Friday, 23 December 2016

The Civil War and Christmas

This post gives an intriguing account of how the Civil War affected and changed the celebration of Christmas in the United States.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Civil War (2) 1863-5

Women in the war

Dorothea Dix
Civilians, especially women, played a large part in the war. Women sewed uniforms, composed poetry and songs, and raised money and supplies. Southern women managed plantations and farms in their husbands’ absence. Northern women organised ‘Sanitary Fairs’ to supply medical and sanitary supplies for the troops. In the North alone some 20,000 women served as nurses or health-related volunteers.  Dorothea Dix became the Union army’s first Superintendent of Women Nurses. Clara Barton set up field hospitals on the battlefield.  On the Confederate side, Sally Tompkins of Richmond nursed wounded men in her private hospital. However the Confederacy never found enough women to serve as nurses.

In November 1861 Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics for ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.  It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. It became sung to the words of ‘John Brown’s Body.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Muslim slaves in America

Just when you thought that there wasn't much more to find out about slavery in America, here's a new piece of research that shows that a surprising (but perhaps it isn't) number of African slaves were Muslims. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Civil War (1) 1861-3

For this huge topic I am indebted primarily to the Ken Burns TV documentary on the Civil War and to the following books.
Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd edn. (Penguin, 1999) 
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Touchstone, New York, 1995)
Amanda Forman, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided (Penguin, 2010)
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History, 6th end. vol 1(W. Norton, 2004)


Robert E. Lee
Confederate general

What was the war about?

Although the draft had to be introduced later, men from both sides initially flocked to volunteer. What were they fighting for? From the start Lincoln argued that it was a war for the union and against a rebellion.  In August 1862 he was to say: 
‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that’. 
Jefferson Davis also implicitly denied that the war was about slavery. He asserted that it was a war to protect the right of a state to secede and to defend itself against a tyrannous majority. Yet ‘states rights’ had only evolved as a doctrine because of slavery. Without slavery it is unlikely that Virginia, the state that had done so much to create the Union, would have seceded. Would the war have been fought if slavery had not existed?


Lincoln's war

However, Lincoln continued to define the war according to his terms. He called the conflict a rebellion rather than a civil war. He refused to identify the enemy as the Confederate States of America. The prosecution of the war was primarily a function of the Chief Executive, who exercised powers normally belonging to the legislature. He suspended habeas corpus as an executive decision.


The balance of advantage

In retrospect it is clear that the North had most of the advantages.  It had an industrialised economy, good transport links, and a population of 22 million against the South’s 9 million (that included 3. 5 million slaves).  Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was always able to borrow the money he needed to pay for the war. The Confederacy, on the other hand, produced just seven per cent of the nation’s manufacture.  Its leaders relied on cotton and hoped for British support, but though British relations with the North were often difficult the British government never recognised the Confederacy. Moreover the North had a better transport infrastructure – more wagons, horses and ships and a superior railroad system.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The coming of the Civil War (2)

The Dred Scott Case

Dred Scott
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in about 1800. In 1830 he was taken to St Louis and sold to an army surgeon, who took him to Illinois, then to Wisconsin Territory (later Minnesota) and finally returned him to St Louis in 1842. His master died in 1843 and in 1846 Scott filed a suit in the Missouri courts claiming that residence in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory made him free. A jury decided in his favour but the state Supreme Court decided
Chief Justice Taney
against him. The case of Scott v. Sandford  
finally came to the Supreme Court.  On 6 March 1857 the Court delivered its decision.  Speaking for his colleagues, the majority of whom were from the South, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland argued that Scott had no legal standing because he lacked citizenship. At the time of the Constitution, he stated, blacks
‘had for more than a century been regarded as …so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect’.  
Very controversially he also ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional since it deprived citizens of their property in slaves. This meant that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory.  As the Missouri Compromise was dead anyway, this was a pointless provocation. The South was delighted, but the North was now convinced that the Supreme Court had been subverted by a slave conspiracy. 

