Skip to main content Skip to main content

A Biography of America

Growth and Empire

Benjamin Franklin and Franklin's Philadelphia take center stage in this program. As the merchant class grows in the North, the economies of southern colonies are built on the shoulders of the slave trade. Professor Miller brings the American story to 1763 with the Peace of Paris and English dominance in America.

View Transcript

Enhanced Transcript Page 1

Program 3: Growth and Empire/The Best Poor Man’s Country

Donald L. Miller with Pauline Maier and Virginia Scharff


Miller: The American colonies in the 1700s. The best poor man’s country in the world.

Maier: Sure there’s a notion that this is a country where people can do better than their parents did.

Miller: Unless you were a slave.

Scharff : “What manner of man is this American?” Well, he might be a woman, right? He might be a slave. She might be a slave.

Miller: Today on A Biography of America, the slave’s middle passage. Franklin’s Philadelphia. All part of America’s Growth and Empire.

Enhanced Transcript Page 2

The American Character

Donald Miller

Miller: Not long after America declared its independence, a Frenchman living in this country asked a question we’ve never stopped asking: “What then is the American, this new man?” To Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer, America was a place where peoples of all nations, in his words, “are melted into a new race.”

In America, he wrote, there are “no great lords who possess everything, and a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratic families, no kings, no bishops, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.” The vast American wilderness had shaped a new man, freer and more self-reliant than the average European.

Though Benjamin Franklin had reservations about racial mixing, he witnessed, and wrote about, the great changes that Crevecoeur celebrated. When Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the son of a candle-maker who had immigrated from England, the colonies were overwhelmingly English. By 1776, half of the colonial population south of New England was of non-English origin. And Franklin had seen the land, the abundance of it and its broad availability, shape many of the distinctively American attributes that Crevecouer described.

[Picture of Benjamin Franklin]

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin himself was the embodiment of this freer, more expansive society, a lowborn apprentice printer who went on to become an American luminary. To admiring Europeans, he was the quintessential American, Crevecoeur’s New Man. Yet unlike Crevecoeur, Franklin didn’t see the New World environment creating a homogeneous American culture, with common beliefs and social values.

No two colonies, he insisted, were alike. They had different laws, interests, religions, governments, and manners. America was a society, to him, of distinct regions. Franklin was right, but so was Crevecoeur.

The colonists were becoming more American even as sectional differences within the colonies widened. But it was more complex than that. Colonists of English origin were becoming more American without losing their strong attachment to England.

That cultural ambivalence, that pride in being both an English subject and an American comes through in a letter Franklin wrote in 1776 to an old friend in England. “The breach between you and us grows wider and more difficult to heal,” he wrote with great sadness. But then he declared, with the pride of the American he had clearly become, “Britain without us can grow no stronger. Without her, we shall become a tenfold greater and mightier People.”

No American could have said that in 1700. That Franklin could in 1776 revealed the tremendous changes his country had undergone in the intervening years.

Colonial Population Flourishes

[Picture of busy colonial harbor]

When John Winthrop died in the middle of the 17th century, there were two principal regions in the mainland colonies: New England and the Chesapeake. A century later, there were two additional ones: the Middle Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New Jersey, as well as Delaware; and the Lower Southern colonies of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. The key characteristic of this colonial society was growth: a phenomenal increase in wealth and people.

In Ben Franklin’s day, America experienced its first population explosion. In 1700, approximately 250,000 Europeans and African-Americans lived in the colonies. By 1775, that number had risen to two and half million.

The people of the American colonies multiplied more rapidly than almost any other society in recorded history. And these colonists far out-numbered the French and Spanish colonists of North America. By the time of the American Revolution, the Spanish border settlements of Florida and New Mexico were thinly populated outposts of empire.

The largest of the two, New Mexico, had only about 20,000 settlers. New France, or Canada, at the same time had over 70,000 people. These numbers tell who would control the continent.

