History of the United States
A History of the United States
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
Independent Publishers Since 1923
New York London
Americans assembled on the National Mall for the 1963 March on Washington.
We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1862
Introduction: The Question Stated
THE IDEA (1492–1799)
The Nature of the Past
The Rulers and the Ruled
Of Wars and Revolutions
The Constitution of a Nation
THE PEOPLE (1800–1865)
A Democracy of Numbers
The Soul and the Machine
Of Ships and Shipwrecks
The Face of Battle
THE STATE (1866–1945)
Of Citizens, Persons, and People
Efficiency and the Masses
A Constitution of the Air
The Brutality of Modernity
THE MACHINE (1946–2016)
A World of Knowledge
Rights and Wrongs
Epilogue: The Question Addressed
THE QUESTION STATED
THE COURSE OF HISTORY IS UNPREDICTABLE, AS IRREGULAR as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides.1 It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.
The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment.
They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
As summer faded to fall, the free people of the United States, finding the Constitution folded into their newspapers and almanacs, were asked to decide whether or not to ratify it, even as they went about baling hay, milling corn, tanning leather, singing hymns, and letting out the seams on last year’s winter coats, for mothers and fathers grown fatter, and letting down the hems, for children grown taller.
They read this strange, intricate document, and they debated its plan. Some feared that the new system granted too much power to the federal government—to the president, or to Congress, or to the Supreme Court, or to all three. Many, like sixty-one-year-old George Mason of Virginia, a delegate who’d refused to sign it, wanted the Constitution to include a bill of rights. (“A bill might be prepared in a few hours,” Mason had begged at the convention, to no avail.)2 Others complained about this clause or that, down to commas. It was not an easy thing to read. A few suggested scrapping it and starting all over again. “Cannot the same power which called the late convention, call another?” one citizen wondered. “Are not the people still their own masters?”3
Much of what they said is a matter of record. “The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison once remarked.4 Not the United States. Its infancy is preserved, like baby teeth kept in a glass jar, in the four parchment sheets of the Constitution, in the pages of almanacs that chart the weather of a long-ago climate, and in hundreds of newspapers, where essays for and against the new system of government appeared alongside the shipping news, auction notices, and advertisements for the return of people who never were their own masters— women and children, slaves and servants—and who had run away, hoping
to ordain and establish, for themselves and their posterity, the blessings of liberty.
The season of ratification was an autumn of ordinary bustle and business. In that October 30, 1787, issue of the New-York Packet, a schoolmaster announced that he was offering lessons in “reading, writing, arithmetic, and merchants’ accounts” in rooms near city hall. The estate of Gearey, Champion, and Co., consisting chiefly of “a large and general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines,” was to be auctioned. Many-masted sailing ships from London and Liverpool and trim schooners from St. Croix, Baltimore, and Norfolk had dropped anchor in the depths of the harbor; sloops from Charleston and Savannah had tied their painters to the docks. A Scotsman offered a reward for the return of his stolen chestnut- colored mare, fourteen hands high, “lofty carriage, trots and canters very handsome.” A merchant with a warehouse on Peck Slip wanted readers to know that he had for sale dry codfish, a quantity of molasses, ground ginger in barrels, York rum, pickled codfish, writing paper, and men’s shoes. And the Columbian Almanack was for sale, with or without the Constitution as an appendix, at the printers’ shop, where New Yorkers might also inquire after two people, for a price:
TO BE SOLD. A LIKELY young NEGRO WENCH, 20 years of age, she is healthy and had the small pox, she has a young male child.
The mother was said to be “remarkably handy at housework”; her baby was “about 6 months old,” still nursing. Their names were not mentioned.5 They were not ruled by reason and choice. They were ruled by violence and force.
Between the everyday atrocity of slavery and the latest news from the apothecary there appeared on page 2 of that day’s New-York Packet an essay titled THE FEDERALIST No. 1. It had been written, anonymously, by a brash thirty-year-old lawyer named Alexander Hamilton. “You are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America,” he told his readers. But more was at stake, too, he insisted; the wrong decision would result in “the general misfortune of mankind.” The
United States, he argued, was an experiment in the science of politics, marking a new era in the history of government:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.6
This was the question of that autumn. And, in a way, it has been the question of every season since, the question of every rising and setting of the sun, on rainy days and snowy days, on clear days and cloudy days, at the clap of every thunderstorm. Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government —any constitution—by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?
