Thomas Jefferson


Cotton was the main crop in the South and the first industry in Georgia. Georgia planters exported their cotton to England but the cotton was not treated. Thanks to Whitney”s invention , the “Cotton Gin” (Cotton Engine – 1793), which separated the seeds from the fibers, a huge increase in the amount of cotton produced was made possible. In 1820, the output was 8 000 times higher than in 1791.

The increase was achieved by bringing in more slaves to pick the cotton. The prosperity of the planters depended more and more on slavery and Southerners broke away from the US. Slavery is the root of Southern wealth and industry. It is an institution in the South, as well as their peculiar way of life.The “Cotton Gin” brought about slavery and civil war.

In 1810, there were 7,2 million people in the USA and among those people 1,2 million black slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves himself and had a black mistress with whom he had children. G. Washington, as a land owner, owned slaves too. Southerners defending the right of slavery asked an unanswerable question: how could they cultivate their fields of tobacco, rice and cotton without slave workers ?

The situation was different in the North: the climate was cooler and the farms were smaller so there was no need of slaves. Many Northerners were abolitionists. By the 19th century, many Northern states had passed their own laws to abolish slavery inside their own boundaries. In 1808, they persuaded Congress to male it illegal to bring in new slaves from Africa. Gradually, North and South opposed each other.

In the 1830’s, Northern and Southern politicians kept arguing: is slavery permitted in the new territories being settled in the West ? The discussion aligncenter on Missouri, which was part of the Louisiana purchase. Southerners argued that slaves should be allowed (will to expand slavery). Northerners objected strongly to it for moral and economic reasons: competition would be unfair between Northern and Southern farmers (easier with slaves). They finally reached a compromise: the Missouri Compromise:

  • slavery was permitted in Missouri and Arkansas territories
  • but banned in the West and North of Missouri

It did not end the dispute. The South began denying the right of slaves to own land and the threats of secession on both sides foreshadowed the secession of the South, prefiguring the Civil War.

In the early 1830″s, another argument was going on about import duties, the North standing for it and the South opposing it because they were afraid of competition (it would rise the price of Southern goods). The Southern politician JC Calhoun claimed that a “state had the right to disobey any federal law if the state believed the law should harm his interests”. This was supported by the Southerners and it became known as the “States’ rights doctrine”.

That claim was strongly denied by the North and by Webster, senator of Massachusetts who answered that “the power to decide if federal authority is right or wrong belongs to Supreme Court and not to independent states”. Webster warned the Americans that the States “rights doctrine could be a serious threat to the unity of the USA.

In the 20 years afterwards, the USA grew much bigger. In 1846, it divided the Oregon territory with Britain and in 1848, it took vast areas in the South-West from Mexico. Obtaining these new lands, raised again the question already asked during the Missouri Compromise of 1820: should slavery be allowed on new American territories. North refused, South agreed.

In 1850, Congress voted in favor of another compromise:

  1. California was admitted in the US as a free state
  2. people living in Utah and Mexico had the right to decide by themselves whether or not to allow slavery

To persuade the South to agree to these arrangements, Congress passed a law: the Fugitive Slave Act. That new law made easier for Southerners to recapture slaves who escaped and fled for safety in free states. The new law called for “severe penalties for anyone assisting Negroes to escape from bondage. Slave owners had long offered rewards to get their slaves back. This has created a group of men called bounty hunters, who searched escaped slaves in free states. This law angered many Northerners and some northern judges refused to enforce it. Some Northerners provided hiding places for fugitives, mapped out routes and moved runaways slaves by night from one secret hiding place to another. The final stop was Canada where fugitives could be pursued neither by federal laws nor by bounty hunters. As the railway was the modern way of traveling at that time, they modeled their vocabulary on it: the “underground railroad” represented the people, people providing money were “stock-holders”, guides were “conductors” and hiding places were “depots”. Many conductors were former slaves and they often traveled deep into slave states to get in touch with runaway. If captured, they ended up as slaves again or dead. the number of slaves increased.

In 1854, the senator Steven Douglas persuaded Congress to end the Missouri Compromise. There was no slavery in the West of Missouri and in Kansas, people were free to decide to permit or not slavery. A “race” between pro-slavery and anti-slavery began: pro-slavery immigrants poured from the south and anti-slavery immigrants poured from the North to outnumber the other group. Result: fightings and killings.

Pro-S raiders from Missouri burnt a town called Lawrence and killed part of the population. In reply, the abolitionist John Brown led a raid in which supporters of slavery were killed. We were in 1859.

