North America After 1500 AD: History and Government
Government of North America
Bill of Rights (1791)
After the leaders of the new United States wrote the Constitution, they had to get the thirteen states to agree to it. Some of the states didn’t want to agree unless they could add some specific rights for individual people. So in 1791 the United States added ten new rights to the Constitution. These are called the Bill of Rights.
These are the ten rights that are in the Bill of Rights:
- Congress can’t make any law about your religion, or stop you from practicing your religion, or keep you from saying whatever you want, or publish whatever you want (like in a newspaper or a book). And Congress can’t stop you from meeting peacefully for a demonstration to ask the government to change something.
- Congress can’t stop people from having and carrying weapons, because we need to be able to defend ourselves.
- You don’t have to let soldiers live in your house, except if there is a war, and even then only if Congress has passed a law about it.
- Nobody can search your body, or your house, or your papers and things unless they can prove to a judge that they have a good reason to think you have committed a crime.
- You can’t be tried for any serious crime without a Grand Jury meeting first to decide whether there’s enough evidence for a trial. And if the jury decides you are innocent, the government can’t try again with another jury. You don’t have to say anything at your trial. You can’t be killed, or put in jail, or fined unless you were convicted of a crime by a jury. And the government can’t take your house or your farm or anything that is yours unless the government pays for it.
- If you’re arrested, you have a right to have your trial pretty soon, and the government can’t keep you in jail without trying you. The trial has to be public, so everyone knows what is happening. The case has to be decided by a jury of ordinary people from your area. You have the right to know what you are accused of, to see and hear the people who are witnesses against you, to have the government help you get witnesses on your side, and you have the right to a lawyer to help you.
- You also have the right to a jury when it is a civil case (a law case between two people rather than between you and the government).
- The government can’t make you pay more than is reasonable in bail or in fines, and the government can’t order you to have cruel or unusual punishments (like torture) even if you are convicted of a crime.
- Just because these rights are listed in the Constitution doesn’t mean that you don’t have other rights too.
- Anything that the Constitution doesn’t say that Congress can do should be left up to the states, or to the people.
Declaration of Independence
In 1776, soon after the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, the leaders of the war got together to write a letter to the King of England. They wanted to explain why they were fighting to be their own country, independent of England. This is what they had to say (but in easier words):
Sometimes one group of people decide to split off from another group, and to become an independent country, as the laws of Nature and of God say that they can. But when this happens, if they want other people to respect them, they should explain why they are splitting off.
We think these things are obviously true:
- That all men are created equal
- That all men have some rights given to them by God
- That among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So whenever any government is getting in the way of these rights, people have the right to change it or get rid of it, and to make a new government, in whatever way seems most likely to make them safe and happy.
People should not change their government without a good reason, so people usually suffer as long as they can under the government they have, rather than change it. But when there have been a lot of problems for a long time, it is their right and their duty to throw off that government, and to set up a better government.
We here in America have suffered for a very long time, and now we should change our government. The king of England has done many bad things to us – here is a list:
- He won’t let us pass laws we need for everybody’s good.
- Even when we do pass laws, he won’t sign them so they can go into effect.
- He tried to force men to give up their right to make laws.
- He calls men together to make laws in the most inconvenient times and places, so that they won’t be able to go discuss the new laws.
- He won’t let new settlers come to America, and he won’t let the settlers take over new land from the Native Americans.
- He won’t let us choose our own judges, and instead he chooses them all himself, so they’re all on his side.
- He sends lots of new government officials that we don’t want, and he makes us pay for them.
- He sends lots of English soldiers here when there isn’t even a war, and makes us let them live in our own houses.
- He tells us these soldiers can do whatever they want and don’t have to obey the law.
- He won’t let us buy and sell things from wherever we want. We can only buy things from England.
- He makes us pay all kinds of taxes without asking us about it.
- He won’t let us have a jury for our trials, only a judge.
- He sends people accused of crimes far away to England for their trials.
- He tries to get people to revolt and tries to get the “Indian Savages” to attack us.
When we ask him to stop, he just keeps on doing more bad things. We have tried to talk to the other people who live in England. We asked them to stop these crimes against us, but they have acted as though they were deaf. So we have to separate from England, and they will be our enemies during the war, though we hope they’ll be our friends when there is peace.
