England’s colonies in America slowly expanded throughout the seventeenth century. Despite being subjects of the same crown, the colonial settlements began to develop along different economic, social, and political trajectories.
Unlike the southern and northern colonies, which were often formed by joint-stock companies or by religious dissidents, the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were tied directly to the monarchy of Charles II and to events known as the English Civil War (1642-1649) and the Restoration (1660).
The rise of Charles II and the completion of the English empire in North America begin with Charles’ father, Charles I. Charles I ascended the English throne in 1625 and soon married a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, who was not well liked by English Protestants, because she openly practiced Catholicism during her husband’s reign. In addition to religious tensions, Charles I came into conflict with England’s legislative body, Parliament. When Parliament tried to contest the king’s edicts, which included an effort to impose taxes without Parliament’s consent, Charles I suspended Parliament in 1629 and ruled without one for the next eleven years.
The ensuing struggle between Charles I and Parliament led to the outbreak of war. The English Civil War lasted from 1642 to 1649 and pitted the king and his Royalist supporters against Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary forces. After years of fighting, the Parliamentary forces gained the upper hand, and in 1649, they charged Charles I with treason and beheaded him. The monarchy was dissolved, and England became a republic: a state without a king. Oliver Cromwell headed a new English Commonwealth, and the period known as the English interregnum, or the time between kings, began.
Though Cromwell enjoyed widespread popularity at first, over time he appeared to assume powers associated with a military dictator, and dissatisfaction grew. When Cromwell died in 1658, the majority of the English people opposed the passage of power to Cromwell’s son, Richard, and requested Charles II to assume the throne and end the interregnum. The rise of Charles II to the throne restored the English monarchy. For this reason, the return of Charles II is known as the Restoration.
Upon assuming the throne, Charles II dealt with a fractured nation. In particular, he continued to confront politically influential groups who had ties to Cromwell or other previous regimes. England also experienced rivalries with other nations, particularly the Netherlands (Dutch), which was situated across the North Sea. Charles and his supporters recognized that one thing could unify the royal family and other influential groups across the spectrum in England: economic and military warfare against the Netherlands.
Indeed, the scramble to seize trade, wealth, and colonies from the Dutch in the Atlantic World was perhaps the only unifying political issue in England during this period for a few reasons. First, Charles II recognized that the redirection of Dutch capital into English coffers would strengthen the Crown’s economic and political position. Individual members of the royal family could become personally involved in trading companies, which, in turn, granted the Crown privileged access to trade relationships across the Atlantic. A number of English merchants were also eager to jump on board with this program, since they hoped to gain benefits and privileges of their own. Finally, Anglican Royalists (members of the Church of England who had supported the Crown during the English Civil War) disliked the Netherlands, because it adhered to a different Protestant denomination (Calvinism) and featured a republic rather than a monarchy.
Thus, the remainder of England’s North American empire was not built from scratch. Rather, in addition to England’s original holdings in the southern and northern colonies (Virginia and New England, for example), the middle colonies—especially New York and New Jersey—were taken from the Netherlands. These colonies, in addition to Pennsylvania, were known as proprietary colonies. In each case, Charles II granted land to a key individual, family, or group who, in turn, administered the colony on his behalf.
The English conquered New Netherland, and established these proprietary colonies after a series of conflicts with the Dutch during the 1660s and 1670s. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1667), the English captured most of the Dutch trading posts in West Africa, thus usurping the Netherlands as the leader in the Atlantic slave trade. In addition, English forces (with assistance from some colonial militia) gained control of New Netherland.
Charles II gave New Netherland to his brother James, Duke of York (later James II). In his honor, the colony was renamed New York, and the city of New Amsterdam became New York City. Fort Orange, a vital fur trading post on the Hudson River, became Albany. The Duke of York then granted the land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers to two men who had remained loyal to him during the English Civil War. These land grants went on to form the colony of New Jersey.
The Duke of York had no desire to govern locally or listen to the wishes of local colonists. It wasn’t until 1683, therefore, almost 20 years after the English took control of the colony, that colonists in New York were able to convene a local representative legislature.The assembly’s 1683 Charter of Liberties and Privileges set out the traditional rights of Englishmen, such as the right to trial by jury and the right to representative government.