[Picture of recent immigrants]

This population boom was fed by two sources: natural increase (Franklin himself was one of 17 children), and immigration. English people continued to pour in, but new people came from all over Europe, and chiefly from Germany, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Yet the largest group of migrants in the 18th century were Africans, about 278,000 of them. The movement of Africans to the Americas was the largest forced migration in world history.

Enhanced Transcript Page 3

The Slave Trade

Slaves in transit
In the four centuries of the slave trade, slavers transported an estimated 11 million Africans to North and South America, about 600,000 of them to British North America. Most slaves were captured in the African interior by raiding parties from more powerful tribes along the coast, and were taken on forced marches to coastal trading forts run by Europeans. There they were inspected by ship captains in the holds of dungeons or in open pits. Those selected for transport were branded, chained together, and rowed out to awaiting slave ships, where they were packed below deck in spaces with no more breathing room than a coffin.

Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo tribesmen from what is now Nigeria, was kidnapped and enslaved when he was only 11 years old. And he lived to write an account of one of these slave ships. Under the deck, the groans of the dying, the screams of children who had fallen into open latrines, and the vile stench of vomit and feces combined to create what Equiano described as a scene of horror “almost inconceivable.”

As Equiano’s ship headed for open sea, a great moan went up from the slaves, who feared they were being taken to the homelands of the bearded monsters to be boiled in water and eaten. As they reached the port of destination, the surviving human cargo was prepared for sale. If slaves had been flogged, their open wounds were disguised by filling them with black tar.

Some ship surgeons plugged the rectums of slaves with clumps of hemp fiber to prevent buyers from noticing the bloody discharges that indicated they were dying from dysentery. Equiano was purchased in Charleston, South Carolina and taken to a tobacco farm in Virginia, there he was unable to communicate with his fellow slaves from other areas of Africa. He was part of the Africanization of the Chesapeake labor force. But had he not been resold to a visiting naval officer, and eventually freed, he might have married an African-American woman and been a member of the first generation of slaves in the North American Hemisphere to increase its size by procreation.


Rice and Rebellion

A Southern plantation
In the 18th century, a different type of slavery developed in the lowland, coastal region extending from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Georgia, an area whose ecology was unsuited to tobacco cultivation. South Carolina was the richest colony in this region. It had been first settled in the 1660s by land-hungry emigrants from the crowded sugar islands of Barbados. Thirty years later, they found a profitable cash crop–rice.

And rice shaped the lowland as strongly as tobacco shaped the Chesapeake. Rice made South Carolina the richest colony in mainland British North America–and the only one with a black majority. Rice cultivation was hard, human-killing work; but greater oppression, ironically, produced greater autonomy for the slaves.

Since tobacco required more constant care than rice, masters closely supervised slave labor. In the Carolina lowlands, masters stayed away from the rice fields, where the death rate from malaria was frightfully high. The Carolina grandees, the richest elite in the colonies, built their magnificent plantation houses on high ground, far away from the rice ditches. In the malaria season they escaped to townhouses in fashionable Charleston.

Slaves died earlier in the Low Country than they did in Virginia and reproduced more slowly. So owners had to bring in fresh infusions of Africans, most of them males. These slaves were much more likely to rebel than American-born slaves were.

[Picture of slave living quarters]
In these sprawling agricultural factories, slaves didn’t work in white-supervised gangs, as they did in Virginia. Instead, they were given daily tasks to perform under the supervision of black foremen, or drivers. The work was done at a killing pace, knee-deep in the thick muck, in mosquito- and snake-infested paddies. But when their tasks were completed, slaves returned to their separate living quarters, where they were free to hunt and fish, grow their own food, and live together as families in individual cabins.
Living apart from masters who hardly knew them, they developed an autonomous culture that had its own cycle of African feasts and dances. They developed their own language, Gullah. And they also developed a culture that was profoundly confrontational.
It’s not coincidental that colonial America’s largest slave rebellion, the Stono Uprising, occurred in South Carolina. In 1759, a group of freshly imported Angolans broke into a store on the Stono River, near Charleston, armed themselves, and headed toward Spanish Florida and freedom. Along the way they plundered plantations and killed about two dozen whites before being gunned down by a militia company.

