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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Colonial resolve
The new nation
     War of 1812
     Doubling the American nation
     Transcontinental borders
     Monroe doctrine
     Cherokees and acculturation
     Indian Removal Act
     Jacksonian democracy
     Re-emergence of parties
     Into the Midwest

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War of 1812

The second of the two wars between Britain and America serves little purpose and reveals, in both its beginning and its end, the hazard of conflicts in an age of slow communication. The American declaration of war, travelling east in June 1812, crosses in the Atlantic with the news, coming west, that Britain has made the concession required for peace. And the most costly battle of the entire conflict, fought near New Orleans in January 1815, takes place two weeks after peace has been agreed in Ghent.

The main issue between the contestants is the damage inflicted on American trade by the British orders in council (it is these which are lifted by the British government in June 1812). But there is also a subsidiary reason for war.


The region south of the Great Lakes has long been a flash point for trouble, between the interests of the indigenous Indian tribes and rival European colonists. Warfare here has in the past involved Indians, British colonists and French colonists. Now the participants are Indians, the United States and British America (or Canada).

The mounting tension between the United States and Britain in the Atlantic coincides with the last great uprising of Indian tribes in the Ohio valley, led by the inspirational figure of Tecumseh. His struggle against the encroachment of American settlers becomes, from 1812, a part of the wider war - which includes naval conflict in several regions.


In the Atlantic, American ships acquit themselves well against British adversaries. This period is the heyday of the US frigate Constitution, affectionately known as 'Old Ironsides', whose heroic reputation derives from successes during 1812.

There is warfare too on the Great Lakes, a particularly sensitive area since the Americans are known to have designs on Canada. In an early encounter, in 1812, the British capture Detroit. Subsequently there are American naval victories on Lake Erie (1813) and Lake Champlain (1814).


In 1813 American forces press far enough north to reach Toronto, established as recently as 1793 to form the capital of the new province of Upper Canada. They burn the parliament buildings and the archives, providing the pretext for a very precise act of retaliation in the following year.

In 1814 a British force lands in Chesapeake Bay and enters the new American capital city of Washington, where construction also began in that same year of 1793. The British in their turn burn the Capitol and the president's house. By this time the superior power of the British navy has imposed a complete blockade on all American ports. An unnecessary war has reached the point of a necessary peace.


Negotiations begin in Ghent in August 1814 and are completed just before Christmas. The agreement makes no change in any existing border or previous treaty. The war has been in a very real sense for nothing, though the result leaves the United States with a renewed sense of confidence.

That confidence is reinforced by the most tragically pointless of battles. On 8 January 1815, two weeks after the agreement at Ghent, an army of 7000 British regulars attacks the same number of American volunteers under Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. The casualties, in a half-hour engagement, are 2000 British and just 71 Americans - a second patriotic victory in two years to boost Andrew Jackson's reputation.


Doubling the American nation: 1803-1819

During the Napoleonic wars, and as an indirect result of them, the territory of the United States is doubled. The immediate reason is Napoleon's half-hearted efforts to re-establish a French empire in the west, remembering the heady times half a century earlier when France laid claim to the entire vast region either side of the Mississippi.

The land to the east of the great river has been lost to Britain (and therefore subsequently to the United States) in the treaty of Paris in 1763. At the same time the unexplored and seemingly less valuable territory to the west of the river has been ceded by France to Spain. Though only half of the original French territory, it retains the name Louisiana.


In 1800 Napoleon forces an abject Spain to return Louisiana to France. In 1801 he takes a similarly resolute stance against the rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, sending out an army to restore order in this valuable French suguar-exporting colony. But by 1803 circumstances have diminished his appetite for western adventures.

In two years yellow fever reduces the French army in Haiti from 25,000 to 3000 men. At the same time the fragile peace of Amiens looks like breaking down. Needing money for a renewal of war against Britain, and fearing perhaps that the British might seize Lousiana for their own empire, Napoleon sells the entire region in 1803 to Thomas Jefferson's envoys in Paris.


The Louisiana Purchase has often and rightly been described as the greatest bargain in American history. The price for 828,000 square miles, more than doubling the previous size of the United States, is $15 million dollars. With interest, until the final settlement, the sum paid amounts in all to $27,267,622 - or thirty-three dollars a square mile.

