Variations in geography, in immigration patterns, and in religious experience produced important economic and social differences within and among the colonies. The resulting discontinuities at once shaped and were shaped by the colonists' carried legal tradition.
The rough soils, heavy forests, and few navigable waterways of New England encouraged the exploitation of natural resources--fish, timber, and furbearing animals--and an agricultural system that produced foodstuffs and grazing animals for export. New England became enmeshed in the sugar trade with the West Indies, and Boston emerged as a terminus for transatlantic commerce. This same geography, abetted by the congregational form of church organization and the predominately English village background of the New England settlers, encouraged small independent towns based on the common field system of agriculture and pasturage. New England imported few class distinctions, at least in comparison with the Old World. It was a middle-class haven, although the emergence of larger towns and commercial activity in the eighteenth century spurred social stratification. Attitudes of deference rather than caste influenced the focus of political action, with a small upper class leading the majority.
In the middle colonies, which the Hudson River separated from New England, there was a richer ethnic mix. German, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and Swedes established communities in which they produced beef, pork, wheat and other livestock, and supplied farm implements and hardware to other colonies. Class patterns became more blurred than in New England, although the "middling sort" predominated as well.
Of these settlements, Quaker Pennsylvania was more socially democratic; New York, with its Hudson River patricians, was more aristocratic. With Philadelphia as the colonies' leading port city, urban settlement was more highly developed. By the mid- eighteenth century, plain folk crowded into Philadelphia and other port cities.
In the Chesapeake and southern colonies, geography dealt yet another hand. Fertile soils and broad rivers flowing to the Atlantic encouraged staple agricultural production; tobacco was the primary crop, and in the eighteenth century rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia. The pattern of settlement differed from New England. Although Virginia and Maryland were the most populous colonies before the Revolution, their populations were scattered among widely separated plantations and farms. Moreover, the leading immigrants to these colonies often came from the gentry class,
some of them former sugar planters experienced with slavery in the West Indies. Of all of the colonies, class distinctions were sharpest in the Chesapeake region and further south. Yet even there the middle class was pervasive. Most planters held few slaves, and widespread property ownership permitted an extensive franchise. More than anywhere else, deference influenced the social context of legal authority.
Religion separated the colonies as well, both internally and from one another. Religious and economic motives led to immigration. True enough, in Massachusetts Bay the original settlers promised, according to their leader John Winthrop, to establish a "cittie upon a hill." But idiosyncratic biblicism and intolerance characterized their religious experiment, and many hundreds of thousands who came to the New World did so as much with an eye on economic opportunity as with strong religious attachments. The Puritan and Separatist dissenters from the Anglican Church who settled in early New England had trouble enough agreeing with one another, let alone with the staunch Anglicans in Virginia. When Quakers attempted in the mid-seventeenth century to settle in the Massachusetts Bay colony, they encountered ear cropping, even execution. The Quakers founded Pennsylvania, but next door in Maryland the Roman Catholic Church was predominant under Lord Baltimore. The mid-eighteenth century Great Awakening set believers trembling, splintering American Protestantism into additional denominational fragments. Early America was not an unchurched land; rather it was a mosaic of faiths confronting the growing forces of secularism.
The legal division of British North America produced a patchwork of conflicting authority. In theory the king ruled over all, but in practice, local autonomy prevailed. Of the thirteen original colonies, only seven had been founded by 1660. Georgia, the last officially established, did not come into existence until 1733. Some were royal colonies (like Virginia) controlled directly by the Crown, while others were charter colonies (like Massachusetts Bay) in which members of a chartered company had extensive governing rights; still others were proprietary colonies (like Maryland and Pennsylvania) in which a single owner exercised seemingly vast control. Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, English authorities labored for the next ninety years to impose a scheme of imperial organization, but their efforts only stirred the colonists to resistance while making more shadowy the precise basis for imperial authority.
Taken together, these discontinuities invited the colonists to apply eclectically their imported legal traditions. The result was a richly textured pattern of legal institutions and activity.