Environmental Social Studies

  • Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project: Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them? Learn about the Californios Verdes, a group of young people inspired to take action on behalf of the environment in their hometown of La Paz, Mexico. Based on this model, students will devise their own public purpose project – a year-long project devised and carried out by students to improve quality of life, raise environmental awareness, or in some other way positively impact their community.
  • Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes): Read about John Steinbeck, the American author who took part in a voyage to collect scientific samples of species in the Sea of Cortez.  His vivid writing is an entry point for students into a discussion of ecosystems, ecosystem goods and services, and human impacts on ecosystems.  Afterwards, students will apply these concepts to surveying, quantifying, and mapping their own ecological footprint.
  • Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon: Until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Amazon Rainforest was incapable of sustaining large scale human development.  New findings have challenged this view, and evidence of ancient agriculture suggests that humans once developed this fragile region in ways so subtle that – in the form of carefully managed soils and prehistoric orchards – they have been hiding in plain sight all this time, challenging the basic tenants of “agriculture” as western eyes tend to recognize it.
  • The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities) For millennia before the arrival of Columbus, Native Americans shaped the environment around them to suit their needs, often in ways that were invisible from a European perspective.
  • The Three Sisters: Background information on the agricultural combination of maize (corn), beans, and squash that formed the backbone of the Mesoamerican and North American civilization, plus suggested activities.

Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project

Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?

This lesson was reported from:

The Californios Verdes – which means in English the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally-conscious young people based on the shores of the Sea of Cortez in La Paz, Mexico. In their own words, they are “a new generation of young leaders united by love of nature and interested in working for the conservation of the environment and a better quality of life.”

The members of Californios Verdes are alumni of environmental education programs run by Ecology Project International (EPI), a nonprofit organization which works in communities around the Americas to connect students to their local ecosystems through meaningful scientific field experiences.  These young citizens of La Paz, aged 17 to 25, were inspired by what they learned on the beaches and in the water around their hometown, but they found few opportunities within their community to exercise their newfound passion for environmental justice.

Undaunted, about a dozen of these young folks formed the Californios Verdes in 2011. Their mission? “To be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects.” Together, the Californios Verdes seek to realize the vision of “a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”

What exactly does that look like?

For the Californios Verdes, it means a weekly meeting, rain or shine, to organize and plan their public activities. One of their most successful campaigns saw the group advocating for a statewide ban on single-use plastics. These are the cups, straws, bags, and utensils given to you when your order takeout or buy something at the store. They are often used exactly once, maybe for just minutes, before ultimately ending up as refuse in world’s oceans. There, these plastics are frequently ingested by wildlife, sometimes killing the animal unfortunate enough to have mistaken them for food.

Some animals that consume these plastics are subsequently eaten by humans. What this means is that if you have ever eaten seafood, you likely carry a small amount of microplastic residue inside of your body!

This a shocking fact. The long term effects of these microplastics on the health of the world’s oceans – not to mention the health of the world’s humans – are not fully understood.

When the Californios Verdes learned all of this, they were motivated to take action. They canvassed the scenic waterfront in La Paz, educating the public not just about the need to dispose of plastic waste properly, but also how important it is to reduce demand for these plastics in the first place. They also helped to educate local restaurant and shop owners whose businesses rely heavily on the tourists drawn to La Paz by its natural beauty – a beauty that they themselves were jeopardizing through their reliance on single-use plastics.

It is no small understatement to say that the public education and lobbying efforts of the Californios Verdes were instrumental to enacting anti-single-use-plastic laws in their state. Representatives of the group were even invited to be present when the governor signed the bill into law.

This albatross died from the large quantities of plastic waste it ate. This plastic became lodged in its digestive tract. The bird effectively starved to death, even though its stomach was full. This is the exact kind of waste that the Californios Verdes have worked so hard to eliminate in their community. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

One of the Californios Verdes’ favorite projects involves educating the community about vulnerable ecosystems in the area surrounding La Paz. One such effort focuses on nearby Playa Balandra. This popular beach is prime real estate, and American-owned hotel chains have submitted various proposals to build resorts on its otherwise pristine shores. The Californios Verdes sponsor beach cleanups, cookouts, and nature hikes at Balandra – anything to help residents better understand why the promise of a few dozen hotel jobs today is worth little if it irrevocably disrupts the natural character that brings tourists to the region in the first place. They hope instead to spark the same sort of passion for the environment that EPI originally helped to awaken in them, thereby paving the way for even more robust community investment in green tourism and sustainable business in at Playa Balandra, in La Paz, and in their whole state.

Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. As Carlos, a seventeen year-old who rarely misses a meeting of the Californios Verdes puts it, “If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?”

The Californios Verdes at Playa Balandra, widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches. The Californios Verdes routinely work to educate the surrounding community about the importance of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

It’s inspirational to realize that the Californios Verdes, many of them too young to vote, have already done so much to help shape their community for the better. They are ground zero for a grassroots movement that aims to change the world, starting with their own city block in La Paz and radiating outward.


Public Purpose Project

Look, I hear you – your life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – you’re busy. And you’re a kid.

