From 1492 to 1877
The American story begins before there was an America at all, except in the imagination of peoples around the world, living in poverty and yearning for freedom. From its beginnings America has been a land of hope, a magnet for people looking for a new beginning, a new life for themselves and their families. Out of their efforts a new nation gradually came into being. It was a nation formed by men and women who believed that freedom meant being able to rule themselves, rather than being ruled over by distant kings and princes. Such a nation would be a great experiment, a large republic unlike any other in history. Through a brave war of independence, and wise acts of statecraft, its leaders created a system of government that could protect the ideals of freedom and self-rule that they cherished. It was a brilliant system. But it was far from perfect, especially in its permitting the continued existence of slavery. It could not prevent a bloody and wounding civil war, a terrible contest pitting brother against brother and testing the great experiment to the breaking point—testing, but not breaking. The nation came out of the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction battered, but with a future full of possibility lying ahead.
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Chapter 1: Beginnings
But where to begin? How far back do we go?
If we try to tell the whole story, we might end up going back many thousands of years. And there’s much we really don’t know for certain. We believe that the first human settlers came over into the western hemisphere perhaps 20,000–30,000 years ago from northeastern Asia, probably by crossing over what is now the Bering Strait, the frigid waters that separate Russia and Alaska. From there, we believe that these first immigrants to America gradually filtered outward and downward, eventually populating all of North and South America.
From those migrant peoples emerged some highly advanced cultures, which rose, flourished, and fell. The Mayas and Aztecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru, the North American settlements, the Pueblo of the Southwest – all of them blazed a trail across time but left behind for us only a few physical reminders of themselves, silent clues to a vanished way of life.
There is something haunting about these remaining traces of earlier civilizations. In a sense, they are a part of our history, even if we know next to nothing about them. Their mysterious life and death haunt us with a somber recognition: the realization that our civilization, too, is perishable and can disappear in the same way.
But we won’t begin our story with those civilizations past, for the simple reason that they had no direct or significant role in the establishment of the settlements and institutions that would eventually make up the country we know as the United States.
Neither did the later discovery and exploration around the year 1000 of a New World by adventurous Norse seamen, such as Leif Eriksson of Iceland. He tried to plant a colony in what is now the large Canadian island of Newfoundland. He and other Norsemen tried their best to establish a settlement in this chilly newfound land to the west. But their efforts came to nothing and are generally counted as historical curiosities. They are interesting false starts on American history, perhaps, but no more than that.
And yet, on further reflection, I need to modify that statement, for the lost civilizations of the first Americans and the episodic voyages of Eriksson and other Norsemen point toward the deepest sources of American history. They point to the presence of America in the world’s imagination as an idea, as a land of hope, of refuge and opportunity, of a second chance at life for those willing to take it. Ideas are as much a part of history as battles, elections, and other deeds. And that idea, and the persistence of that idea, is one of the themes of this book. It is in the book’s title itself.
Perhaps I am making a stretch here. After all, how can we ever know for sure what led those earliest peoples 20,000 years ago to cross over into Alaska and make the cold, dangerous journey to populate a new continent? How can we know what was in their minds? Were they pushed by war or scarcity? Were they hunters who were following their prey? Or were they pulled there by the sense of promise, opportunity, or adventure that those lands offered?
We don’t know. The answers to these questions will probably always remain beyond our reach. But we know that the Norsemen’s brave impulse of over a thousand years ago, which drove them to go forth in search of new lands, came out of something more than necessity. They were drawn to cross the icy and turbulent waters of the North Atlantic by the lure of available western lands and by a restless desire to explore and settle them. They were being influenced by ideas and sentiments that were already widespread in their time – a thousand years after Christ and five hundred years before Christopher Columbus.
From as far back as we know, there was always a fascination with the West, the land of the setting sun. Leif’s explorer father, Erik the Red, was playing on that very fascination when he gave the alluring name of “Greenland” to the largely frozen island we know by that name today. He was appealing to an idea already long embedded in literature, myth, and religion. The idea? That new lands of plenty and wonder and mystery were out there – perhaps even an earthly paradise – waiting to be found, lying somewhere in lands beyond the western horizon.
This message was especially appealing at the dawn of the new millennium, at a time when Europe was still struggling to get back on its feet after the collapse of the Roman Empire. But the message itself was not new. The ancient Greeks had spoken this way, a millennium and a half earlier. They sang of the Isles of the Blessed, where the heroes and gods of their mythology dwelled in a fertile land where there was no winter. They sang of the Elysian Fields, which the poet Homer located on the western edge of the earth, beside the stream of the world’s seas.
Centuries later, at the outset of a modern age of exploration, Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia (1516) described an ideal society located on an island in the West, as did Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627), whose very title recalled one of the most enduring legends of the West – the strange story of the isle of Atlantis, a fully developed past civilization with kings of great and mighty power that had been swallowed up by the seas and disappeared forever from view.
So the West had already been thought of, in Europe, as a symbol for renewal and discovery, a place of wealth and plenty, a land of hope – an anticipation of what a New World could be like.
So, since we must begin in the middle of things, we’ll start our history of America in the middle of Europe’s history. In fact, the two histories cannot be understood apart from one another. America is best understood as an offshoot of Europe; even the name “America” comes from the first name of the Italian-born navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was among the first to speculate that the lands Columbus discovered were not part of Asia but part of an entirely new landmass.
But America would prove to be an unusual kind of offshoot. It was not like a new branch emerging out of the trunk of a great tree. Nor was it a careful and deliberate transplant, a copy of what had already been established in Europe. Instead, it would draw upon certain parts of Europe, particularly English laws and customs, fragments that had been broken off from the whole and would give those fragments a new home, in a new land where they could develop and flourish in ways that would never have been possible in their native land. But there was nothing systematic about it. So much of it was unpredictable, unplanned, unanticipated. The writer Lewis Mumford memorably expressed this surprising process in a single brilliant sentence: “The settlement of America had its origins in the unsettlement of Europe.”
What did Mumford mean by this? He meant that by the time of Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage in 1492, which was one of the main events in the making of America, Europe was becoming a dramatically different place from what it had been for the three preceding centuries, during the relatively stable and orderly years we now call the High Middle Ages (1000–1300). But by the Late Middle Ages (1300–1500), Europe was entering the modern age. It was no longer stable. Instead, it was becoming a place of widespread change, innovation, and disruption – in technology, in political and social practices, in economics, in religion.
If any one of these innovations or disruptions had come along just by itself, without the company of others – say, if the desire for an expansion of global commerce had not been accompanied by powerful new navigational instruments that made such commerce possible – its effects would have been far less pronounced. But by coming all together at once, these changes gathered strength from one another, so that they contributed to a more general transforming fire, as when many small blazes combine to fuel a large blaze.
This is what happens in all great historical transformations.
They arise not out of a single cause but out of the coming together of a large number of causes. This unsettling transformation of Europe that was already well under way in 1492 was throwing off flames that would land in other places and set off transformations there as well. The exploration and settlement of America would be one of the most consequential of these. It was, just as Mumford said, the product of a host of great European disruptions: economic, social, religious, technological, and cultural.