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How his background informs the content of the book

by | Nov 13, 2022 | History | 0 comments

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Chapter Summaries of William R. Polk, The Birth of America
Chapters 1 – 9, 18
Acknowledgments (It is always helpful to read everything the author or publisher writes at the beginning of a book. Glimpses into themes and the background of the writer can often be found in these sections.)
Polk makes clear his approach to this subject “from the outside” due to his academic work in a much different academic field. In his case, his graduate work was in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, not in American history.
Introduction: Polk begins with rejection of the notion that history is static and puts forward an alternate view: History requires constant revision; demands linguistic proficiency and mandates deference, that is, acknowledgment of the achievements and contributions of other cultures, in the case of U.S. Colonial History, Native American and African.
By way of illustration, Polk considers the encounter of colonists with native people from the colonists’ point of view. He then goes on to a comparative survey of the three major colonial empires: England, France and Spain as to each of their attitudes and behavior towards the native and African populations. It is here that the reader finds the evidence Polk uses to support his thesis that the colonists were deficient in their understanding which led to interactions with non-European cultures.
In the last paragraphs of the Introduction, Polk moves to the revolutionary period and, again, applauds newer historical research tools of archaeology, climate change and increased scholarly studies. Interestingly, Polk does not mention in these last words to the Introduction anything about the second theme of the book, the path to revolution.
Chapter 18: “Casting the Die” (This is the last chapter of the book and therefore out of sequence, but since I recommended that you read it at the beginning of the class along with the Introduction, I am included it here.)
In this chapter, Polk wrestles with events leading up to the revolutionary war and ponders why no accommodation was reached (note: afterall, Canada stayed in the Commonwealth and did not apparently consider the possibility of separation from the British Empire)) and goes on to speculate whether an eye witness at the time would have predicted that the failure to settle differences necessarily would have led the parties to declare war. He tags on to this an assessment of the chances of the Americans’ winning the war. He starts by look at the issues from the British side, examining the inequality of the electoral system; the strength and German origin of the monarch, George III; the openness of Parliament to dissenting political positions; the increasing complexity of the bureaucracy; the demands of other colonies, primarily, India; the disunity of the colonies themselves without any central governance structure and therefore no single author to speak for the colonies; and, finally, a highly divided population in terms of loyalty and rebellion.
In the end, he documents the superior political power and military organization of Great Britain and the difficulties for the revolutionists in all matters of unity and preparedness, leaving the neutral observer to bet on a British victory. The wager would not pay off, however, in spite of all obstacles, including many rebels hoping for a compromise settlement. Continuing his metaphor of conception vs birth, Polk concludes that the process of giving life to a new nation could not be stopped, but the actual delivery “would be long and painful.” (Note: Here is a follow-up question to think about for the Legacy Essay: Why would Polk, an experienced negotiator, paint the future for the United States of America in such dire terms?)
Chapter 1: The Native Americans
The two chapters in The Birth of America that deal most directly with the origins, traditions and practices among Native American people are Chapters 1, The Native Americans, and 11, Whites, Indians and Land. In these chapters, Polk draws on extensive research and comparisons with other historical practices to dispel common myths about American Indians and portray an accurate picture of their customs, social relationships, economic activities and governance structures. Both chapters contribute greatly to our awareness or Indian cultures.
Polk begins Chapter 1 with the question: Who were the Native Americans? His first observation is that this was a question all explorers and settlers asked without ever being able to answer. Over years of intense research, linguistic analysis, archeological digging, climatic and geographical studies, the consensus of experts is that at a time, probably 60,000 years ago, conditions were such that a population native to Northeast Asia were able to cross the Bering Straits, on foot, and make their way into what is now Canada, the United States, Central and South America. Note: There is an alternate theory not mentioned by Polk that traces the voyages of native people’s sailing down the Pacific coast, surviving on fish and kelp and leaving markers on islands from Alaska to Venezuela. This is a hotly debated subject among anthropologists. The theory is supported by many Native Americans who cite ancestral myths as well as scientific evidence.
In support of the diversity of the indigenous people of colonial times, Polk cites linguistic groupings to help differentiate between tribes present when Europeans arrived. It is certainly consistent with Polk’s own training in multiple languages for him to make this significant. He also makes the point that many tribes incorporated their notion of uniqueness by naming themselves, “ the people” or “the real people.” They would not have been alone among other cultures of the world who saw themselves as civilized and every else as barbaric.
