To Break Our Bonds of Affection: The Coming of Civil War

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.

Secession and Civil War

Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of November 1860 made South Carolina’s secession from the Union on January 31 a foregone conclusion. The state had long been waiting for an event that would unite the South against the antislavery forces. By February 1, 1862, five more Southern states had seceded. On February 8, the six states signed a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America. The remaining Southern states as yet remained in the Union, although Texas had begun to move on its secession.

Less than a month later, March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he declared the Confederacy “legally void” and denounced secession as anarchy, explaining that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of republicanism:

“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”

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Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration, March 4, 1861, beneath the unfinished capitol dome.

Desperately wishing to avoid this terrible conflict, Lincoln ended with this impassioned plea:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

But the South turned a deaf ear. On April 12, Confederate guns opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union,” which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states.  A war had begun in which more Americans would die than in any other conflict before or since.

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina.

In the seven states that had seceded, people responded positively to the Confederate action and the leadership of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Both sides now tensely awaited the action of the slave states that thus far had remained loyal. Virginia seceded on April 17; Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed quickly.

No state left the Union with greater reluctance than Virginia. Her statesmen had a leading part in the winning of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution, and she had provided the nation with five presidents. With Virginia went Colonel Robert E. Lee, who declined the command of the Union Army out of loyalty to his native state.

Between the enlarged Confederacy and the free-soil North lay the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which, despite some sympathy with the South, would remain loyal to the Union.

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The evolution of the Confederate States of America.

Each side entered the war with high hopes for an early victory. In material resources the Union, or the North,enjoyed a decided advantage. Twenty-three states with a population of 22 million were arrayed against 11 states inhabited by nine million, including slaves. The industrial superiority of the North exceeded even its preponderance in population, providing it with abundant facilities for manufacturing arms and ammunition, clothing, and other supplies. It had a greatly superior railway network.

The Confederacy, or the South nonetheless had certain advantages. The most important was geography; the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory. It could establish its independence simply by beating off the Northern armies. The South also had a stronger military tradition, and possessed the more experienced military leaders.

 

The Confederacy

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Despite never having historically represented the Confederate States of America as a country, nor officially recognized as one of its national flags, the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack and the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia are now flag types commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag. They both have become a widely recognized symbol of the Southern United States. It is also known as the rebel flag, Dixie flag, and Southern cross.

Lincoln had never called for the immediate abolition of slavery, but for Southern states, the writing was on the wall – their political clout had diminished in the face of the North’s larger population, and they feared that his policies would lead to abolition in the future. Although the South was fighting a pro-slavery war, it’s important to note that, at least in the beginning, the North was not fighting an anti-slavery war. The North was fighting to preserve the Union – fighting for the principle that no state had the right to secede.  After all, where in the Constitution is the clause describing the process by which a state may leave the United States?  Lincoln’s argument is that divorce, so to speak, was impossible.

Many Southerners today like to claim that the Confederacy was not primarily about slavery or racism, but about pride and states’ rights against federal power. Back in the time of the Civil War, however, Confederate leaders were much more honest about their motives. They believed that blacks were inferior to whites. They believed that slavery was a good thing. They were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery and they said so openly over and over again.

In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said that the Declaration of Independence had been wrong to say that all men are created equal: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

The Southern states that published declarations setting forth their reasons for seceding from the Union all said that a commitment to the institution of slavery and a belief in black inferiority were at the heart of their cause.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” said Mississippi’s declaration.

Georgia declared, “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

South Carolina justified its secession on the basis of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Texas declared that it was committed to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race.”

Western Advance, Eastern Stalemate

The first large battle of the war, at the First Battle of Bull Run, near Washington, DC, stripped away any illusions that victory would be quick or easy. It also established a pattern, at least in the Eastern United States, of bloody Southern victories that never translated into a decisive military advantage for the Confederacy.

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The First Battle of Bull Run (the Union named battles after nearby bodies of water), also known as the First Battle of Manassas (the Confederacy named battles after nearby towns), was fought on July 21, 1861 in Prince William County, Virginia, about 25 miles west-southwest of Washington, D.C. It was the first major battle of the American Civil War. The Union’s forces were slow in positioning themselves, allowing Confederate reinforcements time to arrive by rail. Each side had about 18,000 poorly trained and poorly led troops in their first battle. It was a Confederate victory, followed by a disorganized retreat of the Union forces.

In contrast to its military failures in the East, the Union was able to secure battlefield victories in the West and slow strategic success at sea. Most of the Navy, at the war’s beginning, was in Union hands, but it was scattered and weak.

In April 1861, Lincoln announced the Union blockade of all Southern ports – the so-called Anaconda Plan, which sought to suffocate the Southern economy. The South had almost no factories of its own, meaning that guns, ammunition, clothing, shoes, and most everything else had to be traded for, mostly with the North or with Britain, and both of these avenues were now closed.  “King Cotton” was dead, as the South could export less than 10 percent of its cotton. The blockade shut down the ten Confederate seaports with railheads that moved almost all the cotton, especially New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston. By June 1861, warships were stationed off the principal Southern ports, and a year later nearly 300 ships were in service.

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Proposed by Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott, the Anaconda Plan emphasized a Union blockade of the Southern ports, and called for an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Because the blockade would be rather passive, it was widely derided by a vociferous faction of Union generals who wanted a more vigorous prosecution of the war, and who likened it to the coils of an anaconda suffocating its victim. The snake image caught on, giving the proposal its popular name.

The Southern economy nearly collapsed during the war. There were multiple reasons for this: the severe deterioration of food supplies, especially in cities, the failure of already limited Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, foraging by Northern armies, and the seizure of animals and crops by Confederate armies.

In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces won an almost uninterrupted series of victories. They began by breaking a long Confederate line in Tennessee, thus making it possible to occupy almost all the western part of the state. When the important Mississippi River port of Memphis was taken, Union troops advanced some 320 kilometers into the heart of the Confederacy. With the tenacious General Ulysses S. Grant in command, they withstood a sudden Confederate counterattack at Shiloh, on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. Those killed and wounded at Shiloh numbered more than 10,000 on each side, a casualty rate that Americans had never before experienced. But it was only the beginning of the carnage.

