A Brief Summary of American History, Part I: 1492–1877

Excerpted from: Rediscovering the American Republic, vol. 1: 1492–1877

From Pre-Columbian to British North America, 1492–1763

Following Columbus’s Caribbean landing in 1492 (see p. 32), numerous European nations competed for territory in North America, dragging African slaves and Native Americans into the fray. The land that one day would become the United States served as the grand chess board in this geopolitical struggle that lasted some two and half centuries—longer than the United States has since then existed. The near simultaneously establishment of Jamestown by England (1607), Santa Fe by Spain (1608), and Quebec by France (1609) offers a small glimpse of the diverse settlements competing for primacy in the New World (for other examples, see pp. 43–46).

England’s own colonies were themselves a mixed bag (see p. 49). Puritans came to New England to establish a state-church that would shame the Church of England into reform (see p. 60). William Penn, however, drew a different lesson from the religious controversies experienced in England: he came to America not to perfect the state-church, but to abandon it, forming Pennsylvania as a haven for religious dissenters (see p. 103). Farther south, along the Chesapeake and in the Carolinas, slave-based agriculture, more than religion, defined the emerging social order (see p. 89). What all of these English settlers had in common, however, was a shared heritage dating back to the Magna Carta (1215) and renewed by the Glorious Revolution (1688): the right to limit the monarchy, which came to mean also the right to a locally elected representative government (see pp. 113–14). This would become the colonists’ legacy to the founding fathers of the United States, and the founders’ legacy to the world. But first the monarchies of France and Spain had to be dealt a decisive blow.

After a long series of imperial wars—which hardly gave advantage to any of the participants—a decisive British victory at last was achieved in the Seven Years’ War, culminating in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris (see pp. 147–48). France was virtually evicted from the New World, with Spain possessing the southwestern half of North America and Britain possessing everything between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River. Britain’s American colonists had fought alongside imperial soldiers, sharing a patriotic unity that never had been stronger—nor would it ever be again. The British Empire had reached its zenith in North America, and soon would find itself defeated by a veteran of the Seven Years’ War: George Washington.

The Creation of the American Republic, 1763–1789

Saddled with debt from the Seven Years’ War, and now with more territory to protect than ever before, Britain sought a new way to raise revenue: tax the colonists. Parliament had taxed them before, but primarily for regulating trans-Atlantic commerce, not for funding the national debt. Moreover, earlier taxes had often been evaded by the colonists and forgiven by the mother country. The Stamp Act of 1765, however, marked a new approach: taxing for revenue and enforcing the collection (see p. 187). As heirs of the Glorious Revolution, America’s colonists thought themselves entitled to a local representative government. They looked increasingly at their own assemblies, not distant Parliament, as their legitimate law-making body. Parliament, meanwhile, wavered from one minister to the next, but the long-term trend was obviously in the direction of tighter control over the colonies (see pp. 183–189). When King George III refused to hear the colonists’ appeals, the Americans united in July 1776 to declare their independence (see p. 206). A war of ideas gave way to a contest of arms.

The Second Continental Congress designated General George Washington as commander of the patriot forces. Although he lost more battles than he won, he knew better than most generals throughout history how to execute a tactical retreat (see, for example, p. 213). Most of all, Washington’s integrity won the hearts of his soldiers. Thomas Paine, whose treatise Common Sense had inspired the colonists to seek independence, wrote an encouraging masterpiece that boosted troop morale on the crucial eve of Washington’s attack against Trenton (see pp. 216–19). In 1777, American soldiers secured a victory at Saratoga that attracted an alliance with France (see pp. 223–25). Bolstered by French money, men, and materiel, the patriots forced a British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 (pp. 235–37). The world’s greatest empire at the time lost her greatest colony as the American Republic was born.

