H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 6

Last week we witnessed the demographic and economic growth of the British North American colonies, to the benefit and advantage of white settlers from Europe, and not for Native Americans indigenous to North America, who suffered destruction and displacement, and not for enslaved Africans, who suffered terror and horror.  In some ways, the mainland British colonies became more “American” given the diversity of European immigration (for example, many Germans).  They also became more “British,” given the pervasive influence of British print culture and consumer culture.  And the colonies became more “African” given the many, many thousands of enslaved Africans imported for labor exploitation.

This week we will trace an extraordinary transformation in the American colonies’ proud situation within the British empire in the years after Britain defeated France in the Seven Years War, a war waged throughout the world between 1754 and 1763 as perhaps the first global war of the modern era.  After this glorious military victory, Britons and colonists alike deemed the British empire to be the most powerful bastion of liberty in the world.  Yet, to widespread shock and dismay, in the years after 1763 the British empire in North America would unravel and fracture into rebellion, even as the British empire was expanding aggressively in India, a new site of exploitation and a new source of profit.  People in both Britain and the colonies struggled to find the political rhetoric and techniques suitable to what would increasingly feel like a painful civil war — brother against brother, sister against sister — especially in the colonies where ordinary people were eventually dragged from a “middle ground” of uncertainty and forced to choose sides.  By 1774 two different visions of liberty — one with the weight of longstanding tradition, and the other with the allure of fresh grievance — contested for the allegiance of ordinary people in the American colonies.  From the height of glory, the British empire lapsed into confusion and contestation.


Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase” (1751):  By this time in 1751 Benjamin Franklin had retired from his printing business to become a full-time diplomat in the service of the British empire.  He voiced some reprehensible ethnic and racial prejudices in this essay, but he also articulated a compelling vision of the demographic and economic growth of the British empire and its American colonies.  What did he project would happen in the colonies over time?  What did he anticipate would be the consequences for the relationship between the colonies and England?  Independence? .... Or something else?

Adams, “A Dissertation” (1765):  John Adams was at this time a young lawyer making his mark in Massachusetts politics, long before becoming a “Founding Father” or President of the United States.  In this long and contradictory essay, Adams depicted history as fundamentally a struggle between those with power and those without power, between tyranny and liberty.  How, in his view, had tyranny been perpetuated over time?  How could liberty be established?  Who would do it?  How?


Continental Association (1774):  After nearly a decade (since 1765) of largely failed economic boycotts against Britain which took place in some colonial cities along the eastern seaboard, the Continental Association was designed to be more radical and more effective than any previous boycott.  How would the new boycott be more effective?  Where would it be enforced?  By whom?

Tory acts (1775-1776):  These acts were passed by the Continental Congress to intimidate colonists who dissented from the boycott movement and who became even more distressed when, in April 1775, open military conflict flared up between the British army and colonial militias.  What was the difference between how dissent was characterized earlier on, versus how it would be characterized later on?  What were the perceived restraints on stamping out dissent?  What could be done?  What shouldn’t be done?

Negotiations with King George III (1775-1776):  By 1775, the Continental Congress had disavowed any subordination to the British Parliament, yet still professed an abiding allegiance to King George III, even after military conflict had broken out between empire and colonies.  How did Congress demonize Parliament without likewise demonizing the King, or repudiating the “mother country”?  In what ways was the King’s response similar to Congress’s petition?

Especially read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which of course is the last “negotiation.”  The ideas and the words will re-appear frequently in many other documents over the remainder of this class — but above all because so many people over the course of American history and world history have offered their blood, sweat, and tears to try to make these words a reality.  Perhaps they will be, some day in the future.  My lifetime?  Your lifetime?....

In the meantime, “1776” is being invoked in our historical moment now typically by people who are the most ignorant of history, the most inimical to democracy, and the most prone to white supremacy.  Be aware, and beware....