I’ll start my very short talk with the discovery of the “New World” by Europeans in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. Of course, it must be said that there is a long history of settlement of the Americas long before the Europeans arrived but that is another story for another day. As the different American Indians say: “We are the First Nations”.
250 years after Columbus’ discovery around 1750 North and Central America were divided among the three great European powers Spain, France and Great Britain. These territories were conquered, settled or appropriated during the time period of European imperialism and colonialism.
Map and Areas of Influence (Fig. 1):
1) 13 British colonies on a narrow swath of territory along the eastern coast of N. America. The people living here were subjects of the King of England.
2) What is now Florida belonged to Spain. In fact, the oldest European settlement in North America is St. Augustine, Florida that was founded in 1565 by the Spanish.
3) Much of the central part of North America belonged to France. There was little in the way of large settlements in what is now the USA.
It was the 13th colonies that had the largest numbers of Europeans and it was here that the economic power was centered. They were largely populated by settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland. There were also significant numbers of Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians.
In Europe, the ideas of the Enlightenment (about 1700-1800) undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Catholic Church and they paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberalism and neoclassicism trace their intellectual heritage to the Enlightenment (Wikipedia). The Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) is considered to be the father of liberalism. The educated subjects of America were infused with these ideas and they began to develop them further. But is important to note that before, say, 1760 most people of the colonies were satisfied with their life economically, culturally and politically.
Starting in the 1760s matters started to heat up due to oppression coming from the British King “George the Third”. Basically, the colonists were being treated as second-class citizens. They proclaimed “no taxation without representation" starting with the “Stamp Act” in 1765. The colonists had no representatives in the British Parliament and so they rejected Parliament’s authority to tax them.
This and a number of other incidents led them to ultimately break with Great Britain and King George. Thus, began the American Revolution. The formal start is marked by the “Declaration of Independence” that was ratified on July 4th in 1776 by the 2nd Continental Congress. We are celebrating this act today. This document (Fig. 2) was largely written by Thomas Jefferson and is considered by many to be the greatest document to come out of the Period of Enlightenment. Jefferson (Fig. 3) was one of the main revolutionaries and founding fathers. He wrote in the Declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration is a key and unique Document. It sets out the idea of American Republicanism – which is a further development of Liberalism. Following Wikipedia, “Republicanism is a guiding political philosophy of the United States that has been a major part of American civic thought since its founding. It stresses liberty and inalienable individual rights as central values; it recognizes the sovereignty of the people as the source of all authority in law; rejects monarchy, aristocracy and hereditary political power, expects citizens to be virtuous and faithful in their performance of civic duties, and vilifies corruption.”
To conclude my short talk, Jefferson’s life was full of contradictions. In spite of what he wrote, he was a slaveholder at his plantation Monticello in Virginia. Moreover, after his wife died relatively young, he took a very young mixed-race slave with the name Sally Hemmings, as his mistress or partner. His relationship with her was never revealed to the public. He was father to six of her children.
I bring up these final matters because of recent events in American regarding “Black Lives Matter”. Everyone has seen what is happening on the TV or in the newspapers. The issues and grievances have a long and complex history. As a final picture, we can look at this old cartoon (Fig. 4), depicting the 4th of July. It shows a certain prevailing opinion on the state of the USA at around 1900.
Charles Geiger, Salzburg, July 2020
(Only for internal use of the Austrian-American Society)