In Virginia, by contrast, Union troops continued to meet one defeat after another in a succession of bloody attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates enjoyed strong defense positions afforded by numerous streams cutting the road between Washington and Richmond. Their two best generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson, both far surpassed in ability their early Union counterparts. In 1862 Union commander George McClellan made a slow, excessively cautious attempt to seize Richmond. But in the Seven Days’ Battles between June 25 and July 1, the Union troops were driven steadily backward, both sides suffering terrible losses.

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Lincoln with McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. McClellan repeatedly failed to engage in decisive conflicts with the Confederate Army out of a mistaken fear that he was outnumbered by the enemy.

After another Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland. McClellan again responded tentatively, despite learning that Lee had split his army and was heavily outnumbered. The Union and Confederate Armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, in the bloodiest single day of the war: More than 4,000 died on both sides and 18,000 were wounded. Despite his numerical advantage, however, McClellan failed to break Lee’s lines or press the attack, and Lee was able to retreat across the Potomac with his army intact. As a result, Lincoln fired McClellan.

Although the Battle of Antietam was inconclusive in military terms, its consequences were nonetheless momentous. Great Britain and France, both on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, delayed their decision, and the South never received the diplomatic recognition and the economic aid from Europe that it desperately sought.

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The Battle of Antietam still holds a record as the single bloodiest day in United States history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing.

Antietam also gave Lincoln the opening he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in states rebelling against the Union were free. In practical terms, the proclamation had little immediate impact; it freed slaves only in the Confederate states, while leaving slavery intact in the border states. Politically, however, it meant that in addition to preserving the Union, the abolition of slavery was now a declared objective of the Union war effort.

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Areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation are in red. Slave holding areas not covered are in blue.

The final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, also authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, a move abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass had been urging since the beginning of armed conflict. Union forces already had been sheltering escaped slaves as “contraband of war,” but following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army recruited and trained regiments of African-American soldiers that fought with distinction in battles from Virginia to the Mississippi. About 178,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops, and 29,500 served in the Union Navy.

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The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were regiments in the United States Army composed primarily of African-American (colored) soldiers, although members of other minority groups also served with the units. They were first recruited during the American Civil War, and by the end of that war in April 1865, the 175 USCT regiments constituted about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army. About 20% of USCS soldiers died, a rate about 35% higher than that for white Union troops. Despite heavy casualties, many fought with distinction.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first black regiment recruited in the North. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the 25 year old son of very wealthy abolitionist parents, was chosen to command – a position still limited to white men. On July 18 came the supreme test of the courage and valor of these black soldiers; they were chosen to lead the assault on Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort on Morris Island at Charleston. In addressing his soldiers before leading them in a charge across the beach, Colonel Shaw said, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

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Mary Smith Peake was an American teacher, humanitarian, and a member of the black elite in Hampton, Virginia, best known for starting a school for the children of former slaves starting in the fall of 1861 under what became known as the Emancipation Oak.

While some blacks choose to join the military, others fought by other means. An American teacher named Mary S. Peake worked to educate the freedmen and “contraband.” She spent her days under a large oak tree teaching others near Fort Monroe in Virginia. (This giant tree is now over 140 years old and called Emancipation Oak). Since Fort Monroe remained under Union control this area was somewhat of a safe location for refugees and runaways to come to. Mary’s school would house around 50 children during the day and 20 adults at night.

Despite the political gains represented by the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the North’s military prospects in the East remained bleak as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued to maul the Union Army of the Potomac, first at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and then at Chancellorsville in May 1863. But Chancellorsville, although one of Lee’s most brilliant military victories, was also one of his most costly. His most valued lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, was mistakenly shot and killed by his own men.

The war was far from over, but increasingly, the writing was on the wall – the North’s will to fight was just as strong as any rebel in the South, but the North had the economic drive and manpower to go the distance.

 

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. A Nation Divided: The American Civil War
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction
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Sectionalism in the Fractured 1850s

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.

Two Americas

By the mid-1800s, the United States could be considered to have three main sections – the North, the South, and the West.  Increasingly connected economically, they were at the same time divided politically and philosophically.  This division is referred to as sectionalism – that is, loyalty to one’s own region or section of the country, rather than to the country as a whole.

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Sectionalism in 1800s America refers to the different lifestyles, social structures, customs, and the political values of the North, the South, and questions over the future development of the West.

Sectionalism increased steadily in 1800–1850 as the North industrialized, urbanized and built prosperous factories, while the deep South concentrated on plantation agriculture based on slave labor, together with subsistence farming for poor whites who owned no slaves. Southerners defended slavery in part by claiming that Northern factory workers toiled under worse conditions and were not cared for by their employers. Defenders of slavery referred to factory workers as the “white slaves of the North.”

In the South, wealthy men owned most of the quality land, leaving poor white farmers with marginal lands of low productivity. Fears of slave revolts and abolitionist propaganda made the South militantly hostile to suspicious ideas. Members and politicians of the newly formed Republican Party were extremely critical of Southern society and argued that the system of free labor in place in the North resulted in much more prosperity. Republicans criticizing the Southern system of slavery would commonly cite the larger population growth of the Northern states, alongside their rapid growth in factories, farms, and schools as evidence of the superiority of a free labor system.

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Gordon was an enslaved African American who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in March 1863. He became known as the subject of photographs documenting the extensive scarring of his back from whippings received in slavery. Abolitionists distributed these photographs of Gordon throughout the United States and internationally to show the abuses of slavery.

George Fitzhugh, a prominent apologist for slavery, argued:

“The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. ‘Tis happiness in itself—and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . . “

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An abolitionist cartoon, mocking Fitzhugh’s arguments in defense of slavery.

By the 1850s, the North held the nine of the ten largest cities in America, most of its immigrants, almost all of its factories, and almost all of its railroads.  It was becoming a modern, industrial place – one that a student from the twenty-first century might vaguely recognize.  Southerners argued that it was the North that was changing, betraying American traditions with its industrialization and its many reform movement, while the South remained true to the historic republican values of the Founding Fathers (many of whom owned slaves, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison.)