Why the Civil War still matters

This academic review gives an insight into the way historians today are debating the Civil War. It's certainly not a straightforward story.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The coming of the Civil War (1)


The Fugitive Slave Act

Slave kidnap poster, Boston 1851
On 9 September 1850 California became the 31st state of the Union. On 18 September President Millard Filmore signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act. This provision of the Compromise of 1850 called for federal jurisdiction over runaway slaves and for their prompt return to their southern owners. The law also denied them a trial by jury or the right to testify on their own behalf. Any white man who attempted to help a slave escape its owner would be subjected to a heavy fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.  The federal commissioner who returned a slave to his owner was to receive $10 but only $5 dollars if he did not return the slave.  

In the North, particularly New England, the Fugitive Slave Act  was bitterly denounced.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century by people who could read and write', and he urged his neighbours to break the law. 

One aspect of this law-breaking was the Underground Railroad 
Harriet Tubman
whereby fugitive slaves were hidden and smuggled into Canada. The escaped slave Harriet Tubman was already actively engaged in rescuing slaves. However, in spite of protests, the law seemed to be working. In the first six years of the act only three fugitives were forcibly rescued from the slave-catchers.  On the other hand, fewer than two hundred slaves were captured and returned. 


Harriet Beecher Stowe
From June 1851 to April 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and the wife of a prominent biblical scholar, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form in the journal, National Era. It was published in book form on 20 March 1852 and became the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. Initially, however,  it sold better in Britain than America.  The country was enjoying a surge of prosperity and the presidential campaign of 1852 showed that neither side wished to raise the issue of slavery.




The 1852 election

Another consequence of the 1850 Compromise was the break-up of the Whig party, with the Southern Whigs abandoning the party for the Democrats.   For the election of 1852 the Democrats chose Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire candidate, in preference to Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois. Pierce committed his party to adhere to the Compromise, and defeated his Whig rival, General Winfield Scott by 254 electoral votes to 42.  But the divisions over slavery were now so deep that his presidency was doomed to failure.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

'A House Divided' (2)

General Winfield Scott enters Mexico City
13 September 1847

‘Manifest Destiny’

Andrew Jackson's recognition of the Lone Star Republic exacerbated the already existing tensions over slavery. For the next seven years there was continuous agitation to bring Texas into the Union. Though many American politicians correctly predicted that the annexation of Texas would bring problems, the tide was flowing against their caution. This was the period of ‘manifest destiny'. To people like the Democratic newspaper editor John O’Sullivan, it was ‘manifest destiny’ that the United States would soon possess not only Texas but Oregon and later California. 


The flag of the Republic of Texas
the 'Lone Star Republic',
officially adopted 1839

The annexation of Texas

Even before O’Sullivan had coined the term, the issue of manifest destiny was a live one in politics. In the run-up to the election of 1844 the former President, Martin van Buren, opposed the annexation of Texas because he wanted to stop the expansion of slavery.  He was backed by a majority in Congress. Henry Clay spoke for many when he asserted that ‘annexation and war with Mexico were identical’. But as a result, Van Buren lost the Democratic nomination to  James K. Polk, the former Governor of Tennessee, who had gained the support of Andrew Jackson. Polk’s win was a victory for manifest destiny. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Civil War on You Tube

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.

Monday, 31 October 2016

'A House Divided' (1)

The United States in 1819
Public domain

The Missouri Compromise (1820)

Even before the rise of the abolitionists, the question of slavery was a dominant concern. As a result of the North-West Ordinance and the pattern of migration, new states were coming into the Union. Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818) were carved out of the old North-West territory, and they had been set up as free states. The South had balanced this with the creation of Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1817), and Alabama (1819) so that by 1819 the country had an equal number of free and slave states, eleven of each. 

In 1819 the House of Representatives was asked to approve legislation enabling Missouri Territory to draft a state constitution, its population having passed the minimum of 60,000. In the westward rush of population, settlers had flocked to the area, through the old French town of St Louis and then on to the Mississippi. Most of these settlers came from the South so that the territory now had 10,000 slaves.  From December 1819 to March 1820 the House fiercely debated the terms on which Missouri should be given the status of a state. Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed that Missouri only be admitted as a state if it undertook to forbid further slave immigration and to provide freedom at the age of twenty-five for those born after admission.  This was passionately opposed by the Southern states. Senator William Pinkney of Maryland  argued that the new states should have the same freedom as the original thirteen, and be thus free to choose slavery if they wished. 