But so are the members of the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —

What have you done this week to make the world a better place?

Taking a cue from the Californios Verdes, every Friday for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. This is very much going to be a student-directed project. Your PPP does not have to be related to the environment, though it certainly could be. It should be built around a cause about which you care deeply. It’s something you’re going to be spending a lot of time with – so be thoughtful in your selection. Your main goal is to produce something that leaves your community nicer than you found it.

You might, for example:

  • Identify a need in your school or community. Develop and carry out a service project to address that need.
  • Design and create a mural in your school or community.
  • Research, develop, and share a historical or ecological walking/driving tour of your community.
  • Produce a documentary video about your community focused on an aspect of its history, its ecology, or some exemplary charity/activist group working to make it a better place.
  • Produce a work of environmental storytelling (a video, a published article, a photo exhibition, a social media feed with original content) raising awareness about a species, park, ecosystem, or ecological issue in your region.
  • Research, design, and produce a sustainably-sourced line of products that raise awareness of an environmental issue related to your region – think of T-shirts or reusable shopping bags that feature local flora and fauna, reusable water bottles, etc.
  • Implement a composting or recycling program at your school.
  • Develop and implement a plan to make your school more green.
  • Volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours with a local organization and tell the story of your experience.

Consult with your teacher for questions on topics like group sizes, as well as on specific due dates.

General Timeline:

End of First Quarter: In communication with your teacher, develop a detailed proposal for your project. This proposal should identify a specific need in your community. It should also layout a clear set of goals you aim to achieve relevant to addressing that need. Lay out the specific steps you plan to take take toward meeting your goal. Set out a realistic timeline for achieving your goals by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your plan, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you might anticipate. You should research other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, in other schools or communities, with an eye toward answering the question: What lessons from that project can I apply to my own? Your report should be delivered in the form of a Google Slide presentation, shared with your teacher, and presented to the class at large. Your teacher and peers will offer constructive feedback on your plan.

End of Second and Third Quarters: Add new slides to your original presentation. These new slides should update your instructor and peers on the status of your project, answering questions like: How far along are you? What new, unanticipated challenges have presented themselves? How have you addressed those issues? What have you learned? What new questions do you have? How can the group support you? Has your timeline or goal changed in any way? Be sure to include photos, videos, or other documentary evidence of your project in progress.

End of Fourth Quarter/School Year: Your goals should be met, your project realized. If it is not, explain what happened, striking a constructive tone. It isn’t a time for excuses, and there shouldn’t be any last minute surprises. You should have been working on this steadily through the year. Deliver a final presentation taking your teacher and peers through these last months of your project. Reflect by addressing the following questions: Were you successful? What did you learn? What would you have done differently? If you were to continue developing this project, how would you extend it?


THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

A female sea lion sleeps on a small, rocky island near La Paz, Mexico. Her fate is connected to yours – she competes for food in the same ecosystem where humans fish extensively. She swims in currents carrying our plastic waste. Populations of animals that she loves to eat are threatened by oceans changed dramatically by human-driven climate change. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes)

Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” – John Steinbeck
This lesson was reported from:

In 1940, the author John Steinbeck joined an expedition to the
Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their purpose was scientific – they wished to document and understand the ecology of the Sea of Cortez. They traveled with a small crew aboard a 75-foot boat named the Western Flyer, collecting scientific samples and data of the fauna they encountered, all with the goal of writing a scientific guidebook – one part species catalog, one part travel adventure – entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. (1941)


John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl – are considered classics of Western literature. (Wikipedia)

First edition of The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, 1951.

The book describes the complex ecosystem of the Sea of Cortez, its islands, and shorelines. An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with the nonliving components of their environment. Steinbeck describes the wildlife – in particular, the marine invertebrates – in colorful detail, but Sea of Cortez is perhaps most notable for placing humans and human activity firmly into his poetic take on ecology. After all, humans inhabit the Sea of Cortez, they fish in it, they mine the surrounding mountains, their carbon emissions and plastic waste from thousands of miles away effect it – humans should not be considered apart from its ecology.

Humans engage in complex interactions with ecosystems – both those in their immediate surroundings, where they live and work, and those on the other side of the planet, in areas that supply commercial goods that they consume or that are effected by greenhouse emissions. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)
(Enlarge and open in a new window.)

In fact, human activities are a significant factor in almost all of Earth’s ecosystems. The cumulative effects of their impact are large even enough to influence the planet’s climate, or patterns of weather over long periods of time.

Ecosystems provide a variety of goods and services upon which people depend. Ecosystem goods include food (fishing, for example), construction material (lumber from forests, sand, stone from quarries, metals from mines, plastics from petroleum pumped from deep under the Earth), and medicinal plants (aspirin, quinine, marijuana). Ecosystem goods also include less tangible items like tourism and outdoor recreation, staples of the economy in many communities around the globe.

Ecosystem services, on the other hand, are the many and varied benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems.  These include clean air and water (thanks to plants which capture CO2 and aquifers which filter rain water) and crop pollination (by insects and birds). Even things like beauty, inspiration, and opportunities for scientific research, which help humans to better understand our world.

