The Search for the Just Society

Edward J. Dodson


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.


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 America.

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 were at the time of European arrival still largely semi-nomadic, although they generally controlled specific territories and operated under formal, hierarchical structure.

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 government.

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.


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 frontier.

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.


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 in Parliament.


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.


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 unjust government.

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 Independence.

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.).


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 long.

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 constitution.


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Lesson 5 * Lesson 6 * Lesson 7 * Lesson 8