A Little History of the United States

A Little History of the United States

by James West Davidson


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"This is a little history with a big heart, meant to be savored more than studied, read out loud like poetry, or perhaps sung like a hymn."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers

"Davidson has written a work that should lead readers to reflect anew on America’s past and present. . . . We can all use not just a good refresher course on American history, but also some good historical thinking on how we might better realize freedom, equality, and E pluribus unum."—The Daily Beast

A fast-paced, character-filled history that brings the unique American saga to life for readers of all ages

How did a land and people of such immense diversity come together under a banner of freedom and equality to form one of the most remarkable nations in the world? Everyone from young adults to grandparents will be fascinated by the answers uncovered in James West Davidson’s vividly told A Little History of the United States. In 300 fast-moving pages, Davidson guides his readers through 500 years, from the first contact between the two halves of the world to the rise of America as a superpower in an era of atomic perils and diminishing resources.
In short, vivid chapters the book brings to life hundreds of individuals whose stories are part of the larger American story. Pilgrim William Bradford stumbles into an Indian deer trap on his first day in America; Harriet Tubman lets loose a pair of chickens to divert attention from escaping slaves; the toddler Andrew Carnegie, later an ambitious industrial magnate, gobbles his oatmeal with a spoon in each hand. Such stories are riveting in themselves, but they also spark larger questions to ponder about freedom, equality, and unity in the context of a nation that is, and always has been, remarkably divided and diverse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300223484
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Series: Little Histories
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 235,030
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

James West Davidson, a widely respected historian, has written on American history and the detective work that goes into it, as well as books about the outdoors. He lives in Rhinebeck, NY.

Read an Excerpt

A Little History of the United States

By James West Davidson, Gordon Allen


Copyright © 2015 James West Davidson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18252-1


Where the Birds Led

THE TALL, RED-FACED captain on the ship's deck stared into the heavens, his eyes as pale blue as the sky above. A large flock of birds was passing overhead. These were not the usual gulls that follow seafarers everywhere across the oceans, nor the little petrels that seek shelter by a ship's rudder when a storm threatens. These were land birds. Because they came from the north, the man decided, perhaps they were migrating — "flying from the winter" that was coming in some distant land. The birds were a sign — one that he badly needed — for surely they, too, were bound for land.

The other sailors gazed at the sky, but they also stole glances at their captain. "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," he called himself, but they didn't completely trust him. Although the ships and the crews were Spanish, Admiral Cristoforo Columbo came from the Italian port of Genoa. For five weeks in the late summer and autumn of 1492 the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria had sailed west across the Atlantic. No one on board had ever been out of sight of land for so many days. And they had seen nothing of the strange countries and grand riches this foreigner had promised. Maybe it was time to rise up and throw the admiral overboard rather than let him sail them all to their deaths.

Columbo was uneasy, too, though he refused to show it. He ordered the ship to change course. If the birds were going southwest, he would follow.

It had been a long journey for Cristoforo Columbo, or Christopher Columbus, as English speakers translate his name. The son of a weaver, Columbus had chosen the life of the sea instead of following his father's trade. For years Genoa had been a prosperous port whose vessels sailed the broad Mediterranean that Europeans knew so well, picking up silks, spices, and other luxuries at ports on its eastern shores. Those goods came from distant kingdoms in Asia, transported along a series of roads and trails thousands of miles long known as the Silk Road. Columbus eagerly devoured tales of an Italian trader named Marco Polo who had traveled those paths two hundred years earlier, all the way to Cathay (now called China), where Polo met its leader, the Great Khan, and wrote of fabulous marvels and riches beyond counting.

Columbus had traveled south along the coast of Africa, where the Portuguese were finding gold, ivory, and slaves to buy and sell. He had traveled north in the Atlantic almost to the Arctic. Visiting Ireland, he saw a rude boat drift into a harbor from out of the wide western waters. In the boat lay two dead people — "a man and a woman of extraordinary appearance." Some folk guessed the people looked so strange because they had been blown all the way from Cathay. Certainly they had not. But still, stories about the Atlantic fed Columbus's imagination.

Most scholars of the day understood that the world was round. For centuries, ancient books had recounted tales of islands far to the west where unknown peoples lived. Other writers guessed that a large continent might exist there, too, while still others insisted that the Atlantic stretched all the way to Asia, a distance far too great to sail. Columbus became convinced that the world was smaller than most geographers thought. To him, it seemed quite possible that someone from Europe could sail west to Cathay.