Although slave revolts were rare in mainland North America, as compared, say, to Brazil and the Caribbean, slaves resisted in every way possible, destroying tools, performing work shoddily, running away, and striking, and sometimes killing, their oversees. Walking through a pleasant wood near Charleston, Crevecoeur, who was visiting in the area, suddenly came upon a black man who had been suspended in a cage and left to die. His arms were tied down, and birds had plucked out his eyes. Crevecoeur got him some water, but he begged for poison. At his host’s home, Crevocoeur was told that the slave had killed his overseer and that the “laws of self-preservation,” in the words of the master, “[made] such executions necessary.”

Now, this might make for dramatic reading, but the slaves’ major act of resistance was not striking back at the master. It was non-violent: the creation of a resilient, richly varied black culture, the slaves’ strongest weapon against racial oppression. Southern language, cuisine, folklore, music, and religion were indelibly influenced by this slave culture.

Acculturation did not go only one way. As Africans were being Anglicized, English colonists in the South were also being Africanized. In this way, African slaves contributed to the making of a uniquely American culture.

Slaves played a pivotal role in increasing the wealth, as well as the size and ethnic diversity of early America. By 1776, the two main crops that slaves produced, tobacco and rice, were, with wheat, British America’s most profitable exports. This is certainly one reason there was a general colony-wide acceptance of slavery, even though slaves comprised only about 10% of the northern population.

Enhanced Transcript Page 4

Eighteenth Century Philadelphia

A Philadelphian called 18th century America the best poor man’s country in the world. It was, provided you were white and male. In 1723, Benjamin Franklin left his brother’s printing business in Boston, at age seventeen, and arrived in Philadelphia, broke and with his pockets stuffed with dirty laundry. Franklin’s rags-to-riches story is a study in tenacity.

But luck sure had a part in it. He had landed in Philadelphia, a city of exploding opportunity. The place and the person were ideally matched. Blessed with a splendid harbor and ringed by fertile land, Philadelphia had recently become the commercial capital of British America.

Almost on his own, Franklin would soon make it the cultural capital, as well. Philadelphia was built on land that had been given by the crown to William Penn, the son of a British admiral and a devout Quaker. Penn launched Pennsylvania as a holy experiment, a refuge for persecuted people everywhere.

This is the theme of Edward Hicks’ painting, “Peaceable Kingdom.” Here, the Garden of Eden is restored, and the wolf dwells with the lamb. While across the Delaware River, William Penn and his band of Quakers, in their broad-brimmed hats, conclude their treaty with the Indians.

[Picture of inhabitants of Philadelphia]

Pennsylvania’s tolerant policies, its abundant land, and its amazingly fair and peaceful relations with the Indians made it the immigrant center of early America, a place of tremendous ethnic and religious diversity.

This diversity was seen, even then, as distinctly American. Traveling through Philadelphia in 1744, a Swedish botanist encountered, in a tavern, what he described as a “very mixed company of different nations and religions.” In addition to “Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish,” he reported “there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Seventh-Day men, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew. ” From Philadelphia, these immigrants spread out over the land and set up prosperous farms, raising wheat, corn, hemp and flax, but mostly wheat. Pennsylvania became the breadbasket of the American colonies.

Other immigrants settled in the city and went into the trades. Tradesmen, or artisans, established their homes directly above their one-man shops on the thickly built blocks that led out from Philadelphia’s crowded harbor. The harbor was the merchant’s domain.

As in Boston, aggressive businessmen, most of them English Quakers, turned what had been planned as a religious utopia into a capitalist powerhouse. Trade operated here as it did in New York City, the middle colonies’ other great port. Merchants took the agricultural offerings of farms and shipped them to other colonies, to England, and from England to the wider world.

Britain’s Navigation Acts mandated that most of this trade be channeled through the ports of the mother country. But in compensation, the colonies received English manufactured goods.