Two things were now certain for the thirteen original states. First, they had become independent of Great Britain. Second, they somehow remained interdependent upon one another. Throughout most of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress served as an emergency government. Although Congress had adopted a formal political arrangement, the Articles of Confederation in 1777 (see p. 248), the states did not unanimously agree to it until 1781, by which time the war was nearly finished. In the years that followed, the Confederation successfully established a federal lands policy through the Northwest Land Ordinance and related legislation, but failed to hold the founders’ confidence as a sustainable arrangement for uniting the states. Responding to the deficiency, the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 drafted a new frame of government, the U.S. Constitution (see p. 266). Although this new plan had some advantages over the Articles of Confederation, it also risked delegating too much power to the federal government. To protect the liberties of the people and the authority of their state governments, amendments were promptly proposed in 1789, ten of which were ratified collectively as the Bill of Rights (see p. 295). Meanwhile, the presidential electors unanimously selected George Washington as the nation’s first leader under the new constitution.

The Power of Political Parties, 1789–1836

During the 1790s, America’s first political party system formed. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, sought to establish the federal government’s authority to unite the states into a national economy through a centralized bank and the funding of a permanent national debt that could alleviate the states of their own debts (see p. 314). Although George Washington, as the nation’s first president, initially appeared to steer clear of political factions, his sympathies placed him squarely in the Federalist camp. Meanwhile, the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, emphasized the tradition of local representative government that had underwritten the American Revolution (for example, see p. 354). Whereas Jefferson’s party feared the federal government was becoming too powerful, Hamilton’s party feared that unless the federal government and national economy were stabilized, the United States would be vulnerable to foreign invasion.

As Federalists and Republicans vied for power, America conducted its greatest experiment: testing the political theory embodied in the U.S. Constitution against lived experience. Two questions were crucial. First, what is the relationship between the federal government and the various state governments? Second, how are the three branches of the federal government related to each other? As every American middle school student knows, the answer was spelled out on paper in terms of the “checks and balances” of the Constitution, but it remained to be seen how Americans would apply those principles in practice. Republicans favored a strict construction of the Constitution, reserving to the people and their states whatever powers were not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution. Federalists preferred a looser interpretation, regarding the “necessary and proper” clause of Art. I, Sec. 8 (see p. 270) as permission, for example, for Congress to establish a national bank (see p. 314). And while the framers may have sincerely expected that the three distinct branches of government would keep each other in check, the lived reality was that by 1798 all three branches were populated by the same party—the Federalists—which enacted, enforced, and upheld legislation limiting the free speech of Republicans (see p. 352). Was this a necessary sacrifice of liberty in order to preserve order, or was this an imposition of one party’s sense of order designed to crush the other party’s liberty? The people’s answer came in 1800, when Republicans won sweeping electoral victories for both the presidency and Congress. The Supreme Court, however, soon elevated itself above partisan squabbles, affirming its own authority to nullify any law that violated the supreme law of the land—the U.S. Constitution (see pp. 369–70).

Although the Federalist Party fizzled away when America proved victorious in the Republican-supported War of 1812, many of the Federalists’ ideals shaped the thinking of a new breed of Republicans, the National Republicans, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Then the appearance of a “corrupt bargain” between these two men in 1824 led to the rise of a new party, the Democrats (see p. 421). Organized by Martin van Buren and led by Andrew Jackson, the Democrats appealed to the people while also perfecting the tactics of political power to solidify a national base (see pp. 422–24). In response to Jackson’s startling success, the Whig Party formed, ostensibly committed to the anti-Jacksonian policies of a protective tariff, federally funded roads, and the national bank (see pp. 433, 467–72). But the issues of the day also could be twisted inside out as personal vendetta crossed party lines: Jackson’s own vice president, John C. Calhoun, on the one hand led his home state of South Carolina in protesting the tariff, but soon after joined the tariff-sponsoring Whig Party to spite Jackson, who had dared to enforce the tariff as president. It was a tense time, and the future of the nation may have been determined by whose wife was excluded from the latest gala (see pp. 434–45). Meanwhile, one subject had become taboo: slavery—the mere mention of it made national politics impossible, so both the Democrats and the Whigs learned to ignore it.