Eventually, in February 1820 Congress accepted the compromise
Henry Clay
'The Great Pacifier'
proposed by the Speaker of the House Henry Clay
The Missouri Compromise decreed that in future slavery would be excluded from all parts of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 360 30/apart from Missouri. At the same time Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state. The Compromise was signed by President Monroe on 6 March. On 10 August1821 Missouri was admitted as the twenty-fourth state.




The Missouri Compromise won for Clay the title of the Great Pacifier. It can be seen as a squalid deal, but it can also be argued that it postponed the war for a generation. Thomas Jefferson wrote: 


‘This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.’

The underground railroad

See here for an account of some surviving records of the underground railroad.

A new book on the Missouri Compromise

If you feel in the mood to follow up the work of recent historians on the background to the Missouri Compromise, this review highlights the present state of scholarship.

The Underground Railroad

This novel on the underground railroad that transported escaping slaves to safety looks worth a read.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

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. Jefferson owned slaves on his estate in Monticello and it is a near certainty that he was the father of the children of his  slave, Sally HemmingsHe 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. 

People sold as property

Have a look at this brochure for a slave auction in New Orleans in 1855. It is predictably shocking.

Slave records online

The records of the Freedmen's Bureau have now been digitised (see here), which means that for the first time millions of African Americans are able to access their family records for the period of slave ownership. 

The rebuilding of Thomas Jefferson's home sheds new light on slavery

Go here for a fascinating account of the rebuilding of Monticello.

Slavery and freedom: five historic sites

See here for five sites associated with slavery.

Slave autobiographies

There is an interesting post here on the film of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave and on the whole genre of slave autobiography.

A dark chapter in the history of Georgetown University

See here for a disturbing account of how the Jesuits raised funds for the prestigious Georgetown University by trading in slaves.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A populist democracy?

'President's Levée, or all Creation going to the White House'
From Library of Congress:
View of crowd in front of the White House during
President Jackson's first inaugural reception in 1829.


The new politics

The period after the ending of the War of 1812 was described rather complacently by a contemporary journalist as ‘the Era of Good Feelings’. It has been associated above all with the presidency of James MonroeWith his retirement in 1825, and his replacement by John Quincy Adams, the Virginia Dynasty (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) ended. 

The country was changing rapidly. By 1820 there were twenty-two states in the Union and a population of 9.6 million. America was becoming more distinct from Europe and the classical pattern of the American political system was emerging. 

One distinctive feature was the ‘spoils system’first seen in New York and then increasingly widespread.  This was the principle of ‘The the victor belong the spoils’, under which whenever power changed hands it was followed by the dismissal of all office-holders of the wrong party and their replacement by adherents of the new administration.


The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was showing itself to be a very active body,
John Marshall,
by  Henry Inman (1832)
upholding Federalist principles even after the party’s demise.  Under Chief Justice John Marshall, who served from 1801-35, a series of landmark cases established the primacy of federal over state law and the power of the judiciary to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. 


In the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) Marshall had  laid down the principle of judicial review and judicial supremacy: 
‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is…So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case: the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case.’  
This was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared a federal law unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated provisions of the Constitution. 

The case of McCullough v. Maryland (1819) ruled unconstitutional a Maryland tax on the Second Bank of the United States (which had been incorporated by Congress in 1816). The court ruled that if state law had the right to tax a federal institution then it would also have the right 
‘to tax the mail, [and] tax the mint…which would defeat all ends of the [federal] government’. 
The Supreme Court was thus made the umpire of the Constitution.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The new republic

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 supremely 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.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Hamilton: the musical

Here's a historian's view on the musical on Alexander Hamilton that's wowing them in New York.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The West

The frontier

By the Peace of Paris 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.