In addition to providing a home (habitat) for a great variety of other species, mangrove swamps protect coastal areas from erosion, storm surge (especially during hurricanes), and tsunamis – a great example of ecosystem services in action. (Florida Everglades at low tide, 2018.)

While ecosystem goods have traditionally been recognized as the basis for things of economic value – they are property and goods that one can own – ecosystem services tend to be taken for granted – available to all,
whether one “owns” the forest or not. Ecosystem services are what an economist might call a public good – something shared more or less equally by everyone for free. Since they do not cost money, our capitalist system has traditionally placed little value on protecting them – even though they are vital to life as we know it.

In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck connects the dots between ecosystem goods, ecosystem services, and human activity. While he was not the first to connect humans to the ecosystems they inhabit and exploit, his writing on the subject is both eloquent and persuasive. Early in the book, he writes:

“Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. And if we seem a small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance. We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away […] shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

The Earth can seem huge on a cross country drive that takes days, but it is actually finite. Its natural resources are vulnerable and limited. As human population and per capita consumption grow, so do the demands imposed on ecosystems and the effects of the human ecological footprint – that is, the impact of humanity on the global ecosystem in terms of carbon released, energy used, water consumed, and waste created.

Ecosystem services are not only limited but also that they are threatened by human activities. Problems for all ecosystems include: environmental pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For terrestrial ecosystems, additional threats include air pollution (chemicals released by manufacturing and power generation, emission of greenhouse gases), soil degradation (erosion from farming, salinization from irrigation, conversion of ecosystems for human construction projects), and deforestation (especially in tropical and coastal regions). For marine ecosystems threats include unsustainable exploitation of marine resources (overfishing of certain species), marine pollution (from deep sea oil drilling or spills), microplastics pollution (plastic takes thousands of years to biodegrade and too often ends up floating in the ocean), water pollution (from urban runoff and industrial manufacturing), and building on coastal areas.

Scientists have been conducting research for decades to help us better understand long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and economic activity. In a capitalistic democracy like the United States – where the priorities of both corporations and government are responsive to the will of the majority of people – it is important for all citizens to understand the findings of these scientists. Each of us must begin to recognize the way our habits of consumption impact on the ecosystems in our region, as well as – in a globalized economy threatened by climate change – ecosystems on the other side of the planet.

Downtown La Paz is beautiful, just like the downtown of your city, but human development shapes ecosystems as well. Earth, rock, and sand are paved over, waves and tidal action are broken, buildings and pavement reflect or trap heat and rain, runoff from roads after a rain can carry oil, plastic wastes, and other pollutants into otherwise clean waters. (La Paz, Mexico, 2019.)

Humans have the unique ability to shape our environment. This is one thing that distinguishes us from our fellow animals and plants.

Alongside this ability to shape, we also have the ability to ask and answer complex questions through careful observation of the world around us – this is what we can science. Elsewhere in Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck said, “It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and fit them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones.” 

As we begin to better understand the world around us, we find ourselves confronted with the uncomfortable truth that some of our activities as a species have damaged – and continue to damage – the ecosystems on which all life depends.

Modern technology has only enhanced these abilities to shape and to understand – just as it has enhanced our responsibility to create a sustainable future for our species and all others on this planet.

A handful of sand from the bottom of Candelero Bay on Isla Espíritu Santo reveals an entire ecosystem of marine worms living underfoot and, for most people, out of mind. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

For Writing or Discussion

1. What is an ecosystem? What goods and services do humans extract from them? What negative impacts do human activities have on them?

2. Describe an ecosystem in or near your hometown – name species of plants and animals, describe the average temperature, rainfall, etc in winter and summer. How have humans shaped this ecosystem and for what reasons?

3. In your own words, what does Steinbeck mean when he says “None of it is important or all of it is?” Do you agree with this sentiment?

4. Amongst life on Earth, human beings possess a unique level of self-awareness, as well as an unparalleled ability to shape every ecosystem on the planet for better or worse. Does that power come with any responsibility? Defend your answer.

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

  1. Trace your impact outward into the environment — list and categorize all of the (a) trash (paper, plastic, metal, recyclable or not), (b) carbon emissions (from electricity use, transportation, ordering things off of Amazon, etc), and (c) food/water (including showers, toilet flushes, and the sprinkler on your lawn) you consumed today. Be thorough and precise.
  2. Quantify each of these impacts — weigh them, measure them, use information from the internet to estimate them. There are many tools online that can help you to calculate these numbers. Represent this information in charts or diagrams.
  3. Incorporating information compiled in steps one and two, create a world map infographic or poster showing the origin points and impact points of your ecological footprint. Also, plot and illustrate the ways in which those points will effect you. For example: Where does your food come from? How is it transported to you? Is it refrigerated on the way? What is the carbon impact of these activities? What kind of biomagnification (plastics, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) is present in your diet? Was the tuna you may have eaten farmed or caught wild? Where? Is the current population of that fish in the wild sustainable? How many MPG does your car get? How far do you live from school? How long did your mom idle in carline? What temperature is the AC in your how many square foot house? Where do the plastics you trash end up? Where does the water in your toilet go after you flush? What effect does carbon have on the ice caps? Sea level? Acidification of the ocean? Where does your waste water go? What does your clean water come from? How will rising sea levels due to increased greenhouse activity impact your hometown? etc
  4. In a reflective essay: Which of these impacts can you reduce through personal choices? What challenges or barriers to change will you encounter? Which of these impacts can only be reduced through government or corporate action?

