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)