During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
Agriculture and the Environment
Southern Textile Worker Struggles in the 20th Century
The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.
Anne Hutchinson engaged a diverse group of powerful men as well as the disenfranchised during the mid-1630s in Boston’s so-called Antinomian Controversy, the name given to the theological battle between John Cotton, who emphasized free grace, and other clerics who focused upon preparation for those seeking salvation. Hutchinson followed Cotton’s position, presented his theology in meetings in her home, and inspired her followers, male and female, to reject pastors opposing Cotton’s position. Hutchinson’s followers included leading men who opposed John Winthrop’s leadership of Massachusetts Bay Colony; this dispute also became an arena where Winthrop reasserted his power. Hutchinson represents the Puritans’ drive for spiritual development within, including her claim of revelation. She is best understood within a transatlantic framework illustrating both the tools of patriarchal oppression and, more importantly, the appeal of Puritan spirituality for women.
Andrew Jackson and US Foreign Relations
The foreign relations of the Jacksonian age reflected Andrew Jackson’s own sense of the American “nation” as long victimized by non-white enemies and weak politicians. His goal as president from 1829 to 1837 was to restore white Americans’ “sovereignty,” to empower them against other nations both within and beyond US territory. Three priorities emerged from this conviction. First, Jackson was determined to deport the roughly 50,000 Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles living in southern states and territories. He saw them as hostile nations who threatened American safety and checked American prosperity. Far from a domestic issue, Indian Removal was an imperial project that set the stage for later expansion over continental and oceanic frontiers. Second and somewhat paradoxically, Jackson sought better relations with Great Britain. These were necessary because the British Empire was both the main threat to US expansion and the biggest market for slave-grown exports from former Indian lands. Anglo-American détente changed investment patterns and economic development throughout the Western Hemisphere, encouraging American leaders to appease London even when patriotic passions argued otherwise. Third, Jackson wanted to open markets and secure property rights around the globe, by treaty if possible but by force when necessary. He called for a larger navy, pressed countries from France to Mexico for outstanding debts, and embraced retaliatory strikes on “savages” and “pirates” as far away as Sumatra. Indeed, the Jacksonian age brought a new American presence in the Pacific. By the mid-1840s the United States was the dominant power in the Hawaiian Islands and a growing force in China. The Mexican War that followed made the Union a two-ocean colossus—and pushed its regional tensions to the breaking point.