In July 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress
sign the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "all men are created
equal," and that they possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these
are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Library of Congress
Around the year 1000, a party of Icelandic Vikings under Leif Ericson sailed to the eastern coast of North America. They landed at a place they called Vinland. Remains of a Viking settlement have been found in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The Vikings may also have visited Nova Scotia and New England. They failed, however, to establish any permanent settlements, and they soon lost contact with the new continent.
Five hundred years later, the need for increased trade and an error in navigation led to another European encounter with America. In late 15th-century Europe, there was a great demand for spices, textiles and dyes from Asia. Christopher Columbus, a mariner from Italy, mistakenly believed that he could reach the Far East by sailing 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) west from Europe. In 1492, he persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance such a voyage. Columbus sailed west, but he did not reach Asia. Instead he landed on one of the Bahama Islands in the Caribbean Sea.
Columbus eventually explored most of the Caribbean area. He never reached the Far East; but he did return home with some gold, and within 40 years treasure-hungry Spanish adventurers had conquered a huge empire in South and Central America. The Spanish also established some of the earliest settlements in North America—St. Augustine in Florida (1565), Santa Fe in New Mexico (1609) and San Diego in California (1769).
The Europeans were initially drawn to the New World in search of wealth. When Columbus and later Spanish explorers returned to Europe with stories of abundant gold in the Americas, each European sovereign hastened to claim as much territory as possible in the New World— along with whatever wealth might be extracted from it.
Enforcing these claims could only be accomplished by establishing settlements of Europeans on the territory. This requirement— combined with the zeal of Spanish priests to convert the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas to Christianity, the need of European religious and political dissenters for refuge from persecution in their homelands, and the thirst for adventure of some individuals—fueled the drive for the establishment of colonies.
The first successful English colony in the Americas was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The settlement was financed by a London company which expected to make a profit from the settlement. It never did. Of the first 105 colonists, 73 died of hunger and disease within seven months of their arrival. But the colony survived and eventually grew and became wealthy. The Virginians discovered a way to earn money by growing tobacco, which they began shipping to England in 1614.
In New England, the northeastern region of what is now the United States, several settlements were established by English Puritans. These settlers believed that the Church of England had adopted too many practices from Roman Catholicism, and they came to America to escape persecution in England and to found a colony based on their own religious ideals. One group of Puritans, called the "Pilgrims," crossed the Atlantic in the ship Mayflower and settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. A much larger Puritan colony was established in the Boston area in 1630. By 1635, some settlers were already migrating to nearby Connecticut.
The Puritans hoped to build "a city upon a hill"—an ideal community. Since that time, Americans have viewed their country as a great experiment, a worthy model for other nations. New England also established another American tradition—a strain of often intolerant moralism. The Puritans believed that governments should enforce God's morality. They strictly punished drunks, adulterers, violators of the Sabbath and heretics. In the Puritan settlements the right to vote was restricted to church members, and the salaries of ministers were paid out of tax revenues.
One Puritan who disagreed with the decisions of the community, Roger Williams, protested that the state should not interfere
with religion. Forced to leave Massachusetts in 1635, he set up the neighboring Rhode Island colony, that guaranteed religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The colonies of Maryland, settled in 1634 as a refuge for Roman Catholics, and Pennsylvania, founded in 1681 by the Quaker leader William Penn, were also characterized by religious toleration. This toleration, in its turn, attracted further groups of settlers to the New World.
Over time, the British colonies in North America were also occupied by many non- British national groups. German farmers settled in Pennsylvania, Swedes founded the colony of Delaware, and African slaves first arrived in Virginia in 1619. In 1626, Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan Island from local Native American, or "Indian" chiefs and built the town of New Amsterdam; in 1664, the settlement was captured by the English and renamed New York.
To the foreign visitor, America has always appeared to be not one culture, but a mixture of different cultures. In the colonial period, this mixture of contrasting traditions was already taking shape. The narrow idealism of Massachusetts existed beside the more tolerant idealism of Rhode Island, the ethnic variety of Pennsylvania and the practical commercial agriculture of Virginia. Most American colonists worked on small farms. In the southern colonies of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, landowners carved large tobacco and rice plantations out of fertile river basins. These were worked by Africans under the system of slavery, which had evolved slowly since 1619, or by free Englishmen who contracted to work without pay for several years in return for their passage to America.