This question in every kind of weather is the question of American history. It is also the question of this book, an account of the origins, course, and consequences of the American experiment over more than four centuries. It is not a simple question. I once came across a book called The Constitution Made Easy.7 The Constitution cannot be made easy. It was never meant to be easy.
THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT rests on three political ideas—“these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:
that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are
the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.
Still, this divide is nearly always overstated and it’s easy to exaggerate the difference between Jefferson and Franklin, which, in those lines, came down, too, to style: Franklin’s revision is more forceful. The real dispute isn’t between Jefferson and Franklin, each attempting, in his way, to reconcile faith and reason, as many have tried both before and since. The real dispute is between “these truths” and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?
Before the experiment began, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution made an extraordinarily careful study of history. They’d been studying history all their lives. Benjamin Franklin was eighty-one years old, hunched and crooked, when he signed the Constitution in 1787, with his gnarled and speckled hand. In 1731, when he was twenty-five, straight as a sapling, he’d written an essay called “Observations on Reading History,” on a “little Paper, accidentally preserv’d.”8 And he’d kept on reading history, and taking notes, asking himself, year after year: What does the past teach?
The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching. Its founders agreed with the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, who wrote, in 1748, that “Records of Wars, Intrigues, Factions, and Revolutions are so many Collections of
Experiments.”9 They believed that truth is to be found in ideas about morality but also in the study of history.
It has often been said, in the twenty-first century and in earlier centuries, too, that Americans lack a shared past and that, built on a cracked foundation, the Republic is crumbling.10 Part of this argument has to do with ancestry: Americans are descended from conquerors and from the conquered, from people held as slaves and from the people who held them, from the Union and from the Confederacy, from Protestants and from Jews, from Muslims and from Catholics, and from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration. Sometimes, in American history—in nearly all national histories—one person’s villain is another’s hero. But part of this argument has to do with ideology: the United States is founded on a set of ideas, but Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were.
I wrote this book because writing an American history from beginning to end and across that divide hasn’t been attempted in a long time, and it’s important, and it seemed worth a try. One reason it’s important is that understanding history as a form of inquiry—not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting—was central to the nation’s founding. This, too, was new. In the West, the oldest stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are odes and tales of wars and kings, of men and gods, sung and told. These stories were memorials, and so were the histories of antiquity: they were meant as monuments. “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment,” Thucydides wrote, “but as a possession for all time.” Herodotus believed that the purpose of writing history was “so that time not erase what man has brought into being.” A new kind of historical writing, less memorial and more unsettling, only first emerged in the fourteenth century. “History is a philosophical science,” the North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun wrote in 1377, in the prologue to his history of the world, in which he defined history as the study “of the causes and origins of existing things.”11
Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered. Early in the seventeenth century, Sir Walter Ralegh began writing his own History of the
World, from a prison in the Tower of London where he was allowed to keep a library of five hundred books. The past, Ralegh explained, “hath made us acquainted with our dead ancestors,” but it also casts light on the present, “by the comparison and application of other men’s fore-passed miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings.”12 To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present.
This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran—are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them—with evidence.
“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” Thomas Paine, the spitfire son of an English grocer, wrote in Common Sense, in 1776. Kings have no right to reign, Paine argued, because, if we could trace hereditary monarchy back to its beginnings —“could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise”—we’d find “the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang.” James Madison explained Americans’ historical skepticism, this deep empiricism, this way: “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”13 Evidence, for Madison, was everything.
“A new era for politics is struck,” Paine wrote, his pen aflame, and “a new method of thinking hath arisen.”14 Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of
historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?
This book attempts to answer that question by telling the story of American history, beginning in 1492, with Columbus’s voyage, which tied together continents, and ending in a world not merely tied together but tangled, knotted, and bound. It chronicles the settlement of American colonies; the nation’s founding and its expansion through migration, immigration, war, and invention; its descent into civil war; its entrance into wars in Europe; its rise as a world power and its role, after the Second World War, in the establishment of the modern liberal world order: the rule of law, individual rights, democratic government, open borders, and free markets. It recounts the nation’s confrontations with communism abroad and discrimination at home; its fractures and divisions, and the wars it has waged since 2001, when two airplanes crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center eight blocks from the site of a long-gone shop where the printers of the New-York Packet had once offered for sale a young mother and her six-month old baby and the Columbian Almanack, bound with the Constitution, or without.