 Kentucky – from the Cherokee word for ‘Great Meadow’ – was an area of fertile soils and abundant forests teeming with buffalo, deer and wild territory.  Boone was unknowingly pioneering a trial that would be called Boone’s Trace or the Wilderness Road, which more than 300,000 settlers would use over the next twenty-five years. In 1773 he led the first group of settlers across the gap. Two years later he and thirty woodsmen travelled the Wilderness Road until they reached the banks of the Kentucky River and founded the fort and village of Boonesborough (near what is now Lexington, Ky). They became the first British colonists in Kentucky and were followed by a steady stream, mostly of ‘Scotch-Irish'. The settlers introduced commodity agriculture to the area, growing tobacco, corn, and hemp. But their way of life was far from peaceful as they were engaged in constant conflict with the Shawnee Indians, who were fighting to retain their hunting grounds. In this they were aided by the British who saw them as allies in their war with the colonies. 

Boone’s colourful career saw him for a while a prisoner of the Indians, and later facing a court-martial. He was not popular with his fellow settlers, who, rightly, saw him as not truly one of themselves. The agricultural life did not really suit him, as he had fallen in love with the wilderness.  

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Electoral College

This site here 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!

Monday, 26 September 2016

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.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The American Revolution (2) The War of Independence

George Washington

Lexington and Concord

Events were now moving towards war as the ‘patriots’ seized the initiative, intimidating loyalists and training the militia into a serious fighting force.   As the protests mounted, the British authorities tried to stamp out unrest. On the night of 18 April 1775 General Thomas Gage, the commander in Boston, sent seven hundred redcoats from Boston to seize an arms depot at nearby Concord. Hearing of the plan, Boston’s Committee of Safety sent Paul Revere and William Dawes ahead on horseback, by separate routes, to warn of the British approach. This famous ride later became immortalised in Longfellow’s poem of 1861

Revere reached Lexington about midnight and then rode on towards Concord. 



At dawn on 19 April the British advance guard were confronted by about seventy Minute Men at Lexington. In the shooting that followed, eight colonists died. The battle of Lexington (‘the shot that rang around the world’) was followed by the engagement at Concord in which ‘Minute Men’ forced British troops back to Boston. 
Statue of a Minute Man, thought
to be Colonel John Parker
on Lexington Green, Massachusetts

In a European setting these would have been minor skirmishes, but the effect in America was enormous.  For the first time American blood had been deliberately shed by British hands.

The American Revolution (1) The coming of war

The Boston Tea Party

The dispute over taxation

The ending of the war presented the British government with new problems. How should the new territory be governed and defended?  What should they do about the lands inhabited by Indians but coveted by whites? There were 80,000 French settlers in Canada, and a potentially hostile Native American presence around the Great Lakes and the Ohio basin. In October 1763 a Royal Proclamation reserved the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi to the Crown – a restriction that was offensive to the land-hungry colonists and was largely ignored.  The insecurity of British rule in North America meant that troops were constantly needed. Britain believed that it was only reasonable for the colonists to pay for their protection, but the colonists objected on the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’.

When George Grenville became Prime Minister in 1763 he found that the National Debt had doubled during the war to almost £143 million and that the estimated cost of defending America and Canada amounted to at least £300,000 pa. 

The Sugar Act: In April 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, halving the duties on the molasses that the colonists imported from the French West Indies, but increasing duties on the imports of foreign textiles, wine, coffee, indigo, and sugar. The British government believed that this would reduce the temptation to smuggle, but the income from the new taxes was to go towards the defence of the colonies. For the first time Parliament had adopted duties designed to raise revenues and not merely to regulate trade. 

The Stamp Act: In an even more controversial attempt to raise
revenue, in March 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act.  The Act required that revenue stamps be purchased and fixed to legal documents, newspapers, playing cards, and dice. Though it was to acquire great historical significance, it was a minor piece of taxation (part of a general raft of colonial measures) and would bring in no more than £60,000 pa at a time when there was no immediate threat either from the French or the Indians.  However, it was the first internal tax that Britain had imposed and was the clearest possible assertion of the mother country’s right to tax. Unlike the Sugar Act, which affected mainly New England, the Stamp Act burdened all colonists who did any kind of business and it affected the most articulate elements in the community – lawyers, journalists and businessmen.  

Friday, 16 September 2016

Historic Jamestown

See here for an article on the latest archaeological findings on the Jamestown settlement.

