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. Please use and share freely – to supplement or replace what you have at hand.
One – A Not So-Distant Past: Native America (Until 1600)
What is Uncle Tom’s Cabin and why is it significant?
Who is Stephen Douglas, and how do his plans lead to the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
What is the key issue that unites the early Republican Party?
What is “Bleeding Kansas?”
What decision does the Supreme Court reach in the Dred Scott case?
Citing specific examples, how do John Brown’s methods differ from those of other abolitionists?
A Divided Nation
During the 1850s, the issue of slavery severed the political bonds that had held the United States together. It ate away at the country’s two great political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, destroying the first and irrevocably dividing the second. It produced weak presidents whose irresolution mirrored that of their parties. It eventually discredited even the Supreme Court.
The moral fervor of abolitionist feeling grew steadily. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel provoked by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. More than 300,000 copies were sold the first year. Presses ran day and night to keep up with the demand. Although sentimental and full of stereotypes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed with undeniable force the cruelty of slavery and posited a fundamental conflict between free and slave societies. It inspired widespread enthusiasm for the antislavery cause, appealing as it did to basic human emotions—indignation at injustice and pity for the helpless individuals exposed to ruthless exploitation.
In 1854 the issue of slavery in the territories was renewed and the quarrel became more bitter. The region that now comprises Kansas and Nebraska was being rapidly settled, increasing pressure for the establishment of territorial, and eventually, state governments.
Under terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the entire region was closed to slavery. Dominant slave-holding elements in Missouri objected to letting Kansas become a free territory, for their state would then have three free-soil neighbors (Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas) and might be forced to become a free state as well. Their congressional delegation, backed by Southerners, blocked all efforts to organize the region.
At this point, Stephen A. Douglas enraged all free-soil supporters. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850, having left Utah and New Mexico free to resolve the slavery issue for themselves, superseded the Missouri Compromise. His plan called for two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. It permitted settlers to carry slaves into them and eventually to determine whether they should enter the Union as free or slave states.
Douglas’s opponents accused him of currying favor with the South in order to gain the presidency in 1856. The free-soil movement, which had seemed to be in decline, reemerged with greater momentum than ever. Yet in May 1854, Douglas’s plan, in the form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed Congress to be signed by President Franklin Pierce. Southern enthusiasts celebrated with cannon fire. But when Douglas subsequently visited Chicago to speak in his own defense, the ships in the harbor lowered their flags to half-mast, the church bells tolled for an hour, and a crowd of 10,000 hooted so loudly that he could not make himself heard.
The immediate results of Douglas’s ill-starred measure were momentous. The Whig Party, which had avoided taking a strong stand on the question of slavery expansion, sank to its death, and in its stead a powerful new organization arose in the North – the Republican Party, whose primary demand was that slavery be excluded from all the territories. In 1856, it nominated John Fremont, whose expeditions into the Far West had won him renown. Fremont lost the election, but the new party swept a great part of the North. Such free-soil leaders as Salmon P. Chase and William Seward exerted greater influence than ever. Along with them appeared a tall, lanky Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the flow of both Southern slave holders and antislavery families into Kansas resulted in armed conflict. Each hoped to win popular sovereignty at the ballot box when it came to vote on the question of slavery, but this potent mix of those with the most passionate pro- and antislavery – the people who cared enough about the issue to move halfway across the country to influence a vote on the matter – meant that soon the territory was being called Bleeding Kansas. A simmering, low-intensity civil war had erupted that would continue for years – the federal government seemed powerless to stop the tit-for-tat violence between free-soilers and proslavery forces.
In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, that is the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery. In the speech (called “The Crime against Kansas”) Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and revolting terms. The next day, Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action electrified the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.
The violence continued to increase. Abolitionist John Brown – who believed that God himself had commanded his holy mission – led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection with financial support from Boston abolitionists.
In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in “Bleeding Kansas” history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had other horrifying consequences. Prior to the organization of the Kansas–Nebraska territory in 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were consolidated as part of the Indian Territory. Throughout the 1830s, large-scale relocations of Native American tribes to the Indian Territory took place, with many Southeastern nations removed to present-day Oklahoma, a process ordered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and known as the Trail of Tears, and many Midwestern nations removed by way of treaty to present-day Kansas. The passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act came into direct conflict with the relocations as white American settlers from both the free-soil North and pro-slavery South flooded lands promised by treaty to these Native American groups. Once again, they were forced by squatting settlers and the U.S. government – through violence, uneven treaties, and forced land sales – to surrender their homes for the second time in as many generations, with many groups moving south into present-day Oklahoma.
