The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.
Banking and Finance from the Revolution to the Civil War
Sharon Ann Murphy
In creating a new nation, the United States also had to create a financial system from scratch. During the period from the Revolution to the Civil War, the country experimented with numerous options. Although the Constitution deliberately banned the issuance of paper money by either Congress or the states, states indirectly reclaimed this power by incorporating state-chartered banks with the ability to print banknotes. These provided Americans with a medium of exchange to facilitate trade and an expansionary money supply to meet the economic needs of a growing nation. The federal government likewise entered into the world of money and finance with the incorporation of the First and Second Banks of the United States. Not only did critics challenge the constitutionality of these banks, but contemporaries likewise debated whether any banking institutions promoted the economic welfare of the nation or if they instead introduced unnecessary instability into the economy. These debates became particularly heated during moments of crisis. Periods of war, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, highlighted the necessity of a robust financial system to support the military effort, while periods of economic panic such as the Panic of 1819, the Panics of 1837 and 1839, and the Panic of 1857 drew attention to the weaknesses inherent in this decentralized, largely unregulated system. Whereas Andrew Jackson succeeded in destroying the Second Bank of the United States during the Bank War, state-chartered commercial banks, savings banks, and investment banks still multiplied rapidly throughout the period. Numerous states introduced regulations intended to control the worst excesses of these banks, but the most comprehensive legislation occurred with the federal government’s Civil War-era Banking Acts, which created the first uniform currency for the nation.
The British Army in Colonial America
John G. McCurdy
The British army was an important part of colonial America and contributed to the coming of the Revolution. Although the number of British soldiers in North America was meager in the 17th century, this changed with the creation of a standing army and expansion of the British Empire. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) brought thousands of regular troops to the colonies, and many remained in America after the war ended. Life as a redcoat reflected contemporary society and the soldiers had a tenuous relationship with Indigenous peoples. The army became a flashpoint between Britain and the colonies in the 1760s and, with the Boston Massacre, a cause for independence. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), British soldiers fought in numerous theaters, aided at times by Hessians and Loyalist militias. Despite victories at Charlestown, Long Island, and Philadelphia, the British army was defeated at Yorktown. Following the Revolution, the British army slowly evacuated the United States but remained in Canada and the Caribbean until the 20th century.
The Draft in U.S. History
The issue of compulsory military service has been contested in the United States since before its founding. In a nation characterized by both liberalism and republicanism, there is an inherent tension between the idea that individuals should be able to determine their own destiny and the idea that all citizens have a duty to serve their country. Prior to the 20th century, conscription occurred mainly on the level of local militias, first in the British colonies and later in individual states. It was during the Civil War that the first federal drafts were instituted, both in the Union and the Confederacy. In the North, the draft was unpopular and largely ineffective. Congress revived national conscription when the United States entered World War I and established the Selective Service System to oversee the process. That draft ended when U.S. belligerency ended in 1918. The first peacetime draft was implemented in 1940; with the exception of one year, it remained in effect until 1973. Its most controversial days came during the Vietnam War, when thousands of people across the country demonstrated against it and, in some cases, outright refused to be inducted. The draft stopped with the end of the war, but in 1980, Congress reinstated compulsory Selective Service registration. More than two decades into the 21st century, male citizens and immigrant noncitizens are still required to register within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday. The very idea of “selective service” is ambiguous. It is selective because not everyone is conscripted, but it is compulsory because one can be prosecuted for failing to register or to comply with orders of draft boards. Especially during the Cold War, one of the system’s main functions was not to procure soldiers but to identify and exempt from service those men best suited for other endeavors framed as national service: higher education, careers in science and engineering, and even supporting families. That fact, combined with the decentralized nature of the Selective Service System itself, left the process vulnerable to the prejudices of local draft boards and meant that those most likely to be drafted were poor and nonwhite.
Early American Foreign Relations, 1775–1815
Lindsay M. Chervinsky
From 1775 to 1815, empire served as the most pressing foreign relationship problem for the United States. Would the new nation successfully break free from the British Empire? What would an American empire look like? How would it be treated by other empires? And could Americans hold their own against European superpowers? These questions dominated the United States’ first few decades of existence and shaped its interactions with American Indian, Haitian, Spanish, British, and French peoples. The US government—first the Continental Congress, then the Confederation Congress, and finally the federal administration under the new Constitution—grappled with five key issues. First, they sought international recognition of their independence and negotiated trade deals during the Revolutionary War to support the war effort. Second, they obtained access to the Mississippi River and Port of New Orleans from Spain and France to facilitate trade and western settlement. Third, they grappled with ongoing conflict with Indian nations over white settlement on Indian lands and demands from white communities for border security. Fourth, they defined and protected American neutrality, negotiated a trade policy that required European recognition of American independence, and denied recognition to Haiti. Lastly, they fought a quasi-war with France and real war with Great Britain in 1812.