So we think that God will see that we are doing the right thing when we declare that the United States are now completely independent of the King of England. We have no more political connection to England at all. And as independent states, we say that each state has the right to make war, to make peace, to make alliances with other countries, trade with other countries, and do everything else that countries do. And we promise that we will fight for our independence with the help of God – we promise by our lives, our property, and our sacred honor.
Among the men who signed this declaration of independence were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This Declaration of Independence was an exciting letter to write – it laid out a lot of new ideas about the rights that all people should have. On the other hand, all of the people involved in writing the Declaration were rich white men. Even though they thought they themselves should have these rights, they were pretty vague about whether the same rights should apply to poor people, women, black people, or Native Americans – most of the people living in the United States at this time. Representatives of all these groups asked to be included, and some white men started out supporting their inclusion, but in the end, only rich white Christian men signed the Declaration of Independence. But even though the Declaration of Independence only applied to some people, it was a very important statement of the idea that everybody has rights.
United States Constitution
After the American Revolutionary War got the United States started as a new country in 1781 AD, the leaders of the United States got together to try to write up some rules for how the government of this new country would work. Men came from all of the thirteen states (except Rhode Island). Benjamin Franklin came from Pennsylvania. But even though they asked to join, women and people of color and non-Christians were excluded.
Some of the men at the meeting thought the government should help the poor to be equal to rich men. Other men disagreed; they thought the rich men knew more about how to run the United States. Some men thought that each state should decide most things for itself. Other men thought that the United States should decide most things together. Little by little, the leaders worked out compromises, and this is what they came up with (but shorter and in simpler words):
We, the people of the United States, are writing this Constitution in order to have justice, to have peace, to be able to defend ourselves, to be better off, and to be free – not just for ourselves, but for all our children and descendants.
There will be a Senate and a House of Representatives, and both will be made up of men (not women) elected by the citizens. They will be the only people who can make new laws for the whole United States (but each state can make other laws just for that state). Together, these two groups are called Congress. Congress can make laws to raise taxes, to defend the United States and to make people’s lives better. Congress can also borrow money, mint money, set up a post office, allow copyrights and patents, and a few other things. And Congress can declare war on other countries.
There will be a President, elected by the citizens. He will be the commander in chief of the army and the navy. He can make treaties with other countries, if two-thirds of the Senators agree. And he can appoint the judges of the Supreme Court.
There will be a Supreme Court, whose job it is to decide whether Congress and the President are doing what the Constitution tells them to do. The Supreme Court will also decide any law cases where people disagree about what the law means. All court cases will be decided by juries.
Every state has to honor any arrangement made by another state. If someone has committed a crime and runs away to another state, that state should send him or her back to be tried. Every state should have a Republican form of government. The United States government will protect each state against invasion and against riots or revolution.
Just after the men wrote this Constitution, some states insisted on having people’s rights stated clearly. So they added a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
History of North America
In 1540 AD the Cherokee met European men for the first time. A Spanish man named Hernando De Soto was exploring the East Coast of North America with a group of Spanish soldiers when he arrived at Cherokee towns. Cherokee leaders welcomed the foreigners diplomatically (even though they must have known that De Soto and his men had been killing and enslaving other Native Americans nearby). This worked for a while. But then De Soto tried to make the leaders of the Cherokee tell him where all their gold and silver was, and where the gold and silver mines were (because De Soto thought all of North America was just covered in gold and silver treasure – but he was wrong). The Cherokee chiefs could not understand what he wanted, and they didn’t have any gold or silver. De Soto got very angry and killed some of the Cherokee men and took other men and women away to be slaves for the Spanish men.
In the fall of 1566, another group of Spanish invaders traveled around the Cherokees’ land. The Cherokee treated this group well too. Probably many people died of smallpox caught from De Soto’s men during this time, but we have no records of it.
In 1654, Cherokee people first met English people. Cherokee people had founded a town where Richmond, Virginia is now. The English settlers at Virginia didn’t want the Cherokee there and attacked them, but after a bloody battle the Cherokee won, and the English had to leave their town alone. The Cherokee traded with the Spanish settlements near them, and by the 1670s all the Cherokee soldiers had guns. In 1660 a lot of Shawnee people came south, driven out by their Iroquois neighbors. The Cherokee let these Shawnee settle on the edges of their land, to protect them from attacks, but in the end the Shawnee ended up fighting with the Cherokees.