With this history, I’ve told a story; I’ve tried to tell it fairly. I have written a beginning and I have written an ending and I have tried to cross a divide, but I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story. No one could. Much is missing in these pages. In the 1950s, the historian Carl Degler explained the rule he’d used in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out of his own history of the United States, a lovely book called Out of Our Past.
“Readers should be warned that they will find nothing here on the Presidential administrations between 1868 and 1901, no mention of the American Indians or the settlement of the seventeenth-century colonies,” Degler advised. “The War of 1812 is touched on only in a footnote.”15 I, too, have had to skip over an awful lot. Some very important events haven’t even made it into the footnotes, which I’ve kept clipped and short, like a baby’s fingernails.
In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty- first century need to know about their own past, mainly because this book is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions, from the town meeting to the party system, from the nominating convention to the secret ballot, from talk radio to Internet polls. This book is chiefly a political history. It pays very little attention to military and diplomatic history or to social and cultural history. But it does include episodes in the history of American law and religion, journalism and technology, chiefly because these are places where what is true, and what’s not, have sometimes gotten sorted out.
Aside from being a brief history of the United States and a civics primer, this book aims to be something else, too: it’s an explanation of the nature of the past. History isn’t only a subject; it’s also a method. My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.
What, then, of the American past? There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but
neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.
A last word, then, about storytelling, and truth. “I have begun this letter five times and torn it up,” James Baldwin wrote, in a letter to his nephew begun in 1962. “I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother.” His brother was dead; he meant to tell his nephew about being a black man, about the struggle for equality, and about the towering importance and gripping urgency of studying the past and reckoning with origins. He went on,
I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those faces which were his.16
No one can know a nation that far back, from its infancy, with or without baby teeth kept in a jar. But studying history is like that, looking into one face and seeing, behind it, another, face after face after face. “Know whence you came,” Baldwin told his nephew.17 The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.
John Durand painted the precocious six-year-old New Yorker Jane Beekman in 1767, holding a book and seized with inspiration.
In the beginning, all the World was America.
—John Locke, SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT,
THE NATURE OF THE PAST
“America” first appeared as the name of an undefined land mass on a map of the world made in 1507.
“WE SAW NAKED PEOPLE,” A BROAD-SHOULDERED SEA captain from Genoa wrote in his diary, nearing land after weeks of staring at nothing but blue-black sea. Or, at least, that’s what Christopher Columbus is thought to have written in his diary that day in October 1492, ink trailing across the page like the line left behind by a snail wandering across a stretch of sand. No one knows for sure what the sea captain wrote that day, because his diary is lost. In the 1530s, before it disappeared, parts of it were copied by a
frocked and tonsured Dominican friar named Bartolomé de Las Casas. The friar’s copy was lost, too, until about 1790, when an old sailor found it in the library of a Spanish duke. In 1894, the widow of another librarian sold to a duchess parchment scraps of what appeared to be Columbus’s original —it had his signature, and the year 1492 on the cover. After that, the widow disappeared, and, with her, whatever else may have been left of the original diary vanished.1
On an ink-splotched sketch of northwest Haiti, Columbus labeled “la española,” Hispaniola, “the little Spanish island.”
All of this is unfortunate; none of it is unusual. Most of what once existed is gone. Flesh decays, wood rots, walls fall, books burn. Nature takes one toll, malice another. History is the study of what remains, what’s left behind, which can be almost anything, so long as it survives the ravages of time and war: letters, diaries, DNA, gravestones, coins, television broadcasts, paintings, DVDs, viruses, abandoned Facebook pages, the transcripts of congressional hearings, the ruins of buildings. Some of these things are saved by chance or accident, like the one house that, as if by miracle, still stands after a hurricane razes a town. But most of what historians study survives because it was purposely kept—placed in a box and carried up to an attic, shelved in a library, stored in a museum, photographed or recorded, downloaded to a server—carefully preserved and
even catalogued. All of it, together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past—remains, relics, a repository of knowledge, the evidence of what came before, this inheritance—is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.
