American history is a rich tapestry of constitutional, political, intellectual, economic, and competing social forces. Scroll down to read more about American History or click below to read up on specific topics about the history of the United States.
This page covers a wide breadth of American history. From its pre-history with the Native Americans to the Founding Fathers, to Slavery, ending with the American civil rights era.
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Native Americans – Origins
(See Main Section: Native Americans – Origins)
It is believed that the first people to inhabit North America were Asian in origin. It is believed that they made the journey from Asia to Alaska by crossing the Bering Strait during the Ice Age (at least 10,000 years ago)The picture (above) shows the location of the Bering Strait and an artist’s impression of travelers crossing during the Ice Age. Over a period of time, these people migrated further and further south. They adapted themselves to their environment – those living in the cold north became skilled hunters and fishermen, those living in the wooded areas built wooden houses and canoes while those in the hotter south grew corn and made houses from sun-dried bricks. There were hundreds of different tribal groups each adapting their lifestyle to the geographical and climatical region they inhabited. Those natives who were to become known as the Plains Indians initially inhabited the eastern river valley areas.
The Arrival of Europeans
When the first Europeans arrived in North America they believed they were in India and named the natives Indians, the name was to stick for nearly 500 years. The arrival of Europeans posed problems for the native Americans. Some groups chose to co-exist with the Europeans and adapted themselves to a more European style of living. Others, however, wanted to preserve their traditional way of life and moved to areas unwanted by the Europeans.
The arrival of Europeans also initiated the decline of the Native Indians. Entire villages were wiped out by diseases such as measles, smallpox, cholera, and pneumonia to which the Indians had no inbuilt immunity. Others, forced to leave their traditional hunting and farming lands found it difficult to re-establish themselves elsewhere and suffered malnutrition and death.
(See Main Section: Christopher Columbus – Historical People)
Famous for being an explorer and first European to set foot in the Americas
Born – c. 1451 exact date unknown
Parents – Domenico Colombo, Susanna Fontanarossa
Siblings – Giovanni Pellegrino, Giacomo, Bartolomeo Columbus
Married – Filipa Moniz
Children – Diego, Fernando
Died – 20th May 1506, Valladolid, Castile
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He first went to sea as a young teenager and became an experienced sailor.
In the fifteenth century Europeans traded with China and India for silks, spices, and other luxury goods. Merchants made the journey overland with relative ease until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. With the overland route too dangerous merchants made the journey by sea, sailing east around the coast of Africa.
Pilgrims, Colonies, And Pre-Revolution
Our American history as a western civilized country starts to be be written with the arrival of the Pilgrims.
(See Main Section: Revolution And Colonies)
Articles on the Founding Fathers, and the culture and history of the Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary eras
Mayflower and The Pilgrims
(See Main Section: The Stuarts – The Pilgrim Fathers)
In 1607 Walter Raleigh had founded the colony of Virginia in America and a number of English companies had begun trading tobacco and other products between the colony and England.
One stock company, anxious to protect their business interests in Virginia recruited 35 members of the radical, Puritan, English Separatist Church, who had fled to Holland. The stock company agreed to finance the voyage for them and in return, they would look after the company’s business in Virginia. Other Puritans keen to start a new life in America joined the voyage.
The Mayflower left the port of Southampton in August 1620 but was forced to put into Plymouth for repairs. The 102 passengers and 30 crew eventually left Plymouth for America on 16th September 1620 and steered a course for Virginia. The ship was a double-decked, three-masted vessel and initially, the voyage went well but then storms blew up which blew them off course.
Land was sighted on November 9th and anchor was dropped. A landing party of sixteen men left the ship on November 15th but failed to find a suitable site to establish a settlement. They set sail again and resumed their search. On December 17th they reached Plymouth Harbour and dropped anchor.
On December 21st the first of the Pilgrim Fathers set foot on what would become Plymouth settlement. The harsh winter weather meant that they were unable to build adequate shelter and many of the travellers died during that first winter. Those that survived the winter went on to build houses and defenses. In the late spring of 1621, a native American Samoset Indian offered to show the settlers how to farm the land and become self-sufficient if the men would help them fight a rival tribe. The settlers agreed and the Plymouth settlement flourished.
Jamestown Colony, Virginia
(See Main Section: Facts about Jamestown Colony, Virginia)
Jamestown Colony Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America, is located near present-day Williamsburg, Virginia. Established on May 14, 1607, the colony gave England its first foothold in the European competition for the New World, which had been dominated by the Spanish since the voyages of Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century.
The development of Jamestown, Virginia, took the opposite path as the northern Puritan Colonies, which had a collectivistic approach to settlement. It began as a distinctly individualistic colony, and only later acquired group cohesion. The early settlement of Virginia was dominated by young, single men. A host of factors, prominent among them Virginia’s (not entirely undeserved) reputation as a disease-ridden deathtrap, served to discourage the kind of family migration that had characterized the Puritan experience. But as the mortality rate declined and the colony’s prosperity became widely known, it became more sensible for entire families to make their homes in the Chesapeake.
Massachusetts Bay Colony Government
(See Main Section: Massachusetts Bay Colony Government)
The Massachusetts Bay Colony Government (more formally The Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1628–1692) was an English settlement on the east coast of America in the 17th century around the Massachusetts Bay, the northernmost of the several colonies later reorganized as the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This government laid many of the cornerstones of what would be the official policy of the United States government toward American Indians.
Moral Panics and Mass Hysteria: The Dancing Plague, Salem Witch Trials, and The Tulip Market Bubble
One unfortunate blot on American history was the outbreak of hysteria which culminated in the deaths of many.
One person’s psychosis can be easily dismissed, but how do we account for collective hysteria, when an entire crowd sees the same illusion or suffer from the same illness? It’s enough to make somebody believe in dark magic and pick up their pitchfork, ready to hang an accused witch.
Sadly, such paranoia has led to many witch hunts in the past. In today’s episode, we look at some of the most notorious historical cases of mass hysteria and moral panics. But these cases don’t only extend to Puritan-era witch panics. We will also look at cases that hit closer to home—such as economic bubbles and the housing market crash of the early 2000s.
For the full “History Unplugged” podcast episode, click here!
How did the British win the French and Indian War?
(See Main Section: How did the British win the French and Indian war?)
The French and Indian War took place between 1754 and 1763 and is also known as the Seven Years War. This conflict formed part of a larger struggle between France and Great Britain to expand their empires. Although Great Britain won this war with massive gains in land in North America, it also cost them dearly as it led to more conflict, ultimately resulting in the American Revolution.
How Did the Colonists React to the Stamp Act?
(See Main Section: How Did the Colonists React to the Stamp Act?)
When Patrick Henry presented a series of resolves against the Stamp Act—the first direct tax on the American colonies—in the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765, he aimed to defend and preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen. Henry’s verbal assault on the Stamp Act was not a radical cry for equality or democracy; it was not influenced by the wave of “liberal” thought sweeping Europe in the eighteenth century. Virginians, according to the resolves, retained “all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities, that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain . . . as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.” Henry insisted that by imposing a direct tax, the Parliament violated the “ancient constitution” of British common law, because the colonists were not and could not be represented in London. This led to the battle cry, “No Taxation without Representation!”
Causes of the American Revolution
Essential to American history is the American Revolution and the various struggles that went with it.
(See Main Section: Causes of the American Revolution)
The causes of the American Revolution are many, but they can be broadly broken down into six factors.