At first the Cherokee army was much stronger than the invading European armies. The Cherokee made trade agreements with the English in 1684 and began to trade deerskins and Native American slaves (from other groups like the Creek people) to English traders in exchange for guns, metal tools like hoes, and farm animals like sheep, cows, chickens and pigs.
But in 1715 many Cherokee people died of another epidemic of smallpox – probably more than half of the people died! – and then their army was much weaker. Cherokee leaders were forced to make treaties with the English king.
Seven young Cherokee men went to England in the 1730s AD to meet King George II of England. One of these Cherokee men was Oukanaekah. They signed trade treaties with the English government and agreed to be friendly with England.
In 1756, the Cherokees lived up to their treaties with the English by fighting on the side of the English during the Seven Years War. But the English settlers in Virginia and Tennessee ended up fighting with the Cherokees, and many people were killed. The Cherokee ended up at war with the English. Finally in 1762 the English sent so many troops into Cherokee territory that the Cherokee, under their chief Ostenaco and other men, had to give up and make peace.
Later in 1762 three of these Cherokee chiefs, Cumnacatogue and Ostenaco and another man called Pouting Pigeon, went to England to meet with King George III.
Maybe because of the English settlers in Virginia, more and more Cherokee people moved south and west into Choctaw and Chickasaw. So Choctaw and Chickasaw people had to move south and west also. By the time of the American Revolution, the Cherokee were angry about having to move, and so they took the side of England in the war.
By the 1790s, the new United States government was determined to get the Cherokee people’s land, and angry because the Cherokee had fought for England in the Revolutionary War. They began to sell lots of things to Cherokee chiefs, like clothes, food, beads, and tools. They encouraged the chiefs to buy more than they could afford, so that the chiefs owed the United States government a lot of money. Then the United States government insisted that the Cherokees pay up, and forced the Cherokees to pay in land, instead of in money or in furs or something else. The United States would only take land. So little by little the Cherokees had to give up their land to the United States.
After this, some Cherokee people decided to live more like the Europeans. They published newspapers, got English educations, became Christians, and lived in English style houses. Joseph Vann, for example, was a Cherokee man who took an English name and owned a big farm in Georgia where he lived like Englishmen and forced hundreds of African people to work on his farm as slaves.
Joseph Vann was not an enemy of his Cherokee people (neither the English nor the Cherokee saw anything wrong with slavery), but instead was a good friend of a Cherokee chief, John Ross. John Ross often sent Joseph Vann to Washington to talk to the United States government about the business of the tribe. Joseph Vann was the second richest man in the United States.
But even when Cherokee people tried to be like the English, the English did not treat them fairly. In 1833, William Bishop of the Georgia Guard (the army of Georgia) took Joseph Vann’s house and farm from him by force, without paying for them.
About this time, thanks to the invention of the cotton gin, European plantation owners in the South began to grow more and more cotton. They wanted the Cherokee land to grow cotton on, using enslaved Africans to plant and pick the cotton. These men pressured the United States government to move all the Cherokee people from their own land in the south-eastern part of North America (Georgia and Arkansas) further west, where there were not so many European white settlers yet. But the land was not as good in the West, and many Cherokee people did not want to move. There were fights between the Cherokee people who thought they should move, and the ones who wanted to stay and fight for their land. And there were wars between the Cherokee army and the United States Army, and the army of the Republic of Texas. One of the leaders of these wars was Tah-Chee. But the Cherokee army gradually lost these wars. By the middle of the 1840s, most of the Cherokee people had to move west to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma and Kansas. The way they took, walking west to Indian Territory, is called the Trail of Tears, because so many people cried as they were walking because they were so sad.
American Revolutionary War
In 1763 AD England won the French and Indian War against France (which had been fought mainly in North America), and so the English-speaking settlers on the East Coast could stop worrying that they were about to be taken over by France. To pay for that war, the English government began to make the the English-speaking settlers pay more and more taxes. This brought the English a lot of money, but it made the settlers more and more angry. They were especially angry because they couldn’t vote or speak for themselves in England about these taxes. The settlers said this was “taxation without representation” and it was wrong.
The settlers decided to boycott everything they had been buying from English traders – they would not buy their tea, clothes, glass, paper, and so on (This is when many Americans began to drink coffee). To show that they meant it, in 1773 they threw a lot of tea on an English ship overboard, into the ocean – this is called the “Boston Tea Party.” Women proudly spun and wove their own cloth, though they had not done it for a long time.
