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Early America to the Civil War

  • 5/5 Stars
Course Length:
14 weeks
3 credits

History 121 – Early America to the Civil War

Course Description:

Indian Village of Pomeiooc, near Roanoke Colony
Indian Village of Pomeiooc, near Roanoke Colony

In October 1492, after the tiny fleet sighted land, Christopher Columbus' son wrote in the flagship's journal, "They[the Spaniards] saw naked people, and the Admiral went ashore in the armed ship's boat.... Many Indians...[were] rejoicing, [and] the Admiral, seeing that they were a gentle and peaceful people and of great simplicity, gave them some little red caps and glass beads which they hung around their necks, and other things of slight worth, which they all valued at the highest price." This simple encounter on an island in the Caribbean represented, not a meeting with Asians off the coast of Japan, as the Spaniards thought. Nor was it a meeting with gods from the sky, as the native Americans believed. Rather it marked the beginning of an extraordinarily complex and often tragic cultural interaction between the peoples of Europe, Africa, and America. It also marked the beginning of what we call the American nation.

Nearly four centuries later, in March 1861, the newly inaugurated president, Abraham Lincoln, struggled to hold together what was then an enormous, rich, yet terribly fragmented nation. In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and it was growing economically more powerful every year. However, the nation also had three and a half million African-American slaves in a country supposedly founded upon freedom, liberty and equality. As Lincoln took office, he and the American people pondered how they could continue to exist half-free, half-slave. In a much larger sense, they were debating what kind of nation America would become after 1861.

This course seeks to fill the gap between these two episodes in our past as well as to illustrate the how and why events long ago continue to have a powerful impact upon our American society today. In fact, many aspects of our lives and many of the problems we face in the twenty-first century are really legacies of our early history. For instance, during this semester, we will examine the collision of diverse ethnic and racial cultures, the development of democratic political institutions, and the expansion of the United States from one ocean to the other. All of these events led to significant transformations of the North American continent. These events also led to critical problems that early Americans had to confront and solve. And the answers and solutions that these people arrived at are vital to know and understand because they still significantly shape our daily lives today.

Course Objectives:

This course will deepen your awareness of the complexity and richness of America's past. It will also hopefully make you want to learn more about the various periods and events we will study. In specific terms, at the end of this course, you will:

1. understand the major historical figures, key events, and significant transformations that have swept America from the colonial age to the start of the Civil War
2. be able to place important historical figures and occurrences in time. This does not mean that you will simply memorize dates and events. Instead you will be able to place events in chronological order and within a larger and more meaningful context.
3. develop your critical reading and writing abilities as well as increase your oral communication skills.

Course Reading:


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, volume one (Seagull Edition)

The textbook reading assignment for each class meeting is listed below under the lecture headings. It is vital that you read each textbook assignment before you come to class. The lectures will make more sense (although lectures neither strictly follow nor simply regurgitate the textbook). Because we are covering a great deal of material this semester, if you fall behind in your readings, you will very quickly lose track of the larger patterns of American history that we are developing.

Supplementary Readings:

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Kenneth Silverman (Penguin edition)

Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, edited by David W. Blight (Bedford Press, 2nd edition)

Selected Primary Documents accessible from the Internet.

The dates upon which the primary documents and supplementary books are to be completed are listed under specific dates in the "Schedule of Topics." Note that there will be in-class writing exercises and class discussions on these materials.