Frederick Douglass responded to these types of arguments with one of the most incendiary speeches of the era:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

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Frederick Douglass, one of the most famous writers and orators of the 1800s, was born a slave in a time when it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read or write.  Nonetheless, when he was twelve, his master’s wife taught him the alphabet.  When the master put a stop to this, Douglass began secretly saving his share of bread to trade with poor white children in the street in exchange for reading lessons.

The West, with its boundless prairies and swiftly growing population, flourished. Europe and the older settled parts of America demanded its wheat and meat products. The introduction of labor-saving implements—notably the McCormick reaper (a machine to cut and harvest grain)—made possible an unparalleled increase in grain production.

An important stimulus to the country’s prosperity was the great improvement in transportation facilities; from 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines linking the Midwest and the Northeast. These links established the economic interests that would undergird the political alliance of the Union from 1861 to 1865. The South lagged behind. It was not until the late 1850s that a continuous line ran through the mountains connecting the lower Mississippi River area with the southern Atlantic seaboard.

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Map of railroads in the United States in 1860. Notice how densely packed these lines are in the North, and how relatively unconnected the South is – an indicator of its overall lack of industrial development. This would prove to be a decisive factor during the Civil War.

Slavery and Sectionalism

One overriding issue exacerbated the regional and economic differences between North and South: slavery. Resenting the large profits amassed by Northern businessmen from marketing the cotton crop, many Southerners attributed the backwardness of their own section to Northern aggrandizement. Many Northerners, on the other hand, declared that slavery—the “peculiar institution” that the South regarded as essential to its economy—was largely responsible for the region’s relative financial and industrial backwardness.

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The largest cities in the United States in 1860. The promise of industrial jobs brought immigrants to the North in great numbers. By contrast, there were few factories in the South and most menial jobs were performed by slaves – meaning there was little motivation for immigrants to move there.

As far back as the Missouri Compromise in 1819, sectional lines had been steadily hardening on the slavery question. In the North, sentiment for outright abolition grew increasingly powerful. Southerners in general felt little guilt about slavery and defended it vehemently. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region.

Although the 1860 census showed that there were nearly four million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states, only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. There were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families. Fifty percent of these slave owners owned no more than five slaves. Twelve percent owned 20 or more slaves, the number defined as turning a farmer into a planter. Three-quarters of Southern white families, including the “poor whites,” those on the lowest rung of Southern society, owned no slaves.

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It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.

As they fought the weight of Northern opinion, political leaders of the South, the professional classes, and most of the clergy now no longer apologized for slavery but championed it. Southern publicists insisted, for example, that the relationship between capital and labor was more humane under the slavery system than under the wage system of the North.

In the end, however, the most stinging criticism of slavery was not the behavior of individual masters and overseers. Abolitionists pointed out that by systematically treating African-American laborers as if they were domestic animals, slavery violated every human being’s inalienable right to be free.

The Compromise of 1850

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A slave market, notorious to abolitionists, stood within sight of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Until 1845, it had seemed likely that slavery would be confined to the areas where it already existed. It had been given limits by the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and had no opportunity to overstep them. The new territories made renewed expansion of slavery a real likelihood.

Many Northerners believed that if not allowed to spread, slavery would ultimately decline and die. To justify their opposition to adding new slave states, they pointed to the statements of Washington and Jefferson, and to the Ordinance of 1787, which forbade the extension of slavery into the Northwest. Texas, which already permitted slavery, naturally entered the Union as a slave state. But the California, New Mexico, and Utah territories did not have slavery. From the beginning, there were strongly conflicting opinions on whether they should.

Southerners urged that all the lands acquired from Mexico should be thrown open to slave holders. Antislavery Northerners demanded that all the new regions be closed to slavery. One group of moderates suggested that the Missouri Compromise line be extended to the Pacific with free states north of it and slave states to the south. Another group proposed that the question be left to “popular sovereignty.” The government should permit settlers to enter the new territory with or without slaves as they pleased. When the time came to organize the region into states, the people themselves could decide.

In January 1848 the discovery of gold in California precipitated a headlong rush of settlers, more than 80,000 in the single year of 1849. Congress had to determine the status of this new region quickly in order to establish an organized government. The venerable Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who twice before in times of crisis had come forward with compromise arrangements, advanced a complicated and carefully balanced plan. His old Massachusetts rival, Daniel Webster, supported it. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the leading advocate of popular sovereignty, did much of the work in guiding it through Congress.

00080486The Compromise of 1850 contained the following provisions: (1) California was admitted to the Union as a free state; (2) the remainder of the Mexican cession was divided into the two territories of New Mexico and Utah and organized without mention of slavery; (3) the claim of Texas to a portion of New Mexico was satisfied by a payment of $10 million; (4) new legislation (the Fugitive Slave Act) was passed to apprehend runaway slaves and return them to their masters; and (5) the buying and selling of slaves (but not slavery) was abolished in the District of Columbia.

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An April 24, 1851 poster warning the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers.

The country breathed a sigh of relief, even as the Compromise of 1850 left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The new Fugitive Slave Law, in particular, was an immediate source of tension, but was essential to meet Southern demands.

It required federal judicial officials in all states and federal territories, including in those states and territories in which slavery was prohibited, to assist with the return of escaped slaves to their masters actively in the states and territories permitting slavery. Any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave was liable to a fine of $1000. Law enforcement everywhere in the US had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. Suspected slaves could neither ask for a jury trial nor testify on their own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

In addition to federal officials, the ordinary citizens of free states could be summoned to join a posse and be required to assist in the capture, custody, and/or transportation of the alleged escaped slave.

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Print by E. W. Clay, an artist who published many proslavery cartoons, supports the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In the cartoon, a Southerner mocks a Northerner who claims his goods, several bolts of fabric, have been stolen. “They are fugitives from you, are they?” asks the slaveholder. Adopting the rhetoric of abolitionists, he continues, “As to the law of the land, I have a higher law of my own, and possession is nine points in the law.”

The law was so rigorously pro-slavery as to prohibit the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence at the judicial hearing to determine the status of the accused escaped slave. Thus, if a freedman were claimed to be an escaped slave, they could not resist their return to slavery by truthfully telling their own actual history.

