The Constitution: A Second Draft of American Democracy

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.

Constitutional Convention

By the time the Northwest Ordinance was enacted, American leaders were in the midst of drafting a new and stronger constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Already a legend in his own lifetime, George Washington was a vocal critic of the Articles, had written accurately that the states were united only by a “rope of sand.” Disputes between Maryland and Virginia over navigation on the Potomac River led to a conference of representatives of five states at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786. One of the delegates, Alexander Hamilton of New York, convinced his colleagues that commerce was bound up with large political and economic questions. What was required was a fundamental rethinking of the Confederation.

The Annapolis conference issued a call for all the states to appoint representatives to a convention to be held the following spring in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress was at first indignant over this bold step, but it acquiesced after Washington gave the project his backing and was elected a delegate. During the next fall and winter, elections were held in all states but Rhode Island.

A remarkable gathering of notables assembled at what came to be called the Constitutional Convention – a gathering of delegates with the goal of creating a new plan of government for the United States – in May 1787. The state legislatures sent leaders with experience in colonial and state governments, in Congress, on the bench, and in the army. Washington, regarded as the country’s first citizen because of his integrity and his military leadership during the Revolution, was chosen as presiding officer.

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The signing of the Constitution of the United States

From Pennsylvania came Benjamin Franklin, nearing the end of an extraordinary career of public service and scientific achievement. From Virginia came James Madison, a practical young statesman, a thorough student of politics and history, and, according to a colleague, “from a spirit of industry and application … the best-informed man on any point in debate.” He would be recognized as the “Father of the Constitution.”

From New York came Alexander Hamilton, who had proposed the meeting. Absent from the Convention were Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as minister representing the United States in France, and John Adams, serving in the same capacity in Great Britain. Youth predominated among the 55 delegates—the average age was 42.

Congress had authorized the Convention merely to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation but, as Madison later wrote, the delegates, “with a manly confidence in their country,” simply threw the Articles aside and went ahead with the building of a wholly new form of government.

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Independence Hall’s Assembly Room, where the delegates worked through summer heat in 1787.

They recognized that the paramount need was to reconcile two different powers—the power of local control, which was already being exercised by the 13 semi-independent states, and the power of a central government. They adopted the principle that the functions and powers of the national government—being new, general, and inclusive—had to be carefully defined and stated, while all other functions and powers were to be understood as belonging to the states. But realizing that the central government had to have real power, the delegates also generally accepted the fact that the government should be authorized, among other things, to coin money, to regulate commerce, to declare war, and to make peace.

Debate and Compromise

The 18th-century statesmen who met in Philadelphia were adherents of Montesquieu’s concept of the separation of powers in politics. This principle was supported by colonial experience and strengthened by the writings of Montesquieu, with which most of the delegates were familiar. These influences led to the conviction that three equal and coordinate branches of government should be established. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers were to be so harmoniously balanced that no one could ever gain control. The delegates agreed that the legislative branch, like the colonial legislatures and the British Parliament, should be bicameral, consisting of two houses.

On these points there was unanimity within the assembly. But sharp differences also arose. Representatives of the small states—New Jersey, for instance—objected to changes that would reduce their influence in the national government by basing representation upon population rather than upon statehood, as was the case under the Articles of Confederation.

On the other hand, representatives of large states, like Virginia, argued for proportionate representation. This debate threatened to go on endlessly until Roger Sherman came forward with a plan that came to be known as the Great Compromise – for representation in proportion to the population of the states in one house of Congress, the House of Representatives, and equal representation in the other, the Senate.

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Quaker John Dickinson argued forcefully against slavery during the Convention. Once Delaware’s largest slaveholder, he had freed all of his slaves by 1787.

Almost every succeeding question raised new divisions, to be resolved only by new compromises. Northerners wanted slaves counted when determining each state’s tax share, but not in determining the number of seats a state would have in the House of Representatives. According to the Three-Fifths Compromise reached with little dissent, tax levies and House membership would be apportioned according to the number of free inhabitants plus three-fifths of the slaves.

