America, land of the free, or is it? How much do Americans actually know about the premise upon which this nation is founded? Without going into detailed facts and figures, we do know that the first inhabitants of America were Indian tribes; they were here before the first European explorers arrived.
The first Europeans to arrive were Norsemen from ancient Scandinavia. They discovered and colonized what is now Greenland in the tenth century A.D. In spite of that, Christopher Columbus received credit for the discovery of America. He and his men arrived at the island of San Salvador in the year 1492.
Most European explorers came searching for gold and other treasures in America. For example; Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, searched for gold and the legendary Fountain of Youth. Many from England, however, searched for a place where they could be free. They left England because of religious persecution and lack of political freedom. Additionally, many were burdened with a huge amount of debt.
In 1607, English settlers established the first English colony in America; this was at Jamestown in what is now the state of Virginia. The colony at Jamestown began as a business venture, and was very successful.
In 1620, Pilgrims from England founded the next colony in America; this was at Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts. The colony at Plymouth was founded as a place where the Pilgrims could practice their own religion.
During the next few years, many colonies were established by the English; and some were established by the Dutch, the Swedes, and the Finns. Although they were of different religions, the people of these colonies had one primary idea in common; they believed in the right of religious freedom.
In 1733, Georgia, the last of the original thirteen colonies, was established. These colonies eventually formed the beginning of what is now the United States of America.
Life was not always peaceful for the colonies; they were represented by people of different nationalities. At times, there were struggles between them as they fought for land ownership. Additionally, nearly all of the colonies fought with the Indians at one time or another. Although a few times the Indians were paid for their land, many times their land was unfairly taken from them.
From 1689 to 1763, many wars were fought; these were mostly between England and France for control of North America. The last war, the French and Indian War, lasted from 1754 to 1763. It ended with the Treaty of Paris that stipulated the French government surrender to the British all its possessions. This included all land east of the Mississippi River. France also transferred to Spain its claim to the land west of the Mississippi.
After the French and Indian War, the British government attempted to control the American colonies by imposing taxes on them. For example, in 1764, the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act; this placed a tax on molasses imported into the colonies from foreign countries.
In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, after which the colonies felt that their political freedom was in danger. They were being taxed even though they were not represented in the British government. Patrick Henry of Virginia summed it up when he said it was "taxation without representation."
In October of 1765, representatives from most of the colonies met in New York and agreed to protest the stamp tax. Soon after that, American merchants agreed not to buy any products from Great Britain.
The British Parliament soon repealed the Stamp Act. However, it claimed the right to regulate taxes on certain products that the colonies imported from Great Britain. The colonists protested again, saying that they would refuse to buy merchandise from Great Britain.
British soldiers were sent to the colonies to enforce the tax laws. They arrived in Boston where a fight soon broke out between them and a group of people who lived there. Several people were killed in this event known as the Boston Massacre. After that, many of the colonists turned against Great Britain.
After the Boston Massacre, most of the disputed tax laws were changed. Great Britain, however, kept the tax on tea. In 1773, a group of Boston patriots, dressed as Indians, went aboard several British ships, and threw the tea overboard. The British government retaliated by closing the port of Boston, and taking away the colonies' right of self-government.
In September, 1774, Boston patriots set up a meeting to discuss how the colonies would protect their rights regarding self-government; it was to be held in Philadelphia. Delegates from every colony except Georgia came to the meeting, which was called the First Continental Congress.
The delegates had different ideas about how to protect their rights. Many of them felt that the colonies should have independence from Great Britain. Most of them, however, were loyal to the British king. Therefore, it was decided that a petition would be sent to the king, stating their views and asking that objectionable laws be changed.
In addition, the delegates agreed to once-again refuse to buy merchandise from Great Britain until those laws were changed. They also agreed to wait a year to see how Britain would respond, and then they would reconvene.
Months after the Congress adjourned, patriots near Boston organized groups of militia. These were actually farmers who were armed with guns and ammunition. These militia hid a supply of gunpowder in Concord. General Gage, a British commander in Boston, heard about the gunpowder and sent soldiers to seize it. The militia, however, was warned by William Dawes and Paul Revere that the British soldiers were coming.