Relying on so spotty a record requires caution. Still, even its absences speak. “We saw naked people,” Columbus wrote in his diary (at least, according to the notes taken by Las Casas). “They were a people very poor in everything,” the sea captain went on, describing the people he met on an island they called Haiti—“land of mountains”—but that Columbus called Hispaniola—“the little Spanish island”—because he thought it had no name. They lacked weapons, he reported; they lacked tools. He believed they lacked even a faith: “They appear to have no religion.” They lacked guile; they lacked suspicion. “I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses,” he wrote, addressing the king and queen of Spain, “in order that they may learn to speak,” as if, impossibly, they had no language.2 Later, he admitted the truth: “None of us understands the words they say.”3
Two months after he reached Haiti, Columbus prepared to head back to Spain but, off the coast, his three-masted flagship ran aground. Before the ship sank, Columbus’s men salvaged the timbers to build a fort; the sunken wreckage has never been found, as lost to history as everything that the people of Haiti said the day a strange sea captain washed up on shore. On the voyage home, on a smaller ship, square-rigged and swift, Columbus wondered about all that he did not understand about the people he’d met, a people he called “Indians” because he believed he had sailed to the Indies. It occurred to him that it wasn’t that they didn’t have a religion or a language but that these things were, to him, mysteries that he could not penetrate, things beyond his comprehension. He needed help. In Barcelona, he hired Ramón Pané, a priest and scholar, to come along on his next voyage, to “discover and understand . . . the beliefs and idolatries of the Indians, and . . . how they worship their gods.”4
Pané sailed with Columbus in 1493. Arriving in Haiti, Pané met a man named Guatícabanú, who knew all of the languages spoken on the island, and who learned Pané’s language, Castilian, and taught him his own. Pané lived with the natives, the Taíno, for four years, and delivered to Columbus
his report, a manuscript he titled An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians. Not long afterward, it vanished.
The fates of old books are as different as the depths of the ocean. Before An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians disappeared, Columbus’s son Ferdinand, writing a biography of his father, copied it out, and even though Ferdinand Columbus’s book remained unpublished at his death in 1539, his copy of Pané’s extraordinary account had by then been copied by other scholars, including the learned and dogged Las Casas, a man who never left a page unturned. In 1570, a scholar in Venice was translating Pané’s Antiquities into Italian when he died in prison, suspected of being a spy for the French; nevertheless, his translation was published in 1571, with the result that the closest thing to the original of Pané’s account that survives is a poor Italian translation of words that had already been many times translated, from other tongues to Guatícabanú’s tongue, and from Guatícabanú’s tongue to Castilian and then, by Pané, from Castilian.5 And yet it remains a treasure.
“I wrote it down in haste and did not have sufficient paper,” Pané apologized. He’d collected the Taíno’s stories, though he’d found it difficult to make sense of them, since so many of the stories seemed, to him, to contradict one another. “Because they have neither writing nor letters,” Pané reported, “they cannot give a good account of how they have heard this from their ancestors, and therefore they do not all say the same thing.” The Taíno had no writing. But, contrary to Columbus’s initial impressions, they most certainly did have a religion. They called their god Yúcahu. “They believe that he is in heaven and is immortal, and that no one can see him, and that he has a mother,” Pané explained. “But he has no beginning.” Also, “They know likewise from whence they came, and where the sun and the moon had their beginning, and how the sea was made, and where the dead go.”6
People order their worlds with tales of their dead and of their gods and of the origins of their laws. The Taíno told Pané that their ancestors once lived in caves and would go out at night but, once, when some of them were late coming back, the Sun turned them into trees. Another time, a man named Yaya killed his son Yayael and put his bones in a gourd and hung it from his roof and when his wife took down the gourd and opened it the
bones had been changed into fish and the people ate the fish but when they tried to hang the gourd up again, it fell to the earth, and out spilled all the water that made the oceans.
The Taíno did not have writing but they did have government. “They have their laws gathered in ancient songs, by which they govern themselves,” Pané reported.7 They sang their laws, and they sang their history. “These songs remain in their memory rather than in books,” another Spanish historian observed, “and this way they recite the genealogies of the caciques, kings, and lords they have had, their deeds, and the bad or good times they had.”8
In those songs, they told their truths. They told of how the days and weeks and years after the broad-shouldered sea captain first spied their island were the worst of times. Their god, Yúcahu, had once foretold that they “would enjoy their dominion for but a brief time because a clothed people would come to their land who could overcome them and kill them.”9 This had come to pass. There were about three million people on that island, land of mountains, when Columbus landed; fifty years later, there were only five hundred; everyone else had died, their songs unsung.