Early American Slave Law
Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.
Alison L. LaCroix
Federalism refers to the constitutional and political structure of the United States of America, according to which political power is divided among multiple levels of government: the national level of government (also referred to as the “federal” or “general” government) and that of the states. It is a multilayered system of government that reserves some powers to component entities while also establishing an overarching level of government with a specified domain of authority. The structures of federalism are set forth in the Constitution of the United States, although some related ideas and practices predated the founding period and others have developed since. The balance between federal and state power has shifted throughout U.S. history, with assertions of broad national power meeting challenges from supporters of states’ rights and state sovereignty. Federalism is a fundamental value of the American political system, and it has been a controversial political and legal question since the founding period.
The Indigenous Roots of the American Revolution
Euro-Americans existed firmly on the periphery of an Indigenous North America in 1763, hubristic claims of continental sovereignty notwithstanding. Nowhere is this reality more clear than in the Ohio Valley and Illinois Country. Try as it might, the post-1763 British Empire could not assume jurisdictional control over this space. Even to begin to try was a task requiring significant investment—both in terms of more systematic Indigenous diplomacy and in terms of reforming colonial political structures unfit to accommodate imperial western policy. North American officials understood the problems quite well and were willing to spearhead reform. Between 1763 and 1775 they supported increased investment to defray North American expenses. They called for programs that would end colonial corruption, something they feared undermined Indigenous diplomacy and made a mockery of the rule of law. Ultimately, they concluded that centralizing Indian affairs offered the best means by which to stabilize North America. Colonials (generally) and speculators and their surveyor corps (specifically) powerfully disagreed, however, seeing Indian country as an untapped resource and imperial restraints as threats to local autonomy. They rejected the idea of centralizing power over Indigenous affairs and used the rhetoric of British constitutional liberty to reframe corrupt behavior into something it emphatically was not.
Jews in the US Armed Forces
Jewish service in the American military parallels that of many other Americans. Jews have served in colonial militias, in the American Revolution, and in all American military conflicts since the establishment of the country. In the United States’ early years, the total number of Jewish military personnel, like the Jewish population of the country as a whole, was very small. As the size of the American Jewish population grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, so did the number of Jews who served in the American Armed Forces. Jews responded to the country’s calls to arms alongside other Americans, even as they faced challenges that differentiated them from their compatriots. Like other racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, Jews had to struggle against prejudices in the military, and like other immigrant communities, they have sometimes had to balance patriotism against transnational ties. Jews in the United States, however, always understood military service as part of the bargain of modern citizenship. They volunteered for service and responded to calls for conscription in order to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens, and they used military service both to express their commitment to the United States and to assert their rights as equal members of American society.
Law in Early America
Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration. By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations. Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property. Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
Loyalists and the American Revolution
Loyalists supported the British cause and loyalty to the British sovereign during the American War for Independence. Their motivations were quite varied. A few enunciated a clear and sophisticated Loyalist ideology that privileged stability, constitutional restraint, and the benefits of membership in an empire. Others simply valued loyalty, while others chose the side they saw as more trustworthy or even the side they thought could best protect them in a raging civil war. Loyalists included white men and women of all ranks and occupations as well as Native Americans who allied with the British and enslaved Africans who resented their owners and saw the British as true, or at least possible, supporters of freedom and liberty. Their support helped Britain’s war effort considerably. But Britain never trusted or fully used its Loyalist allies, and after the war, Britain offered Loyalists only limited financial support. The majority reintegrated into the new United States, promising to be good citizens and to support the national project they had opposed. An unhappy minority became refugees who spread out across the world.
Material Culture in the 18th Century
Jennifer Van Horn
Material culture refers to human-manufactured, human-altered, or human-used physical things of all sizes and materials, from houses to domestic artifacts to tools to landscapes. Material culture also refers to the study of artifacts and scholars’ use of objects as a form of evidence to ask and answer questions about the 18th century. Material culture studies is not limited to physical examination of artifacts. It also involves consideration of an array of documentary, literary, and visual sources that provide information about material life. In 18th-century colonial America, the meanings and uses of material goods changed radically. Anglo-American colonists obtained greater numbers and novel types of objects through transatlantic and global trade networks. The British manufactures that flooded the colonies fulfilled colonists’ desire to assert social status and to participate in social rituals that demonstrated refinement. Scholars have labeled these changes the “Consumer Revolution” and the system of “gentility.” Artifacts also built communities and buttressed political beliefs, particularly through non-importation or boycotts of British goods during the imperial crisis. Ideas of gender shaped how women’s growing activity of shopping was understood and critiqued, as well as the association of fashion with women. The importation of Asian and Indian goods, primarily textiles and porcelain, fulfilled fantasies of the exotic while enabling American consumers to demonstrate their worldliness and status. Material goods facilitated cultural exchange and trade between those of different races and ethnicities. At the same time, oppression and political and economic disenfranchisement shaped American material culture. Indigenous peoples expressed consumer preferences for manufactured goods during negotiations within the fur trade. They incorporated British manufactures into preexisting material practices. Enslaved African Americans entered the market as both commodities and consumers. Through their purchases and creative use of refined artifacts, bond people expressed individual identity despite their legal status as property.