In terms of public opinion in the North, the critical provision was that ordinary citizens were required to aid slave catchers. This deeply offended many Northerners, who refused to have any part in catching slaves. Some actively and violently obstructed its enforcement. The Underground Railroad became more efficient and daring than ever.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny
  2. Sectional Conflict
  3. The Compromise of 1850

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.

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

Agitation, Taxation, and Representation by Other Means

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.

The Stamp Act and Other Laws

The French and Indian War (1754–63) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies.  Following Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 limiting westward expansion of colonial settlements, all with the goal of organizing his newly enlarged North American empire and avoiding conflict with Native Americans beyond the Appalachian Mountains.  This alienated colonists who had fought the war with the promise of a new source of free or cheap land in mind.

Furthermore, the French and Indian War nearly doubled Great Britain’s national debt, and Parliament was keen to find new sources of revenue to settle this debt.

In 1764, Parliament began allowing customs officers to search random houses in the colonies for smuggled goods on which no import tax had been paid. British authorities thought that if profits from smuggled goods could be directed towards Britain, the money could help pay off debts. Colonists were horrified that they could be searched without warrant at any given moment.

Also in 1764, Parliament began to impose new taxes on the colonists. The Sugar Act of 1764 reduced taxes on sugar and molasses imposed by the earlier Molasses Act, but at the same time strengthened the enforcement of tax collection, making smuggling harder. It also provided that British judges, and not colonial juries – who, as consumers of the smuggled sugar in question, might be more sympathetic to the accused – would try cases involving violations of that Act.

The next year, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to provide room and board for British soldiers stationed in North America; the soldiers would serve various purposes, chiefly to enforce the previously passed acts of Parliament.

Following the Quartering Act, Parliament passed one of the most infamous pieces of legislation: the Stamp Act. Previously, Parliament imposed only external taxes on imports, paid by the merchants who actually brought goods into the colonies. The Stamp Act provided the first internal tax paid directly by the colonists when they purchased books, newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, playing cards, and dice. These items – important for communication and entertainment – now required an official tax stamp as proof of payment.

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Proof sheet of one-penny stamps submitted for approval to Commissioners of Stamps by engraver, May 10, 1765.

The colonial legislature of Massachusetts requested a conference on the Stamp Act; the Stamp Act Congress met in October that year, petitioning the King and Parliament to repeal the act before it went into effect at the end of the month, crying “taxation without representation.”  Specifically, these colonists argued that as English subjects, they were entitled to a voice in Parliament.  As it stood, the colonists had no right to vote – so Parliament could impose all of the unpopular laws and taxes that it liked on colonists, and they faced no consequences at the ballot box…  Without a member of Parliament working on their behalf, this was hardly the outcome of a democracy – it may as well be the act of an absolute tyrant.

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American newspapers reacted to the Stamp Act with anger and predictions of the demise of journalism.

The Stamp Act faced vehement opposition throughout the colonies. Merchants and consumers alike threatened to boycott British products. Thousands of New Yorkers rioted near the location where the stamps were stored. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty, a violent group led by radical statesman Samuel Adams, destroyed the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson.  Adams wanted to free people from their awe of social and political superiors, make them aware of their own power and importance, and thus arouse them to action. Toward these objectives, he published articles in newspapers and made speeches in town meetings, instigating resolutions that appealed to the colonists’ democratic impulses.

The Sons of Liberty also popularized the use of tar and feathering to punish and humiliate offending government officials starting in 1767. This method was also used against those who threatened to break the boycott and later against British Loyalists during the American Revolution.

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The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print, referring to the tarring and feathering, of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm’s throat; note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act posted upside-down.

Parliament did indeed repeal the Stamp Act, but additionally passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Great Britain retained the power to tax the colonists, even without representation.

Believing that the colonists only objected to internal taxes, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed bills that would later become the Townshend Acts. The Acts, passed in 1767, taxed imports of tea, glass, paint, lead, and even paper. The colonial merchants again threatened to boycott the taxed products, reducing the profits of British merchants, who in turn petitioned Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts. Parliament eventually agreed to repeal much of the Townshend legislation. But Parliament refused to remove the tax on tea, implying that the British retained the authority to tax the colonies despite a lack of representation.

In Boston, enforcement of the new regulations provoked violence. When customs officials sought to collect duties, they were set upon by the populace and roughly handled. For this infraction, two British regiments were dispatched to protect the customs commissioners, but the presence of British troops in Boston was a standing invitation to disorder.

On March 5, 1770, a large crowd gathered around a group of British soldiers. The crowd grew threatening, throwing snowballs, rocks, and debris at them. One soldier was clubbed and fell. There was no order to fire, but the soldiers fired into the crowd anyway. They hit 11 people; three civilians died at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident. Crispus Attucks was an American stevedore of African and Native American descent, widely regarded as the first person killed in the Boston that day and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution.  Dubbed the “Boston Massacre,” the incident was framed as dramatic proof of British heartlessness and tyranny. Widespread – and biased – patriot propaganda such as Paul Revere’s famous print soon began to turn colonial sentiment against the British. This, in turn, began a downward spiral in the relationship between Britain and the Province of Massachusetts.

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Silversmith and engraver Paul Revere created this image, which exaggerated or outright falsified certain details of the event in order to further public outrage against the British. Despite the fact that British fire was spontaneous and in response to snowballs and jeering from the American crowd, Captain Preston is shown ordering his men to fire, and a musket is seen shooting out of the window of the customs office, which is sarcastically labeled “Butcher’s Hall.” Some copies of the print show a man with two chest wounds and a somewhat darker face, matching descriptions of Attucks; others show no victim as a person of color. The image was published in the Boston Gazette, circulating widely, and became an effective piece of anti-British propaganda. The image of bright red “lobster backs” and wounded men with red blood was hung in farmhouses across New England.

Beginning in 1772, Samuel Adams in Boston set about creating new Committees of Correspondence, which linked Patriots in all 13 colonies and eventually provided the framework for a rebel government. Virginia, the largest colony, set up its Committee of Correspondence in early 1773, on which Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served.

