newspaper, published by John Peter Zenger, a printer, to mobilize laborers, shopkeepers, and artisans on their behalf.

In his New-York Weekly Journal, Zenger leaped into the political fray, accusing Governor Cosby and his cronies of corruption, incompetence, election fraud, and tyranny. The vitriolic attacks led to Zenger’s indictment for seditious libel and his imprisonment in November 1734. At the time, libel related only to whether published material undermined government authority, not whether it was true or false. But Zenger’s lead attorney, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, argued that truth must be recognized as a defense against charges of libel. Appealing to a jury of Zenger’s peers, Hamilton proclaimed, “It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. . . . It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.” In response, jurors ignored the law as written and acquitted Zenger. A pamphlet about the case, authored by one of his lawyers and printed by Zenger in 1736, gained a wide readership in Britain and America.

Although the decision in the Zenger case did not lead to a change in British libel laws, it did signal the willingness of colonial juries to side with fellow colonists against king and Parliament, at least when it came to their right to censure public officials. Building on their success, Morris and his followers continued to gain popular support. In 1737 his son, Lewis Morris Jr., was appointed speaker of the new Assembly, and the Assembly appointed Zenger as its official printer. But soon after this victory, the group fell into disarray when royal officials offered political prizes to a few of their leaders. Indeed, the elder Morris accepted appointment as royal governor of New Jersey, after which he switched allegiances and became an advocate of executive authority. Nonetheless, the political movement he led had aroused ordinary freemen to participate in elections, and newspapers and pamphlets now readily attacked corrupt officials and threats to the rightful liberties of British colonists.

Even as freemen gained a greater voice in urban politics, they could challenge the power of economic and political leaders only when the elite were divided. Moreover, the rewards they gained sometimes served to reinforce class divisions. Thus many city workers had benefited when the elder Morris used his influence to ensure the building of the city’s first permanent almshouse in 1736. The two-year project employed large numbers of artisans and laborers in a period of economic contraction. Once built, however, the almshouse became a symbol of the growing gap between rich and poor in the city and in the colonies more generally. Its existence was also used by future city councils as a justification to eliminate other forms of relief, leaving the poor in worse shape than before.


• How did ordinary colonists, both men and women, black and white, express their political opinions and preferences in the first half of the eighteenth century?

• How did politics bring colonists together across economic lines in the first half of the eighteenth century? How did politics highlight and reinforce class divisions?

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