Columbus asked King John of Portugal to bankroll an expedition. Portugal faced the Atlantic, and its captains ventured regularly down the African coast. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias had sailed around Africa's southern tip into the Indian Ocean. His path became one water route that Europeans sailed to reach the treasures of India and Cathay. But Columbus's notion of a western route left King John distinctly unimpressed. "A big talker and boastful ... full of fancy and imagination," the king complained. And perhaps John was right. Columbus was stubborn, a little vain, and too sure of himself. In truth, the world was bigger than he thought. The distance from Portugal to China, heading west, is closer to twelve thousand miles than the twenty-five hundred Columbus guessed it might be.

But even wrong-headed men can accomplish much when they are stubborn. Columbus next took his ideas to Spain, ruled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They paid him little attention at first, being engaged in a war with Arab rulers from Africa, who for centuries had controlled much of Spain. Only after Ferdinand and Isabella drove out the last Arab armies did they agree to finance Columbus's voyage.

In August 1492 the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria set out with Columbus in command. He sailed south first, to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The winds in that part of the world made it easier to sail west. At night the sailors slept in their clothes wherever they could find a spot on deck. When daylight came a boy would sing a prayer: "Blessed be the light of day/ And the Holy Cross, we say." As the sun rose, the dew on deck would dry and the men would begin their chores. Flying fish leaped through the waters, even "coming on the deck in numbers." In calm seas, sailors swam alongside.

But such pleasures could not banish deeper worries. Where was the end of this vast ocean? At night, the silhouettes of migrating land birds still showed black against an almost full moon. Finally, at about 2:00 a.m. on October 12, the lookout on the Pinta cried out, "Tierra! Tierra!" — Land! Land! As the sun rose, the white sands of an island loomed up.

Where on earth were they? Off the coast of Cathay? Columbus burst with questions as one of the ship's boats rowed him toward shore. Marco Polo had spoken of a prosperous island named Cipangu (we call it Japan). This small spot surely could not be that. But was Cipangu nearby? Or was this some land no European had ever visited?

He spied a flash of movement on shore — then another. It seemed as if several people had run into the forest beyond the beach.

Who were they? Where was he? The waves pushed the boat up onto the beach, and Columbus stepped out.


A Continent in Space and Time

COLUMBUS WAS NOT THE first European to find North America. Five hundred years earlier, around AD 1000, Leif Erikson led a band of Norse men and women to the northern tip of what is today Newfoundland, Canada. From there, these Vikings explored a region they named Vinland. But the Norse settlements died out, and Europeans forgot about them. So Columbus's voyage was truly a landmark event. After 1492 the eastern half of the world would no longer be isolated from the western half.

If the island that Columbus first glimpsed was the one we now call San Salvador, as many think, it was a tiny piece of the continent: only about 63 square miles. The remaining 9,539,937 square miles of North America were still unknown to Columbus.

Today, the United States stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To understand how it became a nation of such great size, we must understand how the continent shaped history from the start. We must sense the space of North America as well as its place in time.

First, consider space. Starting at the top of a piece of blank paper, draw two broad vertical strokes, each sweeping down in a gentle inward curve until they almost meet at the bottom. The shape is a funnel, with a bit of a hook; and that is North America's basic outline. With the Atlantic Ocean bordering the east coast and the Pacific Ocean to the west, the land narrows down to the Isthmus of Panama. Panama's thin land bridge connects North and South America.

Next, draw a second set of lines inside the first, running roughly parallel. These are the continent's major mountain ranges. The eastern line represents the Appalachians, which run from Maine to Georgia. In the west, the procession of high peaks splits and rejoins, with the Cascade and the Sierra Nevada mountains running closest to the Pacific and the Rocky Mountains farther east. Between these western mountains lie the dry lands of the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake.

Mountains act as barriers. The Appalachians will make it difficult for people to travel from the level plains and rolling hills along the Atlantic coast west into the open prairies beyond. On the Pacific side, the Cascade and Sierra mountains will discourage people from moving west to east.

