The United States Of America
Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
This is the story of how the American Republic developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European explorers arrived, until modern times.
"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
As the nation developed, it expanded westward from small settlements along the Atlantic Coast, eventually including all the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the middle of the North American continent, as well as two noncontiguous states and a number of territories. At the same time, the population and the economy of the United States grew and changed dramatically. The population diversified as immigrants arrived from all countries of the world. From its beginnings as a remote English colony, the United States has developed the largest economy in the world. Throughout its history, the United States has faced struggles, both within the country—between various ethnic, religious, political, and economic groups—and with other nations. The efforts to deal with and resolve these struggles have shaped the United States of America into the late 20th century.
Native America in
West Africa in 1580
In Central and West Africa, the great inland kingdoms of Mali and Ghana were influenced (and largely converted) by Islam, and these kingdoms had traded with the Muslim world for hundreds of years. From the beginning, slaves were among the articles of trade. These earliest enslaved Africans were criminals, war captives, and people sold by their relatives to settle debts. New World demand increased the slave trade and changed it. Some of the coastal kingdoms of present–day Togo and Benin entered the trade as middlemen. They conducted raids into the interior and sold their captives to European slavers. Nearly all of the Africans enslaved and brought to America by this trade were natives of the western coastal rain forests and the inland forests of the Congo and Central Africa.
In the century before Columbus sailed to America, Western Europeans were unlikely candidates for worldwide exploration. The Chinese possessed the wealth and the seafaring skills that would have enabled them to explore, but they had little interest in the world outside of China. The Arabs and other Islamic peoples also possessed wealth and skills. But they expanded into territories that were next to them—and not across uncharted oceans. The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and by the 1520s had nearly reached Vienna. These conquests gave them control over the overland trade routes to Asia as well as the sea route through the Persian Gulf. The conquests also gave them an expanding empire to occupy their attention.
They were also developing sailing technology and knowledge of currents and winds to travel long distances on the open sea. The Portuguese led the way. They copied and improved upon the designs of Arab sailing ships and learned to mount cannons on those ships. In the 15th century they began exploring the west coast of Africa—bypassing Arab merchants to trade directly for African gold and slaves. They also colonized the Madeira Islands, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands and turned them into the first European slave plantations.
The first European voyages to the northern coast of America were old and forgotten: The Norsemen (Scandinavian Vikings) sailed from Greenland and stayed in Newfoundland for a time around 1000. Some scholars argue that European fishermen had discovered the fishing waters off eastern Canada by 1480. But the first recorded voyage was made by English navigator John Cabot, who sailed from England to Newfoundland in 1497. Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524, and Jacques Cartier, in 1534, explored nearly the whole Atlantic coast of the present United States for France. By that time, Europeans had scouted the American coast from Newfoundland to Brazil. While they continued to look for shortcuts to Asia, Europeans began to think of America for its own sake. Spain again led the way: Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519, and Francisco Pizarro did the same in Peru in 1532—nearly a full century before English or French colonization began.
Cultural Interaction: The Columbian Exchange
What was to become American history began in a biological and cultural collision of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Europeans initiated this contact and often dictated its terms. For Native Americans and Africans, American history began in disaster.
Native Americans suffered heavily because of their isolation from the rest of the world. Europe, Africa, and Asia had been trading knowledge and technologies for centuries. Societies on all three continents had learned to use iron and kept herds of domestic animals. Europeans had acquired gunpowder, paper, and navigational equipment from the Chinese. Native Americans, on the other hand, had none of these. They were often helpless against European conquerors with horses, firearms, and—especially—armor and weapons.
Europeans used the new lands as sources of precious metals and plantation agriculture. Both were complex operations that required labor in large, closely supervised groups. Attempts to enslave indigenous peoples failed, and attempts to force them into other forms of bound labor were slightly more successful but also failed because workers died of disease. Europeans turned to the African slave trade as a source of labor for the Americas. During the colonial periods of North and South America and the Caribbean, far more Africans than Europeans came to the New World. The slave trade brought wealth to some Europeans and some Africans, but the growth of the slave trade disrupted African political systems, turned slave raiding into full–scale war, and robbed many African societies of their young men. The European success story in the Americas was achieved at horrendous expense for the millions of Native Americans who died and for the millions of Africans who were enslaved.
