Europeans colonize North America in the early seventeenth century, motivated by religious and economic goals. Spain and France, the two Catholic powers in Europe, lead the way, establishing Santa Fe and Québec as their colonial capitals in North America, but Protestant England soon follows along with other European nations such as Sweden and the Dutch Republic. Tens of thousands of English migrants settle along the Atlantic seaboard of North America between 1607 and 1675; they occupy lands previously the territory of Native Americans in three major regions known today as New England, the Middle Atlantic, and the Chesapeake. The English bring distinct traditions across the Atlantic with them, but their experience in the coastal colonies pushes them into new modes of social life and material culture.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, colonial elites emerge in the maturing colonies; plantation owners in the South and the colonial merchants in the North stand out as leading patrons of the arts. New Georgian-style mansions are replete with Rococo furniture forms. Immigrant portraitists seek commissions. The British colonies experience enormous population growth: the mainland colonies have about 400,000 residents in 1720 and nearly 2 million by 1765. A population explosion in Europe brings new waves of white migrants while the continued importation of enslaved Africans increases the number of blacks. An expanding engagement with the British empire brings British manufactured goods, fostering a new identity as Britons. Wealthy Americans travel back seeking the cultural milieu of England and the Continent. However, those attachments and the British desire to raise revenues to finance the operations of the empire generate a crisis in the political relationship between the mother country and the colonists, one that eventually ignites a war for independence.
After the American Revolution, a new federal government and federal culture emerge in the United States of America. An innovative arrangement of sharing power between the electorate, the states, and the national government is created with the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Despite the acclaimed selection of George Washington as the first president of the United States, political divisions remain between the northern and southern regions along with differing views of a strong central governmental authority. Political parties soon emerge over these conflicts, but other efforts focus on how to build a new nation. Patrons and artists also devise a distinctive nationalist culture around Neoclassical principles, looking to the ancient republics of Greece and Rome for inspiration for their new republic.
The British establish their first American colony at Jamestown, Virginia, named for King James I, who grants the Virginia Company a charter to settle in the Chesapeake Bay region.
The Dutch East India Company sends Henry Hudson (died 1611) to explore the area around present-day New York City and the river north to Albany. The river bears his name and the territory is claimed by the Dutch.
Tobacco cultivation is introduced in Virginia and within a decade becomes the colony’s chief source of revenue.
A group of 101 Puritan English Separatists sail on board the Mayflower to America and establish Plymouth Colony on Cape Cod, New England.
The island of Manhattan is purchased from local Indians; the colony is named New Netherland and its capital New Amsterdam. The first group of Dutch settlers disperse up the Hudson River, to the Delaware River area in New Jersey, to Governors Island, Manhattan Island, and Long Island.
John Winthrop (1588–1649) assumes leadership of the English settlers in present-day Salem; this marks the beginning of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop chooses Boston as his seat of government.
Lord Baltimore (ca. 1605–1675) of England receives a charter from King Charles I for land north of the Potomac River that becomes the colony of Maryland. Lord Baltimore is Catholic and draws up a charter allowing the establishment of churches of all religions. The region is also attractive due to rich farmland and the accessible ports and coastal waters.
Harvard College is founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the first colonial institution of higher learning.
The British take control of New Amsterdam and New Netherland. Charles II, king of England, grants the duke of York the colonial land and the name of the territory is changed to New York. The Dutch settlers are able to retain their properties and worship as they please. The Colonial Dutch style of art and life remains pervasive in New York throughout the eighteenth century.
Immigrants moving south from Virginia settle the coast of present-day North Carolina. A governor is appointed in 1664, but the first town is established by the arrival of the French Huguenots in 1704.
The first native Africans are brought to Virginia in 1619 as part of new trade relationships. They are hired, with rights of contract, for work on large plantations of tobacco, rice, and indigo (a plant used to make blue dye). By the 1660s, plantation owners change the laws and revoke contracts so that the Africans cannot earn their freedom.
