“The Intellectual Devotional: American History” is the second book in this remarkable series. Like its predecessor, the book offers a year of reading — one entry for every day. The subtitle of the book says it best: “Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Converse Confidently about Our Nation's Past.” Authors David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim focus on what you should know from seven fields of knowledge on American history and culture. Here's an excerpt:
In the spring of 1607, a group of English settlers reached North America after almost five months at sea. Exhausted by the long voyage, they landed on a small, uninhabited island in Virginia off the coast of Chesapeake Bay. The small colony they built there — the first permanent English settlement in the New World — they named Jamestown, after King James I of England.
One of the best-known leaders of the Jamestown expedition was Captain John Smith (c. 1580–1631), a twenty-seven-year-old adventurer and soldier of fortune who had fought as a mercenary in several European wars before signing up for the English mission to Virginia. Courageous and headstrong, Smith took charge of the colony for much of the next two difficult years, before an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced him to return to England in 1609.
Conditions for the settlers at Jamestown, who were surrounded by Native Americans, were arduous. During their first winter in Virginia, many of the 108 colonists died from disease or Indian attack. A primitive wooden stockade built around the settlement did not halt the attacks. Smith himself was captured by the Indians that winter and held hostage for about a month before he was released.
For the next year, Smith tried to impose discipline on the dysfunctional colony. Many men in the group, the members of which had come to Virginia seeking riches, considered themselves English “gentlemen” and hadn't expected to labor in the New World; Smith put an end to their pretensions, famously declaring that “he who does not work, will not eat.”
After Smith's departure, the colony nearly disbanded without his leadership. After a few more rocky years, and an infusion of more settlers from England, Jamestown recovered. But as more English settlers migrated to the region, other towns soon overtook Jamestown in importance, and the Virginia capital moved to Williamsburg in 1698. Jamestown virtually disappeared, and the site of the original stockade later became a farm before it was rescued by historical preservationists.
1. Smith had an unfortunate habit of being taken prisoner. Prior to coming to the Americas, he had been employed as a mercenary in Europe, where he was captured in Hungary and sold as a slave to the Turkish pasha before eventually escaping.
2. In a later expedition to North America in 1614, Smith explored the coastline of the region north of Virginia, which he dubbed New England.
3. Smith claimed that Pocahontas, the young teenage daughter of the powerful Powhatan chief, saved his life by stopping her father from executing him. Pocahontas married one of the Jamestown settlers, John Rolfe, in 1614 and visited England with him in 1616.
Short and bloody, the Pequot War (1636–1638) was the first major clash between Native Americans and English settlers in the New World. The Pequot were one of the most powerful tribes in the region that is now Connecticut, but they were nearly annihilated in the war. In the wake of the conflict, Native Americans in New England were pushed onto smaller and smaller settlements as their land was taken by white settlers streaming to the New World from Europe.
The first permanent European settlements in Connecticut were founded by the Puritans in 1633. Tensions with the Pequots flared almost immediately. The immediate cause of the war was the massacre of an English ship's crew in 1636, which the Puritans blamed on Pequot warriors. The English launched retaliatory raids and quickly convinced many other Indian tribes in the area to join the war. With their native allies and superior weaponry, the English easily defeated the Pequots. By modern standards, the English war was nearly genocidal. The English soldiers regarded all Native Americans as heathens and a threat to peace in the New England wilderness, and the soldiers indiscriminately killed hundreds of Pequot women and children as well as warriors.
With most of the Pequot leadership wiped out, the Treaty of Hartford in 1638 put a halt to the brutal war. The English, determined to erase even the name of the Pequots, officially abolished the tribe, enslaving some members and distributing the rest as spoils to their Native American allies. Major conflict between Native Americans and the English would resurface, however, during King Philip's War in 1675.
1. The name Connecticut came from the Mohegan word Quinnehtukqut, meaning long tidal river.
2. The English outlawed the use of the word Pequot after the war, but it entered New England lore anyway and later served as the inspiration for the name of the ship Pequod in Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick.
3. Descendants of the Pequots, confined to a tiny reservation in Connecticut, eventually opened the world's largest casino, Foxwoods, in 1993.
Beginning in 1619, when the first group of twenty Africans arrived at Jamestown in chains, thousands of slaves were imported into the British colonies of North America. Within a few generations, slave labor formed the basis of the South's agricultural economy and had spread north to the rest of the original thirteen colonies. By any standard, slavery was an unspeakable human tragedy that caused immeasurable harm to its victims.
Although slavery was part of the economy in both the North and the South, the institution eventually took on distinct guises in the two regions. To describe the differences, historians distinguish between a "slave society" and a "society with slaves." A "slave society" was one in which slavery dominated the major forms of economic production, which was the case in the South by the eighteenth century.
A "society with slaves," in contrast, refers to a society in which slaves did not dominate the economic modes of production and instead provided supplemental labor, such as work conducted within the home. In Massachusetts in the mid-1700s, for instance, only about one in eight households owned a slave, and the typical slaveholder had only two slaves. Rather than toil in the fields, Northern slaves often worked as maids, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, and house servants.
Because of the differing roles slavery played in the societies of the North and the South, the extent to which the two regions relied on slavery began to diverge in the eighteenth century. In the South, slavery became more important, while in the North, the institution began to fade. At the time of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, many of the Founders assumed that slavery would eventually die out. Indeed, after the convention, various states in the North began the process of abolishing slavery, granting slaves their freedom in a given year or at a certain age, depending on the law their state established.
However, just as slavery was ending in the North, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 guaranteed that the institution would remain integral to the Southern economy —laying the groundwork for widening regional differences in the nineteenth century.
1. The 1840 census listed one slave in New Hampshire.
2. Slavery was also common throughout Europe's other New World colonies. In the French colony of Haiti, Toussaint-Louverture (1743–1803) led a successful slave revolt in 1793.
3. The first twenty African slaves taken to Jamestown aboard a Dutch warship were from the modern-day nations of Congo and Angola.
Excerpted from “The Intellectual Devotional: American History” by David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim. Copyright © 2007 by David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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