After defeating indigenous peoples, Spanish conquerors established a system of forced labor called encomienda. However, Spanish governmental and religious officials disliked the brutality of this system. As time passed, Spanish settlers claimed land rather than labor, establishing large estates called haciendas. By the time French, Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists began arriving in the New World in the early 17th century, the Spanish colonies in New Spain (Mexico), New Granada (Colombia), and the Caribbean were nearly 100 years old. The colonies were a source of power for Spain, and a source of jealousy from other European nations.
The Dutch settlements, known as New Netherland, grew slowly at first and became more urban as trade with the indigenous peoples outdistanced agriculture as a source of income. The colony was prosperous and tolerated different religions. As a result, it attracted a steady and diverse stream of European immigrants. In the 1640s the 450 inhabitants of New Amsterdam spoke 18 different languages. The colony had grown to a European population of 6,000 (double that of New France) on the eve of its takeover by England in 1664.
First English Settlements
The Spanish, French, and Dutch wanted to find precious metals in the Americas, to trade with the indigenous peoples, and to convert them to Christianity. Their agricultural colonies in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America were worked by African slaves and by unwilling native peoples, and relatively few Europeans settled permanently in those places. In contrast, England, a latecomer to New World colonization, sent more people to the Americas than other European nations—about 400,000 in the 17th century—and established more permanent agricultural colonies.
The second reason for English colonization was that land in England had become scarce. The population of England doubled from 1530 to 1680. In the same years, many of England’s largest landholders evicted tenants from their lands, fenced the lands, and raised sheep for the expanding wool trade. The result was a growing number of young, poor, underemployed, and often desperate English men and women. It was from their ranks that colonizers recruited most of the English population of the mainland colonies.
GROWTH OF THE ENGLISH COLONIES
The Chesapeake, Virginia
Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, began as a business venture that failed. The Virginia Company of London, a joint stock company organized much like a modern corporation, sent 104 colonists to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. The company wanted to repeat the successes of the Spanish: The colonists were to look for gold and silver, for a passage to Asia, and for other discoveries that would quickly reward investors. If the work was heavy, the colonists were to force indigenous peoples to help them. The composition of the group sent to Jamestown reflected the company’s expectations for life in the colony. Colonists included silversmiths, goldsmiths, even a perfumer, and far too many gentlemen who were unprepared for rugged colonial life.
Neither the plans for feudalism nor for a Catholic refuge worked out, however. More Protestants than Catholics immigrated to Maryland. In 1649 Baltimore granted religious toleration to all Christians, but Protestants did not stop opposing him. They even overthrew Baltimore’s government on several occasions. Baltimore’s dreams of feudalism failed as well. Freed servants preferred farming on their own to staying on as tenants, and the colony quickly evolved as Virginia had: Planters (many of them former servants) imported servants from England and grew tobacco.
Chesapeake tobacco growers needed able–bodied servants. Most of those imported to Virginia and Maryland were young, poor, single men. Disease, bad water, and hostile native peoples produced a horrific death rate. In 1618 there were 700 English settlers in Virginia. The reorganized Virginia Company sent 3,000 more before 1622. A headcount that year found only about 1,200 still alive. Still, surviving planters continued to import servants. Some servants lived long enough to end their indentures, but many others died. In addition, there were too few women in the Chesapeake to enable surviving men to build families and produce new Virginians. More than two-thirds of men never married, and the white population of Virginia did not begin to sustain itself until at least the 1680s. Before that, the colony survived only by importing new people to replace those who died.
Introduction of Slavery
Before the 1680s, Chesapeake planters purchased few African slaves, and the status of Africans in Virginia and Maryland was unclear. Some were slaves, some were servants, some were free, and no legal code defined their standing. The reasons for the slow growth of slavery in the Chesapeake were not moral, but economic. First, slave traders received high prices for slaves in the Caribbean—higher than Virginians could afford, particularly when these expensive laborers were likely to die. White indentured servants cost less, and planters lost little when they died. But Chesapeake colonists—both English and African—grew healthier as they became "seasoned" on their new continent. At the same time, the English economic crisis that had supplied servants to the colonies diminished. These changes made African slaves a better long–term investment: The initial cost was higher, but the slaves lived and reproduced.
