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U.S. History For Dummies

By: Steve Wiegand Published: 03-19-2019

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The United States is undergoing a period of intense political and social change. From the rise of the Tea Party to social media's effect on American life and politics, this new edition fills in the gaps of this nation's story. This book guides you through the events that shaped the nation, from pre-Columbian civilizations to the 21st century. It's all here—you'll find all the wars, leaders, and eras that explain and demonstrate how the past influences the future.

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  • Get an overview of U.S. history
  • Learn about major movements
  • Discover how the U.S. came of age
  • Explore iconic cultural moments
  • Find out how the country faced adversity
  • Get to know historical U.S. documents

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Articles From U.S. History For Dummies

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US History For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-23-2022

US history is as complex and fascinating as the people who populate the country. A timeline of significant events in the life of the United States of America starts with hunters crossing the Bering Strait, through the fight for independence, and to the election of 44 men to serve as president. The election of the 43rd, Barack Obama, is of historical significance in itself as he was the first African American president.

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America Launches a Campaign to Uncover Communists

Article / Updated 08-06-2020

After World War II, not all the world’s communists were in other countries. Since the 1920s, there had been a communist party in the United States that had taken orders from party leaders in the Soviet Union. But the average American didn’t pay much attention. After World War II, however, “communist” became a much dirtier word. U.S. government officials helped fuel the fire by talking almost daily about spies and the dangers of communists and communist sympathizers. Part of the reason for the anti-communist fears was that communists ran America’s biggest post-war rivals, the Soviet Union and China. Part was bewilderment over the success the communists were having in Asia and Eastern Europe. And part was there really were some spies, and the U.S. government failed to keep the atomic bomb the exclusive property of America. Whatever the reason, commie hunting became a national pastime. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) — dominated by Republicans who included a freshman member from California named Richard M. Nixon — began searching for communists within and without government. One place they looked was Hollywood. Actors, directors, and writers were called before the committee, and 10 who refused to testify were jailed. Others were “blacklisted” and couldn’t get jobs in the industry for years afterward. But no great plot to undermine America through the movies was ever uncovered. Casting suspicion on Hiss The committee caught a bigger fish in 1948. Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor who said he had been a communist until 1937, told the committee that a former member of Roosevelt’s State Department, Alger Hiss, had passed information to Russian spies. Hiss denied the charges, even after Chambers produced from a hollowed-out pumpkin what he said was microfilm passed between the men. Neither could be prosecuted for espionage because too much time had passed. But Hiss was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. The Hiss conviction helped Nixon get elected to the Senate in 1950 and win a place as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952. Leaking scientific secrets: The Rosenbergs Hiss wasn’t the only trophy for the commie hunters. In February 1950, it was revealed that a British scientist had given atomic secrets to the Soviets. Among his allies, it was announced, were a New York couple named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were charged with getting information from Ethel’s brother, who worked on the U.S. bomb project in New Mexico. They were convicted of treason and executed in 1953. Checking the loyalty of federal workers Despite some reservations that things were getting out of hand, President Truman didn’t leave all the ferreting out of communists to Congress. In 1947, Truman ordered a government-wide “loyalty” review. By the time it was done, more than 3 million federal workers had been reviewed. More than 2,000 workers resigned and about 200 were fired. Not to be outdone, Congress passed bills in 1950 and 1952 — over Truman’s vetoes — that made it illegal to do anything “that would substantially contribute to the establishment … of a totalitarian dictatorship.” The bills also required “communist front organizations” to register with the Justice Department and denied admission to the country to aliens who had been members of “totalitarian” groups, even as children. Telling tall tales: “Tail-Gunner Joe” He was a liar and a drunk — and for a few years he was one of the most powerful men in America. In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in West Virginia. In the speech, McCarthy said he had a list of 205 known communists working in the State Department. It was nonsense, but it made national headlines, and McCarthy repeated it and similar charges over the next four years. McCarthy, who claimed to have been a tail gunner who saw lots of action during World War II, actually had never seen any combat. But he was a formidable opponent in the commie-hunting field. He ripped even General George Marshall and President Eisenhower. Every time he made a charge that proved to be untrue, McCarthy simply made a new charge. The tactic became known as “McCarthyism.” By the summer of 1954, however, McCarthy’s antics were wearing thin. When he began a series of attacks on the Army for “coddling” communists during congressional hearings, they were televised. Many Americans got their first look at McCarthy in action and were repulsed. In December 1954, the Senate censured him. He died in obscurity three years later of problems related to alcoholism.

