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The American Character

[Picture of 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]

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.

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