- Changes in Warfare and Weapons
- Changes in Government/Society
- Changes in Political Philosophy
- Changes in British Government Policy
- Changes in the American Colonies
In this article we will discuss these causes of the American Revolution in great detail, then get into the timeline of events leading to the Revolution itself, from the end of the Seven Years War to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
Before the French-Indian war and the “intolerable acts, there were changes happening in the American colonies that made waging the Revolutionary War possible. To put it succinctly, the war could not have been fought in 1710 because an independent culture had not developed in America. What led to the development were things like decreased English immigration to America (ties with England were weakened), the First Great Awakening, and trans-colonial institutions like postal networks and newspapers.
Below are other causes of the American Revolution
The Colonies after the Seven Years’ War
- With the end of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), the British government drastically reduced military spending.
- Many people in Britain were now out of work and moved to America to try to find a living. Between the end of the war and 1775, the American population increased from 1.6 to 2.1 million people.
- Britain was now $122 million pounds in debt (today that would be 8 BILLION pounds or 12 billion dollars); interest on the debt was $4 million pounds, which was 60% of the regular budget.
- The British people were already the most heavily taxed in Europe. They would not be able to come up with the money to pay off the debt.
- British Prime Minister George Grenville believed that the colonies should help pay for the war debt: “We have expended much in America; let us now avail ourselves of the fruit of that expense.”
- Parliament began to levy a series of direct taxes on the colonies.
(See Main Articles: Revolutionary War)
“George Washington and The American Revolution”
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The American War of Independence (1775–1783), also known as the American Revolutionary War, was a war between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence in July 1776 as a sovereign nation; the United States of America.
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American War of Independence
(See main article: American War of Independence: Facts and Summary)
The Americans defended their traditional rights. The French revolutionaries despised French traditions and sought to make everything anew: new governing structures, new provincial boundaries, a new “religion,” a new calendar—and the guillotine awaited those who objected. The British statesman Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism and a man who did understand the issues at stake in both events, considered himself perfectly consistent in his sympathy for the Americans of the 1770s and his condemnation of the French revolutionaries of 1789.
In a certain sense, there was no American Revolution at all. There was, instead, an American War for Independence in which Americans threw off British authority in order to retain their liberties and self-government. In the 1760s, the colonies had, for the most part, been left alone in their internal affairs. Because the colonists had enjoyed the practice of self-government for so long, they believed it was their right under the British constitution. The British constitution was “unwritten”—it was a flexible collection of documents and traditions—but by an American conservative’s reading, the British government had acted unconstitutionally in its restrictive acts and taxation.
Battle Of Trenton
(See Main Article: Battle of Trenton: Location, Facts and Summary)
The Battle of Trenton was a small but crucial battle during the American Revolutionary War. It happened on the morning of December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Battle of Trenton
- The Americans’ (with 2400 soldiers) march toward Trenton began at 4 AM. As the soldiers marched, many left trails of blood from their bleeding feet.
- About 2 miles (3 km) outside the town, the soldiers were startled by the sudden appearance of 50 armed men, but they were American. This small group had attacked a Hessian outpost earlier. Washington feared the Hessians would have been put on guard, and shouted at their leader, “You sir! You sir, may have ruined all my plans by having them put on their guard.”
- In fact, the 50 men actually helped Washington. The Hessian commander Rall had been warned about a possible American attack, but he thought the first raid was the attack and that there would be no further action that day.
- Washington’s army reached Trenton around 8 AM.
- The Hessians were completely surprised. Most were asleep when the Americans arrived.
- They tried to form lines, but the American cannons were already pouring devastating fire into the Hessians. (Part of the American artillery was commanded by a young captain named Alexander Hamilton). American musket fire also decimated the Hessians. Much hand-to-hand fighting occurred.
- Within an hour, the Hessians surrendered. The Americans had suffered only two deaths (due to exposure, not gunfire) and five wounded. One of the wounded was a young lieutenant named James Monroe.
- 22 Hessians were killed (including Col. Rall), 83 were wounded, and 800-900 surrendered and became prisoners. At least 500 Hessians escaped.
Battle of Brandywine Creek
(See Main Article: Battle of Brandywine Creek)
The Battle of Brandywine Creek was fought between the American Continental Army of General George Washington and the British Army of General Sir William Howe. It was an early battle in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), taking place on September 11, 1777.
Howe Moves His Army
- By the first week of March 1777, Washington became convinced that Howe was going to move his army to Philadelphia.
- But Howe did nothing in March, April, May or early June. He began to move in mid-June. He was hoping to draw Washington out of his fortified position into open battle. Washington did not take the bait.
- In July, Howe’s army began to move, and on July 23, they set to sea. But it was not clear exactly where they were going.
- On July 30, the British fleet was sighted off Delaware Bay. This made it obvious that Howe’s target was Philadelphia.
- On August 25, Howe disembarked a light infantry unit at the mouth of the Elk River, just 30 miles south of Philadelphia. It took Howe a week to offload all of his troops and supplies. Altogether, he has about 15,000 soldiers.
- They moved slowly, reaching the Brandywine River (half the distance to Philadelphia) on September 11. There they met Washington and 10,000 Continental troops. Washington’s army had marched quickly from New Jersey.
Battle of Brandywine Creek: Afterward
- On the way to meet Howe’s army, Washington’s army marched through Philadelphia. There they were joined by the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, a 19-year old French nobleman, offered to serve in the army without pay.
- Washington reached Brandywine Creek on September 9 and spread his army out on high ground behind the river, on either side of the main road that crossed the river.
- On the morning of the 11th, a brigade of Hessians attacked right across the river bridge, while two others, under Howe and Cornwallis, moved northward to cross the river at a couple of fords and got behind the Americans. Washington left his right flank unanchored.
- Washington’s lines held a long time but eventually collapsed. Darkness and exhaustion prevented the British from following up.
- Battle of Brandywine Creek death toll: British lost 89 dead and 400 wounded. Americans lost 200 dead, 40 prisoners and 400 wounded (including Lafayette).
- Howe stopped for two days and did very little. Washington fell back to a new position behind the Schuylkill River, attempting to shield Philadelphia from Howe’s army. He received 3100 reinforcements.
- On the 15th, Washington re-crossed the Schuylkill, wanting to attack again, but a thunderstorm prevented an attack.
- Washington sent Alexander Hamilton to Philadelphia to warn the Congress to evacuate the city. They moved to York, PA.
Author of the Declaration of Independence
(See Main Article: Author of the Declaration of Independence)
Who is the author of the Declaration of Independence? Thomas Jefferson is universally believed to be the author, but how much input did others have?
“Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, and Radical Ideas”
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Many years later, Jefferson told Henry Lee that he wrote the Declaration “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of . . . it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
Many historians, including Jefferson’s most important biographer, Dumas Malone, believe Benjamin Franklin changed Jefferson’s draft of “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” a much more powerful expression. Jefferson himself probably borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves, written a month before Jefferson authored the Declaration. Mason had argued, similarly to Jefferson, that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” It seems likely that Jefferson simply shortened Mason’s wording. But even that wording was not new. The idea that Englishmen had a right to “life, liberty, and property” went back at least to John Locke and his Two Treatises on Civil Government in 1689, which itself was meant to couch England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in the rights of English-men, established in 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta at Runnymede. These rights were thus common parlance not only in Britain but in America. They were, for instance, part of the Carolina Charter, which Locke may have helped author. Most colonists did not consider themselves to be sole “Americans.” They were British subjects pleading with the king for relief from taxes and laws that violated their “natural” rights as Englishmen. Indeed, Americans were proud to be British. And, why not? Englishmen were the freest and most prosperous people in the world.
