A Self-Governing People
American society became much more dynamic and less stratified than the Europe the colonists had left behind. The notion of a social hierarchy was deeply ingrained in the colonists, but it came to mean something different in a land where making one's fortune was a genuine possibility and there was no formal aristocracy. Inevitably, social distinctions were narrower and much more fluid in America.A Taste for Representative Government
By the standards of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the original thirteen colonies were the most democratic polities in the world. The first Virginia House of Burgesses was elected by all males seventeen years of age and older; only later was the vote restricted to landowners. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the vote was initially a privilege of all adult male members of the church. As Massachusetts and New England drifted away from the rigors of their Puritan origins, religious tests gave way to property qualifications. By the eighteenth century, all the colonies extended the vote to men who met the local requirements for personal worth.
On average the property qualification to vote meant possession of fifty acres of land or property valued at £50. Probably 50 percent of men in the south and 75 percent of men in the north could vote.
In every colony, men with the franchise elected the members of the legislature. There was also a vigorous system of local government. In New England, the famous town meetings became institutions. In the south, politics was centered on the county. Everywhere in North America, the colonists were used to governing themselves with little interference in local affairs by the royal government.Turmoil and Transformation
Most of the colonies experienced tensions between the more settled and prosperous areas near the coast and the districts on the frontier, often deliberately underrepresented in the legislatures and vulnerable to Indian attacks. The rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon against the Virginia authorities in 1676 was one conspicuous manifestation of this enduring conflict.
For much of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, the colonies had to rely on their own resources for offensive and defensive wars against the Indians. Some of these wars proved devastating in their effects. In 1675–76, New England was ravaged by a war against Indians led by Metacom — or Philip, as the English called him. Many frontier communities were destroyed. Around 5 percent of the adult population perished. The Indians suffered even more. Thousands of Indians were killed and hundreds more sold into slavery. Their ranks were so decimated that in some cases survivors were forced to seek refuge with other tribes.