Native American Cultures: The Pre-History of America
At the time Columbus discovered America millions of Indians had been living in the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years. During the latter part of the Ice Age, a land bridge existed between Asia and Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait, and all evidence indicates that the Native American tribes migrated from Mongolia, through Alaska and Canada and eventually all the way down to South America, with some settling in favorable locations in the north and others moving on. Over time, they developed into distinct, separate Indian cultures.
Thus North and South American Indians were extremely diverse, with varied physical traits, linguistic groupings, ethnic characteristics, customs, cultures, and so on. Indeed the Indians in North America were probably far more diverse than the people of the nations of northwestern Europe in 1500. In Central America the Aztecs had a large powerful empire, while along the eastern coast of North America Indians lived in smaller tribes and subsisted by both agriculture and by hunting and gathering. Farther south the Mayas and Incas had advanced civilizations that had progressed far in mathematics, astronomy, and engineering. In the western part of North America nomadic tribes roamed over the Great Plains in search of buffalo and other game and often came into conflict with other tribes over the use of their hunting grounds.
When game became more scarce, perhaps due to over-hunting or from other causes, many American Indian groups turned to agriculture as a means of subsistence. In so doing American Indians became perhaps the best farmers in history, developing new crops and refining farming methods that they later shared with the colonists from Europe. Dozens of foodstuffs consumed in the world today, including corn, potatoes, various beans, squash, and so on, were developed by Native American farmers. When the European colonists first arrived, their survival often depended on their adoption of Indian hunting and farming practices.
Indians also understood the use of natural medicines and drugs, and many of their healing techniques are still used by medical people today. Indian foods, especially corn and the potato, transformed European dietary habits, and in fact the impact of the potato on Ireland’s population was so great that it led to much of the Irish immigration to America in the 1800s.
A thorough investigation of Native American cultures, even those in North and Central America, is an apt subject for lengthy study; the literature on pre-Columbian America is rich indeed. What is important to know is that Indian and European cultures affected each other profoundly, a phenomenon that has been called the Colombian Exchange—the exchange of habits, practices, living techniques, and resources between the Indians and the Europeans.
The Native American cultures in the Western Hemisphere found their societies disrupted or even destroyed by the impact of the Europeans, some of which was deliberate, and some of which was a result of the transmission of diseases to which the American Indians were not immune. The introduction of firearms, alcohol, and other European artifacts also had deep and unpredictable effects. But the impact of the Indians on European culture was also deeply significant.
For reasons that are not fully understood, some groups of Indians vanished without being affected by the Europeans. One such group were the Anasazi of the southwestern United States. They built spectacular dwellings in the cliffs in New Mexico; some of their settlements carved into the rocks contained hundreds of rooms. But somewhere around the year 1300 they left their rock palaces, never to return, for reasons unknown. Anasazi link.
Native Americans and Europeans
Ironically, in North America the presence of the native cultures made it possible for the first English settlers to maintain a foothold on the new continent. The Jamestown colony and the New England Pilgrims certainly owed their mere survival to the help and assistance of Indians. The Indian cultures that the Europeans encountered were in many ways just as sophisticated, or in some instances even more sophisticated, than the European cultures that arrived in the first ships. The Indians never thought of themselves as inferior to whites; in fact, the opposite was often the case.
The arrival of the Europeans also upset the balance of power among the North American Indian tribes, both in the eastern woodland regions and later on the Great Plains and in the deserts of the Southwest. Europeans frequently had a romanticized view of the Indians as “noble savages,” and some Europeans believed them to be one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. In eastern tribes women frequently held power, and in fact some were tribal chiefs. Europeans often rated Indians as inferiors, which then justified their harsh treatment of the Indians later on.
Probably the greatest misunderstanding between Europeans and Indians was their differing concepts of land, or land ownership. The European believed that you could drive four stakes in the ground, parcel off a square of land, and claim ownership of that piece of ground. Such individual ownership of a section of land was completely alien to the Indian way of thinking. Certainly Indian tribes fought over the use of land on which to hunt or fish or even practice agriculture, though the agricultural tribes tended to be less warlike than hunting tribes. But the idea of “ownership” of land was something they did not understand. For some Indians the land itself was sacred, held as a mother goddess. For many Indians the idea of plowing soil to plant crops was as good as blasphemy, and many aspects of nature—rivers, ponds, even rocks—performed similar functions as the saints in Christian cultures. Even after they had made deals with the Europeans for the purchase of land, the meaning of what they had done was often unclear and led to further conflict.
