American History: The 18th Century

Figure 1.--

The 18th century in America is the second half of the colonial era and the dramatic birth of an independant republic. The Great Awakening is sometimes glossed over in surveys of American history. It should not be. The Great Awakening was a key phenomenon in the making of the American character. Early colonial America were separate and very different colonies. The Great Awakening swept over each of the 13 English colonies. It was their first common American experience. The colonies evolved a democratic political structure and because of the Frontier, much more egalitarian than Britain itself. Britain and France fought what amounted to a world war in the 18th century. The French and Indisan War decided who would control of North America. The English colonists were a major factor in the British victory in North America. After the War Britain expected America to pay for the costs of Empire. Britain also attemoted to both limit the movement less and control economic development and trade. And ey attempted to curtail the perogatives of the colonial legislatures. The result was rebellion which astonishly resulted in an American victory and independence. The new American Republic not only achieved independence, but control of the contindnt as far west as the Mississippi. Early problems with national government led to a new Federal Constitution, one of the most remarkable documents in human history. The Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decesions have provided the frame work for resolving every major national issue--with the exception of one. The framers of the Constitition could not address thecissue of slavery. To ensure ratification, a Bill of Rights was drafted. The Constitutin provided for the major institutions of government, except political parties which began to develop even before the Constitution was ratified.

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening is sometimes glossed over in surveys of American history. It should not be. The Great Awakening was a key phenomenon in the making of the American character. Early colonial America were separate and very different colonies. The Great Awakening swept over each of the 13 English colonies. It was their first common American experience, although it occurred at different times in different places and had its own destinct character in the different colonies. The first two colonies were founded by Angicans (Jamestown--1607) and Puritans (Plymouth--1620). This was remarkable in that from the beginning both the established church and one of the most steadfast dissenters were part of America. But as settlers moved west and new settlers arrived with their own religious ideas, it became impossible to direct religious life as the Anglican had done with more success in England. Neither the Puritans or the Anglicans were able to successfully transplant the parish system to control religious life on the frontier. And this proved even more difficult with the arrival of the Scotts-Irish. Europeans had since the Reformation (1519) been consumed with theological questions. American settlers were faced with very practival issues of building a new society and survival itself. To these practical people, theological debate on some times arcane issues often seemed irelevant. Colonial Americans were a often very religious people, but not church members. Thus the colonists by the early 18th century were primed for a religious experience.


Slavery continued to evolve in America during the 18th century. Many colonies refined the legal code first estanlished in the 17th century regulating slavery. Slavery became a major source of labor in the southern colonies. The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. The first notable slave in America was the Stono River rebellion (1739). It occured in South Caeolina during harvest time when overseers were pushing the slaves to work harder. Fear of the slaves was greatest in the southern colonies because of the large numbers, but it was not absent in the north. New York had the largest black population in the Colonies with the exception of Charlestown. A major incident was the New York City Fires (1741) The largest numbrs of mortalities occurred in the 18th century, at leat in terms of Africans transported to North America. . Scholars debate the actual numbers. Slavery became a major issue during the Rvolutionary War (1775-83). The Crown offered liberty to slaves who fought with the Loyalists. Many slaves did obtain their freedom during the War. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention, but it was here that the issue first came to the fore (1787). Because of the insistence on slavery by the southern colonies, the Constitution for the most part avoided the issue. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention could not address the central issue of slavery, although they agree to make provision forr ending the slave trade. Northern States began to gradually end slavery ad it was thught that this would also occur in the South, but the invention of the cotton gin transformed the economics of slavery (1793).

The French and Indian War (1754-63)

The fighting in North America is commonly called the French and Indian War and the fighting began in North America when a Virginia militia unit commanded by none other than George Washington ventured into French territory. The French and India War can be seen as part of the Seven Years War, but they are major differences. The Seven Years War was essentially a combined European War to limit the aggressions of Prussia's Frederick the Great. The French and Indian War was a war over colonial control of North America. They are related in that France was deeply involved in both wars and they occurred at roughly the same time. the French and India War was fought by Britain and its North American colonies against France and its Indian (Algonquian) allies. France's North American colonies had evolved differently than the British colonies. The more limited French emmigration and differing attitudes toward Native Americans enduced the Algonquians to fight on their side against the British.

