North America’s First People

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

For Your Consideration:
  1. Who are Native Americans?
  2. What does it mean to call something prehistoric?
  3. What is the leading theory for how Native Americans populated the Americas? Why can’t modern people be sure?
  4. What are the Three Sisters? Why do they work so well together?
  5. What evidence do we have for the complexity of ancient Native American societies? Is it meaningful to say that Native Americans were more primitive than Europeans of the same time period?
  6. Write a brief paragraph about the Native American group that once (or currently) occupied the land that is now your town.

Settlement of the Americas

Beringia sea levels measured in meters from 21,000 years ago to present

During recent ice ages, as large amounts of water were trapped on land as glaciers, ocean levels around the world were much lower than they are today. The narrow, shallow channel between Alaska and Siberia – known today as the Bering Strait – was a dry, grassland steppe. Asian nomads are thought to have entered the Americas via this Bering Land Bridge (Beringia), and possibly along the coast via canoes or other boats. These nomads were the ancestors of the first Native Americans – the indigenous peoples of the Americas, also known as Amerindians.

Exactly how and when Native Americans arrived in the Americas may never be known with certainty. This process may have included more than one migration event from Asia, but the fact of the matter is that no Native American group had a system of writing at the time of their migration. This means that the Americas were populated in prehistoric times – a time before written records. Instead, what we know about this ancient past comes from genetics – the study of how DNA varies between groups, linguistics – the study of how language varies between groups, and archeology – the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

Genetic evidence found in Native Americans’ mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – distinctive genetic markers passed from mother to child, down through generations – supports the theory of multiple genetic populations migrating from Asia. Over the course of millennia, Paleo-Indians spread throughout North and South America. Exactly when the first people migrated into the Americas is the subject of much debate. One of the earliest identifiable cultures was the Clovis culture, with sites dating from some 13,000 years ago. However, older sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been claimed. Some genetic studies estimate the colonization of the Americas dates from between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Genetic migration back and forth across Beringia

Artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to 14,000 years ago, and accordingly humans have been proposed to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time. In that case, the Eskimo peoples would have arrived separately and at a much later date, probably no more than 2,000 years ago, moving across the ice from Siberia into Alaska.

One early site of human habitation was found near modern day Clovis, New Mexico. Archeologists have dubbed this the Clovis culture and identified its distinctive style of making stone tools – the distinctively shaped, fluted-stone spear point, known as the Clovis point. Dated to roughly 13,200 to 12,900 calendar years ago, the Clovis culture may have been ancestors to all other Native Americans.

The North American climate was unstable as the ice age receded. It finally stabilized by about 10,000 years ago; climatic conditions were then very similar to today’s. Within this time frame, roughly pertaining to the Archaic Period, numerous archaeological cultures have been identified.

The unstable climate led to widespread migration, with early Native Americans soon spreading throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct tribes. These early Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, likely characterized by small, mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. These groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. During much of this Paleo-Indian period, bands are thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct giant land animals such as mastodon and ancient bison. Paleo-Indian groups carried a variety of tools, including distinctive projectile points and knives (the Clovis point), as well as less distinctive butchering and hide-scraping implements.

Simplified map of subsistence methods in the Americas at 1000 BCE
(yellow) hunter-gatherers
(green) simple farming societies
(coral) complex farming societies (tribal chiefdoms or civilizations)

The vastness of the North American continent, and the variety of its climates, ecology, vegetation, fauna, and landforms, led ancient peoples to coalesce into many distinct linguistic and cultural groups. This is reflected in the oral histories of the indigenous peoples, described by a wide range of traditional creation stories which often say that a given people have been living in a certain territory since the creation of the world.

The Three Sisters

Over the course of thousands of years, Native American people domesticated, bred, and cultivated a number of plant species, including crops which now constitute 50–60% of worldwide agriculture, most notably the Three Sisters – maize (corn), squash, and beans.

