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Larry Schweikart is a professor of history at the University of Dayton. He has written more than twenty books on banking and financial history, business history, and national defense, including The Entrepreneurial Adventure (2000) and America’s Victories (2006), 48 Liberal Lies About American History (2008), Seven Events that Made America America (2010), and, with Dave Dougherty, the two- volume series A Patriot’s History of the Modern World (2012–2013). He lives in Centerville, Ohio, with his wife, Dee.
Michael Allen was born and raised in Ellensburg, Washington, and served as a Marine Corps artilleryman in Vietnam. He is a professor of history at the University of Washington, Tacoma, is the author of the prizewinning Western Rivermen, 1763–1861 (1990) and Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination (1998), as well as several other books on American history and the American West. He lives in Tacoma and Ellensburg and has three children, Jim, Davy, and Caroline.
A Patriot’s History of the United States
FROM COLUMBUS’S GREAT DISCOVERY TO AMERICA’S AGE OF ENTITLEMENT
Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen
Larry Schweikart would like to thank Jesse McIntyre and Aaron Sorrentino for their contribution to charts and graphs; and Julia Cupples, Brian Rogan, Andrew Gough, and Danielle Elam for research. Cynthia King performed heroic typing work on crash schedules. The University of Dayton, particularly Deans Paul Morman and Paul Benson, supported this work through a number of grants.
Michael Allen would like to thank his mentor, Dr. W. J. Rorabaugh of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Dr. Bill Richardson, Director of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma, for their friendship and collegial support for over a decade.
We would both like to thank Mark Smith, David Beito, Brad Birzer, Robert Loewenberg, Jeff Hanichen, David Horowitz, Jonathan Bean, Constantine Gutzman, Burton Folsom Jr., Julius Amin, and Michael Etchison for comments on the manuscript. Ed Knappman and the staff at New England Publishing Associates believed in this book from the beginning and have our undying gratitude. Roger Williams, our agent since Ed’s death, has continued to be a major advocate not only for the book but for the series. Our special thanks to Bernadette Malone, whose efforts made this possible; to Megan Casey, Brooke Carey, and Natalie Horbachevsky for helping in subsequent editions; and to David Freddoso for his ruthless, but much needed, pen. We are especially grateful to Clayton Cramer for a thorough reading of early printings that helped us correct important errors.
Above all, we owe Dave Dougherty our thanks. We met Dave after he posted a review of our book on Amazon. The review was positive, but he noted flaws in the book. We wished to ensure that every conceivable error was removed or corrected, and so we partnered with Dave, who agreed to do a full-scale review of the book. Larry and Mike owe Dave a great debt of gratitude for not only making this book better but for going on to work with us on the Patriot’s History Reader and then coauthoring, with Larry Schweikart, the two-volume Patriot’s History of the Modern World series.
PREFACE TO THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
It seems like only yesterday Mike Allen and I were lamenting the state of U.S. history textbooks and concluding that the solution to the lack of an accurate treatment was to write one ourselves. We began work in the late 1990s, and as we neared completion we knew that our product had little of the look or feel of traditional college or high school textbooks. It wasn’t glossy and it had no photos (or even a map), study guides, or review questions. Moreover, with what we knew was a “conservative” bent—although we thought it merely traditional—it would have a difficult time getting through college textbook committees.
From our earliest discussions, it was clear that A Patriot’s History of the United States would have to make an “end run” around college committees and textbook publishers—that, like so many successful products in American history, we would have to go directly to the consumers. In this case, that was both parents and students, for we knew many students of American history felt the same way we did about the slant of existing books about the American past. We had even resigned ourselves to the likelihood that we’d have to self-publish the book.
But our agent, Ed Knappman, received two offers, one of which was from Sentinel, a new imprint of Penguin USA. We began our working relationship with Adrian Zackheim and our editor at the time, Bernadette Malone, and after much cutting arrived at the final version, a book of over 900 pages. It says something of Sentinel’s early faith in the book that our publisher backed it enthusiastically.
Initially, we had a good rollout with reviews in major newspapers and media outlets, and radio host Rush Limbaugh picked up the book and interviewed Larry Schweikart for his “Limbaugh Letter” in 2004. Slowly, however, a new dynamic took over: homeschoolers began to use the book, then high school and college teachers who were permitted flexibility to select their own books began to adopt it. We would learn about this only through letters or e-mails requesting access to the www.patriotshistoryusa.com website, where we began to offer limited classroom support. Since that time, Mike Allen has handled all of the educational side, corresponding with teachers and parents, and working with educators who developed sample study guides and even an entire test bank for the material. It was a remarkable testament to the free market and “bottom up” processes.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, A Patriot’s History of the United States had gone through almost twenty separate printings and two editions, and had been joined by The Patriot’s History Reader (Sentinel, 2011), a documents collection coedited by Dave Dougherty, who read and extensively reviewed early editions of A Patriot’s History of the United States. Television host and personality Glenn Beck touted the book with a fervor, propelling it to the New York Times bestseller list, six years after its original publication!
A Patriot’s History of the United States is now in use in more than thirty colleges and universities (that we know of), in some cases as a “side-by-side” comparison with liberal texts but in many cases as the sole required textbook. Hundreds of high school Advanced Placement courses use it, and thousands of homeschoolers have embraced it. Independent academic publishers have developed full curricula for the book, and we have maintained a substantial—and growing—curriculum support base at our website.
In short, ten years ago we wouldn’t have dreamed that our book would have this kind of success. Yet it is reaching exactly the audiences we hoped it would reach and has achieved a mainstream status that we were skeptical of attaining a decade ago.
The tenth anniversary edition features a number of changes and updates. A good historian should always reassess his narrative in light of new evidence, and so we have revised some of our original thoughts. Some of our positions grew stronger, while some needed to be abandoned or modified as new research became available. Among the changes the reader will find:
• Our positions on the spy scandals and McCarthy Era have gotten stronger. M. Stanton Evans’s book Blacklisted by History added significant confirming evidence to our views that those identified by Joseph McCarthy were, in fact, communists and not mere victims. Evans’s access to FBI reports, along with the continued revelations from the opened archives of the former USSR, buttresses our original views that the Roosevelt/Truman administrations were hotbeds of Soviet spy activity.
• Continued new research points to slavery as the overwhelming, if not sole, cause of the American Civil War, a position we took from the beginning.
• We have lessened the emphasis we placed on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff as a causative factor of the Great Crash. While few historians now deny that the Tariff was a significant burden and contributory factor to turning a cyclical recession into the Great Depression, the alignment of key votes in Congress and reaction in the stock market does not seem as strong as it once did. On the other hand, most scholarship now seems to combine both the Keynesian and monetarist analysis of the overall decline in the very late 1920s into a single story about an economy that was showing signs of slowing down. The actual causal factor for a collapse in the stock market, versus merely a decline, has yet to be fully explained.
• The role of the United States in supporting the USSR in 1941–42 appears stronger than ever. In fact, we likely understated America’s part in keeping Moscow out of Nazi hands in the winter of 1941–42.
• Evidence we received since our first printing likewise deepens our conclusion that a series of errors, mistakes in judgment, and outright incompetence—not conspiracy—account for the failure of Pearl Harbor forces to be on alert. Among other pieces of evidence, we had not included Henry Clausen’s amazing book on Pearl Harbor in our earlier editions. (Dave Dougherty proved instrumental in pointing this out.) Clausen found that General Walter Short had reversed the alert code numbers in Hawaii without informing Washington. When General George Marshall’s staff inquired as to what number alert Pearl Harbor was on, they mistook the “low” alert status for “high,” unaware the numbers had been changed.
• Based on the diaries of Ronald Reagan, we hypothesize (but cannot prove) that Reagan was entirely aware of the entire Iran-Contra program. This is somewhat speculative, but Reagan never vehemently denies knowledge in his diary, only expresses relief that it was contained. The Reagan years also now must be reassessed in terms of the Gipper’s assessment of radical Islam and the Beirut bombing. Reagan was late in coming to an appreciation of the unique nature of radical Islam and jihad (as were all previous presidents who dealt with the issue). Unlike the others, though, Reagan finally perceived that Islamic radicalism was a different animal. None of that takes away from his remarkable victory over the USSR in the Cold War, which emerges stronger than ever.
In addition, while we wished to keep more of the sidebars, we found that in the interest of space in the twentieth century section we simply had to eliminate some of them. The sidebar on FDR’s knowledge—or lack thereof—about the Pearl Harbor attack is now contained in the endnotes.
Of course, new material added since 2006 is included. It is a common problem for history teachers to assume that kids “know everything” that happened since they were born, when in fact even bright, alert students seldom pay attention to world events before they become teenagers, if then. In other words, the old line, “Oh, you know the rest since [fill in a date] because you lived it” has been a weakness in history education. If anything, more recent developments can provide better object lessons because the events are at least somewhat familiar.
We have begun work on a video version of the book with the trailer available at www.rockinthewallstudios.com under “Projects: In Development.” Finally, even though we express our appreciation in the acknowledgments, we would like to again thank Sentinel, Adrian Zackheim, our editors over the years—Bernadette Malone Serton, Brooke Carey, and Natalie Horbachevsky—and our agents, the late Ed Knappman and our current agent, Roger Williams, for believing in the project and shepherding it to success. We hope that yet another decade from now, A Patriot’s History of the United States will be seen as the commonsense story of America and her freedom.
Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen
Is America’s past a tale of racism, sexism, and bigotry? Is it the story of the conquest and rape of a continent? Is U.S. history the story of white slave owners who perverted the electoral process for their own interests? Did America start with Columbus’s killing all the Indians, leap to Jim Crow laws and Rockefeller crushing the workers, then finally save itself with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? The answers, of course, are no, no, no, and NO.
One might never know this, however, by looking at almost any mainstream U.S. history textbook. Having taught American history in one form or another for close to sixty years between us, we are aware that, unfortunately, many students are berated with tales of the Founders as self-interested politicians and slaveholders, of the icons of American industry as robber-baron oppressors, and of every American foreign policy initiative as imperialistic and insensitive. At least Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States honestly represents its Marxist biases in the title!
What is most amazing and refreshing is that the past usually speaks for itself. The evidence is there for telling the great story of the American past honestly—with flaws, absolutely; with shortcomings, most definitely. But we think that an honest evaluation of the history of the United States must begin and end with the recognition that, compared to any other nation, America’s past is a bright and shining light. America was, and is, the city on the hill, the fountain of hope, the beacon of liberty. We utterly reject “My country right or wrong”—what scholar wouldn’t? But in the last thirty years, academics have taken an equally destructive approach: “My country, always wrong!” We reject that too.
Instead, we remain convinced that if the story of America’s past is told fairly, the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built. An honest review of America’s past would note, among other observations, that the same Founders who owned slaves instituted numerous ways—political and intellectual—to ensure that slavery could not survive; that the concern over not just property rights, but all rights, so infused American life that laws often followed the practices of the common folk, rather than dictated to them; that even when the United States used her military power for dubious reasons, the ultimate result was to liberate people and bring a higher standard of living than before; that time and again America’s leaders have willingly shared power with those who had none, whether they were citizens of territories, former slaves, or disenfranchised women. And we could go on.
The reason so many academics miss the real history of America is that they assume that ideas don’t matter and that there is no such thing as virtue. They could not be more wrong. When John D. Rockefeller said, “The common man must have kerosene and he must have it cheap,” Rockefeller was already a wealthy man with no more to gain. When Grover Cleveland vetoed an insignificant seed corn bill, he knew it would hurt him politically, and that he would only win condemnation from the press and the people—but the Constitution did not permit it, and he refused.
Consider the scene more than two hundred years ago when President John Adams—just voted out of office by the hated Republicans of Thomas Jefferson—mounted a carriage and left Washington even before the inauguration. There was no armed struggle. Not a musket ball was fired, nor a political opponent hanged. No Federalists marched with guns or knives in the streets. There was no guillotine. And just four years before that, in 1796, Adams had taken part in an equally momentous event when he won a razor-thin close election over Jefferson and, because of Senate rules, had to count his own contested ballots. When he came to the contested Georgia ballot, the great Massachusetts revolutionary, the “Duke of Braintree,” stopped counting. He sat down for a moment to allow Jefferson or his associates to make a challenge, and when he did not, Adams finished the tally, becoming president. Jefferson told confidants that he thought the ballots were indeed in dispute, but he would not wreck the country over a few pieces of paper. As Adams took the oath of office, he thought he heard Washington say, “I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”1 So much for protecting his own interests! Washington stepped down freely and enthusiastically, not at bayonet point. He walked away from power, as nearly each and every American president has done since.
These giants knew that their actions of character mattered far more to the nation they were creating than mere temporary political positions. The ideas they fought for together in 1776 and debated in 1787 were paramount. And that is what American history is truly about—ideas. Ideas such as “All men are created equal”; the United States is the “last, best hope” of earth; and America “is great, because it is good.”
Honor counted to founding patriots like Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and then later, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Character counted. Property was also important; no denying that, because with property came liberty. But virtue came first. Even J. P. Morgan, the epitome of the so-called robber baron, insisted that “the first thing is character . . . before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.”
It is not surprising, then, that so many left-wing historians miss the boat (and miss it, and miss it, and miss it to the point where they need a ferry schedule). They fail to understand what every colonial settler and every western pioneer understood: character was tied to a Christian tradition, which was then tied to liberty through a widespread acceptance of common law, and liberty to property—preserved and protected by titles and deeds and, soon, by a free market. All four were needed for success, but character was the prerequisite because it put the law behind property agreements, and it set responsibility right next to liberty. And the surest way to ensure the presence of good character was to keep God at the center of one’s life, community, and ultimately, nation. “Separation of church and state” meant freedom to worship, not freedom from worship. It went back to that link between liberty and responsibility, and no one could be taken seriously who was not responsible to God. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” They believed those words.
As colonies became independent and as the nation grew, these ideas permeated the fabric of the founding documents. Despite pits of corruption that have pockmarked federal and state politics—some of them quite deep—and despite abuses of civil rights that were shocking, to say the least, the concept was deeply imbedded that only a virtuous nation could achieve the lofty goals set by the Founders. Over the long haul, the Republic required virtuous leaders to prosper.
Yet virtue and character alone were not enough. It took competence, skill, and talent to build a nation. That’s where property came in: with secure property rights, people from all over the globe flocked to America’s shores. With secure property rights, anyone could become successful, from an immigrant Jew like Lionel Cohen and his famous Lionel toy trains to an Austrian bodybuilder-turned-millionaire actor and governor like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Carnegie arrived penniless; Ford’s company went broke; and Lee Iacocca had to eat crow on national TV for his company’s mistakes. Secure property rights not only made it possible for them all to succeed but, more important, established a climate of competition that rewarded skill, talent, and risk taking.
Political skill was essential too. From 1850 to 1860 the United States was nearly rent in half by inept leaders, whereas an integrity vacuum nearly destroyed American foreign policy and shattered the economy in the decades of the 1960s and early 1970s. Moral, even pious, men have taken the nation to the brink of collapse because they lacked skill, and some of the most skilled politicians in the world—Henry Clay, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton—left legacies of frustration and corruption because their abilities were never wedded to character.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, there was a subtle and, at times, obvious campaign to separate virtue from talent, to divide character from success. The latest in this line of attack is the emphasis on diversity—that somehow merely having different skin shades or national origins makes America special. But it was not the color of the skin of people who came here that made them special, it was the content of their character. America remains a beacon of liberty, not merely because its institutions have generally remained strong, its citizens free, and its attitudes tolerant, but because it, among most of the developed world, still cries out as a nation, “Character counts.” Personal liberties in America are genuine because of the character of honest judges and attorneys who, for the most part, still make up the judiciary, and because of the personal integrity of large numbers of local, state, and national lawmakers.
No society is free from corruption. The difference is that in America, corruption is viewed as the exception, not the rule. And when light is shown on it, corruption is viciously attacked. Freedom still attracts people to the fountain of hope that is America, but freedom alone is not enough. Without responsibility and virtue, freedom becomes a soggy anarchy, an incomplete licentiousness. This is what has made Americans different: their fusion of freedom and integrity endows Americans with their sense of right, often when no other nation in the world shares their perception.
Yet that is as telling about other nations as it is our own; perhaps it is that as Americans, we alone remain committed to both the individual and the greater good, to personal freedoms and to public virtue, to human achievement and respect for the Almighty. Slavery was abolished because of the dual commitment to liberty and virtue—neither capable of standing without the other. Some crusades in the name of integrity have proven disastrous, including Prohibition. The most recent serious threats to both liberty and public virtue (abuse of the latter damages both) have come in the form of the modern environmental and consumer safety movements. Attempts to sue gun makers, paint manufacturers, tobacco companies, and even Microsoft “for the public good” have made distressingly steady advances, encroaching on Americans’ freedoms to eat fast foods, smoke, or modify their automobiles, not to mention start businesses or invest in existing firms without fear of retribution. By the early twenty-first century, a New York mayor had attempted to ban soft drinks over a certain size; San Francisco had waged a war on plastic bags; and elementary schools across the nation had prohibited everything from soccer balls to doing cartwheels—all in the name of “public safety.” Many, particularly foreigners and especially America’s enemies, came to view this as weakness and “sissification.”
The Founders—each and every one of them—would have been horrified at such intrusions on liberty, regardless of the virtue of the cause, not because they were elite white men, but because such actions in the name of the public good were simply wrong. It all goes back to character: the best way to ensure virtuous institutions (whether government, business, schools, or churches) was to populate them with people of virtue. Europe forgot this in the nineteenth century, or by World War I at the latest. Despite rigorous and punitive face-saving traditions in the Middle East or Asia, these twin principles of liberty and virtue have never been adopted. Only in America, where one was permitted to do almost anything, but expected to do the best thing, did these principles germinate.
To a great extent, that is why, on March 4, 1801, John Adams would have thought of nothing other than to turn the White House over to his hated foe, without fanfare, self-pity, or complaint, and return to his everyday life away from politics. That is why, on the few occasions where very thin electoral margins produced no clear winner in the presidential race (such as 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960, and 2000), the losers (after some legal maneuvering, recounting of votes, and occasional whining) nevertheless stepped aside and congratulated the winner of a different party. Adams may have set a precedent, but in truth he would do nothing else. After all, he was a man of character.
The City on the Hill, 1492–1707
The Age of European Discovery
God, glory, and gold—not necessarily in that order—took post-Renaissance Europeans to parts of the globe they had never before seen. The opportunity to gain materially while bringing the Gospel to non-Christians offered powerful incentives to explorers from Portugal, Spain, England, and France to embark on dangerous voyages of discovery in the 1400s. Certainly they were not the first to sail to the Western Hemisphere: Norse sailors reached the coasts of Iceland in 874 and Greenland a century later, and legends recorded Leif Erickson’s establishment of a colony in Vinland, somewhere on the northern Canadian coast.1 Whatever the fate of Vinland, its historical impact was minimal, and significant voyages of discovery did not occur for more than five hundred years, when trade with the Orient beckoned.
Marco Polo and other travelers to Cathay (China) had brought fantastic tales of wealth in the East and returned with unusual spices, dyes, rugs, silks, and other goods. But this was a difficult, long journey. Land routes crossed dangerous territories, including imposing mountains and vast deserts of modern-day Afghanistan, northern India, Iran, and Iraq, and required expensive and wellprotected caravans to reach Europe from Asia. Merchants encountered bandits who threatened transportation lanes, kings and potentates who demanded tribute, and bloodthirsty killers who pillaged for pleasure. Trade routes from Bombay and Goa reached Europe via Persia or Arabia, crossing the Ottoman Empire with its internal taxes. Cargo had to be unloaded at seaports, then reloaded at Alexandria or Antioch for water transport across the Mediterranean, or continued on land before crossing the Dardanelles Strait into modern-day Bulgaria to the Danube River. European demand for such goods seemed endless, enticing merchants and their investors to engage in a relentless search for lower costs brought by safer and cheaper routes. Gradually, Europeans concluded that more direct water routes to the Far East must exist.
The search for Cathay’s treasure coincided with three factors that made long ocean voyages possible. First, sailing and shipbuilding technology had advanced rapidly after the ninth century, thanks in part to the Arabs’ development of the astrolabe, a device with a pivoted limb that established the sun’s altitude above the horizon. By the late tenth century, astrolabe technology had made its way to Spain but was useful only in conjunction with new clock technology.2 Farther north, Vikings pioneered new methods of hull construction, among them the use of overlapping planks for internal support that enabled vessels to withstand violent ocean storms. Sailors of the Hanseatic League states on the Baltic coast experimented with larger ship designs that incorporated sternpost rudders for better control. Yet improved ships alone were not enough: explorers needed the accurate maps generated by Italian seamen and sparked by the new inquisitive impulse of the Renaissance. Thus a wide range of technologies coalesced to encourage long-range voyages of discovery.
Political changes, a second factor giving birth to the age of discovery, resulted from the efforts of several ambitious European monarchs to consolidate their possessions into larger, cohesive dynastic states. This unification of lands, which increased the taxable base within the kingdoms, greatly increased the funding available to expeditions and provided better military protection (in the form of warships) at no cost to investors. By the time a combined Venetian-Spanish fleet defeated a much larger Ottoman force at Lepanto in 1571, the vessels of Christian nations could essentially sail with impunity anywhere in the Mediterranean. Then, in control of the Mediterranean, Europeans could consider voyages of much longer duration (and cost) than they ever had in the past. A new generation of explorers found that monarchs could support even more expensive undertakings that integrated the monarch’s interests with the merchants’.3
Third, the Protestant Reformation of 1517 fostered a fierce and bloody competition for power and territory between Catholic and Protestant nations that reinforced national concerns. England competed for land with Spain, not merely for economic and political reasons, but because the English feared the possibility that Spain might catholicize numbers of non-Christians in new lands, whereas Catholics trembled at the thought of subjecting natives to Protestant heresies. Therefore, even when economic or political gains for discovery and colonization may have been marginal, monarchs had strong religious incentives to open their royal treasuries to support such missions.
Portugal and Spain: The Explorers
Ironically, one of the smallest of the new monarchical states, Portugal, became the first to subsidize extensive exploration in the fifteenth century. The most famous of the Portuguese explorers, Prince Henry, dubbed the Navigator, was the brother of King Edward of Portugal. Henry (1394–1460) had earned a reputation as a tenacious fighter in North Africa against the Moors, and he hoped to roll back the Muslim invaders and reclaim from them trade routes and territory.
A true Renaissance man, Henry immersed himself in mapmaking and exploration from a coastal center he established at Sagres, on the southern point of Portugal. There he trained navigators and mapmakers, dispatched ships to probe the African coast, and evaluated the reports of sailors who returned from the Azores.4 Portuguese captains made contact with Arabs and Africans in coastal areas and established trading centers, from which they brought ivory and gold to Portugal, then transported slaves to a variety of Mediterranean estates. This early slave trade was conducted through Arab middlemen or African traders who carried out slaving expeditions in the interior and exchanged captive men, women, and children for fish, wine, or salt on the coast.
Henry saw these relatively small trading outposts as only the first step in developing reliable water routes to the East. Daring sailors trained at Henry’s school soon pushed farther southward, finally rounding the Cape of Storms in 1486, when Bartholomeu Dias was blown off course by fantastic winds. King John II eventually changed the name of the cape to the Cape of Good Hope, reflecting the promise of a new route to India offered by Dias’s discovery. That promise became reality in 1498, after Vasco de Gama sailed to Calicut, India. An abrupt decline in Portuguese fortunes led to her eclipse by the larger Spain, reducing the resources available for investment in exploration and limiting Portuguese voyages to the Indian Ocean to an occasional “boatload of convicts.”5 Moreover, the prize for which Portuguese explorers had risked so much now seemed small in comparison to that discovered by their rivals the Spanish under the bold seamanship of Christopher Columbus, a man the king of Portugal had once refused to fund.
Indeed, almost everyone refused to fund Columbus—he made seven presentations to various committees, monarchs, or other parties before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella underwrote his journey. This in itself was miraculous, for had his funding come from England, France, or Portugal he would have departed from the Azores or Bristol and not picked up the crucial northeast trade wind. Having departed from Spain in August 1492, however, and laying in a course to the Canary Islands, Columbus sailed due west for what he thought was a direct line to Japan (although he never mentioned Cathay prior to 1493).6
A native of Genoa, Columbus embodied the best of the new generation of navigators: resilient, courageous, and confident. In his Book of Prophecies, he recounted his preparation for his mission, saying “I have had commerce and conversation with knowledgeable people of the clergy and laity, Latins and Greeks, Jews and Moors [and] Our Lord . . . has endowed me with a great talent for seamanship; sufficient ability in astrology, geometry and arithmetic; and the mental and physical dexterity required to draw spherical maps.”7 To be sure, Columbus wanted glory, and a motivation born of desperation fueled his vision. At the same time, Columbus was “earnestly desirous of taking Christianity to heathen lands.”8 He did not, as is popularly believed, originate the idea that the earth is round. As early as 1480, for example, he read works proclaiming the sphericity of the planet. But knowing intellectually that the earth is round and demonstrating it physically are two different things, and it very possibly could have fallen to the Chinese to prove it had not, upon the return of its imposing Treasure Fleet in 1423, turned inward and, under emperor Zhu Gaozhi, scrapped the fleet.9 Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese reached the New World, but the so-called evidence collapses.10 By 1500, anyone constructing a Chinese vessel with more than two masts faced the death penalty. Thus, whether one considers it divine providence or pure luck, Columbus appeared at precisely the right time in human history to discover the New World.
Columbus’s fleet consisted of only three vessels, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, and a crew of ninety men. Leaving port in August 1492, the expedition eventually passed the point where the sailors expected to find Japan, generating no small degree of anxiety, whereupon Columbus used every managerial skill he possessed to maintain discipline and encourage hope. The mere fact that he did not hug shorelines, but went cross-ocean, was itself daring and unusual. But the voyage had stretched to ten weeks when the crew bordered on mutiny, and only the captain’s reassurance and exhortations persuaded the sailors to continue a few more days. Finally, on October 11, 1492, they started to see signs of land: pieces of wood loaded with barnacles, green bulrushes, and other vegetation.11 A lookout spotted land, and on October 12, 1492, the courageous band waded ashore on Watling Island in the Bahamas, where his men begged his pardon for doubting him.12 (It should be noted that the actual location of Columbus’s landing remains in hot dispute. An elaborate study by the National Geographic Society resulted in “total disagreement” as to where he landed, because scholars all started with different—and unprovable—assumptions.)13
Columbus continued to Cuba, which he called Juana. At the time he thought he had reached the Far East, and referred to the dark-skinned people he found as Indians. He found these Indians “very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces,” and hoped to convert them “to our Holy Faith by love rather than by force” by giving them red caps and glass beads “and many other things of small value.”14 Dispatching emissaries into the interior to contact the Great Khan, Columbus’s scouts returned with no reports of the spices, jewels, silks, or other evidence of Cathay; nor did the khan send his regards. By December, he had turned southeast to explore the island he named Hispaniola, which contains the modern-day states of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, he left thirty-nine men behind to found the settlement of La Navidad.15 Nevertheless, Columbus returned to Spain confident he had found an ocean passage to the Orient.16
Reality gradually forced Columbus to a new conclusion: he had not reached India or China, and after a second voyage in 1493—still convinced he was in the Pacific Ocean—Columbus admitted he had stumbled on a new land mass, perhaps even a new continent of astounding natural resources and wealth. In February 1493, he wrote his Spanish patrons that Hispaniola and other islands like it were “fertile to a limitless degree,” possessing mountains covered by “trees of a thousand kinds and tall, so that they seem to touch the sky.”17 He confidently promised gold, cotton, spices—as much as Their Highnesses should command—in return for only minimal continued support. Meanwhile, he continued to probe the Mundus Novus south and west. After returning to Spain yet again, Columbus made two more voyages to the New World in 1498 and 1502.
Whether Columbus had found parts of the Far East or an entirely new land was irrelevant to most Europeans at the time. Political distractions abounded in Europe. Spain had barely evicted the Muslims after the long Reconquista, and England’s Wars of the Roses had scarcely ended. News of Columbus’s discoveries excited only a few merchants, explorers, and dreamers. Still, the prospect of finding a waterway to Asia infatuated sailors; and Columbus’s proof of the existence of the trade winds from the east greatly shortened the journey westward. But another man would gain the glory of the name of the new territories. In 1501 a Florentine passenger on a Portuguese voyage, Amerigo Vespucci, wrote letters to his friends in which he described the New World. His self-promoting dispatches circulated sooner than Columbus’s own written accounts, and as a result the term “America” soon was attached by geographers to the continents in the Western Hemisphere that should by right have been named Columbia. But if Columbus did not receive the honor of having the New World named for him, and if he acquired only temporary wealth and fame in Spain (receiving from the Crown the title Admiral of the Ocean Sea), his place in history was never in doubt. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a worthy seaman in his own right who reenacted the Columbian voyages in 1939 and 1940, described Columbus as “the sign and symbol [of the] new age of hope, glory and accomplishment.”18
Once Columbus blazed the trail, other Spanish explorers had less trouble obtaining financial backing for expeditions. Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1513) crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean (as he named it). Ferdinand Magellan (1519–22) circumnavigated the globe, lending his name to the Strait of Magellan. Other expeditions explored the interior of the newly discovered lands. Juan Ponce de León, traversing an area along Florida’s coast, attempted unsuccessfully to plant a colony there.
Spaniards crossed modern-day Mexico, probing interior areas under Hernando Cortés, who in 1518 led a force of 1,000 soldiers to Tenochtitlán, the site of present-day Mexico City. Cortés encountered powerful Indians called Aztecs, led by their emperor Montezuma. The Aztecs had established a brutal regime that oppressed other natives of the region, capturing large numbers of them for ritual sacrifices in which Aztec priests cut out the beating hearts of living victims. Such barbarity enabled the Spanish to easily enlist other tribes, especially the Tlaxcalans, in their efforts to defeat the Aztecs.
Tenochtitlán sat on an island in the middle of a lake, connected to the outlying areas by three huge causeways. It was a monstrously large city (for the time) of at least 200,000, rigidly divided into nobles and commoner groups.19 Aztec culture created impressive pyramid-shaped temple structures, but Aztec science lacked the simple wheel and the wide range of pulleys and gears that it enabled. But it was sacrifice, not science, that defined Aztec society, whose pyramids, after all, were execution sites. A four-day sacrifice in 1487 by the Aztec king Ahuitzotl involved the butchery of 80,400 prisoners by shifts of priests working four at a time at convex killing tables. After ripping out their hearts, the priests kicked lifeless, heartless bodies down the side of the pyramid temple. This worked out to a “killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour bloodbath.”20 In addition to the abominable sacrifice system, crime and street carnage were commonplace. More intriguing to the Spanish than the buildings, or even the sacrifices, however, were the legends of gold, silver, and other riches Tenochtitlán contained, protected by the powerful Aztec army.