Jefferson insisted that the colonists had suffered patiently while the king and Parliament assumed tyrannical rule over the colonies, but only the “present King of Great Britain” deserved the condemnation of the patriot leaders. Jefferson never declared that all kings were unjust, just George III. It is true that Jefferson was not a monarchist, but it is equally true that he thought there were worse things than monarchy. When the French Revolution, of which he was an early proponent, had proven itself to be unmistakably extremist, with the revolutionary government lopping off heads at a rapid pace, Jefferson called for a restoration of the royal family in France. Moreover, contrary to what the historian Joseph Ellis says, Jefferson never suggested that government was an “alien force.” The government, in Jefferson’s words, should protect the “safety and happiness” of the people. Only after a “long train of abuses and usurpations” reduced the people “under absolute Despotism” did the people have the “right” and “duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” They could “alter or abolish” a tyrannical government, but Jefferson did not consider the British system of government per se to be unjust, only the government of King George III. Even conservatives like John Dickinson knew their grievances would not be addressed by a Parliament determined to maintain its sovereignty over the king’s subjects, no matter what the cost. Independence was justified because it was the only way left for the colonists to preserve their inherited rights.
(See Main Articles: Antebellum Period)
The Antebellum Period is a five-decade period in American history that spans the years after the War of 1812 but before the Civil War in 1861. This period saw the end of the Founding Fathers and their generation when questions of slavery and states rights remained unresolved in the grand experiment of the United States. Northern and Southern economies developed along different trajectories; abolitionists battled with slavery defenders in the courts of public opinion and sometimes with actual firearms, and political factions moved toward an unavoidable collision that resulted in the Civil War.
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“Lincoln And The Antebellum Period“
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The Antebellum Period: The Storm Before The Storm
(See Main Article: The Antebellum Period: The Storm Before The Storm)
The Missouri Compromise of 1820
(See Main Article: The Missouri Compromise of 1820)
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the legislation that provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free state along with Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate.
The debate that began in 1818 over the admission of Missouri, a slave state, was a critical juncture in the young nation’s formation. At the time, there were equal numbers of slave and free states—eleven each—resulting in a kind of balance of power in the Senate. But the admission of Missouri would have given the South an edge in the Senate. The stalemate was finally broken in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise: Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine a free state.
Of much greater significance was a provision of the Compromise that pertained to the status of slavery in the Louisiana Territory. With the exception of Missouri, any territory north of 36°30′ (the southern border of Missouri) would be forever closed to slavery, while in any territory south slavery would be permitted. Awkward as it was, the compromise prevented similar crises in the future, and remained in effect for more than three decades.
Nullification Crisis: Catalysis for the Civil War
(See Main Article: Nullification Crisis: Catalysis for the Civil War)
“The Nullification Crisis”
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The Nullification Crisis was a United States sectional political crisis in 1832–33, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, which involved a confrontation between the state of South Carolina and the federal government in 1832–33 over the former’s attempt to declare null and void within the state the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.
Responding to the claim that the federal judiciary and not the states had the final word on the constitutionality of federal measures, James Madison’s Report of 1800 argued that “dangerous powers, not delegated, may not only be usurped and executed by the other departments, but. . . the judicial department may also exercise or sanction dangerous powers, beyond the grant of the Constitution… However true, therefore, it may be, that the judicial department, is, in all questions submitted to it by the forms of the Constitution, to decide in the last resort, this resort must necessarily be deemed the last in relation to the other departments of the government; not in relation to the rights of the parties to the constitutional compact, from which the judicial, as well as the other departments, hold their delegated trusts” (emphasis added). Thus the Supreme Court’s decisions could not be considered absolutely final in constitutional questions touching upon the powers of the states.
The most common argument among the early statesmen against nullification is that it would produce chaos: a bewildering number of states nullifying a bewildering array of federal laws. (Given the character of the vast majority of federal legislation, a good answer to this objection is: Who cares?) Abel Upshur, a Virginian legal thinker who would serve brief terms as secretary of the Navy and secretary of state in the early 1840s, undertook to put the fears of opponents of nullification to rest:
If the States may abuse their reserved rights in the manner contemplated by the President, the Federal government, on the other hand, may abuse its delegated rights. There is danger from both sides, and as we are compelled to confide in the one or the other, we have only to inquire, which is most worthy of our confidence.
It is much more probable that the Federal government will abuse its power than that the States will abuse theirs. And if we suppose a case of actual abuse on either hand, it will not be difficult to decide which is the greater evil.
Perhaps the most important nullification theorist was John C. Calhoun, one of the most brilliant and creative political thinkers in American history. The Liberty Press edition of Calhoun’s writings, Union and Liberty, is indispensable for anyone interested in this subject—especially his Fort Hill address, a concise and elegant case for nullification. Calhoun proposed that an aggrieved state would hold a special nullification convention, much like the ratifying conventions held by the states to ratify the
Constitution, and there decide whether to nullify the law in question. This is how it was practiced in the great standoff between South Carolina and Andrew Jackson. When South Carolina nullified a protective tariff in 1832–33 (its argument being that the Constitution authorized the tariff power for the purpose of revenue only, not to encourage manufactures or to profit one section of the country at the expense of another—a violation of the general welfare clause) it held just such a nullification convention.
In Calhoun’s conception, when a state officially nullified a federal law on the grounds of its dubious constitutionality, the law must be regarded as suspended. Thus could the “concurrent majority” of a state be protected by the unconstitutional actions of a numerical majority of the entire country. But there were limits to what the concurrent majority could do. Should three-fourths of the states, by means of the amendment process, choose to grant the federal government the disputed
power, then the nullifying state would have to decide whether it could live with the decision of its fellow states or whether it would prefer to secede from the Union.
That Madison indicated in 1830 that he had never meant to propose nullification or secession either in his work on the Constitution or in his Virginia Resolutions of 1798 is frequently taken as the last word on the subject. But Madison’s frequent change of position has been documented by countless scholars. One modern study on the subject is called “How Many Madisons Will We Find?” “The truth seems to be, that Mr. Madison was more solicitous to preserve the integrity of the Union, than the coherency of his own thoughts,” writes Albert Taylor Bledsoe.
American Anti-Slavery Society
(See Main Article: American Anti-Slavery Society)
The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS; 1833–1870) was an abolitionist society founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan.
Among the abolitionist movement’s most prominent spokesmen was the Massachusetts activist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, who started the newspaper The Liberator in 1831. Garrison had nothing but contempt for gradual emancipation, a policy he called “pernicious,” and would brook no compromise on the issue. His newspaper was widely influential since larger papers reprinted its articles. Some Southerners believed it was no coincidence that the Nat Turner rebellion, a famous slave insurrection in which fifty-five whites perished, took place the same year that Garrison began his paper.