In a technique known as companion planting the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops.  Each mound is about 12 inches high and 20 inches wide.  Several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound.  When the maize is 6 inches tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. The development of this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, around 8,000-10,000 years ago, with maize second (at first consumed primarily in the form of popcorn), and then beans.

The three crops benefit from each other. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles or lattices which are more commonly used today. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash plant spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch,” creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests.

three sisters

Not only do these the Three Sisters grow symbiotically, they provide an almost complete nutritional package.  Maize, beans, and squash contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and all eight essential amino acids, allowing most Native Americans tribes to thrive on a plant-based diet.  Author Charles C. Mann explains, “Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;…. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan…. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats.”

In general, Arctic, Subarctic, and coastal peoples continued to live as hunters and gatherers, while agriculture was adopted in more temperate and sheltered regions, permitting a dramatic rise in population.

Most Native Americans shaped their environment with fire, employing slash-and-burn techniques to create grasslands for cultivation and to encourage the abundance of game animals. Native Americans domesticated fewer animals and cultivated plant life differently from their European counterparts, but did so quite intensively.

Native American Culture Areas at the time of European contact

Complex Societies

After the migration or migrations from Asia, it was several thousand years before the first complex societies arose, the earliest emerging possibly seven to eight thousand years ago. As early as 6500 BCE, people in the Lower Mississippi Valley were building complex earthwork mounds, probably for religious purposes.

Artist’s conception of Watson Brake, an archaeological site in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana that dates from the Archaic period. The oldest earthwork in North America, it was built and occupied 3500 BCE, approximately 5400 years ago.

Since the late twentieth century, archeologists have explored and dated these sites. They have found that they were built by hunter-gatherer societies, whose people occupied the sites on a seasonal basis, and who had not yet developed ceramics. Watson Brake, a large complex of eleven platform mounds in modern day Louisiana, was constructed beginning 3400 BCE and added to over 500 years. This has changed earlier assumptions that complex construction arose only after societies had adopted agriculture, become sedentary, with stratified hierarchy and usually ceramics. These ancient people had organized to build complex mound projects under a different social structure.

Mound building was continued by succeeding cultures, who built numerous sites in the middle Mississippi and Ohio River valleys as well, adding effigy mounds, conical and ridge mounds and other shapes.

This mound, located in Safety Harbor in Pinellas County, Florida, represents the southernmost extent of the mound building Mississippian culture. It was built by the Tocobaga people and occupied until contact with the Spanish in the 1500s.

Native Americans built monumental earthwork architecture and established continent-spanning trade networks – systems of waterways, paths, and meeting points (markets) that allow different regions and societies to exchange goods.

Native American trade networks spanned the continent. Archaeologists know this because of distinct products such as the ones depicted on this map, found far inland at a site in modern day Ohio.


The Mississippian culture was spread across the Southeast and Midwest from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Midwest, although most intensively in the area along the Mississippi River and Ohio River. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of complexes of large earthen mounds and grand plazas, continuing the moundbuilding traditions of earlier cultures. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 CE.

The largest urban site of this people, Cahokia—located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois—may have reached a population of over 20,000. Other chiefdoms were constructed throughout the Southeast, and its trade networks reached to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America. (Larger cities did exist in Mesoamerica and South America.) Monk’s Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric Americas. The culture reached its peak in about 1200–1400 CE, and in most places, it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of Europeans.

Sunrise over Monks Mound from the Woodhenge timber circle at Cahokia in modern day Collinsville, Illinois. Woodhenge was likely a calendar, allowing the inhabitants of Cahokia to track planting season and holidays. All rights held by the artist, Herb Roe © 2017.

Many Mississippian peoples were encountered by the expedition of Spaniard Hernando de Soto in the 1540s, mostly with disastrous results for both sides. Unlike the Spanish expeditions in Mesoamerica, which conquered vast empires with relatively few men, the de Soto expedition wandered the American Southeast for four years, becoming more bedraggled, losing more men and equipment, and eventually arriving in Mexico at a fraction of its original size. The local people fared much worse though, as the fatalities of diseases introduced by the expedition devastated the populations and produced much social disruption. By the time Europeans returned a hundred years later, nearly all of the Mississippian groups had vanished, and vast swaths of their territory were virtually uninhabited.