Coincidentally preparations have recently been made in Washington for an expedition which will reveal, with a degree of scientific accuracy, just what is being purchased for the nation. Early in 1803 President Jefferson commissions Lewis and Clark to undertake their famous exploration, from the Mississippi to the Pacific and back.


The purchase of Louisiana has the added advantage of securing the port of New Orleans for the trading activities of the American settlers who are now beginning to flourish east of the Mississippi. If the mouth of the river were in hostile hands, these infant territories could easily be throttled.

For the same reason it is greatly in the US interest to win the coastline east from New Orleans. This is achieved in two stages. In 1813 the area known as West Florida is seized (to become the coastal region of Alabama), on the somewhat dubious grounds that it was in fact part of the Louisiana Purchase.


The Florida peninsula itself undoubtedly belongs to Spain, but American acquisition is simplified by the fact that Spain, during the War of 1812, is an ally of Britain in the European conflict against Napoleon. Andrew Jackson marches into Florida in 1812 but on this occasion has to withdraw. In 1818 he finds a reason to return (in pursuit of Indian parties raiding into Alabama). This time he seems set to stay.

The result is the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, by which Spain sells Florida to the USA for $5 million and the waiving of any American claim to Texas. This agreement completes the establishment of new transcontinental borders for the American nation.


Transcontinental borders: 1818-1819

The Louisiana Purchase, and the rich opportunities suggested by the findings of the Lewis and Clark expedition, focus American minds on the west - with the Pacific now the boundary of the nation's ambitions. In this new context continuing struggles against the British in Canada or the Spanish in Mexico can only be a distraction. In both directions demarcation lines are agreed before 1820.

In 1817, just three years after the last hostilities between British and Americans on the Canadian border, the Rush-Bagot agreement establishes very low levels of naval armament as the maximum for either nation on any of the Great Lakes.


This first precautionary peace-keeping measure is followed a year later, in 1818, by the agreement which has held good ever since - that the frontier between the two nations will run west from Lake of the Woods along the 49th parallel.

At this stage the border is drawn only as far as the Rockies. The region west of the continental divide (as yet virtually unsettled at this latitude by Europeans) is regarded for the moment as shared territory between the two nations. In 1846 it is ceded to the USA by Britain, recognizing as a fait accompli the human reality of the Oregon Trail. Since then the frontier has continued along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific coast.


Meanwhile the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 has established an extensive southern frontier for the USA It looks less logical than the straight line of the 49th parallel in the north, and it will later be subject to considerable adjustment, but for the moment it is a great benefit that it can at least be drawn on a map.

The new border runs from the Gulf of Mexico up the Sabine river, then goes west along the Red river, north up the 100th meridian, west along the Arkansas river, north up the Rockies and west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific. With the territory north of this line acknowledged as theirs, Americans get down to the absorbing process of opening up the west. And they now have the confidence to put down an international marker.


The Monroe doctrine: 1823

During the early 1820s European intrusion on the American continent, or the threat of it, raises diplomatic hackles in the USA. In 1821 the Russian tsar issues a decree forbidding foreign vessels from approaching within 100 miles of his colony in Alaska. Two years later it seems very possible that Europe's Holy Alliance, an association of reactionary monarchies, will intervene to suppress the independence movements in Latin America.

In response to these circumstances James Monroe, in his message to congress in December 1823, expounds a firm principle of American foreign policy. It has been expressed by other presidents before him, but this is seen as the classic statement of what becomes known as the Monroe doctrine.


The Monroe doctrine is essentially an American communiqué to Europe about non-intervention. It affirms that the United States has no intention of intervening in any European wars, but correspondingly warns the European powers against meddling in America.

Specifically Monroe states that the American continent is no longer to be considered a region in which European nations can establish new colonies; and that the use of force to keep existing colonies in subjection will be taken as 'the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition towards the United States'.


To some extent, at this early stage in the development of the continent's potential, there is an element of huffing and puffing about all this. It is some decades before the Monroe doctrine acquires its almost sacred character as a central plank of American foreign policy. And, like any such broad principle, its application is subtly modified with the passage of time.