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Samuel Adams, one of the colonies’ most vocal patriots.

A total of about 7000 to 8000 Patriots served on “Committees of Correspondence” at the colonial and local levels, comprising most of the leadership in their communities. Loyalists were excluded. The committees became the leaders of the American resistance to British actions, and largely determined the war effort at the state and local level. Later, when the First Continental Congress decided to boycott British products, the colonial and local Committees took charge, examining merchant records and publishing the names of merchants who attempted to defy the boycott by importing British goods.

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which exempted the British East India Company from the Townshend taxes. Thus, the East India Company gained a great advantage over other companies when selling tea in the colonies – their tea was cheaper, and American smugglers faced the uncomfortable prospect of being undersold and put out of business entirely.  A town meeting in Boston determined that the cheap British tea would not be landed, and ignored a demand from the governor to disperse. On December 16, 1773, a group of men, led by Samuel Adams, some dressed to evoke the appearance of American Indians, boarded the ships of the British East India Company and dumped £10,000 worth of tea from their holds (around a million dollars in modern terms) into Boston Harbor. Decades later, this event became known as the Boston Tea Party and remains a significant part of American patriotic lore.

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1789 engraving of the destruction of the tea.

Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts which came to be known by colonists as the Intolerable Acts.  Intended as collective punishment to turn colonists against the Sons of Liberty and other radical patriots, they by and large had the opposite effect, further darkening colonial opinion towards the British. The Coercive Acts consisted of four laws. The first was the Massachusetts Government Act which altered the Massachusetts charter and restricted town meetings. The second act was the Administration of Justice Act which ordered that all British soldiers to be tried were to be arraigned in Britain, not in the colonies. The third Act was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the British had been compensated for the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party. The fourth Act was the Quartering Act of 1774, which allowed royal governors to house British troops in the homes of citizens without requiring permission of the owner.

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This Patriot cartoon depicting the Coercive Acts as the forcing of tea by prominent British politicians on a Native American woman (a symbol of the American colonies) was copied and distributed in the Thirteen Colonies.

In late 1774, the Patriots – as colonists who wished for independence came to be known – set up their own alternative government to better coordinate their resistance efforts against Great Britain; other colonists preferred to remain aligned to the Crown and were known as Loyalists. At the suggestion of the Virginia House of Burgesses, colonial representatives met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, “to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies.” Delegates to this meeting, known as the First Continental Congress, were chosen by provincial congresses or popular conventions. Only Georgia failed to send a delegate; the total number of 55 was large enough for diversity of opinion, but small enough for genuine debate and effective action. The division of opinion in the colonies posed a genuine dilemma for the delegates. They would have to give an appearance of firm unanimity to induce the British government to make concessions. But they also would have to avoid any show of radicalism or spirit of independence that would alarm more moderate Americans.

A cautious keynote speech, followed by a “resolve” that no obedience was due the Coercive Acts, ended with adoption of a set of resolutions affirming the right of the colonists to “life, liberty, and property,” and the right of provincial legislatures to set “all cases of taxation and internal polity.”

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

 

 

 

Join, or Die: The French and Indian War

For centuries, France and England have been like ambitious siblings, close in age, evenly matched in most things, competitive, living in a house that’s too small for there ever to be peace.  They have repeatedly come into conflict over religion, territory, colonies, and anything else two countries might conceivably argue over…  In 1754, that rivalry came to the American frontier and set into motion a chain of events that would ultimately culminate in an American revolution…
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.

A European Rivalry

Throughout most of their mutual history, France and Britain have engaged in a succession of wars. During the 1700s, these European wars spilled over into the Caribbean and the Americas, drawing in settlers, African slaves, and native peoples.

Though Britain secured certain advantages—primarily in the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean—the struggles were generally indecisive, and France remained in a powerful position in North America. By 1754, France still had a strong relationship with a number of Native American tribes in Canada and along the Great Lakes. It controlled the Mississippi River and, by establishing a line of forts and trading posts, had marked out a great crescent-shaped empire stretching from Quebec to New Orleans. The British remained confined to the narrow belt east of the Appalachian Mountains. Thus the French threatened not only the British Empire, but also the American colonists themselves, for in holding the Mississippi Valley, France could limit their westward expansion.

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European claims in 1748, on the eve of the French and Indian War.

Large areas of North America had no colonial settlements. The French population numbered about 75,000 and was heavily concentrated along the St. Lawrence River valley. Fewer lived in New Orleans, Biloxi, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, and small settlements in the Illinois Country, hugging the east side of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. French fur traders and trappers traveled throughout the St. Lawrence and Mississippi watersheds, did business with local Indian tribes, and often married Indian women. Traders married daughters of chiefs, creating high-ranking unions.  In this way, French colonial interests in North America meant coexistence, exchange, and commerce with native peoples.

In contrast, British settlers outnumbered the French 20 to 1 with a population of about 1.5 million ranged along the eastern coast of the continent from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the north to Georgia in the south. Many of the older colonies had land claims that extended arbitrarily far to the west, as the extent of the continent was unknown at the time when their provincial charters were granted. Their population centers were along the coast, yet the settlements were growing into the interior. Nova Scotia had been captured from France in 1713, and it still had a significant French-speaking population. Britain also claimed Rupert’s Land where the Hudson’s Bay Company traded for furs with local Indian tribes.  However, in the more southern colonies – that would one day become the United States – British interests were frequently at odds with those of the natives, as the large colonial population pressed ever westward, clearing ancestral native land for new English-style farms and towns.

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Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins. To many natives, French activity in North America often looked more like this, than like a full-scale attempt to remake the land in image of Europe.

War on the Frontier

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1772
Portrait of British Lieutenant George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

Disputes over who would control the Ohio River Valley lead to deployment of military units and the construction of forts in the area by both the British and the French, even though the area was in fact already occupied by the Iroquois Confederacy. An armed clash took place in 1754 at the French Fort Duquesne, the site where Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is now located, between a band of French regulars and Virginia militiamen.  The Virginians were under the command of 22-year-old George Washington, a Virginia planter and surveyor who had been sent on a mission to warn the French to leave the area.

