The Transformation of European Society, by Gary B. Nash, analyzed the British colonies in North America. By highlighting major changes that took place in the colonies in the eighteenth century, Nash showed how the European mind was transformed from the rigid, hierarchal society of Europe, to the democratic, individualist of America. Nash’s first point was about how economic change affected people’s views. Since there was so much land in the colonies, it was easier for people to “get rich quick” and climb the social ladder. This was one difference between American and European societies. In Europe, there was a large disparity between the rich and the poor. If you were born a blacksmith’s son, you would die a blacksmith. But in America, the abundance of land meant that there were opportunities for growth and change. Poor farmers could become rich businessmen, seemingly. Ironically, it was the Protestant work ethic, which “shattered the utopian dream . . . where men and women worked for the commonweal.” This work ethic, which was prevalent in the northern colonies, helped to develop an individualistic, competitive society as opposed to the community-centered Europe.
Though the Protestant work ethic was not as strong in the southern colonies, the abundance of slaves caused a competitive mind-set to develop there as well. Nash noted that while this competitive spirit “unleashed economic energies,” the desire for land also led to conflicts with the Indians, Spanish, and French. Nash’s second point focused on social change in North America. According to Nash, Europeans “accepted the naturalness of hierarchy in human affairs.” They did not try to rise above what they considered to be their economic and social status in life. At the beginning of the seventeenth century most of the people living in Britain’s colonies were of the middle class. However, because of the quick growth of the population by the 1800s the differences between the poor and wealthy had grown in North America.This aggrandisement of wealth was seen in the rapid growth of the urban poor. As Nash said, “after about 1750 poverty was no longer confined to the poor or physically depleted. After years of being equal, many middle and lower class citizens felt that it was their right to have as many freedoms as the rich.
This was a change from the European acceptance that it was the right of the rich to subjugate the poor. The idea that all people are equal was called egalitarianism. Though many Americans believed in this, there were some vestiges of European aristocracy. Nash’s final topic was religion. He focused on the Great Awakening, which he viewed not only as a religious change, but as a “profound cultural crisis” that contributed to “tensions in colonial society.” As Nash stated, the Great Awakening was “a search for new sources of authority, new principles of action, a new foundation of hope.” People thought that churches “no longer met the religious needs of the people.” The changes in the world outside religion made people desire a change in the church as well. Instead of the old religion, which believed that all power lay in the church, new thoughts suggested that it lay with the individual. Promoters of the Great Awakening claimed that a new “city on the hill” would be created.
One of the movement’s biggest supporters, George Whitefield, converted many to the cause. He preached against authority and he “attacked the upper-class notion that the simple folk had no minds of their own.” This reflected the social changes of the time, one of which was the dislike of authority figures and the aristocracy. Though there was a lot of support for the movement from the lower class working folk, many middle class and wealthy Americans believed that revivalism was out of control. Equality for all was a nice concept for those in the lowest class of society, they had no where to go but up; the upper and middle classes were not as enthusiastic about being brought down to the same level as those they considered beneath them. In The Transformation of European Society, Nash clearly highlights some of the major differences between European and American culture that developed as a result of events in North America.
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