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Piecing the Union Back Together after the Civil War

Article / Updated 07-20-2020

One of the topics American historians like to speculate on is what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated. Would he have been able to come up with a widely accepted plan to reunite the states and give the former slaves their rightful place in society? Would that have led to better race relations sooner in America? Probably not. Lincoln, like most mid-19th century white Americans, felt it was impossible to just free the slaves and make them socially equal. “There is an unwillingness on the part of our [white] people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us,” he told a group of African Americans during the war. Lincoln’s hope was to resettle the freed slaves somewhere else, either in Africa or the Caribbean. But most black Americans had no firsthand experience with Africa or any other country except the United States — the country in which they were born — and they had no desire to leave. Lincoln did insist, however, that the former slaves be treated as equals when it came to the law. In 1864 and early 1865, he prodded Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which barred slavery. He also set out a general plan for reuniting the country when the fighting was done (assuming the North won). Under this plan, most Southerners could become U.S. citizens again simply by taking a loyalty oath. Those who couldn’t, mostly high-ranking Confederate officials, could apply for the reinstatement of their citizenship on a case-by-case basis. After Lincoln was killed, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, adopted practically the same plan. Demanding loyalty, legislating equality When 10 percent of a state’s population had taken an oath of loyalty to the Union, the state could set up a new government and apply for readmission to the Union, as long as it agreed to give up slavery and provide an education system for blacks. By the time Congress convened in December 1865, all the Southern states had organized new governments, ratified the 13th Amendment, and elected new representatives and senators for Congress. But Congress, dominated by Radical Republicans — those who sought harsh reprisals against the South for the war and immediate equal rights for freed slaves — didn’t like the deal. For one thing, many of the men elected to represent the Southern states in Washington, D.C., were the same people who’d run the Confederacy — including Alexander Stephens, the ex-Confederate vice president who was in federal prison awaiting trial on treason charges. That kind of in-your-face attitude irritated the Radical Republicans, who felt Southerners weren’t sorry enough for causing the war. Even more infuriating were the Black Codes. These codes were established by Southern state legislatures to keep the former slaves “under control.” They varied from state to state and did give blacks some rights they hadn’t had before, such as the power to sue in court, own certain kinds of property, and legally marry. But the Black Codes also prohibited blacks from bearing arms, working in most occupations other than farming or manual labor, and leaving their jobs without permission. They restricted African Americans’ right to travel and fined them if they broke any of the codes. To the Radical Republicans, and even many moderate Northerners, the Black Codes were simply a substitute form of slavery. To combat the Black Codes, Congress passed a series of bills designed to strengthen the rights of blacks — and President Johnson vetoed them either as unconstitutional interference in states’ rights or as infringing on the powers of the presidency. One thing he couldn’t veto, though, was the 14th Amendment, because the Constitution required that proposed amendments go directly to the states for approval. The amendment, ratified in 1868, entitled all people born or naturalized in the United States — including slaves — to U.S. citizenship and equal protection under the law. Using violence to keep blacks down Many whites in the South were outraged by the 14th Amendment, particularly poorer whites who already felt they were competing with ex-slaves for jobs. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Knights of the White Camellia, and Pale Faces sprang up. They used weird costumes and goofy rituals to intimidate blacks from exercising their rights. When intimidation failed, they and other white mobs and paramilitary groups resorted to violence. Hundreds of African Americans were beaten, driven from their homes, or brutally murdered as a result of these groups’ actions. The terrorist activities of the white supremacist groups were very effective in “keeping blacks in their place.” And the groups had unwitting allies in the current president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, and Northerners who were losing interest in reforming the South. Blacks weren’t the only targets of the KKK and similar groups; carpetbaggers and scalawags were also terrorized. Carpetbaggers were Northerners who came to the South to participate in its reconstruction — and make a lot of money in the process. Scalawags were Southerners who worked in concert with the carpetbaggers. Although it’s true some of these people were basically just vultures feeding off the defeated Southern corpse, many of both groups actually did a lot of good, reviving the school system, helping rebuild the railroads, and so on.

