18th century to the mid to late 19th century, New England was the nation's cultural leader in political, educational, cultural and intellectual thought. During this time, it was the country's economic center.
The earliest European settlers of New England were English Protestants who came in search of religious liberty. They gave the region its distinctive political format town meetings (an outgrowth of meetings held by church elders) in which citizens gathered to discuss issues of the day. Town meetings still function in many New England communities today and have been revived as a form of dialogue in the national political arena.
Education is another of the region's strongest legacies. The cluster of top-ranking universities and colleges in New Englandincluding Harvard, Yale, MIT, Brown, Dartmouth, Wellesley, Smith, Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyanis unequaled by any other region. America's first college, Harvard, was founded at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636. A number of the graduates from these schools end up settling in the region after school, providing the area with a well educated populace and its most valuable resource, the area being relatively lacking in natural resources, besides "ice, rocks, and fish". True to their enterprising nature, New Englanders have used their brains to make up the gap, for instance, in the 19th century, they made money off their frozen pond water, by shipping ice in fast clipper ships to tropical locations before refrigeration was invented.
New England is also important for the cultural contribution it has made to the nation. As the oldest of the American regions, this area developed its own distinctive cuisine, dialect, architecture and government. New England cuisine is known for its emphasis on seafood and dairy, and clam chowder, lobster, fish and chips (battered codfish), boiled dinner, and ice cream are among some of the region's most popular foods.
As some of the original New England settlers migrated westward, immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe moved into the region. Despite a changing population, much of the original spirit of New England remains. It can be seen in the simple, woodframe houses and quaint white church steeples that are features of many small towns, and in the traditional lighthouses that dot the Atlantic coast. New England is also well known for its mercurial weather, its crisp chill, and vibrant colored foliage in autumn. The region is a popular tourist destination. As a whole, the area of New England tends to be progressive in its politics, albeit restrained in its personal mores. Due to the fact that the area is the closest in the United States to England, the region often shows a greater receptivity to European ideas and culture in relation to the rest of the country.
In the 20th century, most of New England's traditional industries have relocated to states or foreign countries where goods can be made more cheaply. In more than a few factory towns, skilled workers have been left without jobs. The gap has been partly filled by the microelectronics, computer and biotech industries, fed by those same educational institutions.