By 1770, several small but growing urban centers had emerged, each supporting newspapers, shops, merchants and craftsmen. Philadelphia, with 28,000 inhabitants, was the largest city, followed by New York, Boston and Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike most other nations, the United States never had a feudal aristocracy. Land was plentiful and labor was scarce in colonial America, and every free man had an opportunity to achieve economic independence, if not prosperity.
All of the colonies shared a tradition of representative government. The English king appointed many of the colonial governors, but they all had to rule in cooperation with an elected assembly. Voting was restricted to landowning white males, but most white males owned enough property to vote. Britain could not exercise direct control over her American colonies. London was too far away, and the colonists were too independent-minded.
By 1733, English settlers had occupied 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast, from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south. The French controlled Canada and Louisiana, which included the entire Mississippi watershed—a vast empire with few people. Between 1689 and 1815, France and Britain fought several wars, and North America was drawn into every one of them. By 1756, England and France were fighting the Seven Years' War, known in America as the French and Indian War. William Pitt, the British prime minister, invested soldiers and money in North America and won an empire. British forces captured the Canadian strong points of Louisburg (1758), Quebec (1759) and Montreal (1760). The Peace of Paris, signed in 1763, gave Britain title to Canada and all of North America east of the Mississippi River.
Britain's victory led directly to a conflict with its American colonies. To prevent fighting with the Native Americans, known as Indians to the Europeans, a royal proclamation denied colonists the right to settle west of the Appalachian mountains. The British government began punishing smugglers and charged new taxes on sugar, coffee, textiles and other imported goods. The Quartering Act forced the colonies to house and feed British soldiers; and with the passage of the Stamp Act, special tax stamps had to be attached to all newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents and licenses.
These measures seemed quite fair to British politicians, who had spent large sums of money to defend their American colonies during and after the French and Indian War. Surely, they reasoned, the colonists should pay a part of those expenses. But the Americans feared that the new taxes would make trading difficult, and that British troops stationed in the colonies might be used to crush the civil liberties which the colonists had heretofore enjoyed. Overall, these fears were quite groundless, but they were precursors of what have become ingrained traditions in American politics. Americans distrust the power of "big government"; after all, millions of immigrants came to this country to escape political repression. Americans also have always insisted on exercising some control over the system of taxation which supports their government. Speaking as freeborn Englishmen, colonial Americans insisted that they could be taxed only by their own colonial assemblies. "No taxation without representation" was their rallying cry. In 1765, representatives from nine colonies met as the "Stamp Act Congress" and spoke out against the new tax. Merchants refused to sell British goods, mobs threatened stamp distributors and most colonists simply refused to use the stamps. The British Parliament was forced to repeal the Stamp Act, but it enforced the Quartering Act, enacted taxes on tea and other goods and sent customs officers to Boston to collect those tariffs. Again the colonists refused to obey, so British soldiers were sent to Boston.
Tensions eased when Lord North, the new British chancellor of the exchequer, removed all the new taxes except that on tea. In 1773, a group of patriots responded to the tea tax by staging the "Boston Tea Party": Disguised as Indians, they boarded British merchant ships and tossed 342 crates of tea into Boston harbor. Parliament then passed the "Intolerable Acts": The independence of the Massachusetts colonial government was sharply curtailed, and more British soldiers were sent to the port of Boston, which was now closed to shipping. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress, a meeting of colonial leaders opposed to what they perceived to be British oppression in the colonies, met in Philadelphia. These leaders urged Americans to disobey the Intolerable Acts and to boycott British trade. Colonists began to organize militias and to collect and store weapons and ammunition.
On April 19, 1775, 700 British soldiers marched from Boston to forestall a rebellion of the colonists by capturing a colonial arms depot in the nearby town of Concord. At the village of Lexington, they confronted 70 militiamen. Someone—no one knows who fired a shot, and the American War of Independence began. The British easily captured Lexington and Concord, but as they marched back to Boston they were harasse by hundreds of Massachusetts volunteers. By June, 10,000 American soldiers had besieged Boston, and the British were fore to evacuate the city in March 1776.