Take It Further

Identify three concrete steps you will take to reduce your ecological footprint. This online quiz may help you. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

. Describe exactly how you plan to take these steps. Resolve to carry them out for the next month.

THIS LESSON WAS DEVELOPED WITH SUPPORT FROM ECOLOGY PROJECT INTERNATIONAL.

If you value the free resources we offer, please consider making a modest contribution to keep this site going and growing.

John Steinbeck visited Isla Espíritu Santo, an island in the Gulf of California, off the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Wikipedia describes ecosystems in the surrounding reefs as being home to parrotfish, angelfish, trumpetfish, Moorish idols, and rainbow wrasse, with many other species passing nearby including sharks, rays, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Birds who call the island home include brown pelicans, great blue herons, snowy egrets, turkey vultures, and hummingbirds. A large sea lion colony resides nearby. By the 1990s pressure to develop on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. Tim Means, a conservationist based in nearby La Paz, formed a coalition of activists who were able to purchase part of the island from the ejido (farming commune) that wished to sell it to the developer. One third of the funds came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. Today,Isla Espíritu Santo is protected as part of the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna – Islas del Golfo de California. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Lobbying for the Compromise of 1850

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

“the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in present-day value). Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant‘s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.[6] In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since a suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery, as suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.”


You’ve probably grown up seeing political ads on TV.  Most of these are sponsored by PACs or Political Action Committees – groups that aren’t candidates in an election, but wish to influence the outcome with money spent on advertisements.

Imagine that TV and PACs existed in 1850.  Create a television spot either opposing or supporting the Compromise of 1850.  In your ad, be sure to explain the components of the compromise.  Also mention the alternatives – do you have a better plan, or are there alternatives worse than the unpalatable elements found in the compromise.  Be creative, but in order to get 100% on this assignment, in addition to taking an editorial point of view, you will need to include lots of rich historical details, such as who in Congress supports this compromise, who opposes it, and why.TV ads should be one to two minutes in length. They may be filmed and uploaded to YouTube or performed in class. 

For writing (Approximately 250 words): In politics, is it better to compromise to solve disputes, even if that compromise is ugly, or is it better to “stay the course” – sticking to your beliefs about what is right, no matter what, even if it means greater conflict and division?  Make sure that your answer uses historical examples such as the Compromise of 1850.

The Real Oregon Trail

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.
The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile, historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the years 1846–69) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families. 

The Oregon Trail is a computer game developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and first released in 1985. It was designed to teach students about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail.  In the game, the player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon‘s Willamette Valley via a covered wagon in 1848.

Play several rounds of the game, embedded below.  While you play, devise a research question about the real life Oregon Trail. For example, what was the leading cause of death for pioneers traveling west?  Are there many grave markers left along the old route of the trail, and if so, what do they say? What was hunting like in the 1800s, and what impact did it have on animals like American Bison?  What were covered wagons really like, and did settlers actually carry spare parts for them?

Create an infographic with facts, figures, images, and at least three paragraphs worth of information on the realities of some aspect of the game.  Be sure to include information about your sources at the bottom of your infographic.  You can see an example of a student infographic here and here.

An Oregon Trail infographic produced, typographical errors and all, by an 8th grade student.

Who should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

All of these fighters have monuments – why not someone else?

Imagine that our class is a committee appointed by Congress to select one reformer from the Antebellum (pre-Civil War) era to replace nasty old Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill and to simultaneously celebrate the US’s rich history of forward-thinking individuals.  You should base your decision on your knowledge of what these people accomplished in their lifetimes, as well as the lasting impact they have had on our overall society.  You will need to research what these people did using your textbook or the Internet.  You may use whatever criteria for inclusion that you choose, however, you may not just say you’re voting for some guy because he’s rich or fat or some such reason that lacks historical substance.  (Remember this is a history class.)

Abolitionists

William Lloyd Garrison

Frederick Douglass

Nat Turner

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Tubman

Women’s Rights

Sarah Grimke

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Susan B. Anthony

Other Reformers

Dorothea Dix

Horace Mann

Sequoyah

Carrie Nation

Henry David Thoreau

Spiritual Leaders and Communalists

Charles G. Finney

John Humphrey Noyes

Robert Owen

You will compose a persuasive essay – including a brief biographical overview, an explanation of the reformer’s accomplishments/lasting legacy, a direct quote from your reformer’s writings (if available), and a clear argument for why this person deserves to be the face of the 20 dollar bill.  You should also create a physical life-size mock up of your new 20 dollar bill (it can be creative, colorful, and impressionistic).  Make sure you cite your sources!

