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New England.

The Oxford Companion to United States History
Stephen NissenbaumStephen Nissenbaum

New England. 

Consisting of six states (five of them among the nation's smallest), New England, named by Captain John Smith in 1614, is the only U.S. region with clearly defined political boundaries.

The region's first substantial European settlement was organized by Puritans in the late 1620s. Despite rapid diversification—Rhode Island and Connecticut emerged as rival colonies to Massachusetts-Bay within the first decade—and the presence of non-Puritans from the very beginning, a form of Puritan hegemony was imposed, especially in Massachusetts, by restricting the franchise to a religious elite. This hegemony was successfully challenged by England, which in 1686 imposed a central government, the “Dominion of New England,” on the entire region (plus New York). Although the dominion was dissolved in 1689, only Rhode Island and Connecticut retained political autonomy.

During the eighteenth century, New England came increasingly to resemble England itself. Society polarized economically, and its elite (like that of other regions) aspired to the cultural style of the English gentry, a development sometimes termed “anglicization.” Still, far more than other regions, New England maintained its ethnic homogeneity, in large measure by using the family itself as its primary labor supply—in contrast not only to the South's slave-labor system but also to the wage labor of the Middle Colonies. Largely for that reason, regional population growth stemmed from natural increase rather than immigration: as late as 1773–1776, less than 1 percent of Britons who immigrated to America landed in New England—a mere 77 out of 9,364 individuals.

One element now deeply associated with New England—the nucleated village gathered around a central common—did not develop until about 1800. Far from being the product of early Puritan settlement, the nucleated village emerged only with the advent of strong regional markets and a protocapitalist rural economy. Nevertheless, the “New England village” and the stable cultural practices it was believed to engender became a model for the social order that many prominent antebellum New Englanders wished to export to the rest of the United States especially to the contested western regions. But in the decades after 1815, New England underwent a radical transformation as the region's mercantile elite (brought low economically by the War of 1812 and politically by their opposition to that war) came to invest in industrial production. The industrial revolution carried New England to a position of national strength and in the process transformed its social structure. By 1860 the region was more highly industrialized and urbanized, and contained more immigrants (mostly Roman Catholics, including many from Ireland), than any other part of the nation—a rapid and dramatic reversal of its ethnic composition and labor system. This same transformation helped generate the various reform movements that swept over New England after 1830: temperance and prohibition, body reform, and antislavery, all linked by a shared commitment to individual self-discipline and self-fulfillment.

The Civil War strengthened New England's industrial might. But many native-born New Englanders found the side effects of industrialization—vast cotton mills and floods of non-English-speaking immigrants—deeply disturbing. Some of New England's most prominent reformers disengaged themselves from urban problems. For a new generation of authors, artists, and tourists, the declining villages of northern and coastal New England began to seem quaint and old-fashioned, the repository of everything industrial society was leaving behind.

By 1920, more than two-thirds of the Massachusetts population were first- or second-generation immigrants. Old-stock Yankees began to lose control over the economy. Even the Republican party's long-standing regional hegemony was crumbling; the Democrat Alfred E. Smith won a majority of Massachusetts votes for president in 1928. The depression of the 1930s continued this development, though slowly. In 1936, when Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island joined the New Deal, casting their electoral votes for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Maine and Vermont became the only two states in the United States to hold out against the Roosevelt landslide.

In the first half of the twentieth century, New England underwent prolonged economic depression, resulting in massive deindustrialization as textile mills were dismantled, textile production moved south, and industrial cities became slums. But World War II fueled the growth of new industries and prosperity. Government contracts led to the rapid expansion of research and development in weapons, electronics systems, and what would later become computer technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts—home of the laboratories of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—was at the center of the new expansion. The Cold War fueled this military technology boom. The ripples of economic transformation were felt even in the marginal parts of New England, as those regions were transformed into highly developed tourist destinations catering to the vacation demand of newly leisured workers.

See also Agriculture: Colonial Era; Boston; Factory System; Federalist Party; Hartford Convention; Immigration; Indian History and Culture: From 1500 to 1800; Industrialization; Irish Americans; Italian Americans; King Philip's War; Literature: Colonial Era; Lowell Mills; Pequot War; Pilgrims; Poetry; Puritanism; Roman Catholicism; Salem Witchcraft; Textile Industry; Transcendentalism; Unitarianism and Universalism; Utopian and Communitarian Movements.


Hal Barron, Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth Century New England, 1984.Find this resource:

Stephen Nissenbaum, New England as Region and Nation, in Edward L. Ayers, et al., eds., All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions, 1989.Find this resource:

Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England, 1991.Find this resource:

David A. Zonderman, Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815–1850, 1992.Find this resource:

Dona Brown, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century, 1995.Find this resource:

Joseph A. Conforti, Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century, 2001.Find this resource:

Stephen Nissenbaum