Laboring through a hot Philadelphia summer, the convention finally achieved a draft incorporating in a brief document the organization of the most complex government yet devised – one which could only carry out enumerated powers, those powers listed in the Constitution. It would have full power to levy taxes, borrow money, establish uniform duties and excise taxes, coin money, regulate interstate commerce, fix weights and measures, grant patents and copyrights, set up post offices, and build post roads. It also was authorized to raise and maintain an army and navy, manage Native-American affairs, conduct foreign policy, and wage war. It could pass laws for naturalizing foreigners and controlling public lands; it could admit new states on a basis of absolute equality with the old. The power to pass all necessary and proper laws for executing these clearly defined powers rendered the federal government able to meet the needs of later generations and of a greatly expanded body politic.

The principle of separation of powers had already been given a fair trial in most state constitutions and had proved sound. Accordingly, the convention set up a governmental system with separate legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, each with powers of checks and balances to limit each other. Thus congressional enactments were not to become law until approved by the president. And the president was to submit the most important of his appointments and all his treaties to the Senate for confirmation. The president, in turn, could be impeached and removed by Congress. The judiciary was to hear all cases arising under federal laws and the Constitution; in effect, the courts were empowered to interpret both the fundamental and the statute law. But members of the judiciary, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, could also be impeached by Congress.

checks

Ratification and the Bill of Rights

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The Rising Sun Chair George Washington used during the Constitutional Convention.

On September 17, 1787, after 16 weeks of deliberation, the finished Constitution was signed by 39 of the 42 delegates present. Franklin, pointing to the half‑sun painted in brilliant gold on the back of Washington’s chair, said:

I have often in the course of the session … looked at that [chair] behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting, sun.

The convention was over; the members “adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together, and took a cordial leave of each other.” Yet a crucial part of the struggle for a more perfect union remained to be faced. The consent of popularly elected state conventions was still required before the document could become effective.

The convention had decided that the Constitution would take effect upon ratification by conventions in nine of the 13 states. By June 1788 the required nine states had ratified the Constitution, but the large states of Virginia and New York had not. Most people felt that without their support the Constitution would never be honored. To many, the document seemed full of dangers: Would not the strong central government that it established tyrannize them, oppress them with heavy taxes, and drag them into wars?

Differing views on these questions brought into existence two parties, the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, and the Antifederalists, who preferred a loose association of separate states. Impassioned arguments on both sides were voiced by the press, the legislatures, and the state conventions.

In Virginia, the Antifederalists attacked the proposed new government by challenging the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States.” Without using the individual state names in the Constitution, the delegates argued, the states would not retain their separate rights or powers. Virginia Antifederalists were led by Patrick Henry, who became the chief spokesman for back-country farmers who feared the powers of the new central government. Wavering delegates were persuaded by a proposal that the Virginia convention recommend a bill of rights, and Antifederalists joined with the Federalists to ratify the Constitution on June 25.

An_Advertisement_of_The_Federalist_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16960
An advertisement for The Federalist, 1787, using the pseudonym “Philo-Publius.”

In New York, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison pushed for the ratification of the Constitution in a series of essays known as The Federalist Papers. The essays, published in New York newspapers, provided a now-classic argument for a central federal government, with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches that checked and balanced one another. With The Federalist Papers influencing the New York delegates, the Constitution was ratified on July 26.

Fear of a strong central government was only one concern among those opposed to the Constitution; of equal concern to many was the fear that the Constitution did not protect individual rights and freedoms sufficiently. Virginian George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776, was one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who had refused to sign the final document because it did not enumerate individual rights. Together with Patrick Henry, he campaigned vigorously against ratification of the Constitution by Virginia. Indeed, five states, including Massachusetts, ratified the Constitution on the condition that such amendments be added immediately.

When the first Congress convened in New York City in September 1789, the calls for amendments protecting individual rights were virtually unanimous. Congress quickly adopted 12 such amendments; by December 1791, enough states had ratified 10 amendments to make them part of the Constitution. Collectively, they are known as the Bill of Rights. Among their provisions: freedom of speech, press, religion, and the right to assemble peacefully, protest, and demand changes (First Amendment); protection against unreasonable searches, seizures of property, and arrest (Fourth Amendment); due process of law in all criminal cases (Fifth Amendment); right to a fair and speedy trial (Sixth Amendment); protection against cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment); and provision that the people retain additional rights not listed in the Constitution (Ninth Amendment).

Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, only 17 more amendments have been added to the Constitution. Although a number of the subsequent amendments revised the federal government’s structure and operations, most followed the precedent established by the Bill of Rights – they expanded rather than limited individual rights and freedoms, in particular to the women and people of color who had originally been excluded when Jefferson wrote the words “All men are created equal…”

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
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The United States: An Open Ended History

One – A New World: Colonial America (1600 – 1754)
  1. Jamestown: English Settlers in the Land of the Powhatan
  2. Massachusetts: Church and State in the Land of the Wampanoag
  3. An Overview of the English Colonies in America
  4. The Origins of Servitude and Slavery in Colonial America
Two – Common Sense and Independence: The Revolutionary Era (1754 – 1788)
  1. Join, or Die: The French and Indian War
  2. Agitation, Taxation, and Representation by Other Means
  3. The Shot Heard Round the World, Common Sense, and Independence
  4. The Revolutionary War: With a Little Help from our Friends
  5. A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles
  6. The Constitution: A Second Draft of American Democracy
Three – A More Perfect Union: The Early Republic (1788-1824)
  1. President Washington and the Origins of Party Politics
  2. Adams, Jefferson, and Competing Visions for the New Republic
  3. Foreign Adventures in the New Republic
  4. The Era of Good Feelings and Others Who Were Not So Lucky
Four – New Frontiers: Economic, Social, and Westward Expansion (1824-1850)
  1. Andrew Jackson, For and Against the Common Man
  2. I Will Not Retreat a Single Inch: Reformers Make Themselves Heard
  3. Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, and the Conquest of Mexico
Five – The Gathering Storm: Sectionalism and a Nation in Crisis (1850-1865)
  1. Sectionalism in the Fractured 1850s
  2. A Nation Divided Against Itself
  3. To Break Our Bonds of Affection: The Coming of the Civil War
  4. Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom
Appendix – Student Activities

The United States: An Open Ended History is a free online history textbook adapted and expanded upon from open sources.  Its chapters are designed to address most state standards, splitting the difference between overarching themes, concise summary, and the kinds of vivid, personal details that make history memorable to the average student – a balance that seems surprisingly hard to find even in expensive textbooks from the big corporations.  Please use and share freely – to supplement or replace what you have at hand.  This book is a work in progress, developed over the course of the 2018-2019 school year for use in my own courses.

Massachusetts: Church and State in the Land of the Wampanoag

Imagine that you have come around the world to found a proverbial city upon a hill – a model of Christian living which you intend as an example for the world.  What happens when the experiment spins out of control?
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 Plymouth Colony

village
Plimouth Plantation is a living history park in Massachusetts that strives to recreate 17th century life in Plymouth faithfully for visitors.

During the religious upheavals of the 16th century, a body of men and women called Puritans sought to reform the Established Church of England from within. Essentially, they demanded that the rituals and structures associated with Roman Catholicism be replaced by simpler Calvinist Protestant forms of faith and worship. Their reformist ideas, by destroying the unity of the state church, threatened to divide the people and to undermine royal authority.

In 1607 a small group of Separatists—a radical sect of Puritans who did not believe the Established Church could ever be reformed—departed for Leyden, Holland, where the Dutch granted them asylum. However, the Calvinist Dutch restricted them mainly to low-paid laboring jobs. Some members of the congregation grew dissatisfied with this discrimination and resolved to emigrate to the New World.

In 1620, a group of Leyden Puritans secured a land patent from the Virginia Company. Numbering 101, they set out for Virginia on the Mayflower. A storm sent them far north and they landed in New England on Cape Cod. Believing themselves outside the jurisdiction of any organized government, the men drafted a formal agreement to abide by “just and equal laws” drafted by leaders of their own choosing. This was the Mayflower Compact.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899
The Mayflower was originally bound for the Colony of Virginia, financed by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Storms forced them to anchor at the hook of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, as it was unwise to continue with provisions running short. This inspired some to proclaim that, since the settlement would not be made in the agreed-upon Virginia territory, they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them.” To prevent this, the Pilgrims chose to establish a government described in the Mayflower Compact. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival.

In December the Mayflower reached Plymouth harbor; the Pilgrims began to build their settlement during the winter. Nearly half the colonists died of exposure and disease, but come spring, neighboring Wampanoag Indians provided the information that would sustain them: how to grow maize.