Nevertheless it is a ringing and valid announcement that the United States is now the dominant power in the region. With this established, the Americans devote their energies to increasing their advantage. They do so by bringing under control the vast empty spaces to the west - empty, that is, except for the Indians who at every stage seem to frustrate the ambitions of white settlers.


The Cherokees and acculturation: 1796-1828

From the early days of the American nation it is government policy that the Indian tribes should be subjected to a process of 'civilization'. This description, implying improvement, is a highly subjective term for a process more accurately described by the clumsy but neutral word 'acculturation' - meaning the adoption by one group of the customs of another.

In 1796 George Washington selects the Cherokee Indians, living in the western regions of North Carolina and Georgia, for a pilot scheme in integration. He informs their leaders that government policy in relation to other tribes will depend on the success of this experiment.


Funds are provided for Cherokee education. The people of the tribe are shown how to build log cabins. The procedures of western agriculture are demonstrated. Missionaries arrive to explain the mysteries of Christianity.

During the three decades after the introduction of Washington's scheme, the Cherokee people rise magnificently to the challenge. Plantations are established on the southern model. Tribal leaders live on them in elegant two-storied houses. They ride around in carriages. They own slaves. In all this they seem to suggest that they too can be southern gentlemen. From 1819 they have a capital city of their own at New Echota, in northwest Georgia.


1828 is the year in which the Cherokee nation (the Indians' own preferred word for a tribe or people) seems most fully to transform itself into a nation in the western sense. A political constitution is adopted by the tribe. Based on the example of the American republic, it provides for an elected principal chief, a council consisting of two chambers, and a system of courts of law.

In the same year the Cherokees publish the first American Indian newspaper. Using a newly invented alphabet (attributed to Sequoyah), the Cherokee Phoenix is printed weekly in New Echota with adjacent columns in English and Cherokee.


Yet 1828 is the last good year for the Cherokees. Andrew Jackson, beginning his first term in the White House in 1829, is the first president to come from west of the Appalachians. He knows at first hand the aggressive land hunger of the frontier settlers, who view Indian lands to the immediate west as a present obstacle and future prize. He has little sympathy for the protective paternalism of his aristocratic predecessors in the office of president.

To make matters worse for the Cherokees, gold is discovered on their lands in 1829. Swarms of lawless prospectors arrive in their midst.


These events give added impetus to attempts, already initiated by the state government of Georgia, to annexe territory assigned by federal treaty to the Cherokees. State laws are passed in 1829 making it illegal for Cherokees to mine gold, to testify against a white man and to hold political assemblies (except for the single purpose of ceding land).

It is the ultimate misfortune for the Cherokees, and for other tribes in their position, that the mood of Georgia is now reflected in the White House.


The Indian Removal Act: 1830-1839

In 1830 congress passes President Jackson's Indian Removal Act. It provides for treaties to be made with the Indian tribes if they can be persuaded to exchange their land west of the Appalachians for territory beyond the Mississippi.

Persuasian soons blends into coercion, even though the Cherokees - the most developed of the tribes - take their case with considerable success to the Supreme Court in Washington. The chief justice, John Marshall, rules that the Indian tribes are a federal responsiblity, meaning that any appropriation of Cherokee land by the state of Georgia is illegal. But President Jackson takes no steps to impose this interpretation of the law upon Georgia.


During the 1830s the situation worsens. In 1833 the state of Georgia raises funds by holding a lottery of seized Cherokee property, including even the government buildings of New Echota. Eventually one faction of the Cherokee leadership signs a treaty selling the Cherokee lands to Georgia and agreeing to move west by 1838. The Cherokee council unanimously rejects the treaty, but the senate in Washington ratifies it.

By 1838 the Cherokees have not moved. In that year federal troops are sent to Georgia to enforce the removal of the Indians. The Cherokees are rounded up into camps and are then despatched under guard on a long march to the west.


Of 18,000 Cherokees displaced from their traditional lands in this way, it is calculated that as many as 4000 fail to survive what becomes known as the Trail of Tears to the area now designated as Indian Territory.