It is important to remember that while these Native American societies were ancient, it would be a mistake to regard them as simple or primitive. Their technologies and techniques were well-adapted to their environment. They developed over time. There is a popular idea that European technologies of the 1500s were inherently superior to those of Native Americans, but it is probably more useful to think of them as suited to different purposes.

For example, Native Americans considered early European guns to be little more than “noisemakers”, and concluded they were more difficult to aim than arrows. Noted colonist John Smith of the southern Jamestown colony noted that “the awful truth … it [a gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly”. Moccasins were more comfortable and sturdy than the boots Europeans wore, and were preferred by most during that era because their padding offered a more silent approach to warfare and hunting; canoes could be paddled faster and were more maneuverable on rivers and lakes than any European boats, which were better suited to ocean travel.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Pre-Columbian Era
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
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Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom

This lesson was reported from:

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

For Your Consideration:
  1. Based on his words in the Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural Address, what purpose did Lincoln see in the Civil War?
  2. Why did Sherman march to the sea?
  3. What did the Freedman’s Bureau do?
  4. What were Black Codes?
  5. What do the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments do?

Gettysburg

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The fighting at Gettysburg was ferocious, as if Lee knew this was his last chance to take the war to the North. After the battle, Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee scored numerous tactical victories.  Like his distant relation George Washington who was over-matched by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lee was most skilled at ensuring that no single Confederate defeat was decisive. On the other hand, the much more populous Union simply mustered new armies and tried again after each battle. Believing that the North’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville gave him his chance to go on the offensive, Lee struck northward into Pennsylvania at the beginning of July 1863, almost reaching the state capital at Harrisburg. A strong Union force intercepted him at Gettysburg, where, in a titanic three‑day battle—the largest of the Civil War—the Confederates made a valiant effort to break the Union lines. They failed, and on July 4 Lee’s army, after crippling losses, retreated behind the Potomac.  The Battle of Gettysburg would be the last serious Southern offensive of the war.  From that time onward, the war was entirely defensive on their part.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers and almost 4,000 Confederates died at Gettysburg; wounded and missing totaled more than 20,000 on each side. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln dedicated a new national cemetery there with perhaps the most famous address in U.S. history, his so-called Gettysburg Address, running approximately 250 words.  This speech elevated the symbolic meaning of the war, serving as a reaffirmation of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln speak of “a new birth of freedom” – a second chance to actually live up to the promise that all men are created equal, not in Jefferson’s limited sense of those words, but in a more modern sense that you and I would recognize:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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A crowd of citizens and soldiers gather around Abraham Lincoln (indicated with a red arrow) as he delivers his Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

Unconditional Surrender

On the Mississippi, Union control had been blocked at Vicksburg, where the Confederates had strongly fortified themselves on bluffs too high for naval attack. In early 1863 Grant began to move below and around Vicksburg, subjecting it to a six‑week siege. On July 4, he captured the town, together with the strongest Confederate Army in the West. The river was now entirely in Union hands. The Confederacy was broken in two, and it became almost impossible to bring supplies from Texas and Arkansas.

The Northern victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863 marked the turning point of the war, although the bloodshed continued unabated for more than a year-and-a-half.

civilwar

Lincoln brought Grant east and made him commander-in-chief of all Union forces. In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee’s Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat.

Sherman_railroad_destroy_noborder
Sherman’s men destroying a railroad in Atlanta.