Liberty, Slavery, and American Destiny, 1836–1860

Just as the British Empire had broken apart after it became too large to manage in the wake of the Seven Years’ War, so also the United States nearly busted loose at the seams when Texas was annexed in 1845 and the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado were acquired from Mexico in 1848. As southern slaveholders migrated westward, the topic of slavery could no longer be ignored. Southerners thought it only natural to extend slavery into the newly acquired lands, while northerners who had learned to tolerate slavery in the South loathed the idea of its expanding westward. What some history books call the “Compromise of 1850” was in fact a series of uncompromising measures that, by benefiting each side slightly, managed to hold the nation in a delicate balance for a few more years (see p. 534).

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois thought he had a solution: let the local residents decide the slavery question, and Congress should stay out of it. His doctrine of “popular sovereignty” held the promise of echoing America’s founding principle of local representative government, but theory does not always equate to practice. In Kansas, two rival governments each claimed to be locally representative, one favoring slavery and the other excluding it. The result was bloodshed, or as Abraham Lincoln called it, “squatter’s sovereignty” (p. 566).

Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, squatter’s sovereignty was soon “squatted out of existence,” as Lincoln colorfully characterized the Dred Scott ruling of 1857 (p. 566, in reference to p. 563). Local governments no longer could exclude slavery, which is to say the nation was on a path toward full nationalization of the slavery regime. Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that northern opponents of slavery must nonetheless actively participate in the restoration of escaped slaves to their owners. The slavery debate had become an all-or-nothing contest for the allegiance of the American people.

In 1860, northern voters turned to Abraham Lincoln, a presidential candidate promising to preserve the Union while also hoping in time to end slavery. He was moderate compared to the abolitionists, who wanted slavery to end immediately and sometimes were willing to resort to violent methods to achieve this goal. At the other extreme, southerners clung to their peculiar institution and rejected Lincoln’s leadership. Although he won a clear majority of the electoral votes, he did not receive any electoral support from the South. A secession convention in South Carolina took this as reason enough to vote their state out of the Union.

The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860–1877

The nation that had been held together since 1788 by tenuous constitutional compromises concerning slavery now suffered the ultimate test. Ten other slave-holding states, following South Carolina’s example, left the Union; the secessionists promptly formed the Confederate States of America. Five years of Civil War (1861–1865) pitted brother against brother in a contest that would determine not only the fate of four million slaves, but also the future form of the American Republic—if there was even to be a republic anymore. Lincoln switched from one general to another until finally discovering in Ulysses S. Grant a commander who could deliver the field into the president’s hands (pp. 642–49). Meanwhile, the significance of the war had shifted in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation (pp. 632–33): no longer did President Lincoln seek merely to restore the Union, but also to free the slaves. Before his assassination in 1865, he had nearly accomplished both objectives.

Unfinished work fell next to President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress. With Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant, what should become of the Confederate leaders? Under what terms should the former Confederate states be readmitted into the Union? And what about the status of the recently freed slaves? Can they vote? Can they hold office? How will they be provided with land or education? Acting frequently against Johnson’s veto, Congress answered these questions by establishing policies known collectively as Reconstruction. Southern states could be readmitted only after abolishing slavery and guaranteeing equal rights of citizenship to African Americans (see pp. 674–75). Three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified, going so far as to guarantee people of all races an equal right to vote (see pp. 676–77). A new model of ordered liberty thereby was established, with blacks participating alongside whites in the process of self-government; indeed, several blacks were elected to public office—local, state, and national (p. 679). Would Reconstruction last? The answer is found in the Conclusion (p. 681), but the quest that brought the nation there can only be discovered by beginning with America’s colonial roots.

Continue with Next: A Brief Summary of American History, Part II: 1877–Present


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