Following an intense exchange of fire in which approximately one third of his men died, Washington surrendered and negotiated a withdrawal under arms.  This inauspicious battle is now regarded as the opening battle of a much larger war.

British colonial governments were used to operating independently of one another and of the government in London, a situation that complicated negotiations with Native American tribes, whose territories often encompassed land claimed by multiple colonies.

The British government attempted to deal with the conflict by calling a meeting of representatives from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the New England colonies. From June 19 to July 10, 1754, the Albany Congress, as it came to be known, met with the Iroquois in Albany, New York, in order to improve relations with them and secure their loyalty to the British.

But the delegates also declared a union of the American colonies “absolutely necessary for their preservation” and adopted a proposal drafted by Benjamin Franklin. The Albany Plan of Union provided for a president appointed by the king and a grand council of delegates chosen by the assemblies, with each colony to be represented in proportion to its financial contributions to the general treasury. This body would have charge of defense, Native-American relations, and trade and settlement of the west. Most importantly, it would have independent authority to levy taxes.  Franklin was a man of many inventions – his was the first serious proposal to organize and unite the colonies that would become the United States.

But in the end, none of the colonial legislatures accepted the plan, since they were not prepared to surrender either the power of taxation or control over the development of the western lands to a central authority.

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Join, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.

Britain’s superior strategic position and her competent leadership ultimately brought victory in the conflict with France, known as the French and Indian War in America (named for Britain’s enemies, though some natives fought on the British side, too) and the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Really the first true world war, with conflicts stretching from Europe to Asia, only a modest portion of it was fought in the Western Hemisphere.

The Treaty of Paris (1763)

The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The British offered France the choice of surrendering either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. France chose to cede their North American possessions. They viewed the economic value of the Caribbean islands’ sugar cane to be greater and easier to defend than the furs from the continent. French philosopher Voltaire referred to Canada disparagingly as nothing more than a few acres of snow. The British, however, were happy to take New France, as defense of their North American colonies would no longer be an issue; also, they already had ample places from which to obtain sugar. Spain traded Florida to Britain in order to regain Cuba, but they also gained Louisiana from France, including New Orleans, in compensation for their losses. Great Britain and Spain also agreed that navigation on the Mississippi River was to be open to vessels of all nations.

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North America after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, London saw a need for a new imperial design that would involve more centralized control, spread the costs of empire more equitably, and speak to the interests of both French Canadians and North American Indians, now subjects of the British Empire.

The colonies, on the other hand, long accustomed to a large measure of independence, expected more, not less, freedom. And, with the French menace eliminated, they felt far less need for a strong British presence. A scarcely comprehending Crown and Parliament on the other side of the Atlantic found itself contending with colonists trained in self‑government and impatient with interference.

Furthermore, the French and Indian War nearly doubled Great Britain’s national debt. The Crown would soon impose new taxes on its colonies in attempt to pay off this debt. These attempts were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in to enforce the Crown’s authority. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War.

The incorporation of Canada and the Ohio Valley into the empire necessitated policies that would not alienate the French and Indian inhabitants. Here London was in fundamental conflict with the interests of its American colonists. Fast increasing in population, and needing more land for settlement, they claimed the right to extend their boundaries as far west as the Mississippi River.  Hadn’t that been how this whole war started in the first place?

Proclamation of 1763

The British government, fearing a series of expensive and deadly Indian wars, believed that former French territory should be opened on a more gradual basis.  Reinforcing this belief was Pontiac’s Rebellion, a bitter conflict which came on the heels of the Treaty of Paris, launched in 1763 by a loose confederation of Native American tribes, primarily from the Great Lakes region.  Named for Pontiac, the most prominent of many native leaders in the conflict, the members of the alliance were dissatisfied with British policies after the British victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

While the French had long cultivated alliances among certain of the Native Americans, the British post-war approach was essentially to treat the Native Americans as a conquered people, eliminating benefits and autonomy that the various tribes had enjoyed while the French claimed the region. While French colonists—most of whom were farmers who seasonally engaged in fur trade—had always been relatively few, there seemed to be no end of settlers in the British colonies, who wanted to clear the land of trees and occupy it. Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Country had been displaced by British colonists in the east, and this motivated their involvement in the war. On the other hand, Native Americans in the Great Lakes region and the Illinois Country had not been greatly affected by white settlement, although they were aware of the experiences of tribes in the east.

Before long, Native Americans who had been allies of the defeated French attacked a number of British forts and settlements.  Eight forts were destroyed, and hundreds of colonists were killed or captured, with many more fleeing the region.  Warfare on the North American frontier was brutal, and the killing of prisoners, the targeting of civilians, and other atrocities were widespread on both sides.  The ruthlessness and treachery of the conflict was a reflection of growing tensions between British colonists and Native Americans, who increasingly felt they were in a war for their very survival.

Hostilities came to an end after British Army expeditions in 1764 led to peace negotiations over the next two years. Native Americans were unable to drive away the British, but the uprising prompted the British government to modify the policies that had provoked the conflict.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 reserved all the western territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River for use by Native Americans – no British settlers allowed. Thus the Crown attempted to sweep away every western land claim of the thirteen colonies and to stop westward expansion. Although never effectively enforced, this measure, in the eyes of the colonists, constituted a betrayal – what had they been fighting for the last seven years if not a right to occupy and settle western lands?  Why was King choosing Native Americans over his own loyal subjects?

Thus, the Proclamation of 1763 would rouse the latent suspicions of colonials who would increasingly see Britain as no longer a protector of their rights, but rather a danger to them.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The French and Indian War
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence

 

Jamestown: English Settlers in the Land of the Powhatan

Imagine you come home from school to find that, without your permission or knowledge, someone has begun building a new home in your backyard.  When you confront them about this, they defend their right to do so – saying the space was just empty, grass and trees.  You clearly weren’t using it anyway…
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.
  1. What is a joint stock company? Provide one specific example from the reading.
  2. What challenges did the first settlers in Jamestown face? (2 examples)
  3. What change did John Rolfe bring to Jamestown?
  4. Why did the Powhatan and English come into conflict?