In the West, Union forces gained control of Tennessee in the fall of 1863 with victories at Chattanooga and nearby Lookout Mountain, opening the way for General William T. Sherman to invade Georgia – his so-called March to the Sea. Sherman outmaneuvered several smaller Confederate armies, occupied the state capital of Atlanta, then marched to the Atlantic coast, systematically destroying railroads, factories, warehouses, and other facilities in his path. He also liberated slaves under the authority of the Emancipation Proclamation – all of this reduced Southern capacity to feed and supply itself and brought the destruction of war to its homefront.  Sherman said, “I will make Georgia howl!” His men, cut off from their normal supply lines, ravaged the countryside for food. From the coast, Sherman marched northward; by February 1865, he had taken Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Sherman, more than any other Union general, understood that destroying the will and morale of the South was as important as defeating its armies.

With Malice Toward None

For the North, the war produced a still greater hero in Abraham Lincoln—a man eager, above all else, to weld the Union together again, not by force and repression but by warmth and generosity. In 1864 he had been elected for a second term as president, defeating his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, the general he had dismissed after Antietam.

At a time when victory over secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery in all of the Union was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness.  He sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South by reminding his listeners of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier.  Lincoln balanced that rejection of triumphalism, however, with recognition of the unmistakable evil of slavery, envisioning the war as the nation’s penance.  Lincoln’s second inaugural address closed with these words:

“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”. With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Peace at Last

Grant, meanwhile, lay siege to Petersburg, Virginia for nine months, before Lee, in March 1865, knew that he had to abandon both Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond in an attempt to retreat south. But it was too late. On April 9, 1865, surrounded by huge Union armies, Lee surrendered to Grant at the town of Appomattox Courthouse. Although scattered fighting continued elsewhere for several months, the Civil War was over.

Surrender-of-Lee
Wilmer McLean was an American wholesale grocer from Virginia. His house near Manassas, Virginia, was involved in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. After the battle he moved to Appomattox, Virginia, to escape the war thinking that it would be safe. Instead, in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s house in Appomattox. His houses were, therefore, involved in one of the first and one of the last encounters of the American Civil War.

The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide admiration through the brilliance of his leadership and his greatness in defeat.

UDC-marker-fort-sanders-tn1
The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped promulgate the Lost Cause’s ideology – that the Civil War was an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery – through the construction of numerous memorials, such as this one in Tennessee.

Two days after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln delivered his last public address, in which he unfolded a generous reconstruction policy. On April 14, 1865, the president held what was to be his last Cabinet meeting. That evening—with his wife and a young couple who were his guests—he attended a performance at Ford’s Theater. There, as he sat in the presidential box, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Virginia actor embittered by the South’s defeat. Booth was killed in a shootout two weeks later in a barn in the Virginia countryside. His accomplices were captured and later executed.

800px-Lincoln_assassination_slide_c1900
John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14,1865. Moments later Booth would leap from the balcony onto the stage, yelling to the audience in Latin, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants”)

Lincoln died in a downstairs bedroom of a house across the street from Ford’s Theater on the morning of April 15.

800px-Lincolns_funeral_on_Pennsylvania_Ave._(LOC)_(3252915551)
Military units marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. during the state funeral for Abraham Lincoln on April 19, 1865. After the April 14, 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, a three-week series of events mourned his death and memorialized his life. Funeral services and lyings in state were held in Washington, D.C., and then in additional cities as a funeral train transported his remains for burial in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

Reconstruction

The first great task confronting the victorious North—now under the leadership of Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union—was to determine the status of the states that had seceded. Lincoln had already set the stage. In his view, the people of the Southern states had never legally seceded; they had been misled by some disloyal citizens into a defiance of federal authority. And since the war was the act of individuals, the federal government would have to deal with these individuals and not with the states. Thus, in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed that if in any state 10 percent of the voters of record in 1860 would form a government loyal to the U.S. Constitution and would acknowledge obedience to the laws of the Congress and the proclamations of the president, he would recognize the government so created as the state’s legal government.

Congress rejected this plan. Many Republicans feared it would simply entrench former rebels in power; they challenged Lincoln’s right to deal with the rebel states without consultation. Some members of Congress advocated severe punishment for all the seceded states; others simply felt the war would have been in vain if the old Southern establishment was restored to power. Yet even before the war was wholly over, new governments had been set up in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

To deal with one of its major concerns—the condition of former slaves—Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 to act as guardian over African Americans and guide them toward self-support. And in December of that year, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery except as punishment for a crime.