A Eulogy for Andrew Jackson

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

smithsonian2Pretend that it is June 8, 1845 – former President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) has just kicked the old hickory bucket.  You’ve been tasked with writing a eulogy – a funeral speech – for Andrew Jackson.  Nowadays, speakers tend to be pretty polite in eulogies, but back then, people weren’t afraid to speak ill of the dead.  Even Andrew Jackson’s pet parrot, Polly, had to be ejected from his funeral for swearing.  No joke.

Your speech should follow the basic format of a standard, five-paragraph persuasive essay. It should include a hook to grab listeners’ attention, followed by a clear statement of your thesis – was Andrew Jackson a great president or one of the worst? The body should use the facts of his career to support your position. You should them summarize your judgement in your concluding statement.

Make sure to address the significance of (1) annexation of Florida from Spain, (2) the Trail of Tears, (3) the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, and (4) one other life event of your choosing.  Your job is to explain these key accomplishments of his career – and why they are/were controversial.  You must then summarize your position – is this man one of our greatest presidents, worthy of bronze statues and twenty dollar bills, or one of our worst, worthy of quiet obscurity?

As a starting point for your research, you can use:

  1. Andrew Jackson, For and Against the Common Man

The end result should be a short (3-5 minute) funeral oration addressing the above topics using specific facts and figures to advance your argument – to be recited aloud to stirring effect!  Feel free to include period appropriate curse words to make your point, as a tribute to his parrot.

A Nation Divided Against Itself

This lesson was reported from:

A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What is Uncle Tom’s Cabin and why is it significant?
  2. Who is Stephen Douglas, and how do his plans lead to the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
  3. What is the key issue that unites the early Republican Party?
  4. What is “Bleeding Kansas?”
  5. What decision does the Supreme Court reach in the Dred Scott case?
  6. Citing specific examples, how do John Brown’s methods differ from those of other abolitionists?

A Divided Nation

During the 1850s, the issue of slavery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together. It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second. It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties. It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court.

The moral fervor of abolitionist feeling grew steadily. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year. Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand. Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and posited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions—indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.

CassyTom
Full page illustration from the first edition Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the brutality of slavery in unflinching terms – imagine if Harry Potter carried a social message.

In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.

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Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri and opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act – “What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress, completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it!”

Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well. Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.

At this point, Stephen A. Douglas enraged all free-soil supporters. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850, having left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slavery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise. His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. It permitted settlers to carry slaves into them and eventually to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states.

Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever. Yet in May 1854, Douglas’s plan, in the form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce. Southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire. But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.

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Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic Senator from Illinois, explaining popular sovereignty and his Kansas-Nebraska Act – “The great principle of self government is at stake, and surely the people of this country are never going to decide that the principle upon which our whole republican system rests is vicious and wrong.”

The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had avoided taking a strong stand on the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose in the North – the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slave holders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict. Each hoped to win popular sovereignty at the ballot box when it came to vote on the question of slavery, but this potent mix of those with the most passionate pro- and antislavery – the people who cared enough about the issue to move halfway across the country to influence a vote on the matter – meant that soon the territory was being called Bleeding Kansas.  A simmering, low-intensity civil war had erupted that would continue for years – the federal government seemed powerless to stop the tit-for-tat violence between free-soilers and proslavery forces.

In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called “The Crime against Kansas”) Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.

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Lithograph of Preston Brooks’ 1856 attack on Sumner; the artist depicts the faceless assailant bludgeoning Sumner.

The violence continued to increase. Abolitionist John Brown – who believed that God himself had commanded his holy mission – led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection with financial support from Boston abolitionists.

In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in “Bleeding Kansas” history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.

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John Brown was dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement: “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre. Brown’s actions as an abolitionist and the tactics he used still make him a controversial figure today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, and vilified as a madman and a terrorist.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had other horrifying consequences.  Prior to the organization of the Kansas–Nebraska territory in 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were consolidated as part of the Indian Territory. Throughout the 1830s, large-scale relocations of Native American tribes to the Indian Territory took place, with many Southeastern nations removed to present-day Oklahoma, a process ordered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and known as the Trail of Tears, and many Midwestern nations removed by way of treaty to present-day Kansas.  The passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act came into direct conflict with the relocations as white American settlers from both the free-soil North and pro-slavery South flooded lands promised by treaty to these Native American groups.  Once again, they were forced by squatting settlers and the U.S. government – through violence, uneven treaties, and forced land sales – to surrender their homes for the second time in as many generations, with many groups moving south into present-day Oklahoma.

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Dred Scott (c. 1799 – September 17, 1858) was an enslaved African American man in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott case.” Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years, where slavery was illegal.

Then the Supreme Court struck another blow against the antislavery movement with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. A majority of the Supreme Court—dominated by Southerners—decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories. Thus, Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery – in effect, slavery was now legal everywhere.

Lincoln, Douglas, and Brown

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, a fierce critic of the expansion of slavery, opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, Douglas won the election by a small margin, but Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.

By then events were spinning out of control. On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his sons made their next divinely-inspired move, leading a band of followers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (in what is now West Virginia). Brown’s goal was to use the weapons seized to lead a slave uprising – creating a vast army that would liberate the South.