One of the threads running through the descriptions of how the Indians perceive themselves and how they were perceived by the Europeans is supported in this chapter by quotations of missionaries and contemporary narrators that attest to the alleged “heathen” and “uncivilized” nature of native people, which ranged from hostility to justification to eliminate them because they were “satanic” and “threatening” to the settlers. But there is one example from the colony of Virginia that shows an exception to this negative attitude. A single man, Robert Beverly, who tried to understand Indian belief and wrote of his thoughts about it. It was the only example Polk could find of such dedication.
Note: The settlers were appalled by the Indians’ lack of clothing and by their child rearing practices, which were very lenient compared to the strict upbringing engaged in by the Puritans. This became a problem when children kidnapped by the Indians in a raid refused to return to their own families preferring the life they had experienced in an Indian community. In most histories of indigenous people, the emphasis has been placed on their lack of economic development compared to the Europeans. It is common to label American Indians as nomads, living in the stage of hunting and gathering rather than in settled agricultural communities. Polk gathers evidence that contradicts this image and shows that the many of the Indians tribes had made the transition to farming and had gained significant knowledge about cultivation of crops, especially corn, squashes, beans and the potato, which had taken generations to complete. Their diet was simple but nutritious, favoring plants and fish over meat. They lacked domestic animals, basic iron farm tools, but had made good use of forested land, rivers and hunting areas. Even though their weapons and instruments were primitive, they had developed great skills with them that impressed even the most hostile of the Europeans.
Above all, the Indians were healthy and clean, especially in comparison with the Europeans whose bodies were riddled with diseases, vermin and disabilities. Unlike the Indians who bathed every day, Europeans bathed, on average, once a year because they felt bathing was unhealthy and quite often did not change their clothes in months, eating, working and sleeping in the same outfits day and night. They were taller with more shapely limbs than the settlers, and seemed happy, generous and in harmony with their surroundings. More than once, Indians were responsible for saving the settlers from starvation and hardship. They offered their assistance without being asked. Their hospitality was legendary. Columbus wrote in his diary that the Arawaks, the Indians he encountered when he arrived in the Caribbean, were so happy and helpful that they would make good slaves.
They Indians were, indeed, helpful and taught the settlers how to build study housing. They lived in communities, rather than scattered over large areas, which the settlers were inclined to do. While their economies were local, they had extensive networks with neighboring tribes for exchange of goods. Their attitude was that the earth was that it was made for everyone and they had a strict duty to protect it.
No laws governed the Indian settlements and no hierarchy of power or privilege encouraged dissention in the tribe. Decisions were made collectively and the land was owned by the entire tribe and not by individual members of the groups. The leaders of the villages were equal to each other and the rest of the tribe and given to see problems as collective concerns. Only the war leaders played a more aggressive role, but war in itself was very different in the Indian view, being more ceremonial than acquisitive and definitely on a reduced scale with very few injuries and deaths sustained by the tribe. Wars were often fought to find replacements for dead members of the community. In Chapter 11, Polk continues the discussion of land, contrasting the three European groups this way: The Spanish wanted the Indians they encountered to be slaves, incorporated into Spanish life as exploited labor. The French who sent men to engage in commercial business wanted Indian allies to further their trade activities. But the English who came in families to establish farming settlements wanted land. For them, the Indians were an obstacle to acquiring fields, forests and waterways to sustain their fledgling farm operations. Polk writes that this view of the English is the essence of colonialism, which is all about seizing lands from indigenous peoples. Note: This, in my view, is an essential lesson of seventeenth and eighteenth century colonialism and explains a lot of the present-day, on-going struggles between the developed global North against the underdeveloped, and formerly colonized, Southern hemisphere. We are still living with the fallout from colonial exploitation of half the world by the other half. The poverty and economic dependence of countries that were colonized in the time we are studying plagues the world community and is unresolved by international agencies without enforcement powers and multinational corporations whose tactics mirror those of the original dominance of Europe over indigenous populations.
Polk spends considerable time with the dramatic changes in demographics as the English population steadily gains in number while the Indigenous population dramatically declines to numbers close to or at genocidal rates. He also relates that in addition to sustaining massive loss of tribal members, the devastation wiped out the cultural life of the tribe since the elders, who guarded and transmitted the ancestral heritage, died in greater percentages than young people, who, in turn, were left without that legacy.
The harmony with nature was violently disrupted. Alcoholism, despair and internecine warfare, that is, war between and among tribes, flourished and wrecked their own havoc with the survivors. An oppressed population turns against each other when it has no way of confronting a common enemy.
