Colonial Life

This exercise is designed to acquaint students with three aspects of colonial life: Religion, Commerce and Labor, and Government.  These are the three most public aspects of American colonial life.  In an important way they reflect the divided attention of peoples dealing with changes in religion, the rise of capitalism, and changing views of the role of government.  Religion dominated life in New England and although many might claim that it did not change, there were significant shifts in the views of the influence of religion on colonial American. The rise of capitalism and the growth of international trade had a major role in shaping colonial life.  For those at the top, the promise of wealth was a revolutionary force.  For those at the bottom, the impact of capitalism provided a different experience.  In all colonies, the expansion of a diverse population far removed from the seat of English government helped reshape the political life of the English Colonies and dictated unique results.

This exercise is divided into two steps.  In this exercise the web module groups can assume that these documents are true and complete reflections of the aspects of colonial life under review.  Review each of the documents through the framework of the questions to develop your written analysis. Each web module group is asked to select two (2) of the three clusters of historical documents to analyze and report on.


For the preliminary analysis of the Colonial Life documents your group has selected please do the following:

  1. Describe each of the document’s content.
  2. Analyze what the documents tell us about their author(s)?
  3. Why was the document created?

For the final analysis include the following:

  1. Building on your primary analysis, write a report discussing the various aspects of colonial life reflected in the documents you have selected to study.
  2. Taking all of the documents together, what does your web module group think was the most significant aspect of colonial life revealed in the documents?
  3. What evidence within the documents most clearly supports your analysis?

Religion Cluster


  1. How does John Winthrop view class structure?
  2. How does Christianity justify this class structure and what is the social value of these relationships?
  3. What duties to the community do its members have?
  4. What defines a the “city upon a hill?”
  5. How does Jonathan Edwards’ view of the Christian Community differ from that of John Winthrop’s view?
  6. How does the tone of Edwards’ sermon differ from that of Winthrop’s sermon?
  7. Are the two sermons similar in any way?
  8. What do these two tell us about the changes in New England religion over time?


A Model of Christian Charity by John Winthrop

Jonathan Edwards Sermon

Commerce and Labor Cluster


  1. According to Mun, what social role do merchants play?
  2. What defines a good merchant?
  3. What abilities were most useful for a successful merchant?
  4. What was the national value of commerce and what was its ultimate goal?
  5. How did the voyage of laborers from Europe differ from those coming from Africa?
  6. How were these voyages similar?
  7. Once in America, what were the differences between being an indentured servant and being a slave?
  8. What was the social cost to laborers and slaves in serving the interests and goals of commerce?


Thomas Mun from England’s Treasure by Foreign Trade

Gottlieb Mittenberger, The Passage of Indentured Servants

Olaudah Equiano, The Middle Passage

Government Cluster


  1. Why were the documents drawn up?
  2. How would you characterize the Rights (Rites) and Liberties of citizens of Massachusetts under the provisions of the document?
  3. How would you characterize the Court Proceedings in Colonial Massachusetts?
  4. How would you characterize the rules concerning freemen, women, children, servants, and foreigners?
  5. How would you characterize the liberties of the church in Massachusetts? Was there separation of Church and State?
  6. In both colonies where does power reside?
  7. What are the major differences and similarities between the two documents?
  8. Which document is most like the United States Constitution?


Massachusetts Body of Liberties

Ordinances of Virginia (1621)