America In the Awkward Age

THE boy whose voice is changing has opened the dullest and also the most significant chapter in the story of his life. The colonies stumbled and struggled through that awkward age of adolescence between the years 1700 and 1760. Their voice was changing from colonial to national, from European to American.

That formative period, those years when America was growing up, seemed to many onlookers a period of decline. Buffon gravely announced, as a scientific law, that all animal life deteriorated here. We may smile to-day at the pessimism of that great French naturalist. But really the colonists were engaged in a doubtful and hazardous experiment.
Europeans have not been able to hold their own in many of the strange lands where they have made the experiment in the past four hundred years but have sunk toward the level of the aboriginal inhabitants. It is an impressive fact that the United States still is the only nation of the first magnitude that colonists from Europe have succeeded in rearing anywhere in all the vast world in both hemispheres that was opened in the age of discovery.
There was much viewing with alarm in the colonies themselves, as the second, third and fourth generations of Americans were seen to be losing more and more of the Old World qualities that their fathers and mothers brought over the sea. Benjamin Franklin admitted in 1749 that the native born were not the equals in ability of their English forebears. Franklin lamented that better minds were to be found in almost every neighborhood of England than could be come upon in traveling one hundred leagues of America.
Necessarily the colonists had neglected books and the amenities of life in the century when they had been at grips with the Indians and with savage nature; clearing a space for themselves in the forests that grew to the water's edge; rolling logs and wrestling with stumps and roots and shoots.
The far-off colonists lost touch with the culture of Europe and lost step with the English under the leadership of men like Newton, Locke, Harvey, Boyle, Halley. The gentry on the great estates tried to keep up the social traditions of the landed aristocracy in England. The new rich in the ten or a dozen towns scattered between Boston and Charleston put on the airs of their class in the old country. But the higher education, and it was not much higher than the standards of an English grammar school, was mainly confined to the clergy, who knew little more than theology.
Outside the few thickly settled parts of the country, people lived too far apart to send their children to school and there was no system of rural education. There were no newspapers, libraries or theaters in the first century. Most people grew up without even hearing of any other book than the Bible.

Religious revivals, which swept the colonies like a gale, provided the only intellectual stimulus that the masses received. That "Great Awakening" was launched at Northampton, Mass., in 1734, by Jonathan Edwards, the first intellect to be produced in America. It was a fiery, terroristic evangel that spread all the way from Maine to the new-born colony of Georgia. "Many fell to the ground . . . then followed convulsions and terrible shrieking!"
George Whitefield, who came from England, drew crowds of seven thousand to eight thousand, and gathered in fifty thousand penitent sinners in New England alone. "The people seemed to be slain by the score. They were carried off like soldiers wounded. . . . Their cries and agonies were exceedingly affecting."
When Franklin went out of curiosity to hear Whitefield, he was determined not to put a penny on the contribution plate. But he decided, as the revivalist warmed up, to give the coppers in his pocket; next he decided to give the silver, also. When the plate came around, he dumped in copper, silver and gold, everything he had with him.

Like their religion, the amusements, the dissipations of the colonists also were violent reactions from their toilsome and often lonely lives. At "bees," "raisings," "launchings," "huskings," and "musters" they turned themselves loose in robust frolics.
Baptisms, marriages and even funerals were seized upon as occasions for escape from a laborious existence. Strong liquors were as cheap then as soda pop is to-day, and students agree that drunkenness, gluttony, profanity, obscenity, coarse talking and loose living never since have been so common as those "good old colony times when we lived under the king."
It was a simple and a rude world in which the colonists were being recast. Nations are not made of porcelain, but of common clay. America was born of "fishers, choppers and plowmen," of backwoodsmen and frontiersmen.

Like a field of winter wheat beneath its blanket of snow, a new nation was taking root, unseen, below the dreary surface of colonial life in the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century. Soon the worlds of art, of science and government, all in turn were surprised to see a John Singleton Copley and a Benjamin West, a Benjamin Franklin and a Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), a George Washington and a Thomas Jefferson spring from the wilderness soil.

James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930