Please note how Polk uses comparative analysis on pages 194-199, a fine example of his broad, historical perspective.
The last part of this chapter is devoted to a series of wars between Indians and settlers, Indians and Indians, and French allied with Indians against the British supported by colonists and their few Indian allies. This is Polk’s seque to Part III of the book, Breakdown of the Imperial System, and to the French and Indian War fought in America between 1756 and 1763, a gateway, in many ways, to the Revolutionary War of 1776.
Chapter 2: The Fearsome Atlantic
The geographical and nautical information renders this a very instructive chapter. Polk takes great care to describe every aspect of the navigation and endurance that were required to make the trip. In contrast to the “gentle” Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean was turbulent well beyond their navigational instruments, immense and studded with rocks and reefs, So out of touch with land was it that the crew and passengers lost their bearings, which led to the creation of the word “disoriented,” which literally meant a condition in which a person lost the “Orient,“ a term for the “East,” meaning in this case the European shore, as the ship headed into the wide and desolate western sea.
Christopher Columbus was certainly not the first navigator to be lured by the sea to find the land beyond, expecting that it would be the China and Japan of the tales of the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo and the Morrocan scholar, Ibn Bhatutta in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Led first by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese sailors explored the eastern Atlantic and rounded the Horn of Africa to India and perfected the kind of sails that would be needed for transoceanic voyages. As in many technological advances, war played an important role, make sea battles possible with nautical inventions. And centuries of scientific and mathematical speculation allowed Columbus to measure the world, although his calibrations fell far short of the actual distance from Europe to China. As it turned out, for Columbus, following the calm southern route to the Caribbean, the trip across the Atlantic was serene compared to the horror the immigrants experienced a hundred years later, with every imaginable disease, distress and misery. Some ships were lost sea or in the hands of hostile island inhabitants, pelted by brutal sea storms lasting for days and pummeled against treacherous rocks. The ships were small and carried a human cargo far exceeding their capacity. Food and water turned rancid or ran out completely. Starvation took hundreds of lives, especially among the more vulnerable children. The trip could take up to seven, horrifying months to complete, with almost no sanitation measures or facilities.
Sailing almost blind with no updated maps complicated the trip, as did the presence of pirates on the high seas, most of them in pay of a government, with orders to hijac.k the cargo and take no prisoners. For the governments that hired them, it was commercial investment to bankroll a pirate ship with the result that global networks of piracy terrorized sea vessels and their passengers. And when the monarchs who hired them were not financing high sea robberies, they were at war with each other on the same waves.
After his fascinating and graphic description of the “fearsome Atlantic,” Polk ends this chapter with the subject of the next: If Europeans were willing to subject themselves to such danger and discomfort, what were the forces that drove them to board a ship bound for a new world?
Chapter 3: Sugar, Slaves, and Souls
Sugar, perhaps one of the unhealthiest foods we consume, has been a prized luxury commodity since the Middle Ages when Europeans discovered it in the eastern Mediterranean lands and purchased it with gold from their own plunder of it. But when their stores of gold ran out and the demand for sugar increased, Europeans, now addicted to both substances, had to find news sources of supply. Enter Colonialism, the perfect answer: Gold and sugar, it turned out were available in quantity in Africa and the New World.
In this chapter, Polk traces the Portuguese explorers happy discovery of islands, particularly the Canaries, off the coast of Africa where they could grow sugar and gold in the interior of the continent. Sugar production was labor-intensive, back breaking work, a job for slaves and the slaves themselves would became commodities in the bargain, adding value to the total enterprise. Shortly after this, some gold was found by Columbus in the Caribbean, but not in the quantity of Africa, South American and Australia, but the Caribbean islands proved richest in their ability to grow sugar cane.
Columbus considered the gentle, generous people he encountered in Hispaniola, the Arawak, ideal as slaves, but within three decades, diseases and the work of growing sugar cane had reduced the Arawak population to near extinction. This genocide of the indigenous people was repeated in all the Spanish colonies. The only solution to maintain sugar production in Spain’s view was to import slaves from Africa and leave what remained of the Indian population to the priests to convert to Catholicism.
Meanwhile, the Spanish are completing their conquest of Florida and the Southeast (not especially successful for Spain), the Southwest and Western areas of the United States, Central and South America, all of which were held by Spain until the nineteenth century. The pattern is the same: Extract gold and produce sugar and other food for export. The missions in California were particularly brutal on the native population and have often been compared to concentration camps. Overall, colonialism did not provide Spain and Portugal the riches they anticipated and without further industrial development, all the gold and silver they stole did not enable them to compete ultimately with the English and the French.