Along the way to Tenochtitlán, Cortés gained the alliance of many tribes hostile to the Aztecs, particularly the Tlaxcala, who accompanied him to Tenochtitlán. Unopposed at first, Cortés was received by Montezuma, who, according to most historians, used the meeting to assess his enemy’s weaknesses. But after treachery by the Spanish, Montezuma was killed and Cortés’s men were driven from the city with heavy casualties. They narrowly escaped extermination. Desperate Spanish fought their way out on Noche Triste (the Sad Night), when hundreds of them fell on the causeway. Cortés’s men piled human bodies—Aztec and European alike—in heaps to block Aztec pursuers, then retreated to Tlaxcala where the Spanish recovered under the protection of their Indian allies. Shortly thereafter, a debilitating smallpox epidemic (called by the Aztecs the “great rash”) swept both camps. But the disease particularly devastated Aztec leadership and prevented them from destroying the shattered Spanish. In 1521 Cortes returned with a new Spanish army, supported by more than 25,000 Indian allies.21 Using gunboats from the lake side and his ground forces landward, he cut off supplies to Tenochtitlán. Starvation killed those Aztecs whom the disease did not: “They died in heaps, like bedbugs,” wrote one historian.22 Even so, neither disease nor starvation nor the ever-popular view that Aztecs thought the Spanish were “gods,” accounted for the Spaniards’ stunning victory over the vastly larger Aztec forces. Rather, the Spanish victory can be credited to their use of European-style disciplined shock combat, employing steel swords and pikes versus Aztec wooden, stone-tipped weapons, and their use of modern firepower, including cannons, muskets, and crossbows. Severing the causeways, stationing huge units to guard each, Cortés assaulted the city walls from thirteen brigantines the Spaniards had hauled overland, sealing off the city. These brigantines proved “far more ingeniously engineered for fighting on the Aztecs’ native waters than any boat constructed in Mexico during the entire history of its civilization.”23 When it came to the final battle, it was not the brigantines, but Cortés’s use of cannons, muskets, harquebuses, crossbows, and pikes in deadly discipline, firing in order, and standing as a unit against a murderous mass of Aztecs who fought as individuals rather than a cohesive force that proved decisive.
Spanish technology, including the wheel-related ratchet gears on muskets, constituted only one element of European military superiority. They fought as other European land armies fought, in formation, with their officers open to new ideas based on practicality, not theology. Where no Aztec would dare approach the godlike Montezuma with a military strategy, Cortés debated tactics with his lieutenants routinely, and the European way of war endowed each Castilian soldier with a sense of individual rights, civic duty, and personal freedom nonexistent in the Aztec kingdom. Moreover, the Europeans sought to kill their enemy and force his permanent surrender, not forge an arrangement for a steady supply of sacrifice victims. Thus Cortés captured the Aztec capital in 1521 at a cost of more than 100,000 Aztec.24
If Europeans resembled other cultures in their attitude toward conquest, they differed substantially in their practice and effectiveness. The Spanish, especially, proved adept at defeating native peoples for three reasons. First, they were mobile. Horses and ships endowed the Spanish with vast advantages in mobility over the natives. Second, the burgeoning economic power of Europe enabled quantum leaps over Middle Eastern, Asian, and Mesoamerican cultures. This economic wealth made possible the shipping and equipping of large, trained, well-armed forces. Nonmilitary technological advances such as the iron-tipped plow, the windmill, and the waterwheel all had spread through Europe and allowed monarchs to employ fewer resources in the farming sector and more in science, engineering, writing, and the military. A natural outgrowth of this economic wealth was improved military technology, including guns, which made any single Spanish soldier the equal of several poorly armed natives, offsetting the latter’s numerical advantage. But these two factors were magnified by a third element—the glue that held it all together—which was a western way of combat that emphasized group cohesion of free citizens. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Cortés’s Castilians fought from a long tradition of tactical adaptation based on individual freedom, civic rights, and a “preference for shock battle of heavy infantry” that “grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes,” and other distinctly Western traits that gave numerically inferior European armies a decisive edge.25 That made it possible for tiny expeditions such as Ponce de León’s, with only 200 men and 50 horses, or Narváez’s, with a force of 600, including cooks, colonists, and women, to overcome native Mexican armies outnumbering them two, three, and even ten times at any particular time.
More to the point, no native culture could have conceived of maintaining expeditions of thousands of men in the field for months at a time. Virtually all of the natives lived off the land and took slaves back to their home, as opposed to colonizing new territory with their own settlers. Indeed, only the European industrial engine could have provided the material wherewithal to maintain such armies, and only the European political constructs of liberty, property rights, and nationalism kept men in combat for abstract political causes. European combat style produced yet another advantage in that firearms showed no favoritism on the battlefield. Spanish gunfire destroyed the hierarchy of the enemy, including the aristocratic dominant political class. Aztec chiefs and Moorish sultans alike were completely vulnerable to massed firepower, yet without the legal framework of republicanism and civic virtue like Europe’s to replace its leadership cadre, a native army could be decapitated at the head with one volley, whereas the Spanish forces could see lieutenants fall and seamlessly replace them with sergeants.
Did Columbus Kill Most of the Indians?
The five-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus’s discovery was marked by unusual and strident controversy. Rising up to challenge the intrepid voyager’s courage and vision—as well as the establishment of European civilization in the New World—was a crescendo of damnation, which posited that the Genoese navigator was a mass murderer akin to Adolf Hitler. Even the establishment of European outposts was, according to the revisionist critique, a regrettable development. Although this division of interpretations no doubt confused and dampened many a Columbian festival in 1992, it also elicited a most intriguing historical debate: did the esteemed Admiral of the Ocean Sea kill almost all the Indians? A number of recent scholarly studies have dispelled or at least substantially modified many of the numbers generated by the anti-Columbus groups, although other new research has actually increased them. Why the sharp inconsistencies? One recent scholar, examining the major assessments of numbers, points to at least nine different measurement methods, including the time-worn favorite, guesstimates. It is important to note that first, that the term “genocide” implies a deliberate effort to destroy natives. Neither the Spanish nor the Indians had a thorough understanding of how their diseases were transmitted. Second, no one dismisses even the accidental transmission of deadly diseases that actually affected the North and Central American Indians. But far too often there are severe weaknesses in some of the “Columbian holocaust” arguments.
• Pre-Columbian native population numbers are much smaller than critics have maintained. For example, one author claims “Approximately 56 million people died as a result of European exploration in the New World.” For that to have occurred, however, one must start with early estimates for the population of the Western Hemisphere at nearly 100 million. Recent research suggests that that number is vastly inflated, and that the most reliable figure is nearer 53 million, and even that estimate falls with each new publication. Since 1976 alone, experts have lowered their estimates by 4 million. Some scholars have even seen those figures as wildly inflated, and several studies put the native population of North America alone within a range of 8.5 million (the highest) to a low estimate of 1.8 million. If the latter number is true, it means that the “holocaust” or “depopulation” that occurred was one fiftieth of the original estimates, or 800,000 Indians who died from disease and firearms. Although that number is a universe away from the estimates of 50 to 60 million deaths that some researchers have trumpeted, it still represented a destruction of half the native population.
Even then, the guesstimates involve such things as accounting for the effects of epidemics—which other researchers, using the same data, dispute ever occurred—or expanding the sample area to all of North and Central America. However, estimating the number of people alive in a region five hundred years ago has proven difficult, and recently several researchers have called into question most early estimates. For example, one method many scholars have used to arrive at population numbers—extrapolating from early explorers’ estimates of populations they could count—has been challenged by archaeological studies of the Amazon basin, where dense settlements were once thought to exist. Work in the area by Betty Meggers concludes that the early explorers’ estimates were exaggerated and that no evidence of large populations in that region exists. N. D. Cook’s demographic research on the Inca in Peru showed that the population could have been as high as 15 million or as low as 4 million, suggesting that the measurement mechanisms have a “plus or minus reliability factor” of 400 percent! Such “minor” exaggerations as the tendencies of some explorers to overestimate their opponents’ numbers, which, when factored throughout numerous villages, then into entire populations, had led to overestimates of millions.
Henry Dobyns, who was responsible for the “high number” theory, simply assumed that European diseases killed 95 percent of the existing population and therefore extrapolated from a number of less than half a million—then, fearing his estimate was still too low, multiplied yet again by 25 (!) to arrive at 90–112 million. Yet even while admitting, as one textbook does, that no subsequent scholar has ever made that claim, the textbook’s writers blithely go with 55 million killed. Virtually all of these numbers were pure guesses based on the guess of the size of Tenochtitlán by the Spanish.
Another way of estimating, though, which few scholars have used, was to examine food carrying capacity of the land, especially given such primitive tools, the total absence of the wheel for transport, and the lack of most animal domestication. Comparing pre-Columbian Indians to other Stone Age populations, it is highly unlikely that, even without any diseases, North and Central American Indian populations could have exceeded 20 million. Once diseases were accounted for, those numbers could easily have fallen by half or two-thirds.
• Native populations had epidemics long before Europeans arrived. A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a “downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.” Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentery. One admittedly controversial study by Henry Dobyns in Current Anthropology in 1966 later fleshed out over the years into his book, argued that extensive epidemics swept North America before Europeans arrived. As one authority summed up the research, “Though the Old World was to contribute to its diseases, the New World certainly was not the Garden of Eden some have depicted.” As one might expect, others challenged Dobyns and the “early epidemic” school, but the point remains that experts are divided. Many now discount the notion that huge epidemics swept through Central and North America; smallpox, in particular, did not seem to spread as a pandemic.
• There is little evidence available for estimating the numbers of people lost in warfare prior to the Europeans because in general natives did not keep written records. Later, when whites could document oral histories during the Indian wars on the western frontier, they found that different tribes exaggerated their accounts of battles in totally different ways, depending on tribal custom. Some, who preferred to emphasize bravery over brains, inflated casualty numbers. Others, viewing large body counts as a sign of weakness, de-emphasized their losses. What is certain is that vast numbers of natives were killed by other natives, and that only technological backwardness—the absence of guns, for example—prevented the numbers of natives killed by other natives from growing even higher.
• Large areas of Mexico and the Southwest were depopulated more than a hundred years before the arrival of Columbus. According to a recent source, “The majority of Southwesternists . . . believe that many areas of the Greater Southwest were abandoned or largely depopulated over a century before Columbus’s fateful discovery, as a result of climatic shifts, warfare, resource mismanagement, and other causes.” Indeed, a new generation of scholars puts more credence in early Spanish explorers’ observations of widespread ruins and decaying “great houses” that they contended had been abandoned for years.
• European scholars have long appreciated the dynamic of small-state diplomacy, such as was involved in the Italian or German small states in the nineteenth century. What has been missing from the discussions about native populations has been a recognition that in many ways the tribes resembled the small states in Europe: they concerned themselves more with traditional enemies (other tribes) than with new ones (whites).
Sources: The best single review of all the literature on Indian population numbers is John D. Daniels’s “The Indian Population of North America in 1492,” William and Mary Quarterly, April 1999, pp. 298–320. Among those who cite higher numbers are David Meltzer, “How Columbus Sickened the New World,” The New Scientist, October 10, 1992, 38–41; David Henige, “Recent Work and Prospects in American Indian Contact Population,” History Compass, 1, January 2008, 183–206 (whose review of the recent literature notes there is no evidence whatever for the “high estimate” hypothesis); Francis L. Black, “Why Did They Die?” Science, December 11, 1992, 139–140; and Alfred W. Crosby Jr., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Lower estimates come from the Smithsonian’s Douglas Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size, A.D. 1500–1985,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 77 (1988), 289–294; and William H. MacLeish, The Day Before America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994). Henry F. Dobyns, American Historical Demography (Bloomington, Indiana : Indiana University Press, 1976), calculated a number somewhat in the middle, or about 40 million, then subsequently revisited the argument, with William R. Swagerty, in Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America, Native American Historic Demography Series (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1983). But, as Noble David Cook’s study of Incaic Peru reveals, weaknesses in the data remain; see Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Betty Meggers’s “Prehistoric Population Density in the Amazon Basin” (in John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker, Disease and Demography in the Americas [Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992], 197–206), offers a lower-bound 3 million estimate for Amazonia (far lower than the higher-bound 10 million estimates). An excellent historiography of the debate appears in Daniel T. Reff, Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518–1764 (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1991). He argues for a reconsideration of disease as the primary source of depopulation (instead of European cruelty or slavery), but does not support inflated numbers. A recent synthesis of several studies can be found in Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, A Population History of North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Also see Richard H. Steckel and Jerome C. Rose, eds., The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).26 There is a remarkable study by Paul Hackett, “Averting Disaster: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Smallpox in Western Canada during the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 76, Fall 2004, 575–609, that recounts efforts by the Hudson’s Bay Company to vaccinate Indians against smallpox to contain outbreaks for the purpose of protecting the Hudson’s Bay business. The quotation referring to this study is from John Wilford, “Don’t Blame Columbus for All the Indians’ Ills,” New York Times, October 29, 2002.
Technology and disease certainly played prominent roles in the conquest of Spanish America. But the oppressive nature of the Aztecs played no small role in their overthrow, and in both Peru and Mexico, “The structure of the Indian societies facilitated the Spanish conquest at ridiculously low cost.”27 In addition, Montezuma’s ruling hierarchical, strongly centralized structure, in which subjects devoted themselves and their labor to the needs of the state, made it easy for the Spanish to adapt the system to their own control. Once the Spanish had eliminated Aztec leadership, they replaced it with themselves at the top. The “common people” exchanged one group of despots for another, of a different skin color.
By the time the Aztecs fell, the news that silver existed in large quantities in Mexico had reached Spain, attracting still other conquistadores. Hernando de Soto explored Florida (1539–1541), succeeding where Juan Ponce de León had failed, and ultimately crossed the Mississippi River, dying there in 1542. Meanwhile, marching northward from Mexico, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado pursued other Indian legends of riches in the Seven Cities of Cibola. Supposedly, gold and silver existed in abundance there, but Coronado’s 270-man expedition found none of the fabled cities, and in 1541 he returned to Spain, having mapped much of the American Southwest. By the 1570s enough was known about Mexico and the Southwest to attract settlers, and some two hundred Spanish settlements existed, containing in all more than 160,000 Europeans.
Traveling with every expedition were priests and friars, and the first permanent building erected by Spaniards was often a church. Conquistadores genuinely believed that converting the heathen ranked near—or even above—the acquisition of riches. Even as the Dominican friar and Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, sharply criticized his countrymen in his writings for making “bloody, unjust, and cruel wars” against the Indians—the so-called Black Legend—a second army of mercy, Spanish missionaries, labored selflessly under harsh conditions to bring the Gospel to the Indians. In some cases, as with the Pueblo Indians, large numbers of Indians converted to Christianity, albeit a mixture of traditional Catholic teachings and their own religious practices, which, of course, the Roman Church deplored. Attempts to suppress such distortions led to uprisings such as the 1680 Pueblo revolt that killed twenty-one priests and hundreds of Spanish colonists, although even the rebellious Pueblos eventually rejoined the Spanish as allies.28
Explorers had to receive from the king a license that entitled the grantee to large estates and a percentage of returns from the expedition. From the estates, explorers carved out ranches that provided an agricultural base and encouraged other settlers to immigrate. Although the proprietor exacted a tribute of labor or agricultural products, the status of the natives was as wards, not slaves or even serfs. While the differences to the subservient population may have seemed minimal, and while in practice the tribute differed scarcely from that taken by the Aztecs, legally and foundationally it constituted a fundamental shift in the view of “personhood.” More important, the colonists next would generally found a mission, and in very short order the Dominican missionaries protested the abuse of the natives—a development unseen in Islam or the Far East. Finally, the Spanish government established formal forts (presidios). The most prominent of the presidios dotted the California coast, with the largest at San Diego.
Royal governors and local bureaucrats maintained the empire in Mexico and the Southwest with considerable autonomy from Spain. Distance alone made it difficult for the Crown to control activities in the New World. Consequently, a new culture accompanied the Spanish occupation. With intermarriage between Europeans and Indians, a large mestizo population (today, referred to as Mexican or Hispanic people) resulted. It generally adopted Spanish culture and values.
The Pirates of the Caribbean
Despite frantic activity and considerable promise, Spanish colonies grew slowly. Southwestern and Mexican Spanish settlements had a population of about 160,000 by the 1570s, when the territory under the control of the king included Caribbean islands, Mexico, the southwestern part of today’s United States, large portions of the South American land mass, and an Indian population of more than 5 million. Yet when compared to the later rapid growth of the English colonies, the stagnation of Spain’s outposts requires examination. Why did the Spanish colonies grow so slowly? Certainly the grants of encomiendas limited the number of landowners. But another explanation involves the extensive influence in the Caribbean and on the high seas of pirates who spread terror among potential settlers and passengers. A less visible and much more costly effect on colonization resulted from the expense of outfitting ships to defend themselves, or constructing a navy of sufficient strength to patrol the sea-lanes. Pirates not only attacked ships en route, but they also brazenly invaded coastal areas, capturing entire cities. The famous English pirate Henry Morgan took Portobelo, the leading Spanish port on the American Atlantic coast in 1668, and Panama City fell to his marauders in 1670–71.29 Sir Francis Drake, the Master Thief of the unknown world, as the Spaniards called him, “became the terror of their ports and crews” and he and other “sea dogs” often acted as unofficial agents of the English Crown.30
Other discouraging reports dampened Spanish excitement for settling in the New World. In 1591, twenty-nine of seventy-five ships in a single convoy went down trying to return to Spain from Cuba; in 1600 a sixty-ship fleet from Cádiz to Mexico encountered two separate storms that sank seventeen ships and took down more than a thousand people; and in 1656 two galleons collided in the Bahamas, killing all but fifty-six of the seven hundred passengers. Such gloomy news combined with reports of piracy to cause more than a few potential Spanish settlers to reconsider their plans to relocate in Mexico.31
Another factor that retarded Spain’s success in the New World was its rigid adherence to mercantilism, an economic theory that had started to dominate Europe. Mercantilism held that wealth was fixed (because it consisted of gold and silver), and that for one nation to get richer, another must get poorer. There was no true concept of “investment,” wherein capital could grow or wealth could be created through new products, innovation, or invention. Everything was static. Spain thoroughly embraced the aspects of mercantilism that emphasized acquiring gold and silver through trade.
Spanish mines in the New World eventually turned out untold amounts of riches. Francisco Pizarro transported 13,000 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver in just his first shipment home. Total bullion shipped from Mexico and Peru between 1500 and 1650 exceeded 180 tons. Yet Spain did not view the New World as land to be developed, and rather than using the wealth as a base from which to create a thriving commercial sector, Spain allowed its gold to sit in royal vaults, unemployed in the formation of new capital.32
Spanish attitudes weighed heavily upon the settlers of New Spain, who quickly were outpaced by the more commercially oriented English outposts.33 Put another way, Spain remained wedded to the simplest form of mercantilism, whereas the English and Dutch advanced in the direction of a freer and more lucrative system in which business was less subordinated to the needs of the state. Since governments lacked the information possessed by the collective buyers and sellers in the marketplace, governments inevitably were at a disadvantage in measuring supply and demand. England thus began to shoot ahead of Spain and Portugal, whose entrepreneurs found themselves increasingly enmeshed in the snares of bureaucratic mercantilism.
France in the New World
France, the last of the major colonizing powers, abandoned mercantilism more quickly than the Spanish, but not as rapidly as the English. Although not eager to colonize North America, France feared leaving the New World to its European rivals. Following early expeditions along the coast of Newfoundland, the first serious voyages by a French captain into North America were conducted under Jacques Cartier in 1534. Searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, a northerly water route to the Pacific, he sailed up the St. Lawrence, reaching the present site of Montreal. It was another seventy years, however, before the French established a permanent settlement there.34
Samuel de Champlain, a pious cartographer considered one of the greatest inland explorers of all time, searched for a series of lakes that would link the Atlantic and Pacific, and in 1608 established a fort on a rocky point called Quebec (from the Algonquin word “kebec,” or “where the river narrows”). Roughly twenty years later, France chartered the Company of New France, a trading firm designed to populate French holdings in North America. Compared to English colonial efforts, however, New France was a disappointment, in no small part because one of the most enthusiastic French groups settled in the southeastern part of the United States, not Canada, placing them in direct contact with the powerful Spanish. The French government, starting a trend that continued to the time of the Puritans, answered requests by religious dissidents to plant a colony in the southernmost reaches of North America. Many dissenters born of the Protestant Reformation sought religious freedom from Catholic governments. These included French Protestants known as Huguenots. Violent anti-Protestant prejudices in France served as a powerful inducement for the Huguenots to emigrate.
Huguenots managed to land a handful of volunteers in Port Royal Sound (present-day South Carolina) in 1562, but the colony failed. Two years later, another expedition successfully settled at Fort Caroline in Florida, which came under attack from the Spanish, who slaughtered the unprepared inhabitants, ending French challenges to Spanish power in the southern parts of North America. From that point on, France concentrated its efforts on the northern reaches of North America—Canada—where Catholicism, not Protestantism, played a significant role in French Canadian expansion alongside the economics of the fur trade.
French colonization trailed that of the English for several reasons. Quebec was much colder than most of the English colonial sites, making it a much less attractive destination for emigrants. Also, the French peasants in the 1600s were more tightly controlled by the monarchy and were less free to emigrate to America than their English counterparts. Finally, the French government, concerned with maintaining a large base of domestic military recruits, did not encourage migration to New France. As a result, by 1700, English colonists in North America outnumbered French settlers six to one. Despite controlling the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers, New France, deprived by its inland character of many of the advantages available to the coastal English settlements, saw only a “meagre trickle” to the region.35 As few as twenty-seven thousand French came to Canada in 150 years, and two-thirds of those departed without leaving descendants there.36
Even so, New France had substantial economic appeal. Explorers had not found gold or silver, but northern expeditions discovered riches of another sort: furs. Vast Canadian forests offered an abundance of highly valued deer, elk, rabbit, and beaver skins and pelts, harvested by an indigenous population eager to trade. Trapping required deep penetration into forests controlled by Indians, and the French found that they could obtain furs far more easily through barter than they could by deploying their own army of trappers with soldiers to protect them. Thus, French traders ventured deep into the interior of Canada to exchange knives, blankets, cups, and, when necessary, guns with the Indians for pelts. (It should be noted that these articles were far from “trinkets” as historians often describe—they were the products of industrialization, few of which existed in Indian societies. Thus they were indeed desirable products.) At the end of a trading journey, the coureurs de bois (runners of the woods) returned to Montreal, where they sold the furs to merchants who shipped them back to Europe. That strategy demanded that France limit the number of its colonists and discourage settlement, particularly in Indian territories. France attempted to deal with natives as friends and trading partners, but quickly realized that the Indians harbored as much enmity for each other as they did for the Europeans. If not careful, France could find itself on the wrong end of an alliance, so where possible, the French government restrained colonial intrusions into Indian land, with the exception of missionaries, such as Jacques Marquette (1673) and René de La Salle (1681).37
The English Presence
Despite the voyages of John Cabot, English explorers trailed in the wake of the Portuguese, Spanish, and French. England, at the beginning of the sixteenth century “was backward in commerce, industry, and wealth, and therefore did not rank as one of the great European nations.”38 When Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, the situation changed: the nation developed a large navy with competent—often skilled—sailors. Moreover, profits from piracy and privateering provided strong incentives to bold seamen, especially “sea dogs” like John Hawkins and Francis Drake, to join in plundering the Spanish sea-lanes.
By that time, the English reading public had become fascinated with the writings of Humphrey Gilbert, especially A Discourse to Prove a Passage by the North-West to Cathaia and the East Indies (1576), which closed with a challenge to Englishmen to discover that water route.
In 1578, Elizabeth granted him rights to plant an English colony in America, but he died in an attempt to colonize Newfoundland. Walter Raleigh, Gilbert’s half brother, inherited the grant and sent vessels to explore the coast of North America before determining where to locate a settlement. That expedition reached North Carolina in the summer of 1584. After spending two months traversing the land, commenting on its vegetation and natural beauty, the explorers returned to England with glowing reports. Raleigh supported a second expedition in 1585, at which time one hundred settlers landed at Roanoke on the Carolina coast. When the transports had sailed for England, leaving the colony alone, it nearly starved, and only the fortunate arrival of Drake, fresh from new raiding, provided it with supplies. Raleigh, undeterred by the near disaster, planned another settlement for Roanoke, by which time Richard Hakluyt’s Discourse on Western Planting (1584) further ginned up enthusiasm for settling in the region.39
Settlers received stock in Raleigh’s company, which attracted 133 men and 17 women who set sail on three ships. They reached Roanoke Island in 1587, and a child born on that island, Virginia Dare, technically became the first European born in America. As with the previous English expedition, the ships, under the command of the governor, John White, returned to England for more supplies, only to arrive under the impending threat of a Spanish invasion of England—a failed invasion that would result in the spectacular defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, leaving England as the predominant sea power in the world. Delays prohibited the supply ships from returning to Roanoke until 1591, when John White found the Roanoke houses standing, but no settlers. A mysterious clue—the word croatoan carved on a tree—remains the only evidence of their fate. Croatoan Indians lived somewhat nearby, but they were considered friendly, and neither White nor generations of historians have solved the puzzle of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Whatever the fate of the Roanoke settlers, the result for England was that by 1600 there still were no permanent English colonies in America.
Foundations for English Success in the New World: A Hypothesis
England had laid the foundation for successful North American settlements well before the first permanent colony was planted at Jamestown in 1607. Although it seemed insignificant in comparison to the large empire already established by the Spanish, Virginia and subsequent English colonies in Massachusetts would eclipse the settlement of the Iberian nations and France. Why?
It is conceivable that English colonies prospered simply by luck, but the dominance of Europe in general and England in particular—a tiny island with few natural resources—suggests that specific factors can be identified as the reasons for the rise of an English-Atlantic civilization: the appearance of new business practices, a culture of technological inquisitiveness, and a climate receptive to political and economic risk taking.
One of the most obvious areas in which England surpassed other nations was in its business practices. English merchants had eclipsed their Spanish and French rivals in preparing for successful colonization through adoption of the joint-stock company as a form of business. One of the earliest of these joint-stock companies, the Company of the Staple, was founded in 1356 to secure control over the English wool trade from Italian competitors. By the 1500s, the Moscovy Company (1555), the Levant Company (1592), and the East India Company (1600) fused the exploration of distant regions with the pursuit of profit. Joint-stock companies had two important advantages over other businesses. One advantage was that the company did not dissolve with the death of the primary owner (and thus was permanent). Second, it featured limited liability, in which a stockholder could lose only what he invested, in contrast to previous business forms that held owners liable for all of a company’s debts. Those two features made investing in an exciting venture in the New World attractive, especially when coupled with the exaggerated claims of the returning explorers. Equally important, however, the joint-stock feature allowed a rising group of middle-class merchants to support overseas ventures on an ever-expanding basis.
In an even more significant development, a climate receptive to risk taking and innovation, which had flourished throughout the West, reached its most advanced state in England. It is crucial to realize that key inventions or technologies appeared in non-Western countries first; yet they were seldom, if ever, employed in such a way as to change society dramatically until the Western societies applied them. The stirrup, for example, was known as early as A.D. 400–500 in the Middle East, but it took until 730, when Charles Martel’s mounted knights adopted cavalry charges that combat changed on a permanent basis.40 Indeed, something other than invention was at work. As sociologist Jack Goldstone put it, “The West did not overtake the East merely by becoming more efficient at making bridles and stirrups, but by developing steam engines . . . [and] by taking unknown risks on novelty.”41
Contrary to the notion that there was little progress in the “Dark Ages,” Christian Europe pioneered the free farm; its monasteries fostered literacy (no matter how limited) and saved in writing the work of Greece and Rome as well as Islam; and innovations such as the three-field crop system, the padded horse collar, advanced plows, waterwheels, oats, and numerous other developments consistently expanded productivity in agriculture. Music witnessed the appearance of numerous new instruments and polyphonic harmony. Indeed, only Christianity held that there was a rational God capable of being known through reason as well as faith, and it was with this underpinning that most of the early scientists in Europe (including Galileo, Descartes, and Kepler) believed in a creator God. Rodney Stark reported that of fifty-two stars of the scientific revolution, thirty-two were devout Christians, eighteen were “conventionally religious,” and only two were “irreligious.”42 When undertaken within the framework of stable states and the rule of Western law, stability of the state, the rule of law, and a willingness to accept new or foreign ideas, rather than ruthlessly suppress them, proved vital to entrepreneurship, invention, and technical creativity. While all new ideas were not yet welcome, they found far more receptivity in the West than elsewhere, and in societies dominated by the state, scientists risked their lives if they arrived at unacceptable answers.43
Still another factor, little appreciated at the time, worked in favor of English ascendancy: labor scarcity ensured a greater respect for new immigrants, whatever their origins, than had existed in Europe. With the demand for labor came property rights, and with such property rights came political rights unheard of in Europe.
Indeed, the English respect for property rights soon eclipsed other factors accounting for England’s New World dominance. Born out of the fierce struggles by English landowners to protect their estates from seizure by the state, by the 1600s, property rights had become so firmly established as a basis for English economic activities that its rules permeated even the lowest classes in society. English colonists found land so abundant that anyone could own it—and more astonishingly they were encouraged to do so by the government. When combined with freedom from royal retribution in science and technological fields, the right to retain the fruit of one’s labor—even intellectual property—gave England a substantial advantage in the colonization process over rivals that had more than a century’s head start.44 Taken together, this large body of research on technological progress severely challenges modern notions of “multiculturalism,” in which all societies grow equally but differently. Indeed, it suggests that without a foundation of certain ideas generally attributed to the West, societies will find technological advance difficult if not impossible. These advantages would be further enhanced by a growing religious toleration brought about by religious dissenters from the Church of England called Puritans.45
The Colonial South
In 1606, James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company for land in the New World, authorizing two subsidiary companies: the London Company, based in Bristol, and the Plymouth Company, founded by Plymouth stockholders. A group of “certain Knights, Gentlemen, Merchants, and other Adventurers” made up the London Company, which was a joint-stock company in the same vein as the Company of the Staple and the Levant Company. The grant to the London Company, reaching from modern-day North Carolina to New York, received the name Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth (the “Virgin Queen”), whereas the Plymouth Company’s grant encompassed New England. More than 600 individuals and fifty commercial firms invested in the Virginia Company, illustrating the fund-raising advantages available to a corporation. The London Company organized its expedition first, sending three ships out in 1607 with 144 boys and men to establish a trading colony designed to extract wealth for shipment back to England.
