The Search for the Just Society
Edward J. Dodson
INSTRUCTOR'S MANUAL, LESSON 4
The subject of this discussion is the European colonization of the
Americas and the impact on indigenous tribes. Begin with a brief
presentation of the earliest voyages of exploration, then lead a
discussion of how the Americas were settled by migrating tribal
societies. The key points to make are to show that the hierarchical
development of tribal societies in the Americas proceeded more
slowly because of a smaller and more scattered population.
THE SPANISH MONOPOLY
Portugal became the first European sea powers of the 15th century,
exploring the western coast of Africa in search of an alternative
trade route to India and Asia.
With the marriage of Ferdinand to Isabella, Spain became the
second unified European state and began to compete with Portugal.
The Catholic pope divided the non-Christian world between Portugal
and Spain, giving to Spain authority to colonize North America.
Portugal eventually established their main colony of Brazil in South
From 1492 until the British established their first settlement at
Jamestown, Virginia, Spain maintained a virtual monopoly in the
Americas. They conquered the three major indigenous societies they
encountered (the Aztec of Mexico, the Inca of Peru, and the Mayans
of Central America). Disease and forced labor in mines decimated the
indigenous population, which necessitated the importation of
Africans to replace them.
THE INDIGENOUS TRIBES
OF NORTH AMERICA
The indigenous tribes of North America were at the time of
European arrival still largely semi-nomadic, although they generally
controlled specific territories and operated under formal,
The most powerful group in the Northeast were six tribes united as
the Iroquois League, a confederation that operated under a
legislative system with formal courts. The English colonials would
eventually look to the Iroquois League as a model for national
government. Ben Franklin, in particular, studied the Iroquois
In general, however, the indigenous tribes were hostile to one
another and too small in number individually to prevent the
establishment of settlements along the Atlantic coast. Gradually,
Europeans pushed the frontier westward to the eastern mountains, the
first real natural barrier.
DIFFERENCES IN EUROPEAN PATTERNS
The internal structure of Spanish society tied peasants to the
land and exempted the nobility and the Church from taxation. High
taxes impoverished the peasant population and thwarted the
development of a merchant class.
As a consequence, Spain viewed the Americas primarily as a source
of plunder rather than of settlement.
France viewed the Americas more as a new source of trade (with the
indigenous tribes) than as an outlet for colonization. This resulted
in a more harmonious relationship with the indigenous tribes but
resulted in a major disadvantage once the population of colonists of
English, Scotch and Irish descent pushed against the coastal
England promoted settlement in the Amercias by means of large land
grants and trade monopolies given to joint-stock companies. In
combination, this produced the system of mercantilism under which
raw materials were exported to England and manufactured goods sold
back to the colonies.
England prohibited the export of gold or silver to the colonies or
the minting of coinage in the colonies. This required colonial
merchants to do business with English merchants on credit.
Restrictions on trade with other European powers could not be
easily enforced. Smuggling was commonplace in the trade between
Europe and the Americas.
A CENTURY AND A HALF
OF SALUTARY NEGLECT
Because of continuous conflict in Europe, England was unable to
impose a high degree of central authority over its North American
colonies. Each colony developed its own legislative body. Those
colonies organized under a royal charter rather than by a
joint-stock company had governors appointed by the crown.
Until the 1750s and the French and Indian War, the colonists were
exempt from taxation by Parliament. At the end of the war, the
landed members of Parliament called for taxes on the colonists to
help pay for the war.
Merchants and large landowners in the colonies protested against
this, crying "taxation without representation" since the
colonists did not have the vote and no one from the colonies served
ORIGINS OF THE BREAK WITH BRITAIN
The conflict that eventually resulted in independence from Britain
began as a dispute between two conservative factions, each
attempting to protect the privileges they had long enjoyed.
Once the dispute took on a more agitated reaction on both sides,
the general population in the colonies became involved. Only then
did calls by Paine, Franklin, Jefferson and others for more
systematic (and democratic) reforms find support.
During the war, Jefferson and Wyeth (his former teacher) compiled
all of the law in effect in Virginia, including English common law
and those adopted by the colonial legislature. Technically, as a
crown colony, Virginia was not subject to Acts of Parliament but was
governed by a special Board of Trade and Plantations. From this work
evolved the Virginia state constitution.
CALLS FOR DEMOCRACY
Once the conflict began, the colonial rebels sought both legal and
philosophical justification for their actions. They turned to the
writers of the Enlightenment period and also to John Locke, whose
work, Two Treatises of Government, for the first time in
history argued extensively for the right of people to overturn
In the colonies, Tom Paine's Common Sense was widely
circulated and debated. The philosophical ideas behind the rebellion
were incorporated in the language of the Declaration of
The Declaration served as the basis for debate over the definition
of abstract concepts such as rights and liberties.
The struggle had now gone far beyond the initial aims of the
conservative element among the colonists. Support for the rebellion
now hinged on dramatic reforms in socio-political arrangements and
institutions (e.g., separation of Church and State, elimination of
primogeniture and entail in property laws, trial by jury, freedom of
the press, etc.).
THE WAR DEBT
England had long prohibited the export of gold or silver bullion
to the colonies; and, unlike the Americans of the southern
hemisphere, the indigenous tribes in the North had not accumulated
large quantities of precious metals. Nor did the colonists discover
any large new sources to be exploited.
England also prohibited the establishment of a mint in the
colonies. Therefore, coinage was relatively scarce in the colonies
and came mostly from illegal trade with French and Spanish merchants
in the Caribbean.
Under mercantilism, most trade between England and its colonies
involved the use of bills of exchange or direct credits; in return,
the colonists had to buy from specific merchants.
Also, the colonists had almost no capability of manufacturing
their own arms. The Continental Congress was dependent upon credits
provided by the French and Spanish governments and by the personal
credit of wealthy colonists such as Robert Morris.
Many wealthy colonists were unwilling to be taxed to pay for the
war, so the Continental Congress was forced to issue notes,
ostensibly redeemable in hard currency (coinage or English notes),
so paper notes -- wholly unbacked by any deposits of gold or silver
-- were circulated. Many merchants resisted accepting these notes as
payment, and the notes were quickly discounted as they passed thru
the economy. People were not anxious to hold the notes for very
By the end of the war, those holding the Continental notes were
demanding that the states agree to redeem them for hard currency,
which the Congress could not do. What was done was to promise
distribution of land as payment of debt.
Alexander Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury,
implemented a scheme that retired the national debt -- by a
combination of taxes and issuance of government bonds. Many
speculators in the continental script became extremely wealthy
because of insider information they received allowing them to
purchase the continental bills at pennies on the dollar and them
redeem them in full.
The written constitution of the united States (i.e., the term
Union is properly used during the antebellum period) provided
authority for the Federal government to mint coinage but made no
provision for the printing of paper currency or of borrowing. Thus,
considerable argument continues that our system of legal tender
currency that is not backed by specific weights of gold and silver
bullion exceeds the powers granted to government under the