When to date the start of the history of the United States is debated among historians. Older textbooks started with 1492 and emphasized the European background, or started in 1600 and emphasized the American frontier. In recent decades American schools and universities typically have shifted back in time to include more on the colonial period and much more on the pre- history of the Native peoples.
Indigenous peoples lived in what is now the United States for thousands of years and developed complex cultures before European colonists began to arrive, mostly from England, after 1600. The Spanish had early settlements in Florida and the South- west, and the French along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. By the 1770s, thirteen British colonies contained two and a half million people along the Atlantic coast, east of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Thirteen Colonies were the British Colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America founded between 1607 (Virginia) and 1733 (Georgia) that joined together to declare independence in 1776.
After driving the French out of North America in 1763, the British imposed a series of new taxes while rejecting the American argument that taxes required representation in Parliament. Tax resistance, especially the Boston Tea Party of 1774, led to pu- nishment by Parliament designed to end self-government in Massachusetts.
The Boston Tea Party was a political protest by the Sons of Liberty in Bos- ton, on December 16, 1773. Disgui- sed as American Indians, the demons- trators destroyed an entire shipment of tea, which had been sent by the East India Company, in defiance of the Tea Act of May 10, 1773. They boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea into Boston Harbor, rui- ning the tea. The British government responded harshly and the episode escalated into the American Revolu- tion.
All 13 colonies united in a Congress that led to armed conflict in April 1775. On July 4, 1776, the Congress adopted the Declara- tion of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson, proclaimed that all men are created equal, and founded a new nation, the Uni- ted States of America.
Declaration of Independance
Since then, it has become a well-known statement on human rights, particularly its second sentence:
We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Li- berty and the pursuit of Happiness.
With large-scale military and financial support from France and military lea- dership by General George Washington, the American Patriots won the Revolu- tionary War. The peace treaty of 1783 gave the new nation most of the land east of the Mississippi River (except Florida). The national government established by the Articles of Confederation proved ineffectual at providing stability to the new nation, as it had no authority to col- lect taxes and had no executive.
A convention called in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confedera- tion instead resulted in the writing of a new Constitution, which was adopted in 1789. In 1791 a Bill of Rights was added to guarantee rights that justified the Revolution.
Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.
ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and rati- fied by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.
Note: The following text is a transcription of the first ten amendments to the Constitution in their original form. These amend- ments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the « Bill of Rights. »
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a re- dress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory pro- cess for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
With George Washington as the nation’s first president and Alexander Hamilton his chief political and financial adviser, a strong national government was created. When Thomas Jefferson became president he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of American territorial holdings. A second and last war with Britain was fought in 1812.
The Manifest Destiny
In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief in the United States that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent. Historians have for the most part agreed that there are three basic themes to Manifest Destiny:
- The special virtues of the American people and their institutions;
- America’s mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America;
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty
This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a school book as well. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the changing forms of transportation. Historian William E. Weeks has noted that three key themes were usually touched upon by advocates of manifest destiny:
- the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
- the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the United States;
- the destiny under God to do this work
Expansion of the Nation
Driven by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the nation expanded beyond the Louisiana purchase, all the way to California and Oregon. The expansion was driven by a quest for inexpensive land for yeoman farmers and slave owners. This expansion was controversial and fueled the unresolved differences between the North and South over the institution of slavery in new territories. Slavery was abolished in all states north of the Mason–Dixon line by 1804, but the South continued to profit off the institution, producing high value cotton exports to feed increasing high demand in Europe. The 1860 presidential election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln triggered the secession of seven (later eleven) slave states to found the Confederacy in 1861. The American Civil War (1861-1865) ensued, with the overwhelming material and manpower advantages of the North decisive in a long war, as Britain and France remained neutral. The result was restoration of the Union, the impoverishment of the South, and the abolition of slavery. In the Reconstruction era (1863–77) legal and voting rights were extended to the Freedmen (freed slaves). The national government emerged much stronger, and because of the Fourteenth Amendment, it gained the explicit duty to protect individual rights. However, legal segregation and Jim Crow laws left blacks as second class citizens in the South with little power until the 1960s.
Checks and Balances
How does the system of checks and balances help protect the rights?
As we have already seen our Constitution is very much a reaction to the events that came before it. Our founding fathers had several goals, foremost among those goals was to avoid tyranny. In order to do this several different systems were set up to prevent the abuse of power. Federalism was one of these systems. Federalism was designed to balance the power of the national and State
governments and thus limit the powers of the national government. Jefferson and others were convinced that state government was closer to the people and thus more democratic.
Another system that was developed was the system of checks and balances. Checks and balances, or the separation of powers, is based upon the philosophy of Baron de
Montesquieu. In this system the government was to be divided into three branches of government, each branch having particular powers.
As you can see there are many ways (there are many more than listed) that the Constitution balances power. Real life conflicts that test the system have occured throughout history. These checks and balances are used on a regular basis.
After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson vetoed over 20 bills.
After the Civil War Congress overrode overrode over 20 Presidential vetoes!
In 1987 President Ronald Reagan appointed Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, his nomination was defeated.
In 1935 and 1936 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA and then the AAA (two New Deal programs passed during the Roosevelt administration) unconstitutional.
In 1918 Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty ending World War I that President Wilson had worked very hard on.