Beginning around 1675, Virginia and Maryland began importing large numbers of African slaves. By 1690 black slaves outnumbered white servants in those colonies. Virginia now gave white servants who survived their indentures 50 acres of land, thus making them a part of the white landholding class. At the same time, the House of Burgesses drew up legal codes that assumed a lifetime of bondage for blacks. In the early 18th century, the Chesapeake emerged as a society of planters and small farmers who grew tobacco with the labor of African slaves. There had been slaves in Virginia since 1619. But it was not until nearly 100 years later that Virginia became a slave society.
The Beginnings of New
Religion in the New
Government officials were expected to enforce godly authority, which often meant punishing religious heresy. Roger Williams was a Separatist who refused to worship with anyone who—like nearly all Puritans—remained part of the Church of England. Massachusetts banished him, and he and a few followers founded Providence in what is now Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson was a merchant’s wife and a devout Puritan, but she claimed that she received messages directly from God and was beyond earthly authority. This belief was a heresy, a belief contrary to church teachings, known as Antinomianism. She, too, was banished and she moved to Rhode Island. Puritan magistrates continued to enforce religious laws: In the 1650s they persecuted Quakers, and in the 1690s they executed people accused of witchcraft.
Growth of New England’s Population
Once the Puritan migration to New England stopped in 1642, the region would receive few immigrants for the next 200 years. Yet the population grew dramatically—to nearly 120,000 in 1700. Two reasons explain this. First, in sharp contrast to the unhealthy Chesapeake, Massachusetts streams provided relatively safe drinking water, and New England’s cold winters kept dangerous microbes to a minimum. Thus disease and early death were not the problems that they were farther south. Second (again in contrast to the Chesapeake) the Puritans migrated in families, and there were about two women for every three men, even in the early years. Nearly all colonists married (typically in their mid–20s for men and early 20s for women), and then produced children at two-year intervals. With both a higher birthrate and a longer life expectancy than in England, the Puritan population grew rapidly almost from the beginning.
These colonies shared other similarities as well. None of them was well–funded; they could ill afford to import colonists from overseas. Thus they tried to attract settlers from other colonies as much as from the Old World. These colonies made it easy to own land, and they tended to grant religious toleration to all Christians. The result (even though Pennsylvania began as a Quaker colony under the wealthy proprietor William Penn) was a more ethnically mixed and religiously pluralistic European population than had come to New England or to the Chesapeake. These new colonies were populated not only by the English, but also by the Dutch and eventually by Scots, Scots–Irish, and Germans. Their populations included Quakers and other religious dissenters.
Settlers and Native
English and their
King James II tried to change that. In 1684 he revoked the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Then in 1686 he created the Dominion of New England from the colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Plymouth, and Connecticut (all colonies that had been derived from the original Massachusetts Bay colony), along with New York and New Jersey. The king sent Sir Edmund Andros to be royal governor of this huge area. However, the king had problems at home. He was a Catholic, and he threatened to leave the throne in the hands of his Catholic son. In 1689 England’s ruling elites deposed James II and replaced him with his sister Mary and her husband, a militant Dutch Protestant, William of Orange. As part of the agreement that made him king, William issued a Bill of Rights that ended absolutist royal government in England. The ascension of William and Mary is known in English history as the Glorious Revolution.
American colonists staged smaller versions of the Glorious Revolution. Massachusetts and New York revolted against the Dominion of New England. At the same time, the Protestant majority in Maryland revolted against Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore, and his Catholic elite. William could have punished all these rebels and re–established the Dominion of New England. Instead, he reorganized Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland as royal colonies with elected legislative assemblies and royally appointed governors. By 1720 William had transformed all the mainland colonies along these lines except for Pennsylvania, Maryland (William restored Protestant proprietors in 1716), and Delaware. The Glorious Revolution ended absolutism in England, and it ensured that government in the mainland colonies would be both royal and representative.