King Charles II of England grants a charter for the Carolina colonies.
William Penn (1644–1718), a wealthy Quaker and friend of King Charles II of England, receives a large tract of land west of the Delaware River, which he names for himself—Pennsylvania.
Quakers establish the first school of the Mid-Atlantic colonies in Pennsylvania. They are among the first groups in America to teach both girls and boys to read and write. Training in classical languages, history, and literature is available at a public school in Philadelphia beginning in 1689.
William III of Orange (the Netherlands) is crowned king of England with wife Mary (see an example of the Queen Mary style, 40.37.3), daughter of King James III. They reign together until 1694, when Mary dies; William rules alone until 1702.
William and Mary College, named for the British rulers, is chartered in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, is founded.
Anne, younger sister of Mary (see an example of the Queen Anne style, 50.228.3), is crowned queen of England. She rules until 1714.
George I becomes king of England (r. 1714–27).
George II becomes king of England (r. 1727–60).
Georgia is the last of the thirteen English colonies to be settled. It is established not so much for economic opportunity, but to be a military barrier between Spanish-owned Florida and the Carolinas. It is also set up as a refuge for former prisoners and the poor.
The French and Indian War begins. France and Britain fight for seven years over the territory from Canada down the west side of the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In Europe, the conflict is called the Seven Years’ War.
George III becomes king of England (r. 1760–1820).
The Treaty of Paris is signed by France and Britain, ending the French and Indian War. England now owns all the territory from the eastern coastline west to the Mississippi.
The Sugar Act is passed by the British, forbidding American importation of foreign rum and taxing imported molasses, wine, silk, coffee, and a number of other luxury items.
The Stamp Act is passed by the British, taxing all colonial newspapers, advertisements, leases, licenses, pamphlets, and legal documents.
The Townshend Acts, named for the British secretary of the treasury, are passed, taxing the colonists on imported paper, glass, lead, and tea.
Angered by the tea tax and the British East India Company’s monopoly on tea trade, the independent New England colonial merchants dump the precious cargo overboard into the Boston harbor. This incident is called the Boston Tea Party.
The First Continental Congress of fifty-five representatives (except from the colony of Georgia) meets in Philadelphia to discuss relations with Britain, the possibility of independence, and the hope of a peaceful solution. King George III scorns the thought of reconciliation and declares the colonies to be in a state of open rebellion.
The American War of Independence begins. Paul Revere makes his midnight ride through Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 18.
Patriot and lawyer Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; 24.19.1) drafts the Declaration of Independence.
English general Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, Virginia, ending six years of war between colonial America and Britain.
The Treaty of Paris is signed, ending the War of Independence, and the original thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard become the first United States.
A large group of representatives from the newly independent colonies, including George Washington, James Madison (both future presidents of the United States), Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and many other delegates meet at the Philadelphia State House to discuss the future of the country and to draft a document reflecting Revolutionary ideals. This meeting in May is called the Constitutional Convention.
The Constitution of the United States, a document organizing government into three branches—Executive (President), Legislative (Congress), and Judicial (Supreme Court)—is ratified.
Ten amendments to the Constitution protecting individual rights are ratified. They are called the Bill of Rights.
The first cornerstone of the presidential White House in Washington, D.C., is laid.
Eli Whitney (1765–1825) invents the cotton gin, which speeds the process of separating the cotton from the seeds.
George Washington’s Farewell Address is published in Philadelphia’s Daily American Advertiser. He warns against the divisiveness of a party system and permanent foreign alliances, and cautions against an overpowerful military establishment. He then retires to his plantation home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Lawyer, writer, and philosopher John Adams (1735–1826) becomes the second president of the United States and serves a four-year term.
George Washington, aged sixty-seven, dies suddenly of pulmonary disorder at his home in Virginia. General Henry Lee delivers a eulogy in Congress describing Washington as “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
“The United States, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=na (October 2004)