Neighbours of the Cherokee are moved at the same time. The chief victims are four other southeastern tribes (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek) who have also adopted many of the white man's customs. They are described by American settlers, together with the Cherokee, as the Five Civilized Tribes. Their enforced migration in the late 1830s becomes known as the Great Removal. It is calculated that about 100,000 are driven from their land, and that more than 20,000 die on the journey west.


The broad plains of the new Indian Territory are promised to the tribes as their own land 'as long as the grass grows and the rivers run'. But within a few decades the pressure of white settlement sends this agreement the way of earlier treaties. As it turns out, the grass grows and the rivers run only until 1907. By that time so many homesteads have encroached on the Indian Territory that the region is admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the 46th state.

In the slave trade and the Great Removal, the story of America contains two of the three main instances of large ethnic groups being forcibly resettled thousands of miles from home. (Stalin, in the USSR in the 1930s, provides the third.)


Jacksonian democracy: 1829-1837

The eight years of Andrew Jackson's presidency are a turning point in American political history, introducing what is often described as Jacksonian democracy. They also introduce a new kind of president.

In democratic terms the difference is a new electorate. From the start of the republic, the terms of the franchise have been left to each state. Most states, in the early years, have stringent property qualifications. A few even combine these with religious restrictions. But gradually the original states begin to reduce the level of property required of an elector. Meanwhile most of the new states entering the union do so with what passes at the time for universal suffrage.


The result is that by 1828, the year in which Jackson is elected, adult white males have the vote in almost every state without consideration of property. A new kind of American is voting, and the new voters recognize in Jackson a new kind of presidential candidate.

The six presidents up to this point have all come from the small political world of the founding fathers of the republic, even indeed from the two most historic colonies. Virginia is the home state of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, while Adams father and son come from Massachusetts. Such men spend their careers in state and federal politics. They seem born to govern.


By contrast Andrew Jackson is a self-made lawyer and entrepreneur. Born in the western region of North Carolina, he moves further west as a young man to the frontier settlement of Nashville where he makes his name as an attorney. In 1796 he is one of the group drafting a constitution for the new state of Tennessee.

Jackson remains a prominent figure in Tennessee, but only intermittently in a political role. He first makes a wider name for himself as a major general in the Tennessee militia, defeating the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Less than a year later he far surpasses this achievement with his victory over the British near New Orleans.


Jackson's aggressive role in the 1819 acquisition of Florida adds to his stature as a national hero. Yet at the same time his origins make him seem a man of the people, an average American. His success is of a kind with which voters can identify. Although he has only a tenuous connection with politics, he begins to be seen as a presidential candidate.

Jackson nearly wins in 1824 and does so in 1828, after a national campaign of unprecedented vigour and unscrupulous trading of insults and slander between the candidates. With a new style of president, a new kind of politics has emerged in pursuit of the popular vote. It is one requiring well-oiled political machines.


The re-emergence of parties: 1828-1854

The dominance of three successive Republican presidents over twenty-four years (Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, 1801-25) means that party spirit subsides and the Federalists wither away. But the election of 1824 brings bitter factionalism within the Republican party (also known, to avoid subsequent confusion, as the Jeffersonian Republicans).

The party splits. One half, the National Republicans, supports John Quincy Adams, who wins the 1824 presidential election in spite of coming second both in the popular vote and the electoral college (deals made in the House of Representatives bring him the victory). The other half, led by the bitterly resentful loser Andrew Jackson, becomes implacably opposed as the Democratic-Republican party.


Winning in 1828, at his second attempt, Jackson sets about shaping his Democratic-Republican party into an effective campaigning organization. Its first national convention, held in 1832, adopts him as the party's candidate for a second presidential term with Martin Van Buren as his running mate for vice-president.

A national convention of this kind during each presidential campaign becomes a central feature of American political life. In their convention of 1840 the Democratic Republicans simplify their name, calling themselves now the Democratic party. Thus the Democrats emerge from the original Republican party, and survive to this day as the older partner in America's two-party system.


The very first national conventions, also held for the 1832 election, slightly predate the Democratic-Republican gathering. Two groups of Jackson's opponents choose their presidential candidates by this method during 1831. Members of the Antimasonic party convene in September in Baltimore. They are followed in the same city in December by the National Republican party.