Seeking to “propagate the Christian religion” in the Chesapeake and to produce a profit for the investors, the London Company owned the land and appointed the governor. Colonists were considered “employees.” However, as with Raleigh’s employees, the colonists enjoyed, as the king proclaimed, “all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities . . . as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England.”46 Most colonists lacked any concept of what awaited them: the company adopted a military model based on the Irish campaigns, and the migrants included few farmers or men skilled in construction trades. After a four-month voyage, in April 1607, twenty-six-year-old Captain John Smith piloted ships fifty miles up the James River, well removed from eyesight of passing Spanish vessels. It was a site remarkable for its defensive position, but it sat on a malarial swamp surrounded by thick forests that would prove difficult to clear. Tiny triangle-shaped James Forte, as Jamestown was called, featured firing parapets at each corner and contained fewer than two dozen buildings. Whereas defending the fort might have appeared possible, stocking the fort with provisions proved more difficult: not many of the colonists wanted to work, and none found gold. Some discovered pitch, tar, lumber, and iron for export, but many of the emigrants were gentleman adventurers who disdained physical labor as had their Spanish counterparts to the Southwest. Smith implored the London Company to send “30 carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees . . . [instead of] a thousand of such as we have.”47 Local Indians, such as the Monacan and Chickahominy, traded with the colonists, but the English could neither hire Indian laborers nor did Indian males express any interest in agriculture themselves. Reaping what they had (not) sown, the settlers of James Forte starved, with fewer than one third of the 120 colonists surviving a year. So few remained that the living, Smith noted, were scarcely able to bury the dead.
Disease also decimated the colony. Jamestown settlers were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance. Malaria, in particular, proved a dreaded killer, and malnutrition lowered the immunity of the colonists. The brackish water at that point of the James River also fostered mosquitoes and parasites. Virginia was hardly a “disease-free paradise” before the arrival of the Jamestown English.48 New microbes transported by the Europeans generated a much higher level of infection than previously experienced by the Indians; then, in a vicious circle, warring Indian tribes spread the diseases among one another when they attacked enemy tribes and carried off infected prisoners.
Thanks to the efforts of Smith, who as council president simply assumed control in 1608, the colony was saved. Smith imposed military discipline and order and issued the famous biblical edict, “He who will not work will not eat.” He abandoned the socialist/communal model and instituted individual responsibility, thereby stabilizing the colony, and in the second winter, less than 15 percent of the population died, compared to the more than 60 percent who died just a year earlier. Smith also organized raids on Indian villages. These brought immediate returns of food and animals, but fostered long-term retribution from the natives, who harassed the colonists when they ventured outside their walls. But Smith was not anti-Indian per se, and even proposed a plan of placing white males in Indian villages to intermarry—hardly the suggestion of a racist. Subsequent settlers developed schools to educate Indians, including William and Mary. Smith ran the colony like an army unit until 1609, when confident of its survival, the colonists tired of his tyrannical methods and deposed him.
At that point he returned to England, whereupon the London Company (by then calling itself the Virginia Company) obtained a new charter from the king, and it sought to raise capital in England by selling stock and by offering additional stock to anyone willing to migrate to Virginia. The company provided free passage to Jamestown for indentures, or servants willing to work for the Virginia Company for seven years. A new fleet of nine ships containing six hundred men and some women left England in 1609. One of the ships sank in a hurricane, and another ran aground in Bermuda, where it remained until May 1610.
The other vessels arrived at Jamestown only to experience the “starving time” in the winter of 1609–10. English colonists, barricaded within James Forte, ate dogs, cats, rats, toadstools, and horse hides—ultimately eating from the corpses of the dead. When the remnants of the fleet that had been stuck in Bermuda finally reached Virginia in the late spring of 1610, all the colonists boarded for a return to England. At the mouth of the James River, however, the ships encountered an English vessel bringing supplies. This constituted an astounding miracle for America’s survival, given that had the Jamestown group left a mere thirty minutes earlier. they would never have even seen the other English ship. Nevertheless, reprovisioned, the settlers returned to James Forte, and shortly thereafter a new influx of settlers revived the colony.49
Like Smith, subsequent governors, including the first official governor, Lord De La Warr, attempted to operate the colony on a socialist model: settlers worked in forced-labor gangs; shirkers were flogged and some even hanged. Still, negative incentives only went so far because ultimately the communal storehouse would sustain anyone in danger of starving, regardless of individual work effort. Administrators realized that personal incentives would succeed where force would not, and they permitted private ownership of land. The application of private enterprise, combined with the introduction of tobacco farming, helped Jamestown survive and prosper—an experience later replicated in Georgia.
During the early critical years, Indians were too divided to coordinate their attacks against the English. The powerful Chief Powhatan, who led a confederation of more than twenty tribes, enlisted the support of the Jamestown settlers—who he assumed were there for the express purpose of stealing Indian land—to defeat other enemy Indian tribes. Both sides played balance-of-power politics. Thomas Dale, the deputy governor, proved resourceful in keeping the Indians off balance. At one point, Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas (Matoaka), and held her captive at Jamestown. There she met and eventually married planter John Rolfe, in 1614. Their marriage made permanent the uneasy truce that existed between Powhatan and Jamestown. Rolfe and Pocahontas returned to England, where the Indian princess, as a convert to Christianity, proved a popular dinner guest. She epitomized the view that Indians could be evangelized and “Europeanized.”50
Tobacco, Slaves, and Representative Government
Rolfe already had made another significant contribution to the success of the colony by curing tobacco in 1612. Characterized by King James I as a “vile and stinking . . . custom,” smoking tobacco had been promoted in England by Raleigh and had experienced widespread popularity. Columbus had reported Cuban natives rolling tobacco leaves, lighting them on fire, and sticking them in a nostril. By Rolfe’s time the English had refined the custom by using a pipe or by smoking the tobacco directly with the mouth. England already imported more than £200,000 worth of tobacco per year from Spanish colonies, which had a monopoly on nicotine until Rolfe’s discovery. Tobacco was not the only substance to emerge from Virginia that would later be considered a vice—George Thorpe perfected a mash of Indian corn that provided a foundation for hard liquor—but tobacco had the greatest potential for profitable production.
Substantial change in the production of tobacco only occurred, however, after the Virginia Company allowed individual settlers to own land. In 1617, any freeman who migrated to Virginia could obtain a grant of one hundred acres of land. Grants were increased for most colonists through the headright policy, under which every head of a household could receive fifty acres for himself and an additional fifty acres for every adult family member or servant who came to America with him. The combination of available land and the growing popularity of tobacco in England resulted in a string of plantations stretching to Failing Creek, well up the James River and as far west as Dale’s Gift on Cape Charles. Virtually all of the plantations had riverfronts, allowing ships’ captains to dock directly at the plantation, and their influence extended as far as the lands of the Piedmont Indians, who traded with the planters.51
Tobacco cultivation encouraged expansion. The crop demanded large areas of farmland, and the methods of cultivation depleted the soil quickly. Growers steadily moved to interior areas of Virginia, opening still more settlements and requiring additional forts. But the recurring problem in Virginia was obtaining labor, which headright could not provide—quite the contrary, it encouraged new free farms. Instead, the colony placed new emphasis on indentures, including “20 and odd Negroes” brought to Virginia by a Dutch ship in 1619.
The status of the first blacks in the New World remains somewhat mysterious, and any thesis about the change in black status generates sharp controversy. Historian Edmund Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom, contended that the first blacks had the same legal status as white indentured servants.52 Other recent research confirms that the lines blurred between indentures of all colors and slaves, and that establishing clear definitions of exactly who was likely to become a slave proved difficult.53 At least some white colonists apparently did not distinguish blacks from other servants in their minds, and some early black indentured servants were released at the end of their indentures. A good example of this is Antonio (“Anthony”) Johnson who arrived from Angola around 1624 as a slave, was sold to a merchant as an indentured servant, and was freed about a decade later, receiving land and a cow. In 1651, Johnson bought more land and his own indentured servants, including one black servant.54 Rather than viewing Africa as a source of unlimited labor, English colonists preferred European indentured servants well into the 1670s, even when they came from the ranks of criminals from English jails. But by the 1660s, the southern colonists had slowly altered their attitudes toward Africans. Increasingly, the southerners viewed them as permanent servants, and in 1664 some southern colonies declared slavery hereditary, as it had been in ancient Athens and still was throughout the Muslim world.55
Perhaps the greatest irony surrounding the introduction of black slaves was the timing—if the 1619 date is accurate. That year, the first elected legislative assembly convened at Jamestown. Members consisted of the governor and his council and representatives (or burgesses) from each of the eleven plantations. The assembly gradually split into an upper house, the governor and council, and the lower house, made up of the burgesses. This meant that the early forms of slavery and democracy in America were “twin-born at Jamestown, and in their infancy . . . were rocked in the Cradle of the Republic.”56
Each of the colonists already had the rights of Englishmen, but the scarcity of labor forced the Virginia Company to grant new equal political rights within the colony to new migrants in the form of the privileges that land conferred. In that way, land and liberty became intertwined in the minds and attitudes of the Virginia founders. Virginia’s founders may have believed in “natural law” concepts, but it was the cold reality of the endless labor shortages that put teeth in the colony’s political rights, which strongly reflected the principle of common law, namely that government bubbled from the ground up—from the people—to the leaders, not vice versa. Still, the early colonial government was relatively inefficient and inept in carrying out its primary mission of turning a profit. London Company stockholders failed to resupply the colony adequately, and had instead placed their hope in sending ever-growing numbers of settlers to Jamestown. Adding to the colony’s miseries, the new arrivals soon encroached on Indian lands, eliciting hostile reaction. Powhatan’s death in 1618 resulted in leadership of the Chesapeake tribes falling to his brother, Opechancanough, who conceived a shrewd plan to destroy the English. Feigning friendship, the Indians encouraged a false sense of security among the careless colonists. Then, in 1622, Opechancanough’s followers launched simultaneous attacks on the settlements surrounding Jamestown, killing more than three hundred settlers. The English retaliated by destroying Indian cornfields, a response that kept the Indians in check until 1644. Though blind, Opechancanough remained the chief and, still wanting vengeance, ordered a new wave of attacks that killed another three hundred English in two days. Again the settlers retaliated. They captured Opechancanough, shot him, and forced the Indians from the region between the York and James rivers.57
By that time, the Virginia Company had attracted considerable attention in England, none of it good. The king appointed a committee to look into the company’s affairs and its perceived mismanagement, reflecting the fact that English investors—by then experiencing the fruits of commercial success at home—expected even more substantial returns from their successful operations abroad than they had received. Opechancanough’s raids seemed to reinforce the assessment that the London directors could not make prudent decisions about the colony’s safety, and in 1624 the Court of King’s Bench annulled the Virginia Company’s charter and the king assumed control of the colony as a royal province.
Virginians became embroiled in English politics, particularly the struggle between the Cavaliers (supporters of the king) and the Puritans. In 1649 the Puritans executed Charles I, whose forces had surrendered three years earlier. When Charles was executed, Governor William Berkeley and the Assembly supported Charles II as the rightful ruler of England (earning for Virginia the nickname Old Dominion). Parliament, however, was in control in England, and dispatched warships to bring the rebellious pro-Charles Virginians in line. After flirting with resistance, Berkeley and his Cavalier supporters ultimately yielded to the Puritan English Parliamentarians. Then Parliament began to ignore the colony, allowing Virginia to assume a great deal of self-government.
The new king, Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, rewarded Berkeley and the Virginia Cavaliers for their loyalty. Berkeley was reappointed governor in 1660, but when he returned to his position, he was out of touch with the people and the assembly, which had grown more irascible, and was more intolerant than ever of religious minorities, including Quakers. At the same time, the colony’s population had risen to forty thousand, producing tensions with the governor that erupted in 1676 with the influx of settlers into territories reserved for the Indians. All that was needed for the underrepresented backcountry counties to rise against Berkeley and the tidewater gentry was a leader.
Nathaniel Bacon Jr., an eloquent and educated resident in Charles City County, had only lived in Virginia fourteen months before he was named to the governor’s council. A hero among commoners, Bacon nonetheless was an aristocrat who simmered over his lack of access to the governor’s inner circle. His large farm in the west stood on the front line of frontier defense, and naturally Bacon favored an aggressive strategy against the Indians. But he was not alone. Many western Virginians, noting signs of unrest among the tribes, petitioned Berkeley for military protection. Bacon went further, offering to organize and lead his own expedition against the Indians. In June 1676 he demanded a commission “against the heathen,” saying, “God damme my blood, I came for a commission, and a commission I will have before I goe!”58 Governor Berkeley, convinced that the colonists had exaggerated the threat, refused to send troops and rejected Bacon’s suggestion to form an independent unit.
Meanwhile, small raids by both Indians and whites started to escalate into larger attacks. In 1676, Bacon, despite his lack of official approval, led a march to track hostiles. Instead, he encountered and killed friendly Indians, which threatened to drag the entire region into war. From a sense of betrayal, he then turned his 500 men on the government at Jamestown. Berkeley maneuvered to stave off a coup by Bacon when he appointed him general, in charge of the Indian campaign. Satisfied, Bacon departed, whereupon Berkeley rescinded his support and attempted to raise an army loyal to himself. Bacon returned, and finding the ragtag militia, scattered Berkeley’s hastily organized force, whereupon Bacon burned most of the buildings at Jamestown.
No sooner had Bacon conquered Jamestown than he contracted a virus and died. Leaderless, Bacon’s troops lacked the ability to resist Berkeley and his forces, who, bolstered by the arrival of 1,100 British troops, regained control of the colony. Berkeley promptly hanged 23 of the rebels and confiscated the property of others—actions that violated English property law and resulted in the governor’s being summoned back to England to explain his behavior. Reprimanded by King Charles, Berkeley died before he could return to the colony.59
The Maryland Experiment
Although Virginia was a Protestant (Anglican) colony—and it must be stated again that the London Company did not have a religious agenda per se—a second Chesapeake colony was planted in 1634 when George Calvert received a grant from Charles I. Calvert, who enjoyed strong personal support from the king despite his conversion to Catholicism in 1625, already had mounted an unsuccessful mission to plant a colony in Newfoundland. After returning from the aborted Newfoundland venture, Calvert worked to obtain a charter for the northern part of Chesapeake Bay. Shortly after he died, the Crown issued a charter in 1632, to Cecilius Calvert, George’s son, naming George Calvert Lord Baltimore. The grant, named in honor of Charles I’s wife, Queen Mary, gave Baltimore a vast expanse of land stretching from the Potomac River to the Atlantic Ocean.
Calvert’s grant gave him full proprietary control over the land, freeing him from many of the constraints that had limited the Virginia Company. As proprietor, Calvert acted rex in abstentia (as the king in his absence), and as long as the proprietor acted in accordance with the laws of England, he spoke with the authority of the Crown. Calvert never visited his colony, though, governing the province through his brother, Leonard, who held the office of governor until 1647. Like Virginia, Maryland had an assembly (created in 1635) elected by all freeholders.
In March 1634 approximately three hundred passengers arrived at one of the eastern tributaries of the Potomac and established the village of St. Mary’s. Located on a high cliff, St. Mary’s had a good natural harbor, fresh water, and abundant vegetation. Father Andrew White, a priest who accompanied the settlers, observed of the region that “we cannot set down a foot without but tread on strawberries, raspberries, fallen mulberry vines, acorns, walnuts, [and] sassafras.”60 The Maryland colony was planned better than Jamestown. It possessed a large proportion of laborers—and fewer adventurers, country gentlemen, and gold seekers—and the settlers planted corn as soon as they had cleared the fields.
Calvert, while not unaware of the monetary returns of a well-run colony, had another motive for creating a settlement in the New World. Catholics had faced severe persecution in England, and so Lord Baltimore expected that a large number of Catholics would welcome an opportunity to immigrate to Maryland, when he enacted the Toleration Act of 1649, which permitted any Christian faith to be practiced in the colony.61 The Act provided that “no person . . . professing to believe in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced.”62 Yet the English Catholics simply did not respond the way Calvert hoped. Thus, he had to welcome Protestant immigrants at the outset. Once the news of religious toleration spread, other religious immigrants came from Virginia, including a group of persecuted Puritans who established Annapolis. The Puritans proved a thorn in Baltimore’s side, however, especially after the English Civil War put the Puritans in control there and they suspended the Toleration Act. After a brief period in which the Calvert family was deprived of all rights to govern, Lord Baltimore was supported, ironically, by the Puritan Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, and he was reinstated as governor in 1657. Religious conflict had not disappeared, however; an early wave of Jesuits worked to convert all of the colonies, antagonizing the Protestant majority. Thus, in many ways, the attempt to permit religious toleration resulted in conflict and, frequently, bloodshed.
Nor did the immigration of Protestants into Maryland allay the nagging labor shortage. In 1640, Maryland established its own headright system, and still the demands for labor exceeded the supply. As in Virginia, Maryland planters solved the shortage through the use of indentured servants and, at the end of the 1600s, African slaves. Maryland enacted a law “concerning Negroes and Other Slaves” in 1664, which not only perpetuated the slave status of those already in bondage, but expanded slave status to “whosoever freeborn woman shall intermarry with any slave.”63 Maryland, therefore, with its large estates and black slaves, looked very much like Virginia.
The Carolinas: Charles Town vs. Celtic Culture
Carolina, England’s final seventeenth-century mainland slave society was established in 1663, when Charles II chartered the colony to eight wealthy proprietors. Their land grant encompassed the territories known today as North and South Carolina. Although Charles’s aim was to create a strategic buffer zone between Spanish Florida and Virginia, Carolina’s proprietors instead sought agricultural riches. Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina, founded in 1670, was populated largely by English Barbados planters and their slaves. Soon they turned portions of the sweltering Carolina seacoast into productive rice plantations; then, over the next century, indigo, a vegetable dye, became the planters’ second most important cash crop thanks to the subsidies available in the mercantilist system.
From its outset, Carolina society was triracial: blacks eventually constituted a majority of Carolinians, followed by a mix of Indians and Europeans. White Carolinians allied with Cherokee Indians to soundly defeat the rival Yamasees and Creeks and pushed them westward. Planters failed in their attempts to enslave defeated Indians, turning instead to black slaves to cultivate the hot, humid rice fields. A 1712 South Carolina statute made slavery essentially permanent: “All negroes, mulattoes, mustizoes, or Indians, which at any time heretofore have been sold . . . and their children, are hereby made and declared slaves.”64 Slave life in the Carolinas differed from Virginia because the rice plantation system initially depended almost exclusively on an all-male workforce. Life in the rice and indigo fields was incredibly harsh, resembling the conditions in Barbados. The crops demanded full-time attention at harvest, requiring exhausting physical labor in the Carolina sun.
Yet colonial slave revolts (like the 1739 Stono revolt, which sent shock waves through the planter community) were exceptions because language barriers among the slaves, close and brutal supervision, a climate of repression, and a culture of subservience all combined to keep rebellions infrequent. The perceived threat of slave rebellions, nevertheless, hung over the southern coastal areas of Carolina, where slaves often outnumbered whites nine to one. Many planters literally removed themselves from the site of possible revolts by fleeing to the port cities in the summer. Charles Town soon became an island where planter families spent the “hot season” free from the plantations, swamps, and malaria of the lowlands. By mid-eighteenth century, Charles Town, with a population of eight thousand and major commercial connections, a lively social calendar of balls and cotillions, and even a paid symphony orchestra, was the leading city of the South.
Northern Carolinians differed socially, politically, economically, and culturally from their neighbors to the south. In 1729 disputes forced a split into two separate colonies. The northern part of the colonies was geographically and economically more isolated, and it developed more slowly than South Carolina. In the northeastern lowlands and Piedmont, North Carolina’s economy turned immediately to tobacco, while a new ethnic and cultural wave trekked south from Pennsylvania into North Carolina via Virginia’s Great Valley. German and Celtic (Scots-Irish) farmers added flavor to the Anglo and African stew of Carolina society. Germans who arrived were pious Quaker and Moravian farmers in search of opportunities to farm and market wood, leather, and iron handicrafts, whereas Celts were the wild and woolly frontiersmen who had fast worn out their welcome in the “civilized” areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia. At that point they moved on, deeper and deeper into the forests of the Appalachian foothills and, eventually, the trans-Appalachian West. Such a jambalaya of humankind immediately made for political strife as eastern and western North Carolinians squared off time and again in disputes that often boiled down to planter-versus-small-farmer rivalries.
Life of the Common Colonials
By the mid-1700s, it was clear across the American colonies that the settlers had become increasingly less English. Travelers described Americans as coarse-looking country folk. Most colonials wore their hair long. Women and girls kept their hair covered with hats, hoods, and kerchiefs while men and boys tied their hair into queues until wigs came into vogue in the port cities. Colonials made their own clothes from linen (flax) and wool; every home had a spinning wheel and a loom, and women sewed and knitted constantly, since cotton cloth would not be readily available until the nineteenth century. Plentiful dyes like indigo, birch bark, and pokeberries made colorful shirts, pants, dresses, socks, and caps.
Americans grew their own food and ate a great deal of corn—roasted, boiled, and cooked into cornmeal bread and pancakes—partly because wheat was so expensive.65 Hearty vegetables like squash and beans joined apples, jam, and syrup on the dinner table. And they were carnivores! As two historians of eating in America noted, “game was not only the main meal of the colonists, it was often the main food.”66 Men and boys hunted and fished; rabbit, squirrel, bear, and deer (venison) were common entrees. Pig raising became important, but beef cows (and milk) were scarce until the eighteenth century and beyond. Virginia colonists ate so much pork that a century later planter William Byrd quipped that Virginians were “extremely hoggish in their temper . . . and prone to grunt rather than speak.”67 Given the poor quality of water, many colonials drank cider, beer, and corn whiskey—even the children! As cities sprang up, the lack of convenient watering holes led owners to “water” their cattle with the runoff of breweries, yielding a disgusting variant of milk known as swill milk, which propagated childhood illnesses.
Even without swill milk, infant mortality was high, and any sickness usually meant suffering and, often, death. Colonials relied on folk medicine and Indian cures, including herbs, teas, honey, bark, and roots, supplemented with store-bought medicines. Doctors were few and far between. The American colonies had no medical school until the eve of the American Revolution, and veterinarians usually doubled as the town doctor, or vice versa. Into the vacuum of this absence of professional doctors stepped folk healers and midwives, “bone crackers” and bleeders. Going to a physician was usually the absolute last resort, since without anesthesia, any serious procedures would involve excruciating pain and extensive recovery. Women, especially, suffered during childbirth, and infants often had such high mortality rates that babies were not named until age two. Instead, mothers and fathers referred to the child as “the little visitor” or even “it.” Despite the reality of this difficult life, it is worth noting that by 1774 American colonists already had attained a standard of living that far surpassed that found in most of the civilized parts of the modern world.
Far more than today, though, politics—and not the family—absorbed the attention of colonial men. Virtually anyone who either paid taxes or owned a minimum of property could vote for representation in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature, although in some colonies (Pennsylvania and New York) there was a higher property qualification required for the upper house than for the lower house. When it came to holding office, most districts required a candidate to have at least one hundred pounds in wealth or one hundred acres, but several colonies had no requirements for holding office. Put another way, American colonials took politics seriously and believed that virtually everyone could participate. Two colonies stand out as examples of the trends in North American politics by the late 1700s—Virginia and Maryland.
The growth and maturation of the societies in Virginia and Maryland established five important trends that would be repeated throughout much of America’s colonial era. First, the sheer distance between the ruler and the governed—between the king and the colonies—made possible an extraordinary amount of independence among the Americans. In the case of Bacon’s Rebellion, for example, the Virginia rebels acted on the principle that it is “easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission,” and were confident that the Crown would approve of their actions. Turmoil in England made communication even more difficult, and the instability in the English government—the temporary victory of Cromwell’s Puritans, followed by the restoration of the Stuarts—merely made the colonial governments more self-reliant than ever.
Second, while the colonists gained a measure of independence through distance, they also gained political confidence and status through the acquisition of land. For immigrants who came from a nation where the scarcity of land marked those who owned it as gentlemen and placed them among the political elites, the abundance of soil in Virginia and Maryland made them the equals of the owners of manorial estates in England. It steadily but subtly became every citizen’s job to ensure the protection of property rights for all citizens, undercutting from the outset the widespread and entrenched class system that characterized Europe. Although not universal—Virginia had a powerful “cousinocracy”—nothing of the rigid French or English aristocracies constrained most Americans. To be sure, Virginia possessed a more pronounced social strata than Maryland (and certainly Massachusetts). Yet compared to Europe, there was more equality and less class distinction in America, even in the South.
Third, the precedent of rebellion against a government that did not carry out the most basic mandates—protecting life, property, and a certain degree of religious freedom (at least from the Church of England)—was established and supported by large numbers, if not the vast majority, of colonists. That view was tempered by the assumption that, again, such rebellion would not be necessary against an informed government. This explains, in part, Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion in the Declaration of Independence the references to the fact that the colonists had petitioned not only the king, but Parliament as well, to no avail. Both the possession of land and the presence of private property among almost all groups combined to create a concept of citizenship unseen in the world. The concept of jus soli (citizenship based on birth) was established as the basis for all citizenship in the English colonies, and soon began to apply to those even born elsewhere. Thus, anyone who arrived at the British American colonies soon came to think of himself as “naturalized” and more important, anyone born within the confines of British America was immediately viewed by courts as “natural-born subjects” with the “rights of Englishmen.” It was another truly exceptional condition of the American founding.
Fourth, a measure of religious toleration developed, although it was neither as broad as is often claimed nor did it originate in the charity of church leaders. Although Virginia Anglicans and Maryland Catholics built the skeleton of state-supported churches, labor problems forced each colony to abandon sectarian purity at an early stage to attract immigrants. Underlying presuppositions about religious freedom were narrowly focused on Christians and, in most colonies, usually Protestants. Had the colonists ever anticipated that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or members of other non-Christian groups would constitute even a small minority in their region, even the most fiercely independent Protestants would have agreed to the establishment of a state church, as Massachusetts did from 1630 to 1830.
America’s vast size contributed to a tendency toward “Live and let live” when it came to religion.68 Dissidents always could move to uninhabited areas: certainly none of the denominations were open to evangelizing from their counterparts. Rather, the colonists embraced toleration, even if narrowly defined, because it affected a relatively cohesive group of Christian sects. Where differences that were potentially deeply divisive did exist, the separation caused by distance prevented one group from posing a threat to others. Throughout, a spirit of “latitudinarianism” dominated, wherein the state of the soul was viewed as more important than rigid church doctrine, and that human reason, aided by the Holy Spirit, could arrive at truth. Latitudinarianism thus de-emphasized church leadership and elevated lay participation.
Finally, the experiences in Virginia and Maryland foreshadowed events elsewhere when it came to interaction with the Indians. The survival of a poorly armed, ineptly organized colony in Jamestown surrounded by hostile natives requires more of an explanation than “white greed” provides. Just as Europeans practiced balance-of-power politics, so too the Indians found that the presence of several potential enemies on many sides required that they treat the whites as friends when necessary to balance the power of other Indians. To the Doeg Indians, for example, the English were no more of a threat than the Susquehannock. Likewise, English settlers had as much to fear from the French as they did the natives. Characterizing the struggle as one of whites versus Indians does not reflect the balance-of-power politics that every group in the New World struggled to maintain among its enemies.69
New England’s Pilgrims and Puritans
Whereas gold provided the motivation for the colonization of Virginia, the settlers who traveled to Plymouth came for much different reasons.70 The Puritans had witnessed a division in their ranks based on their approach to the Anglican Church. One group believed that not only should they remain in England, but that they also had a moral duty to purify the church from the inside. Others, however, had given up on Anglicanism. Labeled Separatists, they favored removing themselves from England entirely, and they defied the orders of the king by leaving for European Protestant nations. Their disobedience to royal decrees and British law often earned the Separatists persecution and even death.
In 1608 a group of 125 Separatists from Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, slipped out of England for Holland. Among the most respected leaders of these “Pilgrims,” as they later came to be known, was a sixteen-year-old boy named William Bradford. In Holland they faced no religious persecution, but as foreigners they found little work, and worse, Puritan children were exposed to the “great licentiousness” of Dutch youth. When few other English Separatists joined them, the prospects for establishing a strong Puritan community in Holland seemed remote. After receiving assurances from the king that they could exercise their religious views freely, they opened negotiations with one of the proprietors of the Virginia Company, Sir Edwin Sandys, about obtaining a grant in Virginia. Sandys cared little for Puritanism, but he needed colonists in the New World. Certainly the Pilgrims already had displayed courage and resourcefulness. He therefore allowed them a tract near the mouth of the Hudson River, which was located on the northernmost boundary of the Virginia grant. To raise capital, the Pilgrims employed the joint-stock company structure, which brought several non-Separatists into the original band of settlers. Sailing on the Mayflower, 35 of the original Pilgrims and 65 other colonists left the English harbor of Plymouth in September 1620, bound for the Hudson River. Blown off course, the Pilgrims reached the New World in November, some five hundred miles north of their intended location. They dropped anchor at Cape Cod Bay, at an area called Plymouth by John Smith.
Arriving at the wrong place, the colonists remained aboard their vessel while they considered their situation. They were not in Virginia, and had no charter to Plymouth. Any settlement could be perceived in England as defiance of the Crown. Bradford and the forty other adult men thus devised a document, before they even went ashore, to emphasize their allegiance to King James, to renounce any intention to create an independent republic, and to establish a civil government. It stated clearly that their purpose in sailing to Virginia was not for the purposes of rebellion but “for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country. . . .”71 And while the Mayflower Compact provided for laws and the administration of the colony, it constituted more than a mere civil code. It pledged each of them “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another” to “covenant and combine ourselves under a civil Body Politick” under “just and equal laws . . . [for the] furtherance of” the glory of God. To the Pilgrims, a just and equal society had to be grounded in religious faith. Developing along a parallel path to the concepts of government emerging in Virginia, the Mayflower Compact underscored the idea that government came from the governed—under God—and that the law treated all equally. But it also extended into civil affairs the concept of a church contract (or covenant), reinforcing the close connection between the role of the church and the state. Finally, it started to lay a foundation for future action against both the king of England and, eighty years after that, slavery by establishing basic principles in the contract. This constituted a critical development in an Anglo-European culture that increasingly emphasized written rights.