Many Indians tribes were traders and had built complicated economic relationships with their neighboring tribes, so they understood the idea of commerce as is existed within their own system of barter and exchange. The European impact on this trading culture was often destructive, however, as the Europeans sought to trade and exchange different kinds of goods from what the Indians were used to.
The AMERICAN COLONIES AND THE EMPIRE
It is useful to recall that until the beginning of the American Revolution (and even for a time after that), many Americans were loyal subjects of their royal majesties, the kings and queens listed below. One of the great paradoxes of Western history is that although these British monarchs were not always everything their subjects wished them to be, they ruled reasonably well, and their subjects were among the freest and best governed in the world. Monarchs such as Elizabeth I (the Great), known as “Good Queen Bess,” were beloved among their subjects. At the other extreme were Charles I and James II, both of whom were deposed. In general, however, kings and queens were believed to have the God-given right to rule, and they all took it seriously and tried to serve their subjects well. In any case, it is interesting that the first modern revolution of any size took place in the least likely country on Earth. Great Britain was seen as an enlightened monarchy even before the Age of Enlightenment.
To fully understand the relationship of colonial America with the British Empire, we should keep in mind first of all that the colonists did not question the idea of being part of the British Empire until shortly before the American Revolution began. For the first century and a half of colonial history, the majority of American colonists saw themselves as subjects of the Crown, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that British citizenship entailed.
As we have noted elsewhere, the colonies were ruled by King and parliament within the context of British mercantilism. Mercantilism, which has been defined as a form of “state capitalism,” was meant to help the entire empire, and although the colonists sometimes felt themselves victims of mercantile practice, the intention of the mercantile laws, which took the form of various navigation acts, was to bolster British trade and therefore the British economy at the expense of other nations. Governing the Empire was supposed to lift the tide of British prosperity with the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. (Mercantilism is discussed in more detail below.)
In reality, however, the interests and needs of British subjects located on English soil had the highest priority, so that when it was deemed practical, the interest of the colonies were subordinated to those of the mother country. And although the colonists sometimes objected to various practices incorporated into the navigation acts, they did not question the theory that the Empire had the right to be governed as its leaders saw fit. Furthermore, the colonies prospered under the protection of the British Empire.
The ocean highways of the world were dangerous places, where a colonial trading vessel could be set upon by pirates or by the warships or privateers of competing nations. The fact that colonial ships flew the British flag meant that even in remote parts of the world colonial merchants and traders could reasonably expect to find a British man of war over the horizon to protect them in time of trouble. In addition, colonial ships carrying colonial goods were able to trade widely, and as long as colonial products were desired in the marketplace of the world, good profits were possible.
For most of the 17th-century as the colonies were young and developing, conflicts between colonial interests and those of the Empire or relatively insignificant. But in the 18th century, things began to change. To start with, a series of dynastic wars was fought in Europe among the great powers: Spain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and various lesser states who aligned themselves with one or the other of the major powers. Since a direct relationship was assumed between the possession of colonies and economic and therefore military power, these wars, though focused on the European continent, or often played out to some extent on colonial turf. The American colonies thus found themselves dragged into conflicts primarily between Great Britain and France and Great Britain and Spain, even though those conflicts may not have had major significance for the colonists themselves.
Another factor which entered into the growing divergence of interests between the colonists and the mother country was the fact of colonial prosperity. As the colonists began to prosper, the spread of information through books, pamphlets newspapers and so on infused the Americans with a political sense of that to which they were entitled as British citizens. The educated and well read among the colonists began to examine and question the various theories which guided the government of the British Empire. They gradually became aware that in many ways they were being exploited, and that when their interests conflicted with those of the mother country, they were sold short.
Adding to the theoretical separation of interests was the simple fact of distance. Even as the American colonies clung for the most part to the east coast of North America, they were becoming aware that a vast continent lay before them and that eventually, inevitably, the colonies would outgrow the mold into which they had been cast. The separation of America from the British Empire, therefore, can be seen as virtually inevitable, and so the means by which that separation would take place would be determined by events that began after the middle of the 18th-century. Just as Canada, Australia, and India eventually broke away from the Empire, it is a virtual certainty that America would have done the same. Americans were different from their British cousins almost as soon as they arrived in the New World, and the hope that they might remain British forever was fragile.