Colonial merchants then sold these, along with rum, wine, and sugar, to farmers in the expanding hinterlands of the coastal ports.

These merchants were an urban elite: rich, powerful, and socially influential. And they were the Northerners who depended most heavily on slaves, as well as indentured servants. Indentured servants continued to pour into the middle colonies largely in family groups. With slaves and property-less city and rural workers, they told the rest of society where the bottom was.

[Picture of a farmer's family]

In between the rich and the poor were property owning farmers and artisans. Farmers made up over 90% of the American middle class, and most free white men lived long enough to buy or inherit at least 50 acres of land, which qualified them to vote. In proportion to population, America had the largest middle class in the world. But prosperity and abundant opportunity should not be confused with an even distribution of wealth.

The Political Climate

In all colonies, the rich owned an overwhelming proportion of the taxable wealth. And everywhere, political power followed money. Although between 50 and 75% of adult free males could vote in most colonies, they usually returned the rich and influential to seats in the increasingly assertive colonial assemblies. The colonists saw these assemblies as New World Parliaments.

The assemblies controlled the power to tax and acted as a check on Royal Governors, just as Parliament back in England acted as a check on the King’s power. This was an elite dominated political economy. But its distinctively American characteristic was the general prosperity of farmers and shopkeepers and their high level of political participation. This, at a time when only about 15% of adult males could vote in England.

America was also, as opposed to England, a society of independent moneymakers: shopkeeper, merchants, and farmers who sold cash crops for export. At no other time in our history were we more a nation of entrepreneurs. And at no other time in world history, up to this point, did the great bulk of the population of a country enjoy a higher standard of living.

The key to it all is this: In Europe, land was scarce and expensive; labor was cheap and available. In America, land was cheap and available; labor was scare and expensive. This explains slavery in the South, as well as economic democracy in the North.

Enhanced Transcript Page 5

Benjamin Franklin

[Picture of Benjamin Franklin]

In America, Franklin wrote, “no man continues long a laborer for others, but gets a plantation of his own; no man continues long a journeymen to a trade, but sets himself up for himself.” And “set himself up for himself” was exactly what Franklin had done on arriving in Philadelphia. Franklin entered the printing business as a journeyman, and soon owned his own shop, entering the ranks of the property-proud artisans. When he made up his will at the end of his life, he listed his occupation as “printer.”

This was a feature of American life that impressed European visitors: the dignity of labor, the pride American craftsmen took in their work. And the esteem they enjoyed in their communities. We see this in John Singleton’s Copley’s portrait of the Boston silversmith and revolutionary, Paul Revere.

Revere is plainly dressed, in his shirtsleeves, and is holding one of his creations, an exquisite silver teapot. Three engraving tools lie on the table. They tell us that this is a man who works with his hands, and draws satisfaction from that, as we can see from Revere’s stoically proud countenance, his chin held in thought.

[Picture of cover of 'Poor Richard's Almanack']

Like Paul Revere, Franklin moved from running a shop to engagement in public affairs. He launched the Pennsylvania Gazette,which became the most successful newspaper in the colonies. And for twenty-five years he published his Poor Richard’s Almanack, the most widely read book, next to the Bible, in colonial America. In his Almanack, Franklin dispensed humorous advice on how to get rich, later collecting the best of Poor Richard under the title “The Way to Wealth.”

This became a how-to-do guide for the ambitious. Franklin’s Puritan father had preached to him the gospel of getting to heaven. The son preached the gospel of getting ahead. “The sleeping fox catches no poultry.” “There is no gain without pain.” And this is my favorite one. “It costs more to maintain one vice than to raise two children.” For this, Franklin’s been sometimes called sarcastically, “The Father of all the Yankees.”

But behind the Yankee was the Puritan. Growing up in Boston, Franklin skipped church to practice his writing. Calvin’s idea of predestination clashed with his self-improving bent. But he did internalize Puritanism’s social values: its moral earnestness, its emphasis on hard work and diligence, its self-scrutinizing cast of mind.

