The 13 Colonies: Life, Economy & External Influences

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  • 0:02 Colonists
  • 0:54 Colonial Life
  • 1:55 Colonial Economy
  • 2:51 External Influence
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore daily life and the economy of the 13 colonies. You will also discover the external influences that impacted colonial life. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Colonists

The United States of America was once a colony of the British Empire. I doubt that this is really news to anyone at this point. But what was life like as a colonist? Britain held colonies on the East coast of North America for 150 years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. What were people doing during that time?

Imagine yourself in the shoes of a colonist. You left your home country, moved halfway around the world, and settled in an area that is still developing its first major cities. Also, the people in your home country don't think of you as a part of their society anymore. Now you're just a colonist; that's it. It could be tough to be a colonist, but there were some good things, too; you might have more opportunities in the colonies than back home. In the 13 colonies, daily life and the economy were carefully controlled by Britain in many regards, but colonists had enough freedom to start thinking of themselves as Americans.

Colonial Life

Each of the 13 colonies was essentially its own entity. There was never meant to be any real sense of unity between them, and each one had its own colonial government, laws, and social systems. Southern colonies were mostly focused on agriculture, namely tobacco and cotton. The Northern colonies made most of their money through the important trading ports they held along the Atlantic Coast. Slavery was legal in every colony, and slaves were an important part of daily life.

The majority of families in the colonies owned small farms, growing just enough to live on without extra to sell. Farming was important to the colonists, because it indicated that they owned their own land. The ability to own land was very precious to the colonists and would have been much more difficult to do as a peasant in Britain. Even if they remained poor, colonists could own their own farms and achieve a sense of equality that was not available to them in Britain. These ideas of freedom and equality came to define the colonies, and colonists prided themselves on allowing religious freedom, among other personal liberties.

Colonial Economy

Britain controlled the colonial economy through a policy called mercantilism. In a mercantile system the government controls the production of resources to prevent the colonies from establishing independent economies. This meant that the colonies were not allowed to make products that could be sold internationally. Instead, the colonies produced raw products, like cotton or wood, and those were shipped to Britain, where they were made into finished products, like chairs or shirts.

The mercantile system was all about control. Britain imposed very strict trade restrictions, enforced through ridiculously high taxes, to prevent the colonies from trading with other empires, notably France or Spain. Of course, the colonists did not always follow these rules, and they built up a substantial black market network to trade their products to other nations. Britain worked very hard to prevent this because, well, the whole point of having colonies is to make money, right? That's what the mercantile system did; made Britain rich at the expense of the colonies.

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