The British Imperial Economic System: Mercantilism—or “State Capitalism”
(Note: The term “state capitalism” may in other areas of economic theory have a meaning different from what is described here: All that is implied for this portion of this course is that mercantilism was essentially a capitalist system in which the mechanisms of trade were heavily controlled by the state rather than by market forces. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776—a very interesting date in this context—was an argument against mercantilism and in favor of free-market capitalism.)
Mercantilism was a system by which the government deliberately controlled the economic affairs of the state in order to accumulate national wealth. The ultimate purpose of mercantile policy was to enhance national strength, provide self-sufficiency, and pay for military power. Mercantile theory came to include the notion that no nation could be great without colonies as sources of markets and raw materials. The British became especially dependent upon their colonial empire.
|International economics were seen as a zero sum game—at any given moment only a finite amount of wealth exists in the world; therefore, the only way for a nation to increase its wealth was to fight for bigger share. If one pictures all the wealth in the world or within a group of nations as a large pie chart, and acknowledges that while the whole pie may get larger, thereby increasing everyone’s wealth, those changes are likely to be at best only incremental, at least in the short term. To rapidly increase one’s wealth in the immediate future, one must accumulate new wealth at the expense of someone else.|
Principles of Mercantilism
- A “favorable Balance of Trade” is the major goal—more exports than imports to bring wealth to the home nation.
- Nations should concentrate on producing marketable goods—cash products. (Adam Smith advocates national specialization in The Wealth of Nations.)
- Nations should limit the importation of goods and services as much as possible so as to prevent the exporting of gold.
- It is necessary to accumulate silver and gold as bulwarks of national wealth and power.
- All the major nations were mercantilist; each European nation practiced some form of Mercantilism. Spain tried to control metals, France regulated internal trade, the Dutch controlled external trade, etc.
Great Britain had four major aims in its mercantile policy:
- Encourage growth of a native merchant marine fleet (which would include colonial ships.)
- Protect English manufacturers from foreign competition.
- Protect English agriculture, especially grain farmers.
- Accumulate as much hard money as possible. (Americans had to pay for everything with hard currency, which was scarce in the colonies. Instead, they often paid with tobacco or other goods in lieu of cash. Colonial paper was not legal tender in England. The coins that actually circulated in America were often Spanish or Dutch, if they could be obtained.)
NOTE: The American colonies were a small part of a worldwide system. While the American occasionally chafed under the restrictions placed upon them, they rarely doubted that they benefited from being part of the Empire, with all its protections.
The mercantile system was controlled through a series of Navigation Acts. The thrust of those Acts was to keep profitable trade under British control in order to bring as much wealth as possible into English pockets. In general the Acts said that insofar as possible, goods shipped to and from English ports must be carried in English ships. Within the Empire (i.e., between the colonies and mother country), foreign vessels were generally excluded. These Navigation Laws were not pointed at the colonists but rather at the Dutch and others who took trade away from the British.
The Navigation Acts also demanded that most raw materials be imported into England from the colonies in order to support British manufacturing. Conversely, the colonies were often prohibited from exporting manufactured goods to the mother country because they would compete with British manufactures. For a time, Virginia tobacco could be sold only in England, even though the Dutch might pay more for it. On the other hand, the growing of tobacco in England was prohibited.
The first major Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1651 forbade the importation into England of all goods except those carried by English ships or ships owned by the producing country, eliminating third-party carriers. Foreign ships were barred from trading in the colonies. It should be noted in all these acts that the colonies were part of the Empire, and thus colonial ships were British ships. Also, as stated above, these acts were not aimed against the colonies, but rather against the Dutch traders, who challenged British domination of the seas. Eventually these Acts led to war between the British and Dutch.
The second major Navigation Act of 1660 forbade the importing into or the exporting from the British colonies of any goods except in English or colonial ships (with one-fourth of the crew British) and it forbade certain colonial articles such as sugar, tobacco, wool, and cotton from being shipped to any country except to England or some English plantation in order to keep them from competitors.
Additional Acts passed in the 1660s and 1670s sought further control of the kinds of goods that could be shipped to and from the colonies and the methods by which they could be shipped. Some of the acts were also designed to tighten enforcement, as patrolling the lengthy coastline of America with its many bays and rivers was extremely difficult and costly. The net result was that the Navigation Acts, although rigorous on paper, were very loosely enforced, and the colonists became habitual offenders and smugglers.