“The Start of Abolition”
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There was no evidence that Turner had heard of Garrison or The Liberator. But the connection did not need to be that direct. Many Southerners were shocked at the tone of abolitionist literature, which seethed with loathing for the entire South and at times seemed to urge violent resistance to slavery. Such rhetorical assaults on an entire region only served to discredit local anti-slavery activity in the South. As of 1827, there were more than four times as many anti-slavery societies in the South as in the North. The abolitionist movement, in peppering their message with belligerent and vitriolic anti-Southern rhetoric, made it all but impossible for Southern anti-slavery activists not to be viewed with suspicion. Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, no friend of slavery, blamed the abolitionists of the North for having contributed in no small measure to Southern obstinacy.
Sectional conflict was further aggravated by the Wilmot Proviso, which was introduced in Congress in 1846 by Congressman David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. The proviso was attached to an appropriations bill authorizing funds for the Mexican War, then underway. Its premise was simple: Slavery would be prohibited in any territory acquired from Mexico in the war. Wilmot was outlining a point of view that became known in American history as the “free-soil” position, according to which slavery would remain undisturbed in the states in which it already existed but would be prevented from expanding into
new territories, such as those that might be added to the American domain as a result of the war with Mexico. Although it never became law (it passed the House numerous times but failed in the Senate), the proviso contributed greatly to the tension between North and South.
The Free Soil Movement
(See Main Article: The Free Soil Movement)
The Free Soil Movement (1848–54) was a minor but influential political party in the pre-Civil War period of American history that opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories.
Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, for example, took no public position on the Wilmot Proviso. As a result, his supporters North and South could each claim him as the logical choice for their section. Southerners could point to the fact that Taylor was a Southerner. Northern supporters could point to rumors that Taylor supported the Wilmot Proviso.
Michigan’s Lewis Cass, who received the Democratic nomination, was also portrayed differently in the North and in the South. In the South, Cass was pitched as the logical choice for Southerners because as an advocate of “popular sovereignty” he would give them a fair shot in the territories. Cass also pledged to veto the Wilmot Proviso. In the North, Cass supporters pointed to the arid climate of the southwest, noting that even with popular sovereignty it was very unlikely that slavery would ever develop in its inhospitable climate. Cass was said to be the logical choice for Northerners because allowing the people of the territories to vote on slavery would almost surely have a free-soil outcome, but without unnecessarily alienating the South—as would happen if slavery were prohibited by the legislative fiat of Congress. Simply shutting slavery out of the territories would strike Southerners as an intolerable blow to their honor and another example of the North’s refusal to grant them equality in the Union. Cass could thus accomplish the free-soil objective without sowing discord between the sections.
The Significance of ‘Bleeding Kansas’
(See Main Article: The Significance of ‘Bleeding Kansas’)
Bleeding Kansas was a series of violent civil confrontations in the United States between 1854 and 1861 which emerged from a political and ideological debate over the legality of slavery in the proposed state of Kansas.
It was fairly clear that slavery would not take root in Nebraska, but the outcome in Kansas was not so certain. Supporters and opponents of slavery flocked to Kansas to influence the vote. The typical textbook describes Kansas as the scene of ceaseless slavery-related violence. Recent scholarship, however, casts doubt on this perception. Eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports appear to have been unreliable, even wildly exaggerated. In their own propaganda, both sides tended to inflate the number of killings either to call attention to their own plight or to impress readers with the number of casualties they managed to inflict on their opponents. “Political killings,” writes researcher Dale Watts, “account for about one-third of the total violent deaths. They were not common. The streets and byways did not run red with blood as some writers have imagined.”
A recent study concluded that of the 157 violent deaths that occurred during Kansas’ territorial period, fifty-six appear to have had some connection to the political situation or to the slavery issue. According to Watts:
The antislavery party was not the innocent victim of violence that its propagandists, both contemporary and subsequent, tried to portray. Both sides employed violent tactics and both were adept at focusing blame on their opponents, habitually claiming self-defense in any killings committed by their own men. However, the antislavery party, as the ultimate victor in the contest, was in a position to write the history of the period from its point of view… The data, however, indicate that the two sides were nearly equally involved in killing their political opponents.
(See Main Articles: Civil War)
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Causes of the American Civil War
(See Main Article: Causes of the American Civil War)
“The Concept Of The Union”
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The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North (the Union) and the South (the Confederacy). Below are listed some of the Causes of the American Civil War.
There were other motives as well, as some Northern newspapers admitted. If the South were allowed to secede and establish free trade, foreign commerce would be massively diverted from Northern ports to Southern ones, as merchants sought out the South’s low-tariff or free-trade regime. “Let the South adopt the free-trade system,” warned the Daily Chicago Times, and the North’s “commerce must be reduced to less than half what it now is.” Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham believed that the tariff played a crucial role in persuading important sectors of Northern society to support war. As soon as the Confederate Congress adopted a low-tariff system, Vallandigham said, “trade and commerce . . . began to look to the South.”
The city of New York, the great commercial emporium of the Union, and the Northwest, the chief granary of the Union, began to clamor now, loudly, for a repeal of the pernicious and ruinous tariff. Threatened thus with the loss of both political power and wealth, or the repeal of the tariff, and, at last, of both, New England and Pennsylvania . . . demanded, now, coercion and civil war, with all its horrors, as the price of preserving either from destruction.. . . The subjugation of the South, and the closing up of her ports—first, by force, in war, and afterward, by tariff laws, in peace, was deliberately resolved upon by the East.
Following John Brown’s raid, Wendell Phillips’s description of the North’s Republican Party as a party pledged against the South took on a dangerous and disturbing significance. Some Southerners chose not to wait to see what a president from such a party had in store for them. And certainly some feared that Lincoln, despite his protestations to the contrary, might abolish slavery and thereby set Southern society on a path of social chaos and economic ruin.
But slavery was far from the only issue on Southerners’ minds, particularly since the great majority of Southerners did not even own slaves. For their part, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two of the South’s best known generals, described slavery as “a moral and political evil.” Lee had even been an opponent of secession, but fought on the side of Virginia rather than stand by as the federal government engaged upon the mad project of waging war against his state. Recall that Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas seceded only after Lincoln had called up 75,000 volunteers to invade the South and prevent its secession. These four states, therefore, certainly did not secede over slavery, but rather over Lincoln’s decision to use military force to suppress Southern independence.
American Civil War Summary
(See Main Article: American Civil War Summary)
Here’s a short American Civil War summary. It was a civil war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North (the Union) and the South (the Confederacy).
A bit more context, however, is necessary. Strictly speaking, there never was an American Civil War. A civil war is a conflict in which two or more factions fight for control of a nation’s government. The English Civil War of the 1640s and the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s are two classic examples; in both cases, two factions sought to control the government. That was not the case in the United States between 1861 and 1865. The seceding Southern states were not trying to take over the United States government; they wanted to declare themselves independent.
What is sometimes suggested in place of Civil War is “War Between the States.” This term, too, is not quite accurate, since the conflict was not really fought between the states—i.e., Florida was not at war with New Hampshire, nor Rhode Island with Mississippi—but between the United States government and the eleven Southern states that formed the Confederate States of America in 1861. Other, more ideologically charged (but nevertheless much more accurate) names for the conflict include the War for Southern Independence.
(See Main Articles: American West and Native Americans)
Scroll down to see more information about the American West.
The Old West
(See main article: The Old West: Manifest Destiny, Oregon Trail, Native Americans, Gold Rush)
The Old West, also called the Wild West or American West, region, which is mostly west of the Great Plains, is linked in popular imagination with the last frontier of American settlement.