On the morning of April 19, 1775, a small group of militia armed with rifles waited for the British soldiers. As the soldiers approached, a shot was fired by someone unknown, but it is known as "the shot heard around the world." And so began the American Revolutionary War.
Later that day a battle was fought at Concord. There the British soldiers found the supply of gunpowder and destroyed part of it. Then as they traveled back to Boston, the patriots fired at them from behind fences and buildings. About three hundred British soldiers and nearly a hundred patriots were killed that day.
In May, 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. They agreed that they had no choice but to resist by force the cruel and unfair acts of the British. The Congress called into service the Boston militia and appointed George Washington as the commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army. Years later, George Washington became the first President of the United States.
As months went by, problems continued to grow between the colonies and Great Britain. People in the colonies were moved by a speech from a Virginia patriot named Patrick Henry. In the speech he said, "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
In the spring of 1776 the colonists still did not agree on the issue of independence, but the number of those in favor was increasing. This was mainly because the British king had rejected the terms of their petition. In addition, the war was costing the lives of both the colonists and the British. In addition, France seemed willing to help the colonists if they declared their independence.
In June, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved that the Congress declare independence from Britain. John Adams of Massachusetts seconded the motion. The motion was delayed, however, because some of the colonies were not prepared to vote. The Congress decided to appoint a committee to write a declaration of independence; this would establish the reasons for declaring independence from Britain.
The committee that was appointed to write the declaration consisted of five men; they were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Most of the writing was done by Jefferson who did an excellent job. On July 2, 1776, the motion to declare independence was voted on and approved by Congress.
On July 4, 1776, Congress voted to adopt the committee's Declaration of Independence as an official document. And so the Fourth of July became "Independence Day" for the colonies and eventually the United States.
During the next five years, many battles were fought in the American Revolutionary War. Some were won by the Americans, and others by the British. At one point, France did enter the war to help the Americans. Finally, an army of American and French soldiers trapped the British at Yorktown, Virginia. The French Navy was able to stop the British from sending troops to help their army.
On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis of Britain surrendered to General George Washington. The war was virtually over; other victories won by American patriots paid off at the Treaty of Paris that was signed in 1783. This time the British gave up control of all land east of the Mississippi River; and the thirteen colonies had finally gained their freedom.
After the war, each of the colonies or states was independent. They were not yet united by a strong central government. The existing Articles of Confederation did not give the government enough power. This led to a decision to organize a constitutional convention. Therefore, in 1787, a convention was held in Philadelphia where fifty-five delegates from the states met to resolve these issues.
Most of the delegates were outstanding leaders, including George Washington who presided over the meeting. The delegates agreed that the Articles of Confederation should be replaced by a new constitution.
This new constitution would provide the written laws of Congress that would apply to all the states. In addition, it would set forth the rules that would organize the new government, and give it enough power to enforce Congressional laws.
The new Constitution represented the work of many of the delegates. Several compromises were made whenever disagreements occurred regarding important details. Finally, on September 17, 1787, the completed document was signed by thirty-nine of the delegates. However, it did not go into effect until June, 1788, after it had been approved by nine states.
A process for the election of government officials was established by the Constitution. By this process, George Washington was elected the first President of the United States. He took office on April 30, 1789, and served two consecutive terms for a total of eight years.
While Washington was President, he was successful in resolving many of the nation's problems. Thus the power of the national government was established. Therefore, the next President, John Adams, maintained Washington's policies.
The Federalist Party was the leading political party during the first twelve years under the Constitution. Many of its members believed that the government should be controlled by the rich and those of upper class families. But in 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became the third President, a great change took place in America.
Thomas Jefferson was for the common man, especially farmers. He believed in public education, and more freedom of religion, of the press, and of speech. Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, which was the ancestor of the current Democratic Party.
As Western states were admitted to the union, the Republican Party became stronger; and the Federalist Party became weaker. The next two Presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, were both Republicans. During Monroe's term, the Federalist Party became obsolete.