In May 1775, a second Continental Congress had met in Philadelphia and beg to assume the functions of a national government. It founded a Continental Army and Navy under the command of George Washington, a Virginia planter and Vetera of the French and Indian War. It printed paper money and opened diplomatic relations with foreign powers. On July 2, 1776, the Congress finally resolved "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states." Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, assisted by others, drafted a Declaration of Independence, which the Congress adopte* on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration presented a public defense of the American Revolution, including a lengthy list of grievances against the British king, George III. Most importantly, it explained the philosophy behind the revolution—that men have a natural right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"; that governments can rule only with "the consent of the governed"; t\ any government may be dissolved when it fails to protect the rights of the people. This theory of politics came from the British philosopher John Locke, and it is central to the Anglo-Saxon political tradition.
At first, the war went badly for the Americans. The British captured New York City in September 1776, and Philadelphia was captured a year later. The tide turned i October 1777, when a British army under General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, in northern New York. Encouraged by that victory, France seized , opportunity to humble Britain, her traditional enemy. A Franco-American alliance was signed in February 1778. With few provisions and little training, American troops generally fought well, but they might have lost the war if they had not received a from the French treasury and the powerful French Navy.
After 1778, the fighting shifted largely to the south. In 1781, 8,000 British troops under General George Cornwallis were surrounded at Yorktown, Virginia, by a French fleet and a combined French- American army under George Washington' command. Cornwallis surrendered, and soon afterward the British government asked for peace. The Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, recognized the independence of the United States and granted the new nation all the territory north of Florida, south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River.
DEVISING A CONSTITUTION
The 13 colonies were now "free and independent states"—but not yet one united nation. Since 1781, they had been governed by the Articles of Confederation, a constitution that set up a very weak central government. The American people had just rebelled against a parliament in distant London, and they did not want to replace it with a tyrannical central authority at home. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress, comprised of representatives of the people, could not make laws or raise taxes. There was no federal judiciary and no permanent executive. The individual states were almost independent: They could even set up their own tax barriers.
In May 1787, a convention met in Philadelphia with instructions to revise the Articles of Confederation. The delegates— among whom were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison—went beyond their mandate and drafted a new and more workable Constitution. It established a stronger federal government empowered to collect taxes, conduct diplomacy, maintain armed forces, and regulate foreign trade and commerce among the states. It provided for a Supreme Court and lesser federal courts, and it gave executive power to an elected president. Most importantly, it established the principle of a "balance of power" to be maintained among the three branches of government—the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Under this principle, each branch was provided the independent means to exercise checks on and to balance the activities of the others, thus guaranteeing that no branch could exert dictatorial authority over the workings of the government.
The Constitution was accepted in 1788, but only after much bitter debate. Many Americans feared that a powerful central government would trample on the liberties of the people, and in 1791, 10 amendments—the Bill of Rights— were added to the Constitution. This document guaranteed freedom of religion, a free press, free speech, the right of citizens to bear arms, protection against illegal house searches, the right to a fair trial by jury and protection against "cruel and unusual punishments."
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights thus struck a balance between two conflicting but fundamental aspects of American politics—the need for a strong, efficient central authority and the need to ensure individual liberties. America's first'two political parties divided along those ideological lines. The Federalists favored a strong president and central government; the Democratic Republicans defended the rights of the individual states, because this seemed to guarantee more "local" control and accountability. This party appealed to small farmers; the Federalist party was the party of the prosperous classes, and it would die out by 1820.
As the first president of the United States, George Washington governed in a Federalist style. When Pennsylvania farmers refused to pay a federal liquor tax, Washington mobilized an army of 15,000 men to put down the "Whiskey Rebellion." Under his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, the federal government took over the debts of the individual states and set up a national bank. These fiscal measures were designed to encourage investment and to persuade business interests to support the new government.