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Hurricanes Katrina and Ike Devastate the Southern United States

Article / Updated 06-30-2019

Although the war on terrorism dominated George W. Bush’s presidency, he did attempt to make changes on domestic issues as well. Near the end of his final term, the blustery rhetoric in Washington was like a gentle summer breeze when compared to the hurricanes that blew into the South. Hurricane Katrina devastates the Big Easy On August 23, 2005, a hurricane formed over the Bahamas and headed toward the southeastern United States. Called Katrina, it crossed Florida, picked up strength over the Gulf of Mexico, and made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29. While Katrina’s 125-mile-per-hour winds — sending beds flying out of hotel windows — and 10 inches of rain were bad enough, a storm surge of more than 28 feet devastated the Mississippi coastal cities of Gulfport and Biloxi. But the greatest damage was reserved for the region’s largest city — New Orleans. Nicknamed the Big Easy, most of New Orleans is below sea level. Under Katrina’s onslaught, levees that were supposed to protect the city gave way in more than 50 places, and 80 percent of the city was flooded. While most of New Orleans’s 1.2 million residents were evacuated (many to the city of Houston, Texas), thousands either refused to leave or could not. The disaster claimed more than 1,800 lives and destroyed 200,000 homes. Damage estimates ranged as high as $125 billion, making it the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history. It wasn’t until October 11 that the last of the floodwaters were pumped out. By then, a hurricane of criticism had whipped up over the federal government’s response to the disaster. The criticism ranged from condemning the government’s slow response in some areas with regard to the evacuation process to providing adequate temporary housing after the storm. There were also charges that the slow response was due in part to the fact that many of New Orleans’s residents were poor African Americans. Bush’s approval ratings sank to the lowest of his presidency. But they would go even lower. Hurricane Ike hits Texas In September 2008, New Orleans was again evacuated when threatened by Hurricane Gustav. This time, the preparations and responses were better, and the levees held. But on the heels of Gustav came Ike. The hurricane hit the Gulf Coast of Texas on September 13, dragging up a massive storm surge that drowned much of the city of Galveston. The storm killed 82 in the United States, with as many as 200 people missing, and did an estimated $27 billion worth of property damage. Once again, the federal government was criticized for its post-storm performance. Texas officials complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been slow to provide housing for those left homeless by the hurricane and to provide funds for cleaning up the mess. “The response from Washington has been pretty underwhelming,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in mid-November, two months after the storm. “This is really irritating.” But hurricanes, and even irritated governors, paled in the face of another kind of storm, an economic tempest that enveloped the nation and most of the rest of the world.

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The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.

