– What were some of the social, cultural, and ideological changes occurring during this time period? What were some of the uncertainties surrounding notions of democracy and progress? How did competing definitions of liberty and equality become more oppositional?
A History of the United States
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
Independent Publishers Since 1923
New York London
Americans assembled on the National Mall for the 1963 March on Washington.
We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1862
Introduction: The Question Stated
THE IDEA (1492–1799)
The Nature of the Past
The Rulers and the Ruled
Of Wars and Revolutions
The Constitution of a Nation
THE PEOPLE (1800–1865)
A Democracy of Numbers
The Soul and the Machine
Of Ships and Shipwrecks
The Face of Battle
THE STATE (1866–1945)
Of Citizens, Persons, and People
Efficiency and the Masses
A Constitution of the Air
The Brutality of Modernity
THE MACHINE (1946–2016)
A World of Knowledge
Rights and Wrongs
Epilogue: The Question Addressed
THE QUESTION STATED
THE COURSE OF HISTORY IS UNPREDICTABLE, AS IRREGULAR as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides.1 It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.
The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment.
They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
As summer faded to fall, the free people of the United States, finding the Constitution folded into their newspapers and almanacs, were asked to decide whether or not to ratify it, even as they went about baling hay, milling corn, tanning leather, singing hymns, and letting out the seams on last year’s winter coats, for mothers and fathers grown fatter, and letting down the hems, for children grown taller.
They read this strange, intricate document, and they debated its plan. Some feared that the new system granted too much power to the federal government—to the president, or to Congress, or to the Supreme Court, or to all three. Many, like sixty-one-year-old George Mason of Virginia, a delegate who’d refused to sign it, wanted the Constitution to include a bill of rights. (“A bill might be prepared in a few hours,” Mason had begged at the convention, to no avail.)2 Others complained about this clause or that, down to commas. It was not an easy thing to read. A few suggested scrapping it and starting all over again. “Cannot the same power which called the late convention, call another?” one citizen wondered. “Are not the people still their own masters?”3
Much of what they said is a matter of record. “The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison once remarked.4 Not the United States. Its infancy is preserved, like baby teeth kept in a glass jar, in the four parchment sheets of the Constitution, in the pages of almanacs that chart the weather of a long-ago climate, and in hundreds of newspapers, where essays for and against the new system of government appeared alongside the shipping news, auction notices, and advertisements for the return of people who never were their own masters— women and children, slaves and servants—and who had run away, hoping
to ordain and establish, for themselves and their posterity, the blessings of liberty.
The season of ratification was an autumn of ordinary bustle and business. In that October 30, 1787, issue of the New-York Packet, a schoolmaster announced that he was offering lessons in “reading, writing, arithmetic, and merchants’ accounts” in rooms near city hall. The estate of Gearey, Champion, and Co., consisting chiefly of “a large and general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines,” was to be auctioned. Many-masted sailing ships from London and Liverpool and trim schooners from St. Croix, Baltimore, and Norfolk had dropped anchor in the depths of the harbor; sloops from Charleston and Savannah had tied their painters to the docks. A Scotsman offered a reward for the return of his stolen chestnut- colored mare, fourteen hands high, “lofty carriage, trots and canters very handsome.” A merchant with a warehouse on Peck Slip wanted readers to know that he had for sale dry codfish, a quantity of molasses, ground ginger in barrels, York rum, pickled codfish, writing paper, and men’s shoes. And the Columbian Almanack was for sale, with or without the Constitution as an appendix, at the printers’ shop, where New Yorkers might also inquire after two people, for a price:
TO BE SOLD. A LIKELY young NEGRO WENCH, 20 years of age, she is healthy and had the small pox, she has a young male child.
The mother was said to be “remarkably handy at housework”; her baby was “about 6 months old,” still nursing. Their names were not mentioned.5 They were not ruled by reason and choice. They were ruled by violence and force.
Between the everyday atrocity of slavery and the latest news from the apothecary there appeared on page 2 of that day’s New-York Packet an essay titled THE FEDERALIST No. 1. It had been written, anonymously, by a brash thirty-year-old lawyer named Alexander Hamilton. “You are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America,” he told his readers. But more was at stake, too, he insisted; the wrong decision would result in “the general misfortune of mankind.” The
United States, he argued, was an experiment in the science of politics, marking a new era in the history of government:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.6
This was the question of that autumn. And, in a way, it has been the question of every season since, the question of every rising and setting of the sun, on rainy days and snowy days, on clear days and cloudy days, at the clap of every thunderstorm. Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government —any constitution—by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?
This question in every kind of weather is the question of American history. It is also the question of this book, an account of the origins, course, and consequences of the American experiment over more than four centuries. It is not a simple question. I once came across a book called The Constitution Made Easy.7 The Constitution cannot be made easy. It was never meant to be easy.
THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT rests on three political ideas—“these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:
that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are
the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.
Still, this divide is nearly always overstated and it’s easy to exaggerate the difference between Jefferson and Franklin, which, in those lines, came down, too, to style: Franklin’s revision is more forceful. The real dispute isn’t between Jefferson and Franklin, each attempting, in his way, to reconcile faith and reason, as many have tried both before and since. The real dispute is between “these truths” and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?
Before the experiment began, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution made an extraordinarily careful study of history. They’d been studying history all their lives. Benjamin Franklin was eighty-one years old, hunched and crooked, when he signed the Constitution in 1787, with his gnarled and speckled hand. In 1731, when he was twenty-five, straight as a sapling, he’d written an essay called “Observations on Reading History,” on a “little Paper, accidentally preserv’d.”8 And he’d kept on reading history, and taking notes, asking himself, year after year: What does the past teach?
The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching. Its founders agreed with the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, who wrote, in 1748, that “Records of Wars, Intrigues, Factions, and Revolutions are so many Collections of
Experiments.”9 They believed that truth is to be found in ideas about morality but also in the study of history.
It has often been said, in the twenty-first century and in earlier centuries, too, that Americans lack a shared past and that, built on a cracked foundation, the Republic is crumbling.10 Part of this argument has to do with ancestry: Americans are descended from conquerors and from the conquered, from people held as slaves and from the people who held them, from the Union and from the Confederacy, from Protestants and from Jews, from Muslims and from Catholics, and from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration. Sometimes, in American history—in nearly all national histories—one person’s villain is another’s hero. But part of this argument has to do with ideology: the United States is founded on a set of ideas, but Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were.
I wrote this book because writing an American history from beginning to end and across that divide hasn’t been attempted in a long time, and it’s important, and it seemed worth a try. One reason it’s important is that understanding history as a form of inquiry—not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting—was central to the nation’s founding. This, too, was new. In the West, the oldest stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are odes and tales of wars and kings, of men and gods, sung and told. These stories were memorials, and so were the histories of antiquity: they were meant as monuments. “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment,” Thucydides wrote, “but as a possession for all time.” Herodotus believed that the purpose of writing history was “so that time not erase what man has brought into being.” A new kind of historical writing, less memorial and more unsettling, only first emerged in the fourteenth century. “History is a philosophical science,” the North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun wrote in 1377, in the prologue to his history of the world, in which he defined history as the study “of the causes and origins of existing things.”11
Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered. Early in the seventeenth century, Sir Walter Ralegh began writing his own History of the
World, from a prison in the Tower of London where he was allowed to keep a library of five hundred books. The past, Ralegh explained, “hath made us acquainted with our dead ancestors,” but it also casts light on the present, “by the comparison and application of other men’s fore-passed miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings.”12 To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present.
This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions—the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran—are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them—with evidence.
“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” Thomas Paine, the spitfire son of an English grocer, wrote in Common Sense, in 1776. Kings have no right to reign, Paine argued, because, if we could trace hereditary monarchy back to its beginnings —“could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise”—we’d find “the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang.” James Madison explained Americans’ historical skepticism, this deep empiricism, this way: “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”13 Evidence, for Madison, was everything.
“A new era for politics is struck,” Paine wrote, his pen aflame, and “a new method of thinking hath arisen.”14 Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of
historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?
This book attempts to answer that question by telling the story of American history, beginning in 1492, with Columbus’s voyage, which tied together continents, and ending in a world not merely tied together but tangled, knotted, and bound. It chronicles the settlement of American colonies; the nation’s founding and its expansion through migration, immigration, war, and invention; its descent into civil war; its entrance into wars in Europe; its rise as a world power and its role, after the Second World War, in the establishment of the modern liberal world order: the rule of law, individual rights, democratic government, open borders, and free markets. It recounts the nation’s confrontations with communism abroad and discrimination at home; its fractures and divisions, and the wars it has waged since 2001, when two airplanes crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center eight blocks from the site of a long-gone shop where the printers of the New-York Packet had once offered for sale a young mother and her six-month old baby and the Columbian Almanack, bound with the Constitution, or without.
With this history, I’ve told a story; I’ve tried to tell it fairly. I have written a beginning and I have written an ending and I have tried to cross a divide, but I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story. No one could. Much is missing in these pages. In the 1950s, the historian Carl Degler explained the rule he’d used in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out of his own history of the United States, a lovely book called Out of Our Past.