The middle colonies were much more diverse than the northern colonies. The English majority contended with a variety of European settlers, with a large Native American presence on the western edges, and with a significant minority of African slaves. In Maryland and Virginia, the early English settlers had been joined, particularly in the western counties, by Scots, Scots–Irish, and Germans. In the eastern counties, African slaves—many of them natives of Africa—often outnumbered whites.
South Carolina and Georgia had white populations as diverse as those in the Chesapeake, and their slave populations were African–born and ethnically diverse. One historian has noted that a slave would have met more different kinds of Africans in one day in South Carolina rice fields than in a lifetime in Africa.
By far the greatest source of population growth, however, was a phenomenal birth rate and a relatively low death rate. Americans in the 18th century had many children, who in turn survived to have children of their own. American population growth in these years may have been unprecedented in human history.
The household was the central institution of colonial society. In Puritan society in particular families were the cornerstone of godly government. As one historian put it, Puritans experienced authority as a hierarchy of strong fathers—beginning with God, descending down through government officials and ministers, and ending with the fathers of families. These families were patriarchal: Fathers ruled households, made family decisions, organized household labor, and were the representatives of God’s authority within the family. Fathers passed that authority on to their sons. Puritan magistrates inspected families to ensure that they were orderly, and it was a capital crime (at least in the law books) to commit adultery or to strike one’s father.
Households in other 18th–century colonies may have been less godly, but they were almost equally dominated by fathers, and most white men had the opportunity to become patriarchs. Land was relatively abundant, and Americans seldom practiced primogeniture and entail, which gave oldest sons their fathers’ full estates and prevented men from dividing their land. Fathers tended to supply all of their sons with land (daughters received personal property as a dowry). Thus most American white men eventually owned their own land and headed their own households.
As populations grew and as colonial economies developed, however, that independence based on property ownership was endangered. Good farmland in the south came to be dominated by a class of planters, while growing numbers of poor whites became tenants. The pressure of a growing population on the supply of farmland made tenancy even more common in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (research puts the proportion at about 25 percent by mid-century), while in New England more and more fathers found themselves unable to provide for their sons. On the eve of the American Revolution (1775-1783), American white men prided themselves on a widespread liberty that was based in economic independence. Meanwhile, the land ownership that upheld that independence was being undermined.
18th Century Slavery
Around the middle of the 18th century, a heavily populated and increasingly urbanized Europe lost the capacity to feed itself, providing an important market for North American farmers. The middle colonies, particularly Pennsylvania, became the breadbasket of America. After Pennsylvania farmers provided for their families from their farms and by trading with neighbors, they sent their surplus production of corn and wheat, as much as 40 percent of what they produced, on to the Atlantic market. New England farmers worked soil that was poor and rocky, but used the same system.
Economists call this system safety–first or subsistence–plus agriculture: Farmers provided for household and neighborhood needs before risking their surplus in distant and unpredictable markets. In profitable years, farmers were able to buy finished cloth, dishes and crockery, tea and coffee, and other goods that colonial trade with England provided—goods on which more and more Americans depended by 1770.
British North America in the 18th century was a religiously and ethnically diverse string of settlements. New England’s population was overwhelmingly English, descended from the Great Migration of the 1630s. New England had a reputation for poor land and intolerance of outsiders, and immigrants avoided the region. New Englanders continued to practice congregationalism, though by the 18th century they seldom thought of themselves as the spearhead of the Reformation. A wave of revivals known as the Great Awakening swept New England beginning in the 1720s, dividing churchgoers into New Light (evangelical Calvinists) and Old Light (more moderate) wings. An increasing minority were calling themselves Baptists.
Nearly all Europeans in these colonies were Protestants, but individual denominations were very different. There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites and Quakers. While the Church of England was the established church (the official, government–supported church) in the Chesapeake colonies, German and Scottish non-Anglicans were migrating south from the middle colonies, and Baptists were making their first southern converts. Although most Chesapeake slaves were American–born by the late 18th century, they practiced what they remembered of African religions, while some became Christians in 18th-century revivals.
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