Article / Updated 06-30-2019

On September 11, 2001 the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack on its soil in its history. The attack was heartbreaking to U.S. citizens and prompted immediate political reaction. The U.S. government launched a War on Terror, specifically targeting the individuals who perpetrated the attack on 9/11. At 8:46 a.m.(EDT) on September 11, 2001, a hijacked commercial jet (American 11) crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City. Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., a second hijacked passenger jet (United 175) flew into the WTC South Tower. Both towers soon collapsed, pulling down or heavily damaging surrounding buildings. At 9:37, a third jet (American 77) plowed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., followed 26 minutes later by the crash of a fourth flight (United 93) into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Passengers aboard the fourth plane, having learned the fate of the other three planes through cell phone calls, apparently attempted to retake the plane before it could reach its intended target, believed to be the White House or U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The hijackers crashed the plane before the passengers could regain control. The United States had suffered the worst attack on its soil in its history, and the country plunged into a war against terrorism. Reacting to the 9/11 attacks The attacks, carried out by 19 members of a fundamentalist Islamist group called Al-Qaeda (“the base”), killed a total of about 3,000 people, including 415 New York City police and firefighters who responded to the disaster at the World Trade Center. More than 6,000 people were injured. Americans — and much of the rest of the world — were shocked. Millions had watched horrified as television cameras that had been focusing on the North Tower after the first attack captured the second plane hitting the South Tower. The subsequent collapse of the towers was also carried live. National, state, and local officials scrambled to prepare for more attacks. Air travel was shut down. Stock markets in the United States and around the world were badly shaken and posted severe losses. On September 17, President Bush formally identified Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind behind the attacks. A wealthy member of a prominent Saudi Arabian family, bin Laden had operated out of Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, under the protection of a group called the Taliban. The Taliban (which means “student”) followed an extreme version of Islamic law and had seized control in Afghanistan in 1998. Governments around the world denounced the attacks and offered support and solidarity. Most Middle Eastern countries (including Saudi Arabia) and Afghanistan expressed strong negative reactions to the attacks, Iraq being the notable exception. United Nations (U.N.) Security Council Resolution 1368 condemned the attacks and determined to combat all forms of terrorism in accordance with the U.N. Charter. Muslim organizations in the U.S., including the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Alliance also condemned the attacks and asked Muslim Americans lend aid and resources to help alleviate the suffering of those affected by the attacks. Identifying the attackers – al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden Speaking to a joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders and dismantle terrorist training camps within Afghanistan. “They will hand over the terrorists or share their fate,” Bush warned. On October 7, after Taliban leaders had rejected Bush’s demands, U.S. and British aircraft unleashed a massive bombing attack on major Afghan cities. By mid-November, the Afghan capital of Kabul had fallen. By mid-December, air attacks coupled with allied nations’ ground forces that included about 30,000 troops from the United States and anti-Taliban Afghan militia had toppled the Taliban regime. While out of power, the Taliban was not out of business. After a year of licking their wounds, Taliban forces began an insurgency. Their efforts were fueled by funds from control of much of Afghanistan’s vast production of poppies from which opium was manufactured. It was the nation’s largest cash crop, providing most of the world’s opium and 400,000 Afghans with work. The enemy also took advantage of safe havens in mountainous areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by scampering into Pakistan, where it was logistically and politically difficult for U.S. troops to follow. President Barack Obama, Bush’s successor, countered in 2009 by gradually building U.S. forces to more than 100,000 while warning that “our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended.” By mid-2013, U.S. forces were down to 65,000, and by the end of 2016, 8,400. The number climbed to 14,000 by mid-2018 under President Donald Trump, however, with no indication that a complete withdrawal would happen in the foreseeable future. Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in his Pakistan hiding place in May 2011, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar died two years later, apparently of tuberculosis. But after suffering more than 2,300 military deaths, spending at least $1 trillion, and fighting for three times longer than it had in World War II, the prognosis for peace in Afghanistan remained, at best, uncertain. Fighting terrorism on the U.S. home front The Bush administration never formally declared war on Afghanistan (which allowed it to claim it didn’t have to treat those captured as prisoners of war). But it did declare war on terrorism, and Bush proclaimed the war would continue and be fought on every front “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” A month after the 9/11 attacks, as they came to be known, Bush proposed something called the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” — or the USA Patriot Act. The far-reaching “temporary” act (most of which was made permanent by Congress in 2006) greatly expanded the authority of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, look at medical and other personal records (such as what materials an individual took out from public libraries), and spy without court approval on those suspected of potential terrorist acts. It also allowed foreigners to be held for up to seven days without charges or deportation proceedings. The act was approved 357–66 in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the vote was 98–1, with only Sen. Russell Feingold, D-WI, opposed. In July 2002, Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen in on phone calls American citizens made to other countries and to monitor e-mails. (See Chapter 25 for more on the NSA and electronic surveillance.) The order wasn’t made public until 2005, and Congress didn’t sanction the actions until 2008. In November, Bush signed a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, consolidating dozens of government agencies, from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard, into one super-agency. Imprisoning “non-POWs” at Guantanamo Bay Because America had not actually declared war against Afghanistan, it didn’t treat captured Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters as prisoners of war (POWs). Instead, they were taken to a prison erected on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba. Administration officials contended that because the prison wasn’t on U.S. soil, the prisoners had no rights and could be held indefinitely without trial or even formal charges being filed. In 2004, international observers reported some of the detainees at Guantanamo had been subjected to what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which the observers characterized as “tantamount to torture.” One such technique, called waterboarding, consisted of covering a person’s face with a towel and then pouring water over it, creating a sensation like drowning. It was also revealed that the CIA had abducted suspected terrorists and held them in secret prisons in Europe. Defending controversial tactics Civil libertarians complained that such actions were counter to American ideals and violated basic human rights. But administration officials, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, defended the practices as justifiable and necessary to fight terrorism. They also pointed out that no terrorist attacks had occurred on U.S. soil since September 11, while several terrorist plots had been sniffed out and stopped. In 2008, Congress approved a bill to ban some of the interrogation methods used, but Bush vetoed it. Of the 780 people held at the detention camp, most were eventually released without charges being filed or repatriated to other countries. When Bush left office, an estimated 242 prisoners were still at Guantanamo. His successor, Barack Obama, had promised during his campaign to close the base and repeated variations of that pledge in subsequent years. Shortly after taking office in January 2009, he signed an executive order closing down the CIA’s secret prisons in other countries. But Congress repeatedly blocked efforts to completely close Guantanamo, and as of late 2018, 40 prisoners still remained there.