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman.

800px-John_brown_interior_engine_house.jpgNews of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown’s men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the armory’s entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury.

After two days of fighting, Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner by a force of U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.

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A modern reproduction of the 1848 fire engine house that became known as John Brown’s Fort, c. 2007.

Virginia put Brown on trial for conspiracy, treason, and murder. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged. Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept his view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God.  Brown’s attempt confirmed the worst fears of many Southerners. Antislavery activists, on the other hand, generally hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause.

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On the day of his execution, Brown wrote his last testament, which said, “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.”

The 1860 Election

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Lincoln in 1858, the year of his debates with Stephen Douglas over slavery. A few weeks before Lincoln was elected President of the United States, an eleven year-old girl sent him a letter urging him to grow a beard, writing, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

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The results of the 1860 election.

In 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president. The Republican platform declared that slavery could spread no farther, promised a tariff for the protection of industry, and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the West. Southern Democrats, unwilling in the wake of the Dred Scott case to accept Douglas’s popular sovereignty, split from the party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for president. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of northern Democrats. Diehard Whigs from the border states, formed into the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee.

Sectionalism had officially divided presidential politics to the point of no return.  Lincoln and Douglas competed in the North, Breckenridge and Bell in the South. Lincoln won only 39 percent of the popular vote, but thanks to the larger population of the North, swollen from decades of immigration and urbanization driven by its rapid industrialization, this was enough.  The Republican platform had won a clear majority of 180 electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states. Despite minimal support in the South, Lincoln was now president, a party hostile to slavery was in control of the nation.

As long as there was a single nation to control.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny
  2. Sectional Conflict
  3. John Brown

The Revolutionary War: With a Little Help from our Friends

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What happened at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania?
  2. Describe one role patriot women played during the Revolutionary War.
  3. Why was French help necessary for an American victory in the war?
  4. What happened at Yorktown?
  5. What were the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783?

Defeats and victories

Although the Americans suffered severe setbacks for months after independence was declared, their tenacity and perseverance eventually paid off. During August 1776, in the Battle of Long Island in New York, Washington’s position became untenable, and he executed a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore. British General William Howe twice hesitated and allowed the Americans to escape. By November, however, Howe had captured Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. New York City would remain under British control until the end of the war.

That December, Washington’s forces were near collapse, as supplies and promised aid failed to materialize. Howe again missed his chance to crush the Americans by deciding to wait until spring to resume fighting. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey. In the early-morning hours of December 26, his troops surprised the British garrison there, taking more than 900 prisoners.

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Washington Crossing the Delaware commemorates General George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.

In September 1777, however, Howe defeated the American army at Brandywine in Pennsylvania and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee. Washington had to endure the bitterly cold winter of 1777‑1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lacking adequate food, clothing, and supplies. Local farmers and merchants exchanged their goods for British gold and silver rather than for dubious paper money issued by the Continental Congress and the states.

A reproduction hut at Valley Forge
A reproduction of a soldier’s hut at Valley Forge.

With disease and hunger rampant, Valley Forge was the lowest ebb for Washington’s Continental Army.  While the winter itself was not particularly harsh, many soldiers remained unfit for duty, owing to the lack of proper clothing and uniforms.  Years later, General Marquis de Lafayette, an early French ally to the American cause, who was present at Valley Forge, recalled that “the unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they had become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”

While formal politics and warfare did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as women confronted the Revolution. Women in the era of the Revolution were responsible for managing the household.  Halting previously everyday activities, such as drinking British tea or ordering clothes from Britain, demonstrated Colonial opposition during the years leading up to and during the war.

Patriot women continued a long tradition of weaving, and spun their own cloth to make clothing for their families. In addition to the boycotts of British textiles, the Homespun Movement served the Continental Army by producing needed clothing and blankets.

Some women were economically unable to maintain their households in their husband’s absence or wished to be by their side. Known as camp followers, these women followed the Continental Army, serving the soldiers and officers as washerwomen, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, and occasionally as soldiers and spies. The women that followed the army were at times referred to as “necessary nuisances” and “baggage” by commanding officers, but at other times were widely praised. These women helped the army camps run smoothly. Prostitutes were also present, but they were a worrisome presence to military leaders particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases.

Wives of some of the superior officers (Martha Washington, for example) visited the camps frequently. Unlike poorer women present in the army camps, the value of these well-to-do women to the army was symbolic or spiritual, rather than practical. Their presence was a declaration that everyone made sacrifices for the war cause.

Franco-American Alliance

In France, enthusiasm for the American cause was high: The French intellectual world was itself stirring against feudalism and privilege. However, the Crown lent its support to the colonies for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons: The French government had been eager for reprisal against Britain ever since France’s defeat in 1763. To further the American cause, Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris in 1776. His wit, guile, and intellect soon made their presence felt in the French capital, and played a major role in winning French assistance.

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Benjamin Franklin’s reception at the Court of France in 1778.