STORIES OF ORIGINS nearly always begin in darkness, earth and water and night, black as doom. The sun and the moon came from a cave, the Taíno told Pané, and the oceans spilled out of a gourd. The Iroquois, a people of the Great Lakes, say the world began with a woman who lived on the back of a turtle. The Akan of Ghana tell a story about a god who lived closer to the earth, low in the sky, until an old woman struck him with her pestle, and he flew away. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” according to Genesis. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Darkness was on the face of the deep in geological histories, too, whose evidence comes from rocks and bones. The universe was created about fourteen billion years ago, according to the traces left behind by meteors and the afterlives of stars, glowing and distant, blinking and dim. The earth
was formed about four billion years ago, according to the sand and rocks, sea floors and mountaintops. For a very long time, all the lands of the earth were glommed together until, about three hundred million years ago, those glommed-together lands began breaking up; parts broke off and began drifting away from one another, like the debris of a sinking ship.
Evidence of the long-ago past is elusive, but it survives in the unlikeliest of places, even in the nests of pack rats, mammals that crept up in North America sixty million years ago. Pack rats build nests out of sticks and stones and bones and urinate on them; the liquid hardens like amber, preserving pack rat nests as if pressed behind glass. A great many of the animals and plants that lived at the time of ancient pack rats later became extinct, lost forever, saved only in pack rat nests, where their preserved remains provide evidence not only of evolution but of the warming of the earth. A pack rat nest isn’t like the geological record; it’s more like an archive, a collection, gathered and kept, like a library of old books and long-forgotten manuscripts, a treasure, an account of the antiquities of the animals and plants.10
The fossil record is richer still. Charles Darwin called the record left by fossils “a history of the world imperfectly kept.” According to that record, Homo sapiens, modern humans, evolved about three hundred thousand years ago, in East Africa, near and around what is now Ethiopia. Over the next hundred and fifty thousand years, early humans spread into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Europe.11 Like pack rats, humans store and keep and save. The record of early humans, however imperfectly kept, includes not only fossils but also artifacts, things created by people (the word contains its own meaning—art + fact—an artifact is a fact made by art). Artifacts and the fossil record together tell the story of how, about twenty thousand years ago, humans migrated into the Americas from Asia when, for a while, the northwestern tip of North America and the northeastern tip of Asia were attached when a landmass between them rose above sea level, making it possible for humans and animals to walk between what is now Russia and Alaska, a distance of some six hundred miles, until the water rose again, and one half of the world was, once again, cut off from the other half.
In 1492, seventy-five million people lived in the Americas, north and south.12 The people of Cahokia, the biggest city in North America, on the Mississippi floodplains, had built giant plazas and earthen mounds, some bigger than the Egyptian pyramids. In about 1000 AD, before Cahokia was abandoned, more than ten thousand people lived there. The Aztecs, Incas, and Maya, vast and ancient civilizations, built monumental cities and kept careful records and calendars of exquisite accuracy. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325, had a population of at least a quarter-million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Outside of those places, most people in the Americas lived in smaller settlements and gathered and hunted for their food. A good number were farmers who grew squash and corn and beans, hunted and fished. They kept pigs and chickens but not bigger animals. They spoke hundreds of languages and practiced many different faiths. Most had no written form of language. They believed in many gods and in the divinity of animals and of the earth itself.13 The Taíno lived in villages of one or two thousand people, headed by a cacique. They fished and farmed. They warred with their neighbors. They decorated their bodies; they painted themselves red. They sang their laws.14 They knew where the dead went.
In 1492, about sixty million people lived in Europe, fifteen million fewer than lived in the Americas. They lived and were ruled in villages and towns, in cities and states, in kingdoms and empires. They built magnificent cities and castles, cathedrals and temples and mosques, libraries and universities. Most people farmed and worked on land surrounded by fences, raising crops and cattle and sheep and goats. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,” God tells Adam and Eve in Genesis, “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” They spoke and wrote dozens of languages. They recorded their religious tenets and stories on scrolls and in books of beauty and wonder. They were Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Muslim; for long stretches of time, peoples of different faiths managed to get along and then, for other long stretches, they did not, as if they would cut out one another’s hearts. Their faith was their truth, the word of their God, revealed to their prophets, and, for Christians,
to the people, through the words spoken by Jesus—the good-spell, or “good news”—their Gospel, written down.