“Readers should be warned that they will find nothing here on the Presidential administrations between 1868 and 1901, no mention of the American Indians or the settlement of the seventeenth-century colonies,” Degler advised. “The War of 1812 is touched on only in a footnote.”15 I, too, have had to skip over an awful lot. Some very important events haven’t even made it into the footnotes, which I’ve kept clipped and short, like a baby’s fingernails.
In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty- first century need to know about their own past, mainly because this book is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions, from the town meeting to the party system, from the nominating convention to the secret ballot, from talk radio to Internet polls. This book is chiefly a political history. It pays very little attention to military and diplomatic history or to social and cultural history. But it does include episodes in the history of American law and religion, journalism and technology, chiefly because these are places where what is true, and what’s not, have sometimes gotten sorted out.
Aside from being a brief history of the United States and a civics primer, this book aims to be something else, too: it’s an explanation of the nature of the past. History isn’t only a subject; it’s also a method. My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.
What, then, of the American past? There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but
neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.
A last word, then, about storytelling, and truth. “I have begun this letter five times and torn it up,” James Baldwin wrote, in a letter to his nephew begun in 1962. “I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother.” His brother was dead; he meant to tell his nephew about being a black man, about the struggle for equality, and about the towering importance and gripping urgency of studying the past and reckoning with origins. He went on,
I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those faces which were his.16
No one can know a nation that far back, from its infancy, with or without baby teeth kept in a jar. But studying history is like that, looking into one face and seeing, behind it, another, face after face after face. “Know whence you came,” Baldwin told his nephew.17 The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.
John Durand painted the precocious six-year-old New Yorker Jane Beekman in 1767, holding a book and seized with inspiration.
In the beginning, all the World was America.
—John Locke, SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT,
THE NATURE OF THE PAST
“America” first appeared as the name of an undefined land mass on a map of the world made in 1507.
“WE SAW NAKED PEOPLE,” A BROAD-SHOULDERED SEA captain from Genoa wrote in his diary, nearing land after weeks of staring at nothing but blue-black sea. Or, at least, that’s what Christopher Columbus is thought to have written in his diary that day in October 1492, ink trailing across the page like the line left behind by a snail wandering across a stretch of sand. No one knows for sure what the sea captain wrote that day, because his diary is lost. In the 1530s, before it disappeared, parts of it were copied by a
frocked and tonsured Dominican friar named Bartolomé de Las Casas. The friar’s copy was lost, too, until about 1790, when an old sailor found it in the library of a Spanish duke. In 1894, the widow of another librarian sold to a duchess parchment scraps of what appeared to be Columbus’s original —it had his signature, and the year 1492 on the cover. After that, the widow disappeared, and, with her, whatever else may have been left of the original diary vanished.1
On an ink-splotched sketch of northwest Haiti, Columbus labeled “la española,” Hispaniola, “the little Spanish island.”
All of this is unfortunate; none of it is unusual. Most of what once existed is gone. Flesh decays, wood rots, walls fall, books burn. Nature takes one toll, malice another. History is the study of what remains, what’s left behind, which can be almost anything, so long as it survives the ravages of time and war: letters, diaries, DNA, gravestones, coins, television broadcasts, paintings, DVDs, viruses, abandoned Facebook pages, the transcripts of congressional hearings, the ruins of buildings. Some of these things are saved by chance or accident, like the one house that, as if by miracle, still stands after a hurricane razes a town. But most of what historians study survives because it was purposely kept—placed in a box and carried up to an attic, shelved in a library, stored in a museum, photographed or recorded, downloaded to a server—carefully preserved and
even catalogued. All of it, together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past—remains, relics, a repository of knowledge, the evidence of what came before, this inheritance—is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.
Relying on so spotty a record requires caution. Still, even its absences speak. “We saw naked people,” Columbus wrote in his diary (at least, according to the notes taken by Las Casas). “They were a people very poor in everything,” the sea captain went on, describing the people he met on an island they called Haiti—“land of mountains”—but that Columbus called Hispaniola—“the little Spanish island”—because he thought it had no name. They lacked weapons, he reported; they lacked tools. He believed they lacked even a faith: “They appear to have no religion.” They lacked guile; they lacked suspicion. “I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses,” he wrote, addressing the king and queen of Spain, “in order that they may learn to speak,” as if, impossibly, they had no language.2 Later, he admitted the truth: “None of us understands the words they say.”3
Two months after he reached Haiti, Columbus prepared to head back to Spain but, off the coast, his three-masted flagship ran aground. Before the ship sank, Columbus’s men salvaged the timbers to build a fort; the sunken wreckage has never been found, as lost to history as everything that the people of Haiti said the day a strange sea captain washed up on shore. On the voyage home, on a smaller ship, square-rigged and swift, Columbus wondered about all that he did not understand about the people he’d met, a people he called “Indians” because he believed he had sailed to the Indies. It occurred to him that it wasn’t that they didn’t have a religion or a language but that these things were, to him, mysteries that he could not penetrate, things beyond his comprehension. He needed help. In Barcelona, he hired Ramón Pané, a priest and scholar, to come along on his next voyage, to “discover and understand . . . the beliefs and idolatries of the Indians, and . . . how they worship their gods.”4
Pané sailed with Columbus in 1493. Arriving in Haiti, Pané met a man named Guatícabanú, who knew all of the languages spoken on the island, and who learned Pané’s language, Castilian, and taught him his own. Pané lived with the natives, the Taíno, for four years, and delivered to Columbus
his report, a manuscript he titled An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians. Not long afterward, it vanished.
The fates of old books are as different as the depths of the ocean. Before An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians disappeared, Columbus’s son Ferdinand, writing a biography of his father, copied it out, and even though Ferdinand Columbus’s book remained unpublished at his death in 1539, his copy of Pané’s extraordinary account had by then been copied by other scholars, including the learned and dogged Las Casas, a man who never left a page unturned. In 1570, a scholar in Venice was translating Pané’s Antiquities into Italian when he died in prison, suspected of being a spy for the French; nevertheless, his translation was published in 1571, with the result that the closest thing to the original of Pané’s account that survives is a poor Italian translation of words that had already been many times translated, from other tongues to Guatícabanú’s tongue, and from Guatícabanú’s tongue to Castilian and then, by Pané, from Castilian.5 And yet it remains a treasure.
“I wrote it down in haste and did not have sufficient paper,” Pané apologized. He’d collected the Taíno’s stories, though he’d found it difficult to make sense of them, since so many of the stories seemed, to him, to contradict one another. “Because they have neither writing nor letters,” Pané reported, “they cannot give a good account of how they have heard this from their ancestors, and therefore they do not all say the same thing.” The Taíno had no writing. But, contrary to Columbus’s initial impressions, they most certainly did have a religion. They called their god Yúcahu. “They believe that he is in heaven and is immortal, and that no one can see him, and that he has a mother,” Pané explained. “But he has no beginning.” Also, “They know likewise from whence they came, and where the sun and the moon had their beginning, and how the sea was made, and where the dead go.”6
People order their worlds with tales of their dead and of their gods and of the origins of their laws. The Taíno told Pané that their ancestors once lived in caves and would go out at night but, once, when some of them were late coming back, the Sun turned them into trees. Another time, a man named Yaya killed his son Yayael and put his bones in a gourd and hung it from his roof and when his wife took down the gourd and opened it the
bones had been changed into fish and the people ate the fish but when they tried to hang the gourd up again, it fell to the earth, and out spilled all the water that made the oceans.
The Taíno did not have writing but they did have government. “They have their laws gathered in ancient songs, by which they govern themselves,” Pané reported.7 They sang their laws, and they sang their history. “These songs remain in their memory rather than in books,” another Spanish historian observed, “and this way they recite the genealogies of the caciques, kings, and lords they have had, their deeds, and the bad or good times they had.”8
In those songs, they told their truths. They told of how the days and weeks and years after the broad-shouldered sea captain first spied their island were the worst of times. Their god, Yúcahu, had once foretold that they “would enjoy their dominion for but a brief time because a clothed people would come to their land who could overcome them and kill them.”9 This had come to pass. There were about three million people on that island, land of mountains, when Columbus landed; fifty years later, there were only five hundred; everyone else had died, their songs unsung.
STORIES OF ORIGINS nearly always begin in darkness, earth and water and night, black as doom. The sun and the moon came from a cave, the Taíno told Pané, and the oceans spilled out of a gourd. The Iroquois, a people of the Great Lakes, say the world began with a woman who lived on the back of a turtle. The Akan of Ghana tell a story about a god who lived closer to the earth, low in the sky, until an old woman struck him with her pestle, and he flew away. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” according to Genesis. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Darkness was on the face of the deep in geological histories, too, whose evidence comes from rocks and bones. The universe was created about fourteen billion years ago, according to the traces left behind by meteors and the afterlives of stars, glowing and distant, blinking and dim. The earth
was formed about four billion years ago, according to the sand and rocks, sea floors and mountaintops. For a very long time, all the lands of the earth were glommed together until, about three hundred million years ago, those glommed-together lands began breaking up; parts broke off and began drifting away from one another, like the debris of a sinking ship.
