HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
CONDITIONS LEADING TO DISCOVERY
AMERICAN history is usually made to begin with the voyage of Columbus. Since all historical beginnings are more or less arbitrary, the especial starting point is of no great importance.
History, like time, its principal element, has neither beginning nor end. American social institutions have their roots far back in the days to which history does not run. With these origins the historian does not deal. Here he gives way to the anthropologist, the biologist, and the geologist.
The stream of social evolution which bore the first germs of American society had its main source in Europe. The social genealogy of America goes back to Greece and Rome, and from these comes down through Germans, French, and English, rather than through Mound Builder, Pequod, and Iroquois.
Since the voyages of Columbus form the first link in the chain that was to bring these European influences to these shores, a knowledge of European society at the
time of those voyages and the forces that led to them is essential to an understanding of American history.
The "Age of Discovery," in which the voyages of Columbus were the most striking, though by no means isolated events, came during that period of great social transformation known as the Reformation.
It was the period of the revival of Greek learning, of the Decline of the Roman Empire and the Papacy, of the disappearance of feudalism and chivalry, when towns and nations were growing at the expense of feudal tenures, and commerce and manufacturing were taking on new forms and new life. It was a day not so much of a rebirth of old things as of the birth of those new things whose climax, as capitalism, is the dominant feature of the United States to-day.1
A number of revolutionary inventions were primarily responsible for these industrial, political, and religious changes. In navigation the compass had but recently made it possible to guide a ship beyond the sight of landmarks. Without the compass the Mediterranean marked the limit of navigation. The "world" surrounding this sea was the extent of human knowledge. Now the navigator could carry his landmarks with him, and the Atlantic could be crossed with as certain accuracy as if its western shore were visible from the Pillars of Hercules.
The astrolabe now gave the location of a vessel by its relation to astronomical
bodies. These inventions broke all boundaries to the possibility of exploration.
The invention of gunpowder and its application to war produced equally
far-reaching results. The first crude firearms sufficed to render the humble foot
1 Henry Cabot Lodge, " Close of the Middle Ages," pp. 518-519.
than a match for the best equipped and armored knight. The feudal castle was not impregnable even to the very beginnings of artillery. Henceforth military power was with him who could maintain the largest number of soldiers and not to the strongest arm and the most easily defended castle. Gunpowder played a decisive part in military affairs at the battle of Crecy in 1346 and the siege of Constantinople in 1453.
To this period also belong the invention of printing with movable type, and the manufacture of paper on a commercial scale.1
These industrial changes tended to bring the merchant class into a position of social supremacy. Hitherto public opinion had despised the merchant. He was fair prey for the ruling class of robber barons. Commerce was looked upon with disdain.2
The passing merchant was considered a legitimate source of revenue by the nobility and their retainers. What would now be classified as highway robbery was by all odds the most respectable industry in central Europe for some centuries prior to the discovery of America.
The ideas of the dominant industrial class, the landed nobility, became the standard of morality as preached by the Church.
The Church was very hostile to commerce. The theologians sought to show that it was unproductive, and they especially denounced the trade in money, confusing the taking of interest with usury. For many of
1 The first French mill for the manufacture of paper was erected in 1189, the first English one in 1330, and the first German one in 1390.
2 Paul Risson, " Histoire Sommaire du Commerce," p. 156; William Clarence Webster, " General History of Commerce," p. 96.
them, even in the sixteenth century, merchants were liars, perjurers, and thieves.1
The inventions to which reference has been made were changing all this. They were promoting the growth of towns, the extension of trade, the knowledge of, and therefore the desire for, luxuries which only commerce and the merchants could provide. The Crusades took many of the nobility away, and left their estates in the hands of merchant princes who had taken this property as security for the expense of a crusading outfit.
As the merchants grew in power they became respectable, and commerce became a virtue. When merchant bankers, like the Fuggers, were able to dictate terms of peace and war to kings and emperors, we no longer hear the merchants referred to as "liars, perjurers, and thieves."