In 1675 King Charles the second designated certain Privy Councilors as “Lords of Trade and Plantations” in order to make colonial trade more profitable. From then until 1696 the Lords of Trade handled most colonial matters.
The 1696 navigation act confined all colonial trade to English built ships and tried once again to toughen enforcement procedures in order to collect duties. In addition it voided this all colonial laws passed in opposition to the navigation acts, and the act created the Board Of Commissioners for Trade And Plantations. The Board’s 15 members provided centralized control of colonial affairs.
Note: The colonists had no objection to the Navigation Acts in theory, as they were not directed against colonies, but against Britain’s competitors, and seen not so much as taxation as regulation. Nevertheless, they still found them an irritant because in practice they tended to work for the interest of the mother country at the expense of the colonies. So Americans avoided paying duties whenever they could get away with it, which in fact was most of the time. It was too expensive for the British to try to collect duties in lightly populated America.
|1621||Virginia tobacco can be sold only in England. English tobacco crop prohibited.|
|1650-51||Navigation Acts forbid import of all goods except in English ships or ships owned by producing country (No third parties); foreign ships barred from the colonies. Acts are not anti-Colonial, but aimed at Dutch; Dutch War breaks out 1652; peace in 1654|
|1660||Provides for no goods in and out of colonies except in British ships or ships with 1/4 British crews; Certain goods (indigo, sugar, tobacco) may be shipped only to England.|
|1662||Goods may be imported in English-built ships only|
|1663||Staples Act: European goods bound for the colonies must go in English-built ships from England. Colonial governors may grant authority to naval officers.|
|1673||Duties are to be assessed at port of clearance to prevent plantation owners from evading laws; also, inter-colonial duties imposed on tobacco, sugar, etc.|
|1675||Charles II designates certain Privy Councilors as “Lords of Trade and Plantations”; seeks to make colonies more profitable; Lords of Trade handle virtually all colonial affairs.|
|1696||Act confines all colonial trade to English-built ships; toughens enforcement procedures to collect duties; voids colonial laws passed in opposition to the Navigation Acts; creates the Board of Commissioners for Trade and Plantations. The Board’s 15 members provide centralized control.|
|1698||Wool Act. Prohibits export of colonial woolen cloth—raw wool only.|
|1732||Hat Act—no hats exported from colonies. Danbury, Connecticut, hit.|
|1733||Molasses Act—Protects West Indian planters; imposes duty on rum; virtually unenforceable in the colonies because of smuggling–Americans very adept. Duty on rum is very high.|
|1750||Iron Acts ban iron finishing in colonies; ensures sufficient pig-iron supply to England.|
|1764||Sugar Act. The beginning of the pre-Revolutionary acts: See next section.|
Additional navigation and Trade Acts in the 1700s raised further restrictions, and although not so intended, the Acts nevertheless alienated the colonists, who often suffered from them—in theory, if not in practice, because of lax enforcement. Colonial governors could enforce these acts only with difficulty, and even though various levels of authority were granted to naval officers, enforcement was expensive and, in the end, impractical. Although the seeds of revolution do not begin to take hold firmly until the 1760s, tension grew between the colonies and mother country throughout the early 1700s.
The English considered that their mercantile policies would benefit the Empire and necessarily all its many parts—(a rising tide lifts all boats)—and leaders were willing to sacrifice local interests for the broader market. This policy was not unreasonable in the main, and the colonists generally prospered under British mercantilism, though they sometimes failed to understand that restrictions were aimed at others, not at them. Bottom line: When acts were passed that aided the mother country at the expense of the colonies, the colonists tended to take it personally. On the other hand, mercantilism was practically impossible to enforce, especially in the thinly populated colonies. The volume of trade so small that aggressive enforcement of duties, for example, would not pay. Smuggling became a “respectable” profession in the colonies and paid off.
Summary of Mercantilism: Economic Imperialism vs. Free Enterprise: Mother Country vs. Colony. What’s good for the Empire is good for all its parts. Note: If a country exports five shiploads of grain but at the same time imports one shipload of expensive goods, it may still have a negative balance of trade.
Based on a work at www.sageamericanhistory.net.
Sage American History by Henry J Sage is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.