The enactment of these measures restricted the rights of others, however. Under English law, married women could no longer conduct business under their own name (which was customary under Dutch tradition). The rights of free blacks in New York City became increasingly limited as the English expelled them from many skilled jobs. The city also became a center for the Atlantic slave trade and, by 1680, New York had the largest slave population per capita in English North America.
The English continued the Dutch patroonship system by granting large estates to certain families and other favorites or political allies. The largest of these estates, at 160,000 acres, was given to Robert Livingston in 1686. By 1700, nearly 2 million acres of land in New York was owned by the Livingstons and four other families. These families would form a formidable political and economic force in the middle colonies. Meanwhile, New York City continued to contain a variety of people and religions—as well as Dutch and English people, it held French Protestants (Huguenots), Jews, Puritans, Quakers, Anglicans, and a large population of slaves.
Pennsylvania, which became the geographic center of English North America, was created in 1681 when Charles II bestowed a proprietary colony to William Penn. The land grant settled a large debt that the English monarch owed the Penn family. William Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn, had served the English Crown by helping take Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The king personally owed the Admiral money as well.
Similar to early settlers of the northern colonies, Pennsylvania’s first colonists migrated mostly for religious reasons. William Penn himself was a Quaker, a member of a new Protestant denomination called the Society of Friends. George Fox had founded the Society of Friends in England in the late 1640s, having grown dissatisfied with Puritanism and the idea of predestination. Rather, Fox and his followers stressed that everyone had an “inner light” inside him or her, a spark of divinity. They gained the name Quakers because they were said to quake when the inner light moved them.
Quakers also rejected traditional European ideas of worldly rank and hierarchy, believing instead in a new and radical form of social equality. Their speech reflected this belief in that they addressed all others as equals, using “thee” and “thou” rather than terms such as “your lordship” or “my lady” that were customary for privileged individuals of the hereditary elite.
The English crown persecuted Quakers in England, and colonial governments were equally harsh. Massachusetts even executed several early Quakers who had gone to proselytize there. To avoid such persecution, Quakers and their families at first created a community on the sugar island of Barbados. Soon after its founding, however, Pennsylvania became the destination of choice.
Quakers flocked to Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey, where they could preach and practice their religion in peace. Unlike New England, whose official religion was Puritanism, Pennsylvania did not establish an official church. Indeed, the colony allowed a degree of religious tolerance found nowhere else in English America.
To help encourage immigration to his colony, Penn promised fifty acres of land to people who agreed to come to Pennsylvania and completed their term of service. Not surprisingly, those seeking a better life came in large numbers, so much so that Pennsylvania relied on indentured servants more than any other English colony in North America.
Indeed, all of Pennsylvania appeared to be the best country for poor men and women, many of whom arrived as servants and dreamed of owning land. A very few, such as the fortunate Benjamin Franklin, a runaway from Puritan Boston, did extraordinarily well. Other immigrant groups in the colony, most notably Germans and Scotch-Irish (families from Scotland and England who had first lived in Ireland before moving to British America), greatly improved their lot in Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s most important port city, grew rapidly during the colonial period. The city acted as a magnet for immigrants, who came not only from England but from all over Europe by the hundreds of thousands. The city also expanded because of its participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Quaker merchants in the city there established contacts throughout the Atlantic World, and they took part in the thriving African slave trade.
Nevertheless, some Quakers were deeply troubled by racial slavery in English North America. Quakers believed that liberty was universal rather than the possession of a distinct class or race of people. For this reason, Quakers were the first white people in North America to reject racial slavery and engage in efforts to abolish it altogether.
For example, in April 1688, a group of Quakers met in Germantown, Pennsylvania. During their meeting, they penned an official protest of slavery, the first of its kind in the English colonies. The document read:
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Charles II in 1661, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2hZwJT2, Image of Germantown Document, public domain, http://bit.ly/2hZJzAA, Germantown Document, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2il6vvo, Derived from Openstax tutorial “Charles II and the Restoration Colonies” http://bit.ly/2hZwnfa. Some sections removed and edited for brevity.