American Revolution (1776-83)

The Revolutionary War was an astounding occurrence in a world sill dominated by kings. It established the first important republic since Rome in the middle of what at the time was a wilderness far from Europe. It was a war that the British could have easily avoided had King George and his advisors been willing to show the least flexibility. Many in Britain objected to the War and a minority of Americans wanted independence at the time the war began. It was also a war that the American colonists won by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The Americans succeeded in their struggle only because they were aided by a French king who was opposed to offering the same liberties to his people that the Americans were demanding from their king. The American Revolution is a struggle that has been somewhat lost as a result of the much greater scholarly interest in America on the Civil War. As a result, most American's view the war through simplistic primary school readings which obscure the tremendously complicated course of events that led to the War and creation of America. English scholars, perhaps because Britain lost the War, have given it almost no scholarly attention.

Articles of Confederation (1781-89)

The Articles of Confederation were essentially the first constitution of the United States. The Continental Congress declared independence (1776). The following years the Congress drafted thecArticles of Confederation (1777). It was described as a "firm league of friendship" between the 13 British colonies. The Colonies were essentially fighting strong central control in the form of the British Empire. The Articles reflected the concern of the various colonies with central control. Under he Articles the future states were not just autinomous, but soverign. The states were maintained their "sovereignty, freedom and independence." There was no executive and judicial branches of government. Under the articles, te national government rested with Congress, essentially a legislative body in the for of a committee of delegates representing each state. The Congress had considerable responsibilitiyu such as conducting foreign affairs, declaring war or peace, maintaining an army and navy and a variety of other less important functions. What Congress did not have was the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws. Congress could only ask the states to provide funds. The Articles were adopted by Congress (November 15, 1777) and came into force when the last of the 13 states approved the document (March 1, 1781).

The Constitution (1789)

The Constitution is the firstimportant written plan crafted to establish a new republic. Madison came to the Convention armed with a carefully crafted plan which came to be called the Virginia Pln. Madison's role at the Convntion has resulted in him being seen as the "father" of the Constitution. It was conceived to limit the powers of the Federal government by creating three independent braches of government, in part a reflection of American experience with what the founders considered to be King George III's unfettered executive power. Guaranteeing power to the states further limited the power of the Federal Government. There were many inperfections in the Constitution, including a failure to address slavery. There were also limits on democratic government. The fact that even in 2002, President Bush was relected with fewwer votes than Vice President Gore is a reflection of these limits. The new Constitution was hotly debated throughout America after the Convention approved it. Despite the imperfections, it was as Franklin observed, as close to perfect as could be achieved. Madison and Hamilton argued for its ratification in a brilliant series of political essays now called the Federalist Papers. The principal concern threatening ratification was fear--fear of the political unknown and dangers of both democratic rule and the political unknown. One noted scholar writes, "The Constitution was written not by hard-nosed, conservative political bosses determined to reverse the meliorist enthusiasm of the early years, but by idelaists ... who had come to recognize, reluctantly, the need to create the dangerous instruments of centralized power." [Bailyn]

Political Parties

There was no provision for political in the American Constitution. President Washington was oposed to the factionalism that parties represented. Political parties, however, area key element in the American political system. They began to forn even before Washington left office. The initial political contest was beteen Hamilton's Federalists representing the northern elite and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans representing agrarian and backwoods interests. The Federalists soon lost out in their attempt to restrict the sufferage. In the first half of the 19th century, political contests were between the Whigs and the Democrats who won most of the elections. At the time farming and Western interests wanted nothing more than being left along by Government. Beginning with Jeffrson in 1800, this is just what the Democrats provided. The Republican Party was founded in 1856 out of the collapsing Whig Party and the growing northern sentiment for the abolition of slavery. The election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860 meant Civil War. Since the Civil war, the Dmocrats nd Republicans have remained the major American political parties, although there has been a startling reversal in the principles of the two parties.

Early Issues

A fundamental domestic issue of the new American Reoublic was answered early in the Washington Administration by a program created and administered by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. For a nation that President Washington advised to stay out of European politics, the main issues became war, abnd not just any war, but war with the two great powers--Britain and France. The issues were trade, both countries interfered with neutral shipping. And the fact that many American seamen were born in Britain or had deserted from the British Navy raised ahother problem. Briain was involved in a conflict for its life and involved in a major fleet expansion program. They also deperately needed sailors and began seizing men from British ships. In the end war with Britain was overted by the Jay Treary (1793). The Jay Treaty outraged the energing Republicans and was very unpopular, but it prevented what would have been a disasterous war. The Congress had been debating appropriations for a Navy for some tome. It proved to be one of the most contrntious issues considered by the first Congresses. The actions of the Barbary corsairs finally convinced Congress that a navy was needed (1794). The outrage against the Jay Treaty was not just in America. Republican France was also outraged. The result was the XYZ Affair and the Quasi War (1798-1800), an undeclared naval war with France. President Adams' Navy and skilled diplomacy in the end overted a declared war.