Chapter 10: Blacks in America
Polk begins this chapter with the estimate of 12 million people having been “sucked out of Africa” and describes the process of the slave trade beginning with the “dealers” to the cargo ships to the slave markets transporting decent human beings” in centuries-long business operation that was in fact a “barbaric, inhuman, vicious enterprise.”
Note: The lowest number of Africans drained from the continent that gave birth to humankind as slaves is 20 million and higher numbers have been projected.
Beginning his discussion, Polk points out that a significant number of Europeans arrived in the New Land as indentured servants, having contracted their labor for a period of service bondage. He quickly points out that the position of these bonded people differed greatly from the situation of Black slaves and Native Americans, culturally, physically or legally.
From this distinction, Polk launches into graphic descriptions of the attitudes, treatment and governance of Africans. Starting with a short history of the dehumanization of slavery, he proceeds to the specific acts and writings of the “founding fathers,” slavers and plantation holders. The story contains resistance and rebellion, first-hand accounts and fundamental contradictions. It is rife with information about the work the slaves did (cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco production), the horrors of the auction block (beatings, separation of families), the quality of life on the plantation (substandard housing, food and clothing) and the differential levels of service from field hands, household slaves, to the more elevated butlers and coachmen designations), with accompanying floggings and indignations, sexual abuse and abandonment of offspring. Freedom was legally outlawed (Fugitive Slave Act which lasted and was written into the United States Constitution) and prominent figures’ efforts to regain a run-away slave belie their democratic rhetoric. Killing a slave was actually written into law in many colonies as a justifiable action without accusation or punishment.
Note: It is a grim story with no excuses even in the context of the times and makes for difficult reading and comprehension. The behavior of much-revered men such as Washington and Jefferson reveals sordid biographic details that betray their democratic pronouncements. And, by the way, the jury is not out, in fact, the verdict has come in on Jefferson’s relations with Sally Hemmings.)
In the last pages of the chapter, Polk turns to the adoption of Christianity by slaves. Contrary to many accounts, slave holders discouraged with beatings any conversion to the Christian religion, fearing that passages from the Bible could lead to conspiracy and rebellion. At the very least, attendance at church services would act at best a comfort and peaceful haven from the plantation and at worst a gathering place for planning insurrection and sabotage.
Note: Both of the latter occurred on much more frequency than we generally read. Major uprisings and quiet acts of retaliation were constant fears of the slave holders and their families.
Finally, Polk turns to the actions of the British in pitting slaves against the colonial settlers and the alliances of slaves with both sides of what was to become the Revolutionary War.
Chapter 11: Whites, Indians, and Land
In Chapter 11, Polk continues the discussion of land, contrasting the three European groups this way: The Spanish intended the Indians they encountered to be slaves, incorporated into Spanish life as exploited labor. The French who sent men to engage in commercial business wanted Indian allies to further their trade activities. But the English who came in families to establish farming settlements wanted land. For them, the Indians were an obstacle to acquiring fields, forests and waterways to sustain their fledgling farm operations. Polk writes that this view of the English is the essence of colonialism, which is all about seizing lands from indigenous peoples. Note: This, in my view, is an essential lesson of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Colonialism and explains a lot of the present-day, on-going struggles between the developed global North against the underdeveloped, and formerly colonized, Southern hemisphere. We are still living with the fallout from colonial exploitation of half the world by the other half. The poverty and economic dependence of countries that were colonized in the time we are studying plagues the world community and is unresolved by international agencies without enforcement powers and multinational corporations whose tactics mirror those of the original dominance of Europe over indigenous populations.
Polk spends considerable time with the dramatic changes in demographics as the English population steadily gains in number while the Indigenous population dramatically declines to numbers close to or at genocidal rates. He also relates that in addition to sustaining massive loss of tribal members, the devastation wiped out the cultural life of the tribe since the elders, who guarded and transmitted the ancestral heritage, died in greater percentages than young people, who, in turn, were left without that legacy.
The harmony with nature was violently disrupted. Alcoholism, despair, and internecine warfare, that is, war between and among tribes, flourished and wrecked their own havoc with the survivors. Note: An oppressed population turns against each other when it has no way of confronting a common enemy. Internal (internecine) fighting breaks out as an expression of pent-way anger of exploitation and lack of dignity and respect. Please note how Polk uses comparative analysis on pages 194-199, a fine example of his broad, historical perspective.