In 1797, Washington was succeeded by another Federalist, John Adams, who became involved in an undeclared naval war with France. In an atmosphere of war hysteria, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These measures permitted the deportation or arrest of "dangerous" aliens, and they prescribed fines or imprisonment for publishing "false, scandalous, and malicious" attacks on the government. Ten Republican editors were convicted under the Sedition Act, which was bitterly denounced by Virginia lawyer and main author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
The repression which occurred under the Alien and Sedition Acts ended in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. As a Republican, Jefferson was an informal, accessible chief executive. Although he wanted to limit the power of the president, political realities forced Jefferson to exercise that power vigorously. In 1803, he bought the huge Louisiana territory from France for $15 million: Now the United States would extend as far west as the Rocky Mountains. When North African pirates attacked American ships, Jefferson sent a naval expedition against the state of Tripoli.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, was asserting its own authority. In the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, Marshall affirmed that the Court could declare void any act of Congress "repugnant to the Constitution." That ruling established the most fundamental idea in American constitutional law—that the Supreme Court makes the final decision in interpreting the Constitution and can, if the justices determine a law to be unconstitutional, declare the law void, although it was enacted by the Congress and signed by the president.
During the Napoleonic Wars, British and French warships harassed American merchant ships. Jefferson responded by banning American exports to Europe, but New England merchants protested that their trade was ruined by the embargo, which Congress repealed in 1809. In 1812, however, President James Madison went to war with Britain over this issue.
During the War of 1812, American warships had some impressive victories, but the vastly superior British Navy blockaded American ports. Attempts to invade British Canada ended in disaster, and British forces captured and burned Washington, the nation's new capital city. Britain and the United States agreed on a compromise peace in December 1814; neither side won any concessions from the other. Two weeks later, General Andrew Jackson routed a British assault on New Orleans. News of the peace treaty had ®ot yet reached the soldiers.
After the war, the United States enjoyed a period of rapid economic expansion. A national network of roads and canals was built, steamboats traveled the rivers, and the first steam railroad opened in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1830. The Industrial Revolution had reached America: There were textile mills in New
England; iron foundries in Pennsylvania. By the 1850s, factories were producing rubber goods, sewing machines, shoes, clothing, farm implements, guns and clocks.
The frontier of settlement was pushed west to the Mississippi River and beyond. In 1828, Andrew Jackson became the first man born into a poor family and born in the West, away from the cultural traditions of the Atlantic seaboard, to be elected president. Jackson and his new Democratic party, heirs to the Jeffersonian Republicans, promoted a creed of popular democracy and appealed to the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics and laborers. Jackson broke the power of the Bank of the United States, which had dominated the nation's economy. He rewarded inexperienced but loyal supporters with government jobs. He made land available to western settlers—mainly by forcing Indian tribes to move west of the Mississippi.
The Jacksonian era of optimism was clouded by the existence in the United States of a social contradiction—increasingly recognized as a social evil—that would eventually tear the nation apart: slavery. The words of the Declaration of Independence—"that all men are created equal"—were meaningless for the 1.5 million black people who were slaves. Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveowner, recognized that the system was inhumane and wrote an attack on slavery into the Declaration, but Southern delegates to the Continental Congress forced him to remove the passage. The importation of slaves was outlawed in 1808, and many Northern states moved to abolish slavery, but the Southern economy was based on large plantations, which used slave workers to grow cotton, rice, tobacco and sugar. Still, in several Southern states, small populations of free blacks also worked as artisans or traders.
In 1820, Southern and Northern politicians disputed the question of whether slavery would be legal in the western territories. Congress agreed on a compromise: Slavery was permitted in the new state of Missouri and the Arkansas territory, and it was barred everywhere west and north of Missouri. But the issue would not go away, some organized themselves into abolitionist societies, primarily in the North, Southern whites defended slavery with increasing ardor. The nation was also split over the issue of high tariff, which protected Northern industries but raised prices for Southern consumers.