The Landing of the Pilgrims, by Henry A. Bacon, 1877.
The Landing of the Pilgrims, by Henry A. Bacon, 1877.

Squanto

1911 illustration of Tisquantum 'Squanto' teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant maize.
1911 illustration of Tisquantum (“Squanto”) teaching the Plymouth colonists to plant maize.

Some European expedition captains were known to increase profits by capturing natives to sell as slaves. Such was the case when Thomas Hunt kidnapped several Wampanoag in 1614 in order to sell them later in Spain. One of Hunt’s captives was a Patuxet named Tisquantum. Tisquantum eventually came to be known as Squanto (a nickname given to him by his friend William Bradford). After Squanto regained his freedom, he was able to work his way to England where he lived for several years, working with a shipbuilder.

He signed on as an interpreter for a British expedition to Newfoundland. From there Squanto went back to his home, only to discover that, in his absence, epidemics had killed everyone in his village.  Squanto was the last of the Patuxet.

Southern_New_England,_1620–22_(rev)When the Mayflower landed in 1620, Squanto worked to broker peaceable relations between the Pilgrims and the local Pokanokets (another group in Wampanoag). He played a key role in the early meetings in March 1621, partly because he spoke English. He then lived with the Pilgrims for 20 months, acting as a translator, guide, and adviser. He introduced the settlers to the fur trade, and taught them how to sow and fertilize native crops, which proved vital since the seeds which the Pilgrims had brought from England largely failed.  Whatever his motivations, with great kindness and patience, Squanto taught the English the skills they needed to survive, including how best to cultivate varieties of the Three Sisters: beans, maize and squash.

BONUS: Read more about The Three Sisters.

Illustration of corn cultivation in mounds by Algonquian village in North Carolina. Watercolor by John White c. 1585.
Illustration of corn cultivation in mounds by Algonquian village in North Carolina. Watercolor by John White c. 1585.

In the fall of 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast. This feast was a celebration of the first successful harvest season of the colonists.  This three-day celebration involving the entire village and about 90 Wampanoag has been celebrated as a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans. The event later inspired 19th century Americans to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States. The harvest celebration took place at the historic site of the Patuxet villages. Squanto’s involvement as an intermediary in negotiating the friendship treaty with Massasoit led to the joint feast between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag.

As food shortages increased, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford relied on Squanto to pilot a ship of settlers on a trading expedition around Cape Cod and through dangerous shoals. During that voyage, Squanto contracted what Bradford called an “Indian fever.” Bradford stayed with him for several days until he died, which Bradford described as a “great loss.”

Considerable mythology and legend has grown up around Squanto over time, largely because of early praise by Bradford and owing to the central role that the Thanksgiving festival of 1621 plays in American folk history. Squanto was less the “noble savage” that later myth portrayed him and more a practical adviser and diplomat.

The First Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop
John Winthrop was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second major settlement in New England, following Plymouth Colony. Winthrop led the first large wave of immigrants from England in 1630 and served as governor for 12 of the colony’s first 20 years. His writings and vision of the colony as a Puritan “city upon a hill” dominated New England colonial development, influencing the governments and religions of neighboring colonies.

A new wave of immigrants arrived on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in 1630 bearing a grant from King Charles I to establish a colony. Many of them were Puritans whose religious practices were increasingly prohibited in England. Their leader, John Winthrop, urged them to create a “city upon a hill” in the New World—a place where they would live in strict accordance with their religious beliefs and set an example for all of Christendom—an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world or, if the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant of God, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s judgment. Winthrop’s sermon is often cited as an early example of American exceptionalism.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was to play a significant role in the development of the entire New England region, in part because Winthrop and his Puritan colleagues were able to bring their charter with them. Thus the authority for the colony’s government resided in Massachusetts, not in England.

Under the charter’s provisions, power rested with the General Court, which was made up of “freemen,” required to be members of the Puritan, or Congregational, Church. This guaranteed that the Puritans would be the dominant political as well as religious force in the colony. The General Court elected the governor, who for most of the next generation would be John Winthrop.

The Puritan emphasis on reading directly from the Scriptures underscored the importance of literacy. In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the “ye olde deluder Satan” Act, requiring every town having more than 50 families to establish a grammar school (a Latin school to prepare students for college). Shortly thereafter, all the other New England colonies, except for Rhode Island, followed its example.