During Jefferson's presidency, a huge area of land known as the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France. This "Louisiana Purchase," as it is called, nearly doubled the size of the United States. In the years following, the United States expanded west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. And it expanded south when it purchased Florida from Spain in 1819.
The expansion of the United States, however, did not come without trouble. For example; another war, the War of 1812, occurred between the United States and Great Britain. Although it wasn't totally successful for the U.S., the War of 1812 set an example to other nations that the U.S. would defend itself if necessary.
In 1824, neither Presidential candidate received a majority of the electoral vote. So according to the Constitutional process, the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as President. This happened even though Andrew Jackson had received a majority of the popular vote.
From 1825 to 1828, two new political parties developed. These were the Democratic Party that supported Jackson and the Whigs that opposed him. In 1828, when Jackson was elected President, America took a large step toward a stronger democracy.
A major problem with America's democracy had been a restriction on who had the right to vote. It was considered a privilege only for wealthy white men who owned land. After Andrew Jackson was elected President, the right to vote was at least extended to all white men. Unfortunately, the right to vote did not include men of other races or any woman.
In the 1830s many events occured that extended democracy in the United States. For example, the idea of free public schools was implemented to advance education.
In the Southwest, Americans began entering a part of Mexico that is now Texas. In 1836 these Americans fought for their independence from Mexico. Many were killed at the Battle of the Alamo, but others led by Sam Houston were victorious at San Jacinto and won their independence.
Texas became a republic, with Sam Houston as president. In 1845 Texas representatives requested that their republic become part of the United States. Their request was approved and Texas was admitted as a state.
More fighting soon followed between the United States and Mexico. This resulted in Mexico turning over a large area of land to the U.S. Subsequently, in 1846, the United States gained another vast area of land, including what is now Oregon, Washington, and much of Idaho. This resulted after settling a dispute with Britain over the land in what is now Oregon.
In 1854 the United States completed its continental boundaries after buying land in what is now Arizona and New Mexico.
The United States experienced "growing pains" as it expanded into the nation it is today. For example; a major problem developed as the northern states became mostly industrial, while the southern states remained basically agricultural. Another problem was that the North favored high taxes on imports, and the South opposed high taxes.
The greatest problem for the United States was probably the issue of slavery. In 1619 African slaves had been brought to Virginia just before the pilgrims arrived. At first, slavery was acceptable in all the colonies. But later in the Northern states, slave labor was found to be not profitable.
Therefore, between 1774 and 1804, slavery was abolished in most of the Northern states. In addition, many people in the North, and some in the South, felt that it was morally wrong for anyone to own another human being. But many leaders in the South felt that slavery benefited both whites and Negroes.
The issue of slavery should have been resolved with the Declaration of Independence, which includes the following statement:
"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, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Slavery, however, became a political issue when Missouri wanted to join the U.S. as a state that permitted slavery. Strangely, the matter was temporarily settled by the Missouri Compromise that admitted Missouri as a "slave state," and admitted Maine as a "free state." In addition, the Compromise prohibited slavery in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Many people wanted to abolish slavery; they were known as Abolitionists. Besides feeling that slavery was morally wrong, they knew that many times slaves were physically and verbally abused by their owners. One of the Abolitionist leaders was William Garrison; under his leadership and others, the Abolitionists gained many followers.
In the West, California asked to be admitted as a free state. Under a new agreement, the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted in 1850. The new compromises, however, did not last long.
In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act permitted voters of each new territory to decide whether to permit slavery or not. Instead of deciding that slavery should be prohibited, the Supreme Court declared that Congress had a responsibility to protect slavery in the territories. The high court stated that, because Africans were not U.S. citizens, they had no inherent rights.
In Kansas, the Abolitionists and those who were pro-slavery fought over the issue of slavery. In Virginia, John Brown, who was one of the Abolitionist leaders, attempted to start a rebellion of slaves against their masters. He was captured, found guilty of treason, and hanged.
