Colonial America African-Americans in Colonial America Experienced Essay

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Colonial America

African-Americans in Colonial America experienced the United States differently, depending on whether they lived in the North or South. The John Catherwood letter indicates many aspects of Colonial life between a merchant and a secretary to the Governor in New York State. Finally, examination of the Craftsmen, Plantation Owners and Slaves on a plantation illustrates the three major classes in Colonial America.

African-Americans in the 17th and 18th Centuries -- Southern vs. Northern

African-Americans in Colonial America experienced the United States differently, depending on whether they lived in the North or South. The American South of the 17th and 18th Centuries was dominated by agriculture with a climate allowing relatively long growing seasons, particularly by plantations, and was highly dependent on legalized slave labor. As a result, the "average" African-American living in the South during this period chiefly worked as a slave who labored in agriculture. In addition, little regard was given to the family structure supporting a slave, as they were property readily bought and sold because of the owners' interests; consequently, slave families were typically split up and fragmented. Another outgrowth of deeming African-American slaves as property was their housing in buildings that were suitable for property such as animals rather than for humans. In addition, African-American slaves were not allowed to read, write, own land or vote. The social activities of the Southern African-American were severely curtailed by several factors: forcibly enslaved with other African-Americans with different languages and cultures, these African-Americans did not tend to make cultural ties with each other; their status as subhuman property meant they were not allowed to freely associate with each other for fear of uprisings and possible escapes. Finally, the religious traditions of African-Americans, including their religions, were severely damaged by the brutal separation of some and forced clumping of others in slavery, allowing African-American slaves to only minimally follow their religious traditions and practices. Meanwhile, slave owners militated against teaching Christianity to the African-American, as Christianity tended to undermine the bases of slavery. In sum, the African-American living in Southern Colonial America was severely oppressed and limited in essential areas of life.

The African-American in Northern Colonial America enjoyed at least some measures of freedom in essential areas of life. Since the North was more industrialized and less dependent on agriculture, there were fewer agriculture-supporting African-Americans in the North. In addition, the nature of slavery tended to be milder than the slavery of the South and many African-Americans were actually indentured servants who could eventually earn their freedom. Also, a strong anti-slavery movement arose in the North, arguing strongly for the freedom of African-Americans and their treatment according to Christian principles. As a result, though not treated on an equal footing with White Americans, many African-Americans in the North were able to obtain their freedom and work in many jobs that were also occupied by Whites, for example, as seaport workers and shop owners. In addition, African-Americans were not forcibly split up and lumped together by slavery, allowing them to more readily maintain their families, traditions and religions in more culturally similar living arrangements. Finally, the dominance of Christianity and the ideals it espoused tended to underscore all these freedoms and semi-freedoms, as well as infusing the Northern African-American community with Christianity as its religion. Consequently, the lifestyle, religion and industrialization of Northern Colonial American allowed at least some enviable freedoms for the African-American.

b. John Catherwood Letter

The John Catherwood letter seems to indicate that Catherwood and Johnson knew each other from other dealings. The fact that they lived in an area of New York State that today might be deemed geographically small but Catherwood described Johnson's area as "your part of the country" seems to indicate that they considered these two cities to be a great distance from each other. The letter reveals that some immigrants freely came from Ireland at a young age with other relatives and sold themselves into indentured servitude for a definite period of time. At least in the case of Jane Watson, this young immigrant relied on indentured servitude in order to eat and have a place to live after arriving in the United States. Indentured servants were individuals who sold themselves into service to a family or individual for a period of years. While living as an indentured servant, the person was given room and board and possibly the promise of a greater reward at the end of the servitude. At the end of the term, often a period of seven years, the indentured servant was released from duty and was often given a larger sum of money or land. The letter makes it obvious that even a very young immigrant could enter into a contract for indentured servitude. These indentured servants were apparently allowed to travel freely among cities between their contracts and sell themselves into several consecutive periods of indentured servitude. This indentured servant worked at the house of Johnson for a time and apparently completed her indentured servitude successfully because she is using him as a character reference in order to obtain a new contract for indentured servitude. The houses of Catherwood and Johnson, both apparently used indentured servants, though Catherwood was secretary to a governor and Johnson was a merchant, which seems to indicate that they were both reasonably well-to-do and white. Here, Catherwood is asking about an indentured servant for the Governor's wife, it seems. It appears that indentured servitude contracts were entered into quite freely, since the Governor's secretary is not asking about the indentured servant's honesty and behavior until she was already contracted as an indentured servant. Obviously, prospective employers relied on references from prior employers of indentured servants, particularly if the proposed servant was a stranger; however, they did not bother to ask about important characteristics of a live-in servant until after she was already hired. The social interactions between a merchant and the secretary of a governor were respectful but blunt and free in the request for rapid, honest information. It seems odd that Catherwood asks Johnson to "be genuine in it," as though there is a possibility that Johnson might not be totally honest with Catherwood about Jane Watson's honesty and behavior. Due to the many misspellings, odd capitalizations and omission of vowels in the letter though with formal language, it appears that cordiality was a high priority but spelling, proper grammar and sentence structure were not high priorities at that time, even for the Secretary of New York State's governor. Finally, Catherwood uses the British spelling of "behaviour," showing that some words were spelled differently in America at that point in history.

c. Three intersecting groups on plantations

The three intersecting groups of Craftsmen, Owners and Slaves on plantations represent the three main social classes of Colonial America. The Craftsmen who built the plantation belonged to the middle class, who were freemen and made up the majority of people. They worked at skilled jobs, sometimes owned small plots of land, had the right to vote if they were male and sometimes held minor public offices. In the South, craftsmen were mainly white and male. Women of this middle class made their own candles, clothes, cheese and other useful goods and sold the excess to supplement their families' incomes. While this middle class included craftsmen, it also included owners of small businesses, farmers, and teachers, for example.

The Plantation owners were the "gentry" class -- the highest, wealthiest and most powerful class of the three. They were white, tended to be children of wealthy individuals, owned the largest and richest tracts of land, could vote if they were male, and also tended to keep a closed class system, marrying chiefly within their own class. The gentry class was the smallest of the three major classes but controlled: the government by holding high political offices and by influence and money; the judicial system by controlling the judges and sometimes by being the judges; the arts, including architecture, painting and sculpture; manners, by dictating proper etiquette for society; education, by limiting the provision of education to different classes and by dictating the aspects of a proper education for their own class; and proper dress, by importing British clothing, emulating the dress of the British elite and holding sway over what could be worn by other classes. Though few of them were aristocrats in Europe, they copied the aristocratic ways of Great Britain, tending to import goods, furniture and clothing from Great Britain, gave lavish parties and tended to show their wealth readily. It appears that one facet of this class is that women tended to be the idle rich and did not gainfully work. A very obvious example of the gentry class might be Ashley Wilkes of "Gone with the Wind," who was not only the very wealthy son of a wealthy plantation owner but was also committed to marrying his cousin, which would tend to keep a closely-knit gentry class.

Slaves were in the lowest of the three classes. People…[continue]

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