The Documents Heard ‘Round the World

The United States of America - Founding – 1700 > 1800


            And now we get to a country you might have heard of before.  I’ll give you some clues.  It has the third most people and the fourth most land.  It has the largest economy in the world.  It has the largest military in the world.  It’s home to the most desired universities, the greatest technological innovations of the 20th century and MTV.  Its breakfast cereal aisles are legendary.  Its fast food restaurants are global icons.  It makes the movies everyone wants to see and the music everyone plugs into their ears.  Its embassies around the world have the longest lines of any foreign country – those lining up to protest its foreign policy and those lining up just hoping for a chance to win the immigration lottery and possibly set foot in the nation where the streets are lined with gold and anyone can make it to the top. 

            It’s everywhere and its global reach touches everyone.  You can go hiking in the most remote hills of the Himalayas, stop off in the islands of Papua New Guinea or get stranded on the coast of Antarctica, and you will see its footsteps.  Love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion of it.

            It is the United States of America. 

            Although its reach is incomparable today, its beginnings were less than intimidating.  After Columbus touched ground in the Caribbean, the European powers of Spain, Portugal, France, England and Holland set off exploring and colonizing all across the two Americas.  By the mid-1600s, the Americas were a patchwork of land claims, sparsely populated by the outcasts and the fortune seekers of Europe.  Spain by far had the most territory, controlling almost all of South America, the entirety of Central America and all lands west of the Mississippi River.  Portugal held the eastern portion of South America, what would one day become Brazil; France laid claim to the areas around the Mississippi; Holland briefly held some ports on the eastern coast (New Amsterdam - aka “New York” - was their most prominent); and England ruled over a series of thirteen colonies huddled closely against the Atlantic Ocean.

            Throughout the 17th century, these northern English colonies weren’t even the most desired holdings in the Americas.  The Caribbean islands produced the sugar that fetched a hefty sum on the world markets and the silver and gold mines of South America dug out the bullion that made the world exchange possible.  The British thirteen colonies were a mere afterthought.

            Yet as the mines dried up and the market for sugar became saturated, the more diverse economies of North America forced Europe to take notice.  For the first half of the 17th century, although technically ruled by...