The Americans of the Revolution wrote about the new man who leaves behind his old prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the mode of life he embraces, and whose labors would change the world. But, one must ask, to what extent was this true? Just exactly how new was the American of 1775?

In his famous Letters from an American FarmerMichel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur wrote about “this new man. . . . That strange mixture of blood which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. . . . [he] leaves behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.”[1]

To be certain, Crevecoeur exaggerated, but, one must ask, to what extent? Just exactly how new was the American of 1775? As David Hackett Fisher has so effectively demonstrated, five ethnic groups made up American stock on the eve of the American Revolution.

First were the thousands upon thousands of Puritans who sought an escape from elitist Anglican Oxford monarchical control in the 1630s and 1640s. They, of course, settled in New England.

Second were the thousands upon thousands of Anglicans who sought an escape from the middle-brow, Cambridge parliamentary control in the 1640s and 1650s. They, of course, settled in Virginia and its surrounding environs.

Third were the thousands upon thousands of Quakers who sought an escape from the Puritans as well as the Anglicans, hoping peaceably to live their own lives as they saw fit in the 1660s and 1670s. They, of course, settled in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

Fourth were the thousands upon thousands of Scots-Irish who sought an escape from all things not Scottish during the hundred years leading up to the American Revolution. They, of course, settled almost anywhere that was devoid of governmental authority. Only nominally Presbyterian, they were the least religious of the free migrants who came to the American colonies. They were also the least concentrated, coming, more often than not, clan by clan.

Fifth were the thousands upon thousands of Africans, captured as prisoners of war, and sold in the Americas. Though only involuntary indentured servants for their first fifty years in the English colonies, black Americans soon found what few rights they enjoyed narrowing and narrowing. The slave owners began, slowly at first, to change that forced indentured servitude into chattel slavery, beginning sometime around 1669.

Thus, by 1763, free Americans were, by and large, Anglo-Saxon-Celtic and very Protestant. They were also, by profession, almost exclusively involved in agriculture. It must also be noted, of course, that there were other groups living on American soil, including some Swedes, some Dutch, and a few Germans. There was also a sizeable, if dwindling, population of American Indians.

In no small part due to immigration, the American population grew.

     1700: 251,000

     1730: 629,000

     1760: 1.594 million

     1770: 2.148 million

     1780: 2.78 million

     1790: 3.929 million

     1800: 5.308 million

     1810: 7.240 million

     1820: 9.638 million

What gave the population such power, though, was the American propensity for and love of procreation. As demographic historian Walter Nugent has explained:

Fertility was enormously high as long as the young couple could form their own household on their own land. Females reached menarche at about age fifteen in 1800 and perhaps a few months earlier in 1850. If a woman married soon after that, as many did, the ultimate size of her family could be prodigious. The American and Canadian census manuscripts are crowded with cases of women marrying at sixteen or seventeen and producing a child every eighteen to twenty-four months–about the biological maximum because of breast-feeding and pregnancy intervals–until reaching menopause in their mid-forties. The average number of children born per woman in her lifetime, as of 1790, was almost eight. . . . Newly married women could look forward to twenty or even thirty fertile years.[2]

A quick calculation using Dr. Nugent’s data reveals that the average American woman on the frontier had thirteen live births. No one in the history of the world—before or since—has seen or experienced such pro-creative rates as Americans enjoyed for nearly two centuries.

Quoting the Swedish scientist, Peter Kalm, in his own work, Dr. Nugent records:

In the morning I undertook a little journey again to Raccoon, New Jersey. It does not seem difficult to find out the reasons why the people multiply faster here than in Europe. As soon as a person is old enough he may marry in these provinces without any fear of poverty. There is such an amount of good land yet uncultivated that a newly married man can, without difficulty, get a spot of ground where he may comfortably subsist with his wife and children.[3]

Or, the profound Enlightenment thinker, Benjamin Rush:

The universal prevalence of the protestant religion, the checks lately given to negro slavery, the general unwillingness among us to acknowledge the usurpations of primogeniture, the universal practice of inoculation for the smallpox, and absence of the plague, render the imposition of government for that purpose [population growth] unnecessary. These advantages can only be secured to our country by AGRICULTURE. This is the true basis of national health, riches, and populousness.[4]

Or, observer Jeremy Belknap:

Where land is cheap, and the means of subsistence may be acquired in such plenty, and in so short a time as is evidently the case in our new plantations, encouragement is given to early marriage. A young man who has cleared a piece of land, and built a hut for his present accommodation, soon begins to experience the truth of that old adage, ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’ Having a prospect of increasing this substance by labour, which he knows himself able to perform, he attaches himself to a female earlier than prudence would dictate if he had not such a prospect. Nor are the young females of the country averse to a settlement in the new plantation.[5]

Yet, one should not ignore the urban population of late colonial America, either. Its numbers:

     Philadelphia 28,000

     New York 21,800

     Boston 15,520

     Charleston 10,863

     Newport 9,200[6]

Without question, America was becoming a world unto herself in the years leading up to the Revolution.

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Notes:

[1] Quoted in Ward, Harry M. The American Revolution (Manhattan: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 3.

[2] Walter Nugent, Structures of American Social History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 57-58.

[3] Quoted in Nugent, Structures, 52.

[4] Quoted in Nugent, Structures, 51.

[5] Quoted in Nugent, Structures, 52-53.

[6] The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, ed. Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992), p. 46.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865) by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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