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UWBTS — Chapter 2


Section Two: The Evolution of Two Cultures – North and South – From 1607 to 1860

Chapter 2 — Origins of the Northern and Southern Cultures, 1600s and 1700s

By Clyde N. Wilson of S. C., Ph.D., S. I. S. H.


Most historians today, whether they realise it or not, write about the War Between the States (WBTS) from the Northern viewpoint.  They assume that their task is to explain why the South was so misguided, warped, or evil that it fought to break up “the greatest nation on earth.”  But proper historians should not be judges assuming guilt before the facts are heard. They should be like members of a jury examining all the evidence before deciding.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis said of Southern secession that it “illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed.”  His father had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War. The Confederacy’s greatest general, Robert E. Lee, not only had a father fighting in the Revolutionary War, two of his uncles signed the Declaration of Independence and his wife was the granddaughter of Martha Washington.  Clearly Davis and Lee did not regard the Confederacy as un-American.

Relevant History

To really understand how the WBTS happened, we have to go back to the earliest days of the founding of the thirteen English colonies in North America that became the United States.   Between the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and the beginning of the Revolution in 1775 is 168 years. In this long period each of the colonies developed its own representative legislature, militia, economy, and religious institutions.  Everyone at the time of the Revolution recognized these differences and understood that the major difference was between the North and the South.  John Adams spoke of Massachusetts as “my country,” and General Washington had uncomplimentary things to say about the New England and Pennsylvania (PA) soldiers in his army.  The differences between North and South were very much on people’s minds before, during, and after the Revolution.  Most of the considerable opposition to ratification of the U.S. Constitution involved the potential sectional costs and benefits.

A relatively small number of English settlers founded Maryland (MD), Virginia (VA), North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), and Georgia (GA). Population increased greatly, mainly because the settlers had big families and many children.  (George Washington would be the fourth generation of his family in Virginia.)  Also present were a significant number of Huguenots (French Protestants) in SC. In the early 1700s the population was increased by a great in-migration of Scots-Irish, along with some Germans.  At first there were tensions between the English settlers of the coastal South and the new settlers of the Upcountry. By the early 1800s they had merged comfortably into one Southern identity.  Some writers have portrayed Southern pioneers as almost entirely Scots-Irish.  These people were important, but other Southern groups settled the frontier as well.

At the time of the Revolution the South was the most dynamic and fastest growing part of the 13 colonies and the region most actively expanding westward. Before there was a U.S., North Carolinians and Virginians were planting settlements across the Appalachian Mountains in what was to become Kentucky (KY) and Tennessee (TN) and Charleston traders were sending mule trains to the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River.

During the 1700s Southern tobacco was by far the most important export of North America, supplemented by other Southern crops such as rice, indigo, cotton, and lumber and tar – “naval stores” for the wooden sailing ships of the time.  There were bonded Africans in all 13 colonies (as well as all the other European colonies in the Caribbean and Central and South America).  African-American people were most common in the South, more than half the population in SC and about a third in the other Southern colonies. The South has always been a biracial society, whereas the North had few black people before the 20th century (although we should not forget that slaves made up 10% of the population of New York Colony (NY), Connecticut (CT), and Rhode Island (RI) when the Constitution went into effect).

The Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware) were diverse in population, religion, and economy.  There were English from the Midlands, Welsh, and many Germans in PA and Dutch in NY.  There were so many different religious denominations – Anglican, Quaker, Baptist, various German churches – that they had to tolerate each other.  The economy was diverse with shipping, fur trade, wheat, and an early start on iron manufacturing.  The North was by no means culturally united until a few decades before the WBTS.  Remember how, in Washington Irving’s most famous story about a “Headless Horseman,” the Hudson Valley Dutch people disliked and ran out the obnoxious Ichabod Crane, who had come over into NY from CT.  Another great early American writer, James Fenimore Cooper, satirized the “Yankees” who invaded his NY lands.  In the beginning the landowners of NY and the pioneer farmers of PA had more in common with the South than with New England, which was reflected in their political support of Southern men and policies.  As time went on, the Middle States, and later the Midwest, became more “Northern,” as we will describe in Chapter 6.

New England (NH, MA, CT, RI) definitely was regarded and regarded itself as distinct, much more so than the South.  The core population, who settled Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, were Puritans from eastern England, the heartland of Puritanism, while the first Virginia settlers were from southern and western England.  (Later on New Englanders became Congregationalists and then Unitarians, without changing their basic attitudes.)  They were strong on religious conformity, the clergy were political leaders, and civic life was tightly organized and supervised. When Southerners moved west, an extended family and their neighbours went out to make new farms in the wilderness.  New Englanders tended to move as whole congregations, taking their institutions with them. Economically, New England could produce and export little that Europe could not produce for itself.  It turned to shipping – carrying goods between the many English and other colonies.  One very lucrative aspect of this was the slave trade, which made many fortunes.  New England ships continued to carry African slaves to Cuba and Brazil right up to the WBTS although it was illegal for Americans from 1808.

Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were the seeds from which separate and conflicting Southern and Northern cultures grew. The expanding Southern colonies were dominated by landowning agriculturalists.  They were settled by people hoping to improve their lives.  In the South they found a land with a milder climate than Northern Europe.  In England all the land was taken and only the eldest son could inherit.  Cutting down trees and hunting on the lord’s land were serious criminal offenses.  In Virginia land was abundant and easily obtained and lumber inexhaustible.  In England food was scarce – in Virginia even the bonded people had meat every day and more vegetables than they could eat.  An English poet wrote that Virginia was “the earthly paradise.”  The Church of England was officially established in the Southern colonies, but Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists flourished and enjoyed practical freedom of religion.

The inspiration and motivation of the settlers of Massachusetts were very different from those of people in the South.  They had already been fairly prosperous townspeople in England. They considered themselves to be on “an errand into the wilderness” to establish their religion where it was not interfered with by government or other churches.  Their leader John Winthrop, as the first settlers landed, preached a lay sermon in which he said that New England was to be “a city on a hill,”  a shining beacon of righteousness to illuminate the world.  Puritans had a firm sense of their righteousness and of their moral and intellectual superiority to the rest of the world.  Later they strayed from orthodox Christianity, but they kept their sense of righteousness and superiority.  We can see this clearly later when they were to assert that other Americans were obligated to go along with the tariff that made them rich. And bow to in the abolition movement and the activities of generals like Sherman, which condemned their fellow American citizens in the South as evil people to be chastised by their betters.

A vivid illustration of the difference in ways of life and attitudes between Massachusetts and Virginia is given by two diaries from the late 1600s and early 1700s.  Cotton Mather was a leading clergyman, scholar, and influential man in MA.  William Byrd II was a large landowner and prominent man in VA.  Both were born in America of English parents and both kept diaries of their life.  Mather’s diary is about how God is either constantly favouring him or thwarting him, but at any rate minutely concerned with him, about the lack of appreciation for his books and sermons, about the evil doings of other people.  It is a depressing read – the record of a self-righteous man with no affection for or real interest in other people.  Byrd’s diary records his prayers and studies, but it also presents a lively social life, a strong interest in other folks and in nature, a sense of humour about himself and the world, and even admissions of his own sins and shortcomings.  It is a delightful read.

The plantation became a prominent feature of Southern life. It has been extensively written about by those who find it attractive (think of the worldwide popularity of Gone with the Wind) and by those who think of the plantation as the most horrible thing in American history.   What is a “plantation”?  Originally it meant a new settlement – the English spoke of “plantations” in Ireland and RI was chartered as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”  In time the word came to describe a particular kind of agricultural establishment -a large one where bonded labour lived and worked to produce “staple” crops.  Meaning crops that were not for local consumption or sale but for export in large quantities to the world market.  In the 18th century Southern tobacco and in the 19th century Southern cotton were the most important “staple crops.”  Indeed, they provided the overwhelming part of American exports and the economic development of the United States would have been much retarded without them.  Plantations also flourished on the Caribbean islands and in South America in the various European colonies, producing sugar, coffee, and other valuable products that Europe could not easily produce for itself.

The plantation was a significant feature of Southern life, an independent community in itself.  But we should never lose sight of the facts that most plantations were small:  a dozen or fewer bond people rather than several hundreds, and that most white Southerners were farmers of modest but independent means and without slaves.


When the U.S. Constitution was adopted Americans had long been divided into two lasting different cultures of the North and the South.  They had much fellow feeling as Americans but they also realized that they differed considerably in ways of life, means of making a living, values, and attitudes. Perhaps most importantly they differed in expectation of how the power of the new Federal Government would be used. These differences had nothing to do with African-American slavery, which only became a contentious issue decades later.  We can understand much of the history that leads to the WBTS (and later American history as well) when we remember that people came to Virginia to find a good life and to Massachusetts with a mission to build “a city on a hill” that was superior to all other existing societies.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Are the Northern and Southern cultures still significant today?  In what way?

Does the idea of America as “a city upon a hill” with a special mission in the world still carry weight?

Recommended Readings

  • Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer, pub. 1989.

The Scarlet Letter and more.  Sometimes creative writers can give us a more realistic and vivid idea of historic events, places, and people than dry historians.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, shows what life was life in colonial Puritan New England.  The novels of Inglis Fletcher set in colonial North Carolina do the same for the South.