The Pilgrims and Puritans had brought their own little libraries and continued to import books from London. And as early as the 1680s, Boston booksellers were doing a thriving business in works of classical literature, history, politics, philosophy, science, theology, and belles-lettres. In 1638 the first printing press in the English colonies and the second in North America was installed at Harvard College.

Harvard College in 1720
Harvard College in 1720.

Witch Trials

Like most Christians in the early modern period, Puritans believed in the active existence of the devil and demons as evil forces that could possess and cause harm to men and women. There was also widespread belief in witchcraft and witches—persons in league with the devil. “Unexplained phenomena such as the death of livestock, human disease, and hideous fits suffered by young and old” might all be blamed on the agency of the devil or a witch.

In 1692 a group of adolescent girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, became subject to strange fits after hearing tales told by a West Indian slave. They accused several women of being witches. The townspeople were appalled but not surprised: Belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout 17th-century America and Europe. Town officials convened a court to hear the charges of witchcraft. Within a month, six women were convicted and hanged.

The hysteria grew, in large measure because the court permitted witnesses to testify that they had seen the accused as spirits or in visions. Such “spectral evidence” could neither be verified nor made subject to objective examination. By the fall of 1692, 20 victims, including several men, had been executed, and more than 100 others were in jail (where another five victims died)—among them some of the town’s most prominent citizens. When the charges threatened to spread beyond Salem, ministers throughout the colony called for an end to the trials. The governor of the colony agreed. Those still in jail were later acquitted or given reprieves.

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Giles Corey (Sept. 19, 1692) being pressed with heavy stones for failing to enter a plea to the charge of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials.

Although an isolated incident, the Salem episode has long fascinated Americans. Most historians agree that Salem Village in 1692 experienced a kind of public hysteria, fueled by a genuine belief in the existence of witchcraft. While some of the girls may have been acting, many responsible adults became caught up in the frenzy as well.

Even more revealing is a closer analysis of the identities of the accused and the accusers. Salem Village, as much of colonial New England, was undergoing an economic and political transition from a largely agrarian, Puritan-dominated community to a more commercial, secular society. Many of the accusers were representatives of a traditional way of life tied to farming and the church, whereas a number of the accused witches were members of a rising commercial class of small shopkeepers and tradesmen. Salem’s obscure struggle for social and political power between older traditional groups and a newer commercial class was one repeated in communities throughout American history. It took a bizarre and deadly detour when its citizens were swept up by the conviction that the devil was loose in their homes.

The Salem witch trials also serve as a dramatic parable of the deadly consequences of making sensational, but false, charges. Three hundred years later, we still call false accusations against a large number of people a “witch hunt.”

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Accused witch Bridget Bishop hanged at Salem.

Rhode Island

The rigid structure of the Puritan rule was not to everyone’s liking. One of the first to challenge the General Court openly was a young clergyman named Roger Williams, who objected to the colony’s seizure of Indian lands and advocated separation of church and state. Another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, challenged key doctrines of Puritan theology. Both they and their followers were banished.

Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians in what is now Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636. In 1644, a sympathetic Puritan-controlled English Parliament gave him the charter that established Rhode Island as a distinct colony where complete separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion was practiced.

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Narragansett Indians receiving Roger Williams.

So‑called heretics like Williams were not the only ones who left Massachusetts. Orthodox Puritans, seeking better lands and opportunities, soon began leaving Massachusetts Bay Colony. News of the fertility of the Connecticut River Valley, for instance, attracted the interest of farmers having a difficult time with poor land. By the early 1630s, many were ready to brave the danger of Indian attack to obtain level ground and deep, rich soil. These new communities often eliminated church membership as a prerequisite for voting, thereby extending the franchise to ever larger numbers of men.

At the same time, other settlements began cropping up along the New Hampshire and Maine coasts, as more and more immigrants sought the land and liberty the New World seemed to offer.

King Philip’s War

Massasoit and governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe.
Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, and early Plymouth governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe.

The Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Plantation expended great effort forging friendship and peace with the American Indians around Cape Cod. They traveled long distances to make peace with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, and Governor William Bradford made a gift of his prized red horse coat upon seeing that the chief admired it. Yet over the next 50 years, frictions and misunderstandings multiplied as wave after wave of Puritans and non-religious “strangers” (fortune-seekers not motivated by religion) kept arriving, often oblivious to the fragile peace carefully woven since the earliest arrivals. By 1675, the early efforts at friendship failed.