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Causes and Consequences of the Great Depression

Article / Updated 06-30-2019

America had gone through hard times before: a bank panic and depression in the early 1820s, and other economic hard times in the late 1830s, the mid-1870s, and the early and mid-1890s. But never did it suffer an economic illness so deep and so long as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Economists have argued ever since as to just what caused it. But it’s safe to say that a bunch of intertwined factors contributed. Among them were: The stock market crash. The stock market soared throughout most of the 1920s, and the more it grew, the more people were eager to pour money into it. Many people bought on margin, which meant they paid only part of a stock’s worth when they bought it and the rest when they sold it. That worked fine as long as stock prices kept going up. But when the market crashed in late October 1929, they were forced to pay up on stocks that were worth far less than what they had paid for them. Many had borrowed to buy stock, and when the stock market went belly-up, they couldn’t repay their loans and the lenders were left holding the empty bag. Bank failures. Many small banks, particularly in rural areas, had overextended credit to farmers who, for the most part, had not shared in the prosperity of the 1920s and often could not repay the loans. Big banks, meanwhile, had foolishly made huge loans to foreign countries. Why? So the foreign countries could repay their earlier debts from World War I. When times got tough and U.S. banks stopped lending, European nations simply defaulted on their outstanding loans. As a result, many banks went bankrupt. Others were forced out of business when depositors panicked and withdrew their money. The closings and panics almost completely shut down the country’s banking system. Too many poor people. That may sound sort of goofy, but it’s a real reason. While the overall economy had soared in the 1920s, most of the wealth was enjoyed by relatively few Americans. In 1929, 40 percent of the families in the country were still living at or below the poverty level. That made them too poor to buy goods and services and too poor to pay their debts. With no markets for their goods, manufacturers had to lay off tens of thousands of workers, which, of course, just created more poor people. Farm failures. Many American farmers were already having a hard time before the Depression, mostly because they were producing too much and farm product prices were too low. The situation was so bad in some areas that farmers burned corn for fuel rather than sell it. Environmental disasters. The production of vast crops during World War I and the decade that followed resulted in over-plowing of much of America’s farmland. The prairie grasses that held topsoil in place were stripped. Coupled with one of the worst droughts in recorded history, the unprotected soil turned the Great Plains into what would become known as the “Dust Bowl.” Dry winds picked up tons of topsoil and blew it across the prairies, creating huge, suffocating clouds of dirt that buried towns and turned farms into deserts. Government inaction. Rather than try to jumpstart the economy by pushing the Federal Reserve System to lend money to banks at low interest rates and pumping money into the economy through federal public works projects, the Hoover Administration did nothing at first, then took small and tentative actions that weren’t enough to head things off. Whatever the causes, the consequences of the Great Depression were staggering. In the cities, thousands of jobless men roamed the streets looking for work. It wasn’t unusual for 2,000 or 3,000 applicants to show up for one or two job openings. If they weren’t looking for work, they were looking for food. Bread lines were established to prevent people from starving. And more than a million families lost their houses and took up residence in shantytowns made up of tents, packing crates, and the hulks of old cars. They were called “Hoovervilles,” a mocking reference to President Hoover, whom many blamed (somewhat unfairly) for the mess the country was experiencing. Americans weren’t sure what to do. In the summer of 1932, about 20,000 desperate World War I veterans marched on Washington D.C. to claim $1,000 bonuses they had been promised they would get, starting in 1946. When Congress refused to move up the payment schedules, several thousand members of the “Bonus Army” built a camp of tents and shacks on the banks of the Potomac River and refused to leave. Under orders of President Hoover, federal troops commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur used bayonets and gas bombs to rout the squatters. The camp was burned. No one was killed, but the episode left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans. Thousands of farmers left their homes in states like Oklahoma and Arkansas and headed for the promise of better days in the West, especially California. What they found there, however, was most often a backbreaking existence as migrant laborers, living in squalid camps and picking fruit for starvation wages.