As one of the first acts of their new democracy, the colonists selected John Carver as governor. Then, having taken care of administrative matters, in late December 1620, the Pilgrims climbed out of their boats at Plymouth and settled at cleared land that may have been an Indian village years earlier. They had arrived too late in the year to plant, and like their countrymen farther south, the Pilgrims suffered during their first winter, with half the colony perishing. The company had put all wealth of the individuals into a common pool. As Bradford later put it, “the experience we had with this common course and condition [was that] by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, [it] would make [the colonists] happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”72 Bradford also described the reality that set in when “young men that were most fit and able for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense . . . was thought injustice.”73 Recognizing the failure of communalism, the governor gave every family corn and a parcel of land, essentially instituting capitalism. The colonists saw “no wante” that summer, and had a small harvest—plus good stores of meat—that fall. Squanto, whom Bradford called “a spetiall instrument sent from God,” contrary to popular belief did not have to teach the English how to hunt and fish.74 Rather, he served as middleman for bartering with the Indians, and by September 1621, crops were so abundant that the Pilgrims held a feast to thank God, to which they invited the Indians. Two years later, Bradford (who became governor when Carver died in April 1621) issued the first official “thanksgiving” proclamation.75
The Pilgrims, despite their fame in the traditional Thanksgiving celebration and their Mayflower Compact, never achieved the material success of the Virginia colonists or their Massachusetts successors at Massachusetts Bay. Indeed, the Plymouth colony’s population stagnated. Since the Separatists’ religious views continued to meet a poor reception in England, no new infusions of people or ideas came from the Old World. Having settled in a relatively poor region, and lacking the excellent natural harbor of Boston, the Pilgrims never developed the fishing or trading business of their counterparts. But the Pilgrims rightly hold a place of high esteem in America history, largely because unlike the Virginia settlers, the Separatists braved the dangers and uncertainties of the voyage and settlement in the New World solely in the name of their Christian faith.
Other Puritans, though certainly not all of them Separatists, saw opportunities to establish their own settlements. They had particular incentives to do so after the ascension to the throne of England of Charles I in 1625. Puritans thought he was determined to restore Catholicism and eradicate religious dissidents. By that time, the Puritans had emerged as a powerful merchant group in English society, with their economic power translating into seats in Parliament. Charles reacted by dissolving Parliament in 1629. Meanwhile, a group of Dorchester businessmen had provided the perfect vehicle for the Puritans to undertake an experiment in the New World.
In 1623 the Dorchester group established a small fishing post at Cape Ann, near present-day Gloucester, Massachusetts. After the colony proved a dismal economic failure, the few settlers who had lived at Cape Ann moved inland to Salem, and a new patent, granted in 1628, provided incentives for a new group of emigrants, including John Endicott, to settle in Salem. Ultimately, the New England Company, as it was called, obtained a royal charter in 1629. Stockholders in the company elected a General Court, which chose the governor and his eighteen assistants. Those prominent in founding the company saw the Salem and Cape Ann areas as opportunities for establishing Christian missions.
The 1629 charter did not require the company’s headquarters to be in London, as the Virginia Company’s had. Several Puritans, including John Winthrop, expressed their willingness to move to the trading colony if they could also move the colony’s administration to Massachusetts. Stockholders unwilling to move to the New World resigned, and the Puritans gained control of the company, whereupon they chose John Winthrop as the governor.76 Called the Moses of the great Puritan exodus, Winthrop was Cambridge educated and, because he was an attorney, relatively wealthy. He was also deeply committed to the Puritan variant of Christianity. Winthrop suffered from the Puritan dilemma, in that he knew that all things came from God, and therefore had to be good. Therefore all things were made for man to enjoy, except that man could not enjoy things too much lest he risk putting material things above God. In short, Puritans had to be “in the world but not of it.”
Puritans, far from wearing drab clothes and avoiding pleasure, enjoyed all things. Winthrop himself loved pipe smoking and shooting. Moreover, Puritan ministers “were the leaders in every field of intellectual advance in New England.”77 Their moral codes in many ways were not far from modern standards.78
A substantial number of settlers joined Winthrop, with eleven ships leaving for Massachusetts that year. When the Puritans finally arrived, Winthrop delivered a sermon before the colonists disembarked. It resounded with many of the sentiments of the Plymouth Pilgrims: “Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop wanted the Puritans to see themselves as examples and, somewhat typical of his day, made dire predictions of their fate if they failed to live up to God’s standard. More important, however, it was evident from the earliest times in America that a sense of “exceptionalism” existed: that what was being conceived was somehow different, special, and blessed by God.
The Massachusetts Bay colony benefited from changes in the religious situation in England, where a new policy of forcing Puritans to comply with Anglican ceremonies was in effect. Many Puritans decided to leave England rather than tolerate such persecution, and they emigrated to Massachusetts in what was called the Great Migration, pulled by reports of “a store of blessings.”79 This constant arrival of new groups of relatively prosperous colonists kept the colony well funded and its labor force full (unlike the southern colonies). By 1640, the population of Massachusetts Bay and its inland settlements numbered more than ten thousand.
Puritan migrants brought with them an antipathy and distrust of the Stuart monarchy (and governmental power in general) that would have great impact in both the long and short term. Government in the colony, as elsewhere in most of English America, assumed a democratic bent. Originally, the General Court, created as Massachusetts Bay’s first governing body, was limited to freemen, but after 1629, when only the Puritan stockholders remained, that meant Puritan male church members. Clergymen were not allowed to hold public office, but through the voting of the church members, the clergy gained exceptional influence. A Puritan hierarchy ran the administrative posts, and although non-Puritan immigrant freemen obtained property and other rights, only the church members received voting privileges. In 1632, however, the increasing pressure of additional settlers forced changes in the minority-run General Court. The right to elect the governor and deputy governor was expanded to all freemen, turning the governor and his assistants into a colonial parliament.80
Political tensions in Massachusetts reflected the close interrelationship Puritans felt between civil and religious life. Rigorous tests existed for admission to a Puritan church congregation: individuals had to show evidence of a changed life, relate in an interview process their conversion experience, and display knowledge of scripture. On the surface, this appeared to place extraordinary power in the hands of the authorities, giving them (if one was a believer) the final word on who was, and was not, saved. But in reality, church bodies proved extremely lenient in accepting members. After all, who could deny another’s face-to-face meeting with the Almighty? Local records showed a wide range of opinions on the answer.81 One solution, the “Halfway Covenant,” allowed third-generation Puritan children to be baptized if their parents were baptized.82
Before long, of course, many insincere or more worldly colonists had gained membership, and with the expansion of church membership, the right to participate in the polity soon spread, and by 1640 almost all families could count one adult male church member (and therefore a voter) in their number. The very fact that so many people came, however tangentially, under the rubric of local—but not centralized—church authority reinforced civic behavior with a Christian moral code, although increasingly the laity tended to be more spiritually conservative than the clergy.83
Local autonomy of churches was maintained through the congregational system of organization. Each church constituted the ultimate authority in scriptural doctrine. That occasionally led to unorthodox or even heretical positions developing, but usually the doctrinal agreement between Puritans on big issues was so widespread that few serious problems arose. When troublemakers did appear, as when Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, or when Anne Hutchinson challenged the hierarchy in 1636, Winthrop and the General Court usually dispatched them in short order.84 Moreover, the very toleration often (though certainly not universally) exhibited by the Puritans served to reinforce and confirm the colonists’ belief that New England was a special place—a city on a hill. As religious historian Jon Butler noted, New England Puritanism shaped immigration, settlement, and government.85
There were limits to toleration, of course. In 1692, when several young Salem girls displayed physical “fits” and complained of being hexed by witches, Salem village was thrown into an uproar. A special court convened to try the witches. Although the girls initially accused only one as a witch (Tituba, a black slave woman), the accusations and charges multiplied, with 150 Salemites eventually standing accused. Finally, religious and secular leaders expressed objections, and the trials ceased as quickly as they had begun. Historians have subsequently ascribed the hysteria of the Salem witch trials to sexism, religious rigidity, and even the fungus of a local plant, but few have admitted that to the Puritans of Massachusetts, the devil and witchcraft were quite real, and physical manifestations of evil spirits were viewed as commonplace occurrences.
The Pequot War and the American Militia System
The Puritan’s religious views did not exempt them from conflict with the Indians, particularly the Pequot Indians of coastal New England. Puritan/Pequot interactions followed a cyclical pattern that would typify the next 250 years of Indian-white relations, in the process giving birth to the American militia system, a form of warfare quite unlike that found in Europe.
Initial contacts led to cross-acculturation and exchange, but struggles over land ensued, ending in extermination, extirpation, or assimilation of the Indians. Sparked by the murder of a trader, the Pequot War commenced in July of 1636. In the assault on the Pequot fort on the Mystic River in 1637, troops from Connecticut and Massachusetts, along with Mohican and Narragansett Indian allies, attacked and destroyed a stronghold surrounded by a wooden palisade, killing some four hundred Pequots in what was, to that time, one of the most stunning victories of English settlers over Indians ever witnessed.
What the North American Indians had encountered—just as the Aztecs and Incas had discovered much earlier—was a new “western way of war,” but a unique variant in the case of the English settlers. Instead of standing professional armies, the English relied on a militia system in which individuals maintained their own firearms and powder. If necessary, communities later would acquire heavier weapons, such as cannons, with public funds. This militia system, with many refinements, had come out of the Middle Ages where trained units of armed men were to stay prepared for emergencies. King Henry II’s Assize of Arms of 1181 had required various classes of free men to maintain different levels of arms, and by the 1600s, generations of English bowmen had kept themselves well practiced in archery both for hunting purposes and in case of a call to muster by the Crown.86 As the American militia system developed, certain elements of the “western way of war” were already ingrained in the colonists, even when they lacked a professional army. These included the practice of volley fire (whose psychological impact on an enemy is far more devastating than individual fire, no matter how accurate); maintaining rank to accentuate shock combat (as opposed to the Native Americans’ more individualistic fighting styles); and a certain amount of equality among commanders and their troops, leading to the freer flow of ideas.
With the English victory in the Pequot War, the Indians realized that, in the future, they would have to unify to fight the Englishmen. This would ultimately culminate in the 1675–76 war led by Metacomet—known in New England history as King Philip’s War—which resulted in a staggering defeat for northeastern coastal tribes. A far-reaching result of these conflicts was the expansion of the New England militia system.
The Puritan—indeed, English—distrust of the mighty Stuart kings manifested itself in a fear of standing armies. Under the colonial militia system, much of the population armed itself and prepared to fight on short notice. All men aged sixteen to sixty served without pay in village militia companies; they brought their own weapons and supplies and met irregularly to train and drill. When possible, though, they also took advantage of Indian guerrilla tactics—surprise, night attacks, marching single file through forests, blending the best of the Western war tradition with that of their North American foes. One advantage of the militia companies was that some of their members were crack shots: as an eighteenth-century American later wrote a British friend,
In this country . . . the great quantities of game, the many lands, and the great privileges of killing make the Americans the best marksmen in the world, and thousands support their families by the same, particularly the riflemen on the frontiers. . . . In marching through the woods one thousand of these riflemen would cut to pieces ten thousand of your best troops.87
But the American militia system also had many disadvantages. Insubordination was the inevitable result of trying to turn individualistic Americans into obedient soldiers. Militiamen did not want to fight anywhere but home. Some deserted in the middle of a campaign because of spring plowing or because their time was up. But the most serious shortcoming of the militia system was that it gave Americans a misguided impression that they did not need a large, well-trained standing army.
The American soldier was an amateur, an irregular combatant who despised the professional military. Even 140 years after the Pequot War, the Continental Congress still was suspicious that a professional military, “however necessary it may be, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people. . . . Standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government.”88
Where muskets and powder could handle—or, at least, suppress—most of the difficulties with Indians, there were other, more complex issues raised by a rogue minister and an independent-minded woman. Taken together, the threats posed by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson may have presented as serious a menace to Massachusetts as the Pequots and other tribes put together.
Roger Williams and the Limits of Religious Toleration
The first serious challenge to the unity of state and religion in Massachusetts came from a Puritan dissident named Roger Williams. A man Bradford described as “godly and zealous,” Williams had moved to Salem, where he served as minister after 1635. Gradually he became more vocal in his opinion that church and state needed to be completely separated. Forced religion, he argued, “Stinks in God’s nostrils.” Williams had other unusual views, but his most dangerous notion was his interpretation of determining who was saved and thus worthy of taking communion with others who were sanctified. Williams demanded ever-increasing evidence of a person’s salvation before taking communion with him—eventually to the point where he distrusted the salvation of his own wife. At that point, Williams completed the circle: no one, he argued, could determine who was saved and who was damned.
Because church membership was so finely intertwined with political rights, this created thorny problems. Williams argued that since no one could determine salvation, all had to be treated (for civil purposes) as if they were children of God, ignoring New Testament teaching on subjecting repeat offenders who were nevertheless thought to be believers to disfellowship, so as not to destroy the church body with the individual’s unrepentant sin. Such a position struck at the authority of Winthrop, the General Court, and the entire basis of citizenship in Massachusetts, and the magistrates in Boston could not tolerate Williams’s open rebellion for long. Other congregations started to exert economic pressure on Salem, alienating Williams from his own church. After weakening Williams sufficiently, the General Court gave him six weeks to depart the colony. Winthrop urged him to “steer my course to Narragansett Bay and the Indians.”89
Unable to stay, and encouraged to leave, in 1636 Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island, which the orthodox Puritans derisively called “Rogues Island” or “the sewer of New England.”90 After eight years, he obtained a charter from England establishing Rhode Island as a colony. Church and state were separated there and all religions—at least all Christian religions—tolerated. Williams’s influence on religious toleration was nevertheless minimal, and his halo, “ill fitting.” Only a year after Williams relocated, another prominent dissident moved to Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson, a mother of fifteen, arrived in Boston in 1631 with her husband, William (“a man of mild temper and weak parts, wholly guided by his wife,” deplored Winthrop). A follower of John Cotton, a local minister, Hutchinson gained influence as a Bible teacher, and she held prayer groups in her home. She embraced a potentially heretical religious position known as antinomianism, which held that there was no relationship between works and faith, and thus the saved had no obligation to follow church laws—only the moral judgment of the individual counted. Naturally, the colonial authorities saw in Hutchinson a threat to their authority, but in the broader picture she potentially opened the door to all sorts of civil mischief. In 1636, therefore, the General Court tried her for defaming the clergy—though not, as it might have, for a charge of heresy, which carried a penalty of death at the stake. A bright and clever woman, Hutchinson sparred with Winthrop and others until she all but confessed to hearing voices. The court evicted her from Massachusetts, and in 1637 she and some seventy-five supporters moved to Rhode Island. In 1643, Indians killed Hutchinson and most of her family.
Williams and Hutchinson had introduced particularly destructive doctrinal variants, including a thoroughgoing selfishness and rejection of doctrinal control by church hierarchies. Nevertheless, the experience of Hutchinson reaffirmed Rhode Island’s reputation as a colony of religious toleration. Confirming the reality of that toleration, a royal charter in 1663 stated, “No person . . . shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion [but that all] may from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments.” Rhode Island therefore led the way in establishing toleration as a principle, creating a type of “religious competition.”91 Quakers and Baptists were accepted. This was no small matter. In Massachusetts, religious deviants were expelled; and if they persisted upon returning, they faced flogging, having their tongues bored with hot irons, or even execution, as happened to four Quakers who were repeat violators. Yet the Puritans “made good everything Winthrop demanded.”92 They could have dominated the early state completely, but nevertheless gradually and voluntarily permitted the structures of government to be changed to the extent that they no longer controlled it.
Rhode Island, meanwhile, remained an island of religious refugees in a Puritan sea, as new Puritan settlers moved into the Connecticut River Valley in the 1630s, attracted by the region’s rich soil. Thomas Hooker, a Cambridge minister, headed a group of families who moved to an area some hundred miles southwest of Boston on the Connecticut River, establishing the town of Hartford in 1635; in 1638 a colony called New Haven was established on the coast across from Long Island as a new beacon of religious purity. In the Fundamental Articles of New Haven (1639), the New Haven community forged a closer state-church relationship than existed in Massachusetts, including tax support for ministers. In 1662 the English government issued a royal charter to the colony of Connecticut that incorporated New Haven, Hartford, Windsor, New London, and Middletown.
The Council for New England, meanwhile, had granted charters to still other lands north of Massachusetts: Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason received territory that comprised Maine and New Hampshire in 1629, although settlements had appeared throughout the region during the decade. Gorges acquired the Maine section, enlarged by a grant in 1639, and after battling claims from Massachusetts, Maine was declared a proprietary colony from 1677 to 1691, when it was joined to Massachusetts until admitted to the Union in 1820 as a state. Mason had taken the southern section (New Hampshire), which in 1679 became a royal province, with the governor and council appointed by the king and an assembly elected by the freemen.
Unique Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, and Quaker Pennsylvania
Sitting between Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas to the south and New England to the north was an assortment of colonies later known as the middle colonies. Over time, the grants that extended from Rhode Island to Maryland assumed a character that certainly was not Puritan, but did not share the slave-based economic systems of the South.
Part of the explanation for the differences in the region came from the early Dutch influence in the area of New Amsterdam. Following the explorations of Henry Hudson in 1609, the West India Company—already prominent in the West Indies—moved up the Hudson Valley and established Fort Orange in 1624 on the site of present-day Albany. Traveling to the mouth of the Hudson, the Dutch settled at a site called New Amsterdam, where the director of the company, Peter Minuit, consummated his legendary trade with the Indians, giving them blankets and other goods worth less than a hundred dollars in return for Manhattan.
The Dutch faced a problem much like that confronting the French: populating the land. To that end, the company’s charter authorized the grant of large acreages to anyone who would bring fifty settlers with him. Few large estates appeared, however. Governor Minuit lost his post in 1631, then returned to the Delaware River region with a group of Swedish settlers to found New Sweden. Despite the relatively powerful navy, the Dutch colonies lacked the steady flow of immigrants necessary to ensure effective defense against the other Europeans who soon reached their borders. The English offered the first, and last, threat to New Amsterdam.
Located between the northern and southern English colonies, the Dutch territory provided a haven to pirates and smugglers. King Charles II sought to eliminate the problem by granting to his brother, the Duke of York (later James II), all of the land between Maryland and Connecticut. A fleet dispatched in 1664 took New Amsterdam easily when the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, failed to mobilize the population of only fifteen hundred. The surrender generously permitted the Dutch to remain in the colony, but they were no match for the more numerous English, who renamed the city New York. James empowered a governor and council to administer the colony, and New York prospered. Despite a population mix that included Swedes, Dutch, Indians, English, Germans, French, and African slaves, New York enjoyed relative peace.
The Duke of York dispensed with some of his holdings between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, called New Jersey, giving the land to Sir George Carteret and John (Lord) Berkeley. New Jersey offered an attractive residence for oppressed, unorthodox Puritans because the colony established religious freedom, and land rights were made available as well. In 1674 the proprietors sold New Jersey to representatives of an even more unorthodox Christian group, the Society of Friends, called Quakers. Known for their social habits of refusing to tip their hats to landed gentlemen and for their nonviolence, the Quakers’ theology evolved from the teachings of George Fox. Their name came from Fox’s notion that they trembled only at the word of God (and were not to be confused with “Shakers,” who shook and contorted while in the throes of religious inspiration). Highly democratic in their church government, Quakers literally spoke in church as the Spirit moved them, and took action on issues only after obtaining a consensus at meetings.
William Penn, a wealthy landlord and son of an admiral, had joined the faith, putting him at odds with his father and jeopardizing his inheritance. But upon his father’s death, Penn inherited family lands in both England and Ireland, as well as a debt from King Charles II, which the monarch paid in a grant of territory located between New York and Maryland. Penn became proprietor and intended for the colony to make money. He advertised for settlers to migrate to Pennsylvania using multilingual newspaper ads that rival some of the slickest modern Madison Avenue productions. Penn also wanted to create a “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania, and during a visit to America in 1682 designed a spacious city for his colony called Philadelphia (brotherly love). Based on experience with the London fire of 1666, and the subsequent plan to rebuild the city, Penn laid out Philadelphia in squares with generous dimensions. An excellent organizer, Penn negotiated with the Indians, whom he treated with respect. His strategy of inviting all settlers brought talent and skills to the colony, and his treatment of the Indians averted any major conflict with them.
Penn retained complete power through his proprietorship, but in 1701, pressure, especially from the southern parts of the colony, persuaded him to agree to the Charter of Liberties. The charter provided for a representative assembly that limited the authority of the proprietor; permitted the lower areas to establish their own colony (which they did in 1703, when Delaware was formed); and ensured religious freedom.
Penn never profited from his proprietorship, and he served time in a debtors’ prison in England before his death in 1718. Still, his vision and managerial skill in creating Pennsylvania earned him high praise from a prominent historian of American business, J.R.T. Hughes, who observed that Penn rejected expedient considerations in favor of principle at every turn. His ideals, more than his business sense, reflected his “straightforward belief in man’s goodness, and in his abilities to know and understand the good, the true and beautiful.” Over the years, Pennsylvania’s Quakers would lead the charge in freeing slaves, establishing antislavery societies even in the South.
The Glorious Revolution in England and America, 1688–89
The epic story of the seventeenth-century founding and development of colonial America ended on a crucial note, with American reaction to England’s Glorious Revolution. The story of abuses of power by Stuart kings was well known to Americans. Massachusetts Puritans, after all, had fled the regime of Charles I, leaving brethren in England to wage the English Civil War. The return of a chastened Charles II from French exile in 1660 did not settle the conflict between Parliament and the king.
When James II ascended to the throne in 1685, he decided to single-handedly reorganize colonial administration. First, he violated constitutionalism and sanctity of contract by recalling the charters of all of the New England and Middle colonies—Massachusetts Bay, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey—and the compact colonies Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In 1686 he created the so-called Dominion of New England, a centralized political state that his appointee, Governor Edmund Andros, was to rule from Boston, its capital city. James’s plan for a Dominion of New England was a disaster from the start. Upon arrival, Andros dismissed the colonial legislatures, forbade town meetings, and announced he was taking personal command of the village militias. In reality, he did no such thing, never leaving the city limits of Boston.
In the meantime, the countryside erupted in a series of revolts called the colonial rebellions. In Maryland’s famed Protestant Revolt, discontented Protestants protested what they viewed as a Catholic oligarchy, and in New York, anti-Catholic sentiments figured in a revolt against the dominion of New England led by Jacob Leisler. Leisler’s Rebellion installed its namesake in the governorship for one year, in 1689. Soon, however, English officials arrived to restore their rule and hanged Leisler and his son-in-law, drawing-and-quartering them as the law of treason required. But Andros’s government was on its last leg. Upon hearing of the English Whigs’ victory over James II, colonials arrested him and put him on a ship bound for the mother country.
James II’s plans for restoring an all-powerful monarchy dissolved between 1685 and 1688. A fervent opposition had arisen among those calling themselves Whigs, a derogatory term meaning “outlaw” that James’s foes embraced with pride. There began a second English civil war of the seventeenth century—between Whigs and Tories—but this time there was little bloodshed. James was exiled while Parliament made arrangements with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, of the Dutch house of Orange, to take the crown. William and Mary ascended the throne of England in 1689, but only after agreeing to a contract, the Declaration of Rights. In this historic document, William and Mary confirmed that the monarch was not supreme but shared authority with the English legislature and the courts. Moreover, they acknowledged the House of Commons as the source of all revenue bills (the power of the purse) and agreed to acknowledge the rights to free speech and petition. Included were provisions requiring due process of law and forbidding excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, the Declaration of Rights Bill upheld the right of English Protestants to keep and bear arms, and forbade “standing armies in time of peace” unless by permission of Parliament. In the eyes of the Whigs, this document constituted a contract and a covenant between the government and the governed, laying the foundation for future “bills of rights” in American state constitutions.
The resemblance of this Declaration and Bill of Rights to the eighteenth-century American Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights is striking, and one could argue that the Americans were more radicalized by the Glorious Revolution than the English. In England, the Glorious Revolution was seen as an ending; in America, the hatred and distrust sown by the Stuart kings was reaped by subsequent monarchs, no matter how “constitutional” their regimes. Radical Whig ideas contained in the Glorious Revolution—the pronounced hatred of centralized political, religious, economic, and military authority—germinated in America long after they had subsided in England. But those ideas also drew strongly on the common law tradition, in which citizens had not only obligations but rights, and in which—since the law truly came from God through the people—the active working of a polity entailed a partnership (or a “social compact”) between the ruler and the governed.
By 1700, then, the early English colonies had developed a unique and distinct character far different from the European nations the inhabitants had left. These included: common law traditions, with ownership of property open to all (which no European country had); a predominantly Protestant heritage from the beginning (which no European country had); and a representative democracy from the outset (again, which no European state possessed); and a militia system that armed the population so that it could not only resist natives but overthrow or intimidate its own government when it became oppressive (virtually unknown in Europe) all contributed to an American “exceptionalism.”
In the last two decades, historians have desperately attempted to deny this American exceptionalism on two fronts. First, they have emphasized the European heritage of the immigrants, introducing a postmodern “global community” approach that sees nationalism as an antiquated vestige of the modern era. That approach completely ignores the fact that while any one European nation of origin may have had one or, at best, two of the above traits, none had all of them, and that in fact the United States from the beginning had novel and different traits that separated it from every other city-state, nation, or empire. Then, of course, there is the approach of the critics such as Howard Zinn in which the only thing exceptional about Americans is their ability to terrorize and wreak havoc on the world.93 Religion played a crucial role in not only the search for liberty, but also in the institutions designed to ensure its continuation. From the Mayflower Compact to the Charter of Liberties, colonists saw a close connection between religious freedom and personal liberty. This fostered a multiplicity of denominations, which, at a time when people literally killed over small differences in the interpretation of scripture, “made it necessary to seek a basis for political unity” outside the realm of religion.94 At the same time, the predominant Protestant flavor of the American colonies meant that there was a rejection of top-down authority, even among American Catholics. Yet non-Protestants from Europe tended to bring with them civil law—not common law—traditions with an autocratic religious structure, and the new bottom-up approach had to be learned.
A second factor, economic freedom—particularly that associated with land ownership—and the high value placed on labor throughout the American colonies formed the basis of a widespread agreement about the need to preserve private property rights. The early colonists came to the conclusion that the Indians’ view of land never could be harmonized with their own, and they understood that one view or the other had to prevail.95 They saw no inherent contradiction in taking land from people who did not accept European-style contracts while they continued to highly value their own property rights. Equally important, since the Indians did not embrace the same connection of property rights to liberty (i.e., property was what ultimately distinguished one from a slave), the English did not view them as having the same “natural (political) rights” as free men. With property open to all, class distinctions disappeared rapidly.
Finally, the English colonies developed political institutions similar to those in England, but with an increased awareness of the need for individuals to have protection from their governments. As that understanding of political rights percolated up through the colonial governments, the colonies themselves started to generate their own aura of independent policy-making processes, or what would later become known as “federalism.” Moreover, a distinct—and once again, “exceptional”—concept of citizenship appeared (made all the more ironic by the French Revolution’s later use of the term “citizen,” which had virtually none of the characteristics of true citizenship, including property ownership and political involvement). Even England lacked such civic participation and understanding of both obligations and rights for almost everyone. The American colonies also found that distance from England ensured that, barring significant British efforts to keep the colonies under the royal thumb, the colonies would construct their own self-reliant governments. And it was exactly that evolution that led them to independence.
Colonial Adolescence, 1707–63
The Inability to Remain European
England’s American colonies represented only a small part of the British Empire by the late 1700s, but their vast potential for land and agricultural wealth seemed limitless. Threats still remained, especially from the French in Canada and Indians on the frontier, but few colonists saw England herself as posing any threat at the beginning of the century. Repeatedly, English colonists stated their allegiance to the Crown and their affirmation of their own rights as English subjects. Even when conflicts arose between colonists and their colonial governors, Americans appealed to the king to enforce those rights against their colonial administrators—not depose them.
Between 1707 (when England, Scotland, and Wales formed the United Kingdom) and 1763, however, changes occurred within the empire itself that forced an overhaul of imperial regulations. The new policies convinced the thirteen American colonies that England did not see them as citizens, but as subjects—in the worst sense of the word. By attempting to foster dependence among British colonists throughout the world on each other and, ultimately, on the mother country, England only managed to pit America against other parts of the empire. At the same time, despite their disparate backgrounds and histories, the American colonies started to share a common set of understandings about liberty and their position in the empire. On every side, then, the colonies that eventually made up the United States began to develop internal unity and an independent attitude.
In Democracy in America, the brilliant French observer Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that a highly refined culture was unlikely to evolve in America, largely because of its “lowly” colonial origins. The “intermingling of classes and constant rising and sinking” of individuals in an egalitarian society, Tocqueville wrote, had a detrimental effect on the arts: painting, literature, music, theater, and education. In place of high or refined mores, Tocqueville concluded, Americans had built a democratic culture that was highly accessible but ultimately lacking in the brilliance that characterized European art forms.1
Certainly, some colonial Americans tried to emulate Europe, particularly when it came to creating institutions of higher learning. Harvard College, founded in 1636, was followed by William and Mary (Anglican, 1693), Yale (Congregational, 1701), Princeton (New Light Presbyterian, 1746), the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania, 1749), and—between 1764 and 1769—King’s College (Anglican, Columbia), Brown (Baptist), Queen’s College (Dutch Reformed, Rutgers), and Dartmouth (Congregational). America had rapidly caught the Europeans, where a state such as Germany only had a dozen major universities by mid-decade. And from the beginning, these schools differed sharply from their European progenitors in that they were founded by a variety of Protestant sects, not a state church, and though tied to religious denominations, they were nevertheless relatively secular. Harvard, for example, was founded to train clergy, and yet by the end of the colonial era only a quarter of its graduates became ministers; the rest pursued careers in business, law, medicine, politics, and teaching. A few schools, such as the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), led by the Reverend John Witherspoon, bucked the trend: Witherspoon transformed Princeton into a campus much more oriented toward religious and moral philosophy, all the while charging it with a powerful revolutionary fervor.2
Witherspoon’s Princeton was swimming against the tide, however. Not only were most curricula becoming more secular, but they were also more down to earth and “applied.” Colonial colleges slighted the dead languages Latin and Greek by introducing French and German; modern historical studies complemented and sometimes replaced ancient history. The proliferation of colleges (nine in America) meant access for more middle-class youths (such as John Adams, a Massachusetts farm boy who studied at Harvard). To complete this democratization process, appointed boards of trustees, not the faculty or the church, governed American universities.