Then the Supreme Court struck another blow against the antislavery movement with its infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision.
Scott was a Missouri slave who, some 20 years earlier, had been taken by his master to live in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory; in both places, slavery was banned. Returning to Missouri and becoming discontented with his life there, Scott sued for liberation on the ground of his residence on free soil. A majority of the Supreme Court—dominated by Southerners—decided that Scott lacked standing in court because he was not a citizen; that the laws of a free state (Illinois) had no effect on his status because he was the resident of a slave state (Missouri); and that slave holders had the right to take their “property” anywhere in the federal territories. Thus, Congress could not restrict the expansion of slavery – in effect, slavery was now legal everywhere.
Lincoln, Douglas, and Brown
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, a fierce critic of the expansion of slavery, opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
Lincoln and Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in the ensuing months of 1858. Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. In the end, Douglas won the election by a small margin, but Lincoln had achieved stature as a national figure.
By then events were spinning out of control. On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and his sons made their next divinely-inspired move, leading a band of followers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (in what is now West Virginia). Brown’s goal was to use the weapons seized to lead a slave uprising – creating a vast army that would liberate the South.
Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman.
News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown’s men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the armory’s entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury.
After two days of fighting, Brown and his surviving men were taken prisoner by a force of U.S. Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.
Virginia put Brown on trial for conspiracy, treason, and murder. On December 2, 1859, he was hanged. Although most Northerners had initially condemned him, increasing numbers were coming to accept his view that he had been an instrument in the hand of God. Brown’s attempt confirmed the worst fears of many Southerners. Antislavery activists, on the other hand, generally hailed Brown as a martyr to a great cause.
The 1860 Election
In 1860 the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president. The Republican platform declared that slavery could spread no farther, promised a tariff for the protection of industry, and pledged the enactment of a law granting free homesteads to settlers who would help in the opening of the West. Southern Democrats, unwilling in the wake of the Dred Scott case to accept Douglas’s popular sovereignty, split from the party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for president. Stephen A. Douglas was the nominee of northern Democrats. Diehard Whigs from the border states, formed into the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee.
Sectionalism had officially divided presidential politics to the point of no return. Lincoln and Douglas competed in the North, Breckenridge and Bell in the South. Lincoln won only 39 percent of the popular vote, but thanks to the larger population of the North, swollen from decades of immigration and urbanization driven by its rapid industrialization, this was enough. The Republican platform had won a clear majority of 180 electoral votes, carrying all 18 free states. Despite minimal support in the South, Lincoln was now president, a party hostile to slavery was in control of the nation.
Define sectionalism. Describe each of the three sections and their goals.
What are the terms of the Compromise of 1850? What about those terms does the North like? What does the South like?
What is the Underground Railroad, and which part of the Compromise of 1850 is designed to shut it down?
What is popular sovereignty in the context of the Compromise?
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.
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.
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. . . . “
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
What is nullification? How did Andrew Jackson respond to South Carolina’s attempts to nullify the tariff?
Why didn’t President Jackson like the national bank? What did he do to kill it?
What was the Indian Removal Act?
What was the Trail of Tears?
The 1824 Election and Presidency of John Q. Adams
With the dissolution of the Federalist Party, there were no organized political parties for the 1824 presidential election, and four Democratic-Republicans vied for the office. The Tennessee legislature and a convention of Pennsylvania Democratic-Republicans had nominated General-turned-Senator Andrew Jackson. The Congressional Democratic-Republican caucus selected Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford. Secretary of State John Q. Adams, son of the former President Adams, and House Speaker Henry Clay also joined the contest.
When the electoral votes were cast and counted, no candidate had a majority of votes. Jackson had won the most votes, but Constitutionally, a plurality was not good enough, and the vote for the top three candidates went to the House of Representatives. Clay, with the least amount of votes, was ineligible, but still wielded a lot of power as speaker of the house. And since Clay had a personal dislike of Jackson and supported many of Adams’ policies, which were similar to his American System, Clay threw his support to Adams. Thanks to this support, Adams won the presidency, much to the chagrin of Jackson, who had won the most electoral and popular votes. After Adams appointed Clay as secretary of state, Jackson’s supporters protested that a corrupt bargain had been struck – that Jackson had been robbed of his rightful victory because of dishonest, behind-the-scenes deals made by the elite Adams and Clay.