Some said that Brown was a madman. A Virginia Court trialed Brown for treason: he was hanged with 5 other men. The South was horrified by the threat of a slave revolt and blamed the North for it by calling the North “Black Republicans”. American began referring to it as “Bleeding Kansas”. Neither side controlled Kansas and Congress delayed its admission in the US.

In 1858, the pro-S won a victory of another sort, the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken by his master to live in a free state. He asked the Supreme Court to declare this had made him legally free. The Supreme Court refused because:

  • Black slaves had no rights as American citizens
  • Congress had gone beyond its constitutional powers in claiming the right to prohibit slavery in the Western territories

This was quite a stir in the US: the South was delighted and the anti-slavery were horrified. The Supreme Court seemed to say that free states had no right to forbid slavery within their boundaries: slave owners could put their slaves to work anywhere. The anti-slavery created a party: the Republican Party.

Moving west

In 1783, more and more settlers had set in the new territories between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Settlers journeyed across the mountains to create new settlements out of the wilderness. The problem was that Indians already lived there: settlers were perceived as thieves and this led to a struggle for land in the late 18th century.

The new Government tried to keep peace with the Natives by treaties but they were never respected, for obvious reasons. The President James Monroe wrote that the Natives” hunting way of life “required a greater extent of territory that is compatible with the progress of a civilized life and must yield to it. If the Indian tribes do not abandon that state and become civilized, they will decline and become extinct”.

Therefore, the only way to survive for Natives is to be moved further West in “Indian territories”. In 1830, the American Government passed a law to put this policy in practice, the Indian Removal Act. One of the most tragic example is that of the Cherokees, who were the first to suffer from this policy. The Cherokees had evolved into a civilized community and had followed the White rules: they had their own newspapers and their own constitution, modeled on the American one. But none of this saved them.

In the 1830’s, Congress decided their land belonged to Georgia and that it had to be sold to White settlers. The Cherokees were forced to march hundreds of miles to reach Oklahoma. With the terrible winter of 1830, their journey turned out to a nightmare that lasted 5 months. A quarter of the Cherokee nation perished: it was called the “Trail of Tears”.

The Federal Government started to organize the land for settlement: land should be surveyed and divided into square units called “townships” (about 6 x 6 miles). It marked the beginning of the gigantic expansion.

The War of 1812

In June 1812, Congress declared war to Britain. American ships won a number of battles at sea but the British Navy gained complete control and blockaded American harbors. The Americans also tried to invade Canada (territory ruled by the British) but they failed. British forces captured and burnt the city of Washington, capital of the USA: symbolic defeat.

In December 1814, the peace was signed in Europe but two weeks later, British forces attacked New Orleans because they did not know peace was signed.

That was a lesson for the Americans, especially for the industry: Americans began to make their goods on their own. America was to become a manufacturing industry. Even Jefferson, who was against manufactory, turned about when he realized how much important it was. War became an economic development and there was a need to “place the manufacturer at the side of the agriculturer”.

“Old Hickory” : Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was a hero of the Frontier and was nicknamed “Old Hickory”. He differed from the former Presidents, who were all rich and coming from the Atlantic settlements. Indeed, he was from a poor family from the West Coast who fought for the Frontier and who became a rich land-owner. Jackson was elected in 1828 and he is one of the founders of the Democratic Party: the Government should be organized to benefit the “Great Body” of the USA. He was mainly elected (and re-elected in 1832) by planters, farmers, mechanics and laborers because the keyword of his policy was “cheap”:

  • money: low rates of interests
  • land: forcing Indians West
  • manufacturing goods: reducing import duties

Jackson was responsible for the slow annihilation of the Natives. His attitude is controversial today: some historians think he was concerned with his own interest (a populist). Those who stand for him, on the contrary, highlight the fact that Jacksonian Democracy was an important landmark in the American history.


After France’s defeat in Canada, Britain remained the only power left in Eastern North America. The colonies were now free to spread over the vast continent and increase their wealth. Therefore, for the British Government, it was natural that the colonists, whose prosperity was increasing, should contribute to British economy. The financial measures affecting trade and the arbitrary taxes decided in London soon became intolerable to the colonists. They have now the opportunity and the financial means of standing on their own feet and managing their own affairs.