Early American science also reflected the struggles faced by those who sought a more pragmatic knowledge. For example, John Winthrop Jr., the son of the Massachusetts founder, struggled in vain to conduct pure research and bring his scientific career to the attention of the European intellectual community. As the first American member of the Royal Society of London, Winthrop wrote countless letters abroad and even sent specimens of rattlesnakes and other indigenous American flora and fauna, which received barely a passing glance from European scientists. More successful was Benjamin Franklin, the American scientist who applied his research in meteorology and electricity to invent the lightning rod, as well as bifocals and the Franklin Stove. Americans wanted the kind of science that would heat their homes and improve their eyesight, not explain the origins of life in the universe.
In many ways, Franklin (1706–1790) became the face of America in pre-Revolutionary times. His scientific experiments were well-known in Europe, where Jacques Turgot gushed, “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants.” Later, though, as a diplomat, he played on French perceptions of him as a half-bumpkin, half-aristocrat to cultivate favors and funds. Apprenticed to his brother in the printing trade at age twelve, he learned the business and wrote under a pseudonym (“Mrs. Silence Dogood”). He worked his way up the printing trade in the early 1700s, ultimately publishing The Philadelphia Gazette, and became a successful author with Poor Richard’s Almanac, first published in 1733. Poor Richard’s Almanac was a simply written magazine featuring weather forecasts, crop advice, predictions and premonitions, witticisms, and folksy advice on how to succeed and live virtuously.3
His print business and book sales made him wealthy; at one time, Franklin made an annual income of two thousand pounds sterling—when the wealthiest attorney in Philadelphia made only twenty pounds per year—despite the fact that he refused to patent his many inventions. Upon retiring from printing in 1748, Franklin pursued science, music, oceanography, chess, and other endeavors before being drawn inexorably into politics. Although he hoped for a peaceful solution with England, his publication of the letters of Thomas Hutchinson in 1773, advocating a crackdown on the Bostonians, fueled colonial indignation.4
In part, Franklin’s legend lived on well after that of other Founders because his Autobiography became a classic example of the American penchant for pragmatic literature that continues to this day.5 He wrote his autobiography during the pre-Revolutionary era, though it was not published until the nineteenth century. Several generations of American schoolchildren grew up on the tales of his youthful adventures and early career, culminating with his gaining fame as a Pennsylvania printer, writer, scientist, diplomat, and patriot politician. Franklin’s “13 Virtues”—Honesty, Thrift, Devotion, Faithfulness, Trust, Courtesy, Cleanliness, Temperance, Work, Humility, and so on—constituted a list of personal traits aspired to by virtually every Puritan, Quaker, or Catholic in the colonies. Franklin’s saga thereby became the first major work in a literary genre that would define Americanism—the rags-to-riches story and the self-improvement guide rolled into one.
Singlehandedly, Franklin seemed to prove wrong French intellectual Abbe Raynal who in 1770 would write, “America has not yet produced a good poet, an able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.”6 (Jefferson, it should be noted, was already an accomplished biologist and botanist.) Franklin, whether through practical science, homespun advice in Poor Richard’s, or his humble origins, emerged as one of the best-known and most admired Americans. Commoners could relate to him, foreigners respected him, and most American leaders appreciated him, though he made notable enemies in his lifetime. The practicality he exhibited typified American colonial art, architecture, drama, and music spawned in a frontier environment.
Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the great painter Benjamin West, Franklin’s friend, painted the great scientist holding his key on a kite line during an electrical storm. Like West, most artists found their only market for paintings in portraiture and, later, patriot art. Talented painters like John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West made their living painting the likenesses of colonial merchants, planters, and their families; eventually both sailed for Europe to pursue purer artistic endeavors. American architecture never soared to magnificence, though a few public buildings, colleges, churches, and private homes reflected an aesthetic influenced by classical motifs and Georgian styles. Drama, too, struggled. Puritan Massachusetts prohibited theater shows (the “Devil’s Workshop”), whereas thespians in Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Charleston performed amateurish productions of Shakespeare and contemporary English dramas. Not until Royall Tyler tapped the patriot theme (and the comic potential of the Yankee archetype) in his 1789 production of The Contrast would American playwrights finally discover their niche, somewhere between high and low art.
In eighteenth century Charleston, Boston, and Philadelphia, the upper classes could occasionally hear Handel and Mozart performed by professional orchestras. Most musical endeavor, however, was applied to religion, where church hymns were sung a cappella and, occasionally, to the accompaniment of a church organ. Americans customized and syncopated hymns, greatly aggravating pious English churchmen. Reflecting the most predominant musical influence in colonial America, the folk idiom of Anglo, Celtic, and African emigrants, American music already had coalesced into a base upon which new genres of church and secular music—gospel, field songs, and white folk ballads—would ultimately emerge and could be found in the surviving sheet music of many Founders.
Colonial literature likewise focused on religion or otherwise addressed the needs of common folk. This pattern was set with Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which related the exciting story of the Pilgrims with an eye to the all-powerful role of God in shaping their destiny. Anne Bradstreet, an accomplished seventeenth-century colonial poet who continued to be popular after her death, also conveyed religious themes and emphasized divine inspiration of human events. Although literacy was widespread, Americans read mainly the Bible, political tracts, and how-to books on farming, mechanics, and moral improvement—not Greek philosophers or the campaigns of Caesar. In short, the American culture that developed was quite different from England’s.
Common Life in the Early Eighteenth Century
Life in colonial America was as coarse as the physical environment in which it flourished, so much so that English visitors expressed shock at the extent to which emigrants had been transformed in the new world. Many Americans lived in one-room farmhouses, heated only by a Franklin stove, with clothes hung on wall pegs and few furnishings. “Father’s chair” was often the only genuine chair in a home, with children relegated to rough benches or to rugs thrown on the wooden floors.
This rugged lifestyle was routinely misunderstood by visitors as “Indianization,” yet in most cases, the process was subtle. Trappers had already adopted moccasins, buckskins, and furs, and adapted Indian methods of hauling hides or goods over rough terrain with the travois, a triangular-shaped and easily constructed sled pulled by a single horse. Indians, likewise, adopted white tools, firearms, alcohol, and even accepted English religion, making the acculturation process entirely reciprocal. Non-Indians incorporated Indian words (especially proper names) into American English and adopted aspects of Indian material culture. They smoked tobacco, grew and ate squash and beans, dried venison into jerky, boiled lobsters and served them up with wild rice or potatoes on the side. British-Americans cleared heavily forested land by girdling trees, then slashing and burning the dead timber—practices picked up from the Indians, despite the myth of the ecologically friendly natives.7 Whites copied Indians in traveling via snowshoes, bullboat, and dugout canoe. And, as noted, colonial Americans learned quickly—through harsh experience—how to fight like the Indians when circumstances called for it.8
Even while Indianizing their language, British colonists also adopted French, Spanish, German, Dutch, and African words from areas where those languages were spoken, creating still new regional accents that evolved in New England and the southern tidewater. Environment also influenced accents, producing the flat, unmelodic, understated, and functional midland American drawl that Europeans found incomprehensible. Americans prided themselves on innovative spellings, stripping the excess baggage off English words, exchanging “color” for “colour,” “labor” for “labour,” or otherwise respelled words in harder American syllables, as in “theater” for “theatre.” This new brand of English was so different that around the time of the American Revolution, a young New Englander named Noah Webster began work on a dictionary of American English, which he completed in 1828.
Only a small number of colonial Americans went on to college (often in Great Britain), but increasing numbers studied at public and private elementary schools, raising the most literate population on earth. The intent was to have localities pay for schools, which would instruct children in the “basics” of mathematics, grammar, and history.9 Americans’ literacy was widespread, but it was not deep or profound. Most folks read a little and not much more. In response, a new form of publishing arose to meet the demands of this vast, but minimally literate, populace: the newspaper. Early newspapers came in the form of broadsides, usually distributed and posted in the lobby of an inn or saloon where one of the more literate colonials would proceed to read a story aloud for the dining or drinking clientele. Others would chime in with editorial comments during the reading, making for a truly democratic and interactive forum.10 Colonial newspapers contained a certain amount of local information about fires, public drunkenness, arrests, and political events, more closely resembling today’s National Enquirer than the New York Times.
Americans’ fascination with light or practical reading meant that hardback books, treatises, and the classics—the mainstay of European booksellers—were replaced by cheaply bound tracts, pamphlets, almanacs, and magazines. Those Americans interested in political affairs displayed a hearty appetite for plainly written radical Whig political tracts that emphasized the legislative authority over that of an executive, and that touted the participation of free landholders in government. And, of course, the Bible was found in nearly every cottage.
Democratization extended to the professions of law and medicine—subsequently, some would argue, deprofessionalizing them. Unlike British lawyers, who were formally trained in English courts and then compartmentalized into numerous specialties, American barristers learned on the job and engaged in general legal practices. The average American attorney served a brief, informal apprenticeship; bought three or four good law books (enough to fill two saddlebags, it was said); and then, literally, hung out his shingle. If he lacked legal skills and acumen, the free market would soon seal his demise.11
Unless schooled in Europe, colonial physicians and midwives learned on the job, with limited supervision. Once on their own they knew no specialization; surgery, pharmacy, midwifery, dentistry, spinal adjustment, folk medicine, and quackery were all characteristic of democratized professional medical practitioners flourishing in a free market.12 In each case, the professions reflected the American insistence that their tools—law, medicine, literature—emphasize application over theory.
A similar approach was taken toward sex. By the 1780s, up to one third of all New England brides were already pregnant, but almost all got married, with pregnancy “simply accelerat[ing] a marriage that would have taken place in any case, but community and parental pressure worked strongly to assure it.”13
Religion’s First Great Awakening
A free market of ideas benefited American colonists in religion too. Affairs of the spirit in the English colonies, where religion was varied, unregulated, and enthusiastic, differed from those of the mother country, with its formality and stiffness. Sects multiplied, split apart into new divisions, and multiplied some more, due in part to the Protestant/Puritan emphasis on individual Bible reading and in part because of the congregational nature of the churches. Although Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut, and Massachusetts retained official churches in varying degrees, the decentralization of religious denominations made them impossible to control. American Baptist ministers, for example, required no formal training in theology, much less a formal degree in divinity, to preach the Gospel. Instead, they were “called” to the pulpit, as were many new Methodists, radical Presbyterians, and other enthusiastic men of God. Both the presbytery system, which constituted a top-down hierarchical structure, and the Baptists’ congregational organization of churches (a bottom-up arrangement) met different needs of saint and sinner alike, all the while rejecting Anglican hierarchical control.14 American preachers displayed a thorough anti-intellectual bent in which sermons replaced written lectures with a down-home, oratorical religious style. Itinerant preachers roamed New England, western Pennsylvania, and the Piedmont and Appalachian frontiers, spreading the Word.15
A major source of what Americans today call old-time religion originated in the First Great Awakening work of clergymen Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. At first glance, Edwards seems an unlikely candidate for delivering fire and brimstone sermons. Born in Connecticut in 1703, the third-generation Puritan was a brilliant, deep-thinking philosopher and theologian. After his 1720 graduation from Yale, he coupled a rational defense of biblical doctrine with a profoundly mystical teaching style that his Presbyterian parishioners found compelling. More broadly, Edwards reflected the New England Puritanism that marked its practitioners as “the most advanced reformers of the Anglo-colonial world.”16 Edwards and others inspired unprecedented religious fervor in Massachusetts in 1735 that affected political thought. Neither fully democratic nor authoritarian, the Puritanism of Edwards’s day reflected an involved public of, well, revolutionaries.
When English Methodist George Whitefield—as much a showman as preacher—arrived on American shores in 1741, American ministers had already seeded the ground for the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening. Essentially, this movement was characterized by tremendous religious growth and enthusiasm, the first such upsurge since the original Puritan migration a hundred years earlier. As the waves of the awakening spanned America’s eastern shore, church attendance soared and ministers like Edwards and Whitefield hosted open air camp meetings to exhort true believers to accept the Lord and avoid the flames of hell. Throughout the Connecticut River Valley thousands flocked to the glow of this New Light Christianity, as it was called, camping out in the open air and enjoying the fellowship of their fellow devotees.
George Whitefield’s dramatic preaching both frightened and inspired his audiences. Literally acting out biblical stories on stage, playing each of the major parts himself, Whitefield voiced the word of God to sinners. His impersonation of Satan and descriptions of the horrors of hell terrified audiences and evidently gave them much to think about. Edwards called this tactic “salutary terror.” His most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), remains a fire-and-brimstone classic in which he warned sinners that “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect.”17 The climax of any Whitefield/Edwards sermon was salvation. Parishioners came forward in tears and humility, confessing their sins and swearing to begin life anew as saved Christians. Thus, out of the old Calvinist tradition of saving grace, came a more modern, public, and theatrical American outpouring of religious emotion that remains common today, which elicited no small degree of condemnation from traditionalists.18
By the late 1740s, the Great Awakening began to fade. Even Jonathan Edwards fell into disfavor and withdrew as a recluse to a small congregation of pioneers and Indians in western Massachusetts. Yet the First Great Awakening left an indelible legacy by further diffusing and decentralizing church authority. It fathered new Protestant sects—Baptist, Methodist, and New Light Presbyterian movements—and enhanced the role of the independent itinerant preachers. Like American doctors and lawyers, the clergy grew less intellectual and more pragmatic. Saving souls was more important to them than preaching doctrine, and a college education in theology became optional if not irrelevant or even, later, an impediment to sound doctrine. All of this fit perfectly into the large antiauthoritarian pattern in colonial America, giving the First Great Awakening a political as well as a social impact.
Finally, the First Great Awakening foreshadowed another religious movement—a movement that would, during the first half of the nineteenth century, echo and supersede the first crusade’s fervency. The Second Great Awakening that followed gave birth to abolitionism as the true believers of the Second Great Awakening added slavery to their list of man’s sins and, in fact, moved it to the top of the list.
The Origins and Evolution of Slavery in America
By the time the English settled in North America, slaves in the New World included Europeans, Indians, and a handful of Muslim captives taken by the Spanish in the Mediterranean. In Barbados in 1640, out of about 25,000 slaves, 21,000 were whites who had been kidnapped in England. Oliver Cromwell alone shipped an estimated 100,000 Irish to the West Indies during his reign.19 Indian slavery, especially in New Spain, Central America, and South America, was common in the New World, but Indians and Muslim captives proved difficult to control, and Indians—who often knew the surrounding territory—could escape easily. What is undeniable is that slavery was commonplace worldwide and that in the Middle East the majority of slaves were Europeans, and it did not fully disappear in China until 1949.20
In the British American colonies, particularly the seventeenth-century American South, African slavery evolved slowly.21 White indentured servitude was routine: indenture contracts were transferrable, irrevocable, inheritable, and entirely flexible when it came to extending their length for the slightest provocation. The service of whites to Berkeley’s Hundred in Virginia was deemed “perpetual” by agriculture historian Lewis Gray.22 Virginia Statutes allowed commissioners to punish runaway indentures with doubling their time of service or extending it even more if deemed appropriate (Barbados’s statutes added one year to an indenture for every hour he was missing).23 Those Englishmen in bondage did not refer to themselves as “indentures,” but “slaves.” Moreover, the records of English transports for white slaves suggested their survival rate in the early 1600s was little better than that of Africans a century later, and the historian of Pennsylvania’s indenture reported that the mortality rate for white servants at certain times exceeded that of slaves in the “Middle Passage.”24
White Virginians did not come to America with the intention of owning either English or African slaves, yet that was precisely what they did. Between 1619 and 1707 slavery slowly became entrenched and thereafter became almost entirely racial in its character. Before then, the lines were muddled; until 1670, black Virginians could own white slaves, and as late as 1860, black Virginia and South Carolina freedmen owned African slaves.25 Opportunities in the economically diverse Northeast proved much more attractive to immigrants than the staple-crop agriculture of Virginia and the Carolinas, making for permanent labor shortages in the South. Increasingly, it became more difficult to persuade white indentured servants or Indian workers to harvest the labor-intensive tobacco and rice crops. This was hard physical labor best performed in gang systems under the supervision of an overseer.
Yet why did tobacco and rice planters specifically turn to African slaves? In retrospect, one must conclude that Africans were more vulnerable to enslavement than white indentured servants and Indians. The African Gold Coast was open to exploitation by European sea powers and already had a flourishing slave trade with the Muslims. This trade was far more extensive than previously thought, and involved far more Europeans than earlier scholars had acknowledged.26 Thanks to this existing trade in human flesh, there were already ample precedents of black slavery and structures to manage it in the British West Indies. More important, those African slaves shipped to North America truly became captives. They did not (initially) speak English, Spanish, French, or Indian language and could not communicate effectively outside their plantations. Even before they were shipped across the Atlantic, traders mixed slaves by tribe and language with others with whom they shared nothing in common except skin color, isolating them further. The first generation of slave captives thus became extremely demoralized, and rebellion became infrequent, even as the paranoia over slave revolts constantly gripped plantation whites.
How could these English colonists, so steeped in the Enlightenment principles of liberty and constitutionalism, enslave other human beings? The answer is harsh and simple: British colonists convinced themselves that Africans were not really human beings in the same manner that they themselves were. Rather, they were property—and thus legitimate subjects for enslavement within the framework of English liberty. Into English folk belief was interwoven fear of the color black, associating blackness with witchcraft and evil, while so-called scientists in Europe argued that blacks were an inferior species of humans. English ministers abused the Bible, misinterpreting stories of Cain and Abel and Noah’s son Ham, to argue for separate creation and an alleged God-imposed inferiority on blacks as the “curse of Ham.”27 When combined with perceived economic necessity, English racism and rationalization for enslavement of African people became entrenched.28
Black slavery’s institutionalization began in Virginia in 1619 when a small group of black slaves arrived. The term “slave” did not appear in Virginia law for fifty years, and there is evidence that even the earliest Africans brought over against their will were viewed by some as indentures. Free blacks were identified in public records as early as 1621, and of the three hundred Africans recorded as living in the South through 1640, many gained freedom through expiration of indenture contracts. Some free blacks soon became landholders, planters, and even slaveholders themselves, and one was elected to the Maryland legislature. But at some point in the mid-seventeenth century, the process whereby all blacks were presumed to be slaves took root, and this transformation is still not well understood. Attempts by scholars such as Peter Kolchin to isolate race begs the question of why whites permitted any blacks to be free, whereas Edmund Morgan’s explanation of slavery stemming from efforts by poor whites to create another class under them is also unpersuasive.29 However it occurred, by 1676, widespread legalized slavery appeared in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, and within thirty years, slavery was an established economic institution throughout the southern and, to a much smaller degree, northern American colonies.30
English, Dutch, and New England merchant seamen traded in human flesh. West African intertribal warfare produced abundant prisoners of war to fuel this trade. Prisoners found themselves branded and boarded onto vessels of the Royal African Company and other slavers. On the ships, slaves were shackled together and packed tight in the hold—eating, sleeping, vomiting, and defecating while chained in place. The arduous voyage of three weeks to three months was characterized by a 16 percent mortality rate and, occasionally, involved suicides and mutinies. Finally, at trip’s end, the slavers delivered their prisoners on the shores of America.
Every American colony’s legislators enacted laws called black codes to govern what some would later call America’s Peculiar Institution. These codes defined African Americans as chattels personal—moveable personal property—not as human beings, and as such slaves could not testify against whites in court, nor could they be killed for most capital crimes (they were too valuable). Black codes forbade slave literacy, gun or dog ownership, travel (excepting special travel permits), gatherings numbering more than six slaves, and sex between black males and white women (miscegenation). However, as the development of a large mulatto population attests, white men were obviously free to have sex with—or, more often, rape—black women. All of the above laws were open to broad interpretation and variation, especially in northern colonies. This fact did not alter the overall authoritarian and inherently brutal structure of the peculiar institution.31
The vast majority of slaves in the New World worked in either Virginia tobacco fields or South Carolina rice plantations. Rice plantations constituted the worst possible fate, for Carolina lowlands proved to be a hot, humid, and horrible work environment, replete with swarms of insects and innumerable species of worms. Huge all-male Carolina work forces died at extraordinary rates. Conditions were so bad that a few Carolina slaves revolted against their masters in the Cato Conspiracy (1739), which saw seventy-five slaves kill thirty whites before fleeing to Spanish Florida; white militiamen soon killed forty-four of the revolutionaries. A year later, whites hanged another fifty blacks for supposedly planning insurrection in the infamous Charleston Plot.
Slave revolts and runaways proved exceptions to the rule. Most black slaves endured their fate in stoic and heroic fashion by creating a lifestyle that sustained them and their will to endure slavery. In the slave quarters, blacks returned from the fields each day to their families, church and religion, and a unique folk culture, with music, dance, medicine, folktales, and other traditional lore. Blacks combined African customs with Anglo- and Celtic-American traits to create a unique African American folk culture. Although this culture did not thoroughly emerge until the nineteenth century, it started to take shape in the decades before the American Revolution. African American traditions, music, and a profound belief in Christianity helped the slaves survive and sustained their hopes for “a better day a comin’.”
Although the institution of slavery thoroughly insinuated itself into southern life and culture in the 1600s, it took the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s to fully entrench the peculiar institution. Tobacco and rice, important as they were, paled in comparison to the impact of cotton agriculture on the phenomenal growth of slavery, but the tortured political and religious rationales for slavery had matured well before then, making its entrenchment a certainty in the South.32
A few statistics clarify these generalizations. By the mid-1700s, Americans imported approximately seven thousand slaves from Africa and the Caribbean annually. Some 40 percent of Virginians and 66 percent of all South Carolinians in 1835 were black. Of these, probably 95 percent were slaves. By 1763, between 15 and 20 percent of all Americans were African Americans, free and slave—a larger per capita black population than in modern-day America. Yet 90 percent of all these African Americans resided south of the Pennsylvania line. Northern slavery, always small because of the absence of a staple crop, was shriveling, its death accelerated by northern reformers who passed manumission acts beginning late in the 1700s, and by the formation in 1775 of the world’s first abolitionist group, the Quaker Anti-Slavery Society by Pennsylvania Quakers, a full eight years before the famed William Wilberforce in England began his antislavery crusade. Other Northerners routinely freed their slaves or allowed them to buy their own freedom, so that by 1830 there were only three thousand slaves left in all of the North, compared to more than two million in the South.33 When individual initiative did not suffice, Northerners employed the law. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first large-scale prohibition of slavery by a major nation in history, would forbid slavery above the Ohio River, and the Constitution would allow abolition of the slave trade by 1807.34
Some Northerners envisioned, and prayed for, an end to American slavery, as did a small number of Southerners. George Washington would free all of his slaves following his death; Jefferson and Madison would not. They privately decried slavery as a “necessary evil”—something their fathers and they had come to depend upon, but not something they were proud of or aimed to perpetuate.35 Jefferson’s commitment to ending slavery may be more suspect than Washington’s or, certainly, Franklin’s, and evidence suggests that Jefferson would have been close to bankrupt if he had freed his slaves. But virtually all of these men believed that slavery would some day end, and often they delayed confronting it in hopes that it would just go away. Until the invention of the cotton gin, their hope was not necessarily a futile one. After the advent of the Cotton Kingdom, however, increasingly fewer Southerners criticized slavery, and the pervading philosophy about it slowly shifted from its presence as a necessary evil to a belief that slavery was a positive good.
Unlike the Puritans, who wanted to create a “city on a hill,” or the Virginia Company, which sought profit, the founders of Georgia acted out of concern for Spanish power in the southern area of America. Although Queen Anne’s War ended in 1713, Spain still represented a significant threat to the Carolinas. General James Oglethorpe, a military hero, also had a philanthropic bent. He had headed an investigation of prisons and expressed special concern for debtors, who by English law could be incarcerated for their obligations. If he could open a settlement south of the Carolinas, he could offer a new start to poor English and settle a region that could stand as a buffer to Spanish power.
In 1732, Oglethorpe received a grant from King George II for land between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers. Oglethorpe and his trustees deliberately limited the size of the landholdings to encourage density and, thus, better defense. Debtors and prisoners were released on the condition that they emigrate to Georgia; they helped found the first fortified town on the Savannah River in 1733. The trustees, though, had planned well by encouraging artisans, tradesmen, farmers, and other skilled workers from England and Scotland to emigrate. In addition, they welcomed all religious refugees—to the point of allowing a small group of Jews to locate in Georgia—except Catholics, fearing they might ally with the Spanish.
Within a decade, Britain’s fears of Spanish aggression proved well founded. The European War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) spawned conflict in the Western Hemisphere when Spain and France allied with Indian tribes to attack the British. During the 1739–42 War of Jenkins’s Ear, General Oglethorpe led Georgians and South Carolinians into Spanish Florida to thwart a Spanish invasion. They enjoyed mixed success but failed to wrest Saint Augustine from Spain. Despite limited military success, Oglethorpe soon found that his colonists wanted to limit his power. Former convicts actively opposed his ban of rum (sobriety, they believed, would not expedite their rehabilitation!). Planters chafed at his prohibition of slavery. In 1750, Georgians repealed the ban on slavery, importing nearly ten thousand Africans by 1770. One year before its original charter expired, Oglethorpe’s group surrendered control and Georgia became a Royal colony.
With the stabilization of Georgia as the thirteenth American colony, the final American adjustment to empire was complete. Britain’s colonies spanned the entire Atlantic seaboard, and the system appeared relatively sound. At the same time, on paper, the mercantile apparatus of the 1600s seemed to function satisfactorily. The king and Parliament handed down laws to the secretary of state who, with the Board of Trade, issued orders for commerce and governance of the New World. Britain deployed a small network of royal governors, officials, and trade and customs officers who were directed to carry out these laws.
Ultimately, it would be up to these officials to prevent the American Revolution—a challenge well beyond them. The most common thread that connected the British colonies was their governmental structure: eleven colonies had an appointed council and elected assembly (with the franchise, or voting rights, bestowed on adult white male property owners); ten colonies had a governor selected by the king, in the case of a royal colony, or by the directors of the joint-stock company. The legislators’ right to vote on taxes, the governor’s salary, and all other revenue measures—the coveted power of the purse—constituted a central part of the rights of Englishmen the colonists enjoyed. Thus, citizens took even relatively minor local levies as serious business. As they grew more prosperous, wealth permeated through the greater part of the body politic, making inevitable the ascendancy of the legislative bodies over the executives. Despite resistance from the governors, virtually all the American colonies in 1770 had seen the elected legislative bodies supersede the governors’ offices, wresting almost all important decision-making power from the king’s proxies.36
American Whigs clung to (and radicalized) a distrust of power that Puritans had displayed in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Colonists distrusted appointed governors and held them at bay with the economic power of the lower house of the legislature and its budgetary/appropriation powers. If a governor proved uncooperative, the legislature might hold back his salary to foster compromise. Separated from the mother country by three thousand miles and beholden to the legislatures for their pay, most governors learned how to deal with the provincials on their own terms. But colonial governments were not balanced governments in any sense. Elected representatives commanded disproportionate power, rather than the equal balance of power between branches that English Whigs desired. At the same time, a separation of powers was clearly visible, if imperfectly weighted in favor of the legislature.
Continued clashes between colonial legislators and governors picked by the Crown only heralded a larger dissatisfaction among Americans with their position in the empire. Three factors fueled their growing discomfort with English rule. First, there was the tenuous nature of imperial holdings themselves: overseas possessions required constant protection and defense against foreign threats, especially those posed by the French. Not only did Britain have to maintain a large, well-equipped navy capable of extending English power to all areas of the globe, but colonial settlements also needed troops to defend against natives and encroachments from other nations’ colonies. A nation as small as England could not hope to protect its possessions with English soldiers alone: it needed conscripts or volunteers from the colonies themselves. Even so, the cost of supporting such far-flung operations, even in peacetime, was substantial. In wartime, the expense of maintaining armies overseas soared still further. Attempts to spread that expense to the colonists themselves without extending to them representation in England soon bred animosity in the North American colonies.
A second factor, already evident in Bacon’s Rebellion, involved a growing difference between Americans and Englishmen caused by the physical separation of the English colonists from the motherland in both distance and time. In the case of America, absence did not make the heart grow fonder. Instead, the colonists started to see themselves differently—not as Americans, to be sure, but as Virginians, Georgians, and so on.37
The final source of unrest originated in the flawed nature of mercantilism itself. Mercantilist doctrine demanded that the individual subordinate his economic activity to the interests of the state. Such an attitude may have been practicable in Rome or in Charlemagne’s empire; but the ideas of the Enlightenment soon gave Americans the intellectual basis for insisting that individuals could pursue wealth for themselves, and give the state only its fair share. It did not help the English that mercantilism was based on a conceptual framework that saw wealth as fixed and limited, meaning that for the government to get more wealth, individuals had to receive less of the fruit of their own labor.38
After the Glorious Revolution, the English government failed to develop a cohesive or coherent policy for administering the colonies, even though by 1754 there were eight colonies under the authority of royal governors. The British utilized a series of laws collectively called the Navigation Acts (originated in 1651 as a restriction against trading with the Dutch), which placed regulations on goods manufactured or grown within the empire. Various acts provided subsidies for sugar, molasses, cotton, or other agricultural items, but only if they were grown in an approved colony. The British West Indies, for example, were to produce sugar, and any other colony attempting to grow sugar cane faced penalties or taxes. Britain hoped to foster interdependence among the colonies with such policies, forcing New England to get its sugar from the British West Indies, cotton from India, and so on. Above all, the Navigation Acts were intended to make all the colonies dependent on England for manufactured goods and English currency, and thus they prohibited or inhibited production of iron ore or the printing of money.39 As the governor of New York revealed in a letter to the Board of Trade, all governors were commanded to “discourage all Manufactures, and to give accurate accounts [of manufacturing] with a view to their suppression.”40
Having the state pick winners and losers in the fields of enterprise proved disastrous, and not merely because it antagonized the Americans. The Board of Trade, desperate to boost shipbuilding, paid subsidies for products such as pitch, tar, rosin, hemp, and other seafaring-related products to reduce Britain’s reliance on Europe. As production in the colonies rose, prices for shipbuilding basics fell, encouraging fishing and shipping industries that none of the other colonies had. Not only did a government-controlled economy fail to keep the colonials pacified, but it also unwittingly gave them the very means they eventually needed to wage an effective war against the mother country.