A Military History of the American Revolution, 1754–1783
The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened. The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.
Piracy in Colonial North America
Mark G. Hanna
Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers. Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.
Prisoners of War in the American Revolution
Susan Brynne Long
When battles end, the challenges continue for both prisoners and their captors. During the American Revolution, British and American forces took thousands of enemies captive. Officers and rank-and-file soldiers experienced captivity differently. While officers could expect parole allowances, private accommodations, and even social opportunities, enlisted men often lived in crowded barracks and jails, experienced food shortages, and ran a higher risk of dying in captivity from diseases and neglect. Both the British and the Americans balanced diplomatic imperatives against moralistic considerations in their approaches to prisoner management. The many responsibilities associated with caring for prisoners led the Continental Congress to create an office of Commissary General of Prisoners. For the British, prisoner management was an exercise in long-distance military support operations. At the end of the war, historians enshrined the horrific experiences of American prisoners in historical memory, but British prisoners also suffered while in captivity.
The Separation of Church and State in the United States
Steven K. Green
Separation of church and state has long been viewed as a cornerstone of American democracy. At the same time, the concept has remained highly controversial in the popular culture and law. Much of the debate over the application and meaning of the phrase focuses on its historical antecedents. This article briefly examines the historical origins of the concept and its subsequent evolutions in the nineteenth century.
Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Americans
Gregory D. Smithers
Settler colonial studies have enjoyed rapid growth as a field of scholarly inquiry since the 1990s. Scholars of settler colonialism distinguish it from other forms of colonialism—for example, extractive, planation, or trade colonialism—by positing that settlers move en masse to foreign lands with the intention of staying or permanently settling. Settlers therefore covet the land, not the labor, of Indigenous people, a structural dynamic that precipitates the “elimination” of Indigenous communities. Settler colonial studies have proven particularly germane to analysis of the Anglophone world during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the study of global systems and transnational histories. While elements of settler colonial studies can illuminate historical understanding of North American history since 1492, the diversity of historical experiences in what became the United States means that American historians have approached this body of scholarship with caution. As is the case with any theoretical construct, historians are well advised to engage settler colonial studies with an active and critical eye before considering how they might best incorporate it into their teaching and research.
The Significance of Society in the 18th Century: Conversations about Governance
The American Revolution was an episode in a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. English speakers during the 18th century reflected on this constitutional crisis within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. Although many people excluded from Parliament supported political reform, if not revolution, they also sought remedies for the perversion of political power and influence in new forms of social power and influence. This article looks at the convergence of political and social discussions in a common discourse about the nature of power and the ways in which human beings influenced each other. The first section outlines the meanings of power and influence in British politics. The second section uses the novelist Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (1759) to delineate revolutionary notions about social power and influence. The third section turns to the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke in the run-up to the American Revolution to look at how English speakers deployed notions of social power to advocate for political reform.
Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies
James F. Dator
Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.
Smuggling and Illicit Trade in British America
Illicit trade was an endemic feature of life in 17th- and 18th-century British America, shaping economies and societies from the Caribbean to Newfoundland. Owing to the illegal nature of smuggling in British America, its scale is impossible to estimate, but surviving records from traders and imperial officials testify to the determination of merchants to exchange goods and enslaved peoples across imperial borders and their success in doing so. The same was true for British Americans’ trading partners in the French, Spanish, and Dutch empires. Contraband trade was carried out in a variety of ways, ranging from open commerce in colonial ports to clandestine landings of cargoes on barren shorelines. The lives of both free and enslaved colonists were affected by it, either directly as sailors or laborers on smuggling voyages or indirectly as consumers of illegally imported goods such as tea, molasses, rum, or cloth. Most interimperial trade was labeled illegal under a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts passed between 1661 and 1696 that sought to exclude foreigners from the trade of the British Empire and ensure its products flowed to the mother country. But hampered by insufficient resources and intransigent colonial attitudes, customs agents could do little to curtail smuggling. Yet despite the arguments of some historians seeking to tie illicit trade to the coming of the American Revolution, smugglers engaged in it, seeking profits, not political or economic independence. In British North America, merchants smuggled to French and Dutch territories because the returns outweighed the risks, and because smuggling offered a means of earning the funds needed to repay their creditors in the British Isles. While in the Caribbean, island merchants enjoyed imperial support for their trade with Spanish America even as they condemned the illicit commerce of their northern cousins.