Evidence of the long-ago past is elusive, but it survives in the unlikeliest of places, even in the nests of pack rats, mammals that crept up in North America sixty million years ago. Pack rats build nests out of sticks and stones and bones and urinate on them; the liquid hardens like amber, preserving pack rat nests as if pressed behind glass. A great many of the animals and plants that lived at the time of ancient pack rats later became extinct, lost forever, saved only in pack rat nests, where their preserved remains provide evidence not only of evolution but of the warming of the earth. A pack rat nest isn’t like the geological record; it’s more like an archive, a collection, gathered and kept, like a library of old books and long-forgotten manuscripts, a treasure, an account of the antiquities of the animals and plants.10
The fossil record is richer still. Charles Darwin called the record left by fossils “a history of the world imperfectly kept.” According to that record, Homo sapiens, modern humans, evolved about three hundred thousand years ago, in East Africa, near and around what is now Ethiopia. Over the next hundred and fifty thousand years, early humans spread into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Europe.11 Like pack rats, humans store and keep and save. The record of early humans, however imperfectly kept, includes not only fossils but also artifacts, things created by people (the word contains its own meaning—art + fact—an artifact is a fact made by art). Artifacts and the fossil record together tell the story of how, about twenty thousand years ago, humans migrated into the Americas from Asia when, for a while, the northwestern tip of North America and the northeastern tip of Asia were attached when a landmass between them rose above sea level, making it possible for humans and animals to walk between what is now Russia and Alaska, a distance of some six hundred miles, until the water rose again, and one half of the world was, once again, cut off from the other half.
In 1492, seventy-five million people lived in the Americas, north and south.12 The people of Cahokia, the biggest city in North America, on the Mississippi floodplains, had built giant plazas and earthen mounds, some bigger than the Egyptian pyramids. In about 1000 AD, before Cahokia was abandoned, more than ten thousand people lived there. The Aztecs, Incas, and Maya, vast and ancient civilizations, built monumental cities and kept careful records and calendars of exquisite accuracy. The Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325, had a population of at least a quarter-million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Outside of those places, most people in the Americas lived in smaller settlements and gathered and hunted for their food. A good number were farmers who grew squash and corn and beans, hunted and fished. They kept pigs and chickens but not bigger animals. They spoke hundreds of languages and practiced many different faiths. Most had no written form of language. They believed in many gods and in the divinity of animals and of the earth itself.13 The Taíno lived in villages of one or two thousand people, headed by a cacique. They fished and farmed. They warred with their neighbors. They decorated their bodies; they painted themselves red. They sang their laws.14 They knew where the dead went.
In 1492, about sixty million people lived in Europe, fifteen million fewer than lived in the Americas. They lived and were ruled in villages and towns, in cities and states, in kingdoms and empires. They built magnificent cities and castles, cathedrals and temples and mosques, libraries and universities. Most people farmed and worked on land surrounded by fences, raising crops and cattle and sheep and goats. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,” God tells Adam and Eve in Genesis, “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” They spoke and wrote dozens of languages. They recorded their religious tenets and stories on scrolls and in books of beauty and wonder. They were Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and Muslim; for long stretches of time, peoples of different faiths managed to get along and then, for other long stretches, they did not, as if they would cut out one another’s hearts. Their faith was their truth, the word of their God, revealed to their prophets, and, for Christians,
to the people, through the words spoken by Jesus—the good-spell, or “good news”—their Gospel, written down.
Before 1492, Europe suffered from scarcity and famine. After 1492, the vast wealth carried to Europe from the Americas and extracted by the forced labor of Africans granted governments new powers that contributed to the rise of nation-states.
A nation is a people who share a common ancestry. A state is a political community, governed by laws. A nation-state is a political community, governed by laws, that, at least theoretically, unites a people who share a common ancestry (one way nation-states form is by violently purging their populations of people with different ancestries). As nation-states emerged, they needed to explain themselves, which they did by telling stories about their origins, tying together ribbons of myths, as if everyone in the “English nation,” for instance, had the same ancestors, when, of course, they did not. Very often, histories of nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state.15
The origins of the United States can be found in those seams. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, plainly, it was a state, but what made it a nation? The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over, and, having waged a war against England, the very last thing they wanted to celebrate was their Englishness. In an attempt to solve this problem, the earliest historians of the United States decided to begin their accounts with Columbus’s voyage, stitching 1776 to 1492. George Bancroft published his History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to the Present in 1834, when the nation was barely more than a half-century old, a fledgling, just hatched. By beginning with Columbus, Bancroft made the United States nearly three centuries older than it was, a many-feathered old bird. Bancroft wasn’t only a historian; he was also a politician: he served in the administrations of three U.S. presidents, including as secretary of war during the age of American expansion. He believed in manifest destiny, the idea that the United States was fated to cross the continent, from east to west. For Bancroft, the nation’s fate was all but sealed the day Columbus set sail. By giving Americans a more ancient past, he hoped to make America’s founding appear inevitable and its growth inexorable, God-
ordained. He also wanted to celebrate the United States, not as an offshoot of England, but instead as a pluralist and cosmopolitan nation, with ancestors all over the world. “France contributed to its independence,” he observed, “the origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.”16
Yet the origins of the United States date to 1492 for another, more troubling reason: the nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds. The history of the United States can be said to begin in 1492 because the idea of equality came out of a resolute rejection of the idea of inequality; a dedication to liberty emerged out of bitter protest against slavery; and the right to self-government was fought for, by sword and, still more fiercely, by pen. Against conquest, slaughter, and slavery came the urgent and abiding question, “By what right?”
To begin a history of the United States in 1492 is to take seriously and solemnly the idea of America itself as a beginning. Yet, so far from the nation’s founding having been inevitable, its expansion inexorable, the history of the United States, like all history, is a near chaos of contingencies and accidents, of wonders and horrors, unlikely, improbable, and astonishing.
To start with, weighing the evidence, it’s a little surprising that it was western Europeans in 1492, and not some other group of people, some other year, who crossed an ocean to discover a lost world. Making the journey required knowledge, capacity, and interest. The Maya, whose territory stretched from what is now Mexico to Costa Rica, knew enough astronomy to navigate across the ocean as early as AD 300. They did not, however, have seaworthy boats. The ancient Greeks had known a great deal about cartography: Claudius Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived in the second century, had devised a way to project the surface of the globe onto a flat surface with near-perfect proportions. But medieval Christians, having dismissed the writings of the ancient Greeks as pagan, had lost much of that knowledge. The Chinese had invented the compass in the eleventh century, and had excellent boats. Before his death in 1433, Zheng He, a Chinese
Muslim, had explored the coast of much of Asia and eastern Africa, leading two hundred ships and twenty-seven thousand sailors. But China was the richest country in the world, and by the late fifteenth century no longer allowed travel beyond the Indian Ocean, on the theory that the rest of the world was unworthy and uninteresting. West Africans navigated the coastline and rivers that led into a vast inland trade network, but prevailing winds and currents thwarted them from navigating north and they seldom ventured into the ocean. Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, who had never cast aside the knowledge of antiquity and the calculations of Ptolemy, made accurate maps and built sturdy boats, but because they dominated trade in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as overland trade with Africa, for gold, and with Asia, for spices, they didn’t have much reason to venture farther.17
It was somewhat out of desperation, then, that the poorest and weakest Christian monarchs on the very western edge of Europe, fighting with Muslims, jealous of the Islamic world’s monopoly on trade, and keen to spread their religion, began looking for routes to Africa and Asia that wouldn’t require sailing across the Mediterranean. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Prince Henry of Portugal began sending ships to sail along the western coast of Africa. Building forts on the coast and founding colonies on islands, they began to trade with African merchants, buying and selling people, coin for flesh, a traffic in slaves.
Columbus, a citizen of the bustling Mediterranean port of Genoa, served as a sailor on Portuguese slave-trading ships beginning in 1482. In 1484, when he was about thirty-three years old, he presented to the king of Portugal a plan to travel to Asia by sailing west, across the ocean. The king assembled a panel of scholars to consider the proposal but, in the end, rejected it: Portugal was committed to its ventures in West Africa, and the king’s scholars saw that Columbus had greatly underestimated the distance he would have to travel. Better calculated was the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese nobleman, who in 1487 rounded the southernmost tip of Africa, proving that it was possible to sail from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Why sail west, across the Atlantic, when a different way to sail to the East had already been found?
Columbus next brought his proposal to the king and queen of Spain, who at first rejected it; they were busy waging wars of religion, purging their population of people who had different ancestors and different beliefs. Early in 1492, after the last Muslim city in Spain fell to the Spanish crown, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered that all Jews be expelled from their realm and, confident that their pitiless Inquisition had rid their kingdom of Muslims and Jews, heretics and pagans, they ordered Columbus to sail, to trade, and to spread the Christian faith: to conquer, and to chronicle, to say what was true, and to write it down: to keep a diary.