Course Requirements:

  • Seven in-class writing exercises at scheduled times (30 points total). There will be quizzes on the primary documents and supplementary books. These will consist of 2 or 3 short-answer questions. The lowest score will be dropped.
  • Attendance and participation in class discussions (20 points). During the semester we will have at least four class discussions, during which (in small groups and collectively) you will discuss the primary documents as well as the supplemental books that you will read. Students who miss these sessions cannot receive discussion points.
  • Two midterm exams on scheduled dates (Midterm #1: 50 points; Midterm#2: 100 points). These tests will cover material examined in the course to date and will consist of a combination of a) short-answer identifications in which you will identify and note the significance of various persons, places or events discussed in the readings and lectures; and b) essay questions in which you will analytically discuss a specific topic(s) dealt with in the course. Study guides will be provided at least one week in advance of the test. Students are required to supply their own Bluebooks for these exams.
  • A five-page critical book review (typed, double-spaced) of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (80 points). Students may submit an optional first-draft of their review. A handout explaining writing assignment will be distributed to everyone during the semester.
  • Final examination (120 points). This exam will cover primarily the latter half of the course and consist of short-answer identifications and essay questions. The Final Exam will be announced by the Registrar’s office.

Timeline of Events:

See the comprehensive timeline of American history events located at the following web address:


This timeline will help you get a better handle on the chronology of American history.

Schedule of Topics:

Because of the complexity and quantity of material we are covering, this schedule is tentative.


Columbus's ships land in the Americas
Columbus's ships land in the Americas

  • Week 1, Class 1: Introductions and Syllabus Review

  • Week 1, Class 2: The First Americans
Textbook Assignment: Foner, xix-xxvi, 19-24
  • Week 1, Class 3: Europe’s Decline and Recovery: 1300-1500
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 1-7
  • Week 2, Class 1: Columbus’s “Discovery,” Conquest, and New Spain
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 7-18
  • Week 2, Class 2: The English Settlement at Jamestown
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 24-47
  • Week 2, Class 3: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion:
1. “All Over the Land Nothing Else Was Spoken Of ”: Cabeza de Vaca Takes Up Residence as a Medicine Man in the Southwest, 1530s http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6385
2. “What Can You Get By Warre”: Powhatan Exchanges Views With Captain John Smith, 1608" http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5838
3. "A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia," by John Smith, 1608 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1007
  • Week 3, Class 1: New England Colonies in the 1600s: Pilgrims and Puritans
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 54-70, 89-95
  • Week 3, Class 2: The Establishment of Slavery in America
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 49-54, 87-89, 110-24
  • Week 3, Class 3: Owing Your Own Colony: England’s Proprietary Settlements
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 47-49, 71-87
  • Week 4, Class 1: Colonial Politics and the Emergence of Provincial America
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 95-109, 124-34
  • Week 4, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion-
1. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (City upon a Hill) http://www.kosmicki.com/234/cityhill.htm
2. Gottlieb Mittleberger on Indentured Servitude http://www.faulkner.edu/academics/artsandsciences/socialandbehavioral/…
3. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography – “Boarding a Slave-Ship” and “The Middle Passage” http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/extract2.htm and http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/extract3.htm
4. Slave Sale Broadside (1774) http://www.uta.edu/history/hist1311-3f07-sm.htm
5. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
  • Week 4, Class 3: First Midterm Examination


The Shot Heard Round the World
The Shot Heard Round the World

  • Week 5, Class 1: The Enlightenment and Great Awakening
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 134-38
  • Week 5, Class 2: The Road to Revolution: From the French and Indian War to Boston Tea Party
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 138-62
  • Week 5, Class 3: The American Revolution (I): Toward Independence
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 162-70
  • Week 6, Class 1: The American Revolution (II): Washington and the Patriot Victory
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 170-78
  • Week 6, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion:
1. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741 http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/history/spurgeon/web/edwards.…
2. Examination of Benjamin Franklin before the House of Commons, 1766 http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_By_the_M…
3. Declaration of Independence http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/declare.htm
4. Washington’s Farewell to the Continental Army, November 1783 http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/revolution/farewell/index.html
  • Week 6, Class 3: The New Republican Order
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 179-210
  • Week 7, Class 1: Document and Film Analysis: We will read excerpts of Martha Ballard’s Diary and see excerpts of the PBS film “A Midwife’s Tale”


Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

  • Week 7, Class 2: Crafting the U.S. Constitution
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 211-40
  • Week 7, Class 3: The Federalist Vision: Washington and Hamilton
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 241-52
  • Week 8, Class 1: The Republican Vision: Jefferson and Madison
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 252-60
  • Week 8, Class 2: Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 260-67
  • Week 8, Class 3: The War of 1812
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 267-71
  • Week 9, Class 1: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion:
1. Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist 1,” Oct 27, 1787 http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=7
2. George Washington on Slavery http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h66t.html
3. George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm
4. Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/jefinau1.htm
5. Thomas Jefferson’s Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803 http://www.monticello.org/jefferson/lewisandclark/instructions.html
  • Week 9, Class 2: Second Midterm Examination


William Henry Harrison and the Log Cabin Campaign of 1840
William Henry Harrison and the Log Cabin Campaign of 1840
  • Week 9, Class 3: Nationalism and Sectionalism
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 314-16
  • Week 10, Class 1: American Expansionism – Population, Transportation, Industry
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 272-90, 290-302
  • Week 10, Class 2: The Tragedy of the Old South
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 337-66
  • Week 10, Class 3: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion:
Douglass, Narrative of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave
  • Week 11, Class 1: The Jacksonian Era (I): Growing Participation of the “Common Man”
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 303-14, 316-31
  • Week 11, Class 2: The Jacksonian Era(II): Jackson’s Presidency and the New Party System
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 331-36
  • Week 11, Class 3: The Second Great Awakening and the Benevolent Reform Movement
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 290-95, 367-78, 388-96
First Drafts of Paper due
  • Week 12, Class 1: The Rise of Antebellum Abolition
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 378-88
  • Week 12, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. President Jackson's Veto Message Regarding the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/veto/ajveto01.htm
2. William Henry Harrison and the Presidential Election of 1840 http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/americavotes/harrison.html
3. Abstinence Pledge, 1845http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/327/ and Scene from “The Drunkard” 1844 http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/42/
4. “The Liberator,” Inaugural Editorial by William Lloyd Garrison, Jan. 1, 1831 http://www.sewanee.edu/faculty/Willis/Civil_War/documents/Liberator.ht…
5. The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1831. Read “Motives” and “The Insurrection” http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1826-1850/slavery/confesxx.htm


Storming of Fort Wagner
Storming of Fort Wagner

  • Week 12, Class 3: Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 397-409
  • Week 13, Class 1: The Crisis of the 1850s
Textbook Assignment: Foner, 409-22
Final Drafts of Paper due
  • Week 13, Class 2: Harper’s Ferry, Lincoln’s Election, and Southern Secession
Textbook Assignment: 422-36
  • Week 13, Class 3: The Civil War (I): The War to Preserve the Union
Textbook Assignment:
  • Week 14, Class 1: The Civil War(II): The War to End Slavery
Textbook Assignment:
  • Week 14, Class 2: In-Class Writing Exercise and Class Discussion on:
1. John Brown’s Letters to his wife, Oct 31, 1859 and Nov 30, 1859 http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/johnbrown/brownprison… and Brown’s Speech to the Court, Nov 2, 1859 http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/johnbrown/brownaddres…
2. Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Lincoln’s Rejoinder to Douglas at Freeport, Illinois, Aug 27, 1858 http://www.nps.gov/archive/liho/debate2.htm (scroll down to the heading “Mr. Lincoln’s Rejoinder”)
3. Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural Address of President of the Confederacy, Feb 16, 1861 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/csa/csainau.htm
4. Eyewitness to Battle (of Antietam), Sept 17, 1862 http://www.nps.gov/archive/anti/eyewitness.htm (be sure to read both p. 1 and p. 2 of accounts)
5. Gettysburg Address, Nov 19, 1863 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/gettyb.htm
6. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Mar 4, 1865 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/lincoln2.htm
7. Grant’s Surrender Terms to Lee, Apr 9, 1865 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1865RELee-surrender.html
  • Week 14, Class 3: Review for Final Examination

Date for Final Examination to be announced by the Registrar's Office