In 1775, two years later, the first shots were fired in Massachusetts. England and the United States were now at war. The Iroquois, under their leader Joseph Brant, and the Cherokee decided to help England with the war because they thought the English would stop settlers from moving into their land. About a quarter of the settlers took the side of England too. Quakers tried to stay neutral.
George Washington was the commander in chief of the United States’ army. At first he won, and on July 4th, 1776 the United States government published the Declaration of Independence. But then the English government sent lots more men to fight (women weren’t allowed), and soon the United States was losing the war.
At this point, Benjamin Franklin went to Paris and succeeded in getting the French king to send help. In 1777 the French navy helped send in lots of weapons for the United States army to use. Then Spain and the Netherlands also came in on the side of France. Nobody was on the side of England. Even some English people were on the side of the United States.
By 1781, the United States (with the help of the French general Lafayette, other French soldiers, and lots of French money) had won several big battles. Even when the English won, they couldn’t get people to support them, or get their navy through to help them. So in October the English army surrendered to George Washington. That was the end of the Revolutionary War.
Although other people, both white and Native American, have been held as slaves in North America, the experience of the African people who were forced to come to North America as slaves was more unusual, because more than half of the people living in slave states were slaves.
Most of the people who became slaves in North America were from West Africa. You would be living in a village when outsiders attacked and captured you, and then they would sell you to somebody else, who sold you to somebody else, and in the end somebody would sell you to a white man who would keep you in a slave fort on the coast of Africa. Half of the people captured with you died of hunger or sickness, while you were walking to the coast.
Soon men with guns would force you to get on a ship, and they would take you to North America. The ship was terrible – dirty, and stinky, and you were crowded like on a crowded bus, and you had to stay there for two or three months. You wore chains that fastened you to people on either side of you the whole time. You had to lie down because there wasn’t even room to sit up, the ceiling was so low. Almost one out of ten of the people around you got sick and died. Sometimes people gave up and tried to starve themselves to death, but the sailors beat them or tortured them until they ate something. Sometimes people call this trip the Middle Passage.
When you got to North America, you got a few weeks to get healthier, and you got a European-style dress or pants to wear, and then the slave trader sold you to whoever would pay the most for you. Most people went to southern states like Mississippi to pick cotton, though a few people went further north, to the Carolinas, to plant and pick tobacco.
When people didn’t own any land, or they lost their land because of not being able to pay back the money they borrowed, they often became sharecroppers. This means that they would farmland that belonged to somebody else (usually a rich man, because not very many women-owned land). The sharecropping family (both the parents and the kids) would do all the work of plowing and planting and weeding and harvesting, but they would only keep a share of the crop, and the rich man would get the rest of it. Usually, the sharecroppers got half and the rich man who owned the land got the other half; sometimes the sharecroppers got two-thirds and the owner got one-third.
People have been working the land on shares since ancient Egypt. We know about sharecroppers from ancient Rome, and from ancient China and India. Sharecropping is better than renting land in some ways because if the weather is bad and you don’t get much of a harvest, you still keep some of what you grew. There’s less risk of starving. But it’s worse than renting because even if you work very hard, you can’t save much money to buy your own land.
After the Civil War in the United States of America, a lot of freed people who had been working as slaves began working in the cotton fields as sharecroppers. They were better off than when they were enslaved. Nobody could split their family up or beat them. It was better than working for wages, because then the white people would still have been telling them what to do. But sharecroppers were still poor, and it was hard for them to save money to buy their own land. White landowners liked that, because they didn’t want black people to own their own land.
Many white farmers also became sharecroppers after the Civil War. In Mississippi, for instance, about a third of the white farmers were sharecroppers, and more than three-quarters of the black farmers were sharecroppers. Nearly all of the landowners, though, were white. The white landowners arranged things so that most sharecroppers could not make enough money sharecropping to buy their food and clothes. They ended up having to borrow money from the landowners, and soon they were always in debt. The landowners said they could not leave the land if they owed money, so in many places share-cropping ended up being a lot like slavery. But by the 1940s machines could do most of the work that the sharecroppers had done, and so most of the sharecroppers stopped working on farms and moved to the cities to work in factories.