A century-long blood feud between two Cherokee chiefs shaped the history of the Cherokee tribe far more than anyone, even the reviled President Andrew Jackson. They were John Ross and the Ridge. Today I’m talking with John Sedgwick about the fall of the Cherokee Nation due to the clash of these two figures.
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The Ridge (1771–1839)—or He Who Walks on Mountains—was a Cherokee chief and warrior who spoke no English but whose exploits on the battlefield were legendary. John Ross (1790–1866) was the Cherokees’ primary chief for nearly forty years yet spoke not a word of Cherokee and proudly displayed the Scottish side of his mixed-blood heritage. To protect their sacred landholdings from American encroachment, these two men negotiated with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. At first friends and allies, they worked together to establish the modern Cherokee Nation in 1827. However, the two founders eventually broke on the subject of removal; the Ridge believed resisting President Jackson and his army would be hopeless, while Ross wanted to stay and fight for the lands the Cherokee had occupied since long before the white settlers’ arrival in the Old West.
The failure of these two respected leaders to compromise bred a hatred that led to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the Civil War. Sedgwick writes, “It is the work of politics to resolve such conflicts peacefully, but Cherokee politics were not up to the job. For a society that had always operated by consensus, there was little tradition of compromise.” Although the Cherokee were one of the most culturally and socially advanced Native American tribes in history, with their own government, language, newspapers, and religion, Sedgwick notes, “The warrior culture offered few gradations between war and peace, all or nothing.”
What Is Manifest Destiny?
Manifest Destiny refers to the attitude in America during the 1800’s when pioneers settled the country and believed that the U.S. was destined to stretch across the whole continent, from the one coast to the other. The phrase was used by politicians at the time and first published in an 1845 article about the annexation of Texas in the U.S. Magazine and Democratic Review. The manifest destiny belief is said to have helped to fuel the war with Mexico and the removal of Native Americans in the Old West.
An Attitude of Nationalism and Superiority
At the time, Americans had just won Independence through the Revolution, which made them very nationalistic. For many pioneers, it had become a mission to populate America and they moved west in droves to settle there.
Many settlers were very religious and believed that God has blessed the growth of America. Native Americans were seen as heathens and American missionaries saw it as their mission to bring Christianity to them. Other Americans saw the Native Americans as inferior, causing many racial clashes.
Reasons for Westward Expansion
(See main article: Reasons for Westward Expansion)
What were the reasons for Westward expansion? Ever since the first pioneers settled in the United States at the East, the country has been expanding westward. When President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana territory from the French government in 1803, it doubled the size of the existing United States. Jefferson believed that, for the republic to survive, westward expansion was necessary to create independent, virtuous citizens as owners of small farms. He wrote that those who “labor the earth” are God’s chosen people and greatly encouraged westward expansion. The pioneers who flocked to the West, all had their own set of reasons for taking on the long, treacherous journey to settle there.
Reasons for Moving West
- There was a vast amount of land that could be obtained cheaply
- Great reports were continually sent back East about how fruitful and wonderful the West is, sparking a lot of interest.
- The constraints of European civilization had a lot of people stuck in factory and other low-paid jobs. For the working class, it was almost impossible to work themselves up in life, something that was very doable in the New World.
- Mining opportunities, silver, and the gold rush was a big draw for many
- The expanding railroad provided easier access to supplies, making life in the West easier.
- Certain wheat strains were discovered and were capable of adapting to the climate of the plains
- Being a “cowboy” and working on farms with cattle was romanticized
- The lure of adventure
What was the Oregon Trail?
(See main article: What was the Oregon Trail?)
The Oregon Trail (also known as the Oregon-California trial) was a 2,200-mile route stretching from Missouri to Oregon that was traveled by the early Wild West pioneers in the 1800s. The trail was the only way for settlers to reach the West Coast via land and over 500,000 have made the trip with ox and mule wagons before the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Wagons that could travel at a speed of 15 miles a day took between four and six months to complete the trip via the Oregon Trail while taking the sea route took a full year.
Origins of the Trail
Originally, what became the Oregon Trail used to be a series of unconnected Native American trails. The route was then expanded by Fur Traders who used it to transport their pelts to meeting points and trading posts. Missionaries also used the fairly faint trail in the 1830s to establish churches in the Northwest. It was only by the 1840s when the trail however started to be used on a larger scale by the first settlers after Joel Walker made the trip with a family. In 1843, wagon trains of 120 wagons, 800 people and 5,000 cattle used the trail and in 1848 gold diggers also flocked to California via the trail. Towns, trading posts, military posts and smaller roads sprang off the Oregon Trail for the next 30 years.
“Success Stories of The Oregon Trail”
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With the completion of the Central Pacific and the Portland, Oregon, Union Pacific railroads between 1869 and 1884 the use of the Oregon Trail started to decline rapidly. Traveling by train simply became a shorter, safer and more comfortable option.
“The Railroad War”
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(See Main Articles: Black History)
Black History in the United States: Slavery, Civil Rights, Culture
(See main article: Black History in the United States: Slavery, Civil Rights, Culture)
Black history is the story of millions of African Americans residing in the United States who have struggled for centuries to fully claim the promises of liberty granted in the founding documents of the United States. The majority are descendants of Africans brought to the New World as property in the Atlantic slave trade. Their story is one of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement. Through all these centuries, Black Americans have made extraordinary culture contributions to the United States in the areas of theatre, music, film, literature, and every other area of creative expression.
Black History: Slavery
When we think about Africa today, we think of it as a poor third-world continent, reliant on the charity of Western nations to survive. This has not always been the case. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans first began exploring the world, Africa was a rich continent, eager to trade her gold, copper, ivory and leather goods for the white man’s pots, pans, alcohol and guns.
Under African law, slavery was a punishment for serious crimes, but most of these slaves were slaves of other black Africans. It was not usual for slaves to be traded at this time.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. Other Europeans followed and made slaves of the native peoples living there. However, the Europeans also took Western diseases to the Americas and their slaves began dying. Another source of slaves had to be found.
From trading with the Africans, Europeans knew that slavery was used as a punishment in Africa. They began to ask for slaves, rather than African goods, in exchange for the guns and alcohol that the African chiefs wanted.
Slavery was not new to Africa. Traditionally, slavery was used as a punishment for serious crimes. However, although slavery was a punishment for criminals, they were, in the main, treated fairly well by their masters.
This was not the case once trading in slaves became ‘big business’. From about 1510, Europeans had begun capturing slaves and taking them to work in the Americas. They were easily able to do this because their weapons were much more powerful than the Africans’ traditional spears and shields.
As the demand for slaves grew, the demand for slaves by Europeans grew. They exchanged guns for slaves and African chiefs, eager to possess guns that would give them power over rival chiefs, began inventing new crimes for which the punishment was slavery.
At the same time, coastal Africans were using guns to raid inland villages for the slaves that the Europeans wanted. Those who resisted capture were killed.
Slaves were chained together and marched to the coast. Sometimes this could take many days or weeks. Slaves who did not move fast enough, or showed any sign of resistance to the traders, were whipped. Those who were too weak or sickly to complete the journey at the required pace were left to die. Fear of the slave trader led many Africans to move to remote areas where the soil was not so good and they were unable to grow enough crops to feed themselves.
Tthe Triangular Trade was developed. This was the name given to the trading route used by European merchants who exchanged goods with Africans for slaves, shipped the slaves to the Americas, sold them, and brought goods from the Americas back to Europe.