TO WRITE SOMETHING down doesn’t make it true. But the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail. Writing was invented in three different parts of the world at three different moments in time: about 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia, about 1100 BCE in China, and about AD 600 in Mesoamerica. In the history of the world, most of the people who have ever lived either did not know how to write or, if they did, left no writing behind, which is among the reasons why the historical record is so maddeningly unfair. To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind. Stories are full of power and force; they seethe with meaning, with truths and lies, evasions and honesty. Speech often has far more weight and urgency than writing. But most words, once spoken, are forgotten, while writing lasts, a point observed early in the seventeenth century by an English vicar named Samuel Purchas. Purchas, who had never been more than two hundred miles from his vicarage, carefully studied the accounts of travelers, because he proposed to write a new history of the world.18 Taking stock of all the differences between the peoples of all ages and places, across continents and centuries, Purchas was most struck by what he called the “literall advantage”: the significance of writing. “By writing,” he wrote, “Man seems immortall.”19
A new chapter in the history of truth—foundational to the idea of truth on which the United States would one day stake and declare its independence—began on Columbus’s first voyage. If any man in history had a “literall advantage,” that man was Christopher Columbus. In Haiti in October 1492, under a scorching sun, with two of his captains as witnesses, Columbus (according to the notes taken by Las Casas) declared that “he
would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords.” And then he wrote that down.20
This act was both new and strange. Marco Polo, traveling through the East in the thirteenth century, had not claimed China for Venice; nor did Sir John Mandeville, traveling through the Middle East in the fourteenth century, attempt to take possession of Persia, Syria, or Ethiopia. Columbus had read Marco Polo’s Travels and Mandeville’s Travels; he seems to have brought those books with him when he sailed.21 Unlike Polo and Mandeville, Columbus did not make a catalogue of the ways and beliefs of the people he met (only later did he hire Pané to do that). Instead, he decided that the people he met had no ways and beliefs. Every difference he saw as an absence.22 Insisting that they had no faith and no civil government and were therefore infidels and savages who could not rightfully own anything, he claimed possession of their land, by the act of writing. They were a people without truth; he would make his truth theirs. He would tell them where the dead go.
Columbus had this difference from Marco Polo and Mandeville, too: he made his voyages not long after Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, invented the printing press. Printing accelerated the diffusion of knowledge and broadened the historical record: things that are printed are much more likely to last than things that are merely written down, since printing produces many copies. The two men were often paired. “Two things which I always thought could be compared, not only to Antiquity, but to immortality,” wrote one sixteenth-century French philosopher, are “the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the new world.”23 Columbus widened the world, Gutenberg made it spin faster.
But Columbus himself did not consider the lands he’d visited to be a new world. He thought only that he’d found a new route to the old world. Instead, it was Amerigo Vespucci, the venturesome son of a notary from Florence, Italy, who crossed the ocean in 1503 and wrote, about the lands he found, “These we may rightly call a new world.” The report Vespucci brought home was soon published as a book called Mundus Novus, translated into eight languages and published in sixty different editions. What Vespucci reported discovering was rather difficult to believe. “I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our
Europe or Asia or Africa,” he wrote.24 It seemed a Garden of Eden, a place only ever before imagined. In 1516, Thomas More, a counselor to England’s king, Henry VIII, published a fictional account of a Portuguese sailor on one of Vespucci’s ships who had traveled just a bit farther, to an island where he found a perfect republic, named Utopia (literally, no place) —the island of nowhere.25
What did it mean to find someplace where nowhere was supposed to be? The world had long seemed to consist of three parts. In the seventh century, the Archbishop Isidore of Seville, writing an encyclopedia called the Etymologiae that circulated widely in manuscript—as many as a thousand handwritten copies survive—had drawn the world as a circle surrounded by oceans and divided by seas into three bodies of land, Asia, Europe, and Africa, inhabited by the descendants of the three sons of Noah: Shem, Japheth, and Ham. In 1472, Etymologiae became one of the very first books ever to be set in type and the archbishop’s map became the first world map ever printed.26 Twenty years later, it was obsolete.
Discovering that nowhere was somewhere meant work for mapmakers, another kind of writing that made claims of truth and possession. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer living in northern France who had in his hands a French translation of Mundus Novus, carved onto twelve woodblocks a new map of the world, a Universalis Cosmographia, and printed more than a thousand copies. People pasted the twelve prints together and mounted them like wallpaper to make a giant map, four feet high by eight feet wide. Wallpaper fades and falls apart: only a single copy of Waldseemüller’s map survives. But one word on that long-lost map has lasted longer than anything else Waldseemüller ever wrote. With a nod to Vespucci, Waldseemüller, inventing a word, gave the fourth part of the world, that unknown utopia, a name: he labeled it “America.”27
A drawing originally made in the seventh century by Isidore of Seville became, in 1472, the first printed map of the world; twenty years later, it was obsolete.
This name stuck by the merest accident. Much else did not last. The Taíno story about the cave, the Iroquois story about the turtle, the Akan story about the old woman with the pestle, the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve—these stories would be unknown, or hardly known, if they hadn’t been written down or recorded. That they lasted mattered. Modernity began when people fighting over which of these stories was true began to think differently about the nature of truth, about the nature of the past, and about the nature of rule.
IN 1493, WHEN COLUMBUS returned from his unimaginable voyage, a Spanish-born pope granted all of the lands on the other side of the ocean, everything west of a line of longitude some three hundred miles west of Cape Verde, to Spain, and granted what lay east of that line, western Africa, to Portugal, the pope claiming the authority to divvy up lands inhabited by tens of millions of people as if he were the god of Genesis. Unsurprisingly, the heads of England, France, and the Netherlands found this papal pronouncement absurd. “The sun shines for me as for the others,” said the king of France. “I should like to see the clause of Adam’s will which excludes me from a share of the world.”28 Nor did Spain’s claim go uncontested on the other side of the world. A Taíno man told Guatícabanú that the Spanish “were wicked and had taken their land by force.”29 Guatícabanú told that to Ramón Pané, who wrote it down. Ferdinand Columbus copied that out. And so did a scholar in a prison in Venice. It was as if that Taíno man had taken down from his roof a gourd full of the bones of his son and opened it, spilling out an ocean of ideas. The work of conquest involved pretending that ocean could be poured back into that gourd.
Artists working for the sixteenth-century mestizo Diego Muñoz Camargo illustrated the Spanish punishment for native converts who abandoned Christianity.
An ocean of ideas not fitting into a gourd, people in both Europe and the Americas groped for meaning and wondered how to account for difference and sameness. They asked new questions, and they asked old questions
more sharply: Are all peoples one? And if they are, by what right can one people take the land of another or their labor or, even, their lives?
Any historical reckoning with these questions begins with counting and measuring. Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried twelve million Africans there by force; and as many as fifty million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.30 Europe is spread over about four million square miles, the Americas over about twenty million square miles. For centuries, geography had constrained Europe’s demographic and economic growth; that era came to a close when Europeans claimed lands five times the size of Europe. Taking possession of the Americas gave Europeans a surplus of land; it ended famine and led to four centuries of economic growth, growth without precedent, growth many Europeans understood as evidence of the grace of God. One Spaniard, writing from New Spain to his brother in Valladolid in 1592, told him, “This land is as good as ours, for God has given us more here than there, and we shall be better off.”31 Even the poor prospered.
The European extraction of the wealth of the Americas made possible the rise of capitalism: new forms of trade, investment, and profit. Between 1500 and 1600 alone, Europeans recorded carrying back to Europe from the Americas nearly two hundred tons of gold and sixteen thousand tons of silver; much more traveled as contraband. “The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind,” Adam Smith wrote, in The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. But the voyages of Columbus and Dias also marked a turning point in the development of another economic system, slavery: the wealth of the Americas flowed to Europe by the forced labor of Africans.32
Slavery had been practiced in many parts of the world for centuries. People tended to enslave their enemies, people they considered different enough from themselves to condemn to lifelong servitude. Sometimes, though not often, the status of slaves was heritable: the children of slaves were condemned to a life of slavery, too. Many wars had to do with religion, and because many slaves were prisoners of war, slaves and their owners tended to be people of different faiths: Christians enslaved Jews; Muslims enslaved Christians; Christians enslaved Muslims. Since the
Middle Ages, Muslim traders from North Africa had traded in Africans from below the Sahara, where slavery was widespread. In much of Africa, labor, not land, constituted the sole form of property recognized by law, a form of consolidating wealth and generating revenue, which meant that African states tended to be small and that, while European wars were fought for land, African wars were fought for labor. People captured in African wars were bought and sold in large markets by merchants and local officials and kings and, beginning in the 1450s, by Portuguese sea captains.33
Columbus, a veteran of that trade, reported to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 that it would be the work of a moment to enslave the people of Haiti, since “with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.”34 In sugar mines and gold mines, the Spanish worked their native slaves to death while many more died of disease. Soon, they turned to another source of forced labor, Africans traded by the Portuguese.