The mountains act as a barrier to weather, too. Rain clouds sweeping in from the Pacific rise as they cross the mountains. The warm air condenses as it moves into the colder mountaintops and falls as rain, usually west of the mountains. The Great Basin and the Great Plains to the east remain much drier. On the other hand, no mountain range stretches across the northern lands that make up present-day Canada. During the winter, frigid Arctic air can spill south, deep into the continent. The mountain ranges help funnel that cold air. In contrast, many of Europe and Asia's mountain ranges run east-west, such as the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Himalaya, and thus those mountains block Arctic air. The climate to the south remains milder.

During the summer, North America's funnel works the opposite way. Waves of heat flow north across the Plains and into Canada, sending temperatures into the nineties or sparking storms and tornados. These extremes of climate set North America apart. Newcomers from Europe will find temperatures colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than what many experienced at home.

North America's climate will affect history in countless ways. The dry open spaces of the Great Plains will push Indians to master the horse in order to hunt buffalo. With little wood on the prairies to build fences, American farmers will eagerly take up the invention of barbed wire, which will change life on the Plains forever. The barrier of the Appalachian Mountains will make it easier for the French to reach the middle of America from Canada, following the funnel and the rivers that drain it. Blizzards will trap wagon trains trying to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The warm southern climate will make it possible for slavery to spread — but only in part of the nation, not through all of it.

One more space on the map is worth noticing: the Caribbean Sea and its islands. The region is large. Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica are the biggest islands, known as the Greater Antilles. Cuba alone stretches 740 miles from end to end. If you laid it atop the United States, with one tip at New York City, it would stretch nearly to Chicago. Although these lands will not become part of the United States, the Caribbean Sea will act as the first major gateway for Europeans and Africans coming to the Americas.

So much for space. As for time, this history will cover roughly five hundred years. To a single person, that span is huge. Historians speak of a generation, the time from someone's birth until he or she is able to bring a new child into the world. If one generation spans about twenty years, then twenty-five generations of families will come and go over the course of our story.

On the other hand, five hundred years is a snap of the fingers compared to the time people have lived in North America. The first humans reached the continent about fourteen thousand years ago. At that time, a sheet of ice covered most of present-day Canada. In many places the ice was over two miles thick. (The map's dotted line shows how far south the ice sheet reached.) With so much water frozen, the ocean levels sank, opening up a broad stretch of land in the northwest, where the Bering Strait is now located. This land bridge allowed the first humans to make their way into an American continent utterly new to them.

Stretch your arm out to one side and sight down it. Imagine that the fourteen thousand years that humans have lived in North America begin at your shoulder and extend to the tips of your fingers. The last five hundred years of that history, which this book covers, begin only around the last inch of your fingers. In fact, the United States came into existence only in the last half of those five hundred years. That time span almost fits onto one fingernail.

Thinking of time in this way should humble us. Five hundred years may seem like a huge canvas upon which we paint our story. But looking down your outstretched arm, a fingernail looks pretty small. Then take those fourteen thousand years that fit along one arm and measure them against the previous 65 million years of North America's existence. That's the amount of time that passed between the end of the age of dinosaurs and the present. The dinosaurs died after a meteorite at least six miles wide came crashing down in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion was equal to setting off 100 million megatons of explosives. That big bang quite literally "fried America," as one scientist put it. In doing so, it wiped out thousands of plant and animal species and began the age of mammals. To include those years in our scale of time, keep your arm stretched out; then line up a friend behind you, with her arm extended for another fourteen thousand years; then another friend behind her, then another and another ... until forty-five hundred people snake out the door and into the street, arms stretched shoulder to shoulder, for two and a half miles. And remember that the history we're covering — everything you'll read in the next three hundred pages — takes place on the tip of your finger.


Out of One, Many

ON A FINE AUTUMN DAY, sunlight heats the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. As warm air rises, it creates an upward current that a hawk uses to soar above the land looking for prey. A sparrow hawk's eyesight is remarkably keen. Perched atop a sixty-foot tree, it can spy an insect on the ground the size of this i.

Imagine what you would see if you joined these birds on their journey south. Most people think of North America in 1492 as a vast, unspoiled wilderness teeming with wildlife. Indians, they imagine, can be glimpsed now and then: paddling a birch-bark canoe across a lake or pursuing buffalo on horseback. But such a picture would be highly misleading. To correct one detail immediately, remove the Indians on horseback. In 1492, no horses had been seen in North America for thirteen thousand years. In fact, some archaeologists believe that the earliest humans in North America killed off the horses as well as many gigantic mammals that roamed the land, including wooly mammoths and mastodons, giant sloths taller than a giraffe, and eight-foot lions.