France began providing aid to the colonies in May 1776, when it sent 14 ships with war supplies to America. In fact, most of the gunpowder used by the American armies came from France. After Britain’s defeat at Saratoga, France saw an opportunity to seriously weaken its ancient enemy and restore the balance of power that had been upset by the French and Indian War. On February 6, 1778, the colonies and France signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, in which France recognized the United States and offered trade concessions. They also signed a Treaty of Alliance, which stipulated that if France entered the war, neither country would lay down its arms until the colonies won their independence, that neither would conclude peace with Britain without the consent of the other, and that each guaranteed the other’s possessions in America. This was the only bilateral defense treaty signed by the United States or its predecessors until 1949.

The Franco-American alliance soon broadened the conflict. In June 1778 British ships fired on French vessels, and the two countries went to war. In 1779 Spain, hoping to reacquire territories taken by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, entered the conflict on the side of France, but not as an ally of the Americans. In 1780 Britain declared war on the Dutch, who had continued to trade with the Americans. The combination of these European powers, with France in the lead, was a far greater threat to Britain than the American colonies standing alone.

Surrender at Yorktown

In July 1780 France’s King Louis XVI had sent to America an expeditionary force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau. In addition, the French fleet harassed British shipping and blocked reinforcement and resupply of British forces in Virginia. French and American armies and navies, totaling 18,000 men, parried with British General Cornwallis all through the summer and into the fall.

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Continental soldiers at Yorktown; on the left, an African-American soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.  Most blacks fought on the patriot side; recent research concludes there were about 9000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, and state militia units, as well as privateers, wagoneers in the Army, servants to officers, and spies.

A series of battles left Cornwallis’s armies in retreat toward Yorktown, Virginia, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet retreated out to sea after a brief battle, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the American and French armies on land and the French fleet at sea. Finally, on October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.

The British had asked for the traditional honors of war, which would allow the army to march out with flags flying, bayonets fixed, and the band playing an American or French tune as a tribute to the victors. However, Washington firmly refused to grant the British the honors that they had denied the defeated American army the year before at the Siege of Charleston. Consequently, the British and Hessian troops marched with flags furled and muskets shouldered.

Cornwallis refused to attend the surrender ceremony, citing illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara led the British army onto the field. O’Hara first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau, who shook his head and pointed to Washington. O’Hara then offered his sword to Washington, who also refused and motioned to Benjamin Lincoln, his own second-in-command. The surrender finally took place when Washington’s second-in-command accepted the sword of Cornwallis’ deputy.

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering to Benjamin Lincoln, flanked by French (left) and American troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.

For the next year, scattered fighting continued, but back in Britain, the British were crushed by this defeat. Before long, Parliament voted to cease all offensive operations in “the colonies.”

Although Cornwallis’s defeat did not immediately end the war, a new British government decided to pursue peace negotiations in Paris in early 1782, with the American side represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. Signed on September 3, 1783 the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former colonies, now states. The new United States stretched west to the Mississippi River, north to Canada, and south to Florida, which was returned to Spain.

At the conclusion of the war in 1783 large numbers of loyalists and their families relocated to the home country of England and or to the still-British colony of Canada.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The American Revolution
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence
  4. History of the United States
  5. Women in the American Revolution

The Shot Heard Round the World, Common Sense, and Independence

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What happened at Lexington and Concord that was so different from what came before?
  2. How was the Continental Army different from the minutemen?
  3. How was the Olive Branch Petition received?
  4. What was the main argument and significance of Common Sense?
  5. What was the main argument and significance of the Declaration of Independence?

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, commanded the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. Gage’s main duty in the colonies had been to enforce the Coercive Acts. When news reached him that the Massachusetts colonists were collecting powder and military stores at the town of Concord, 32 kilometers away, Gage sent a strong detail to confiscate these munitions.

After a night of marching, the British troops reached the village of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and saw a grim band of 77 minutemen— self-trained militiamen charged with defending their hometowns, so named because they were said to be ready to fight in a minute—through the early morning mist. The Minutemen intended only a silent protest, but Marine Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the British troops, yelled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” The leader of the Minutemen, Captain John Parker, told his troops not to fire unless fired at first. The Americans were withdrawing when someone fired a shot, which led the British troops to fire at the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets, leaving eight dead and 10 wounded. In the often-quoted phrase of 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, this was “the shot heard round the world” – the moment at which colonial protest crossed the line into outright armed rebellion.

The skirmish at Lexington.
The skirmish at Lexington – note the Minutemen scattering in the foreground.

The British pushed on to Concord. The Americans had taken away most of the munitions, but they destroyed whatever was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside had mobilized to harass the British on their long return to Boston. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, militiamen from “every Middlesex village and farm” made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time Gage’s weary detachment stumbled into Boston, it had suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.

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The statue that now stands on Lexington green commemorating the service and sacrifice of colonial Minutemen. Some argue that this likeness is based on Captain John Parker, though that claim has never been proven.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On the morning following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British woke up to find Boston surrounded by 20,000 armed colonists, occupying the neck of land extending to the peninsula on which the city stood.

The colonist’s action had changed from a battle to a siege, where one army bottles up another in a town or a city. (Though in traditional terms, the British were not besieged, since the Royal Navy controlled the harbor and supplies came in by ship.) The 6,000 to 8,000 rebels faced some 4,000 British regulars under General Thomas Gage. Boston and little else was controlled by British troops.