The last part of this chapter is devoted to a series of wars between Indians and settlers, Indians against Indians, and French allied with Indians against the British supported by colonists and their few Indian allies. This is Polk’s seque to Part III of the book, “Breakdown of the Imperial System,” and to the French and Indian War fought in America between 1756 and 1763, a gateway, in many ways, to the Revolutionary War of 1776.
Outline for the Polk Essay
General Points:
The point of this essay is to reflect on the themes and questions posed by Polk and translate your thoughts into a question or questions you will answer backing your argument with specific examples from the author’s narrative. The essay should follow a template that you can use for all four essays. It is simple in format, more complex in analysis: Frame a question or what is sometimes called a thesis statement, weigh the answer as you would in a debate using information/evidence from the book (or other materials gathered in the Units) to back up your argument and then wrap up the essay with a conclusion or assessment of the value of the assignment for this course. Whether this is being used as a review for a book or document, include reference to the authors’ point of view and background. You may also make reference to the themes of the course as posted in Unit One, Item Four and compare one assignment with another one.
Let me suggest a couple of ideas. Knowing something about Polk will help. His background is scholarly and academic, having studied at taught at three preeminent institutions, Harvard. Oxford and the University of Chicago, as well as several Latin American universities. At the same time, his resume reveals significant contributions in the area of foreign policy and diplomacy at the highest levels of negotiation and policy-making.
In his Introduction, Polk lets you in on one of the driving forces behind his research for this particular book: To bring to the study of colonial America a perspective that includes a deep knowledge and appreciation of Native American and African culture and history. His reason for this is that this context has been left out and the price of the reader’s not having this information is an incomplete analysis of what happened between 1600 and 1800. The European settlers may have been unable and unwilling to learn about the people they displaced and the people they enslaved, but we have no excuse today to continue to ignore the reality of who they were and what they had done on their own before colonial privilege and superior industrial power overwhelmed them. Polk’s other career was in international negotiations and conflict management and he was involved in some of the greatest political crises of American diplomacy in the last decades of the twentieth century, one of which was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led the work to the brink of a global catastrophe. It should not be a surprise then that Polk would be drawn to the question of how the British government and the colonial leaders found themselves on a trajectory to armed conflict and revolution against the Crown and to wonder whether this could have been avoided. Our awareness of his keen interest and experience in defusing such explosive situations allow us to speculate with him on an alternate fate for America as a new and independent nation.
So how might the essay be organized? The formal outline below is designed to reinforce your ability to set out a logical sequence of evidence in order to answer the question that you have made the guiding thread of the essay. The basic skeleton of this outline should be used in all the essays that you submit for this class. Please remember that a formal outline is a tool to maintain focus from the opening to the closing of the essay. If you can write a tightly drawn essay without it, you have a rare gift and are fortunate indeed.
Keep in mind that I allow you to turn in multiple drafts of the essay. We stop only when you reach the grade you want or run out of time.
This is an outline the details of which you can adopt or reject. You may take a completely different approach. However, the basic divisions of this Outline, that is, the three Roman numerals, namely the following must appear somewhere in your essay: I. Question: You will need to frame the essay with a question you intend to answer. That question must come out of the required reading in the Polk book.
II. Argument: You need to gather evidence from the book or other materials to answer the question.
III. Evaluation: You must comment on Polk’s background and evaluate the book making reference to what the author is trying to do, how well he did it, and how useful the book was in understanding US Colonial History.
Suggested Outline:
I. Introduction: The Question
A. Polk
1. Short review of his biography
2. How his background informs the content of the book
B. Themes of the book
1. Bringing to light the achievements and dignity of all groups in colonial society by asking the question: Did the lack of knowledge about the Indians and the Africans lead the colonists to
make bad decisions for the period in which they lived and for us today? 2. Was the revolution and separation of the colonies from Great Britain inevitable and/or desirable?
II. Evidence: Arguing for or against the question
A. Native Americans
1. Origins
2. Distinctions between tribes and languages
3. Governance structures
4. Nature of society
5. Level of economic development
6. Cultural traits
7. Interactions among tribes and with Europeans
B. Africans
1. Regional cultures and languages
2. Political organization
3. Achievements
4. Productive capacity
C. The Colonists
1. Reasons for emigrating from Europe
2. Regional similarities and differences
3. Attitudes towards Indians and Africans
4. Changes over time
III. Evaluation and Conclusions A. Polk’s success in developing his themes
1. Sources of evidence (primary, secondary)
2. Logical train of thought
B. Overall evaluation
1. Writing
2. Usefulness

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