Counting and keeping accounts on the cargo of every ship, Europeans found themselves puzzled by an extraordinary asymmetry. People moved from Europe and Africa to the Americas; wealth moved from the Americas to Europe; and animals and plants moved from Europe to the Americas. But very few people or animals or plants moved from the Americas to Europe or Africa, at least not successfully. “It appears as if some invisible barrier existed preventing passage Eastward, though allowing it Westward,” a later botanist wrote.35 The one-way migration of people made self-evident sense: people controlled the ships and they carried far more people west than east, bringing soldiers and missionaries, settlers and slaves. But the one-way migration of animals and plants was, for centuries, until the late nineteenth- century age of Darwin and the germ theory of disease, altogether baffling, explained only by faith in divine providence: Christians took it as a sign that their conquest was ordained by God.
The signs came in abundance. When Columbus made a second voyage across the ocean in 1493, he commanded a fleet of seventeen ships carrying twelve hundred men, and another kind of army, too: seeds and cuttings of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, greens, grapevines, and sugar cane, and horses, pigs, cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats, male and female, two by two. Hidden among the men and the plants and the animals were
stowaways, seeds stuck to animal skins or clinging to the folds of cloaks and blankets, in clods of mud. Most of these were the seeds of plants Europeans considered to be weeds, like bluegrass, daisies, thistle, nettles, ferns, and dandelions. Weeds grow best in disturbed soil, and nothing disturbs soil better than an army of men, razing forests for timber and fuel and turning up the ground cover with their boots, and the hooves of their horses and oxen and cattle. Livestock eat grass; people eat livestock: livestock turn grass into food that humans can eat. The animals that Europeans brought to the New World—cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, and horses—had no natural predators in the Americas but they did have an abundant food supply. They reproduced in numbers unfathomable in Europe. Cattle populations doubled every fifteen months. Nothing, though, beat the pigs. Pigs convert one-fifth of everything they eat into food for human consumption (cattle, by contrast, convert one-twentieth); they feed themselves, by foraging, and they have litters of ten or more. Within a few years of Columbus’s second voyage, the eight pigs he brought with him had descendants numbering in the thousands. Wrote one observer, “All the mountains swarmed with them.”36
Meanwhile, the people of the New World: They died by the hundreds. They died by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, by the tens of millions. The isolation of the Americas from the rest of the world, for hundreds of millions of years, meant that diseases to which Europeans and Africans had built up immunities over millennia were entirely new to the native peoples of the Americas. European ships, with their fleets of people and animals and plants, brought along, unseen, battalions of diseases: smallpox, measles, diphtheria, trachoma, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, malaria, typhoid fever, yellow fever, dengue fever, scarlet fever, amoebic dysentery, and influenza, diseases that had evolved alongside humans and their domesticated animals living in dense, settled populations—cities—where human and animal waste breeds vermin, like mice and rats and roaches. Most of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, though, didn’t live in dense settlements, and even those who lived in villages tended to move with the seasons, taking apart their towns and rebuilding them somewhere else. They didn’t accumulate filth, and they didn’t live in crowds. They suffered from very few infectious diseases.
Europeans, exposed to these diseases for thousands of years, had developed vigorous immune systems, and antibodies particular to bacteria to which no one in the New World had ever been exposed.
The consequence was catastrophe. Of one hundred people exposed to the smallpox virus for the first time, nearly one hundred became infected, and twenty-five to thirty-three died. Before they died, they exposed many more people: smallpox incubates for ten to fourteen days, which meant that people who didn’t yet feel sick tended to flee, carrying the disease as far as they could go before collapsing. Some people who were infected with smallpox could have recovered, if they’d been taken care of, but when one out of every three people was sick, and a lot of people ran, there was no one left to nurse the sick, who died of thirst and grief and of being alone.37 And they died, too, of torture: already weakened by disease, they were worked to death, and starved to death. On the islands in the Caribbean, so many natives died so quickly that Spaniards decided very early on to conquer more territory, partly to take more prisoners to work in their gold and silver mines, as slaves.
Spanish conquistadors first set foot on the North American mainland in 1513; in a matter of decades, New Spain spanned not only all of what became Mexico but also more than half of what became the continental United States, territory that stretched, east to west, from Florida to California, and as far north as Virginia on the Atlantic Ocean and Canada on the Pacific.38 Diseases spread ahead of the Spanish invaders, laying waste to wide swaths of the continent. It became commonplace, inevitable, even, first among the Spanish, and then, in turn, among the French, the Dutch, and the English, to see their own prosperity and good health and the terrible sicknesses suffered by the natives as signs from God. “Touching these savages, there is a thing that I cannot omit to remark to you,” one French settler wrote: “it appears visibly that God wishes that they yield their place to new peoples.” Death convinced them at once of their right and of the truth of their faith. “The natives, they are all dead of small Poxe,” John Winthrop wrote when he arrived in New England in 1630: “the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.”39
Europeans craved these omens from their God, because otherwise their title to the land and their right to enslave had little foundation in the laws of
men. Often, this gave them pause. In 1504, the king of Spain assembled a group of scholars and lawyers to provide him with guidance about whether the conquest “was in agreement with human and divine law.” The debate turned on two questions: Did the natives own their own land (that is, did they possess “dominion”), and could they rule themselves (that is, did they possess “sovereignty”)? To answer these questions, the king’s advisers turned to the philosophy of antiquity.
Under Roman law, government exists to manage relations of property, the king’s ministers argued, and since, according to Columbus, the natives had no government, they had no property, and therefore no dominion. Regarding sovereignty, the king’s ministers turned to Aristotle’s Politics. “That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient,” Aristotle had written. “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” All relations are relations of hierarchy, according to Aristotle; the soul rules over the body, men over animals, males over females, and masters over slaves. Slavery, for Aristotle, was not a matter of law but a matter of nature: “he who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession.” Those who are by nature possessions are those who have a lesser capacity for reason; these people “are by nature slaves,” Aristotle wrote, “and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.”40
An Aztec artist rendered the Spanish conquistadors, led by Cortés, invading Mexico.
The king was satisfied: the natives did not own their land and were, by nature, slaves. The conquest continued. But across the ocean, a trumpet of protest was sounded from a pulpit. In December 1511, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican priest, delivered a sermon in a church on Hispaniola. Disagreeing with the king’s ministers, he said the conquistadors were committing unspeakable crimes. “Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite
numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations?” And then he asked, “Are they not men?”41
Out of this protest came a disquieting decision, in 1513: the conquistadors would be required to read aloud to anyone they proposed to conquer and enslave a document called the Requerimiento. It is, in brief, a history of the world, from creation to conquest, a story of origins as justification for violence.
“The Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, all the men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who come after us,” it begins. It asks that any people to whom it was read “acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world, and the high priest called Pope, and in his name the King and Queen.” If the natives accepted the story of Genesis and the claim that these distant rulers had a right to rule them, the Spanish promised, “We in their name shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude.” But if the natives rejected these truths, the Spanish warned, “we shall forcibly enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them.”42
With the Requerimiento in hand, with its promises of love and charity and its threats of annihilation and devastation, the Spanish marched across the North American continent. In 1519, determined to ride to glory, Hernán Cortés, mayor of Santiago, Cuba, led six hundred Spaniards and more than a thousand native allies thundering across the land with fifteen cannons. In Mexico, he captured Tenochtitlán, a city said to have been grander than Paris or Rome, and destroyed it without pity or mercy. His men burned the Aztec libraries, their books of songs, their histories written down, a desolation described in a handful of surviving icnocuicatl, songs of their sorrow. One begins,
Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in our grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood.43
In 1540, a young nobleman named Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an army of Spaniards who were crossing the continent in search of a fabled city of gold. In what is now New Mexico, they found a hive of baked-clay apartment houses, the kind of town the Spanish took to calling a pueblo. Dutifully, Coronado had the Requerimiento read aloud. The Zuni listened to a man speaking a language they could not possibly understand. “They wore coats of iron, and warbonnets of metal, and carried for weapons short canes that spit fire and made thunder,” the Zuni later said about Coronado’s men. Zuni warriors poured cornmeal on the ground, and motioned to the Spanish they dare not cross that line. A battle began. The Zuni, fighting with arrows, were routed by the Spaniards, who fought with guns.44
The conquest raged on, and so did the debate, even as the lines between the peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Europe blurred. The Spanish, unlike later English colonizers, did not travel to the New World in families, or even with women: they came as armies of men. They seized and raped women and they loved and married them and raised families together. La Malinche, a Nahua woman who was given to Cortés as a slave and who became his interpreter, had a son with him, born about 1523, the freighted symbol of a fateful union. In much of New Spain, the mixed-race children of Spanish men and Indian women, known as mestizos, outnumbered Indians; an intricate caste system marked gradations of skin color, mixtures of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans, as if skin color were like dyes made of plants, the yellow of sassafras, the red of beets, the black of carob. Later, the English would recognize only black and white, a fantasy of stark and impossible difference, of nights without twilight and days without dawns. And yet both regimes of race, a culture of mixing or a culture of pretending not to mix, pressed upon the brows of every person of the least curiosity the question of common humanity: Are all peoples one?