Battle of the Wabash (1791)

Conflict between English settlers and Native Americans began soon after settlement began. The first major encounter was an attack by the English and their Indian allies on an Native Amerivan village at what is now Mystic, Connecticut (1637). The attack fundamentally changed the relationship between the English settlers and the Native Americans. It began the English use mass slaughter to clear the land for setlement. There is a great deal of romantic politically correct thought about Ntive Americans. It is true that there were generally peaceful tribes, but there were also war-like tribes every bit as brutal as the setlers. The only difference is that the Europeans had poweful modern weapns with which the Native americans could not cope. The whole hisyory of humanitybat the time was for mpre powerful people to conquer and duisplace less poweful people. It is omly in the 20th centiry that the odea to protect the less powerful began to take root, butveven in thev20th century the gret totalitarian powrs (NAZI, Fscist, Japanese militarist, and Communist) did not accept this ideal. Thus the English/American policies have to be viewed in the terms of the political context of the day. The Native mericans generlly came out losers in the military encounters with the settlers. One glaring exception was the Battle od the Wabash (1791). Many but not all Native Americans had sided with the British in the Revolutionary War. After the Britih made peace and withdrew from much, but not all of what was then the Northwest Territory (largely the Ohio Valley west of the Appalachian Mountains, native Americans tribes were on their own. President Washington early in his first term sent General Arthur St. Clair to supress Native Americans in the Ohio Valley and force the tribes there to make peace and accept the authority of the new American Republic. Thy targetted a complex of Miami, Shawnee and Delaware Indian villages in northest Ohio. Washington warned St. Clair to 'Beware of Surprise'. St. Clair rather like Custer did not believe the Native Americans could put up much of a defense. He prepard to attack the Miami village of Kekionga near what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana. (The modrn city is named after 'Mad' Anthony Wayne who redeemed the situation St. Clair created.) St. Clair had two regiments of regular army troops. This since the demobilization of the Continebtal Army was a major part of the U.S. Army at the time. He also had militia from Kentucky and other states. At the time the settlement of Kentucky had begun, thanks in part to Daniel Boone. The settlers had not, however, moved in numbers into what is now Ohio and Indiana north of the Ohio River. Arthur St. Clair was governor of the Ohio territory which at the time included modern Indiana. St. Clair moved north west into the wilderness. The goingwas hard. Much of the militia deserted. Many of the regulars were sick. There were few no pack horses. The ents leaked. St. Clair's force as the weather begn to turn cold was reduced to 1,400 men (November 4). They made camp along the Wabash River and prepared to attack Kekionga. The Native Americans followed St. Clair's progress and were under no illusions as to his intentions. Little Turtle, the Miami war chief stuck first. He had assembled a force of 1,200 warriors and attacked the American camp. St. Clair and his men were taken completely by surprise. In only a few hours half of the American army lay dead on the field. It should be noted that in the years before repeating rifles that Native Americans and settlers were more evenly matched. The rest of the americans, he only ones to survive fled the field. Theu left behind the wounded , 8 cannons, and 1,200 muskets as well as horses and wagons. Little Turtle suffered the loss of only 21 men. It was the greatest Native americn victory in the centurie long conflict with the Enlish and Americans. [Callowy] President Washington was outraged. He is reported as saying to his secretary, "St. Clair suffered that army to be cut to pieces, butchered, tomahawked by surprise. How can he answer to his country. The curse of widows and children is upon him." Proportinally, this was the greatest military disaster in the history of the United States Army. It could have threatene the continued existence of the UnitedvStates. Perhaps becaue the Indians won, it is abattle that does not make it into many U.S. history books.


Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities Of the American Founders (Knopf, 2002), 185p.

Calloway, Colin G. The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army (2o14).


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Created: 4:20 AM 6/10/2007
Last updated: 12:24 AM 3/26/2015