Merchants who traded in this way could get very rich indeed as American goods fetched a high price in Europe. It was called the triangular trade because of the triangular shape that the three legs of the journey made.
The first leg was the journey from Europe to Africa where goods were exchanged for slaves. The second, or middle, leg of the journey was the transportation of slaves to the Americas. It was nicknamed the ‘middle passage.’
The third and final leg of the journey was the transport of goods from the Americas back to Europe.
The transport of black Africans to the Americas by slave ship became known as the Middle Passage because it was the middle leg of the Triangular Trade route used by the European merchants.
The African slaves were viewed as cargo by the merchants and were packed into the ships with no regard to their basic human rights. Slave ships could be either ‘tight pack’ or ‘loose pack’. A ‘tight pack’ could hold many more slaves than the ‘loose pack’ because the amount of space allocated to each slave was considerably less, but more slaves would die on route to the Americas.
Many slaves became seasick or developed diarrhea. Unable to move because they were chained into their positions, the slave’s deck became a stinking mass of the human waste. Slaves who had developed sores where their chains had rubbed their skin, had festering wounds often with maggots eating away their flesh.
Conditions on the slave ships were so bad that many slaves decided they would prefer to die and tried to starve themselves by refusing to eat or by jumping overboard. However, slaves that would not eat were whipped or force-fed and the traders and ship owners began fixing nets to the sides of the boat so that the slaves could not jump overboard. They had no choice but to endure the horrific conditions.
Black History: Antebellum America
Once in the Americas, slaves were sold, by auction, to the person that bid the most money for them. It was here that family members would find themselves split up, as a bidder may not want to buy the whole family, only the strongest, healthiest member.
“Slavery and Auctions”
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Slave Auctions were advertised when it was known that a slave ship was due to arrive. Posters like the one pictured above would be displayed around the town.
When the slave ship docked, the slaves would be taken off the ship and placed in a pen like this one. There they would be washed and their skin covered with grease, or sometimes tar, to make them look more healthy. This was done so that they would fetch as much money as possible. They would also be branded with a hot iron to identify them as slaves.
There were two main types of slave Auction:
1. Those that sold to the highest bidder
2. Grab and go Auctions
The slaves would be brought from the pen, in turn, to stand on a raised platform so that they could be seen by the buyers. Before the bidding began, those that wished to, could come up onto the platform to inspect the slaves closely. The slaves had to endure being poked, prodded and forced to open their mouths for the buyers.
The auctioneer would decide a price to start the bidding. This would be higher for fit, young slaves and lower for older, very young or sickly slaves. Potential buyers would then bid against each other. The person who bid the most would then own that slave. The picture below shows a slave being auctioned to the highest bidder.
Black History: Living Conditions of Slaves in the American South
The living conditions of slaves in the antebellum American South were some of the worst for slaves across history. As legal property of their masters they had no rights themselves and fared far worse than Roman slaves or medieval serfs. Africans sold as slaves in the Americas had to rely on their owners providing them with housing or building materials, pots and pans for cooking and eating, food and clothing. Many slaves did the best they could with what they were given. Most did not dare complain for fear of receiving a whipping or worse punishment.
Slaves were allocated an area of the plantation for their living quarters. On some plantations the owners would provide the slaves with housing, on others the slaves had to build their own homes. Slaves that had to build their own houses tended to make them like the houses they had had in Africa and they all had thatched roofs. Living conditions were cramped with sometimes as many as ten people sharing a hut.
They had little in the way of furniture and their beds usually made of straw or old rags.
Slaves who worked in the plantation house generally had slightly better housing nearer to the house and were given better food and clothing than those slaves that worked in the fields.
Sometimes they were given pots and pans for cooking, but more often they had to make their own. The long hours they had to work in the fields meant that they had little free time for making things to improve their living conditions. Some slaves used a hollowed out pumpkin shell called a calabash, to cook their food in.?
Most plantation owners did not spend more money on food for their slaves than they had to and so the slaves lived on a diet of fatty meat and cornbread.
Slaves would be given one pair of shoes and three items of underwear a year. Although these and other clothing would be provided by their owner, they were often ill-fitting and made of coarse material
Most slaves had to work from sunrise to sunset. Some owners made their slaves work every day, others allowed slaves one day a month off and some allowed their slaves to have Sundays as a rest-day.
Slaves would spend their free time mending their huts, making pots and pans and relaxing. Some plantation owners allowed their slaves a small plot of land to grow things to supplement their diet.
Slaves were not allowed to read or write, but some were allowed to go to church.
Black History: Work Done By Slaves
In the antebellum American South, by law slaves had no say in what task they were required to do, as by legal definition they were considered property and afforded none of the constitution, civil, or criminal legal protections afforded to any citizen of the United States.
They also had no control over the length of their working day, which was usually from sun-up in the morning to sunset in the evening (“can see to can’t see” in the slaves’ language). As such, slaves work was whatever their owner required of them. They labored mostly in menial agricultural work, but really in whatever task that was not so totally unnecessary that a machine could not do it for a fraction of the price. Since the South was lightly industrialized at this time, few tasks fit this criteria.
Although slaves were used in the northern states in factories to produce manufactured goods, at least prior to those states abolishing slavery, most slaves worked on plantations in the southern states.
Black History and the Civil War: Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863)
Robert Shaw was serving as a Captain in the 2nd Massachusetts when he was asked to raise and command a regiment of black troops. This was not the first coloured regiment to be formed but it was the first to be organized in a Northern state.
Shaw recruited free blacks, mainly from the Northern New England states and the new regiment was formed on May 13, 1863 with Shaw as its colonel.
The 54th Massachusetts regiment took part in some small actions during the early part of July before being moved to Morris Island.
On July 18, 1863, the regiment, with two brigades of white troops, led an assault on the Confederate artillery battery, Fort Wagner. The men fought bravely and proved that black soldiers could fight as well as whites. However, the Union army were unable to take the Fort and many of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, including Robert Gould Shaw were killed.
Black History Following the Civil War
At the end of the American Civil War, slavery was abolished. Legally the former slaves were free and equal to white people. The reality was far different.
The Ku Klux Klan was a white underground terrorist group. They would not accept black people as equals. Members of the Ku Klux Klan dressed in white robes to stress their belief that whites were superior to blacks. As a result many black people did not register to vote and kept away from white areas.
They created a wave of terror which included threats of violence, bullying, lynching, setting fire to buildings and murder, among blacks and those who tried to help them. Blacks who tried to vote or gain an education were subjected to name calling, bullying and beatings from white people who supported the aims of the Ku Klux Klan.
Black Americans had to face the truth. The war was won, but the battle was not over. They would have to struggle against racial discrimination in order to gain fair and equal treatment.
Black History: The Jim Crow Era
Jim Crow was a character in an old song who was revived by a white comedian called Daddy Rice. Rice used the character to make fun of black people and the way that they spoke. The term Jim Crow came to be used as an insult against black people.
In a bid to stop black Americans from being equal, the southern states passed a series of laws known as Jim Crow laws which discriminated against blacks and made sure that they were segregated (treated unequally) from whites
A black man, Homer Plessey, took a railroad company to court because he had been made to sit in a ‘coloured only’ carriage. The case went to the Supreme Court who supported the railroad company.
The ruling meant that the Jim Crow laws were legal and that it was not illegal to keep blacks and whites separate.
