Tuesday, February 1, 2011

American History (4): The American Difference Begins to Emerge

This is part of a series of "conversation starters," organized in 2007-'08, for my American history students at Grand Valley State University.


Vikings had crossed the Atlantic prior to 1492. So Columbus was not the first, but he was the most important explorer. His 1492 voyage was significant for what followed, for the dramatic changes that would be initiated in human history because the kairos (the Greek sense of ripening, of an opportune time) had arrived: 1492 would become an epochal year that would unite the destinies of four continents and three quite different peoples -- European, African, and Aboriginal American -- into an anthropological, ecological, cultural, and commercial "Atlantic System." This new network of interrelationships involved an unprecedented exchange of plants and animals -- the so-called Columbian Exchange -- some of which eased the burdens of human life. This early example of globalization provides the anthropological and ecological meaning of 1492. It is fundamental to understanding the creation of the modern world.

Numerous inventions and institutional changes in Europe made it possible to magnify the significance of 1492. Navigational improvements, the printing press, the commercial revolution, wealth creation, the increasingly centralized state, and Renaissance exuberance combined to make it possible to undertake voyages of exploration and colonization on an unprecedented scale. These factors are also important for understanding the birth of the modern age.

There are recurring reasons people from different nations came to American shores -- originally to seek profitable commerce with Asia, to win the contest for one's monarch, and to seek the Northwest Passage to the East; and when that didn't work out, to get rich quick by finding gold and silver, to seek adventure, and to win the souls of Indians. Other reasons were to escape oppression, to cultivate hope, to build a better community, to make a better life, to find religious sanctuary, and to have a second chance and start over (an American national characteristic, yes?).

We saw from the award-winning film La gente de razon that the contacts among the three groups could be terribly destructive. African families were ripped apart before, during, and after the Middle Passage. More than 90 percent of some Indian tribes were wiped out by European-borne diseases and war. In the so-called Columbian Exchange, Indians got smallpox and Europeans got syphilis, to cite one example. Even among Indian relations, the mastery of Spanish horses led to the formation of light cavalry among the Apache, Comanche, and other tribes, whose warriors could easily terrorize more sedentary Indians such as the Pueblo. We also saw that humans are creative in adapting to threats and will often borrow that which makes them stronger.

On a map of the United States, show settlements of the different nations (Spanish, French, British, Dutch, Swedes) and the four major frontiers prior to the American Revolution (Spanish southeast, Spanish southwest, French throughout the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes-Mississippi watersheds, and the British east of the Appalachians).

Michigan is part of the story. French explorers like Pere Marquette came to our state's shores.


1. Who are the colonists in British North America after 1492? Name the social or legal status of three types of people who were peopling Britain's colonies in North America.

As noted earlier, the greatest and most diverse migration in history occurred when Europeans brought their own kind and Africans across the Atlantic to settle on Aboriginal American lands in the Western Hemisphere. This is the broad context.

The English, like others, were happy to get rid of the least among them. A 1688 census determined that there were 2.4 million productive and 2.8 million unproductive English people. The 2.8 million "undesireables" were encouraged or sometimes forced to emigrate. England would shed its poor, its debtors, the unskilled, the uneducated, the criminal, the unbalanced, and the insane. People in search of adventure along with religious purists or extremists would also leave.

Following is the class structure of an English colony from top to bottom:
- royal governor (an aristocrat)
- gentry, especially in the tidewater plantations of the Chesapeake colonies
- Church of England priests, Congregationalist ministers
- learned professionals, e.g., lawyers
- middling sort, e.g., craftsmen, merchants, shippers
- free farmers who worked their own land
- propertyless laborers
- indentured servants (included Africans from 1619 to about 1676)
- slaves (Africans from the end of the 17th century)
Africans first came to Virginia in 1619, but their status was in flux until the 1670s and '80s. It was the crisis of labor, especially indentured servitude, that settled the matter.
- What was the status of aboriginal Americans in the social hierarchy?

2. Who was actually founding the American colonies and running them from 1607-1660? It was not the British Crown, which followed a policy of salutary neglect in most domestic matters. The Crown usually only interfered with imperial concerns surrounding defense and international commerce. It was mostly a. privately owned joint stock companies, b. aristocratic proprietors, and c. middle-class lawyers, ministers, and farmers making their own agreements like the Mayflower Compact, founding their own legislatures

3. Identify one major change in British policy toward the Colonies starting in the 1660s. First, there was political ambition in the Restoration to take pride in the Empire and these unexpectedly prosperous colonies. Second, economic competition with other nations led the Brits to embrace mercantilism and pass the Navigation Act, the most important piece of imperial legislation prior to the American Revolution.

4. 1675-1676 was a violent year in American history (and exactly 100 years before the American Revolution would break out). Name the civil war that broke out in Virginia in 1676. It was Bacon's Rebellion. Nathanial Bacon was actually fairly well off and on his way to becoming a respected planter but he couldn't rise higher because of aristocratic cronyism among Gov. Sir William Berkeley's friends. He wanted a fur license to trap on the frontier; Indians were resentful of white encroachment; Bacon wanted permission to retaliate, etc.

5. Why did Salem, Massachusetts, become famous in 1692? Events in Salem Village resulted in the infamous Witchcraft Trials. Between February 1692 and May 1693 more than 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. At least one dog was also hanged. One man, refusing to enter a plea, was ordered to be crushed to death under heavy stones. At least five more of the accused died in prison. This notorious chapter in American history started in Salem Village in 1692. Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 1, the daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, minister in nearby Beverly. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions, according to the eyewitness account of Rev. Deodat Lawson, a former minister in the town. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. When Lawson preached in the Salem Village meetinghouse, he was interrupted several times by outbursts of the afflicted.

6. Who was "King Philip" and why did he become famous in 1675? He was an Indian named Metacomet, a Wampanoag chief who was the son of Massasoit who had helped the Pilgrims. Matacomet declared war against New Englanders because of land disputes and resentment of white encroachment. King Philip's War resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in southern New England. Colonial historian Francis Jennings estimated that the war killed nearly 7 of every 8 Indians and 30 of every 65 English settlers. King Philip's War was proportionately one of the bloodiest and costliest in the history of America.

In her book The Name of War, Boston University Professor Jill Lepore theorizes that King Philip's War was the beginning of the development of a greater American identity, for the trials and tribulations suffered by the colonists made them into a group distinct from their English ties.

This was not the first coordinated, large-scale Indian attack on British North Americans. Indians attacked Tidewater Virginians at Jamestown and elsewhere on Good Friday, March 22, 1622.

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