The 1824 election enabled the resurgence of political parties in America. Jackson’s followers, members of the Democratic Party, were known as Jacksonians; Adams, Clay, and their supporters established the National Republican Party. Partisan politics was back in style in Washington, DC.
During Adams’s administration, new party alignments appeared. Adams’s followers, some of whom were former Federalists, took the name of “National Republicans” as emblematic of their support of a federal government that would take a strong role in developing an expanding nation. Though he governed honestly and efficiently, Adams was not a popular president. He failed in his effort to institute a national system of roads and canals. His coldly intellectual temperament did not win friends. Jackson, by contrast, had enormous popular appeal and a strong political organization. His followers coalesced to establish the Democratic Party, claimed direct lineage from the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson, and in general advocated the principles of small, decentralized government.
These factors meant that in the election of 1828, Jackson defeated Adams by an overwhelming electoral majority.
Jackson—Tennessee politician, fighter in wars against Native Americans on the Southern frontier, and hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812—drew his support from poorer white men. He came to the presidency on a rising tide of enthusiasm for popular democracy. The election of 1828 was a significant benchmark in the trend toward broader voter participation. By then most states had either enacted universal white male suffrage or minimized property requirements. In 1824 members of the Electoral College in six states were still selected by the state legislatures. By 1828 presidential electors were chosen by popular vote in every state but Delaware and South Carolina. These developments were the products of a widespread sense that the people should rule and that government by traditional elites had come to an end. Of course, the nation’s definition of “the people” did not include African Americans, Native Americans, or women of any race.
Toward the end of his first term in office, Jackson was forced to confront the state of South Carolina, the most important of the emerging Deep South cotton states, on the issue of the protective tariff. Business and farming interests in the state had hoped that the president would use his power to modify the 1828 act that they called the Tariff of Abominations. In their view, all its benefits of protection went to Northern manufacturers, leaving agricultural South Carolina poorer. In 1828, the state’s leading politician—and Jackson’s vice president until his resignation in 1832—John C. Calhoun had declared in his South Carolina Exposition and Protest that states had the right to nullify oppressive national legislation.
In 1832, Congress passed and Jackson signed a bill that revised the 1828 tariff downward, but it was not enough to satisfy most South Carolinians. The state adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within state borders. Its legislature also passed laws to enforce the ordinance, including authorization for raising a military force and appropriations for arms. Nullification – a state’s right to ignore federal laws with which it disagreed – was a long-established theme of protest against perceived excesses by the federal government. Jefferson and Madison had proposed it in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, to protest the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Hartford Convention of 1814 had invoked it to protest the War of 1812. Never before, however, had a state actually attempted nullification. The young nation faced its most dangerous crisis yet.
In response to South Carolina’s threat, Jackson sent seven small naval vessels and a man-of-war to Charleston in November 1832. On December 10, he issued a resounding proclamation against the nullifiers. South Carolina, the president declared, stood on “the brink of insurrection and treason,” and he appealed to the people of the state to reassert their allegiance to the Union. He also let it be known that, if necessary, he personally would lead the U.S. Army to enforce the law.
When the question of tariff duties again came before Congress, Jackson’s political rival, Senator Henry Clay, a great advocate of protection but also a devoted Unionist, sponsored a compromise measure. Clay’s tariff bill, quickly passed in 1833, specified that all duties in excess of 20 percent of the value of the goods imported were to be reduced year by year, so that by 1842 the duties on all articles would reach the level of the moderate tariff of 1816. At the same time, Congress passed a Force Act, authorizing the president to use military power to enforce the laws.
South Carolina had expected the support of other Southern states, but instead found itself isolated. (Its most likely ally, the state government of Georgia, wanted, and got, U.S. military force to remove Native-American tribes from the state.) Eventually, South Carolina rescinded its action. Both sides, nevertheless, claimed victory. Jackson had strongly defended the Union. But South Carolina, by its show of resistance, had obtained many of its demands and had demonstrated that a single state could force its will on Congress.