Meanwhile, thousands of Americans had been settling in Texas, then a part of Mexico. The Texans found Mexican rule under General Santa Anna increasingly oppressive, and in 1835 they rebelled, defeated a Mexican army and set up the independent Republic of Texas. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas, and Mexico suspended diplomatic relations. President James K. Polk ordered American troops into disputed territory on the Texas border. After a battle between Mexican and American soldiers in May 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico
An American army landed near Vera in March 1847 and captured Mexico City in September. In return for $15 million, Mexico was forced to surrender an enormous expanse of territory—most of what is today California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
In 1846, by settling a long-standing border dispute with British Canada, the United States had acquired clear title to the southern half of the Oregon Country—the present states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Thus America became a truly continental power, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The acquisition of these new territories revived a troubling question: Would newly acquired territories be open to slavery? In 1850, Congress voted another compromise: California was admitted as a free state, and the inhabitants of the Utah and New Mexico territories were allowed to decide the issue for themselves. Congress also passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which helped Southerners to recapture slaves who had escaped to the free states. Some Northern states did not enforce this law, however, and abolitionists continued to assist fleeing blacks. Harriet Beecher Stowe of Massachusetts wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, a sentimental but powerful anti-slavery novel which converted many readers to the abolitionist cause. The issue of slavery became, in American politics, economics and cultural life, the central point of contention.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois persuaded Congress to allow the inhabitants of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to resolve the question of slavery within their own borders—which voided the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In Kansas, the result was a violent feud between pro- slavery and anti-slavery settlers. In 1857, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which held that blacks had no rights as American citizens and that Congress had no authority to bar slavery in the Western territories.
In 1858, when Senator Douglas ran for reelection, he was challenged by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party (a new anti- slavery party unrelated to Jefferson's Republican party). In a series of historic debates with Douglas, Lincoln demanded a halt to the spread of slavery. He was willing to tolerate slavery in the Southern states, but at the same time he affirmed that "this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."
Lincoln lost the senatorial race, but in 1860 he and Douglas faced each other again—as the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. By now the tension between North and South was extreme. In 1859, John Brown, an abolitionist zealot, had tried to begin a slave rebellion in Virginia by attacking an army munitions depot. Brown was quickly captured, tried and hanged, whereupon many Northerners hailed him as a martyr. Southern whites, however, now believed that the North was preparing to end slavery by bloody warfare. Douglas urged Southern Democrats to remain in the Union, but they nominated their own separate presidential candidate and threatened to secede if the Republicans were victorious.
The majority in every Southern and border state voted against Lincoln, but the North supported him and he won the election. A few weeks later, South Carolina voted to leave the
Union. It was soon joined by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. These 11 states proclaimed themselves an independent nation—the Confederate States of America—and the American Civil War began.
Southerners proclaimed that they were fighting not just for slavery; after all, most Confederate soldiers were too poor to own slaves. The South was waging a war for independence—a second American Revolution. The Confederates usually had the advantage of fighting on their home territory, and their morale was excellent. They had superb soldiers, cavalrymen and generals, but they were greatly outnumbered by Union (Northern) forces. The Southern railroad network and industrial base could not support a modern war effort. The Union navy quickly imposed a blockade, which created serious shortages of war materiel and consumer goods in the Confederacy. To fight the war, both sides suspended some civil liberties, printed mountains of paper money and resorted to conscription.
Lincoln's two priorities were to keep the United States one country and to rid the nation of slavery. Indeed, he realized that by making the war a battle against slavery he could win support for the Union at home and abroad. Accordingly, on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to all slaves in areas still controlled by the Confederacy.
The Southern army (Confederates) won some victories in the early part of the war, but in the summer of 1863 their commander, General Robert E. Lee, marched north into Pennsylvania. He met a Union army at Gettysburg, and the largest battle ever fought on American soil ensued. After three days of desperate fighting, the Confederates were defeated. At the same time, on the Mississippi River, Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured the important city of Vicksburg. Union forces now controlled the entire Mississippi Valley, splitting the Confederacy in two.
In 1864, a Union army under General William T. Sherman marched across Georgia, destroying the countryside. Meanwhile, General Grant relentlessly battled Lee's forces in Virginia. On April 2, 1865, Lee was forced to abandon Richmond, the Confederate capital. A week later he surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, and all other Confederate forces soon surrendered. On April 14, Lincoln was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth.
The Civil War was the most traumatic episode in American history. Even today, the scars have not entirely healed. All of America's later wars would be fought well beyond the boundaries of the United States, but this conflict devastated the South and subjected that region to military occupation. America lost more soldiers in this war than in any other—a total of 635,000 dead on both sides.
The war resolved two fundamental questions that had divided the United States since 1776. It put an end to slavery, which was completely abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. It also decided, once and for all, that America was not a collection of semi-independent states, but a single indivisible nation.