Americans especially came to despise regulations that threatened the further development of America’s thriving merchant trade in the port cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. Those urban centers had sprouted a sturdy population of aspiring merchants, self-employed artisans, and laborers, perhaps one in ten of whom were criminals, leading William Byrd II to instruct an English friend in 1751, “Keep all your felons at home.”41 In the country and on the frontier, farmers and planters exported surplus produce. Traders at the top favored the regulations because they allowed them to freeze out aspiring competitors, but producers and consumers disliked the laws, and they were swiftly becoming the majority.
But even by clinging to the outmoded mercantilist structure, entrepreneurs in places like Philadelphia found that nothing could stem the advance of more energetic people with better products or ideas. In Philadelphia, “Opportunity, enterprise, and adversity reinforced each other. A young business man could borrow money and move into trade, challenging the commercial position of older, more established merchants. His opportunity was . . . their adversity.”42 The rich got richer, but so too did the poor and a large middle class. All Americans except slaves were energized by the emergent global economy. In this new economy, raw materials from the American frontier—furs, fish, naval stores, tobacco, lumber, livestock, grain—moved to American port cities and then east and south across the Atlantic in sailing ships.43 In return, manufactured goods and slaves flowed to America over the same routes. Americans prospered from this booming economy, witnessing unprecedented growth to the extent that on the eve of the Revolution, colonists had per capita annual incomes of $720 in 1991 dollars, putting these people of two hundred years ago “on a par with the privately held wealth of citizens in modern-day Mexico or Turkey.”44
The conflict lay in the fact that, in direct violation of British mercantile policy, Americans traded with both French and Spanish colonies. Large quantities of wine and salt came from Spain’s Madeira Islands, and molasses, gold coin, and slaves came from the French Caribbean colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Great Britain was engaged in war against France and Spain throughout the eighteenth century, making this illicit trade, quite literally, treasonous. Yet that trade grew, despite its illegality and renewed British efforts to put teeth in the Navigation Acts.
Enforcement of British trade policies should have fallen to the Board of Trade, but in practice, two administrative bodies—the king’s Privy Council and the admiralty courts—carried out actual administration of the laws. Admiralty courts almost exclusively dealt with the most common violation, smuggling by sea. But like any crime statistics, the records of the courts reflect only those caught and prosecuted, and they fail to measure the effort put into enforcement itself. Smuggling made heroes out of otherwise obnoxious pirates, turning bloodthirsty cutthroats into brave entrepreneurs. Moreover, the American colonies, in terms of their size, population, and economic contribution to the empire, represented a relatively minor part of it, meaning that prior to 1750 most acts were designed with the larger and more important possessions in mind. A critical, yet little-noticed, difference existed between America and the other colonies, however. Whereas in India, for example, British-born officials and troops constituted a tiny minority that dominated a huge native population, in America British-born subjects or their descendants accounted for the vast majority of the nonslave, non-Indian population, and all of them had been inculcated with a sense of “rights of Englishmen.”
Another factor working against a successful economic royal policy was the poor quality of royal officials and royal governors. Assignment in America was viewed as a less desirable post than, say, the British West Indies, Madras (India), or even Nova Scotia. These colonies were more “British,” with amenities and a lifestyle stemming from a stronger military presence and locations on major trade routes.
Colonial governorships offered havens for corrupt officials and royal cronies, such as New York governor Lord Cornbury, a cousin of Queen Anne, who was a dishonest transvestite who warranted “the universal contempt of the people.”45 Sir Danvers Osborn, the most mentally fragile of the colonial governors, hanged himself after one week in America.46
When governors and other officials of the empire, such as tax collectors and naval officers, administered the laws, they did so with considerable laxity, waiving or reducing duties in cases of friendship or outright bribery (which was widespread because of the low pay of the administrators). For the most part, the administrators approached the Navigation Acts with a policy of salutary or benign neglect, postponing any serious harms contained in the taxes until the laws were enforced in the future. This process of benign neglect may well have continued indefinitely had a critical event not forced a change in the enforcement of the laws: the last of the colonial wars, the French and Indian War.
Franco-British Warfare, 1689–1748
Tensions between England, France, and Spain led to several European conflicts with American theaters. In America, King William’s War (1689–97), Queen Anne’s War (1701–13), the War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739–42), King George’s War (1744–48), and the French and Indian War (1756–63) served as provincial mirrors of European rivalry. The first two conflicts saw fierce fighting in both the southern and northern colonies, from the Caribbean to Canada. In the South, Spain allied with France to fight British sailors and soldiers over the contested lands lying between the Carolinas and Florida (Georgia was not yet a colony). The northern theater of King William’s and Queen Anne’s wars saw naval and land forces clash throughout the Atlantic maritime region—the modern-day Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and the American states of New York and Maine. The St. Lawrence River Valley outpost of Quebec and the Atlantic coastal towns of Louisbourg, Falmouth, and Port Royal became coveted prizes in both of these colonial wars.
Queen Anne’s War resulted in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, with France ceding Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to England. This, and the War of Jenkins’s Ear, almost seamlessly merged with King George’s War (known in Europe as the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–48).47 In the American theater, Britain, again pitted against the French, focused on the north, especially the important French naval base at Louisbourg. Located on Cape Breton Island, just north of Nova Scotia, Louisbourg guarded the entrance to the all-important St. Lawrence River. In a daring and uncharacteristic move, American colonials grabbed the military initiative themselves. Massachusetts governor William Shirley raised money and troops to launch a 1745 attack led by Maine colonel William Pepperrell. On June 17, 1745, Pepperrell and his 4,000 troops successfully captured Louisbourg, the “Gibraltar of the New World.”
Despite the glorious Louisbourg victory, King George’s War dragged on inconclusively for two and a half more years. Savage guerrilla warfare stretched from Spanish Florida/Georgia to Vermont, western Massachusetts, and the frontiers of New York and Maine. The 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle was more of a truce than a true conclusion to the war, and it greatly disappointed the American colonists by returning Louisbourg and other French territories (though not Nova Scotia) to France.
Inadvertently, King George’s War created what would soon become a unique American subculture—the Louisiana Cajuns. Before the end of the war, Governor William Shirley pointed to the dangers posed by French nationals residing in British (formerly French) Nova Scotia. Shirley feared that these Acadians, who still bore the name of their old province in France, would remain loyal to France and would thus constitute an “enemy within” the British colonies. Even after King George’s War came to a close, fear of the Acadians remained strong. In 1755, at the start of the French and Indian War, Nova Scotia’s governor, Colonel Charles Lawrence, expelled six thousand Acadians to the lower thirteen American colonies. This Acadian diaspora saw some of the exiles return to France and the French Caribbean, whereas others trickled back to Nova Scotia. However, sixteen hundred Acadians trekked to Louisiana between 1765 and 1785. Although the Gulf Coast climate and geography proved a drastic change, they sought the familiarity and protection of Franco-American culture. Today these French Cajuns (a slurred version of “Acadian”) still reside in or near the marshes and Louisiana bayous where they fled more than 250 years ago, retaining a speech pattern as impenetrable as it was in the 1700s.
Returned to its 1713 boundaries after King George’s War, Britain’s fifteen-hundred-mile-long American territory was thin, often extending no farther than a hundred miles inland. Huge chunks of unsettled open territory divided the colonial towns, and genuine differences in regional culture split the American colonies further. Still, for all their internal disagreements, the British colonies had distinct advantages over the French in any American conflict. France’s unwillingness to encourage colonial settlement weakened its military designs in the New World. England could transport troops from home, and her colonies could also draw upon local militias, which meant that despite the fact that the population of New France had doubled since 1660, the population of the British colonies, 1.5 million, greatly exceeded that of the 60,000 French in North America. Moreover, the British, taking advantage of a navy much superior to France’s, could command seacoasts, trading ports, and major rivers.
The latter advantage proved particularly acute when considering that the French hitched their fate to the success of fur trading operations. Important port cities like New Orleans (founded 1718), Biloxi, and Mobile in the South and Detroit, Montreal, and Quebec in the North rivaled Boston, Philadelphia, and other Atlantic urban areas, but they were vulnerable to surgical attacks by the British navy, even to the extent that the inland waterways (especially the St. Lawrence River) became primary targets. France’s trading strategy of sparse settlement and an emphasis on fur trading left her only one significant asset: her good relations with the Indians.
Advantages provided by alliances with Indians, however, could not overcome the vulnerabilities created by making fur trading the cornerstone of the French economic and colonial policy. The wars with England exposed these weaknesses, wherein the small French population and nonexistent industrial base proved incapable of raising, equipping, and supporting large militias in North America. Even with their Indian allies, the French found themselves outnumbered and, more important, outproduced in every geopolitical conflict with England. Worse, the French had tied themselves to allies who did not embrace the Western way of war, rendering them even less effective than other traditional European armies.
Meanwhile, the Indians, who realized that the English settlers were arriving like locusts, were pushed toward the French, although each tribe had to weave its own tapestry of diplomatic alliances carefully and shrewdly. Indeed, northeastern Indians, unlike those in most other regions, shared a common threat: the Iroquois Confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Tuscaroras. Fresh from a total victory over the Hurons, the Iroquois established themselves as a force in the region. For a time, they managed to maintain neutrality between the British and the French, all the while realizing that they must eventually choose a side.
Initially, the Iroquois favored the British by allowing English traders into their territories, a practice that convinced the French that British colonists soon would follow in greater numbers. French troops therefore moved into the Ohio Valley in the late 1740s, building forts as a buffer against further English expansion, determined to demonstrate control over the trans-Appalachian frontier lands by occupation—something the British had never done systematically. From 1749 to 1754, France continued this construction program, establishing outposts at strategic points that guarded the approaches to Canada, producing a situation where British settlers and speculators were almost certain to bump up against them.
The French and Indian War
France’s eviction from North America began in 1753, when Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched an expedition against Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania. At the head of the militia was a young patrician landowner and surveyor, George Washington.48 Washington advanced with his force into the Allegheny Mountains, where he surprised a small group of French soldiers on a diplomatic mission. Unable to control his Indian allies, who slaughtered the French wounded, Washington retreated to his base at Fort Necessity. There, he was attacked by a superior French force. Thirty men were killed and a hundred wounded. Washington surrendered—hardly an auspicious start for the American Revolution’s “indispensable man.” Still, the encounter showed something of Washington’s mettle: he wrote that he “heard the bullets whistle and . . . there is something charming in the sound.”49 Of more immediate concern to Washington and his fellow Virginians, however, was the fact that the episode signaled the American origins of the French and Indian War, called the Seven Years’ War in Europe.
Leaders of the thirteen colonies, virtually all of whom faced a threat from either the French or the Indians, decided in 1754 that they had to unify to meet the enemy. The English government agreed, and it instructed them to negotiate a treaty with the Iroquois. Representatives from all the New England colonies, as well as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York met in Albany in 1754 and quickly concluded an agreement with the five northern tribes. Some delegates used the gathering for more than concluding a nonaggression pact with the natives, however. Benjamin Franklin, a representative from Pennsylvania, proposed a plan of union that would create a federal council composed of delegates from all the colonies. Under Franklin’s Albany Plan, the council would have the power to trade with the Indians, levy taxes, and raise armies. Delegates approved the plan, but the colonial assemblies rejected the concept, fearing that it would infringe on the independence of the individual colonies.
Meanwhile, Washington’s capitulation at Fort Necessity proved only the first British disaster of the war. A year later, General Edward Braddock led a second expedition of 2,500 men against Fort Duquesne. After failing to capture the fort, Braddock retreated in column formation through the thick forests, where French and Indian forces ambushed his troops and slaughtered them. Braddock was killed in the battle, and the apparent British incompetence in forest warfare encouraged the Indians to step up their activities on behalf of the French. Only the Iroquois refused to ally with France. However, the threat from other tribes on the frontier grew so substantial that many English settlers removed themselves eastward of the Allegheny Mountains.
The northern theater of the French and Indian War proved the most critical. There, in 1756, France appointed the Marquis de Montcalm as the commander of the Canadian forces. A capable military leader, Montcalm assessed the situation as less than favorable for France, but he nevertheless launched effective preemptive strikes to stabilize the approaches to Canada. Within one year, he had captured the British forts Oswego and William Henry.50
Montcalm also built Fort Ticonderoga, a new post on Lake Champlain. At the beginning of 1757, the entry points to French territory remained secure. Britain’s new secretary of state, William Pitt, responded to French successes by forging a policy of total war that would simultaneously quell Britain’s enemies in India, Africa, the West Indies, America, and on the high seas. Pitt’s bold plan carried a high price tag: in America he mustered a 50,000-man army, counting colonial militia, and appointed two young generals—Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe—to attack the French forts. Those forces captured Louisbourg and Fort Frontenac (and thereby Lake Ontario) by 1758, and avenged Braddock by retaking Fort Duquesne. The following year Pitt believed he was ready for a master stroke. He ordered General James Wolfe to deliver France the “knockout punch” at Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. The sickly General Wolfe, though only thirty-two years old, possessed a fierce martial spirit. He used the availability of a British naval superiority of two hundred ships to land a 10,000-man force at the foot of the steep cliffs of Quebec City.
After two months of bombarding Quebec and destroying outlying settlements, Wolfe ordered 4,500 troops up an unguarded path to the Plains of Abraham and to Montreal on September 12, 1759. There, Wolfe controlled the supply routes to Quebec, and his presence constituted a threat to the entire French colony. Had Montcalm waited inside the city’s walls, he might have been relieved, but he lacked confidence in the French navy (with good reason), and embarked on a hurried, ill-conceived attack outside the fort. In the ensuing fifteen-minute battle, Montcalm was wounded (he died a day later) and Wolfe killed.51 By the end of September thirteenth, however, the British held the field, and four days later they marched into Quebec. A year later Montreal itself fell.52
Peace might have been imminent had Spain not entered into the war in 1762. This was too late for Spain to affect the war’s outcome, but allowed sufficient time for her to fully embarrass herself. Soon Britain relieved Spain of Gibraltar, Cuba (later traded back to Spain for western Florida), and the Philippines (also later restored to Spain). The war ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, in which France gave England her colonies in India—then considered the most important booty of war. As a reward for loyalty and alliance, France had earlier awarded Spain the Louisiana Territory, which Spain held until giving it back to Napoleon and France in 1802.
The long-term significance of the treaty involved the transfer of Canada and all French possessions east of the Mississippi (and north of Florida and Louisiana) to England. Great Britain now possessed nearly the entirety of eastern North America—an empire unimaginable a few decades earlier.
Enter King George III
In 1760 a young, inexperienced, and not particularly bright George III ascended to the throne as king of Great Britain and presided over the glorious conclusion to the French and Indian War. The first of the Hanoverian monarchs to speak English (instead of low German) as his primary language, the good-looking George III fathered fifteen children and developed a reputation as a solid family man. His domesticity earned him the nickname among the people of the Farmer, and what he lacked in intellect he made up for with hard work.
Britain’s empire had changed significantly, though, since the time of King William, who had fought the first of the five colonial wars seventy years earlier. During the eighteenth century, George’s American colonial subjects had grown more distinct from their English brethren than even those independent Americans of the time of Queen Anne’s War. Whether in economics, material culture, dress, language, educational institutions, professions, religions, law, and governmental institutions, the colonials had become further radicalized and Americanized in the New World.53
George III neither admired nor approved of this independent spirit. But the conclusion of the French and Indian War brought him problems as well as opportunities, and he needed America’s full cooperation to meet the new financial demands on his government. William Pitt’s brilliant policies had achieved victory, but at a high price: Britain left the war saddled with a huge debt—£137 million, with £5 million in annual interest payments. At home, a new group of British politicians quite naturally opposed higher taxes following on the heels of their severe wartime privation.54
This was bad timing indeed, for now Britain possessed vast and costly territories stretching from southern Asia to Canada. The latter territory alone demanded a substantial military force to police the native Indian frontier and watch over sullen Frenchmen who now found themselves unwilling Britons. Pontiac’s Rebellion, a violent and widespread 1763 Ottawa Indian uprising, served as a grim reminder that the situation on the Canadian-American frontier urgently demanded a British standing army. But who would pay the bill?
Only the most myopic observer would argue that Americans had not benefited greatly from British sacrifice in the colonial wars and now, thought the royal ministers, the Americans ought to pay their share of the costs of Britain’s (and their own) glory. According to Americanized governmental beliefs, however, if the colonists were to bear new taxes and responsibilities, they had to have a say in their creation. The radical new view of law and politics could produce no other solution, and Americans’ belief in the power of the purse led quite naturally to their opposition to taxation without representation. These were challenges to George III’s authority that the king could not allow.
Colonies No More, 1763–83
Farmers and Firebrands
The changes brought by the French and Indian War were momentous, certainly in the sheer size and unique character of the territory involved. (Historian Francis Parkman maintained that the fall of Quebec began the history of the United States.) British acquisition of the new territories carried a substantial cost for almost every party involved. England amassed huge debts, concluding, in the process, that the colonists had not paid their fair share. France likewise emerged from the war with horrific liabilities: half the French annual budget went to pay interest on the wartime debt, not to mention the loss of vast territories. Some Indian tribes lost lands, or were destroyed. Only the American colonists really came out of the seven years of combat as winners, yet few saw the situation in that light.
Those Indians who allied with the French lost substantially; only the Iroquois, who supported the British in form but not substance, emerged from the war as well as they had entered it.1 Immediately after the war, pressures increased on the tribes in the Appalachian region as settlers and traders appeared in ever-increasing numbers. An alliance of tribes under the Ottawa chief Pontiac mounted a stiff resistance, enticing the Iroquois to abandon the British and join the new confederacy.2 Fearing a full-blown uprising, England established a policy prohibiting new settlers and trading charters beyond a line drawn through the Appalachians, known as the Proclamation Line of 1763. There was more behind the creation of the line than concern about the settlers’ safety, however. Traders who held charters before the war contended they possessed monopoly powers over trade in their region by virtue of those charters. They sought protection from new competitors, who challenged the existing legal status of the charters themselves.3
Such concerns did not interest the Indians, who saw no immediate benefit from the establishment of the line. Whites continued to pour across the boundary in defiance of the edict, and in May 1763, Pontiac directed a large-scale infiltration and attack of numerous forts across the northern frontier, capturing all but Detroit and Fort Pitt. English forces regrouped under General Jeffrey Amherst, defeating Pontiac and breaking the back of the Indian confederacy. Subsequent treaties pushed the Indians farther west, demonstrating both the Indians’ growing realization that they could not resist the English on the one hand or believe their promises on the other.
Paradoxically, though, the beneficence of the English saved the Indians from total extermination, which in earlier eras (as with the Mongol or Assyrian empires) or under other circumstances (as in the aftermath of King Philip’s War) would have been complete. As early as 1763, a pattern took shape in which the British (and later, the Americans) sought a middle ground of Indian relations in which the tribes could be preserved as independent entities, yet sufficiently segregated outside white culture or society. Such an approach was neither practical nor desirable in a modernizing society, and ultimately the strategy produced a pathetic condition of servitude that ensnared the Indians on reservations, rather than forced an early commitment to assimilation.
Land, Regulation, and Revolution
By establishing the Proclamation line, the British not only disturbed aspiring traders and disappointed the besieged Indians, but also alienated many of the new settlers in the west. After all, many had come to the New World on the promise of available land, and suddenly they found it occupied by what they considered a primitive and barbarous people.4 Some settlers simply broke the law, moving beyond the line. Others, including George Washington, an established frontiersman and military officer who thought westward expansion a foregone conclusion, groused privately. Still others increasingly used the political process to try to influence government, with some mild success. The Paxton Boys movement of 1763 in Pennsylvania and the 1771 Regulator movement in North Carolina both reflected the pressures on residents in the western areas to defend themselves despite high taxes they paid to the colonial government, much of which were supposed to support defense. Westerners came to view taxes not as inherently unfair, but as oppressive burdens when incorrectly used.
Westward expansion only promised to aggravate matters: in 1774, Lord Dunmore of Virginia defeated Indians in the Kanawha River Valley, opening the trails of Kentucky to settlement. The white-Indian encounter, traditionally described as Europeans “stealing” land from Native Americans, was in reality a much more complex exchange. Most—but certainly not all—Indian tribes rejected the European view of property rights, wherein land could become privatized. Rather, most Indians viewed people as incapable of owning the land, creating a strong incentive for tribal leaders to trade something they could not possess for goods that they could obtain. Chiefs often were as guilty as greedy whites in thinking they had pulled a fast one on their negotiating partners, and more than a few Indians were stunned to find the land actually being closed off in the aftermath of a treaty. Both sides operated out of misunderstandings and misperceptions.5 Under such different world views, conflict was inevitable, and could have proved far bloodier than it ultimately was if not for the temperance provided by Christianity and English concepts of humanity, even for “barbarian” enemies.
Tribes such as the Cherokee, realizing they could not stem the tide of English colonists, sold their lands between the Kentucky and Cumberland rivers to the Transylvania Company, which sent an expedition under Daniel Boone to explore the region. Boone, a natural woodsman of exceptional courage and selfreliance, proved ideal for the job. Clearing roads (despite occasional Indian attacks), Boone’s party pressed on, establishing a fort called Boonesborough in 1775. Threats from the natives did not abate, however, reinforcing westerners’ claims that taxes sent to English colonial governments for defense simply were wasted.6
Had westerners constituted the only group unhappy with British government, it is unlikely any revolutionary movement would have appeared, much less survived. Another more important group was needed to make a revolution—merchants, elites, and intellectuals in the major cities or the gentlemen farmers from Virginia and the Carolinas. Those segments of society had the means, money, and education to give discontent a structure and to translate emotions into a cohesive set of grievances. They dominated the colonial assemblies, and included James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry—men of extraordinary oratorical skills who made up the shock troops of the revolutionary movement.7
Changes in the enforcement and direction of the Navigation Acts pushed the eastern merchants and large landowners into an alliance with the westerners. Prior to 1763, American merchant interests had accepted regulation by the mercantilist system as a reasonable way to gain market advantage for American products within the British Empire. American tobacco, for example, had a monopoly within the English markets, and Britain paid bounties (subsidies) to American shipbuilders, a policy that resulted in one third of all British vessels engaged in Atlantic trade in 1775 being constructed in North American (mostly New England) shipyards. Although in theory Americans were prohibited from manufacturing finished goods, a number of American ironworks, blast furnaces, and other iron suppliers competed in the world market, providing one seventh of the world’s iron supplies, and flirted with the production of finished items.8
Added to those advantages, American colonists who engaged in trade did so with the absolute confidence that the Royal Navy secured the seas.9 England’s eight hundred ships and 70,000 sailors provided as much safety from piracy as could be expected, and the powerful overall trading position of Britain created or expanded markets that under other conditions would be denied the American colonies. As was often the case, however, the privileges that were withheld and not those granted aroused the most passion. Colonists already had weakened imperial authority in their challenge to the Writs of Assistance during the French and Indian War. Designed to empower customs officials with additional search-and-seizure authority to counteract smuggling under the Molasses Act of 1733, the writs allowed an agent of the Crown to enter a house or board a ship to search for taxable, or smuggled, goods. Violations of the sanctity of English homes were disliked but tolerated until 1760, when the opportunity presented itself to contest the issue of any new writs. Led by James Otis, the counsel for the Boston merchants’ association, the writs were assailed as “against the Constitution” and void. Even after the writs themselves became dormant, colonial orators used them as a basis in English law to lay the groundwork for independence.
Only two years after Otis disputed the writs in Massachusetts, Virginia lawyer Patrick Henry won a stunning victory against the established Anglican Church and, in essence, managed to annul an act of the Privy Council related to tobacco taxes in Virginia. Henry and Otis, therefore, emerged as firebrands who successfully undercut the authority of the Crown in America.10 Other voices were equally important: Benjamin Franklin, the sage of Philadelphia, had already argued that he saw “in the system of customs now being exacted in American by Act of Parliament, the seeds sown of a total disunion of the two countries.”11
The British government contributed to heightened tensions through arrogance and ineptness. George III, who had ascended to the throne in 1760 at the age of twenty-two, was the first of the German-born monarchs who could be considered truly English, although he remained elector of Hanover. Prone to periodic bouts of insanity that grew worse over time (ending his life as a prisoner inside the palace), George, at the time of the Revolution, was later viewed by Winston Churchill as “one of the most conscientious sovereigns who ever sat up on the English throne.”12 But he possessed a Teutonic view of authority and exercised his power dogmatically at the very time that the American situation demanded flexibility. “It is with the utmost astonishment,” he wrote, “that I find any of my subjects capable of encouraging the rebellious disposition . . . in some of my colonies in America.”13 Historians have thus described him as “too opinionated, ignorant, and narrow-minded for the requirements of statesmanship,” and as stubborn and “fundamentally ill-suited” for the role he played.14
Worse, the prime minister to the king, George Grenville (who replaced William Pitt), was determined to bring the colonies in tow by enforcing the Navigation Acts so long ignored. Grenville’s land policies produced disaster. He reversed most of the laws and programs of his predecessor, Pitt, who had started to view land and its productivity as a central component of wealth.
To that end, Pitt had ignored many of the provisions of the Navigation Acts in hopes of uniting the colonies with England in spirit. He gave the authority to recruit troops to the colonial assemblies and promised to reimburse American merchants and farmers for wartime supplies taken by the military, winning himself popular acclaim in the colonies. Grenville, on the other hand, never met a tax he didn’t like, and in rigid input-output analysis concluded (probably with some accuracy) that the colonists were undertaxed and lightly burdened with the costs of their own defense. One of his first test cases, the Sugar Act of 1764, revived the strictures of the Molasses Act against which the Boston merchants had chafed, although it lowered actual rates. This characterized Grenville’s strategy—to offer a carrot of lower rates while brandishing the stick of tighter enforcement.15 The plan revealed another flaw of the British colonial process, namely allowing incompetents to staff the various administrative posts so that the colonials had decades of nonenforcement as their measuring rod. (Franklin compared these posts to the modern equivalent of minimum wage jobs.)16
Despite lower rates, opposition arose over the new enforcement mechanisms, including the referral of all smuggling cases to admiralty courts that had judges instead of juries, which normally handled such cases. Any colonial smuggler knew that the outcome of such a trial was less often in his favor, and complaints arose that the likelihood of real prosecution and conviction was higher under the new law. A second law, the Currency Act of 1764, prohibited the colonies from issuing paper money. When combined with the taxes of the Sugar Act, colonists anticipated that the Currency Act would drain the already scarce metallic money (specie, or gold and silver coins) from America, rendering merchants helpless to counteract inflation that always followed higher taxes.17
By 1764, then, colonists drew a direct correlation between paying taxes and governing, and between government intervention in the economy and inflation. A few early taxes had existed on land, but land ownership conferred voting status. Other than that, only a handful of other direct taxes were levied, especially in light of the small size and limited power of government. “The more revenue governments had, the more mischief they could create,” was the prevailing colonial view. In sharp contrast to land taxes, Grenville’s new duties were in no way associated with rights, and all subjects—landowners or otherwise—now had to pay.18
There is truth to the British claim that the colonists had received the benefits of government on the cheap for decades, a development that provides a cautionary tale for contemporary Americans. This concealment of the actual costs of government fostered the natural inclination to think that the services were free. Unfortunately, any attempt to withdraw or reduce the benefit is then fought tooth and nail because it is viewed as a right. In the case of the American colonists, they correctly identified their rights to protection from attack and to a fair system of courts and laws, but they had avoided paying for the benefits for so long that by the 1770s they viewed any imposition of taxes as oppression. And, of course, there was the view that taxes required consent of the governed, if only through a representative who voted against it on the losing side.
Dissatisfaction with the Navigation Acts themselves only reflected the deeper changes in economic thought being developed at exactly that time by Scottish professor Adam Smith, who had formulated his Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1754. Arguing that men naturally had a self-interest based on information that only they could know—likes, dislikes, personal foibles—Smith had laid the groundwork for his more famous book, Wealth of Nations, which would appear concurrent with the Declaration of Independence. Smith reformulated economics around individual rights rather than the state’s needs. His concepts fit with Thomas Jefferson’s like a hand in a glove; indeed, it would be Alexander Hamilton and some of the Federalists who later would clash repeatedly with Smith’s individual-oriented economic principles. While Wealth of Nations in no way influenced the writings of Adams or others in 1776, the ideas of personal economic liberty had already seeped into the American psyche, almost as if Adams and Jefferson had read Smith extensively.19
Thus, at the very time that the British started to enforce a creaky, antiquated system that had started its drift into obsolescence, Americans—particularly seaboard merchants—started to flex their entrepreneurial muscles in Smith’s new free-market concepts. Equally important, Americans had started to link economic rights and political rights in the most profound ways. At accelerating rates the colonists used the terms “slavery” and “enslavement” in relation to British government policies.20 If the king could assault citizen’s liberties when it came to trade, how long before he issued edicts on political speech, and even religion?
The Stamp Act of 1765
Parliament, meanwhile, continued to shift the fiscal burdens from overtaxed landowners in England to the American colonists with the awareness that the former voted and the latter did not. Attempting to extract a fraction of the cost of troops sent to defend the colonies, Grenville—who, as historian Paul Johnson notes, “had a gift for doing the wrong thing”—pushed through a stamp tax, which was innocuous in its direct effects but momentous in its symbolism.21 The act placed a tax on virtually every paper transaction. Marriage certificates, ships’ papers, legal documents, newspapers, even playing cards and dice were to be stamped and therefore taxed. Worse, the act raised the terrifying threat that if paper documents were subject to government taxation and control, how long before Puritan, Baptist, Quaker, and Methodist religious tracts or even Bibles came under the oversight of the state? To assume as much was not unrealistic, and certainly Sam Adams argued that this was the logical end point: “The Stamp-Act itself was contrived with a design only to inure the people to the habit of contemplating themselves as slaves of men; and the transition from thence to a subjection to Satan, is mighty easy.”22 Although most colonists were alarmed at the precedent set by the Stamp Act, the fact that newspapers were taxed ensured that the publishing organs of the colonies universally would be aligned against England on the issue.23
Hostility to the new act ran far deeper than its narrow impact on newspapers, however. An often overlooked component of the policies involved the potential for ever-expanding hordes of administrators and duty collectors in the colonies. Had the pecuniary burdens been completely inconsequential, the colonists still would have protested the insidious, invasive presence of an army of royal bureaucrats and customs officials. Several organizations were formed for the specific purpose of harassing stamp agents, many under the name Sons of Liberty. They engaged in violence and intimidation of English officials, destroying the stamps and burning the Boston house of the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Sympathetic colonial juries then refused to convict members of the Sons of Liberty, demonstrating that the colonists saw the economic effects as nil, but the political ramifications as substantial.24
Parliament failed to appreciate the firestorm the new policies were causing. Edmund Burke observed of the House of Commons, “Far from any thing inflammatory, I never heard a more languid debate in this House.”25 In the colonies, however, reaction was immediate and dramatic. Virginia again led the way in resistance, focused in the House of Burgesses with Patrick Henry as the chief spokesman for instant response. He offered five resolutions against the Stamp Act that constituted a radical position. Many strongly disagreed with his views, and a Williamsburg law student named Thomas Jefferson, who witnessed the debates, termed them “most bloody.”26 Nevertheless, the delegates did not disagree with Henry’s assessment of the legality of the act, only his methods in responding to them, which many thought could have been more conciliatory. Henry achieved immortality with the provocative tone of his resolutions, reportedly stating: “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Leaders from Massachusetts, led by James Otis, agreed. They suggested that an intercolonial congress be held at City Hall, in New York, a meeting known as the Stamp Act Congress (1765). Delegates drafted a bill of rights and issued a statement of grievances, reiterating the principle of no taxation without representation. By then, mobs had hanged in effigy stamp tax collectors, forcing many to resign their posts. Collectors’ homes were torn down in Newport, and a Connecticut collector was buried alive until he “voluntarily” resigned. Parliament, confronted with unified, outraged opposition, backed down. A new government under the Marquis of Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, in no small degree because of internal dissatisfaction with the program in England, where manufacturers had started to lose sales. But other groups in England, particularly landholders who again faced increased tax burdens themselves, denounced the repeal as appeasement. In retreat, Parliament issued a Declaratory Act, maintaining that it had the authority to pass new taxes any time it so chose, but both sides knew Britain had blinked.