The Bank War
Although the nullification crisis possessed the seeds of civil war, it was not as critical a political issue as a bitter struggle over the continued existence of the nation’s central bank, the second Bank of the United States. The first bank, established in 1791 under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance, had been chartered for a 20-year period. Though the government held some of its stock, the bank, like the Bank of England and other central banks of the time, was a private corporation with profits passing to its stockholders. Its public functions were to act as a depository for government receipts, to make short-term loans to the government, and above all to establish a sound currency by refusing to accept at face value notes (paper money) issued by state-chartered banks in excess of their ability to redeem.
To the Northeastern financial and commercial establishment, the central bank was a needed enforcer of prudent monetary policy, but from the beginning it was resented by Southerners and Westerners who believed their prosperity and regional development depended upon ample money and credit. The Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison doubted its constitutionality. When its charter expired in 1811, it was not renewed.
For the next few years, the banking business was in the hands of state-chartered banks, which issued currency in excessive amounts, creating great confusion and fueling inflation. It became increasingly clear that state banks could not provide the country with a reliable currency. In 1816 a second Bank of the United States, similar to the first, was again chartered for 20 years. From its inception, the second bank was unpopular in the newer states and territories, especially with state and local bankers who resented its virtual monopoly over the country’s credit and currency, but also with less prosperous people everywhere, who believed that it represented the interests of the wealthy few.
On the whole, the bank was well managed and rendered a valuable service; but Jackson long had shared the Republican distrust of the financial establishment. Elected as a tribune of the people, he sensed that the bank’s aristocratic manager, Nicholas Biddle, was an easy target. When the bank’s supporters in Congress pushed through an early renewal of its charter, Jackson responded with a stinging veto that denounced monopoly and special privilege. The effort to override the veto failed.
In the presidential campaign of 1832, the bank question revealed a fundamental division. Established merchant, manufacturing, and financial interests favored sound money. Regional bankers and entrepreneurs on the make wanted an increased money supply and lower interest rates. Other debtor classes, especially farmers, shared those sentiments. Jackson and his supporters called the central bank a “monster” and coasted to an easy reelection victory over Henry Clay.
The president interpreted his triumph as a popular mandate to crush the central bank irrevocably. In September 1833 he ordered an end to deposits of government money in the bank, and gradual withdrawals of the money already in its custody. The government deposited its funds in selected state banks, characterized as “pet banks” by the opposition.
For the next generation the United States would get by on a relatively unregulated state banking system, which helped fuel westward expansion through cheap credit but kept the nation vulnerable to periodic panics. During the Civil War, the United States initiated a system of national charters for local and regional banks, but the nation returned to a central bank only with the establishment of the Federal Reserve system in 1913.
The Trail of Tears
In the 1820s, President Monroe’s secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, pursued a policy of removing the remaining tribes from the old Southwest and resettling them beyond the Mississippi. Jackson continued this policy as president. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, providing funds to transport the eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi. In 1834 a special Native-American territory was set up in what is now Oklahoma. In all, the tribes signed 94 treaties during Jackson’s two terms, ceding millions of hectares to the federal government and removing dozens of tribes from their ancestral homelands.
The United States, as it expanded to the west, forcibly removed or killed many Native Americans from their lands as it violated the treaties and Indian rights which both parties had agreed upon. In this way, the concerns of white landowners were considered above the interests of the Indians. In Georgia, for instance, the governor ordered the Cherokee to vacate their lands so the territory would be able to be redistributed to poor Georgians. The Cherokee refused, as they contended that a treaty with the United States that had been signed earlier guaranteed their right to the land. Through a friend of the tribe, they brought their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 1832, when Andrew Jackson was President, the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia had acted unconstitutionally. However, Jackson refused to enforce the Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act, which granted reservation land to Native Americans who relocated to territory west of the Mississippi. Under the law, Native Americans could have stayed and became citizens of their home states. The removal was supposed to be peaceful and by their own will, but Jackson forced them to go west.
The Cherokee were forced out of Georgia and had to endure a brutal and deadly trip to the area comprising present-day Oklahoma, a journey which they called the Trail of Tears. Between 2,000 and 4,000 of the 16,000 migrating Cherokees died during the journey, including women, children, and elderly members of the tribe. The conditions were horrible. They were exposed to disease and starvation on their way to the makeshift forts that they would live in. The Cherokees weren’t the only tribe that was forced to leave their homelands. The Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws were also forced to migrate west. The Choctaws were forced to move first in the winter of 1831 and 1832 and many would die on the forced march. The Creek nation would resist the government in Alabama until 1836 but the army eventually pushed them towards Oklahoma. In the end the Natives forced to move traded about 100 million acres for about 32 million acres and about 65 million dollars total for all Native tribes forced to move. This forced relocation of the American Indians was only a chapter in the cruelty given to the Natives by the American government. These forced migrations would have a terrible effect on the Natives as many were victim to disease, starvation, and death.
