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The Middle colonies

The Middle Colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware were unique in the 1600s. They were owned by individuals, not companies, and were more diverse and tolerant than other colonies. Pennsylvania, founded by Quaker William Penn, was especially welcoming to different religions and ethnicities, leading to its rapid growth and prosperity.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Over the course of the 1600s the English continued to settle along the eastern seaboard of North America. Now we've already talked about the settlements at Virginia and those of Massachusetts and a little bit about the settlement of New York, which was first founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam in 1624. In this video I want to talk a little bit more about the Middle Colonies. These colonies that were here kind of on the center of the eastern seaboard, south of Massachusetts and north of the Southern Colonies of Virginia, particularly Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and this little, tiny purple colony right here, Delaware. Now what's unique about the Middle Colonies compared to the northern or southern colonies is not just that they were kind of in a central location, but also that they were proprietary colonies, which means that they were the property of individual owners. So unlike Jamestown, for example, which was founded by a company, the Virginia Company, the colony of Pennsylvania was founded by one man, William Penn, who was granted his land by the king of England in exchange for a debt that the king had owed his father. So in the early years of these proprietary colonies, they were kind of the playgrounds of the people who owned them. They could set their own rules for the most part. And that freedom resulted in colonies that were more ethnically diverse and more religiously tolerant than their neighbors to the north or south. So let's look at the colony of Pennsylvania as an example. So Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, and Penn was a English aristocrat from a very good family who'd converted to the Quaker religion. Although the real name for Quakers was the Religious Society of Friends, they got the nickname Quaker because they seemed to quake when they were in religious ecstasy. Like the Puritans, Quakers faced religious persecution in England because they did not follow the Church of England, which was a form of rebellion against the king who was the head of the Church of England. But in addition to the Quakers' strange ideas about religion, they also had some strange ideas for the time period about social status. Quakers believed that all people had the light of God in them and therefore were more or less equal in stature. So for example, women could preach in church, as you see in this image right here. So when William Penn converted to the Quaker faith, Penn had a really rough time of it. So he came upon an idea that perhaps he could make a haven for Quakers and for religious dissenters more broadly in the New World. So he negotiated with the king who owed his father a debt, and in exchange for this debt, the king granted Penn land in North America, which was named Pennsylvania, sylvania being Latin for forest. So kind of Penn's forest, Penn's woods. And Penn decided to extend his religious tolerance not just to Quakers, but really to all people. All Protestants, no matter what their particular sect, could have citizenship, run for office, vote, and Catholics and even Jews were welcome in Pennsylvania, although they did not have the right to vote or hold office. This was incredibly radical for the time period when it was common for nations to have a state religion and to persecute those who didn't follow that religion. Penn advertised for his new colony and particularly hoped that industrious people, people with skills like carpentry or blacksmithing, would come to Pennsylvania and make it a prosperous colony. And they did. The ease of getting citizenship, the religious tolerance, and the plentiful and cheap land of Pennsylvania drew many settlers to the colony such that its principal city, Philadelphia, was the largest city in North America before the Revolution, with about 40,000 inhabitants. Because Quakers were pacifists, that is they did not believe in violence or war, they even lived peacefully with Native Americans in the early years of Pennsylvania settlement. But as more immigrants of different faiths came to Pennsylvania and began pushing west, that short era of peaceful co-habitation ended. Likewise, because Quakers believed in the innate equality of all human beings, they were not fond of slavery. The environment in the Middle Colonies was not so cold as it was in the north, not so hot as it was in the south, it was kind of middling. And so it was a very good place for farming, particularly cereal crops like wheat. You can see this print here shows wheat growing in this field. And just as the name suggests, Pennsylvania had a lot of wood, so it was also a good place for timber. And the excellent ports at Philadelphia and New York City made it an excellent place for trade. Because it was such a good place to grow food, the Middle Colonies got the nickname the Breadbasket Colonies. And the patterns of land ownership reflect this. Since the soil was good, your average farmer owned more land than a New England farmer, but not as much as a Virginia farmer who would've had many acres to grow tobacco. So much like the environment, the farms in the Middle Colonies were middling in size. In fact, if I had to put the Middle Colonies on a spectrum, in many places I'd put them right in the middle when it came to an economy that was more agrarian. The Middle Colonies had a little bit of both, unlike the Chesapeake and southern economies which were strongly agrarian. And unlike the New England colonies who began manufacturing quite early. Likewise, when it comes to the distribution of wealth in the Middle Colonies, once again I'd put the Middle Colonies right here in the center. There were plenty of middling farmers, many indentured servants, and a handful of people who became quite wealthy, unlike the Chesapeake where there were a handful of extremely wealthy landowners while most people lived at the bottom of the social scale, and unlike New England where small farming led to a fairly even middle class. So the Middle Colonies had a mixed economy of industry and farming, and a fairly balanced class structure with people at many different levels, putting them smack dab in the middle. But for all of the ways that the Middle Colonies were middling, there were also a few ways that they were quite extraordinary. Well, we've already mentioned that the Middle Colonies had a level of religious freedom that was virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world. For example, Pennsylvania extended citizenship to all Protestants and tolerated Catholics and Jews. In comparison, the Chesapeake and Southern Colonies required citizens to belong to the Anglican faith, the Church of England, and religious tolerance for the Catholic Church in Maryland and New Englanders were extremely strict. For example, in Massachusetts Bay, anyone who was not Puritan was expelled or executed. Although there is of course the exception of Rhode Island, where religious dissenters could find safe haven. The other extraordinary aspect of these middle colonies was just the sheer amount of ethnic diversity there was. By the time of the American Revolution, less than half, only about 49% of inhabitants were from England or had an English background. The rest were German, French, Dutch, Scotch-Irish. And just a few Africans as there was relatively little slavery. In comparison, New England was perhaps the least diverse of the colonies. Most people were English, with a handful of remaining Native Americans and Africans. And the Chesapeake and Southern Colonies were largely African and English, with again just a few Native Americans. The people of the Middle Colonies spoke many languages, practiced many faiths, and had a strong possibility of upward mobility economically since farms and businesses prospered and the Middle Colonies grew rapidly in population.