Economic and Political Contrasts in New England and Chesapeake Colonies

Categories: Slavery And Freedom

Originally settled by English people in the 1610s, the New England and Chesapeake regions had transformed into distinct societies by 1700. This divergence was shaped by factors such as geography, needs, values, and goals. The economic focus in the Chesapeake colonies was on large plantations dedicated to tobacco cultivation, while New England's economy revolved around subsistence farming and mercantilism. By 1700, Virginia alone generated 40 million pounds of tobacco using slaves and indentured servants on its expansive plantations.

Document C shows that the majority of passengers on the ship bound for Virginia are young single men under 40, likely indentured servants going to work on large plantations.

By the 1660s, an excess of tobacco led to lower prices, increasing the importance of indigo and rice as commodities. Despite this change, large plantations continued to be dominant in the economy by producing indigo and rice. In contrast, New England colonies focused on subsistence farming and a barter system in the early 17th century, emphasizing fishing, whaling, oyster harvesting, and homegrown industries.

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Document B underscores the importance of artisans in the economy as many craftsmen sought opportunities in New England.

The number of farmers on the ship was small, suggesting that agriculture was not a major part of the economy. After the Restoration and the Navigation Acts in the 1660s restricted colonial trade to England, New England shifted towards a mercantile-based economy where trade dominated. In contrast, the Chesapeake colonies relied more on agriculture due to their geographical advantages of longer warmth periods and flat lands further south than New England.

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This allowed for larger plantations with longer growing seasons. On the other hand, New England's geography with high ground and cooler climate limited its growing season but provided access to deep harbors for trade. These economic differences led to distinct societies in Chesapeake relying on agriculture and New England on mercantilism. Economically, Chesapeake used slave labor and indentured servitude while New England operated based on reciprocity as shown in Document A.

John Winthrop stresses the significance of unity and cooperation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for its prosperity. The colonists must unite as one and assist each other, putting aside their own comforts for the benefit of others. This collaborative ethos is visible in the New England colonies as families journey together and provide mutual support to fulfill their needs. In contrast to the Chesapeake colonies, where single indentured servants are prevalent, indicating a dependence on slave labor for economic advancement. In the early 1600s, Chesapeake colonies relied on indentured servants and some enslaved individuals for their tobacco plantations, while New England cultivated a more communal and cooperative community. The gradual establishment of families in the colonies resulted in a shortage of reliable labor force, prompting the use of indentured servants by Chesapeake colonists. These servants were displaced farmers from England who could not afford to travel to the colonies independently.

In the 1660s, as indentured servants became scarce, plantation owners shifted to using slave labor to maintain their plantations in the Chesapeake colonies. The economy of the region relied on this system, while New England's economy was based on reciprocity and trade. Plantations thrived with cheap labor, whereas trade benefited from cooperation. The political structure also differed between the two regions, with the Chesapeake colonies being governed by a landed aristocracy, while government in New England was influenced by religion and the church. Plantation owners in the Chesapeake colonies held significant control over the government, with many landowners making up the council and the House of Burgess in Virginia, allowing them to create laws and collect taxes.William Berkeley, the governor of Virginia in the mid-1600s, implemented policies that greatly benefitted plantation owners and gave them economic and political dominance in the colony. As a result, many debt-working freemen were left without land. This favoritism towards landowners ultimately sparked a rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon.

In Document F, Bacon’s Manifesto criticizes the corrupt government in New England, which prioritizes their own estates and collects taxes to benefit themselves. This demonstrates how the planters influenced political life in the region, neglecting to protect frontier settlements from Indian attacks and focusing only on large plantations. In contrast, the government in the New England colonies revolved around religion, with the church becoming a key social and civil institution. Non-conformists were persecuted, as exemplified in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, where the government authorized the execution of individuals deemed as “witches” or social outcasts. Massachusetts enforced strict Puritanism, creating communities of pure Christians and suppressing any differing religious beliefs. Education and literacy were also based on religious principles, with land distribution controlled by church Elders who allocated land based on familial size and usefulness to the church. Ultimately, the church held significant political authority in New England.

Male church members had exclusive rights such as voting, taxation, dispute resolution, town meetings, and government appointments in the New England colonies. The government of these colonies was focused on religion, while the Chesapeake colonies centered around planters. These differences stem from the original purpose of each region/colony: Virginia and Maryland were established for commerce, making land and goods crucial for power; Massachusetts and Plymouth served as havens for English separatists or Puritans, elevating religion to a position of prominence in colonial life and granting authority to the church. Despite their shared English roots, the New England and Chesapeake settlements developed into distinct societies due to economic and political disparities.

The economy of New England was driven by mercantilism and cooperation, while the economy of Chesapeake relied on agriculture and slave labor. The political systems of the two regions were also distinct, with New England being influenced by religion and Chesapeake being dominated by the landed aristocracy and planters. These disparities led to the development of unique needs in each region, resulting in the emergence of two separate societies.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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Economic and Political Contrasts in New England and Chesapeake Colonies. (2016, Apr 19). Retrieved from

Economic and Political Contrasts in New England and Chesapeake Colonies essay
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