Bartolomé de Las Casas had been in Hispaniola as a settler in 1511, when Montesinos had preached and asked, “Are they not men?” Stirred, he’d given up his slaves and become a priest and a scholar, a historian of the conquest, which is what led him, later, to copy parts of Columbus’s diary and Pané’s Antiquities. In 1542, Las Casas wrote a book called Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, history not as
justification but as a cry of conscience. With the zeal of a man burdened by his own guilt, he asked, “What man of sound mind will approve a war against men who are harmless, ignorant, gentle temperate, unarmed, and destitute of every human defense?”45 Eight years later, a new Spanish king summoned Las Casas and other scholars to his court in the clay-roofed city of Valladolid for another debate. Were the native peoples of the New World barbarians who had violated the laws of nature by, for instance, engaging in cannibalism, in which case it was lawful to wage war against them? Or were they innocent of these violations, in which case the war was unlawful?
Mexican casta, or caste, paintings purported to chart sixteen different possible intermarriages of Spanish, Indian, and African men and women and their offspring.
Las Casas argued that the conquest was unlawful, insisting that charges of cannibalism were “sheer fables and shameless nonsense.” The opposing argument was made by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Spain’s royal historian, who had never been to the New World. A translator of Aristotle, Sepúlveda cited Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery. He said that the difference between the natives and the Spaniards was as great as that “between apes and men.” He asked, “How are we to doubt that these people, so uncultivated, so barbarous, and so contaminated with such impiety and lewdness, have not been justly conquered?”46
The judges, divided, failed to issue a decision. The conquest continued. Broken spears clattered to the ground and the walls ran red with blood.
TO ALL OF THIS, the English came remarkably late. The Spanish had settled at Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565 and by 1607 were settling the adobe town of Santa Fe, nearly two thousand miles away. The French, who made their first voyages in 1534, were by 1608 building what would become the stone city of Quebec, a castle on a hill. The English sent John Cabot across the Atlantic in 1497, but he disappeared on his return voyage, never to be seen again, and the English gave barely any thought to sending anyone after him. The word “colony” didn’t even enter the English language until the 1550s. And although England chartered trading companies—the Muscovy Company in 1555, the Turkey Company, in 1581, and the East India Company, in 1600—all looked eastward, not westward. About America, England hesitated.
In 1584, Elizabeth, the fierce and determined queen of England, asked one of her shrewdest ministers, Richard Hakluyt, whether she ought to found her own colonies in the Americas. She had in mind the Spanish and their idolatries, and their cruelties, and their vast riches, and their tyranny. By the time Elizabeth began staring west across the ocean, Las Casas’s pained history of the conquest had long since been translated into English,
lavishly illustrated with engravings of atrocities, often under the title Spanish Cruelties and, later, as The Tears of the Indians. The English had come to believe—as an article of faith, as a matter of belonging to the “English nation”—that they were nobler than the Spanish: more just, wiser, gentler, and dedicated to liberty. “The Spaniards governe in the Indies with all pride and tyranie,” Hakluyt reminded his queen, and, as with any people who are made slaves, the natives “all yell and crye with one voice Liberta, liberta.”47 England could deliver them.
Elizabeth rests her hand on a globe, laying claim to North America.
England’s notion of itself as a land of liberty was the story of the English nation stitched to the story of the English state. The Spanish were Catholic, but, while conquistadors had been building a New Spain, the English had become Protestant. In the 1530s, Henry VIII had established the Church of England, defiantly separate from the Church of Rome.
Occupied with religious and domestic affairs, England had been altogether tentative in venturing forth to the New World. When Henry VIII died, in 1547, his son Edward became king, but by 1552, Edward was mortally ill. Hoping to avoid the ascension of his half-sister Mary, who was a Catholic, Edward named as his successor his cousin Lady Jane Grey. But when Edward died, Mary seized power, had Jane beheaded, and became the first ruling queen of England. She attempted to restore Catholicism and persecuted religious dissenters, nearly three hundred of whom were burned at the stake. Protestants who opposed her rule on religious grounds decided to argue that she had no right to reign because she was a woman, claiming that for the weak to govern the strong was “the subversion of good order.” Another of Mary’s Protestant critics complained that her reign was a punishment from God, who “haste set to rule over us an woman whom nature hath formed to be in subjeccion unto man.” Mary’s Catholic defenders, meanwhile, argued that, politically speaking, Mary was a man, “the Prince female.”
When Mary died, in 1558, Elizabeth, a Protestant, succeeded her, and Mary’s supporters, who tried to argue against Elizabeth’s right to rule, were left to battle against their own earlier arguments: they couldn’t very well argue that Elizabeth couldn’t rule because she was a woman, when they had earlier insisted that her sex did not bar Mary from the throne. The debate moved to new terrain, and clarified a number of English ideas about the nature of rule. Elizabeth’s best defender argued that if God decided “the female should rule and govern,” it didn’t matter that women were “weake in nature, feable in bodie, softe in courage,” because God would make every right ruler strong. In any case, England’s constitution abided by a “rule mixte,” in which the authority of the monarch was checked by the power of Parliament; also, “it is not she that ruleth but the lawes.” Elizabeth herself called on yet another authority: the favor of the people.48 A mixed constitution, the rule of law, the will of the people: these were English ideas that Americans would one day make their own, crying, “Liberty!”
Elizabeth eyed Spain, which had been warring with England, France, and a rebelling Netherlands (the Dutch did not achieve independence from Spain until 1609). She set out to fight Spain on every field. On the question of founding colonies in the Americas, Hakluyt submitted to Elizabeth a
report that he titled “A particular discourse concerning the greate necessitie and manifold comodyties that are like to growe to this Realme of Englande by the Western discoveries lately attempted.” How much the queen was animated by animosity to Spain is nicely illustrated in the title of a report submitted to her at the very same time by another adviser: a “Discourse how Her Majesty may annoy the King of Spain.”49
Hakluyt believed the time had come for England to do more than attack Spanish ships. Establishing colonies “will be greately for the inlargement of the gospell of Christe,” he promised, and “will yelde unto us all the commodities of Europe, Affrica, and Asia.” And if the queen of England were to plant colonies in the New World, word would soon spread that the English “use the natural people there with all humanitie, curtesie, and freedome,” and the natives would “yielde themselves to her government and revolte cleane from the Spaniarde.”50 England would prosper; Protestantism would conquer Catholicism; liberty would conquer tyranny.
Elizabeth was unpersuaded. She was also distracted. In 1584, she’d expelled the Spanish ambassador after discovering a Spanish plot to invade England by way of Scotland. She liked the idea of an English foothold in the New World, but she didn’t want the Crown to cover the cost. She decided to issue a royal patent—a license—to one of her favorite courtiers, the dashing Walter Ralegh, writer, poet, and spy, granting him the right to land in North America south of a place called Newfoundland: A new- found-land, a new world, a utopia, a once-nowhere.
Ralegh was an adventurer, a man of action, but he was also a man of letters. Newly knighted, he launched an expedition in 1584. He did not sail himself but sent out a fleet of seven ships and six hundred men, providing them with a copy of Las Casas’s “book of Spanish crueltyes with fayr pictures,” to be used to convince the natives that the English, unlike the Spanish, were men of mercy and love, liberty and charity. Ralegh may well also have sent along with his expedition a copy of a new book of essays by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Like William Shakespeare, Ralegh was deeply influenced by Montaigne, whose 1580 essay “Of Cannibals” testifies to how, in one of the more startling ironies in the history of humanity, the very violence that characterized the meeting
between one half of the world and the other, which sowed so much destruction, also carried within it the seeds of something else.51
“Barbarians are no more marvelous to us than we are to them, nor for better cause,” Montaigne wrote. “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.”52 They are to us as we are to them, each true: out of two truths, one.
Ralegh’s men made landfall on an island on the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina, sweeping beaches edged with seagrass and stands of pine trees and palms. The ships sailed away, leaving behind 104 men with very little by way of supplies; the supply ship had been damaged, nearly running aground on the shoals. The site had been chosen because it was well hidden and difficult to reach. It may have been a good hideout for pirates, but it was a terrible place to build a colony. The settlers planned to wait out the winter, awaiting supplies they hoped would arrive in the spring. Meanwhile, they intended to look for gold and for a safer, deeper harbor. They built a fort, surrounded by palisades. They aimed its guns out over the wide water, believing their enemy to be Spain. They built houses outside the protection of the fort. They had very little idea that the people who already lived in the Outer Banks might pose a danger to them.