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The Growth of Slavery in America and the Missouri Compromise

Article / Updated 06-30-2019

In the early American South, tobacco, once the major crop, had worn out the soil in many areas, and many Southern planters were looking for a substitute. Cotton was a possibility because of the big demand for it, especially in England. But the variety of cotton that grew well in most of the South was difficult to de-seed. Cotton and sugar mean more slaves In 1793, a teacher and inventor from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney visited a plantation in Georgia. Fascinated with the cottonseed problem, Whitney fiddled around and came up with a simple machine that rotated thin wire teeth through the slots of a metal grill. The teeth picked up the cotton fibers and pulled them through the slots, leaving the seeds behind. Whitney’s cotton gin (short for “engine”) could do the work of 50 men. The result was a cotton boom. In 1793, the South produced about 10,000 bales of cotton. By 1820, that amount rose to more than 400,000. In 1794, a Frenchman in New Orleans named Jean Etienne Bore came up with a method of boiling off sugar cane until it turned into crystals, and the cultivation of sugar spread over the Southeast. But growing cotton and sugar were labor-intensive activities, and that labor was supplied almost exclusively by slaves. Until the cultivation of cotton and sugar took off, slavery had appeared to be on the decline. A federal constitutional provision had outlawed the importation of any more slaves in 1808, but all the individual states had already banned the practice five years earlier. And the prices of slaves had been steadily dropping, a sign that the economics of the system were too unfavorable to continue it. Noneconomic reasons also factored in. A religious revival that swept the country in the late 18th and early 19th centuries did much to raise the level of opposition to slavery. In addition, many whites were fearful that an increase in the number of slaves could lead to a massive rebellion such as the one that had happened in Haiti in the 1790s. But the rise of the cotton and sugar crops and the spread of tobacco to new areas increased the dependence of the South on slave labor. Ten to 20 slaves worked every 100 acres of cotton, and they became valuable “commodities.” In 1800, the average cost of a slave was about $50; by 1850, it was more than $1,000. As the need for slaves increased, owners were anxious to increase their holdings through births. But as their value rose, slaves were sold from state to state as the market dictated, often breaking up families. In 1800, the number of slaves in America was put at about 900,000; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the number was 4 million. In summary, slave owners had a labor force they could force to work at no wages and keep, sell, rape, or kill as they saw fit. To defend the system, the owners often fell back on the rationale that slavery was good for the slave and frequently mentioned in the Bible as a normal human condition. Opposing slavery Many Northerners felt compelled to attack the system. Some of the opposition was on moral grounds, but some of it was based on politics. The Constitution allowed slaves to be counted as 3⁄5 of a person when deciding how many members each state could have in the House of Representatives, and nonslave states resented slave states for gaining more political clout through their nonvoting slaves. In the West, much of the anti-slave sentiment stemmed from free laborers not wanting to have to compete with slave labor. The truth was that African Americans were discriminated against in the North, too. In most situations, they couldn’t vote, testify at trials, marry outside their race, join labor unions, live in “white” areas, or go to school. Free African Americans in the North, especially children, were also at risk of being kidnapped and taken to the South to be sold. With even well-intentioned antislavery advocates convinced that the two races may not be able to live together, many people supported sending former slaves to Africa. President Monroe, a Virginia slave owner, pushed in 1819 for the establishment of a colony in Africa where freed American slaves could go. In 1824, the colony of Liberia was established, with its capital of Monrovia named after Monroe. But many American-born freed slaves had no interest in going to a strange country. They preferred to take their chances on staking a claim to their birthrights as American citizens. The Missouri Compromise In February 1819, the territory of Missouri petitioned Congress to be admitted as a state. At the time, America consisted of 11 slave and 11 free states, so the question was whether Missouri, with 10,000 slaves, should be admitted as a slave state or be forced to free its slaves before it was allowed into the fold. Debate on the issue raged across the country. Finally, Henry Clay crafted a compromise in March 1820. Under the aptly named Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and the territory of Maine came in as a free state, keeping a balance of 12 slave and 12 free. The figure shows a breakdown of the slave/free arrangement created by the compromise. Congress also deemed that slavery would be excluded from any new states or territories above latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes. Proslavery forces grumbled that Congress had no constitutional right to say where slavery could and couldn’t occur; antislavery forces complained that the compromise was an admission that slavery was acceptable. But the compromise held for the next three decades, giving the country a little more time to seek a better solution it would not find. “[T]his momentous question [the spread of slavery], like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union,” noted slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. “(W)e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” The Monroe Doctrine While the issue of slavery was growing at home, big events were happening elsewhere in the Americas. Spain’s Latin American colonies were struggling for their independence, and U.S. citizens generally supported the struggles as being like their own with the British. In 1819, after Spain had sold Florida to America for $5 million and a promise that the United States would keep its hands off Texas, President Monroe urged Congress to formally recognize the newly independent Latin American countries, including Mexico. In Europe, meanwhile, a group of monarchs known as the Holy Alliance was scheming to pick off Spain’s former colonies. And on the Pacific Coast, the Russians claimed an area from present-day Washington State to Alaska. Declining an offer from the English to go in as partners against the Holy Alliance’s plans, Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, decided to issue what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which amounted to a hands-off warning in the Western Hemisphere. In December 1823, Monroe told Congress that America wouldn’t tolerate further attempts by European powers to colonize in the New World. What they had, they could keep, he said. Everything else was off limits. “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” Monroe wrote. Although it probably had little to do with Monroe’s warning, the Russians did agree in 1824 to pull back to what is now the southern border of Alaska and stay there. In fact, Monroe’s statements didn’t really have much to back them up, because American military might was slight. But the Monroe Doctrine was subsequently employed by various presidents as the basis for interfering in, or staying out of, the affairs of neighboring countries.

