The inhabitants of New York . . . being, however, of different nations, different languages, and different religions, it is almost impossible to give them any precise or determinate character.
Rev. Andrew Burnaby, 17601
What did it say that one could not easily define the "character" of the people of New York in 1760? or of most of the colonies, for that matter? "By 1770," notes historian Jon Butler, "Britain's mainland settlements contained a polyglot population of English, Scots, Germans, Dutch, Swiss, French and Africans, although in 1680 most European settlers were English." This swift transformation, often noted by visitors to the colonies, was a critical factor in the emerging identity of the British mainland colonies. "Here, then," stresses Butler, "was an America already modern in important ways."2 How did colonists and visitors describe the inhabitants' religious and ethnic diversity? How did they feel about this diversity?
Consider including readings from the sections on Native Americans (#3) and African Americans (#4) in this Theme. How did the diverse peoples of the American colonies view each other in the 1700s before the Revolution? (12 pages.)
"Mingled like fish at sea." From the journals, memoirs, essays, and letters of eighteen people comes this commentary on the diversity of the colonies' white inhabitants. (See sections #3 and #4 in this Theme for Europeans' commentary on Native Americans and African Americans.) What might explain the preponderance of commentary on religious diversity rather than ethnic and national diversity? Do the observers applaud or disparage diversity?
- - Commentary from Gabriel Thomas, Francis Louis Michel, Robert Beverley, John Lawson, Hugh Jones, Lewis Morris, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Johann Bolzius, Francis Cample, John Callender, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, Peter Kalm, Gottlieb Mittelberger, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, Andrew Burnaby, Ezra Stiles, and Christopher Schultz.
The Van Bergen overmantel. Martin Van Bergen, a New York colonist of Dutch heritage, commissioned this work to depict his farmstead near the Catskill Mountains. Intended to be displayed over the fireplace (thus the term overmantel), the work displays the ethnic diversity of New York in the 1700s, a characteristic widely noted by travelers to the colony. Depicted are European American settlers (including the Van Bergen family and several indentured servants), African American slaves, and two Native Americans of the Esopus tribal group. What does one learn from studying this work? What questions arise? How would one pursue answers to the questions?
- - The Van Bergen overmantel, oil on wood, attributed to John Heaten, New York, ca. 1728-1738. Fenimore Art Museum, New York State Historical Association.
- How do colonists and visitors respond to the racial, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity in British America?
- Do the observers applaud or disparage diversity?
- How do the eighteenth-century observers differentiate their views of white Europeans from their opinions of Indians and Africans? (Consider the readings in sections #3 and #4 of this Theme.)
- What might explain the preponderance of commentary in these selections on the religious diversity of the colonies rather than their ethnic and national diversity?
- How did the colonists' responses to diversity influence colonial society as a whole?
- How did the "polyglot population," as historian Jon Butler notes, reveal "an America already modern in important ways"?
- Consider the comment of Rev. Andrew Burnaby, a visiting Englishman in 1760, on the broad diversity of the New York colonists: "The inhabitants of New York . . . being, however, of different nations, different languages, and different religions, it is almost impossible to give them any precise or determinate character." What attitude toward the colony's diversity is implied in his wording?
- Assemble other commentary by colonists and visitors on the colonies' ethnic and religious diversity. Group them by the implied or stated attitudes toward diversity. Include the Van Bergen overmantel in your selection. What patterns do you find?
- List the people depicted in the Van Bergen overmantel. Identify them as much as possible by name, ethnic identity, activity depicted, and economic and political status in the farmstead and the colony.
- What does one learn from studying the overmantel? What questions arise? How would one pursue answers to the questions?
- How does the eighteenth-century commentary differ from commentary on America's diversity today?
- How would the observers interpret the terms tolerance, peers, rights, and opportunity?
1 Rev. Andrew Burnaby, Travels through the Middle Settlements in North-America. In the Years 1759 and 1760. With Observations upon the State of the Colonies. 2d. ed., London: 1775 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press/Great Seal Books, 1960), p. 80.
2 Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 2.
Image: John Heaten (attributed to), the Van Bergen overmantel (mural painting), oil on wood, ca. 1728-1738 (details). Fenimore Art Museum, New York State Historical Association, #N0366.1954. Permission pending.
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