They sent home glowing reports of a land of ravishing beauty and staggering plenty. Ralph Lane, the head of the expedition, wrote that “all the kingdoms and states of Christendom, their commodities joined in one together, do not yield either more good or more plentiful whatsoever for public use is needful, or pleasing for delight.” Yet when the supply ship was delayed, the colonists, in the midst of plenty, began to starve. The natives, to whom the colonists had been preaching the Gospel, began telling them, “Our Lord God was not God, since he suffered us to sustain much hunger.” In June, a fleet arrived, commanded by Sir Francis Drake, a swashbuckler who’d sailed across the whole of the globe. He carried a cargo of three hundred Africans, bound in chains. Drake told the colonists that either he could leave them with food, and with a ship to look for a safer harbor, or else he could bring them home. Every colonist opted to leave. On Drake’s ships, they took the places of the Africans, people that Drake may have simply dumped into the cobalt sea, unwanted cargo.
Another expedition sent in 1587 to what had come to be called Roanoke fared no better. John White, an artist and mapmaker who had carefully studied the reports of the first expedition, aimed to establish a permanent colony not on the island but in nearby Chesapeake Bay, in a city to be called Ralegh. Instead, one blunder followed another. White sailed back to England that fall, in hopes of securing supplies and support. His timing could hardly have been less propitious. In 1588, a fleet of 150 Spanish ships attempted to invade England. Eventually, the armada was defeated. But with a naval war with Spain raging, White had no success in scaring up more ships to sail to Roanoke, leaving the settlement marooned.
Any record of the fate of the English colony at Roanoke, like most of what has ever happened in the history of the world, was lost. When White finally returned, in 1590, he found not a single Englishman, nor his daughter, nor his grandchild, a baby named Virginia, after Elizabeth, the virgin queen. Nearly all that remained of the settlement were the letters “CRO” carved into the trunk of a tree, a sign that White and the colonists had agreed upon before he left, a sign that they’d packed their things and headed inland to find a better site to settle. Three letters, and not one letter more. They were never heard from again.
“We found the people most gentle, loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason and such as lived after the manner of the Golden Age,” Arthur Barlowe, one of Ralegh’s captains, had earlier written home, describing Roanoke as a kind of Eden.53 The natives weren’t barbarians; they were ancestors, and the New World was the oldest world of all.
In the brutal, bloody century between Columbus’s voyage and John White’s, an idea was born, out of fantasy, out of violence, the idea that there exists in the world a people who live in an actual Garden of Eden, a state of nature, before the giving of laws, before the forming of government. This imagined history of America became an English book of genesis, their new truth.
“In the beginning,” the Englishman John Locke would write, “all the world was America.” In America, everything became a beginning.
THE RULERS AND THE RULED
This deerskin cloak, likely worn by Powhatan, was by the middle of the seventeenth century housed in a museum in Oxford, England.
THEY SKINNED THE DEER WITH KNIVES MADE OF STONE and scraped the hides of flesh and fat with a rib bone. They soaked the hides in wood ash
and corn mash and stretched them on a frame of sticks before sewing them together with thread made of tendons, twisted. Onto these stitched and tanned hides, they embroidered hundreds of tiny shells of seashore snails, emptied and dried, into the pattern of a man, flanked by a white-tailed deer and a mountain lion in a field of thirty-four circles.
This man was their ruler, the animals his spirits, and the circles the villages over which he ruled. One of his names was Wahunsunacock, but the English called him Powhatan. He may have worn the deerskin as a cloak; he may have used it to honor his ancestors. He may have given it to the English as a gift, in 1608, when their king, James, sent to him the gift of a scarlet robe, one robe for another. Or, the English might have stolen it. Somehow, someone carried it to England on a ship. In 1638, an Englishman who saw it in a museum in England, called the sinew-stitched deerskin decorated with shells “the robe of the King of Virginia.” But if it was Powhatan’s cloak, it also served as a map of his realm.1
The English called Powhatan “king,” for the sake of diplomacy, but it was the king of England who claimed to be the king of Virginia: James considered Powhatan among his subjects. The nature and history of the two kings’ reigns casts light on matters with which England’s colonists would wrestle for more than a century and a half: Who rules, and by what right?
Powhatan was born about 1545. At the death of his father, he inherited rule over six neighboring peoples; in the 1590s, he’d begun expanding his reign. On the other side of the ocean, James was born in 1566; the next year, when his mother died, he became king of Scotland. In 1603, after the death of his cousin Elizabeth, James was crowned king of England. The separation of the Church of England from the Church of Rome had elevated the monarchy, since the king no longer answered to the pope, and James believed that he, like the pope, was divinely appointed by God. “As to dispute what God may doe is Blasphemie,” he wrote, in a treatise called The True Law of Free Monarchies, “so is it Sedition in subjects to dispute what a King may do”—as if he were both infallible and above the rule of law.2
James, a pope-like king, proved more determined to found a colony in the New World than Elizabeth had been. In 1606, he issued a charter, granting to a body of men permission to settle on “that parte of America commonly called Virginia,” land that he claimed as his property, since, as
the charter explained, these lands were “not now actually possessed by any Christian Prince or People” and the natives “live in Darkness,” meaning that they did not know Christ.3
Unlike the Spanish, who set out to conquer, the English were determined to settle, which is why they at first traded with Powhatan, instead of warring with him. James granted to the colony’s settlers the right to “dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper,” the very kind of initiatives taken by Spain, but he also urged them to convert the natives to Christianity, on the ground that, “in propagating of Christian Religion to such People,” the English and Scottish might “in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government.”4 They proposed, he insisted, to bring not tyranny but liberty.
James’s charter, like Powhatan’s deerskin, is also a kind of map. (“Charter” has the same Latin root as “chart,” meaning a map.) By his charter, James granted land to two corporations, the Virginia Company and the Plymouth Company: “Wee woulde vouchsafe unto them our licence to make habitacion, plantacion and to deduce a colonie . . . at any Place upon the said-Coast of Virginia or America, where they shall think fit and convenient.”5 Virginia, at the time, stretched from what is now South Carolina to Canada: all of this, England claimed.
England’s empire would have a different character than that of either Spain or France. Catholics could make converts by the act of baptism, but Protestants were supposed to teach converts to read the Bible; that meant permanent settlements, families, communities, schools, and churches. Also, England’s empire would be maritime—its navy was its greatest strength. It would be commercial. And, of greatest significance for the course of the nation that would grow out of those settlements, its colonists would be free men, not vassals, guaranteed their “English liberties.”6
At such a great distance from their king, James’s colonists would remain his subjects but they would rule themselves. His 1606 charter decreed that the king would appoint a thirteen-man council in England to oversee the colonies, but, as for local affairs, the settlers would establish their own thirteen-man council to “govern and order all Matters and Causes.” And, most importantly, the colonists would retain all of their
rights as English subjects, as if they had never left England. If the king meant his guarantee of the colonists’ English liberties, privileges, and immunities as liberties, privileges, and immunities due to them if they were to return to England, the colonists would come to understand them as guaranteed in the colonies, a freedom attached to their very selves.7
Over the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the English established more than two dozen colonies, founding a sea-born empire of coastal settlements that stretched from the fishing ports of Newfoundland to the rice fields of Georgia and, in the Caribbean, from Jamaica and Antigua to Bermuda and Barbados. Beginning with the Virginia charter, the idea of English liberties for English subjects was planted on American soil and, with it, the king’s claim to dominion, a claim that rested on the idea that people like Powhatan and his people lived in darkness and without government, no matter that the English called their leaders kings.
And yet England’s own political order was about to be toppled. At the beginning of English colonization, the king’s subjects on both sides of the ocean believed that men were created unequal and that God had granted to their king the right to rule over them. These were their old truths. At the end of the seventeenth century, John Locke, imagining an American genesis and borrowing from Christian theology, would argue that all men were born into a state “of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another,” each “equal to the greatest, and subject to no body.”8 By 1776, many of the king’s subjects in many of his colonies so wholly agreed with this point of view that they accepted Thomas Paine’s “plain truth,” that, “all men being originally equals,” nothing was more absurd than the idea that God had granted to one person and his heirs the right to rule over all others. “Nature disapproves it,” Paine insisted, “otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”9 These became their new truths.
What had happened between the Virginia charter and the Declaration of Independence to convince so many people that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed? The answer lies in artifacts as different as a deerskin cloak and a scarlet robe and in places as far from one another as the ruins of ancient
castles and the hulls of slave ships, each haunted by the rattling of iron- forged chains.
VIRGINIA’S FIRST CHARTER was prepared in the office of Attorney General Edward Coke, a sour-tempered man with a pointed chin, a systematic mind, and an ungovernable tongue. Coke, who invested in the Virginia Company, was the leading theorist of English common law, the body of unwritten law established by centuries of custom and cases, to which Coke sought to apply the precepts of rationalism. “Reason is the life of the law,” Coke wrote, and “the common law itself is nothing else but reason.” In 1589, when he was thirty-seven, Coke became a member of Parliament. Five years later, Elizabeth appointed him attorney general. In 1603, after James threw Sir Walter Ralegh in the Tower of London, Coke prosecuted Ralegh for treason, for plotting against the king. “Thou viper,” Coke said to Ralegh in court, “thou hast an English face, but a Spanish heart.” Ralegh languished in prison for thirteen years, writing his history of the world, before he was beheaded. Meanwhile, his conviction freed the right to settle Virginia—a right Elizabeth had granted to Ralegh—to be newly issued by James, under Coke’s watchful eye. Two months after issuing the colony’s charter, James appointed Coke chief justice of the court of common pleas.10
The Virginia Company recruited colonists with advertisements that lavishly promised an Eden-like bounty.
