Several European countries participated in exploration and colonization of the western hemisphere, but eventually control of the land fell into the hands of four governments: the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and Great Britain (consisting of England and Scotland). French explorers traveled deep into North America, seeking game, fish, and furs. French explorers tended to be single men; they often took Native American women as brides. The English were more likely to bring their families and attempt to recreate European life; they first settled the eastern coast of North America. The Spanish and Portuguese created plantations (haciendas) which grew crops under a few supervisors who oversaw many workers—including Native American and African slaves and also poorer workers from Europe. Some of the European population came as workers to pay off debt—both debts acquired in Europe and the debt for transportation to the Americas. In some cases, their debt grew as fast or faster than their income, leading to a state of continual debt and virtual enslavement called debt peonage. Children born to French men and Native American women were called Metis; among the Spanish and Portuguese, inhabitants included the Creole—born in the western hemisphere but of European descent; Mestizos—of European and Native American descent; Mulattos—of African and European descent; and Sambos—of Native American and African descent. In some places, such as Louisiana, distinctions were even made to identify quadroons and octoroons, measuring several generations of descent from assorted cultures.
Meanwhile, the same European nations controlling the Americas fought one another in world wars, albeit that these world wars were not assigned Roman numerals. The Seven Years War pitted Great Britain—with its allies Prussia, Hanover, and Portugal—against France—with its allies Saxony. Sweden, Russia, and Spain. In addition to battles in Europe, the war was also fought in the Americas, India, the Philippine Islands, and on the oceans. In North America, some Indian tribes were allied with Great Britain while others were allied with France. As a result, the conflict is known in United States history as the ”French and Indian War.” Part of the aftermath of the war was that France surrendered its North American territory east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain while ceding the land it claimed west of the river to Spain.
This war was very expensive for Great Britain and for France. Both governments attempted to pay their bills by raising taxes upon their citizens. Because the British effort had protected colonists in North America from French and Indian attacks, the British Parliament assumed that the colonists would willingly pay higher taxes in gratitude for their protection. Instead, leaders among the colonists demanded representation in Parliament, saying they would not tolerate “taxation without representation.” Another issue, not often expressed at the time but important in the minds of the colonists, was British industrialization. The British government wanted to purchase raw materials from the colonies, ship them across the ocean, provide jobs to British workers, and sell the finished products back to the colonies. Investors in the colonies wanted factories in North America to provide jobs closer to home. Increasingly, tempers flared, with the colonies eventually in full-scale revolt against Great Britain by 1775. The Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, wrote and signed a document explaining and justifying the revolt and declaring themselves to be a new nation, the United States of America.
Some colonists welcomed the Revolutionary War; others opposed it as illicit rebellion against their government. Thomas Jefferson—the primary author of the Declaration of Independence—drew upon Enlightenment philosophers to defend the revolt. He explained that all people are created equal and are given human rights by their Creator—drawing upon John Locke, Jefferson listed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as basic human rights, protected by human governments. He affirmed that governments are instituted to defend human rights and that they can and should be overthrown when they fail in that duty. This Declaration—drawing not only upon the Enlightenment but also upon medieval statements such as the Magna Carta—became a foundational document for the first new nation formed by European settlers in the western hemisphere. Of course it neglected to mention the rights of Native Americans, of Africans forced into slavery, or even of women. Those would be proposed, discussed, and added to the law of the United States later in history, building upon Jefferson’s foundation.
Great Britain had military power to crush the rebellion, but the British government was not inclined to use crushing power on its colonists. As the war dragged on, the colonists began to receive assistance from France, Spain, and other European cultures that welcomed the British embarrassment. Eventually, the British government decided that the cost of ending the colonial Revolution was greater than it was willing to pay. Independence was granted, and the thirteen American states were free to build a new nation.
The writers and earliest defenders of the Constitution of the United States proceeded to design a nation patterned upon the Enlightenment philosophy Jefferson and others favored. They sought to limit the power of their national government by installing checks and balances in the structure of government. Some functions of government were centralized in the national government, while others were left to the states. Government was divided into three branches: the Executive Branch, or presidency; the Legislative Branch, or Congress; and the Judicial Branch, or the courts. Congress was further divided into a House and a Senate, the first consisting of proportional representation from the states and frequently up for election, the latter consisting of equal representation from every state and with longer terms of office—able to take a longer view of any situation. Laws were difficult to create and enforce, requiring agreement among so many different spheres of interest in the government. The Constitution was approved only after a Bill of Rights was added, affirming specific human rights and mandating that the Congress could not establish a national religion by law or prohibit the free exercise thereof.
For all its faults—because American government was created by imperfect humans and has since been performed by imperfect humans—the genius of the American Constitution is seen by its survival to the present. The government of that Constitution has survived conflict of every kind, both internal and external. It has adapted to changing situations, as the country grew from thirteen states on the eastern coast to fifty states extending into the Pacific Ocean. It has maintained stability in spite of weak leaders and of would-be tyrants. It is imitated by most other governments in the world today. What began as an experiment has become a beacon shining in the world, lighting the way to freedom and justice for all people. J.