Still, later European settlers reported immense numbers of wild animals in America. Virginia rivers were so full of fish that the hooves of horses killed them as English colonists trotted in the shallows. New York fishermen hauled in foot-long lobsters, which they preferred for "serving at table" because they were more convenient to eat than the five- and six-foot lobsters they also caught. Bison not only roamed the Great Plains but were also seen as far east as Pennsylvania and Virginia. So many passenger pigeons darkened the skies that when they landed to sleep, tree branches broke under their weight. In 1492, then, we certainly will see plenty of wildlife. Even so, such tales of plenty may be misleading. As we will see in chapter 5, the large numbers of animals may have been in part created by the arrival of Europeans in North America, strange as that may seem.

In 1492 around 8 million Indians lived in North America. That number is not large, especially for an entire continent. More than 8 million people live today in the city of New York. Still, the number is significant. To compare, the British Isles held 2 to 3 million inhabitants in 1492. France, Europe's most populous nation, had about 15 million people. And in Asia, over 100 million lived in China alone. So, thinking of 8 million Indians spread across North America, let's join the soaring hawks. What we see below is a continent that is less of a wilderness than we expected. No matter where we glide, almost everywhere we see plumes of smoke.


Excerpted from A Little History of the United States by James West Davidson, Gordon Allen. Copyright © 2015 James West Davidson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Introduction: Making History xi

1 Where the Birds Led 1

2 A Continent in Space and Time 5

3 Out of One, Many 10

4 A Golden Age and the Age of Gold 16

5 When Worlds Collide 23

6 How Can I Be Saved? 30

7 Saints and Strangers 38

8 Boom Country 45

9 Equal and Unequal 52

10 Enlightened and Awakened 60

11 Be Careful What You Wish For 66

12 More Than a Quarrel 75

13 Equal and Independent 83

14 More Perfect Union 92

15 Washington's Fear 99

16 Empire of Liberty 106

17 Man of the People 115

18 Cotton Kingdoms 123

19 Burned Over 131

20 Frontiers 138

21 Crossing the Line 148

22 What Was Coming 157

23 How Do You Reconstruct? 168

24 The Next Big Thing 176

25 The Color of Your Collar 183

26 A Tale of Two Cities 190

27 The New West 198

28 Luck or Pluck? 205

29 The Progressives 213

30 Smashup 222

31 The Masses 230

32 A New Deal 237

33 Global War 245

34 Superpower 254

35 The End of the World 263

36 You or You or You 270

37 The Avalanche 278

38 A Conservative Turn 286

39 Connected 294

40 The Past Asks More 302

Acknowledgments 310

Index 311


Who are the readers of this book, and how do you hope to inspire them?

This is a book for adults masquerading as one for young people. That’s said tongue-in-cheek, but still . . . When I was an eighth grader, the last thing I wanted to endure was high-minded civics lectures. So my first rule here is, treat younger readers as adults. Keep the story engaging and fast-paced, but also honest and about the big picture. Because there are also vast numbers of adults out there who had the American history beaten out of them in dull social studies classes. Those adults deserve better. And too few historians write for them.
Which key events in American history shaped the nation most powerfully?

I’d turn the question around. How do a thousand smaller pieces of history come together to shape key events? Look at the Civil War. If the purpose of a democratic republic is to resolve conflicts peacefully, then the Civil War is the republic’s biggest failure. How did that happen? It’s perhaps the strangest story in our history, of how the ideas of equality and liberty were growing and spreading at the very same time that inequality and slavery were becoming more deeply entrenched in American society.
Of the countless individuals in American history, do you have a favorite?

Many favorites, not one. But here’s a cliché: Washington. You know—the bland, blank face on the dollar bill? I found myself liking him more and more as I got to know him. In the depths of the Revolution, begging his bedraggled soldiers “in the most affectionate manner” to reenlist. Grinning, shouting, and waving a handkerchief at the prospect of trapping the British at Yorktown. So embarrassed by the honors heaped upon him on the way to his first inauguration, he rose early and snuck out of town before his escort could arrive. Somber toward the end of his life at the thought that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.” And on that, he was right.

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