The Seminole Nation in Florida also resisted forced migration. Osceola who was the leader of the Seminoles waged a fierce guerrilla war against federal troops in 1835. The Seminole forces included Creeks, Seminoles, and even African Americans. Osceola would be captured by the US Army under a false white flag of truce. He would die in a POW camp in 1838. However, the Seminoles continued to fight under Chief Coacoochee and other leaders. Finally, in 1842, after much violence on both side, the US would cease its removal efforts. Some Seminoles would remain in Florida to this day near the Everglades.
What did the Alien and Sedition Acts do? (Name at least two things)
How did Madison and Jefferson respond?
What happened in the case of Marbury v Madison?
What factors caused the use of slavery to increase in the early 1800s?
Why did Jefferson purchase Louisiana?
The Adams Presidency
Washington announced his retirement in 1796, firmly declining to serve for more than eight years as the nation’s head. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (Republican) and John Adams (Federalist) vied to succeed him. Adams won a narrow election victory.
Adams faced serious international difficulties. France, at war with Britain and angered by the fact that the U.S. refused to cut off ties with Britain, began to seize American merchant ships there. By 1797 France had snatched 300 American ships and broken off diplomatic relations with the United States. When Adams sent three commissioners to Paris to negotiate, agents of Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (whom Adams labeled X, Y, and Z in his report to Congress) informed the Americans that negotiations could only begin if the United States loaned France $12 million and bribed officials of the French government. American hostility to France rose to an excited pitch. Federalists called for war.
These events – the so-called XYZ Affair – led to the strengthening of the fledgling U.S. Armies and Navy.Congress authorized the acquisition of twelve frigates, and made other appropriations to increase military readiness. Despite calls for a formal war declaration, Adams remembered Washington’s farewell address, which warned against getting involved in European conflict, and steadfastly refused to ask Congress for one.
In 1799, after a series of sea battles with the French, war seemed inevitable. In this crisis, Adams rejected the guidance of Hamilton, who wanted war, and reopened negotiations with France. Napoleon, who had just come to power, received them cordially. The danger of conflict subsided with the negotiation of the Convention of 1800, which formally released the United States from its 1778 defense alliance with France. However, reflecting American weakness, France refused to pay $20 million in compensation for American ships taken by the French Navy.
Hostility to France led the Federalist controlled Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had severe repercussions for American civil liberties. The Naturalization Act, which changed the requirement for citizenship from five to 14 years, was targeted at Irish and French immigrants suspected of supporting the Republicans. The Alien Act, operative for two years only, gave the president the power to expel or imprison aliens in time of war. The Sedition Act forbid writing, speaking, or publishing anything of “a false, scandalous, and malicious” nature against the president or Congress. The few convictions won under it created martyrs to the cause of civil liberties and aroused support for the Republicans.
The acts met with resistance. Jefferson – Adams’s own vice-president – and James Madison sponsored the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions by the legislatures of these two states in November and December 1798. As extreme declarations of states’ rights, the resolutions asserted that states could ignore federal actions if they disagreed with them. This concept of nullification would be used later for the Southern states’ resistance to protective tariffs (favored by the North), and, more ominously, slavery.
Industry and Slavery
In the 1790s certain New England weavers began building large, automated looms, driven by water power. To house them they created the first American factories. Working the looms required less skill and more speed than household laborers could provide. The looms needed people brought to them; and they also required laborers who did not know the origin of the word sabotage. These factories sought out young women.
The factory owners said they wanted to hire these women just for a few years, with the ideal being that they could raise a dowry for their wedding. They were carefully supervised, with their time laid out for them. Some mill owners created evening classes to teach these women how to write and how to organize a household.
The factories provided a cheaper source of cotton cloth, sent out on ships and on roads improved by a stronger government. For the first time some people could afford more than two outfits, work and Sunday best. They also provided an outlet for cotton from the slave states in the South. Cotton was at that time one among many crops. Many slaves had to work to separate cotton from the seeds of the cotton plant, and to ship it to cloth-hungry New England. This was made simpler by Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Cotton became a profitable crop, and many Southern farms now made it their only crop. Growing and picking cotton was long, difficult labor, and the Southern plantation made it the work for slaves. Northern factories became part of the economy of slavery.
