What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen years,before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

– John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 24 August 1815

What was it like to be alive in Colonial America in 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War? It was a very different world from ours, though the problems and motivations of the people were not much different.

In 1775, people traveled only as fast as they could walk, ride a horse, or sail a boat. A sixty-mile drive today that would take an hour would take two to four days in 1775. Travel by sailing ship from Charleston to Boston might take a month, while travel from Charleston to Britain might take two months or more. And news and the mail moved only as fast as that slow travel allowed.

This was an era when most everything had to be crafted by hand, from clothes to candles, from doorknobs to bricks, from shoes to the printed page. People in towns and cities could buy these things from a crafts person or an importer. People in the back country, however, made just about everything for themselves.

This was an era of exploding literacy and a time when education was held in high esteem, but before Europe or most colonies had made public schools mandatory. Still, a substantial majority of the colonists were literate, in part because the members of the “Dissenting” religions, who accounted for most of the colonists, placed great emphasis on being able to read the Bible.

This was an era when every community had to organize for its own defense. Every adult male was by law a member of the militia and expected to arrive at muster with his own arms, blade, shot and powder.

This was an era before there were formal police forces and before incarceration was the punishment for most crimes. Punishments were physical and immediate, taking the form most often of flogging or the stocks, with hanging being the usual means of execution for the most serious crimes. To the extent that imprisonment was used as a punishment, it was in debtors’ prisons.

This was an era when medicine was still in thrall to the ancient practices of bleeding and purging. Mortality rates for infants and pregnant women were very high, and only a handful of diseases could be successfully “cured.” Every few years, horrendous diseases would sweep over cities – small pox was the worst, but in the South they also had yellow fever and malaria.

This was an era when bathing for personal hygiene was still not common. Many people bathed infrequently if at all and rarely cleaned the undergarment closest to their body. People stank horribly one would imagine, but most were used to such smells and many carried nosegays or scented handkerchiefs to hold under their nose when in the presence of people too overripe.

This was a period when most colonists, from the richest to the poorest, consumed tobacco in one form or another. Many, both men and women, smoked it in pipes, but a large number of both sexes, particularly the wealthy, inhaled powdered tobacco in the form of snuff.

This was an era when, because of potentially deadly bacteria in the water supply, the colonists were most likely to drink weak alcoholic beverages throughout their day, at least when not consuming tea or some other boiled beverage. The most popular beverages were hard cider and small beer, though the colonists liked hard liquor as well. The colonists drank so much rum that it amounted to about four gallons a year per person.

This was an era when the practice of chattel slavery came under religious challenge. The First Great Awakening, a huge religious revival, led to evangelicalism, which coupled with the Quakers to start the abolitionist movement. For the very first time in human history, slavery – a staple of agricultural societies since time immemorial – came under sustained assault as a violation of natural law. The seeds of slavery’s end as an accepted institution throughout the world were planted in American and British soil.

This was an era when our conception of the intersection of religion and politics changed completely. For millennia, kings had claimed a divine right to rule. Enlightenment thinkers – and dissenting preachers – of the 17th and 18th centuries reversed this, finding that people had divine rights to their life, liberty and property, with the rulers’ only function being to protect those rights.

And this was an era when world trade, enabled by the Age of Sail, and modern banking concepts tied to mercantilism and then capitalism combined to vastly increase wealth, lifting the average person out of poverty and, for the first time, creating a dominant middle class.

As you can see, people lived very different from us in 1775. But any study of the time will show that their motivations were the same. They had the same desire for love and family, for good food and creature comforts, for freedom and opportunity. And many suffered from the same vices we suffer today.

Their story, though, is not just one of historical curiosity. It is of critical importance to us. For theirs is the story of our American Revolution and the contract our Founders bequeathed to us. It is a contract founded on the pragmatic – that the power of government needs to be closely circumscribed to prevent tyranny – and the aspirational – that government’s only legitimate function is to protect individual liberty and freedom. And to understand that contract, one must understand the genesis of it all.

This post is an introduction. It is the first in a series of posts on the 18th century world that saw the American Revolution — and its antithesis, the French Revolution.


Image via americanmilitaryhistorypodcast.com

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