What he could not accept was John Winthrop’s idea of a fixed human hierarchy, the idea that God had ordained that some should be rich and others poor, and that all should be satisfied with their station in life. Franklin believed that it was impossible to keep self-reliant people down in expanding America. Or as Crevecouer wrote: “As soon as a European arrives in America, he begins to throw off his former servitude and starts acting independently.” As one historian has written, “This was a society unlike any in the world, in which people placed a greater value on their status as independent individuals, beholden to no man.”

In Philadelphia, Franklin was an advanced agent of an ideological revolution that had begun in his home city of Boston. This was a movement against government controls on money-making and toward greater individual freedom. Colonists still lived in a mercantile world, in which British government controlled most of their trade. But they were beginning to fashion a new idea of economic behavior.

Modern historians call this privatism: the belief that there should be little or no control on the search for wealth; and that if each person fairly pursues his self-interest, the community as a whole will benefit. Franklin believed in this because he saw it working in Philadelphia.

Artisans owned their own one-man shops and controlled the conditions of their work. They also watched over each other’s property, and didn’t charge ridiculously high prices for their scarce products, fearing other artisans, whose products they needed, would retaliate. That’s the kind of self-interest Franklin applauded. These conditions produced urban order as well as prosperity, an order maintained in the absence of a police force and with comparatively little government.

This didn’t mean that one had no obligations to the community. Without much government, citizens had to give more of themselves to the community. And Franklin did. He became, in his own words, a “doer of good.”

First he organized a club for “mutual improvement.” Then he led other members of the club in a flurry of civic activity. He established America’s first circulating library, a fire insurance organization, a night watch, a city hospital, a city college, (the future University of Pennsylvania), and the American Philosophical Society, which still meets in Independence Hall.

“Nothing but money is sweeter than honey.” Franklin wrote that. But for him, money was merely a means to an end. At age 42, he retired from business, a rich man, to devote himself to public causes and scientific experiments.

The most famous of these experiments was with electricity. Franklin suspected that lightning was actually electricity. To test his hypothesis, he flew a kite into a thunderstorm and the electricity surged down the string and leaped from a key into his hand, and later, into a collecting device.

When Franklin published his findings, they created a sensation. He became known as “The Newton of Electricity.” But the pure scientist was also an inventor of useful things, among them: bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the copying press, and a device, believe it or not, for electrocuting turkeys.

For the rest of his life, Franklin combined science with politics. As a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, he argued that open opportunity could only be preserved by territorial expansion. With the colonies filling up with people, that meant expansion into France’s fur empire, west of the Appalachians.

The French and Indian War

To directly challenge the French, King George gave a huge grant of land in French-claimed territory in the upper Ohio Valley to a company called the Ohio Company, made up of Virginia and London land speculators. To prevent English encroachment, the French built a series of forts from Canada to the forks of the Ohio, near present-day Pittsburgh. There, at Fort Duquesne, they routed a Virginia militia force, led by young George Washington.

[Picture of George Washington with the Virginia Militia]

Washington had been sent to protect Virginia’s claims to the Forks of the Ohio. It was the beginning of what would become a global war, the Seven Years War, or as it’s more commonly called, The French and Indian War. In American, this was he fifth and final war of what was an epic struggle with France for North America.

The British tried to strike the first blow, sending an expedition to Fort Duquesne under General Edward Braddock. But Braddock led his forces into an ambush and they were slaughtered. The war continued to go badly for the British-American forces. But a new prime minister, William Pitt, threw more money and men into the American theater and turned the tide. The culminating stroke came in 1759 with James Wolf’s dramatic victory over the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, in front of Quebec, a battle in which both generals were slain.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France lost its entire North American empire. The war left the colonists in a jubilant mood. The Catholic menace was gone at last, and they were now free, they thought, to begin planting a Protestant empire of liberty in the West. Washington and his friends could now look forward to increasing their fortunes through land speculation in the Trans-Appalachian country.