The Wampanoag tribe had entered into an agreement with the Plymouth Colony and believed that they could rely on the colony for protection. However, in the decades preceding the war, it became clear to them that the treaty was not stopping colonists from settling in Wampanoag territories.

Throughout the Northeast, Native Americans had suffered severe population losses as a result of pandemics of smallpox, spotted fever, typhoid, and measles, starting in about 1618, two years before the first colony at Plymouth had been settled.

The population of New England colonists totaled about 80,000 people. They lived in 110 towns, of which 64 were in the Massachusetts Bay colony, which then included the southwestern portion of the present state of Maine. The towns had about 16,000 men of military age who were almost all part of the militia, as universal training was prevalent in all colonial New England towns. Many towns had built strong garrison houses for defense, and others had stockades enclosing most of the houses. All of these were strengthened as the war progressed. Some poorly populated towns without enough men to defend them were abandoned.

Each town had local militias, based on all eligible men, who had to supply their own arms. Only those who were too old, too young, disabled, or clergy were excused from military service. The militias were usually only minimally trained and initially did relatively poorly against the warring Indians, until more effective training and tactics could be devised. Joint forces of militia volunteers and volunteer Indian allies were found to be the most effective. The officers were usually elected by popular vote of the militia members. 

Map depicting the approximate tribal territories of Native Americans around the year 1600, before the foundation of any permanent English settlements.

By 1676, the regional Indian population had decreased to about 10,000 (exact numbers are unavailable), largely because of epidemics. These included about 4,000 Narragansetts of western Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, 2,400 Nipmucks of central and western Massachusetts, and 2,400 combined in the Massachusett and Pawtucket tribes living around Massachusetts Bay and extending northwest to Maine. The Wampanoags and Pokanokets of Plymouth and eastern Rhode Island are thought to have numbered fewer than 1,000. About one in four were considered to be warriors. By then, the Indians had almost universally adopted steel knives, tomahawks, and flintlock muskets as their weapons of choice. The various tribes had no common government. They had distinct cultures and often warred among themselves, although they all spoke related languages from the Algonquian family.

Indians Attacking a Garrison House.jpg
Indians Attacking a Garrison House, from an Old Wood Engraving This is likely a depiction of the attack on the Haynes Garrison, Sudbury, April 21, 1676.  Notice the European livestock dead in the foreground – to the Wompanoag, a frequent source of ire and a potent symbol of encroaching colonists, as cattle would graze in native fields, destroying their harvest.

Metacomet was the son of the sachem Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief who had originally made peace with the people of Plymouth colony in the 1620s.  Because of his closeness with the colonists during his youth, he adopted the name King Philip.  Unfortunately, by the time he himself became chief of the Wampanoag in 1662, the period of peaceful coexistence had become a distant memory following conflicts over land use, diminished game as a consequence of expanding European settlement, and questions of whether or not the Native Americans would submit to English rule.

Starting in 1675, in a conflict known by the colonists as King Philip’s War, Metacomet used tribal alliances to coordinate efforts to push European colonists out of New England.

The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of European settlement in North America in proportion to the population. In the space of little more than a year, twelve of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more were damaged, the economy of Plymouth and Rhode Island Colonies was all but ruined and their population was decimated, losing one-tenth of all men available for military service. More than half of New England’s towns were attacked by Indians.

Philip_King_of_Mount_Hope_by_Paul_Revere
“Philip. King of Mount Hope,” a 1772 engraving of a caricature of King Philip by Paul Revere.

The war largely ended with Metacomet’s death. His head was mounted on a pike at the entrance to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where it remained for more than two decades. His body was cut into quarters and hung in trees.

More than 1,000 colonists and 3,000 Indians had died. More than half of all New England villages were attacked by Indian warriors, and many were completely destroyed. Several Indians were enslaved and transported to Bermuda, including Metacomet’s son, and numerous Bermudians today claim ancestry from the Indian exiles.

 

 

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Colonial Period
  2. English Colonies
  3. Squanto
  4. Patuxet

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.

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.

The article was adapted in part from:

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

 

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