This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The pre-Columbian Mississippi Period, extending from 1000
Emerson W. Baker
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the best known, most studied, and most important events in early American history. The afflictions started in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, in January 1692, and by the end of the year the outbreak had spread throughout Essex County, and threatened to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips. It may have even helped trigger a witchcraft crisis in Connecticut that same year. The trials are known for their heavy reliance on spectral evidence, and numerous confessions, which helped the accusations grow. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692. Usually poor and marginalized members of society were the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many of the leading members of the colony were accused. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, was one of the nineteen people convicted and executed. In addition to these victims, one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The last executions took place in September 1692, but it was not until May 1693 that the last trial was held and the last of the accused was freed from prison.
The trials would have lasting repercussions in Massachusetts and signaled the beginning of the end of the Puritan City upon a Hill, an image of American exceptionalism still regularly invoked. The publications ban issued by Governor Phips to prevent criticism of the government would last three years, but ultimately this effort only ensured that the failure of the government to protect innocent lives would never be forgotten. Pardons and reparations for some of the victims and their families were granted by the government in the early 18th century, and the legislature would regularly take up petitions, and discuss further reparations until 1749, more than fifty years after the trials. The last victims were formally pardoned by the governor and legislature of Massachusetts in 2001.
The American Revolution was an episode in a transatlantic outcry against the corruption of the British balance of power and liberty institutionalized in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. English speakers during the 18th century reflected on this constitutional crisis within a larger conversation about the problem of human governance. Although many people excluded from Parliament supported political reform, if not revolution, they also sought remedies for the perversion of political power and influence in new forms of social power and influence. This article looks at the convergence of political and social discussions in a common discourse about the nature of power and the ways in which human beings influenced each other. The first section outlines the meanings of power and influence in British politics. The second section uses the novelist Sarah Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (1759) to delineate revolutionary notions about social power and influence. The third section turns to the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke in the run-up to the American Revolution to look at how English speakers deployed notions of social power to advocate for political reform.
Christian J. Koot
Smuggling was a regular feature of the economy of colonial British America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the very nature of illicit commerce means that the extent of this trade is incalculable, a wide variety of British and colonial sources testify to the ability of merchants to trade where they pleased and to avoid paying duties in the process. Together admiralty proceedings, merchant correspondence and account books, customs reports, and petitions demonstrate that illicit trade enriched individuals and allowed settlers to shape their colonies’ development. Smuggling formed in resistance to British economic and political control. British authorities attempted to harness the trade of their Atlantic colonies by employing a series of laws that restricted overseas commerce (often referred to as the Navigation Acts). This legislation created the opportunity for illicit trade by raising the costs of legal trade. Hampered by insufficient resources, thousands of miles of coastline, and complicit local officials, British customs agents could not prevent smuggling. Economic self-interest and the pursuit of profit certainly motivated smugglers, but because it was tied to a larger transatlantic debate about the proper balance between regulation and free trade, smuggling was also a political act. Through smuggling colonists rejected what they saw as capricious regulations designed to enrich Britain at their expense.
David A. Nichols
From 1783 to 1830, American Indian policy reflected the new American nation-state’s desire to establish its own legitimacy and authority, by controlling Native American peoples and establishing orderly and prosperous white settlements in the continental interior. The Federalists focused on securing against Native American claims and attacks several protected enclaves of white settlement (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee), established—often violently—during the Revolutionary War. They used treaties to draw a legal boundary between these enclaves and Indian communities, and annuities and military force to keep Indians on their side of the line. The Jeffersonian Republicans adopted a more expansive plan of development, coupled with the promotion of Native American dependency. Treaty commissioners persuaded chiefs to cede road easements and riverfront acreage that the government used to link and develop dispersed white settlements. Meanwhile, the War Department built trading factories whose cheap merchandise would lure Indians into commercial dependency, and agents offered Indian families agricultural equipment and training, hoping that Native American farmers would no longer need “extensive forests” to support themselves. These pressures helped engender nativist movements in the Old Northwest and southeast, and Indian men from both regions fought the United States in the War of 1812, reinforcing frontier settlers’ view that Indians were a security threat. After this war’s end, the United States adopted a strategy of containment, pressuring Indian leaders to cede most of their peoples’ lands, confining Indians to enclaves, financing vocational schooling for Indian children, and encouraging Native peoples voluntarily to move west of the Mississippi. This policy, however, proved too respectful of Indian autonomy for the frontier settlers and politicians steadily gaining influence in the national government. After these settlers elected one of their own, Andrew Jackson, to the presidency, American Indian policy would enter a much more coercive and violent phase, as white Americans redefined the nation-state as a domain of white supremacy ethnically cleansed of indigenous peoples.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
Terri L. Snyder
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.