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1775 map of the Boston area, relating key events from this early period of the war.

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The Congress voted to go to war, inducting the colonial militias into continental service. It appointed Colonel George Washington of Virginia as their commander-in-chief on June 15, promoting to him to rank of General in the Continental Army, the United States’s first national military force.

General Gage countered the siege of Boston on June 17 by attacking the colonists on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. Although the British suffered tremendous casualties compared to the colonial losses, the British were eventually able to dislodge the American forces from their entrenched positions. The colonists were forced to retreat when many colonial soldiers ran out of ammunition. Soon after, the area surrounding Boston fell to the British.

Despite this early defeat for the colonists, the battle proved that they had the potential to counter British forces, which were at that time considered the best in the world.

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A stylized rendering of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Last Chance For Peace

Despite the outbreak of armed conflict, the idea of complete separation from England was still repugnant to many members of the Continental Congress. In July, it adopted the Olive Branch Petition, in which it the Congress affirmed its allegiance to the Crown and asked the king for peace talks. It was received in London at the same time as news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The King refused to read the petition or to meet with its ambassadors.  King George rejected it; instead, on August 23, 1775, he issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

Britain had expected the Southern colonies to remain loyal, in part because of their reliance on slavery. Many in the Southern colonies feared that a rebellion against the mother country would also trigger a slave uprising. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, tried to capitalize on that fear by offering freedom to all slaves who would fight for the British. Instead, his proclamation drove to the rebel side many Virginians who would otherwise have remained Loyalist.

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King George III in 1771.

The Battle for Boston

The British continued to occupy Boston, and despite British control of the harbor, the town and the army were on short rations. Salt pork was the order of the day, and prices escalated rapidly. While the American forces had some information about what was happening in the city, General Gage had no effective intelligence of rebel activities.

On July 3, 1775, George Washington arrived to take charge of the new Continental Army. Forces and supplies came in from as far away as Maryland. Trenches were built at Dorchester Neck, extending toward Boston. Washington reoccupied Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill without opposition. However, these activities had little effect on the British occupation.

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George Washington taking command of the Continental Army, 1775.

In the winter of 1775– 1776, Henry Knox and his engineers, under order from George Washington, used sledges to retrieve sixty tons of heavy artillery that had been captured in surprise attack on the British Fort Ticonderoga, hundreds of miles away in upstate New York. Knox, who had come up with the idea to use sledges, believed that he would have the artillery there in eighteen days. It took six weeks to bring them across the frozen Connecticut River, and they arrived back at Cambridge on January 24, 1776. Weeks later, in an amazing feat of deception and mobility, Washington moved artillery and several thousand men overnight to take Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.  The British fleet had become a liability, anchored in a shallow harbor with limited maneuverability, and under the American guns on Dorchester Heights.

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An ox team hauling Ticonderoga’s guns to the siege at Boston.

When British General Howe saw the cannons, he knew he could not hold the city. He asked that George Washington let them evacuate the city in peace. In return, they would not burn the city to the ground. Washington agreed: he had no choice. He had artillery guns, but did not have the gunpowder. The whole plan had been a masterful bluff. The siege ended when the British set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. The militia went home, and in April Washington took most of the Continental Army forces to fortify New York City.

As men continued to fight and die, though, the question became all the more pressing – just what were the colonies trying to achieve?  Just what were men fighting and dying for?

Common Sense and Independence

In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a radical political theorist and writer who had come to America from England in 1774, published a 50-page pamphlet, Common Sense. Within three months, it sold 100,000 copies. Paine attacked the idea of a hereditary monarchy, declaring that one honest man was worth more to society than “all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He presented the alternatives—continued submission to a tyrannical king and an outworn government, or liberty and happiness as a self-sufficient, independent republic. Circulated throughout the colonies, Common Sense helped to crystallize a decision for separation.

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Thomas Paine and the cover to his most famous work, Common Sense.

There still remained the task, however, of gaining each colony’s approval of a formal declaration. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress, declaring, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. …” Immediately, a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was appointed to draft a document for a vote.

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From left to right, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia represented the three major regions of the colonies and were the three most prominent members of the committee appointed to write the Declaration of Independence. The final product, while containing contributions from the group as a whole, was largely the work of Jefferson.

Largely Jefferson’s work, the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation, but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one influence in particular stands out: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all humankind. The Declaration’s familiar opening passage echoes Locke’s social-contract theory of government:

We hold these truths to be self‑evident, 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.—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 to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson linked Locke’s principles directly to the situation in the colonies. To fight for American independence was to fight for a government based on popular consent in place of a government by a king who had “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws. …” Only a government based on popular consent could secure natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, to fight for American independence was to fight on behalf of one’s own natural rights.

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The Assembly Room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

At the signing, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having replied to a comment by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock that they must all hang together: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” a play on words indicating that failure to stay united and succeed would lead to being tried and executed, individually, for treason.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The American Revolution
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence
  4. History of the United States