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An 1866 poster attacking the Freedmen’s Bureau for giving recently freed slaves what some whites considered to be unfair advantages. The Freedmen’s Bureau aided these freed slaves, who had no education, savings, or property after their sudden freedom from a lifetime of servitude, by providing them with food, clothing, and shelter on a temporary basis as they were liberated. The Bureau also helped African Americans find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. It arranged to teach them to read and write since they had been denied these skills while enslaved. The Bureau also encouraged former major planters to rebuild their plantations and urged freed blacks to return to work for them.

Throughout the summer of 1865 Johnson proceeded to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction program, with minor modifications. By presidential proclamation he appointed a governor for each of the former Confederate states and freely restored political rights to many Southerners through use of presidential pardons.

In due time conventions were held in each of the former Confederate states to repeal the ordinances of secession and draft new state constitutions. Johnson called upon each convention to invalidate the secession, free all slaves within their borders, and ratify the 13th Amendment.

Wide public support in the North gradually developed for those members of Congress who believed that African Americans should be given full citizenship. Congress passed a 14th Amendment to the Constitution, stating that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This repudiated the Dred Scott ruling, which had denied slaves their right of citizenship.

All the Southern state legislatures, with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the amendment, some voting against it unanimously. In addition, Southern state legislatures passed “Black Codes” to regulate the African-American freedmen. The codes differed from state to state, but some provisions were common. African Americans across the South were required to enter into annual labor contracts with white landowners, often their former masters, with penalties of jail imposed in case of violation; children were subject to compulsory apprenticeship and corporal punishments by masters; vagrants could be sold into private service if they could not pay severe fines.

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The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans.

Many Northerners interpreted the Southern response as an attempt to reestablish slavery and repudiate the hard-won Union victory in the Civil War. It did not help that Johnson, although a Unionist, was a Southern Democrat with an addiction to intemperate rhetoric and an aversion to political compromise. Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1866. Firmly in power, the Radicals imposed their own vision of Reconstruction.

In the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, Congress, ignoring the governments that had been established in the Southern states, divided the South into five military districts, each administered by a Union general. Escape from permanent military government was open to those states that established civil governments, ratified the 14th Amendment, and adopted African-American suffrage. Supporters of the Confederacy who had not taken oaths of loyalty to the United States generally could not vote. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. The 15th Amendment, passed by Congress the following year and ratified in 1870 by state legislatures, provided that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

FreedmenVotingInNewOrleans1867
Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867.  Black Codes and violence would soon suppress the black vote, ending scenes like this, and ensuring that, despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the old white masters remained firmly in control of the South.  

The word slavery would die with the 13th Amendment, but the practice would continue – barely altered – using tools like Black Codes, tenant farming, debt, segregation, lynching, police intimidation, mass incarceration, and other forms of extralegal violence well into the 1960s and beyond.  Slavery had ended, but institutional racism would live on into the modern day.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. A Nation Divided: The American Civil War
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction

A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles

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

For Your Consideration:
  1. What were the Articles of Confederation?
  2. What was one weakness of the Articles of Confederation?
  3. What did the Northwest Ordinance say about slavery?
  4. Why was Daniel Shays upset?
  5. Why wasn’t the government easily able to stop Shays’ Rebellion?

The Articles of Confederation

The struggle with England had done much to change colonial attitudes. Local assemblies had rejected the Albany Plan of Union in 1754, refusing to surrender even the smallest part of their autonomy to any other body, even one they themselves had elected. But in the course of the Revolution, mutual aid had proved effective, and the fear of relinquishing individual authority had lessened to a large degree.

