Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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A Funny Thing Happened?

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


So before we get into the real nuts and bolts of American history, and the kind of the details of things like the constitution and the Supreme Court. We really need to step back from all and consider the big picture. And that big picture being the pre-Columbus to American revolution period. The period of discovery by Europeans of the "new world". And one of the things we really should take note of is, there have been estimates that there probably were as many as 50 million people on the North American continent before Europeans arrived.

So we want to look at what happens when those cultures come into conflict. But also what European cultures show up in "new world". And how once they are here, they are pushed westward and their settlement of the north American continent is really incisive. It just doesn’t stop. And the bigger picture there is, it changes the world forever and really creates the world that we leave in now. And it’s one of those reasons really why we need to study history. We need to look back and see what happened then, that we can turn around and look at in our own world, and really appreciate how things came to be.

So right now, we are going to take a look back and look at the settlement of the North American continent.

One of the key things to know about US history in its early stages. And remember 16 multiple choice questions are pre-Columbian to 1789. But if you look at our map here of the world, what we see of course is this European powers, in particular France, Spain and England. Interesting how they write on the coastline here of the north Atlantic. Those become the three major nations that settle this new world. And so, what we want to study really with some depth is, what happened? What was the competition about? Of course it was about wealth. But in a variety of ways, wealth can come in a form of gold, which of course the Spanish seem to be the most interested in. But it also could come in land and in trade. And so what we see as each of these European powers comes to the new world, they each have different kind of perspective.

We know that the Spanish, for example, settle mostly the US south west territory. And it’s why we have names like California and San Francisco and Los Angeles. And they settled there. And really one of the most important things they do is, they bring horses to the new world. And we know the impact that has later.

The French on the other hand are more interested in fur trading. And so, they are really interested in the Canadian territory around the great lakes, and then the Mississippi valley right down the New Orleans. So the French settle, really they have small trading settlements in the middle of what is the now United States.

And what we see the British do, is they establish on the eastern seaboard of the United States some permanent settlements. Now we know that the pilgrims land here in Cape Card, and later we get the Boston Massachusetts Bay colony, down here in Virginia, the James town settlements in 1607. So the British established permanent forming colonies really, and agricultural colonies. So that’s the effort, and really that’s a great source of wealth for them. So that’s really where the European powers come in to play, and their initial stages and competition in the new world begins around those areas.

What we see happen is, almost immediately they're in these areas, and westward expansions starts to happen. Particularly these British colonies along the eastern seaboard. Initially, we got those 13 colonies that become the United States. But at the end of the American revolution, King George says well you can’t go any further west than the Allegheny mountains.

And he says that initially in 1763, after the French and Indian war, it's part of the reason for the revolution. These Americans can't be stopped. These colonials want to head west. And the next thing you know, they are pushing on that boundary.

Once they become an independent country of course, what we get in the 1803, is the Louisiana Purchase, where Thomas Jefferson basically buys all that territory. It’s an incredible land deal, but it also shows that continued expansion west. And it’s something that just doesn’t stop. It just doesn’t stop.

Of course the Spanish had lost Mexico in 1821, the Mexican revolution. Mexico became an independent country. And Mexico now owned all of this territory in the south west. But the United States certainly feels the need to own this entire continent. In 1836, Texas declares itself an independent country and by 1846, we engage in a war with Mexico that ends up giving us the rest of this continental United States.

This one little piece here, this little piece at the bottom that you can see which we get in 1852. Somehow Mexico retained that we had to buy it from them but guards didn’t purchase. But by 1852, we really have now taken over the entire continent of the United States. And that’s important. It’s important for us to recognize that there was this constant movement westwards.

Of course in 1867, we buy Alaska and in 1892 we also get Hawaii. So we expand those boundaries even greater. And we have a continental empire really by the turn of the 20th century. And again that’s important because it sets up who we are today. That constant push west.

And some of the things you will see in the bonus materials, are things like, Turners or Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier thesis which helps to explain this movement. You’ll run across terms like Manifest Destiny, which was the belief that it was destined, it was God’s destiny for the United States to own all this territory. So it’s important for us, before we start to look at the real details of the creation of government in the United States, of the economic system, is to really understand the first and foremost who we are physically and look at that geography.

So now what I’d like to just briefly look at, and also to put in our back pocket is kind of the foundation for understanding the United States. The way it moved westward to become a continental empire. We are going to go back to our little acronym again. Because this is a really convenient way for us to apply our ideas, to put our ideas into action about that westward expansion. And about the United States developing as a major world power. Geography, obviously this has all been about geography. And I’ll talk in a moment about how significant this piece of property is.

Obviously, government being 3000 miles away from Great Britain, really led to the colonies becoming very independent. And the move for self government started early on, so that’s an important factor. Religion, we had freedom of religion early on also. Again, the luck of interference from the British crown in particular, contribute to that. It’s all about economics. The reason you want the land is because it can be turned into money. Either through agriculture, or trade, or finding gold and minerals.

Art and architecture, that really follows the people. We see all kinds of art. There is a lot of native art and architecture to begin with. We see the development of a very distinctive form of Americans' art and architecture.

Science and technology, there is no way we can move westward without the development of science and technology. We see in the early 19th century, floating steam boats and something like that, which really start to push further west. Education is really in the warp and woof of the settlement of this country.

By 1836, I mentioned Harvard University, by 1689 you got William and Mary and Virginia. 1701, you got Yale and Connecticut. So universities by the beginning of the 18th century, we've got three universities in the British colonies. We actually had a university in same august in Florida in 1519, the Spanish beat the British to it.

And the social culture values. One of the most significant things that we really need to pay attention to, is this having all of this land. And having this incredibly fertile land and these river systems, really influences the social cultural values of the United States, for god and bad at times.

But again, the G-GREASES acronym, really gives us a way to look at the western expansion, the foundation of the United States. Which really, we should make sure it’s underneath us, before we start to look at the real details of things like self government, of Supreme Court cases, the constitution. And what we really see here is the United States from that early eastern seaboard nation.

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