Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Slavery: 'the peculiar institution'

Eyre Crowe, Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia in
Illustrated London News, 1856

The paradox

Thomas Jefferson
The great paradox of the newly independent United States was that many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners. Slaves comprised 40 per cent of the population of Virginia, and Jefferson owned about two hundred slaves on his estate in Monticello. It is a near certainty that he was the father of the children of his  slave, Sally Hemmings. New archaeological discoveries are opening up more information about her living quarters.

Jefferson was acutely aware of the incongruity of his position and he looked forward to a time when slavery could be abolished.  However, he was convinced that black people were inferior to whites, and he believed that their lack of intelligence and dark skin rendered them better able than whites to work in the heat of the South. It is not surprising, therefore, that his vision of republican liberty was not realised - it was too full of inconsistencies. In the following generations many of his fellow-southerners came to see slavery not as a necessary evil but as a positive good – so much so that they were prepared to fight a war to preserve what they called their ‘peculiar institution’.

The establishment of slavery

The first Africans arrived in North America in August 1619, when a Dutch trading vessel blown off course landed at Jamestown and sold twenty Africans as indentured labour. These were not slaves, but during the seventeenth century the colonists began to develop laws that established slavery. In 1800 one inhabitant in five was a slave.  By 1860 4.4 million African Americans lived in the United States, nearly 90 per cent of them slaves.  But against these numbers there were nearly 27 million free whites. 

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Civil War on YouTube

Frederick Douglass
former slave and campaigner for civil rights
Public domain

If you go to this site you'll find the first episode of Ken Burns' wonderful documentary on the American Civil War. I can't recommend it too highly, so I hope you'll find the time to watch.

It's also worth noting that the autobiography of the former slave, Frederick Douglass is free on Kindle from Amazon.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The West

The frontier

By the Peace of Paris (1783) the United States gained a vast territory in the West that was either empty or occupied by the Indians, the French or the Spaniards. In anticipation of the acquisition of new territory Congress had passed the Land Ordinance and the North-West Ordinance, and by the turn of the century a great change was taking place in the American mentality. The United States still looked east to the Atlantic economy, but increasingly more and more Americans were making their way westwards in search of land. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century the race to the Rockies had begun. 

The frontier has defined America and the stories of individual frontiersmen are written into its history.


Daniel Boone (1734-1820)


Daniel Boone, by
Chester Harding (1820)
Boone grew up in a large Quaker farming family on the Pennsylvania frontier. As a boy he mastered the long rifledeveloped for the frontiersmen by German gunsmiths. In the hands of an experienced user it could shoot up to 300 yards. From the Shawnee tribe he learned woodcraft and became a hunter. When his family quarrelled with the Quakers, they moved in 1750 to the Yadkin river in North Carolina. But Boone was unable to settle there. In the 1750s he took part in Braddock’s disastrous attack on Fort Duquesne (see earlier post) and was part of the party that founded its replacement, Fort Pitt, in 1758. 

Although he tried to settle down with his family, he longed to explore the west. In 1769, guided by an old frontier pedlar, he and his party found the Cumberland Gap, the route through the Appalachians and hacked out a way through the forest into Kentucky.

Some thoughts on the War of 1812

The War of 1812 is little known in Britain, though of course it's extremely important to Americans. Here, the Anglo-American historian, Amanda Foreman, looks at the war from the different perspectives of the warring nations.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Electoral College

This site here, created during the presidential campaign of 2106,  provides the clearest explanation I've come across explaining the workings of the electoral college. I don't suppose many Americans try to master the whole system - all they need to know is how it operates in their own state!

Good old Wikipedia provides a more detailed explanation. The BBC explains it to bewildered Brits here.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The new republic: a populist democracy

George Washington in 1796
painted by Gilbert Stuart

The decades following the creation of the United States saw major developments:



  1. the emergence of political parties
  2. shifting relationships with Europe
  3. social and economic changes
  4. the opening up of the frontier.


The rise of party politics

On 30 April 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as President.  In December 1792 he was unanimously re-elected as President, with John Adams re-elected as Vice-President. He was to serve until 4 March 1797. He was a unifying figure, the national hero who stood above party politics in a way that was not possible for his successors. Yet he left office a worried man. In his farewell address delivered in Philadelphia in September 1796 he denounced’ factions’ promoted by ‘artful and enterprising’ politicians, but there was nothing he could do to stop the rise of party politics.

Divisions had emerged within his own cabinet. The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), an immigrant from the British West Indies, was an instinctive conservative, admitting that ‘this American world is not for me’. In order to fund the national debt and assume state debts he created the First Bank of the United States in 1791. He raised money by a tariff on imports and a highly unpopular tax on whiskey that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Hamilton took this revolt so seriously that he put on his former military uniform and with Washington led the troops across the Appalachians to crush the protests. 



Alexander Hamilton
first US Secretary of the Treasury
1789-95
by John Trumbull

Hamilton’s supporters formed the first American political party, the Federalists. It was a party of strong government and sound finances. It was centred in the North and was the party of merchants and wealthy landowners.


Hamilton was born on the British West Indian island of Nevis. See here for more on his Caribbean roots.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Creating a nation

Map of the US in 1783
The Philadelphian politician Benjamin Rush stated: 
‘The American war is over, but this I far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new form of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.'

The future president, John Quincy Adams, was to describe this period as a ‘critical’ – a time when the country was ‘groaning under the intolerable burden… of accumulated evils’.  Yet is was also the time when the nation was created.

The Americans were faced with the task of devising new political institutions within a republican framework, which was in itself a radical departure in an age when monarchical government was the norm. They engaged in a spate of state constitution-making that remains unique in human history and built a constitution based on four pillars: 

  1. the contract theory of government, 
  2. the sovereignty of the people, 
  3. the separation of powers, 
  4. natural rights.  


The Articles of Confederation

Even before the end of the war there was ambiguity and uncertainty about the shape of the new nation. The only unifying body was the Continental Congress, but its powers were limited and it had no constitutional sanction. In November 1777 the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which stated that America was a confederation of sovereign states.  This enabled it to form a government, though the formal ratification by all thirteen states was not completed until March 1781.