A “Massacre” in Boston
After Rockingham was dismissed under pressure from English landlords, the king recalled ailing William Pitt from his peerage to form a new government. Pitt’s coalition government included disparate and uncooperative groups and, after 1767, actual power over England’s mercantilist policies devolved upon Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the Exchequer. Under new duties enacted by Parliament, the words changed but the song remained the same: small taxes on glass, lead, tea or other products but significant shifts of authority to Parliament. This was Parliament’s shopworn tactic: exchange small initial duties for gigantic new powers that could be used later oppressively. But in this case, the revenues from the Townshend duties went to pay the governors’ salaries, effectively making an “end run” around the colonial assemblies and their power of the purse.
Townshend persuaded Parliament to suspend the New York Assembly for its refusal to provide necessary supplies under the Mutiny Act (also called the Quartering Act) of 1765. He hoped to isolate New York (even though Massachusetts’ Assembly similarly had refused to vote funds for supplies), realizing that the presence of the army headquarters in New York City made it imperative that the English government maintain control of the situation there. Once again, the colonists did not object to the principle of supporting troops or even quartering them, but instead challenged the authority of Parliament to mandate such support. A series of written arguments by Charles C. Pinckney and Edward Rutledge (both of South Carolina), Daniel Dulany of Maryland, and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania provided a comprehensive critique of the new acts based on English law and traditions. Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” reached wide audiences and influenced groups outside the seaboard elites. British officials were stunned to find that, rather than abandoning New York, other colonies expressed their support for their sister colony.
No more important ally of New York could exist than Massachusetts, where Sam Adams and a group of vocal followers organized resistance in the Massachusetts Assembly. Letters went out from the assembly to other colonies urging them to resist the new taxes and to boycott British goods until the measures were lifted. The missive might have died, except for further meddling by the British secretary of state, who warned that Parliament would dissolve any colonial assemblies that endorsed the position of the Massachusetts Assembly. All of the colonies promptly supported the Massachusetts letter, even Pennsylvania, which had refused to support the earlier correspondence.
Whereas New York had borne the brunt of England’s initial policies, Boston rapidly became the center of revolutionary ferment and British repercussions. Britain transferred four regiments of troops from Halifax to Boston, stationing them directly within the city in a defiant symbol of occupation. Bostonians reacted angrily to the presence of “redcoats” and “lobsterbacks,” whereas the soldiers treated citizens rudely and competed with them for off-hour work. Tensions heightened until on March 5, 1770, a street fight erupted between a mob of seventy or so workers at a shipyard and a handful of British sentries. Snowballs gave way to gunfire from the surrounded and terrified soldiers, leaving five colonists dead and six wounded. American polemicists, especially Sam Adams, lost no time in labeling this the Boston Massacre. Local juries thought otherwise, finding the soldiers guilty of relatively minor offenses, not murder, thanks in part to the skillful legal defense of John Adams.
If Britain had had her way, the issue would have died a quiet death. Unfortunately for Parliament, the other Adams—John’s distant cousin Sam—played a crucial role in fanning the fires of independence. He had found his calling as a writer after failing in private business and holding a string of lackluster jobs in government. Adams enlisted other gifted writers, who published under pen names, to produce a series of broadsides like those produced by Dickinson and the premassacre pamphleteers. But Adams was the critical voice disturbing the lull that Britain sought, publishing more than forty articles in a two-year period after the massacre. He established the Lockean basis for the rights demanded by Americans, and did so in a clear and concise style that appealed to less-educated citizens. In November 1772 at a town meeting in Boston, Adams successfully pressed for the creation of a “committee of correspondence” to link writers in different colonies. These actions demonstrated the growing power of the presses churning out a torrent of tracts and editorials critical of England’s rule. The British were helpless to stop these publishers. Certainly court actions were no longer effective.27
Following the example of Massachusetts, Virginia’s House of Burgesses, led by Jefferson, Henry, and Richard Henry Lee, forged resolutions that provided for the appointment of permanent committees of correspondence in every colony (referred to by one governor as “blackhearted fellows whom one would not wish to meet in the dark”). Committees constituted an “unelected but nevertheless representative body” of those with grievances against the British Empire.28 Josiah Quincy and Tom Paine joined this Revolutionary vanguard, steadfastly and fearlessly demanding that England grant the colonists the “rights of Englishmen.” Adams always remained on the cutting edge, however, and was among the first advocating outright separation from the mother country. Tied to each other by the committees of correspondence, colonies further cemented their unity, attitudes, and common interests or, put another way, became increasingly American.
By 1775 a wide spectrum of clubs, organizations, and merchants’ groups supported the committees of correspondence. Among them the Sons of Liberty, the Sons of Neptune, the Philadelphia Patriotic Society, and others provided the organizational framework necessary for revolution; the forty-two American newspapers—and a flood of pamphlets and letters—gave voice to the Revolution. Churches echoed the messages of liberty, reinforcing the goal of “ting[eng] the minds of the people and impregnat[ing] them with the sentiments of liberty.”29 News such as the colonists’ burning in 1772 of the Gaspee, a British schooner that ran aground in Rhode Island during an ill-fated mission to enforce revenue laws, circulated quickly throughout the colonies even before the correspondence committees were fully in place, lending further evidence to the growing public perception that the imperial system was oppressive. Thus, the colonial dissatisfaction incorporated the yeoman farmer and the land speculator, the intellectual and the merchant, the parson and the politician—all well organized and impressively led.
Boston emerged as the focal hub of discontent, and the brewing rebellion had able leaders in the Adamses and a dedicated coppersmith named Paul Revere. Lacking the education of John Adams or the rhetorical skill of Sam, Revere brought his own considerable talents to the table of resistance. A man plugged in to the Boston social networks as were few other men, Revere was known by virtually all. One study found that besides the Sons of Liberty, there were six other main revolutionary groups in Boston. Of the 255 leading males in Boston society, only two were in as many as five of these groups—Joseph Warren and Paul Revere.30 Revere percolated the Revolutionary brew, keeping all parties informed and laying down a vital structure of associations that he would literally call upon at a moment’s notice in 1775. Only through his dedicated planning was an effective resistance later possible.
Boston’s Tea Party
Under such circumstances, all that was needed to ignite the Revolutionary explosion was a spark, which the British conveniently provided with the passage of the Tea Act in 1773. Tea played a crucial role in the life of typical America colonists. The water in North America remained undrinkable in many locations—far more polluted with disease and bacteria than modern drinking water—thus tea, which was boiled, made up the staple nonalcoholic drink. The East India Company had managed to run itself into near bankruptcy despite a monopoly status within the empire. Its tea sent to America had to go through England first, where it was lightly taxed. But smugglers dealing directly with Dutch suppliers shipped directly to the colonies and provided the same tea at much lower prices. The Tea Act withdrew all duties on tea reexported to America, although it left in place an earlier light tax from the Townshend Act.
Britain naturally anticipated that colonists would rejoice at the lower aboveboard prices, despite the imposition of a small tax. In fact, not only did average colonists benefit from drinking the cheap smuggled tea, but a number of merchant politicians, including John Hancock of Massachusetts, also regularly smuggled tea and stood to be wiped out by enforcement of the new act. Even those merchants who legitimately dealt in tea faced financial ruin under the monopoly privileges of the East India Company. Large public meetings produced a strategy toward the tea, which involved not only boycotting the product but also preventing the tea from even being unloaded in America. Tea agents were labeled “enemies of the people,” and guards kept the tea on the ships.
Three ships carrying substantial amounts of tea reached Boston Harbor in December 1773, whereupon a crowd of more than seven thousand (led by Sam Adams) greeted them. Members of the crowd—the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawk Indians—boarded the vessels and threw 342 chests of tea overboard while the local authorities condoned the action. The “Mohawks” took care not to harm any members of the crews (and thus the Tea Party was later cited by Mahatma Gandhi as an example of an effective protest). The British admiral in charge of the Boston Harbor squadron watched the entire affair from his flagship deck.
In Delaware, nine days later, a similar event occurred when another seven hundred chests of tea sank to the bottom of the sea, although without a Sam Adams to propagandize the event, no one remembers the Delaware Tea Party. New Yorkers forced cargo to remain on its ships in their port. When some tea was finally unloaded in Charleston, it couldn’t be sold for three years. Throughout, only a few eminent colonists, including Ben Franklin and John Adams, condemned the boardings, and for the most part Americans supported the “Mohawks.” But even John Adams agreed that if a people rise up, they should do something “to be remembered, something notable and striking.”31
“Notable and striking,” the “tea party” was. Britain, of course, could not permit such outright criminality. The king singled out Boston as the chief culprit in the uprising, and in 1774 Parliament passed what Americans labeled the Intolerable or Coercive Acts. The Acts had several major components. First, Britain closed Boston Harbor until someone paid for the tea destroyed there. Second, the charter of Massachusetts was annulled, and the governor’s council was to be appointed by the king, signaling to the citizens a revocation of their rights as Englishmen. Third, a new Quartering Act was passed, requiring homeowners and innkeepers to board soldiers at only a fraction of the real cost of boarding them. Fourth, British soldiers and officials accused of committing crimes were to be returned to England for trial. Fifth, the Quebec Act transferred lands between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the province of Quebec and guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics. New Englanders not only viewed the Quebec Act as theft of lands intended for American colonial settlement, they also feared the presence of more Catholics on the frontier. John Adams, for one, was terrified of the potential for a recatholicization of America. Antipapism was endemic in New England, where political propagandists fulminated against this new encroachment of the Roman “Antichrist.”
Southerners had their own reasons for supporting independence. Tidewater planters found themselves under an increasing debt burden, made worse by British taxes and unfair competition from monopolies.32 Lord Dunmore’s antislavery initiatives frightened the Virginia planters as much as the Catholic priests terrified New Englanders. At a time when slavery continued to exert mounting tensions on Whig-American notions of liberty and property, the fact that the Southerners could unite with their brethren farther north had to concern England.
Equally as fascinating as the alliance between the slave colonies and the nonslaveholding colonies was the willingness of men of the cloth to join hardened frontiersmen in taking up arms against England. John Witherspoon, a New Jersey cleric who supported the resistance, warned that “there is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.”33 Virginia Parson Peter Muhlenberg was another such cleric turned armed patriot, upon whom the character Reverend Oliver in the film The Patriot was based. According to a biography of Muhlenberg done years later by his nephew, the parson supposedly took off his cleric’s garments and grabbed a rifle while quoting scripture.34
Massachusetts attorney and New Jersey minister; Virginia farmer and Pennsylvania sage; South Carolina slaveholder and New York politician all found themselves increasingly aligned against the English monarch. Whatever differences they had, their similarities surpassed them. Significantly, the colonists’ complaints encompassed all oppression: “Colonists didn’t confine their thoughts about [oppression] simply to British power; they generalized the lesson in terms of human nature and politics at large.”35 Something even bigger than resistance to the king of England knitted together the American colonists in a fabric of freedom. On the eve of the Revolution, they were far more united—for a wide variety of motivations—than the British authorities ever suspected. Each region had its own reason for associating with the others to force a peaceful conclusion to the crisis when the Intolerable Acts upped the ante for all the players.
If British authorities truly hoped to isolate Boston, they realized quickly how badly they had misjudged the situation. The king, having originally urged that the tea duty be repealed, reluctantly concluded that the “colonists must either triumph or submit,” confirming Woodrow Wilson’s estimate that George III “had too small a mind to rule an empire.”36 Intending to force compliance, Britain dispatched General Thomas Gage and four regiments of redcoats to Massachusetts. Gage was a tragic figure. He proved unrelenting in his enforcement methods, generating still more colonial opposition, yet he operated within a code of “decency, moderation, liberty, and the rule of law.”37 This sense of fairness and commitment to the law posed a disturbing dilemma for his objective of crushing the rebellion.
The first united resistance by the colonies occurred in September 1774, when delegates to a Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in response to calls from both Massachusetts and Virginia. Delegates from every colony except Georgia arrived, displaying the widespread sympathy in the colonies for the position of Boston. Present were both Adamses from Massachusetts and Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and the “indispensable man,” George Washington, representing Virginia. Congress received a series of resolves from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, carried to the meeting by Paul Revere. These Suffolk Resolves declared loyalty to the king, but scorned the “hand which would ransack our pockets” and the “dagger to our bosoms.” When Congress endorsed the Suffolk Resolves, Lord Dartmouth, British secretary of state, warned, “The [American] people are generally ripe for the execution of any plan the Congress advises, should it be war itself.” King George put it much more succinctly, stating, “The die is cast.”
No act of the Congress was more symbolic of how far the colonies had come toward independence than the Galloway Plan of union. Offered by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, the plan proposed the establishment of a federal union for the colonies in America, headed by a president general (appointed by the king) and advised by a grand council, whose representatives would be chosen by the colonial assemblies. Presented roughly three weeks after the Suffolk Resolves, the Galloway Plan was rejected only after a long debate, with the final vote taken only in the absence of many of the advocates. Still, it showed that the colonies already had started to consider their own semiautonomous government.
In October 1774, the First Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, twelve resolutions stating the rights of the colonists in the empire. Among the resolutions was a statement of the rights of Americans to “life, liberty, and property . . . secured by the principles of the British Constitution, the unchanging laws of nature, and [the] colonial charters.” Where had the colonists gotten such concepts?
Three major Enlightenment thinkers deeply affected the concepts of liberty and government held by the majority of the American Revolutionary leaders. Certainly, all writers had not read the same European authors, and certainly all were affected by different ideas to different degrees, often depending on the relationship any given writer placed on the role of God in human affairs. Nevertheless, the overall molding of America’s Revolution in the ideological sense can be traced to the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the Baron Charles de Montesquieu.
Hobbes, an English writer of the mid-1600s, was a supporter of the monarchy. In The Leviathan (1661), Hobbes described an ancient, even prehistoric, “state of nature” in which man was “at warre with every other man,” and life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”38 To escape such circumstances, man created the “civil state,” or government, in which people gave up all other rights to receive protection from the monarch. As long as government delivered its subjects from the “fear of violent death,” it could place on them any other burden or infringe on any other “rights.” From Hobbes, therefore, the Revolutionary writers took the concept of “right to life” that infused virtually all the subsequent writings.
Another Englishman, John Locke, writing under much different circumstances, agreed with Hobbes that a state of nature once existed, but differed totally as to its character. Locke’s state of nature was beautiful and virtually sinless, but somehow man had fallen out of that state, and to protect his rights entered into a social compact, or a civil government. It is significant that both Hobbes and Locke departed substantially from the classical Greek and Roman thinkers, including Aristotle, who held that government was a natural condition of humans. Both Hobbes and Locke saw government as artificial—created by man, rather than natural to man. Locke, writing in his “Second Treatise on Government,” described the most desirable government as one that protected human “life, liberty, and estate”; therefore, government should be limited: it should only be strong enough to protect these three inalienable rights. From Locke, then, the Revolutionary writers took the phrase “right to liberty,” as well as to property.39 Hobbes and Locke, therefore, had laid the groundwork for the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and, later, the Declaration of Independence, which contained such principles as limitations on the rights of the government and rule by consent of the governed.
All that remained was to determine how best to guarantee those rights, an issue considered by a French aristocrat, Charles de Montesquieu. In The Spirit of the Laws, drawing largely on his admiration for the British constitutional system, Montesquieu suggested dividing the authority of the government among various branches with different functions, providing a blueprint for the future government of the United States.40
While some of the crème de la crème in American political circles read or studied Locke or Hobbes, most Virginia and Massachusetts lawyers were common attorneys, dealing with property and personal rights in society, not in abstract theory. Still, ideas do seep through. Thanks to the American love of newspapers, pamphlets, oral debate, and informal political discussion, by 1775, many of the Revolutionaries, whether they realized it or not, sounded like John Locke and his disciples.
Locke and his fellow Whigs who overthrew James II had spawned a second generation of propagandists in the 1700s. Considered extremists and “coffee house radicals” in post-Glorious Revolution England, Whig writers John Trenchard, Lord Bolingbroke, and Thomas Gordon warned of the tyrannical potential of the Hanoverian Kings—George I and George II. Influential Americans read and circulated these “radical Whig” writings. A quantified study of colonial libraries, for example, shows that a high number of Whig pamphlets and newspaper essays had made their way onto American bookshelves. Moreover, the Whig ideas proliferated beyond their original form, in hundreds of colonial pamphlets, editorials, essays, letters, and oral traditions and informal political discussions.41
It goes without saying, of course, that most of these men were steeped in the traditions and teachings of Christianity—almost half the signers of the Declaration of Independence had some form of seminary training or degree. John Adams, certainly and somewhat derogatorily viewed by his contemporaries as the most pious of the early Revolutionaries, claimed that the Revolution “connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”42 John’s cousin Sam cited passage of the Declaration as the day that the colonists “restored the Sovereign to Whom alone men ought to be obedient.”43 John Witherspoon’s influence before and after the adoption of the Declaration was obvious, but other well-known patriots such as John Hancock did not hesitate to echo the reliance on God. In short, any reading of the American Revolution from a purely secular viewpoint ignores a fundamentally Christian component of the Revolutionary ideology.
Contrary to the oft-purported notion that most of the Founders were deists, the majority were “believers” in the common understanding of the term. Perhaps only Jefferson had a truly “deistic” theology, although even that is up for grabs; he attended church regularly and, as a Freemason, was required to state his belief in God. Franklin, while skeptical of the divinity of Jesus, absolutely held to the doctrine of a providential God who played a part in men’s lives and to whom one prayed. Washington’s faith was complex, but not deistic in any sense.44 He referred to God by at least 104 different names, a trait shared by John Adams, who would later draft the Massachusetts state constitution and invoked terms such as “Supreme Being,” “great Creator,” “Preserver of the Universe,” and, of course, “God.” Washington’s 1752 handwritten manuscript book contained a prayer ending with, “I humbly beseech Thee to be merciful to me in the free pardon of my sins for the sake of thy dear Son and only Savior Jesus Christ who came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Thou gavest Thy Son to die for me.” That leaves little room to claim that Washington did not claim Jesus as his personal savior.45
One can understand how scholars could be misled on the importance of religion in daily life and political thought. Data on religious adherence suggests that on the eve of the Revolution perhaps no more than 20 percent of the American colonial population was “churched.”46 That certainly did not mean they were not God-fearing or religious. It did reflect, however, a dominance of the three major denominations—Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal—that suddenly found themselves challenged by rapidly rising new groups, the Baptists and Methodists. Competition from the new denominations proved so intense that clergy in Connecticut appealed to the assembly for protection against the intrusions of itinerant ministers. But self-preservation also induced church authorities to lie about the presence of other denominations, claiming that “places abounding in Baptists or Methodists were unchurched.”47 In short, while church membership rolls may have indicated low levels of religiosity, a thriving competition for the “religious market” had appeared, and contrary to the claims of many that the late 1700s constituted an ebb in American Christianity, God was alive and well—and fairly popular!
Lexington, Concord, and War
Escalating the potential for conflict still further, the people of Massachusetts established a revolutionary government and raised an army of soldiers known as minutemen (able to fight on a minute’s notice). While all able-bodied males from sixteen to sixty, including Congregational ministers, came out for muster and drill, each militia company selected and paid additional money to a subgroup—20 to 25 percent of its number—to “hold themselves in readiness at a minute’s warning, complete with arms and ammunition; that is to say a good and sufficient firelock, bayonet, thirty rounds of powder and ball, pouch and knapsack.”48 About this they were resolute: citizens in Lexington taxed themselves a substantial amount “for the purpose of mounting the cannon, ammunition, and for carriage and harness for burying the dead.”49 It is noteworthy that the colonists had already levied money for burying the dead, revealing that they approached the coming conflict with stark realism.
The nearly universal ownership and use of firearms as a fact bears repetition here to address a recent stream of scholarship that purports to show that Americans did not widely possess or use firearms.50 Some critics of the so-called gun culture have attempted to show through probate records that few guns were listed among household belongings bequeathed to heirs; thus, guns were not numerous, nor hunting and gun ownership widespread. But in fact, guns were so prevalent that citizens did not need to list them specifically. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts citizens were well armed, and not only with small weapons but, collectively, with artillery.51
General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British garrison in Boston, faced two equally unpleasant alternatives. He could follow the advice of younger officers, such as Major John Pitcairn, to confront the minutemen immediately, before their numbers grew. Or he could take a more conservative approach by awaiting reinforcements, while recognizing that the enemy itself would be reinforced and better equipped with each passing day.
Gage finally moved when he learned that the minutemen had a large store of munitions at Concord, a small village eighteen miles from Boston. He issued orders to arrest the political firebrands and rhetoricians Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were reported in the Lexington area, and to secure the cannons from the colonists. Gage therefore sought to kill two birds with one stone when, on the night of April 18, 1775, he sent 1,000 soldiers from Boston to march up the road via Lexington to Concord. If he could surprise the colonials and could capture Adams, Hancock, and the supplies quietly, the situation might be defused. But the patriots learned of British intentions and signaled the British route with lanterns from the Old North Church, whereupon two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes left Boston by different routes to rouse the minutemen. Calling, “To Arms! To Arms!” Revere and Dawes’s daring mission successfully alerted the patriots at Lexington, at no small cost to Revere, who fell from his horse after warning Hancock and Adams and was captured at one point, but then escaped.52 Dawes did not have the good fortune to appear in Longfellow’s famous poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and his contributions are less appreciated; but his mission was more narrowly defined. Once alerted, the minutemen drew up in skirmish lines on the Lexington town common when the British appeared. One of the British commanders shouted, “Disperse, you dam’d rebels! Damn you, disperse!”53 Both sides presented their arms; the “shot heard ’round the world” rang out—although historians still debate who fired first because it was so dark—and the British achieved their first victory of the war. Eight minutemen had been killed and ten wounded when the patriots yielded the field. Major Pitcairn’s force continued to Concord, where it destroyed the supplies and started to return to Boston.54
By that time, minutemen in the surrounding countryside had turned out, attacking the British in skirmishing positions along the road. Pitcairn sent for reinforcements, but he knew that his troops had to fight their way back to Boston on their own. A hail of colonial musket balls fell on the British, who deployed in battle formation, only to see their enemy fade into the trees and hills. American minutemen were indeed sharpshooters, weaned on years of hunting, but firing at an enemy who moved—and shot back—was much different than shooting a bear. Of the more than five thousand shots fired at the redcoats that day, fewer than three hundred hit their targets, leaving the British with just over 270 casualties.
Nevertheless, the perception by the British and colonists alike quickly spread that the most powerful army in the world had been routed by patriots lacking artillery, cavalry, or even a general. At the Centennial Celebration at Concord on April 19, 1875, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the skirmish as a “thunderbolt,” which “falls on an inch of ground, but the light of it fills the horizon.”55 News crackled like electricity throughout the American colonies, sparking patriotic fervor unseen up to that time. Thousands of armed American colonists traveled to Boston, where they surrounded Gage and pinned him in the town. Franklin worked under no illusions that the war would be quick. To an English acquaintance, he wrote, “You will have heard before this reaches you of the Commencement of a Civil War; the End of it perhaps neither myself, nor you, who are much younger, may live to see.”56
For the third time in less than a century, the opponents of these American militiamen had grossly underestimated them. Though slow to act, these New Englanders became “the most implacable of foes,” as David Fischer observed. “Their many enemies who lived by a warrior-ethic always underestimated them, as a long parade of Indian braves, French aristocrats, British Regulars, Southern planters, German fascists, Japanese militarists, Marxist ideologues, and Arab adventurers have invariably discovered to their heavy cost.”57 As the conflict dragged on, however, New Englanders (with the exception of John Glover’s Maine volunteers) did not live up to their early successes, while the southern and middle colonies carried the war.
Resolutions endorsing war came from all quarters, with the most outspoken coming from North Carolina. They coincided with the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia beginning on May 10, 1775. All the colonies sent representatives, most of whom had no sanction from the colonial governors, leaving their selection to the more radical elements in the colonies. Accordingly, men such as John Adams attended the convention with the intent of declaring independence from England. Some conservatives, such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, struggled to avoid a complete break with the mother country, but ultimately the sentiments for independence had grown too strong. As the great American historian George Bancroft observed, “A new principle, far mightier than the church and state of the Middle Ages, was forcing itself into power. . . . It was the office of America to substitute for hereditary privilege the natural equality of man; for the irresponsible authority of a sovereign, a dependent government emanating from a concord of opinion.”58 Congress assumed authority over the ragtag army that opposed Gage, and appointed George Washington as the commander in chief. Washington accepted reluctantly, telling his wife, Martha, “I have used every endeavor in power to avoid [the command], not only from my unwillingness to part with you . . . but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity.”59 Nor did Washington have the same intense desire for separation from England that burned within Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry: his officers still toasted the health of King George as late as January 1776.
The “Indispensable Man”
Washington earned respect in many quarters because he seldom beat his own drum. His modesty and self-deprecation were refreshing and commendable, and certainly he had real reasons for doubting his qualifications to lead the colonial forces (his defeat at Fort Necessity, for example). But in virtually all respects, Washington was the perfect selection for the job—the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, as biographer James Flexner called him. Towering by colonial standards at six feet four inches, Washington physically dominated a scene, with his stature enhanced by his background as a wealthy plantation owner of more than modest means and his reputation as the greatest horseman in Virginia. Capable of extracting immense loyalty, especially from most of his officers (though there were exceptions), Washington also inspired his soldiers with exceptional self-control, personal honor, and high morals. While appearing stiff or distant to strangers, Washington reserved his emotions for his intimate friends, comrades in arms, and his wife.
For such a popular general, however, Washington held his troops in low regard. He demanded clear distinctions in rank among his officers, and did not tolerate sloth or disobedience. Any soldier who went AWOL (absent without leave) faced one hundred to three hundred lashes, whereas a soldier deserting a post in combat was subject to the death penalty. He referred to Yankee recruits as “dirty and nasty people,” and derided the “dirty mercenary spirit” of his men.60 On occasion, Washington placed sharpshooters behind his army as a disincentive to break ranks. Despite his skill, Washington won few open-field battles with the British, and suffered several heartbreaking defeats.
Nevertheless, in the face of such losses, of constant shortages of supplies and money, and of less than unified support from the colonists themselves, Washington kept his army together—ignoring some of the undisciplined antics of Daniel Morgan’s Virginians and the Pennsylvania riflemen—and skillfully avoided any single crushing military debacle that would have doomed the Revolution. What he lacked in tactics, he made up for in strategy, realizing that with each passing day the British positions became more untenable. Other colonial leaders were more intellectually astute, perhaps; and certainly many others exhibited flashier oratorical skills. But more than any other individual of the day, Washington combined a sound mind with practical soldier’s skills; a faith in the future melded with an impeccable character; and the ability to wield power effectively without aspiring to gain from it personally (he accepted no pay while commander in chief, although he kept track of expenses owed him). In all likelihood, no other single person possessed these essential qualities needed to hold the Revolutionary armies together. It is not too much to suggest that if George Washington was killed at Princeton while riding between the lines, there would be no independent America today.
He personified a spirit among militia and regular soldiers alike, that Americans possessed superior fighting capabilities to the British military. They “pressed their claim to native courage extravagantly because they went to war reluctantly.”61 Americans sincerely believed they had an innate courage that would offset British advantages in discipline: “Gunpowder and Lead shall be our Text and Sermon both,” exclaimed one colonial churchgoer.62 Led by Washington’s example, the interrelationship between the freeman and the soldier strengthened as the war went on.
“Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!”
Washington shuddered upon assuming command of the 30,000 troops surrounding Boston on July 3, 1775. He found fewer than fifty cannons and an ill-equipped “mixed multitude of people” comprising militia from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. (Franklin actually suggested arming the military with bows and arrows!)63 Although Washington theoretically commanded a total force of 300,000 scattered throughout the American colonies, in fact, he had a tiny actual combat force. Even the so-called regulars lacked discipline and equipment, despite bounties offered to attract soldiers and contributions from patriots to bolster the stores. Some willingly fought for what they saw as a righteous cause or for what they took as a threat to their homes and families, but others complained that they were “fed with promises” or clothed “with filthy rags.”64 Scarce materials drove up costs for the army and detracted from an efficient collection and distribution of goods, a malady that plagued the colonial armies until the end of the war. Prices paid for goods and labor in industry always exceeded those that the Continental Congress could offer—and beyond its ability to raise in taxation—making it especially difficult to obtain troops. Nevertheless, the regular units provided the only stable body under Washington’s command during the conflict—even as they came and went routinely because of the expiration of enlistment terms.
Against the ragtag force mustered by the colonies, Great Britain pitted a military machine that had recently defeated the French and Spanish armies, supplied and transported by the largest, best-trained, and most lavishly supplied navy on earth. Britain also benefited from numerous established forts and outposts; a colonial population that in part remained loyal; and the absence of immediate European rivals who could drain time, attention, or resources from the war in America. In addition, the British had an able war commander in the person of General William Howe and several experienced officers, such as Major General John Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis.