But the war left a disquieting legacy. Arrogant British officers had treated their own men with shocking brutality and demanded deference and blind obedience from American militiamen. This reinforced the feelings of many American volunteers that they were a distinct people, morally superior to the aristocratic British.

Even so, as colonists celebrated the great victory over France, with church bells ringing and toasts raised to the king, no one could have foreseen the approaching break with England. And almost no one desired it. Americans like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were immensely proud to be part of the world’s mightiest empire.

Image as History: Colonial Society

During the eighteenth century, affluent merchants and influential politicians often commissioned portraits, which can provide us with a picture of life in the American colonies.

What does this portrait suggest about eighteenth-century attitudes toward the family?

Title: Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and Their Daughter Anne
Artist: Peale, Charles Willson (American, 1741-1827)
Photo Credit: Graydon Wood, 1996
Date: 1772

  1. Cadwalader’s posture and gaze signify a change from portrait conventions of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century: he leans toward his wife and he interacts with his child.
  2. The father offers the child a peach, perhaps intended as a symbol of nourishment and nurturance.

  3. Anne looks like a child and not like a little adult, which was typical in portraits earlier in the century. She is an active presence in the scene.

  4. Elizabeth Lloyd gazes lovingly at her husband. The painting includes the entire family and this marks a shift from earlier conventions where artists depicted only husband, or husband and wife painted separately.

Charles Willson Peale

Charles Willson Peale was one of the most prolific artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He studied in England under Benjamin West and returned to Philadelphia where he became a leading artist and naturalist. During the era of the Revolution he painted more than a dozen heroic portraits of George Washington. He also executed works that conveyed his interests in scientific inquiry and the display of knowledge, most notably Disinterment of the Mastodon and The Artist in his Museum. Peale devoted his energies to the creation of cultural institutions in the United States; he helped found the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also served as the progenitor of a family of painters. Two of his sons, aptly named Raphaelle and Rembrandt, gained prominence for their artistic work.

Art historians have interpreted paintings such as this one as evidence of the movement away from stern, patriarchal relationships toward loving, affectionate family connections, a cultural shift that mirrored the larger political shift that led to American independence from the King.

Questions to Ponder

John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere captured the dignity of an artisan and was unusual because the subject was not a member of the colonial elite. Many other eighteenth-century portraits were commissioned by affluent merchants and influential politicians.

1. Most family portraits are of middle and upper class families. How can historians learn about family life among the working and poorer classes?

2. Most of Peale’s portraits were commissioned by patrons. How might this affect the ways in which the family was depicted?


Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Lovell, Magaretta. “Reading Eighteenth-Century American Family Portraits,” Winterthur Portfolio 22, pp. 243-264. 1987.

Miller, Lillian and David Ward, eds. New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale. Pittsburgh: Published for the Smithsonian Institution by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.



  • Benjamin Franklin
    • The Friends of Franklin, Inc. – Franklin Resources
      The publications, papers, and presentations of Franklin, with links to other Franklin sites.
    • The World of Benjamin Franklin
      Links to Ben Franklin’ s life as a scientist, an inventor, a statesman, a printer, a philosopher, a musician, and an economist. Also, links to a chronological history of his life, etc.
    • The Electric Franklin
      An introduction to Franklin, with links to narratives, activities, interactive games, pictures, etc


  • Olaudah Equiano and the Slave Trade
    • The African-American Mosaic (Library of Congress)
      A Library of Congress resource guide for the study of black history and culture, covering colonization, abolition, migrations, and the WPA. Includes extensive text, reproductions of documents and photos.



  • Edward Hicks
    • Edward Hicks
    • The Peaceable Kingdom, with a brief discussion and a teacher’s guide.


  • Copley’s Paul Revere
    • Paul Revere
      Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere, with a brief discussion of the painting and its political context.
    • Paul Revere – An American Patriot
      Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere with a brief biography of Revere.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-202-7