Many changes were taking place in the government at this time. A new political party was created, called the Republicans, that replaced the Whig Party. The Republicans were in favor of high taxes, and they opposed the expansion of slavery.
In 1860 the Democrats could not agree on a Presidential candidate. So the Constitutional Union Party was created, and it nominated John Bell. The Republican candidate was Abraham Lincoln who received a majority of the electoral vote; and as a result he became the sixteenth President of the United States.
After Lincoln was elected President, South Carolina withdrew from the North, which became known as the Union. During the first half of 1861, ten more southern states withdrew. Leaders of these states organized the Confederacy with Montgomery, Alabama as its capital. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the Confederacy.
The Civil War, between the Union and the Confederacy, officially began on April 12, 1861. On that day President Lincoln had sent supplies to soldiers at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Confederate forces began firing on the post, and the fort surrendered the next day. On July 20, 1861, the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia.
The war raged on for about four years, with bloody battles led by different generals for the North and the South. The most famous generals were Ulysses S. Grant for the North, and Robert E. Lee for the South. Grant and Lee fought many battles in Virginia and, although Lee was a great general, Grant continued to chip away with superior forces.
Consequently, on March 28, 1865, Lee surrendered and the Civil War officially ended on April 18, 1865.
Several important victories had been won for the Union by General William T. Sherman. He had captured the cities of Atlanta and Savannah, both in Georgia. He and his troops then continued on through South and North Carolina. On April 26, 1865, Sherman accepted the surrender of Joseph Johnston of the Confederacy.
In 1865 tragically, President Lincoln, who had led the Union almost to its final victory, was assassinated. He was against slavery and was the author of the famous "Emancipation Proclamation" that freed most of the slaves.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. An actor, John Wilkes Booth, a cowardly Confederate sympathizer, shot Lincoln from a hiding place. President Lincoln was taken to a building across the street, and lay in a coma for nine hours. He died the next day, April 15, 1865.
Unfortunately, because of the loss of President Lincoln, the reconciliation between the North and the South was delayed. The war had taken its toll on both sides and the terrible memories lingered for many years. Many believe that if President Lincoln had lived, he would've helped the states to heal and become strongly united much sooner.
According to the First Amendment of the Constitution, the importation of slaves had been prohibited by Congress in 1808 and thereafter. But slavery was legal; and even after the Civil War, in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery still existed in some areas of the country. It wasn't until December, 1865, that the Thirteenth Amendment made the practice of slavery illegal.
After the Civil War, the United States continued to grow and develop; and progress was made, even though many problems interfered. The East was becoming crowded, and the job market very competitive. In the South life was hard as people were recovering from the war, and trying to produce enough crops to make a living.
Many who worked on the Southern plantations were former slaves who had decided to stay, even though they had been freed. Most of them were treated better than they were before the war.
Many people decided to move to the West, even though it was wild and somewhat uncivilized. They mostly traveled by stagecoach and later by railroad train. Sometimes they were attacked by Indians or outlaws. The Wild West produced many outlaws who became legends, like "Billy the Kid" who was a cold-blooded killer. And like the outlaw Jesse James, who supposedly "robbed from the rich and gave to the poor."
Eventually, the West became more settled. Small towns sprang up, and many people were able to get jobs. Others worked on cattle drives, and some were prospectors who searched for gold or silver, hoping to "strike it rich" someday.
In those days, however, justice was crude, and many men were found guilty of crimes based on flimsy evidence. Many times they received the sentence of "death by hanging" even though they may have been innocent. At that time, the West produced many lawmen who became legends such as Wyatt Earp.
Progress was slow, but the "Industrial Revolution" brought many new inventions to improve life in America. Factories became able to "mass produce" many different products. The uses for electricity seemed endless. The telephone was invented, and the automobile, and the airplane.
Yes, during the "Industrial Revolution" America made amazing technological progress. However, a big problem called segregation also developed. Many did not seem to understand that all men and women are created equal, having certain rights, including the right to life, to freedom, and to pursue happiness.