This renewed reliance on slavery went against the trend in other parts of the country. Vermont had prohibited slavery in its state constitution in 1777. Pennsylvania passed laws for the gradual abolition of the condition in 1780, and New York State in 1799. Education, resources, and economic development created the beginnings of industrialization in many Northern states and plantations and slavery and less development in states in the Deep South.
The Election of 1800
By 1800 the American people were ready for a change. Under Washington and Adams, the Federalists had established a strong government, but sometimes they had followed policies that alienated large groups. For example, in 1798 they had enacted a tax on houses, land, and slaves, affecting every property owner in the country.
The campaign of 1800 was bitter – Jefferson’s allies suggested that President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’s supporters called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” The two men didn’t speak to each other for another decade.
The Constitution originally called for the individual with the most votes in an election to become President, and for the runner-up to become Vice President. George Washington, who had approved of this system, had justified it by the belief that it worked against factionalism in political parties. However, it had already resulted in the alienation of Vice President Thomas Jefferson under the Adams administration.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran against Adams and his running mate. The two Republican candidates would have preferred for Jefferson to become President and Burr to become Vice President. But the Electoral College vote was tied between the two of them. The Federalist-controlled House of Representatives was called upon to chose between them. It had to vote thirty-six times before Jefferson was chosen to be President, and then only with the reluctant agreement of Alexander Hamilton – to stop Burr, who had refused to concede the presidency to Jefferson as planned. Congress later approved a Constitutional amendment allowing for separate balloting for President and Vice President in the Electoral College.
In Jefferson’s inaugural address, the first such speech in the new capital of Washington, D.C., he promised “a wise and frugal government” that would preserve order among the inhabitants but leave people “otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry, and improvement.” He also spoke of reconciliation after the bitter campaign saying, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Marbury v. Madison
On March 2, 1801, just two days before his presidential term was to end, Adams nominated nearly 60 Federalist supporters to circuit judge and justice of the peace positions the Federalist-controlled Congress had newly created. These appointees—whom Jefferson’s supporters derisively referred to as “the Midnight Judges”—included William Marbury, an ardent Federalist and a vigorous supporter of the Adams presidency.
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in and became the 3rd President of the United States. As soon as he was able, Jefferson instructed his new Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold the undelivered appointments. In Jefferson’s opinion, the commissions were void because they had not been delivered in time. Without the commissions, the appointees were unable to assume the offices and duties to which they had been appointed. In December 1801, Marbury filed suit against Madison in the Supreme Court, asking the Court to force Madison to deliver Marbury’s commission. This lawsuit resulted in the case of Marbury v. Madison.
The Court did not order Madison to comply. Marshall examined the law Congress had passed that gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction over types of cases like Marbury’s, and found that it had expanded the definition of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction beyond what was originally set down in the U.S. Constitution. Marshall then struck down the law. This is the origin of the concept of judicial review – the idea that American courts have the power to strike down laws or actions of the government found to violate the Constitution. If the Supreme Court has a super power, it is this, and they discovered it here.
The Louisiana Purchase
One of Jefferson’s acts doubled the area of the country. At the end of the Seven Years’ War, France had ceded its territory west of the Mississippi River to Spain. Access to the port of New Orleans near its mouth was vital for the shipment of American products from the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. Shortly after Jefferson became president, Napoleon forced a weak Spanish government to cede this great tract, the Louisiana Territory, back to France. The move filled Americans with apprehension and indignation. French plans for a huge colonial empire just west of the United States seriously threatened the future development of the United States. Jefferson asserted that if France took possession of Louisiana, “from that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”
Napoleon, however, lost interest after the French were expelled from Haiti by a slave revolt. Knowing that another war with Great Britain was impending, he resolved to fill his treasury and put Louisiana beyond the reach of Britain by selling it to the United States. His offer presented Jefferson with a dilemma: The Constitution conferred no explicit power to purchase territory. At first the president wanted to propose an amendment, but delay might lead Napoleon to change his mind. Advised that the power to purchase territory was an implied power, suggested by the enumerated power to make treaties, Jefferson relented, saying that “the good sense of our country will correct the evil of loose construction when it shall produce ill effects.”
