New England has played a dominant role in American history. Until well into the 19th century, From the late 1700s to the mid to late 1800s, 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.
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.
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.
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 white church steeples that are features of many small towns, and in the traditional lighthouses that dot the Atlantic coast.
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 and computer industries.