Because of Jim Crow Laws Blacks were excluded form all newspapers and from trading. Negroes gradually lost jobs in government, which they gained after the Civil War. Whites owned the land, the police, the government, the courtrooms, the law, the armed forces, and the press. The political system denied blacks the right to vote.
Murders were conducted in secret and in public by white men. The blacks were harassed and abused, physically and verbally. These violent acts became a part of their life. Signs were put up to separate facilities saying “whites only” and “colored” or “Negroes” appearing on parks, toilets, waiting rooms, theatres, and water fountains
Black History: The Civil Rights Era
Black Americans had to ‘fight’ for their right to equality. In the 1950s a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He believed that peaceful protest was the way forward.
“Jackie Robinson, The Negro League, and Civil Rights”
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Some of the protests of the Civil Rights movement are detailed below:
Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
In the 1950s, school segregation was widely accepted throughout the United States and was a requirement of law in most southern states.
In 1952, the Supreme Court heard a number of school-segregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954 the court decreed that segregation was unconstitutional.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks, a 43 year old black seamstress, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, on 5th December 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. The Montgomery Bus rules stated that white people boarding its buses should fill the bus by occupying seats from the front backwards. Coloured people should fill the bus by occupying the seats from the back forwards. If the bus became full additional coloured people boarding the bus would stand but if additional white people boarded the bus coloured people would be expected to give up their seats and stand. Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott specifically in protest against Parks’ arrest but also as a protest against the segregation practices used by the bus company.
Parks was found guilty by a court on 5th December and fined but she appealed the court’s decision. Meanwhile the Montgomery Bus boycott was being put into place. Negroes and others who supported equality agreed not to use the buses, a move which would deprive the bus company of 65% of its income.
Although Martin Luther King was fined $500 for interfering with the running of businesses, the protest was successful and on 4th June 1956 the Supreme Court decided, based on the outcome of recent school segregation cases, that bus segregation violated the United States constitution.
Desegregation at Little Rock, Arkansas
The Little Rock School Board approved a desegregation programme and nine coloured students were enrolled at the school. The Little Rock Nine (left) Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Watts, Carlotta Walls La Nier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo Beals were to begin their studies in September 1957.
On 4th September the nine students duly arrived at the school but found their way barred by anti-desegregation protestors. Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, had ordered the Arkansas National Guard to reinforce the protest line. The National Guard remained stationed outside the school until 20th September when the courts ordered Faubus to remove them.
On September 23rd the nine students returned to the school and although they were shouted at and jeered by the angry crowd of white protestors they were able to enter the school. However, fearing for their safety the police sent them home before the end of the day.
President Eisenhower intervened at this point and ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock where they were to ensure that the nine students were able to enter and leave the school in safety. He also federalised the National Guard so that they could no longer be deployed by Faubus. The 101st Airborne remained in Little Rock until November 1957.
In Spring 1958 Minnijean Brown was suspended for her acts of retaliation against white taunts and abuse. The other eight remained at school despite the abuse and taunts and all eight graduated.
After having been refused service at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, Joseph McNeill, a Negro college student, returned the next day with three classmates to sit at the counter until they were served.
They were not served. The four students returned to the lunch counter each day.
When an article in the New York Times drew attention to the students’ protest, they were joined by more students, both black and white, and students across the nation were inspired to launch similar protests.
The Freedom Riders originally consisted of a group of 13 activists who fought for civil rights and against the segregation in interstate bus terminals in the American South. The Congress of Racial Equality originally recruited the group of Freedom Riders and they departed from Washington D.C., attempting to make use of “whites-only” (and vice versa) facilities along the route towards the deep South. Although the Freedom riders were met with very violent treatment from white protesters en route, they managed to gain a lot of international attention. The group grew and hundreds more Freedom Riders joined in their cause, with similar protests. The Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited segregation in train- and bus stations across the country in September, 1961.
The first Freedom Ride started on May 4, 1961. A group of 13 riders, of which six white and seven black, left Washington DC on two buses (Greyhound and Trailways). They were planning to drive through the south, ending the route in New Orléans. Their tactics were to have at least one black and one white person in adjoining seats, one black person in the front, “whites only” sets and the rest on seats throughout the bus. One rider would stick to the rules in order to avoid arrest, so he can contact CORE to organize bail. They would also try to use the “wrong” restrooms at stops on the way. The group was however met with heavy resistance from Ku Klux Klansmen who attacked one of the buses on May 14. They slashed its tires, firebombed it and kept the doors shut to try to burn the riders to death. Luckily the riders managed to escape the bus when either the fuel tank exploded or shots went off, but they were caught up with and badly beaten. The riders were hospitalized and attempted to continue their journey, but after further violence they were forced to cut the trip short. This, however didn’t stop other freedom riders to follow their example.
University of Mississippi Riot
President Kennedy ordered Federal Marshals to escort James Meredith, the first black student to enrol at the University of Mississippi, to campus. A riot broke out and before the National Guard could arrive to reinforce the marshals, two students were killed.
Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most segregated cities in the 1960s. Black men and women held sit-ins at lunch counters where they were refused service, and “kneel-ins” on church steps where they were denied entrance.
Hundreds of demonstrators were fined and imprisoned. In 1963, Dr. King, the Reverend Abernathy and the Reverend Shuttlesworth led a protest march in Birmingham where they were arrested by policemen with dogs. The three ministers were taken to Southside Jail.
The Civil Rights Movement: The Struggle for Equality
(See Main Article: The Civil Rights Movement: The Struggle for Equality)
The Civil Rights movement was an organized movement led by black Americans that occurred after World War Two until the late 1960s to end legal discrimination based on race. The movement saw non-violent protests challenge discrimination in the political arenas but also pushed for desegregation in sports, film, television, and popular music.
Like they had following the Great War, black soldiers returned from WWII as champions of democracy to a society that treated them as second-class citizens. That older generation of “new negroes,” the first to come of age after both slavery and Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous case that legalized racial segregation in 1896, had pushed a civil rights agenda during the 1920s with minimal success. The Great Depression had hit black Americans especially hard, and little gain had been made since the New Deal. Despite the Great Migration of 1910-1940, most blacks still lived in the South under Jim Crow, where state laws kept them segregated in all areas of public life—parks, restaurants, theaters, sporting events, cemeteries, beaches, hospitals, public transportation, and in the public schools. Even blood for transfusions was segregated. Blacks had made no real progress in political power either. At the beginning of WWII only 2 percent of eligible southern African Americans were registered to vote.
But WWII had brought about irrevocable change. Over a million black soldiers had served in uniform. The share of defense jobs held by blacks had increased from 3 to 8 percent. Nearly half a million people belonged to the NAACP. In 1944, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court that all-white primaries in the South violated his black client’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection. The case, known as Smith v. Allwright, was an 8-1 victory. A new sense of mission was forged as black Americans, joined by some white allies, began to express resistance to passive acceptance of the pre-war status quo. Black soldiers led the way as the number of black registered voters in the South increased to 12 percent by 1947.
These efforts at democratic expression met with stiff resistance by southern whites. When Medgar Evers and four others went to vote in Mississippi, they were driven away at gunpoint. White supremacist Eugene Talmadge won the Georgia governorship in 1946 by promising to defy Smith v. Allwright (he died before taking office). Several blacks who attempted to vote in Georgia were murdered, and when one of the victim’s wives recognized one of the murderers, she was murdered too. In rural Mississippi, war veteran Etoy Fletcher tried to register to vote and was told by the registrar, “Niggers are not allowed to vote in Rankin County, and if you don’t want to get into serious trouble, get out of this building.” Fletcher was then grabbed by 4 whites at the local bus station, driven into the woods, and beaten.