John Dickinson produced the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” in 1776. The Continental Congress adopted them in November 1777, and they went into effect in 1781, having been ratified by all the states. Reflecting the fragility of a nascent sense of nationhood, the Articles provided only for a very loose union. The national government lacked the authority to set up tariffs, to regulate commerce, and to levy taxes. It possessed scant control of international relations: A number of states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. Nine states had their own armies, several their own navies, and there was no U.S. army. In the absence of a sound common currency, the new nation conducted its commerce with a curious hodgepodge of coins and a bewildering variety of state and national paper bills, all fast depreciating in value.

weakness of the articles
The Articles of Confederation were meant to create a weak national government. However, as time went on, these weaknesses came to threaten the very existence of the United States.

The Problem of Expansion

With the end of the Revolution, the United States again had to face the old unsolved Western question, the problem of expansion, with its complications of land, fur trade, Indians, settlement, and local government. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775 the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers of political authority in the East, the inhabitants established their own governments. Settlers from all the Tidewater states pressed on into the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests, and rolling prairies of the interior. By 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

Before the war, several colonies had laid extensive and often overlapping claims to land beyond the Appalachians. To those without such claims this rich territorial prize seemed unfairly apportioned. Maryland, speaking for the latter group, introduced a resolution that the western lands be considered common property to be parceled by the Congress into free and independent governments. This idea was not received enthusiastically. Nonetheless, in 1780 New York led the way by ceding its claims. In 1784 Virginia, which held the grandest claims, relinquished all land north of the Ohio River. Other states ceded their claims, and it became apparent that Congress would come into possession of all the lands north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains. This common possession of millions of hectares was the most tangible evidence yet of nationality and unity, and gave a certain substance to the idea of national sovereignty. At the same time, these vast territories were a problem that required solution.

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Northwest Territory created by the Northwest Ordinance (1787).

The Confederation Congress established a system of limited self-government for this new national Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for its organization, initially as a single district, ruled by a governor and judges appointed by the Congress. When this territory had 5,000 free male inhabitants of voting age, it was to be entitled to a legislature of two chambers, itself electing the lower house. In addition, it could at that time send a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Three to five states would be formed as the territory was settled. Whenever any one of them had 60,000 free inhabitants, it was to be admitted to the Union “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects.” The ordinance guaranteed civil rights and liberties, encouraged education, and prohibited slavery or other forms of involuntary servitude.

The new policy repudiated the time-honored concept that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, were politically subordinate, and peopled by social inferiors. Instead, it established the principle that colonies (“territories”) were an extension of the nation and entitled, not as a privilege but as a right, to all the benefits of equality.

State Constitutions

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments “such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three had drawn up constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience and English practice. But each was also animated by the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those “unalienable rights” whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia’s, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Their constitutions frequently included such provisions as the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all prescribed a three-branch structure of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each checked and balanced by the others. Pennsylvania’s constitution was the most radical. In that state, Philadelphia artisans, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers had taken control. The provincial congress adopted a constitution that permitted every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office (no one could serve as a representative more than four years out of every seven), and set up a single-chamber legislature.

The state constitutions had some glaring limitations, particularly by more recent standards. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right—equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote (Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, in addition to Pennsylvania), office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Shays’ Rebellion

Economic difficulties after the war prompted calls for change to this precarious system. The end of the war had a severe effect on merchants who supplied the armies of both sides and who had lost the advantages deriving from participation in the British mercantile system. The states gave preference to American goods in their tariff policies, but these were inconsistent, leading to the demand for a stronger central government to implement a uniform policy.

Farmers probably suffered the most from economic difficulties following the Revolution. The supply of farm produce exceeded demand; unrest centered chiefly among farmer-debtors who wanted strong remedies to avoid foreclosure on their property and imprisonment for debt. Courts were clogged with suits for payment filed by their creditors. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and informal gatherings in several states demanded reform in the state administrations.

Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.
Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.