A For Profit Colony

Virginia Map
The 1608 grant to the Virginia Company of London “from sea to sea” is shown demarcated in red.

The Virginia Company of London was an English joint-stock company established in 1606 by royal charter by King James I with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America.  A charter was a license granted by the king granting a person, company, or group the authority to do something.  In this case, the king granted a huge chunk of North America to the Virginia Company for the purposes of colonization, as the charter said, from “sea-to-sea” – despite the fact that the continent was already known to be populated by large numbers of Native Americans.  While the new colony would be English territory, the charter gave almost complete control of colonial government to the Virginia Company.  This was a for-profit business, first and foremost.

A joint-stock company is a business arrangement that allows many individuals to pool their savings together to undertake a large project – in this case, the colonization of North America, which would hopefully yield the kind of gold and silver that had come out of the Spanish conquest of South and Central America.  Depending on the success of the colony, each investor would receive profit based on the shares he had bought. This investment was less risky than starting an English colony from scratch.

Virginia and Jamestown

detail.jpegThe area laid out in the royal charter was named Virginia, after both the organizing Virginia Company of London and Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen.” Founded in 1607, the first settlement – a small triangular fort populated by about 100 settlers at the mouth of the James River – was named after King James I.  Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the Americas.

The English settlement at Jamestown was established on May 24, 1607, with the arrival of three ships commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. The initial small group of 104 men and boys chose the location because it was favorable for defensive purposes, but it offered poor hunting prospects and a shortage of drinking water.  The island was swampy and isolated, and it offered limited space, was plagued by mosquitoes, and afforded only brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking.  Although they did some farming, few of the original settlers were accustomed to manual labor or familiar with farming. Hunting on the island was poor, and they quickly exhausted the supply of small game. The colonists were largely dependent upon trade with the Native Americans and periodic supply ships from England for their food.

A series of incidents with the Native Americans soon developed into serious conflicts, ending any hope of a commercial alliance with them. This forced the settlers into close quarters, behind fortified walls, severely limiting their ability to farm the area and trade with other Indian tribes. Various attempts at farming led to kidnappings and killings by the Powhatans, while expeditions to establish relations with other Native Americans resulted either in the emissaries being ambushed and killed by the Powhatans, or proved fruitless in gaining sufficient supplies. The combination of disease, killings, and kidnapping almost obliterated the initial English population.

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Salt marshes along Jamestown Island. The ample wetlands on the island proved to be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In addition, Virginia’s first government was weak, and its individuals frequently quarreled over policies. The colonists frantically searched for gold, silver, and gems, ignoring their own sicknesses.  Made up of townsmen and adventurers more interested in finding gold than farming, the group was unequipped by temperament or ability to embark upon a completely new life in the wilderness.  Indian raids further weakened defense and unification, and Jamestown began to die off. By the winter of 1609-1610, also known as the Starving Time, only 60 settlers remained from the original 500 passengers.   The famine during that harsh winter forced the colonists to eat leather from their clothes and boots and resort to cannibalism.

Describing the Starving Time, George Percy, a president of the Jamestown colony recalled: “Now all of us at James Town, beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger, which no man [can] truly describe but he which hath tasted the bitterness thereof. A world of miseries ensued . . . [and] some, to satisfy their hunger, have robbed the store, for the which I caused them to be executed. Then having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats, rats, and mice. All was fish that came to net to satisfy cruel hunger, as to eat boots, shoes, or any other leather some could come by. And those being spent and devoured, some were enforced to search the woods and to feed upon serpents and snakes and to dig the earth for wild and unknown roots, where many of our men were cut off and slain by the [Indians]. And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible …” 

Jamestown DiagramTwo men helped the colony to survive: John Smith and John Rolfe. Smith, who arrived in Virginia in 1608, introduced an ultimatum: those who did not work would not receive food or pay. The colonists at last learned how to raise crops and trade with the nearby Indians, with whom Smith had made peace.

In 1612, the English businessman John Rolfe discovered that Virginia had ideal conditions for growing tobacco. This discovery, and the breeding of a new, “sweeter” strain, led to the plant becoming the colony’s major cash crop. With English demand for tobacco rising, Virginia had found a way to support itself economically.

New plantations began growing up all along the James River.

Prosperity did not come quickly, however, and the death rate from disease and Indian attacks remained extraordinarily high. Between 1607 and 1624 approximately 14,000 people migrated to the colony, yet by 1624, there were only 1,132 living there.

The Powhatan

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Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco (detail of John Smith map, 1612).

The Powhatan Confederacy was where the English made their first permanent settlement in North America.  It was ruled at the time by Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as Chief Powhatan).

According to research by the National Park Service, Powhatan “men were warriors and hunters, while women were gardeners and gatherers. The English described the men, who ran and walked extensively through the woods in pursuit of enemies or game, as tall and lean and possessed of handsome physiques. The women were shorter, and were strong because of the hours they spent tending crops, pounding corn into meal, gathering nuts, and performing other domestic chores. When the men undertook extended hunts, the women went ahead of them to construct hunting camps. The Powhatan domestic economy depended on the labor of both sexes.”

The Powhatan lived east of the Fall Line in Tidewater Virginia. They built their houses, called yehakins, by bending saplings and placing woven mats or bark over top of the saplings. They supported themselves primarily by growing crops, especially maize (corn), but they also fished and hunted in the great forest in their area. Villages consisted of a number of related families organized in tribes led by a chief (weroance/werowance or weroansqua if female). They paid tribute to the paramount chief (mamanatowick), Wahunsunacawh.

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Reconstructed Powhatan village at the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum.

All of Virginia’s natives practiced agriculture. They periodically moved their villages from site to site. Villagers cleared the fields by felling, girdling, or firing trees at the base and then using fire to reduce the slash and stumps. A village became unusable as soil productivity gradually declined and local fish and game were depleted. The inhabitants then moved on. With every change in location, the people used fire to clear new land. They left more cleared land behind. The natives also used fire to maintain extensive areas of open game habitat throughout the East, later called “barrens” by European colonists. The Powhatan also had rich fishing grounds. Bison had migrated to this area by the early 15th century.