The Columbia Race Riot, 1946
In Columbia Tennessee, on February 25, 1946, a dispute erupted between James Stephenson, a black Navy veteran, and a white shopkeeper, who was threatening violence against Stephenson’s mother over a disputed radio repair bill. The subsequent scuffle resulted in the clerk crashing through a store window. The Stephensons were arrested for disturbing the peace, pleaded guilty, and paid a fifty dollar fine. Later in the day, a new arrest warrant was issued for Stephenson on the charge of assault with the intent to commit murder. Later that night several police officers were wounded in the segregated black business section of town known as Mink Slide. The next day, White police and citizens swarmed through the district, violating civil rights, illegally confiscating weapons, and arresting a hundred blacks. Two days later, Columbia policemen killed two black prisoners in custody. Thurgood Marshall flew in from Nashville to mount a legal defense. Several blacks were convicted for the shooting and wounding of white officers. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate charges of police misconduct, but the all-white jury absolved them of any wrong doing. On the way out of town, Thurgood Marshall was arrested on trumped up drinking and driving charges. After a long and anxious drive though the countryside, apparently intended as a warning, he was set free.
The Isaac Woodard Story
In February 1946 a black soldier named Isaac Woodard was on his way home in South Carolina, having just been mustered out of the Army. At a stop along the way, Woodard had a verbal altercation with the driver over permission to use the restroom. After using the restroom, he returned to his seat without incident. At Batesburg, the next stop, the diver contacted Sheriff Linwood Shull, who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus. After demanding to see his discharge papers, a group of officers took Woodard, still in uniform, to a nearby alleyway and beat him with nightsticks. He was then taken to jail and arrested for disorderly conduct. Overnight, more beatings and jabs in the face with a nightstick resulted in both of Woodard’s eyes being ruptured, and the onset of partial amnesia. The next day, Woodard was brought before a local judge, found guilty, and fined fifty dollars. Not knowing where he was and still suffering from amnesia, Woodard ended up in a nearby hospital receiving substandard care. It took his family ten days to find him. The story eventually reached the ears of President Truman, who angrily demanded that the Attorney General take action. The resulting trial of Sheriff Shull, who admitted he had blinded Woodard, was a shameful failure, resulting in the courtroom breaking into applause when Shull was acquitted after 30 minutes of deliberation [Read lyrics to the song, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” by Woody Guthrie].
President Truman’s Response
The postwar era was characterized by a total lack of response to the needs of Black Americans from the legislative branch of government. President Truman, however, was angry over the treatment of black Americans, particularly war veterans, and although his commitment to civil rights was tempered somewhat by political necessity, several milestones were achieved during his administration. On December 5, 1946, Truman established by executive order the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures to strengthen and protect the civil rights of American citizens. In the meantime, Truman became the first president to address the NAACP, at the Lincoln Memorial on July 29, 1947.
In December the committee produced a 178 page report. Its recommendations included improving the existing civil rights laws; establishing a permanent Civil Rights Commission, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice; development of federal protection from lynching; creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC); and abolishment of poll taxes, among other measures. On February 2, 1948, Truman became the first president to send a Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights, in which he requested that Congress implement the committee’s recommendations.
On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, banning segregation of the armed forces. Although this was done over the protests of senior military officials, the Korean War soon necessitated the integration of combat units, without the predicted loss of combat effectiveness. In fact, by the end of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration was promoting the integrated military as an example of American freedom that served to deny communist propaganda which claimed that American-style democracy was institutionally racist.
President Truman, despite his call for aggressive federal action on the issue, gave his backing to party platform language that duplicated the 1944 plank. Liberal Democrats insisted on the insertion of a “minority plank” to the party platform that would commit the Democratic Party to calling for an end to segregation in public schools, legislation against lynching, and an end to job discrimination based on race. Truman’s aides lobbied to avoid forcing the issue on the Convention floor, but the Mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, defied them. Humphrey passionately told the Convention: “To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Humphrey and his allies succeeded in getting their “minority plank” adopted. Consequently, the South revolted. The Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegation, 35 in all, stormed out of the hall. Many Southern Democrats subsequently formed the Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond. The Dixiecrats called for States Rights, Social Conservatism, and continued racial segregation. The goal of the Dixiecrats was to see the Democrats suffer such a defeat that they would forever abandon the civil rights cause. What they hadn’t anticipated, however, was the surge of black votes for Truman in the North that allowed the President to win a surprise victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Humphrey was elected to the Senate.
The actions by President Truman, though important, were largely symbolic without congressional legislative action, and they failed to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of black Americans. The president failed to use the power given to him by the 14th and 15th amendments to execute laws strong enough to combat discrimination. Especially in the critical arena of voting rights, black Americans in the South continued to be denied. In Florida in 1948, a black voting rights activist’s home was bombed, crippling one of his children. D.V. Carter was severely beaten in Montgomery County, Georgia, after ignoring warnings from the KKK to cease voter registration efforts there. Army veteran Isaac Nixon, whom Carter had persuaded to vote, was murdered in 1948 for exercising his voter rights. Two whites were charged in the murder but where acquitted by an all-white jury. And justice continued to be denied African Americans when accused of other crimes against white society. In Albany Georgia, sharecropper Rosa Lee Ingram and her two sons were sentenced to death in the self-defense killing of an armed white farmer who had attacked Mrs. Ingram with a rifle butt while she and her sons were working in the field.
In May 8, 1951, Willie McGee was executed for raping a white housewife in Laurel, Mississippi; even though the evidence suggested that the charges were brought out of fear that their consensual affair was about to become public knowledge. Despite the attention his case received from such notable personalities as William Faulkner and Albert Einstein, President Truman resisted calls to pardon McGee, and he was executed by electric chair. That same year, the Florida home of Harry T. Moore, founder of that state’s Progressive Voters’ League, was bombed on Christmas night, killing Moore and his wife.
And these civil rights violations were not confined strictly to the south. In 1948, six African-American defendants were convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of an elderly white shopkeeper in Trenton, New Jersey. The victim, William Horner, had been hit over the head with a soda bottle in his second-hand furniture store. Mrs. Horner could not agree on how many men were actually involved, nor could she identify the “Trenton Six,” as they came to be known, as the men in her store. The men were all arrested without warrants, were held without being allowed access to legal representation, and were questioned for as long as four days before being brought before a judge. As a result, 5 of the 6 were coerced into signing confessions. No forensic evidence was introduced in court, all of them subsequently repudiated their false confessions, and all six were able to provide alibis. Nevertheless, all were convicted and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Trenton Six received high profile legal counsel from the Communist Party USA (who championed civil rights causes for ideological reasons), and the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall. Two of the six were ultimately declared guilty, while the remaining four were found not guilty.
In 1952, the country elected as its President, the former Supreme Allied Commander of WWII, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican showed no real signs of interest in the race issue. But the forces of change had been set in motion. When real change came, it would arrive from both ends of the social strata. It would be championed from the churches and tenant farms of Georgia, and from the Supreme Court of the United States, where former California Governor Earl Warren would shock traditionalists and President Eisenhower, who had nominated him, by rallying the court for the most activist era of judicial decisions in that body’s history.
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