All of this sidestepped the question of whether this land was France’s to sell in the first place – barely any of it was occupied by French people let alone the French army. Instead, it was filled with millions of Native Americans living across hundreds of independent tribes, most of whom had likely never heard of France or the United States.
The United States obtained the “Louisiana Purchase” for $15 million in 1803. It contained more than 2,600,000 square kilometers as well as the port of New Orleans. Once the natives who occupied it had been conquered and removed, the nation would gain a sweep of rich plains, mountains, forests, and river systems that within 80 years would become its heartland—and a breadbasket for the world.
Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1) to explore and map the newly acquired territory, (2) to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and (3) to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: (4) to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and (5) to establish trade with local American Indian tribes.
From May 1804 to September 1806, the Corps of Discovery under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark, was the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States. Also along for the mission was York, Clark’s slave, who who carried a gun and hunted on behalf of the expedition and was also accorded a vote during group decisions, more than half a century before African Americans could actually participate in American democracy. Along the way, the Corps picked up they met a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, and his teenage Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who had purchased as a slave and who was pregnant with their child. The Shoshone lived in the Rocky Mountains, and Sacagawea’s knowledge of nature, geography, language, and culture proved to be invaluable to the expedition.
The Corps met their objective of reaching the Pacific, mapping, and establishing their presence for a legal claim to the land. They established diplomatic relations and trade with at least two dozen indigenous nations. They did not find a continuous waterway to the Pacific Ocean (mostly because one does not exist!) but located an Indian trail that led from the upper end of the Missouri River to the Columbia River which ran to the Pacific Ocean. They gained information about the natural habitat, flora and fauna, bringing back various plant, seed and mineral specimens. They mapped the topography of the land, designating the location of mountain ranges, rivers and the many Indian tribes during the course of their journey. They also learned and recorded much about the language and customs of the American Indian tribes they encountered, and brought back many of their artifacts, including bows, clothing and ceremonial robes.
Describe one role patriot women played during the Revolutionary War.
Why was French help necessary for an American victory in the war?
What happened at Yorktown?
What were the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783?
Defeats and victories
Although the Americans suffered severe setbacks for months after independence was declared, their tenacity and perseverance eventually paid off. During August 1776, in the Battle of Long Island in New York, Washington’s position became untenable, and he executed a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore. British General William Howe twice hesitated and allowed the Americans to escape. By November, however, Howe had captured Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. New York City would remain under British control until the end of the war.
That December, Washington’s forces were near collapse, as supplies and promised aid failed to materialize. Howe again missed his chance to crush the Americans by deciding to wait until spring to resume fighting. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey. In the early-morning hours of December 26, his troops surprised the British garrison there, taking more than 900 prisoners.
In September 1777, however, Howe defeated the American army at Brandywine in Pennsylvania and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee. Washington had to endure the bitterly cold winter of 1777‑1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lacking adequate food, clothing, and supplies. Local farmers and merchants exchanged their goods for British gold and silver rather than for dubious paper money issued by the Continental Congress and the states.
With disease and hunger rampant, Valley Forge was the lowest ebb for Washington’s Continental Army. While the winter itself was not particularly harsh, many soldiers remained unfit for duty, owing to the lack of proper clothing and uniforms. Years later, General Marquis de Lafayette, an early French ally to the American cause, who was present at Valley Forge, recalled that “the unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they had become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”
While formal politics and warfare did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as women confronted the Revolution. Women in the era of the Revolution were responsible for managing the household. Halting previously everyday activities, such as drinking British tea or ordering clothes from Britain, demonstrated Colonial opposition during the years leading up to and during the war.
Patriot women continued a long tradition of weaving, and spun their own cloth to make clothing for their families. In addition to the boycotts of British textiles, the Homespun Movement served the Continental Army by producing needed clothing and blankets.
Some women were economically unable to maintain their households in their husband’s absence or wished to be by their side. Known as camp followers, these women followed the Continental Army, serving the soldiers and officers as washerwomen, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, and occasionally as soldiers and spies. The women that followed the army were at times referred to as “necessary nuisances” and “baggage” by commanding officers, but at other times were widely praised. These women helped the army camps run smoothly. Prostitutes were also present, but they were a worrisome presence to military leaders particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases.
Wives of some of the superior officers (Martha Washington, for example) visited the camps frequently. Unlike poorer women present in the army camps, the value of these well-to-do women to the army was symbolic or spiritual, rather than practical. Their presence was a declaration that everyone made sacrifices for the war cause.