Instead of being treated as equal partners, the American colonists were considered by the Prime Minister as second-rate citizens or children :

"This is the mother country. They are the children, they must obey and we prescribe". (William Pitt)

More than a rebellion against patriarchal authority, the War of Independence, was in fact the first modern political revolution. It started with the universal democratic slogan: "no taxation without representation". By rising against Britain the colonists exploded the myth of English liberty while using at the same time the principles that the people of England themselves had established one century before in the Glorious Revolution.

I. Origins of the Revolution

Several circumstances had put a strain on Anglo-American relations in the 18th century.

  • First, Britain merchants manipulated the House of Commons into voting a series of protective acts that were detrimental to colonial economy.
  • Further restrictions were imposed through arbitrary taxation decided in London.
  • Another dissatisfaction came from the costs of British European’s war to which they were forced
    to contribute.
  • 1763: the Royal Proclamation prohibited any British settlement west of the Appalachians, which created a major land problem in the colonies and restricted economic expansion.

So economic and patriotic motivations were closely linked in creating a feeling of rebellion.

II. The insurrection in New England

In May 1765, the Virginia Colonial Assembly voted a series of resolutions to tax the colonists. The latter started to organize themselves into activist groups such as the “Sons of Liberty” led by Samuel Adam. Britain answered by a demonstration of strength and sent mercenary troops to various American cities. Several resistance groups denounced that measure as a hostile invasion.

In March 1770, the Boston”s Sons of Liberty attacked the British local garrison. British soldiers opened fire upon the crowd. This tragic incident, known as the Boston Massacre, is one of the triggers of the War of Independence against Britain.

In 1772, a new tax was imposed was imposed on tea: the Tea Act was interpreted as another demonstration of authority from the part of Britain. A group of Bostonians wearing Indian costumes went on board a tea clipper in Boston harbor and managed to throw several thousand pounds of tea into the sea: the “Boston Tea Party” was followed by severe punishment. A continental congress of the colonies answered by prohibiting British imports and militias were formed to resist British troops. The Loyalists, i.e. the colonists who wanted to remain British were very often badly treated by the Patriots: they were caught, whipped, tarred and feathered to expose their shame.

The first real battle took place in June 1775, outside Boston at Bunker Hill. There, the American volunteers managed to resist and to succeed over British troops for the first time.

III. The Spirit of 1776

In January 1776, the Englishman Thomas Paine published a pamphlet against Britain: it launched the spirit of 1776. His book, Common Sense questions the necessity for America to remain within the British colonial empire:

“Does America be America of shop-keepers and farmers benefit by remaining under British rule ? The plain answer of common sense is no.”

The book immediately sold over 120,000 copies.

In May, the American Congress adopted a resolution inviting the colonists to establish independent State Governments. In June, the delegates for Virginia submitted to Congress a resolution for independence. Therefore, the Founding Fathers appointed a committee to elaborate a Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in his highly rhetorical style. A revised version was finally approved by Congress on July 4th 1776, by the delegates of all the 13 colonies, except 2 New York representatives who abstained.

IV.The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence

The American Declaration of Independence represents a revolutionary vision both of mankind and its institutions. In its preamble, it insists on the vital necessity of separation and independence, seen as part of the natural evolutionary process inherent to human nature:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to separate…

It also clearly states the principle of “equality” and the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as natural human rights. Yet, Jefferson”s intention of putting slavery out of law as contrary to human rights was not carried into the final version because of the opposition from the Southern states.

The text of the Declaration of Independence consists of a list of criticisms against the British state, represented by the King. The form of this document is the same as the British Bill of Rights of 1689. Moreover, both texts protest against autocracy, religious and political tyranny and unfair representation. The conclusion finally declares the united colonies as “free and independent states”.


Thanks to the Declaration of Independence, a decisive step was taken towards the future, as one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, stated it: “the river is passed, the bridge is cut away”. But the conflict with Britain lasted for 7 more years before General G. Washington”s victory, thanks to French help, brought about Britain”s final acceptance of the colonies independence at the Treaty of Paris on September 3rd 1783. The 13 states were formerly acknowledged as one nation, whose territory extended from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. A federal constitution was made public in 1787: it established a model of interstate relationships according to the principle of divided sovereignty. It also set up a republican system in which no branch of the government could exercise any despotic authority over the others. Yet, the major contradiction remained in the nation of the rights of man in the late 18th century: the first modern democracy had 20% of slaves in its population.

Sommaire de la série From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)

  1. The Reformation in the British Isles
  2. English Expansionism
  3. The Glorious Revolution of 1688
  4. The American colonies : Religion and Politics
  5. Birth of a Nation

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