To settle the new colony, the Virginia Company rounded up men who were eager to make their own fortunes, along with soldiers who’d fought in England’s religious wars against Catholics and Muslims. Burly and fearless John Smith, all of twenty-six, had already fought the Spanish in France and in the Netherlands and, with the Austrian army, had battled the Turks in Hungary. Captured by Muslims, he’d been sold into slavery, from which he’d eventually escaped. Engraved on his coat of arms, with three heads of Turks, was his motto, vincere est vivere: to conquer is to live.11 George Sandys, Virginia’s treasurer, had traveled by camel to Jerusalem and had written at length about Islam; William Strachey, the colony’s secretary, had traveled in Istanbul. Much like the Spanish, these men and their investors wanted to found a colony in the New World to search for gold to fund wars to defeat Muslims in the Old World, even as they pledged not to inflict “Spanish cruelties” on the American natives.12
In December 1606, 105 Englishmen—and no women—boarded three ships, carrying a box containing a list of the men appointed by the Virginia Company to govern the colony, “not to be opened, nor the governours knowne until they arrived in Virginia.” During the voyage, Smith was confined belowdecks, shackled and in chains, accused of plotting a mutiny to “make himselfe king.”13 In May 1607, when the expedition finally landed on the banks of a brackish river named after their king, the box was opened, and it was discovered that Smith, though still a prisoner, was on that list.14 Unclapped came his chains.
Whatever “quiet government” the company’s merchants had intended, the colonists proved ungovernable. They built a fort and began looking for gold. But a band of soldiers and gentlemen-adventurers proved unwilling to clear fields or plant and harvest crops; instead, they stole food from Powhatan’s people, stores of corn and beans. Smith, disgusted, complained that the company had sent hardly any but the most useless of settlers. He counted one carpenter, two blacksmiths, and a flock of footmen, and wrote the rest off as “Gentlemen, Tradesmen, Servingmen, libertines, and such like, ten times more fit to spoyle a Commonwealth, than either begin one, or but helpe to maintaine one.”15
In 1608, Smith, elected the colony’s governor, made a rule: “he who does not worke, shall not eat.”16 By way of diplomacy, he staged an
elaborate coronation ceremony, crowning Powhatan “king,” and draping upon his shoulders the scarlet robe sent by James. Whatever this gesture meant to Powhatan, the English intended it as an act of their sovereignty, insisting that, in accepting these gifts, Powhatan had submitted to English rule: “Powhatan, their chiefe King, received voluntarilie a crown and a scepter, with a full acknowledgment of dutie and submission.”17 And still the English starved, and still they raided native villages. In the fall of 1609, the colonists revolted—auguring so many revolts to come—and sent Smith back to England, declaring that he had made Virginia, under his leadership, “a misery, a ruine, a death, a hell.”18
The real hell was yet to come. In the winter of 1609–10, five hundred colonists, having failed to farm or fish or hunt and having succeeded at little except making their neighbors into enemies, were reduced to sixty. “Many, through extreme hunger, have run out of their naked beds being so lean that they looked like anatomies, crying out, we are starved, we are starved,” wrote the colony’s lieutenant governor, George Percy, the eighth son of the earl of Northumberland, reporting that “one of our Colline murdered his wife Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe it into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food.”19 They ate one another.
Word of this dire state of affairs soon reached England. Like nearly everything else reported from across the ocean, it set minds alight. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who served on the board of the Virginia Company, eyed the descent of the colony into anarchy with more than passing interest. In 1622, four years after Powhatan’s death, the natives rose up in rebellion and tried to oust the English from their land, killing hundreds of new immigrants in what the English called the “Virginia massacre.” Hobbes, working out a theory of the origins of civil society by deducing an original state of nature, pondered the violence in Virginia. “The savage people in many places of America . . . have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner,” he would later write, in The Leviathan, a treatise in which he concluded that the state of nature is a state of war, “of every man against every man.”20
Miraculously, the colony recovered; its population grew and its economy thrived with a new crop, tobacco, a plant found only in the New
World and long cultivated by the natives.21 With tobacco came the prospect of profit, and a new political and economic order: the colonists would rule themselves and they would rule over others. In July 1619, twenty-two English colonists, two men from each of eleven parts of the colony, met in a legislative body, the House of Burgesses, the first self-governing body in the colonies. One month later, twenty Africans arrived in Virginia, the first slaves in British America, Kimbundu speakers from the kingdom of Ndongo. Captured in raids ordered by the governor of Angola, they had been marched to the coast and boarded the São João Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship headed for New Spain. At sea, an English privateer, the White Lion, sailing from New Netherlands, attacked the São João Bautista, seized all twenty, and brought them to Virginia to be sold.22
Twenty Englishmen were elected to the House of Burgesses. Twenty Africans were condemned to the house of bondage. Another chapter opened in the American book of genesis: liberty and slavery became the American Abel and Cain.
WAVES SLAPPED AGAINST the hulls of ships like the pounding of a drum. Mothers lulled children to sleep while men wailed, singing songs of sorrow. “It frequently happens that the negroes, on being purchased by the Europeans, become raving mad,” wrote one slave trader. “Many of them die in that state.” Others took their own lives, throwing themselves into the sea, hoping that the ocean would carry them to their ancestors.23
The English who crossed the ocean endured the hazards of the voyage under altogether different circumstances, but the perils of the passage left their traces on them, too, in memoirs and stories, and in their bonds to one another. In the summer of 1620, a year after the White Lion landed off the coast of Virginia, the Mayflower, a 180-ton, three-masted, square-rigged merchant vessel, lay anchored in the harbor of the English town of Plymouth, at the mouth of the river Plym. It soon took on its passengers, some sixty adventurers, and forty-one men—dissenters from the Church of
England—who brought with them their wives, children, and servants. William Bradford, the dissenters’ chronicler, called them “pilgrims.”24
Bradford, who would become governor of the colony the dissenters would found, became, too, its chief historian, writing, he said, “in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things.” Ten years before, Bradford explained, the pilgrims had left England for Holland, where they’d settled in Leiden, a university town known for learning and for religious toleration. After a decade in exile, they’d decided to make a new start someplace else. “The place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America,” Bradford wrote, “which are fruitful and fit for habitation, being devoid of all civil inhabitants, where there are only savage and brutish men which range up and down, little otherwise than the wild beasts.” Though fearful of the journey, they placed their faith in a providential God, and set sail for Virginia. “All being compact together in one ship,” Bradford wrote, “they put to sea again with a prosperous wind.”
During the treacherous, sixty-six-day journey over what Bradford called the “vast and furious ocean,” one man was swept overboard, saved only by grasping a halyard; the ship leaked; a beam split; and one of the masts bowed and nearly cracked. For two days, the wind grew so fierce that everyone on board had to crowd into the hull, huddled under rafters. When the storm quieted, the crew caulked the decks, fortified the masts, and raised the sails once more. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth on the swaying ship; she named her son Oceanus. The ship, blown severely off course, dropped anchor not in Virginia but off the windswept coast of Cape Cod. Unwilling to risk the ocean again, the pilgrims rowed ashore to found what they hoped would be a new and better England, another beginning. And yet, wrote Bradford, “what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men”? They fell to their knees and praised God they were alive. The day they arrived, having sailed what Bradford described as a “sea of troubles,” in a ship they imagined as a ship of state—the whole body of a people, in the same boat—they signed a document in which they pledged to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.”25 They named their agreement after their ship. They called it the Mayflower Compact.
The men who settled Virginia had been granted a charter by the king. But the men, women, and children who settled in what they called a New England had no charter; they’d fled the king, bridling against his rule. Religious dissent in seventeenth-century England was also a form of political dissent. It was punishable by both imprisonment and execution. But if James’s divine right to rule was questioned by dissenters who fled his authority, it was being questioned, too, on the floor of Parliament. The battle between the king and Parliament would send tens of thousands more exiles across the vast and furious ocean, seeking political freedom in the colonies. It would also foster in them a deep and abiding spirit of rebellion against arbitrary rule.
Even as dissenters in New England struggled to survive their first winter in a settlement they named Plymouth, members of Parliament were beginning to challenge the tradition by which Parliament met only when summoned by the king. In 1621, Edward Coke, who, after Ralegh’s beheading in 1618 had emerged as James’s most cunning adversary, claimed that Parliament had the right to debate on all matters concerning the Commonwealth. The king had Coke arrested, confined him to the Tower of London, and dissolved Parliament. Ralegh had written a history of the world while in prison; Coke would write a history of the law.