Nevertheless, English forces faced a number of serious, if unapparent, obstacles when it came to conducting campaigns in America. First and foremost, the British had to operate almost exclusively in hostile territory. That had not encumbered them during the French and Indian War, so, many officers reasoned, it would not present a problem in this conflict. But in the French and Indian War, the British had the support of most of the local population; whereas now, English movements were usually reported by patriots to American forces, and militias could harass them at will on the march.
Second, command of the sea made little difference in the outcome of battles in interior areas. Worse, the vast barrier posed by the Atlantic made resupply and reinforcement by sea precarious, costly, and uncertain. Communications also hampered the British: submitting a question to the high command in England might entail a three-month turnaround time, contingent upon good weather.
Third, no single port city offered a strategic center from which British forces could deploy. At one time the British had six armies in the colonies, yet they never managed to bring their forces together in a single, overwhelming campaign. They had to conduct operations through a wide expanse of territory, along a number of fronts involving seasonal changes from snow in New Hampshire to torrid heat in the Carolinas, all the while searching for rebels who disappeared into mountains, forests, or local towns.
Fourth, British officers, though capable in European-style war, never adapted to fighting a frontier rebellion against another western-style army that had already adjusted to the new battlefield. Competent leaders such as Howe made critical mistakes, while less talented officers like Burgoyne bungled completely. At the same time, Washington slowly developed aggressive officers like Nathaniel Greene, Ethan Allen, and (before his traitorous actions) Benedict Arnold.
Fifth, England hoped that the Iroquois would join them as allies, and that, conversely, the colonists would be deprived of any assistance from the European powers. Both hopes were dashed. The Iroquois Confederacy declared neutrality in 1776, and many other tribes agreed to neutrality soon thereafter as a result of efforts by Washington’s able emissaries to the Indians. A few tribes fought for the British, particularly the Seneca and Cayuga, but two of the Iroquois Confederacy tribes actively supported the Americans and the Onondaga divided their loyalties. As for keeping the European nations out, the British succeeded in officially isolating America only for a short time before scores of European freedom fighters poured into the colonies. Casimir Pulaski, of Poland, and the Marquis de Lafayette, of France, made exemplary contributions; Thaddeus Kosciusko, another Pole, organized the defenses of Saratoga and West Point; and Baron von Steuben, a Prussian captain, drilled the troops at Valley Forge, receiving an informal promotion from Benjamin Franklin to general.
Von Steuben’s presence underscored a reality that England had overlooked in the conflict—namely, that this would not be a battle against common natives who happened to be well armed. Quite the contrary, it would pit Europeans against their own. British success in overcoming native forces had been achieved by discipline, drill, and most of all the willingness of essentially free men to submit to military structures and utilize European close-order, mass-fire techniques.65 In America, however, the British armies encountered Continentals who fought with the same discipline and drill as they did, and who were as immersed in the same rights-of-Englishmen ideology that the British soldiers themselves had grown up with.
It is thus a mistake to view Lexington and Concord, with their pitiable shot-to-kill ratio, as constituting the style of the war. Rather, Saratoga and Cowpens reflected the essence of massed formations and shock combat, with the victor usually enjoying the better ground or generalship. Worth noting also is the fact that Washington’s first genuine victory came over mercenary troops at Trenton, not over English redcoats, though that too would come. Even that instance underscored the superiority of free soldiers over indentured troops of any kind.
Sixth, Great Britain’s commanders in the field each operated independently, and each from a distance of several thousand miles from their true command center, Whitehall. No British officer in the American colonies had authority over the entire effort, and ministerial interventions often reflected not only the woefully outdated appraisals of the situation—because of the delay in reporting intelligence—but also the internal politics that afflicted the British army until well after the Crimean War.
Finally, of course, France decisively entered the fray in 1778, sensing that, in fact, the young nation might actually survive, and offering the French a means to weaken Britain by slicing away the North American colonies from her control, and providing sweet revenge for France’s humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War. The French fleet under Admiral François Joseph de Grasse lured away the Royal Navy, which secured Cornwallis’s flanks at Yorktown, winning at Sandy Hook one of the few great French naval victories over England. Without the protection of the navy’s guns, Yorktown fell. There is little question that the weight of the French forces tipped the balance in favor of the Americans, but even had France stood aside, the British proved incapable of pinning down Washington’s army, and despite several victories had not broken the will of the colonists.
Immediately before Washington took command, the first significant battle of the conflict occurred at Breed’s Hill. Patriot forces under General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott had occupied the bluffs by mistake, intending instead to occupy Bunker Hill. The position overlooked the port of Boston, permitting the rebels to challenge ships entering or leaving the port and even allowing the Americans to shell the city itself if they so desired. William Howe led a force of British troops in successive assaults up the hill. Although the redcoats eventually took Breed’s Hill when the Americans ran out of ammunition, the cost proportionately to the British was enormous. Almost half the British troops were either killed or wounded, and an exceptional number of officers died (12 percent of all British officers killed during the entire war). England occupied the heights and held Boston, but even that success proved transitory.
In May 1775 Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Fort Ticonderoga in New York from the British. Henry Knox and his men then began the tedious hauling of the fort’s cannons to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston—a difficult process of dragging the guns on sleds over 230 miles through heavy winter ice. With Knox’s cannons in place on the Heights, Washington could cut the British supply line, forcing them to evacuate on St. Patrick’s Day, taking a thousand Tories, or Loyalists, with them to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Only two weeks before, in North Carolina, patriot forces had defeated a body of Tories, the Royal Governor’s Highlander Scots, and in June a British assault on Charleston was repulsed by 600 militiamen protected by a palmetto-wood Fort Sullivan.
While besieging Boston in the fall of 1775, Washington’s army went on the offensive by way of a two-pronged invasion of Canada. Richard Montgomery led a force across Lake Champlain and through Montreal, while Benedict Arnold took an expedition through the woods of northern Maine to assault Quebec from the rear. Arnold’s 1,100-man force soon dwindled to only 600 half-starved and nearly naked men. Outnumbered by the Quebec garrison, Arnold had to await Montgomery; they finally attacked on the last day of 1775 because the New York militiamen’s enlistments were up and they had threatened to leave. To their credit, the militia adhered to the terms of their December 31 discharge and fought. Montgomery was felled immediately and Arnold wounded. The bulk of the American army was trapped and forced to surrender. Even in defeat, Arnold staged a stubborn retreat that prevented British units under General Guy Carleton from linking up with General Howe in New York. Unfortunately, although Washington appreciated Arnold’s valor, few others did. Arnold’s theater commanders considered him a spendthrift, and even held him under arrest for a short time, leading the hero of many of America’s early battles to become bitter and vengeful to the point of his eventual treason.
Gradually, even the laissez-faire American armies came to appreciate the value of discipline, drill, and long-term commitment, bolstered by changing enlistment terms and larger cash bonuses for signing up. It marked a slow but critical replacement of Revolutionary zeal with proven military practices, and an appreciation for the necessity of a trained army in time of war.66
While the northern campaign unfolded, British reinforcements arrived in Halifax, enabling Howe to launch a strike against New York City with more than 30,000 British and German troops. His forces landed on Staten Island on July second, the day Congress declared independence. Supported by his brother, Admiral Lord Howe, General Howe drove out Washington’s ill-fed and poorly equipped army, captured Long Island, and again threatened Washington’s main force. Confronted with a military disaster, Washington withdrew his men across the East River and into Manhattan. Howe missed an opportunity to capture the remainder of Washington’s troops, but he had control of New York. Loyalists flocked to the city, which became a haven for Tories throughout the war.
Washington had no alternative but to withdraw through New Jersey and across the Delaware River, in the process collecting or destroying all small vessels to prevent the British from following easily. At that point the entire Revolution might have collapsed under a less capable leader: he had only 3,000 men left of his army of 18,000, and the patriot forces desperately needed a victory. In the turning point of the war, Washington not only rallied his forces but staged a bold counterattack, recrossing the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, against a British army (made up of Hessian mercenaries) at Trenton. “The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their march thro’ a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate [the troops’] Ardour. But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward,” Washington wrote.67 At a cost of only three casualties, the patriots netted over 900 Hessian prisoners. Washington then hastily retreated back nine miles and crossed the Delaware again in freezing cold. The attack was extraordinary in every way. Washington then waited for Cornwallis on the south side of Trenton, lulling him into thinking the Continental Army was trapped. But he then marched around the British at night and slammed into Cornwallis’s rear positions at Princeton, where he dealt the British another blow in early January 1777. There, the General rode between the British and American lines (about seventy-five yards apart) and called to his troops “Parade with us, my brave fellows . . . we will have them directly.”68 The British fired a full volley, but missed Washington and his horse. Washington, who normally was reserved in his comments about his troops, proudly informed Congress that the “Officers and Men who were engaged in the Enterprize behaved with great firmness, poise, advance and bravery and such as did them the highest honour.”69 Despite the fact that large British armies remained in the field, in two daring battles Washington regained all the momentum lost in New York and sent a shocking message to the befuddled British that, indeed, they were in a war after all.
Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence
As Washington’s ragtag army tied up British forces, feelings for independence grew more intense. The movement awaited only a spokesman who could galvanize public opinion around resistance against the king. How unlikely, then, was the figure that emerged! Thomas Paine had come to America just over a year before he wrote Common Sense, arriving as a failure in almost everything he attempted in life. He wrecked his first marriage, and his second wife paid him to leave. He destroyed two businesses (one as a tobacconist and one as a corset maker) and flopped as a tax collector. But Paine had fire in his blood and defiance in his pen. In January 1776 he wrote his fifty-page political tract, Common Sense, but his “The American Crisis,” published eleven months later, during the darkest time of the Revolution, began with some of the most memorable lines in history: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.”70 Eager readers did not shrink from the book, which quickly sold more than a hundred thousand copies. Paine sold close to a half-million copies prior to 1800, which was the equivalent of selling twelve million today, meaning that one in six American homes had seen Common Sense. He could have been a wealthy man—if he hadn’t donated every cent he earned to the Revolution! Common Sense provided the prelude to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that appeared in July 1776. Paine argued that the time for loyalty to the king had ended: “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘Tis Time to Part.’”
He thus tapped into widespread public sentiment, evidenced by the petitions urging independence that poured into the Continental Congress. Many colonial delegations received instructions from home to support independence by May 1776. On May fifteenth, Virginia resolved in its convention to create a Declaration of Rights, a constitution, a federation, and foreign alliances, and in June it established a republican government, for all intents and purposes declaring its independence from England. Patrick Henry became governor. Virginia led the way, and when the state congressional delegations were sent to vote on independence, only Virginia’s instructions were not conditional: the Commonwealth had already thrown down the gauntlet.71
In June, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” The statement so impressed John Adams that he wrote, “This day the Congress has passed the most important resolution . . . ever taken in America.”72 As the momentum toward separation with England grew, Congress appointed a committee to draft a statement announcing independence. Members included Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and the chairman, Thomas Jefferson, to whom the privilege of writing the final draft fell. Jefferson wrote so eloquently and succinctly that Adams and Franklin made only a few alterations, including Franklin’s “self-evident” phrase. Most of the changes had to do with adding references to God.
Even so, the final document remains a testament to the skill of Jefferson in capturing the essence of American ideals. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote, that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”73 It is worth noting that Jefferson recognized that humans were “created” by a Supreme Being, and that all rights existed only in that context. Further reiterating Locke, he wrote that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.” Government was natural, not artificial, so that when one government disappeared, the citizenry needed to establish another. But it should be kept in mind that these “self-evident” rights constituted “an escalating sequence of connected assertions” that ended in revolution, appealing not only to God, but to English history and law.74
This distanced Jefferson from the writings of Hobbes, and even though he borrowed heavily from Locke, he had further backed away from the notion that the civil state was artificial. On the other hand, Jefferson, by arguing that men “instituted” governments, borrowed entirely from the Enlightenment proposition that government was a human creation in the first place. In short, the Declaration clearly illustrated the dual strains of Western thought that had emerged as predominant by the 1700s: a continuing reverence for the primacy of God in human affairs, and yet an increasing attraction to the notion that earthly systems depended on human intellect and action, even when all aspects of that philosophy were not fully embraced.
Jefferson’s original draft, however, contained “censures on the English people” that some in Congress found excessive, and revisions, despite John Adams’s frequent defenses of Jefferson’s words, excised those sentences. The most offensive was Jefferson’s traditional Virginia account of American slavery’s being the fault of England. But any criticism of slavery—no matter whose fault—also indicted the slave colonies, and was not tolerated.75 After a bitter debate over these phrases, and other editing that changed about half of the draft, Congress adopted the final Declaration on July 4, 1776, after adopting a somewhat less refined version on July second. Two weeks later Congress voted to have the statement engrossed on parchment and signed by the members, who either appeared in person on August second or later affixed their names (Hancock’s being the largest since he, reportedly, wanted the king to be able to read it without his spectacles). Each one of the fifty-six signers knew that the act of signing the Declaration made them traitors to the Crown, and therefore the line in which the delegates “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” literally exposed these heroes to execution. By the end of the war, almost every one had lost his property; many had lost wives and families to British guns or prisons; and several died penniless, having given all to the Revolution.
North to Saratoga
Following his stunning surprise attack at Trenton and his subsequent victory at Princeton, Washington experienced defeats at Brandywine Creek and Germantown. In the second battle, the Americans nearly won and only the timely arrival of reinforcements gave the British a victory. Washington again had to retreat, this time to winter quarters at Valley Forge, near Philadelphia.
What ensued was one of the darkest times for Washington and his army: while the British enjoyed warmth and food in one of America’s richest cities, the Continentals suffered through a miserable winter, decimated by illness and starvation, eating soup made of “burnt leaves and dirt.” Washington deluged Congress with letters and appeals. “Soap, Vinegar, and other Articles allowed by Congress we see none,” he wrote. Few men had more than a shirt, and some “none at all, and a number of Men confined to Hospitals for want of shoes.”76 Gradually, the army obtained supplies and equipment, and in the Spartan environment Washington fashioned a disciplined fighting force. Washington proved the glue that held the entire operation together. Consistent and unwavering, he maintained confidence in front of the men, all the while pouring a steady stream of requests for support to the Congress, which was not so much unreceptive as helpless: its only real source of income was the confiscation of Tory properties, which hardly provided the kind of funds demanded by armies in the field. The printing of paper money—continentals—had proven a disaster, and American commanders in the field had taken to issuing IOUs in return for food, animals, and other supplies. Yet in that frozen Pennsylvania hell, Washington hammered the Americans into a tough fighting force while the British grew lazy and comfortable, especially in New York and Philadelphia. Franklin quipped that Howe did not take Philadelphia so much as Philadelphia had taken Howe. The policy of occupying and garrisoning “strategic hamlets” proved no more successful in the 1770s than it did just under two hundred years later when the American army tried a similar strategy in Vietnam, and with much the same effect on the morale of the occupiers.
Howe’s was not the only British army engaging the Americans. General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne launched an invasion of the Mohawk Valley, where he was to be supported by a second British column coming from Oswego under Barry St. Leger. A third British force under Howe was to join them by moving up the Hudson. The plan came apart rapidly in that Howe never moved north, and St. Leger retreated in the face of Benedict Arnold and Nicholas Herkimer’s forces. Further, the Indian allies of the British abandoned them, leaving Burgoyne in a single column with extended supply lines deep in enemy territory. Having forgotten the fate of Varus’s Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest centuries earlier, Burgoyne’s wagons bore the general’s fine china, best dress clothes, four-poster bed, and his mistress—with all her personal belongings. (His column’s entourage included four hundred “women camp-followers,” some wives; many paid servants; some, prostitutes.) Whatever their intangible contributions to morale, they slowed Burgoyne’s army to a crawl.
After capturing Ticonderoga and scattering American forces at Hubbardton, the British suffered a serious reverse when a scavenging party ran into American forces at Bennington, Vermont, and were defeated. When news of the victory reached New England towns, militia flooded into General Horatio Gates’s command. He had 12,000 militia and 5,000 regulars facing Burgoyne’s 6,000 troops with their extended supply lines. Burgoyne sensed he had to break the colonial armies before he was surrounded or his overtaxed transport system collapsed, prompting him to launch two attacks at Freeman’s Farm near Saratoga in September and October. The patriots decisively won the second encounter, leaving Burgoyne to ponder escape or surrender. Still placing his faith in reinforcements that, unbeknownst to him, would not arrive, Burgoyne partied in Saratoga, drinking and cavorting with his mistress. On October seventeenth, facing total defeat and with his army hungry, stranded, and surrounded, Burgoyne surrendered his entire force as the band played “Yankee Doodle.” In this age of civility in warfare, the defeated British negotiated a “convention” rather than a “capitulation” under terms that specified the men could return to Europe under parole, but after Burgoyne hesitated to supply a listing of all troops, Congress revoked the terms and Burgoyne’s army spent the remainder of the war in American captivity. Burgoyne himself received free passage back to England.
Trust the French
When spring arrived, the victory at Saratoga, and the thousands of arms it brought to Washington’s forces, gave Americans a new resolve. The ramifications of Saratoga stretched far beyond the battlefields of North America, all the way to Europe, where the colonists had courted France as a potential ally since the outbreak of hostilities. France sensibly stayed out of the conflict until the patriots proved they had a chance of surviving. After Saratoga, however, Louis XVI agreed to discreetly support the American Revolution with munitions and money. A number of factors accounted for the willingness of France to risk involvement. First, the wounds of the Seven Years’ War still ached, and France wanted revenge. Second, if America won independence without the help of European allies, French (and Spanish) territories in North America might be considered fair game for takeover by the new republic. Finally, any policy that weakened English power abroad was viewed favorably at Versailles. Beginning in 1776, the Spanish trading company, Rodrigue Hortalez et Ce, acting as France’s agent, shipped over 30,000 muskets, 200 cannons, 25,000 uniforms, and a million pounds of powder to the patriot army (accounting for perhaps 90 percent of the American total powder).
Even before official help arrived from Louis’s court, numbers of individual Frenchmen had volunteered for service in the Continental Army, many seeking merely to advance mercenary careers abroad. Some came strictly for glory, including the extremely talented Louis Berthier, later to gain fame as Napoleon’s chief of staff. More than a few sincerely wished to see America succeed for idealistic reasons, including Lafayette, the young nobleman who in 1777 presented himself to Washington, who accorded him a nomination for major general. But the colonies needed far more than laundered money and a handful of adventurers: they needed the French navy to assist in transporting the Continental Army—giving it the mobility the British enjoyed—and they could benefit from the addition of French troops as well.
To that end, the Continental Congress dispatched Silas Deane in early 1776 as its agent to Paris, and several months later Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin joined him. Franklin emerged as the premier representative in France, not just because Congress recalled Deane in 1777, but because the droll Franklin was received as a celebrity by the Parisians. Varying his dress from Quaker simplicity to frontier buckskins, the clever Pennsylvanian effortlessly quoted Voltaire or Newton, yet he appealed to common footmen and chambermaids. Most important to the struggle to enlist French aid, however, Franklin adroitly utilized British conciliation proposals to convince France that America might attain independence without her. In February 1778 France signed commercial and political treaties with the Continental Congress, agreeing that neither side would make a separate peace without the other.
Spain joined the war in April 1779 as an ally of France for the purpose of regaining Gibraltar, Minorca, Jamaica, and Florida. By 1780, France and Spain had put more than 120 warships into action in the American theater and, combined with the heroic, harassing escapades of John Paul Jones, menaced British shipping lanes, besieged Gibraltar, threatened Jamaica, and captured Mobile and Pensacola. French ships commanded by Admiral Jean-Baptiste d’Estaing even mounted an unsuccessful attack on Newport, Rhode Island, before retreating to the West Indies.
British abuses at sea already had alienated Holland, which in 1780 joined Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, and Russia in the League of Armed Neutrality, whose members agreed their ships would fire on approaching British vessels at sea rather than submit to boarding. In an amazing display of diplomatic ineptitude, Britain had managed to unite all the major navies of the world against its quest to blockade a group of colonies that lacked a navy of their own! Not only did that place all of England’s supply and transport strategies in America at risk, but it internationalized the war in such a way as to make England seem a bully and a villain. Perhaps most important of all, the aid and support arrived at the very time that Washington’s army had dwindled to extremely low levels.
Southern Invasion, Northern Betrayal
Despite the failures at Trenton, Princeton, and Saratoga, the British still fielded five substantial armies in North America. British generals also concluded, however, that their focus on the northern colonies had been misplaced, and that their true base of loyalist support lay in the South. Georgia and the Carolinas contained significant numbers of Tories, allowing the British forces to operate in somewhat friendly territory. In 1778 the southern offensive began when the British landed near Savannah.
In the meantime, Washington suffered a blow of a personal nature. Benedict Arnold, one of his most capable subordinates and an officer who had been responsible for victories at Ticonderoga, Quebec, and, in part, Saratoga, chafed under the apparent lack of recognition for his efforts. In 1778–79 he commanded the garrison in Philadelphia, where he married Peggy Shippen, a wealthy Tory who encouraged his spending and speculation. In 1779 a committee charged him with misuse of official funds and ordered Washington to discipline Arnold. Instead, Washington, still loyal to his officer, praised Arnold’s military record.
Although he received no official reprimand, Arnold had amassed huge personal debts, to the point of bankruptcy. Arnold played on Washington’s trust to obtain a command at the strategic fort West Point, on the Hudson, whereupon he intrigued to turn West Point over to British general Henry Clinton. Arnold used a courier, British major John André, and nearly succeeded in surrendering the fort. André—wearing civilian clothes that made him in technical terms a spy—stumbled into the hands of patriots, who seized the satchel of papers he carried. Arnold managed to escape to England, but André was tried and executed for his treason (and later interred as an English national hero at Westminster Abbey). Britain appointed Arnold a brigadier general and gave him command of small forces in Virginia; and he retired to England in 1781, where he ended his life bankrupt and unhappy, his name in America equated with treason. As colonial historian O. H. Chitwood observed, if Arnold “could have remained true to his first love for a year longer his name would probably now have a place next to that of Washington in the list of Revolutionary heroes.”77
Events in the South soon required Washington’s full attention. The British invasion force at Savannah turned northward in 1779, and the following year two British columns advanced into the Carolinas, embattled constantly by guerrilla fighters Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and the famed “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion. Lord Cornwallis managed to forge ahead, engaging and crushing a patriot army at Camden, but this only brought the capable Nathaniel Greene to command over the inept Horatio Gates. (Upon receiving Washington’s order to assume command of the southern Continental Army, Greene told his wife, “What I have been dreading has come to pass.”) Greene embraced Washington’s view that avoiding defeat was as important as winning battles, becoming a master at what Russell Weigley calls “partisan war,” conducting a retreat designed to lure Cornwallis deep into the Carolina interior.78
Cornwallis found his movements checked in October 1780 at Kings Mountain, when British Major Patrick Ferguson and more than 1,100 Loyalists were killed or captured by fewer than 1,000 patriot militia. It constituted one of the high points of the American militia and shattered the Tory movement in the South.
* * *
At Cowpens (January 1781), colonial troops under Daniel Morgan met Sir Banastre Tarleton’s force of 1,150 men (including the famed 71st Highlanders) near the Broad River, dealing the British a “severe” and “unexpected” blow, according to Cornwallis. Nevertheless, the British general was energized by the defeats. The American army under Nathaniel Greene attacked at Guilford Courthouse, and while the Americans retreated, it was Cornwallis who left the Carolinas once and for all. After obtaining reinforcements and supplies, Cornwallis pressed northward after Greene into Virginia, where he expected to join up with larger contingents of British forces coming down from the northern seaboard.
Washington then saw his opportunity to mass his forces with Greene’s and take on Cornwallis one on one. Fielding 5,000 troops reinforced by another 5,000 French, Washington quickly marched southward from New York, joining with French Admiral Joseph de Grasse in a coordinated strike against Cornwallis in Virginia.
By that time, Washington’s men had not been paid for months, a situation soon remedied by Robert Morris, the “financier of the Revolution.” News arrived that the Resolve had docked in Boston with two million livres from France, and the coins were hauled to Philadelphia, where the Continental troops received their pay. Alongside the formal, professional-looking French troops, Washington’s men looked like a rabble. But having survived the winter camps and evaded the larger British armies, they had gained confidence. It was hardly the same force that Washington had led in retreat two years earlier. Now, Washington’s and Rochambeau’s forces arrived in the Chesapeake Bay region, where they met a second French column led by Lafayette, and together the Franco-American forces outnumbered the British by 7,000 men.
Cornwallis, having placed his confidence in the usually reliable Royal Navy, was distressed to learn that de Grasse had defeated a British fleet in early September, depriving the general of reinforcements. (It was the only major victory in the history of the French navy.) Although not cut off from escape entirely, Cornwallis—then fortified at Yorktown—depended on rescue by a British fleet that had met its match on Chesapeake Bay. Over the course of three weeks, the doomed British army held out against Henry Knox’s artillery siege and Washington’s encroaching trenches, which brought the Continentals and French steadily closer. As American general George Weedon aptly noted, “We have got [Cornwallis] in a pudding bag.”79 Ultimately, large British redoubts had to be taken with a direct attack, and Washington ordered nighttime bayonet charges to surprise the defenders. Alexander Hamilton captured one of the redoubts, which fell on the night of October 10, 1781, and the outcome was assured. Nine days later Cornwallis surrendered. As his men stacked their arms, they “muttered or wept or cursed,” and the band played “The World Turned Upside Down.”80 Nevertheless, in October of 1781, Britain fielded four other armies in North America, but further resistance was futile, especially with the French involved. Washington had proven himself capable not only of commanding troops in the field but also of controlling a difficult international alliance. The colonists had shown themselves—in large part thanks to Robert Morris—clever enough to shuffle money in order to survive. Tory sentiment in America had not provided the support England hoped, and efforts to keep the rebels isolated from the Dutch and Spanish also had collapsed. As early as 1775, British Adjutant General John Harvey recognized that English armies could not conquer America, and he likened it to driving a hammer into a bin of corn, with the probable outcome that the hammer would disappear. Although they controlled Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, and Charleston, the British never subdued the countryside, where nine out of their fourteen well-equipped forces were entirely captured or destroyed. In the nine Continental victories, British losses totaled more than 20,000 men—not serious by subsequent Napoleonic standards, but decisive compared to the total British commitment in North America of 50,000 troops. But it came at great cost: at least 40,000 American patriots died from all causes, and the number might be as high as 60,000, or at least double that of the British.
Although Washington never equaled the great military tacticians of Europe, he specialized in innovative uses of riflemen and skirmishers, and skillfully maneuvered large bodies of men in several night operations, then a daunting command challenge. By surviving blow after blow, Washington (and Greene as well) conquered. (In 1781, Greene even quipped, “Don’t you think that we bear beating very well, and that . . . the more we are beat, the better we grow?”)81
The Treaty of Paris, 1783
In April 1782, John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin opened negotiations with British envoy Richard Oswald.82 Oswald knew Franklin and was sympathetic to American positions. By November, the negotiations were over, but without the French, who still wanted to obtain territorial concessions for themselves and the Spanish. Although the allies originally agreed to negotiate together, by 1783, French foreign minister Vergennes was concerned America might obtain too much western territory in a settlement, and thus become too powerful. America ignored the French, and on November 30, 1782, representatives from England and America signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the War of Independence.
The treaty also established the boundaries of the new nation: to the south, Spain held Florida and New Orleans; the western boundary was the Mississippi River; and the northern boundary remained what it had been ante bellum under the Quebec Act. Americans had the rights to fish off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and vessels from England and America could navigate the Mississippi River freely. France, having played a critical role in the victory, came away from the conflict with only a few islands in the West Indies and a terrific debt, which played no small part in its own revolution in 1789. Spain never recovered Gibraltar, but did acquire the Floridas, and continued to lay a claim to the Louisiana Territory until 1802. Compensation for losses by the Tories was a sticking point because technically the individual states, and not the Continental Congress, had confiscated their properties. Nevertheless, the commissioners ultimately agreed to recommend that Congress encourage the states to recompense Loyalists for their losses. In sum, what Washington gained on the field, Jay and Franklin more than held at the peace table.83
One final ugly issue raised its head in the negotiations. American negotiators insisted that the treaty provide for compensation to the owners of slaves who had fled behind British lines. It again raised the specter, shunted away at the Continental Congress’s debate over the Declaration, that the rights of Englishmen—or, in this case, of Americans—still included the right to own slaves. It was a dark footnote to an otherwise impressive diplomatic victory won by the American emissaries at the peace negotiations.84
A Nation of Law, 1776–89
Gary Wills aptly described the early Revolutionaries’ efforts at making new governments as “inventing America.”1 Alexander Hamilton’s biographer, Ron Chernow, noted that the Revolution had “produced an insatiable need for thinkers who could generate ideas and wordsmiths who could lucidly expound them,” providing “an incalculable tonic for the founding generation.2 Yet now, having drunk the tonic, who could apply those ideas in a practical construct that would effectively govern the nation? Who could encapsulate such ideas in a way that the freedoms gained in blood would not be lost in ink? Jefferson’s Declaration literally wiped the slate clean, providing the new nation’s leaders with tremendous opportunities to experiment in the creation of the Republic. Yet these opportunities were fraught with dangers and uncertainties; the Revolutionary Whigs might fail, just as the Roundheads had failed in the English Civil War, and just as the Jacobins in France would soon fail in their own revolution. Liberty, once gained through the bayonet, had to be preserved by the ballot.
Instead, these “founding brothers” succeeded. The story of how they invented America is crucial in understanding the government that has served the United States for more than two hundred years, and, more broadly, the growth of republican institutions in Western civilization. John Adams knew the opportunities and perils posed by the separation from England and the formation of a new government, noting that he and his contemporaries had been “thrown into existence at a period when the greatest philosophers and lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. A period when a coincidence of circumstances . . . has afforded to the thirteen Colonies . . . an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation.”3 Contrary to popular belief, America’s federal Constitution was not an immediate and inevitable result of the spirit of 1776. Indeed, briefly, in March 1783, some question existed about whether an army mutiny over pay might not result either in a military coup or Washington relenting to pressures to “take the crown,” as one colonel urged him to do. Instead, Washington met with the ringleaders, and while putting on his eyeglasses, shattered their hostility by explaining that he had “not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.”4 Their resistance melted, as did the neonatal movement to make him king—though the regal bearing stayed draped over him until the end. As late as 1790, Franklin observed of Washington’s walking stick, “If it were a sceptre, he would have merited it.”5 More than anyone, Washington knew that he had helped found a republic and for that reason, if no other, his presence at the Constitutional Convention was important, if not necessary.