Before 1492, Europe suffered from scarcity and famine. After 1492, the vast wealth carried to Europe from the Americas and extracted by the forced labor of Africans granted governments new powers that contributed to the rise of nation-states.
A nation is a people who share a common ancestry. A state is a political community, governed by laws. A nation-state is a political community, governed by laws, that, at least theoretically, unites a people who share a common ancestry (one way nation-states form is by violently purging their populations of people with different ancestries). As nation-states emerged, they needed to explain themselves, which they did by telling stories about their origins, tying together ribbons of myths, as if everyone in the “English nation,” for instance, had the same ancestors, when, of course, they did not. Very often, histories of nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state.15
The origins of the United States can be found in those seams. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, plainly, it was a state, but what made it a nation? The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over, and, having waged a war against England, the very last thing they wanted to celebrate was their Englishness. In an attempt to solve this problem, the earliest historians of the United States decided to begin their accounts with Columbus’s voyage, stitching 1776 to 1492. George Bancroft published his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to the Present in 1834, when the nation was barely more than a half-century old, a fledgling, just hatched. By beginning with Columbus, Bancroft made the United States nearly three centuries older than it was, a many-feathered old bird. Bancroft wasn’t only a historian; he was also a politician: he served in the administrations of three U.S. presidents, including as secretary of war during the age of American expansion. He believed in manifest destiny, the idea that the United States was fated to cross the continent, from east to west. For Bancroft, the nation’s fate was all but sealed the day Columbus set sail. By giving Americans a more ancient past, he hoped to make America’s founding appear inevitable and its growth inexorable, God-
ordained. He also wanted to celebrate the United States, not as an offshoot of England, but instead as a pluralist and cosmopolitan nation, with ancestors all over the world. “France contributed to its independence,” he observed, “the origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”16
Yet the origins of the United States date to 1492 for another, more troubling reason: the nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds. The history of the United States can be said to begin in 1492 because the idea of equality came out of a resolute rejection of the idea of inequality; a dedication to liberty emerged out of bitter protest against slavery; and the right to self-government was fought for, by sword and, still more fiercely, by pen. Against conquest, slaughter, and slavery came the urgent and abiding question, “By what right?”
To begin a history of the United States in 1492 is to take seriously and solemnly the idea of America itself as a beginning. Yet, so far from the nation’s founding having been inevitable, its expansion inexorable, the history of the United States, like all history, is a near chaos of contingencies and accidents, of wonders and horrors, unlikely, improbable, and astonishing.
To start with, weighing the evidence, it’s a little surprising that it was western Europeans in 1492, and not some other group of people, some other year, who crossed an ocean to discover a lost world. Making the journey required knowledge, capacity, and interest. The Maya, whose territory stretched from what is now Mexico to Costa Rica, knew enough astronomy to navigate across the ocean as early as AD 300. They did not, however, have seaworthy boats. The ancient Greeks had known a great deal about cartography: Claudius Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived in the second century, had devised a way to project the surface of the globe onto a flat surface with near-perfect proportions. But medieval Christians, having dismissed the writings of the ancient Greeks as pagan, had lost much of that knowledge. The Chinese had invented the compass in the eleventh century, and had excellent boats. Before his death in 1433, Zheng He, a Chinese
Muslim, had explored the coast of much of Asia and eastern Africa, leading two hundred ships and twenty-seven thousand sailors. But China was the richest country in the world, and by the late fifteenth century no longer allowed travel beyond the Indian Ocean, on the theory that the rest of the world was unworthy and uninteresting. West Africans navigated the coastline and rivers that led into a vast inland trade network, but prevailing winds and currents thwarted them from navigating north and they seldom ventured into the ocean. Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, who had never cast aside the knowledge of antiquity and the calculations of Ptolemy, made accurate maps and built sturdy boats, but because they dominated trade in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as overland trade with Africa, for gold, and with Asia, for spices, they didn’t have much reason to venture farther.17
The post History of the United States appeared first on best homeworkhelp.