That autumn, mobs of farmers in Massachusetts under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began to forcibly prevent the county courts from sitting and passing further judgments for debt – which would have resulted in the loss of property, livelihood, and the right to vote for Shays and many of his followers. In January 1787 a ragtag army of 1,200 farmers moved toward the federal arsenal at Springfield. The rebels, armed chiefly with staves and pitchforks, were repulsed by a small state militia force; General Benjamin Lincoln then arrived with reinforcements – privately funded by wealthy creditors in Boston – and routed the remaining Shaysites, whose leader escaped to Vermont. The government captured 14 rebels and sentenced them to death, but ultimately pardoned some and let the others off with short prison terms. After the defeat of the rebellion, a newly elected legislature, whose majority sympathized with the rebels, met some of their demands for debt relief.

800px-Daniel_Shays_and_Job_Shattuck
Contemporary engraving depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another rebel leader; the artist intentionally rendered them in an unflattering way.

At the time of the rebellion, the weaknesses of the federal government as constituted under the Articles of Confederation were apparent to many.  All the same, it was clear – the U.S. government had been unable to deal with a disorganized rebellion of its own farmers.  Anarchy threatened.

Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time and refused to be alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. He argued in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787 that occasional rebellion serves to preserve freedoms. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” In contrast, George Washington had been calling for constitutional reform for many years, and he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee, “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion broke out, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11-14, 1786, and they concluded that vigorous steps were needed to reform the federal government, but they disbanded because of a lack of full representation and authority, calling for a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. Shays’ Rebellion

“The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism

This lesson is part of a larger unit on the Philippines: At the Crossroads of the World.  Broaden the horizons of your social studies class with a view of history from the perspective of these fascinating islands. See more of the imperialist vs. anti-imperialist debate with Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire.

In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Published in the February, 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, the poem coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed as Roosevelt. The racialized notion of the “White Man’s burden” became a euphemism for imperialism, and many anti-imperialists couched their opposition in reaction to the phrase.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!


Crosby on Kipling: A Parody of “The White Man’s Burden”

In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed. Poet Ernest Crosby penned a parody of Kipling’s work, “The Real White Man’s Burden,” and published it in his 1902 collection of poems Swords and Plowshares. Crosby also wrote a satirical, anti-imperialist novel, Captain Jinks, Hero, that parodied the career of General Frederick Funston, the man who had captured Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901.

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White Man’s burden;
Send forth your sturdy sons,
And load them down with whisky
And Testaments and guns …

And don’t forget the factories.
On those benighted shores
They have no cheerful iron-mills
Nor eke department stores.
They never work twelve hours a day,
And live in strange content,
Altho they never have to pay
A single cent of rent.

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And teach the Philippines
What interest and taxes are
And what a mortgage means.
Give them electrocution chairs,
And prisons, too, galore,
And if they seem inclined to kick,
Then spill their heathen gore.

They need our labor question, too,
And politics and fraud,
We’ve made a pretty mess at home;
Let’s make a mess abroad.
And let us ever humbly pray
The Lord of Hosts may deign
To stir our feeble memories,
Lest we forget — the Maine.

Take up the White Man’s burden;
To you who thus succeed
In civilizing savage hoards
They owe a debt, indeed;
Concessions, pensions, salaries,
And privilege and right,
With outstretched hands you raise to bless
Grab everything in sight.

Take up the White Man’s burden,
And if you write in verse,
Flatter your Nation’s vices
And strive to make them worse.
Then learn that if with pious words
You ornament each phrase,
In a world of canting hypocrites
This kind of business pays.

The Bottom Line

Questions for writing and discussion:
  1. According to Kipling, and in your own words, what was the “White Mans Burden”?
  2. What reward did Kipling suggest the “White Man” gets for carrying his “burden”?
  3. Who did Kipling think would read his poem? What do you think that this audience might have said in response to it?
  4. For what audiences do you think Ernest Crosby wrote his poem? How do you think that audience might have responded to “The Real White Man’s Burden?”
  5. Examine the political cartoon below – which poem do you think it best illustrates?  Why?

whitemansburden

Read more on this subject -> The Origins of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Brutality of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Philippines in the American Empire  ◦  “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism  ◦  Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire  ◦  In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War Ninoy and Marcos – “A Pact with the Devil is No Pact at All.”