Early colonization

The first Americans

The term ‘discovery of America’ is misleading. It implies that the continent was waiting to be discovered by Europeans, when it was already populated. The first human settlers in America were nomadic hunters, who had crossed the Bering Straits into Alaska on a land bridge at least 13,500 years ago though possibly much earlier. 
One theory of how humans
crossed into America
They were incorrectly identified by Columbus as ‘Indians’. These early Americans formed a diverse range of cultures and peoples, using almost four hundred different languages.  In present-day New Mexico the Anasazi built settlements called puebloscrafted jewellery and decorated pottery.

Along the Atlantic coast other groups engaged in hunting, farming, and fishing. In what is now upstate New York the Iroquois Federation of five large tribes came together some time after 1450. By 1500 the North American population comprised an estimated seen to ten million people.   


The age of European exploration

These civilisations came under threat with the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century. The Europeans immediately claimed ownership of ‘America’, so that in 1494 the Pope was forced to intervene. Alexander VI had divided the New World along an imaginary north-south line that ran 370 leagues west of the Azores (about 46°30 west of the Greenwich meridian). This gave Portugal control over the established routes to the West Indies and enabled it to claim Brazil when it was discovered in 1500. Spain was able to claim possession of any discoveries made in North and South America west of modern Brazil.

The Thirteen Colonies

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe,
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914,
Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

European motives for colonisation were a combination of greed and religious zeal. The Europeans exported their political and economic rivalries and their religious conflicts into America. 

The eventual dominance of British settlements was not inevitable and did not initially seem likely.  The Dutch were the first northern Europeans to settle in the new world. In 1609 Henry Hudson, an English navigator employed by the Dutch East India Company sailed up what became the Hudson river, and in 1625 the Dutch East India Company established Niew Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, purchased from the local Lenape Indians.

New France

Initially it was France rather than England that challenged the power of Spain.  In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec. Until his death in 1635 he governed New France under a trading company that won a profitable monopoly of the fur trade. About 40,000 French colonials came to the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However the French were more interested in trade than settlement and they established trading outposts rather than farms. They were predominantly male and much smaller in number than the English and Spanish settlers.  

The colonies in the eighteenth century

19th-century engraving of
 the wounding of Major-General Braddock
at the Battle of the Monongahela, July 1755

Insecurity and expansion

In the eighteenth century the American colonists found themselves placed geographically between two powerful European empires, the French and the Spanish and in the midst of an often-hostile native population. European conflicts impacted on the lives of the colonists: for example, in 1704, at the height of the European War of the Spanish Succession a combined raid by the French and the Abenaki on Deerfield, Massachusetts left fifty dead, while a hundred were taken prisoner. Insecurity was built into the colonial experience. 

In spite of the insecurity the population was rising rapidly. Between 1700 and 1770 it rose from 265,000 to more than 2.3 million. Outside New England it was becoming ethnically more diverse. Germans flooded into Pennsylvania, creating the Pennsylvania Dutch community, ‘Scotch-Irish’ and Irish into the eastern seaports.  After Britain acquired territory from France in 1713, this population was increasingly on the move, extending beyond the original colonial boundaries, into New Hampshire and Maine, the Hudson Valley, and the Appalachians. 


The twin experiences of insecurity and expansion into often-hostile territory meant that the population of the colonies was more familiar with warfare than many European populations of the time. Even before the Revolution the Americans imbibed the belief in an armed citizenry. As early as 1645 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an elite body of men, of no more than thirty years old, were selected from the general ranks of town based trained bands to be ready for rapid deployment, and known as ‘minutemen’.



The Concord Minuteman of 1775


Books consulted

For this blog, I have made extensive use of the following books. There are of course many more.

Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the United States of America, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin, 1999)
Boyer, Paul S., American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
Cook, Alistair, Alistair Cook’s America (Bath: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002)
Foreman, Amanda, A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press (2014)
Susan-Mary Grant, A Concise History of the United States of America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
McCullough, David, 1776 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006)
McInerney, Daniel J., A Traveller’s History of the USA (Moreton-in-Marsh:Windrush Press, 2000)
Tindall, George Brown and Shi, David E., America: A Narrative History, 6th edn. (New York and London: Norton, 2004)
Williams, Heather Andrea, American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)