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Slavery in Early America

Article / Updated 06-30-2019

How did slavery in America begin? Actually, slavery was the first cash crop of the first permanent English colony in America. Jamestown settlers bought 20 human beings from Africa to work in the tobacco fields. It’s pretty safe to say that the first permanent English colony in America was put together about as well as a soup sandwich. Those who set out to establish the colony weren’t sure where they were going or what to do when they got there. A group of investors known as the Virginia Company of London was given a charter by King James I to settle somewhere in the southern part of the New World area known as Virginia. After a voyage on which roughly 27 percent of the original 144 settlers died, three ships arrived at the mouth of a river they ingratiatingly named the James, after the king. On May 14, 1607, they began the settlement of Jamestown. Early troubles in Jamestown Some of the settlers were indentured servants who had traded seven years of their labor for passage to America. Most of the others were far more interested in finding gold than creating a colony and lacked skills, such as hunting or farming, that might actually be useful in the wilderness. As one historian put it, “It was a colony of people who wouldn’t work, or couldn’t.” Worse, the site they had chosen for a settlement was in a malaria-ridden swamp, and the local inhabitants were both suspicious and unfriendly. In fact, the Native Americans launched their first attack against the newcomers within two weeks of their arrival. Within six months, half of the 105 settlers who had survived the trip were dead of disease or starvation. Native American friends of the earliest settlers Those who survived did so largely because of a character named John Smith. An experienced and courageous adventurer, Smith was also a shameless self-promoter and a world-class liar, with a knack for getting into trouble. On the voyage over, for example, he was charged with mutiny, although he was eventually acquitted. But whatever his faults, Smith was both gutsy and diplomatic. He managed to make friends with Powhatan, the chief of the local Native Americans, and the tribe provided the colonists with enough food to hold on. Smith provided much-needed leadership, declaring, “He that will not work neither shall he eat.” Without Smith, the colony may not have survived. As it was, Jamestown came pretty close to disaster. In the winter of 1609, called “the starving time,” conditions got so bad colonists resorted to eating anything they could get — including each other. One man was executed after eating the body of his dead wife. In 1610, the survivors were actually on a ship and ready to head home when a military relief expedition showed up and took charge. Finding a cash crop—slavery One of the biggest problems the colonists faced was coming up with a product that people in England wanted and which could form the basis of a profitable economy. They found one in 1613, when a fellow named John Rolfe developed a variety of tobacco that was a huge hit in the mother country. Within a few years, Jamestown had a thriving cash crop. In 1619, three things happened in the Virginia colony that had a large impact on the British in America. One was the arrival of 90 women, who became the brides of settlers who paid for their passage at a cost of 120 pounds of tobacco each. The second was the meeting of the first legislative body of colonists on the continent. Known as the House of Burgesses, it met for about a week, passed laws against gambling and idleness, and decreed all colonists must attend two church services each Sunday — and bring their weapons with them. Then the legislators adjourned because it was too hot to keep meeting. The third event — three weeks after the House of Burgesses had become a symbol of representative government in the New World — was the arrival of a Dutch ship. From its cargo, Jamestown settlers bought 20 human beings from Africa to work in the tobacco fields. The institution of slavery While it was a Dutch ship that brought the first slaves to Virginia, no European nation had a monopoly on the practice. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to raid the African coast for slaves, in the mid-15th century. They were quickly followed by the Spanish, who used Africans to supplant the New World Indians who had either been killed or died of diseases. By the mid-16th century, the English sea dog John Hawkins was operating a thriving slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean. Most slaves were seized from tribes in the continent’s interior and sold from West African ports to the New World. Some were hunted down by European and Arab slave traders. Many were sold by rival tribes after being captured in wars or on raids. And some were sold by their own tribes when they got into debt or ran afoul of tribal leaders. Although the use of African slaves in the tobacco fields proved successful and more slaves were gradually imported, slavery was by no means a strictly Southern colony phenomenon. While the Northern colonies had less use for slaves as agricultural workers, they put Africans to work as domestic servants or as unpaid laborers in various trades. One reason was that slaves represented more or less permanent labor, while indentured servants — people who traded five to seven years of work in return for passage to the New World — would eventually have to be freed. Not everyone in the colonies was enamored with slavery. In 1688, a radical Protestant group in Pennsylvania known as the Mennonites became the first American religious group to formally oppose the practice. In 1700, a New England judge named Samuel Sewall published a three-page tract called “The Selling of Joseph,” in which he compared slavery to what Joseph’s brothers did to him in the biblical story and called for the abolition of slavery in the colonies. But voices such as Sewall’s were few and far between. Although the total population of slaves was relatively low through most of the 1600s, colonial governments took steps to institutionalize slavery. In 1662, Virginia passed a law that automatically made slaves of slaves’ children. In 1664, Maryland’s assembly declared that all black people in the colony were slaves for life, whether they converted to Christianity or not. And in 1684, New York’s legislators recognized slavery as a legitimate practice. As the 17th century ended, it was clear that African slaves were a much better bargain, in terms of costs, than European servants, and the numbers of slaves began to swell. In 1670, Virginia had a population of about 2,000 slaves. By 1708, the number was 12,000. Slavery had not only taken root; it was sprouting.

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Key Dates in U.S. History

Article / Updated 05-30-2019

You may think that U.S. history starts with the American Revolution, but before that pivotal event came the hunters who first explored the continent and the Europeans who tried to colonize it. Of course, after John Hancock and his colleagues signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 things got really interesting, and historically significant people and events contributed to the making of the country we have today. The following timeline offers a few of the significant milestones:

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