When certain people believe that their race or nationality is better than others, then a potential problem is created in society. Such was the case in Pulaski, a small town in Tennessee, after the Civil War in late 1865. Six veterans of the Confederate Army got together and formed a social club. This club was the beginning of an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan; a hate group that believes in white supremacy.
The members of "the Klan," as it was called, hid their identity by dressing in regalia consisting of white sheets, masks, and cone-shaped hats. Most of them were misfits and small-time criminals. They rode horses at night and terrorized blacks and white Republicans; at least those who opposed slavery. The Klansmen murdered many of them and burned down their homes.
In 1870 and 1871, the government passed the Force Acts that were used to prosecute crimes committed by the Klan. Although this suppressed Klan activity, other hate groups were organized to suppress the black vote and keep Republicans out of political office. This contributed to the white Democrats gaining political power in the South by 1877.
In 1915, The Ku Klux Klan was recreated in Atlanta, Georgia. By 1921, the Klan had developed a system of recruiting new members, and began to grow rapidly. It expanded from the South to the Midwest and the West. The new Klan advocated "One Hundred Percent Americanism," and the purification of politics.
The New Klan was not only against blacks; it was against Catholics, Jews, and anyone who was not a white Protestant. The Klan members were hypocrites who claimed to be Christians, and used a burning cross at their meetings. They also used the burning cross as a symbol for intimidation of those whom they opposed.
Although the Klan supported Prohibition in the 1920s, the notorious acts of violence that its members committed on innocent people made it an evil organization. Besides murder and property destruction, the Klan tried to suppress the process of immigrants coming to America.
Years later, the Klan tried to stop the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. Although at one time the Klan had millions of members, today it has been fragmented with only five to 8 thousand active members.
So is America the land of the free? Ask an American Indian whose ancestors lost their land, and were put on reservations. Ask an African American whose ancestors were brought to America to be slaves and were physically and verbally abused. Ask a Mexican whose ancestors lost their land and their lives fighting to keep their land. Ask anyone in America who is discriminated against because of their race, nationality, religion, etc.
No, America is not perfect, but the Constitution was established to help form a better nation with freedom and justice for all its citizens. What color, or nationality, or religion of these citizens did not matter. Yes, progress has been slow, but we have come a long way. American people are, for the most part, in control of their religious freedom and political destiny.
The first English settlers who came to America wanted freedom. They had to fight the Revolutionary War to get it, but many did not want to share it. Those people tried to create a nation where you must qualify for freedom. You had to be the right color or nationality, belong to the right religion, or have enough material wealth. What they should've realized is that freedom should not just belong to a select group, but it should belong to every individual.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also a Civil Rights leader, expressed it best in his famous "I have a dream" speech. In that speech he included the following statement:
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Yes, America has come a long way. It began as a haven for oppressed people, and eventually became an independent nation. Many of the citizens of the new nation wanted a democracy with equal rights, opportunity, and treatment for all its people. But the United States was torn apart mainly because of the slavery issue; and it took the Civil War to resolve that issue.
The Civil War was won by those who opposed slavery. After all, slavery goes against the very foundation of democracy; therefore, it should not exist in a democratic society. But even after the Civil War, close-minded people assembled to try and stop the progress of democracy.
Many of those people wore disguises to hide their identities, but their motive was clear; they wanted to destroy anyone whom they considered to be inferior to their race. But these cowards and their evil methods only showed that they were inferior, and that they did not understand democracy.
Our democratic America has produced many of all races who have contributed to literature, art, religion, sports, and music. For example, black musicians have created songs in all genres, from rock'n'roll to gospel. Unfortunately, black music was suppressed at first.
In the 1950s white singers, such as Elvis Presley, were able to remake songs from black artists like Little Richard and others. "Elvis" and others helped bridge the gap between black and white music. Finally, black music was and still is recognized and appreciated for its great value.
Are we losing America? No, American democracy is alive and well and America has not been lost. If you doubt that, then you should know that we have the best form of government in the world. In spite of the hate groups, the American people, by way of a majority vote, elected a black man, Barack Obama, as President.
Therefore, let it be said, "long live the United States of America."
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