History 233 Reading Guide

Regional Variations:  Economic and Social Structure of Eighteenth Century American Society

  • Gloria L. Main, “The Standard of Living in Southern New England, 1640-1773,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 45.1 (1988), 124-134.  JSTOR
  • Billy G. Smith, “Inequality in Late Colonial Philadelphia:  A Note on its Nature and Growth,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d Ser., 41.4 (1984), 629-645.   JSTOR
  • Rhys Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt:  The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. Ser., 31.3. (1974), 345-368.  JSTOR

These three articles offer an overview of some of the issues that Americans were facing in the mid-eighteenth century.  Taken together, they suggest some regional differences as well as similarities in the social and economic structure of eighteenth-century society and the ways that structure shaped the culture and experiences of colonial Americans on the eve of the American Revolution.

Gloria Main examines the standard of living of rural New Englanders who did not leave that agriculturally-challenged region and argues, in contrast to the work of many previous “recent” historians, that the standard of living actually improved for most New Englanders during the eighteenth century.  What evidence does she use to prove her thesis, and how does she use it?  Are you persuaded?  What might her study suggest about New England ideals and expectations on the eve of the Revolution?

Billy G. Smith examines the distribution of wealth and the nature of inequality in Philadelphia, a large urban center in the middle colonies.  He argues that increasing inequality was the result of economic changes rather than demographic ones.  What evidence does he use to prove his argument?  What are the implications of his argument for our understanding of urban American pre-Revolutionary society?

Rhys Isaac studies social conflict in Virginia in the decade prior to the Revolution.  What sources does he use to reveal actions and culture?  How does he analyze them?  How does his essay contribute to our understanding of the issues that propelled the colonists toward the revolution?