In France, enthusiasm for the American cause was high: The French intellectual world was itself stirring against feudalism and privilege. However, the Crown lent its support to the colonies for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons: The French government had been eager for reprisal against Britain ever since France’s defeat in 1763. To further the American cause, Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris in 1776. His wit, guile, and intellect soon made their presence felt in the French capital, and played a major role in winning French assistance.
France began providing aid to the colonies in May 1776, when it sent 14 ships with war supplies to America. In fact, most of the gunpowder used by the American armies came from France. After Britain’s defeat at Saratoga, France saw an opportunity to seriously weaken its ancient enemy and restore the balance of power that had been upset by the French and Indian War. On February 6, 1778, the colonies and France signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, in which France recognized the United States and offered trade concessions. They also signed a Treaty of Alliance, which stipulated that if France entered the war, neither country would lay down its arms until the colonies won their independence, that neither would conclude peace with Britain without the consent of the other, and that each guaranteed the other’s possessions in America. This was the only bilateral defense treaty signed by the United States or its predecessors until 1949.
The Franco-American alliance soon broadened the conflict. In June 1778 British ships fired on French vessels, and the two countries went to war. In 1779 Spain, hoping to reacquire territories taken by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, entered the conflict on the side of France, but not as an ally of the Americans. In 1780 Britain declared war on the Dutch, who had continued to trade with the Americans. The combination of these European powers, with France in the lead, was a far greater threat to Britain than the American colonies standing alone.
Surrender at Yorktown
In July 1780 France’s King Louis XVI had sent to America an expeditionary force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau. In addition, the French fleet harassed British shipping and blocked reinforcement and resupply of British forces in Virginia. French and American armies and navies, totaling 18,000 men, parried with British General Cornwallis all through the summer and into the fall.
A series of battles left Cornwallis’s armies in retreat toward Yorktown, Virginia, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet retreated out to sea after a brief battle, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the American and French armies on land and the French fleet at sea. Finally, on October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.
The British had asked for the traditional honors of war, which would allow the army to march out with flags flying, bayonets fixed, and the band playing an American or French tune as a tribute to the victors. However, Washington firmly refused to grant the British the honors that they had denied the defeated American army the year before at the Siege of Charleston. Consequently, the British and Hessian troops marched with flags furled and muskets shouldered.
Cornwallis refused to attend the surrender ceremony, citing illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara led the British army onto the field. O’Hara first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau, who shook his head and pointed to Washington. O’Hara then offered his sword to Washington, who also refused and motioned to Benjamin Lincoln, his own second-in-command. The surrender finally took place when Washington’s second-in-command accepted the sword of Cornwallis’ deputy.
For the next year, scattered fighting continued, but back in Britain, the British were crushed by this defeat. Before long, Parliament voted to cease all offensive operations in “the colonies.”
Although Cornwallis’s defeat did not immediately end the war, a new British government decided to pursue peace negotiations in Paris in early 1782, with the American side represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. Signed on September 3, 1783 the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former colonies, now states. The new United States stretched west to the Mississippi River, north to Canada, and south to Florida, which was returned to Spain.
At the conclusion of the war in 1783 large numbers of loyalists and their families relocated to the home country of England and or to the still-British colony of Canada.
What happened at Lexington and Concord that was so different from what came before?
How was the Continental Army different from the minutemen?
How was the Olive Branch Petition received?
What was the main argument and significance of Common Sense?
What was the main argument and significance of the Declaration of Independence?
The Battle of Lexington and Concord
General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, commanded the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. Gage’s main duty in the colonies had been to enforce the Coercive Acts. When news reached him that the Massachusetts colonists were collecting powder and military stores at the town of Concord, 32 kilometers away, Gage sent a strong detail to confiscate these munitions.
After a night of marching, the British troops reached the village of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and saw a grim band of 77 minutemen— self-trained militiamen charged with defending their hometowns, so named because they were said to be ready to fight in a minute—through the early morning mist. The Minutemen intended only a silent protest, but Marine Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the British troops, yelled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” The leader of the Minutemen, Captain John Parker, told his troops not to fire unless fired at first. The Americans were withdrawing when someone fired a shot, which led the British troops to fire at the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets, leaving eight dead and 10 wounded. In the often-quoted phrase of 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, this was “the shot heard round the world” – the moment at which colonial protest crossed the line into outright armed rebellion.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.