English settlers in the land of the Powhatan

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Conflicts began immediately between the Powhatan people and the English; the English colonists fired shots as soon as they arrived (due to a bad experience they had with the Spanish prior to their arrival). Within two weeks of the English arrival at Jamestown, deaths had occurred.

The settlers had hoped for friendly relations and had planned to trade with the Virginia Indians for food. Captain Christopher Newport led the first English exploration party up the James River in 1607, when he met Parahunt, weroance of the Powhatan proper. The English initially mistook him for the paramount Powhatan (mamanatowick), his father Wahunsunacawh, who ruled the confederacy.

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Captain John Smith led a colorful life, even if his biography sometimes exaggerated his adventures.

On a hunting and trade mission on the Chickahominy River in December 1607, only seven months after building the fort on Jamestown Island, Captain John Smith, later president of the colony, was captured by Opechancanough, the younger brother of Wahunsunacawh. Smith became the first Englishman to meet the paramount chief Powhatan.

Captain John Smith imagined that someday the Virginia Indians would be doing all the work for the English, but Powhatan envisioned something different: he wanted Smith and the colonists to forsake the swamp and instead live in one of his satellite towns called Capahosick where they would make metal tools for him in exchange for full provision. 

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In this chromolithograph credited to the New England Chromo. Lith. Company, around 1870, Pocahontas saves the life of John Smith. The scene is idealized and relies on stereotypes of Native Americans rather than reliable information about the particulars of this historical moment. There are no mountains in Tidewater Virginia, for example, and the Powhatans lived not in tipis but in thatched houses. And the scene that Smith famously described in his Generall Historie (1624) did not take place outdoors but in a longhouse.

Much later, when Smith was writing a book about his life, he claimed that during his captivity, Pocahontas, Chief Wahunsunacawh’s daughter, had dramatically saved him from Powhatan’s clubs, but historians differ as to whether or not this was propaganda, or an actual native ritual. Smith’s capture represented just an example of the diplomatic strategies employed by Wahunsunacawh to make the English cooperate with and contribute to his expanding control in this region. Smith was released when he falsely promised to move the colony to Capahosick, just as the chief wished.

BONUS INFO: Six Inaccuracies in Disney’s Pocahontas

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The Coronation of Powhatan, oil on canvas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1835.

In 1608, the leaders of Jamestown realized that Powhatan’s friendship was crucial to the survival of the small Jamestown colony. In the summer of that year, he tried to “crown” the paramount Chief, with a ceremonial crown, to make him an English “vassal.” They also gave Powhatan many European gifts, such as a pitcher, feather mattress, bed frame, and clothes. The coronation went badly because they asked Powhatan to kneel to receive the crown, which he refused to do. As a powerful leader, Powhatan followed two rules: “he who keeps his head higher than others ranks higher,” and “he who puts other people in a vulnerable position, without altering his own stance, ranks higher.” To finish the “coronation”, several English had to lean on Powhatan’s shoulders to get him low enough to place the crown on his head, as he was a tall man. Afterwards, the English might have thought that Powhatan had submitted to King James, whereas Powhatan likely thought nothing of the sort.

After John Smith became president of the colony, he sent a force to occupy an island in Nansemond territory and drive the inhabitants away. At the same time, he sent another force to build a fort at the James River falls. He purchased a nearby fortified Powhatan village (present site of Richmond, Virginia) from another chief named Parahunt for some copper. Smith then renamed the village “Nonsuch,” and tried to persuade English colonists to live in it. Both these attempts at settling beyond Jamestown soon failed due to Powhatan resistance. Smith left Virginia for England in October 1609, never to return, because of an injury sustained in a gunpowder accident.

From Charter Colony to Royal Colony

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Portrait of Pocahontas, wearing a tall hat in the English style of the early 1600s.  After her baptism and marriage, her name was changed to Rebecca.

Prosperous and wealthy from his investment in the new tobacco trade, John Rolfe married Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, bringing several years of peace between the English and natives. However, at the end of a public relations trip to England, Pocahontas became sick and died on March 21, 1617. The following year, her father also died. Powhatan’s brother, a fierce warrior named Opchanacanough, became head of the Powhatan Confederacy. As the English continued to appropriate more land for tobacco farming, relations with the natives worsened.

After several years of strained coexistence, Chief Opchanacanough and his Powhatan Confederacy attempted to eliminate the English colony once and for all. On the morning of March 22, 1622, they attacked outlying plantations and communities up and down the James River in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. More than 300 settlers were killed in the attack, about a third of the colony’s English-speaking population.

The remarkable death rate, as well as the high demand for cheap labor created by the booming tobacco industry, meant that recruiting new colonists was at times challenging to say the least.  Most any colonist who could afford the journey had little interest in personally performing the hard labor that tobacco cultivation demanded.

Due to the high cost of the transatlantic voyage at this time, many English settlers came to Jamestown as indentured servants: in exchange for the passage, room, board, and the promise of land or money, these immigrants would agree to work for three to seven years.  Along with European indentured servants, around 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. These slaves were captives taken from a ship headed for Mexico. Though these Africans started in Jamestown as slaves, some were able to obtain the status of indentured servant later in life.

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An artist’s depiction of the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown, 1619.

Also in 1619, Virginia set up the House of Burgesses, the first elected legislative assembly in America. It marked the beginnings of self-government, replacing the martial law that was previously imposed on the colonists.

However, in 1624, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. Its charter was transferred from the Virginia Company to the Crown of England, which meant that Jamestown was now a colony run by the English monarchy. While the House of Burgesses was still allowed to run the government, the king also appointed a royal governor to settle disputes and enforce certain British policies.

Another large-scale “Indian attack” occurred in 1644. In 1646, Opchanacanough was captured and while in custody an English guard shot him in the back—against orders—and killed him. Subsequently, the Powhatan Confederacy began to decline. Opechancanough’s successor signed the first peace treaties between the Powhatan Indians and the English. The treaties required the Powhatan to pay yearly tribute payment to the English and confined them to reservations.

This article was adapted in part from:

  1. Early America
  2. Transatlantic Encounters and Colonial Beginnings (1492 – 1620)
  3. Jamestown, Virginia
  4. Powhatan

Stateless Peoples in Lands Far from Home

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