Neither of these new parties survives for long. But the opponents of Andrew Jackson combine more effectively from 1834 as a newly created Whig party.


Jackson's strong presidential rule has caused him to become mockingly known as King Andrew, and the name Whig suggests in English history the humbling of monarchy. In this the American Whigs have a certain degree of success (they win the presidential elections of 1840 and 1848), but they splinter on the great issue of slavery.

In 1854 many Whigs become founder members of a new group which revives the term Republican as a party name. The anti-slavery ticket makes the new party immediately successful in the north, and its reputation is consolidated during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. America acquires the second of its two modern parties.


Into the Midwest: 1803-1848

The steady expansion of American territory to the west can be seen, like squares being occupied in a board game, in the granting of statehood to new regions during the first half of the 19th century.

The first state admitted to the union in the new century is Ohio, in 1803. That leaves the western boundary of the United States as a jagged but continuous line from the southwest tip of Lake Erie to the southwest tip of Georgia, almost on the Gulf of Mexico. But settler families are now constantly bumping along the rough trails in their Conestoga wagons towards a further frontier, seeking somewhere to till the land, to establish recognized new territories, and eventually to prosper to the point where their community can apply for statehood.


During the half-century from 1803 states are admitted to the union in this sequence: Louisiana 1812, Indiana 1816, Mississippi 1817, Illinois 1818, Alabama 1819, Missouri 1821, Arkansas 1836, Michigan 1837, Texas 1845, Iowa 1846, Wisconsin 1848. By now this process of expansion is dignified by a slogan. It is America's 'Manifest destiny'.

The frontier of 1848 stretches south, again in a straggly line, from Lake Superior to the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico. Adjacent territories will continue to be claimed as states (Minnesota 1858, Kansas 1861). But this year of 1848 also brings a much more sudden and dramatic increase in US territory. The reason is the Mexican War, a conflict with its origins in Texas.


Texas: 1821-1836

From the 16th century Texas, though much neglected, has been a northern region of Spanish Mexico, or New Spain. It is formally recognized as such in the border agreement of 1819, when any US claims to the territory are relinquished. Just two years later Mexico wins independence from Spain.

Later in 1821 a 27-year-old American, Stephen Austin, arrives in Texas with 300 families to establish a settlement. They are the first of many. By the early 1830s there are some 30,000 Americans in Texas and only about 7000 Mexicans. Friction would be inevitable in these circumstances, but it is aggravated by the issue of slavery.


The Americans, from the southern states, bring slaves to work the cotton plantations which they establish. The republican government of Mexico, outlawing slavery, places garrisons in Texas in an attempt to discipline the unruly colonists.

In 1835 the colonists rise in rebellion and capture San Antonio. The town is recovered in March 1836 by the Mexican commander, Santa Anna, apart from one building - the Alamo, an old Franciscan chapel in a walled complex, which is held by fewer than 200 Texans (among them Davy Crockett). In the most famous event of early Texan history, the defenders hold out for twelve days and account for 1000 or more Mexicans before themselves being overwhelmed and killed.


The fall of the Alamo is followed by a massacre at Goliad where 300 Texan soldiers, surrendering after a battle, are killed in cold blood on the orders of Santa Anna. The settlers have recently declared their independence, as the republic of Texas. It is a claim soon sealed by a convincing victory.

In April 1836 Sam Houston surprises Santa Anna's army taking a siesta near the San Jacinto river. In a brief skirmish his men kill 600 and capture another 200, including Santa Anna. With this event the tide turns. Mexico makes no further effort to suppress the Texan rebellion, while nevertheless denying the independence of the self-proclaimed republic - of which Houston is elected president.


In the United States, on the other hand, the new republic is immediately recognized. There is also a widespread feeling that Texas should be included in the union, as the colonists themselves wish. In the 1844 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate, James Polk, is elected on a platform supporting the annexation of Texas. In 1845 congress admits the Texan republic (by now home to 140,000 Americans) as the 28th state of the union, regardless of Mexico's undeniable claim to the region.

This in itself would be sufficient pretext for war. Another likely cause, unadmitted, is President Polk's yearning for yet more of Mexico - rich California. And there is also an unresolved dispute over the boundary of Texas.


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