By the fifteenth century the merchants were the ruling class in Europe. The great
commercial cities of the Mediterranean and of the north of Europe were more
powerful than many nations, and within these cities rich merchants arbitered the
political destinies of the known world. Any merchant-ruled society seeks new
markets. The pressure for exploration at this period was stronger than perhaps at
any period before or since. Moreover, the whole commercial and social life was
being transformed in such a manner as to make explorations westward across the
Atlantic in search of Oriental markets almost inevitable.1
1 William Clarence Webster, " General History of Commerce," p. 96.
5 Cheney, "European Background of American History," pp. 38-39
As Europe in the fifteenth century became more wealthy and more familiar with the products of the whole world, as the nobles learned to demand more luxuries, and a wealthy merchant class grew up which was able to gratify the same tastes as the nobles, the demand of the West upon the East became more insistent than ever. Therefore, the men, the nation, the government that could find a new way to the East might claim a trade of indefinite extent and extreme profit.
The commercial life of Europe in the Middle Ages was built up around the trade with the Orient. From the East came spices, tea, coffee, precious stones, rare fabrics, dyes, perfumes, drugs, carpets, and rugs, - nearly all luxuries enjoyed by the rich and the powerful alone. In exchange for these the West sent woolen goods, tin, copper, lead, arsenic, antimony, and other metals, and especially gold and silver, of which large amounts were always flowing east to meet the heavy "balance of trade" that favored the Orient.6
Certain Mediterranean cities became the western termini of the long voyage from the East, and distributing points for the goods to the local trade centers. Foremost among these cities were Venice and Genoa.
The stream of goods flowing between these cities and the Orient passed through Asia Minor or down the Red Sea, and through the Arabian Gulf. During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries the Moslems were moving north out of Africa and gradually cutting these trade routes one by one. When in 1453 Constantinople fell into the hands of the Mohammedan Turks, the last great route to the Orient was closed to European traders.1
Europe did not sit idle while the arteries of its commercial life were being
slowly strangled. How to find
1 Edward P. Cheney, "European Background of American History," pp. 9-19; Aloys Schulte, "Geschichte des Mittelalterlichen Handel and Verkehr," Vol. I, pp. 674-675.
2 Helmholt, "History of the World," Vol. VII, p. 8.
or make a trade route between Europe and the Orient was a question that so dominated the life of Europe during this time as to be the principal force in molding its social institutions. Yet for almost three centuries there was scarcely a suggestion of seeking a western route. It is doubtful if geographical ignorance was even the principal cause for the neglect of westward exploration. Knowledge came when it was needed, but no such knowledge was wanted during these centuries. Such a westward route would have overthrown existing trade relations. Those who profited by such relations were in control of society, and could scarcely be expected to seek out such a route.1
All efforts were directed toward driving back the Moslems and opening up the eastward route. In this fact we find at least one reason for those tremendous movements of armed men, - the Crusades. The accepted explanation of these expeditions is that they were for the purpose of "rescuing the holy sepulchre from the profane touch of the infidel." It is at least suggestive that crusades were not preached until trade routes were endangered, and that they ceased when commerce underwent a transformation that rendered these particular trade routes of less importance to the ruling merchant class.
It was just these changes that paved the way for the discovery of America.
Oriental products, after their arrival in Europe, flowed along certain
well-defined channels. For ages the goods that arrived at Venice and Genoa had
moved into northern Europe along routes whose location had largely de-
1 David Macpherson, "History of European Commerce with India" (London, 1812), pp. 7-8.
termined the placing of population and the existence o many social institutions. One set of routes led northward across France. At certain intervals great fairs were regularly held. These fairs performed tee same distributing service for the commerce of the Middle Ages that is performed by the great cities of the present. Tee, were, in fact, temporary cities, dissolving when their annual function had been performed.
Another trunk of this commerce led from the terminal cities on the Mediterranean over the Alps and down the Rhine. Because this route was the feeder of the commerce of all northwestern Europe, the Rhine was sprinkled thickly with the castles of the robber barons. The traveler who passes down the Rhine to-day can measure the wealth of this commerce by the ruins of the retreats of the castled thieves who preyed upon it.
Whatever disturbed these trade routes and centers would change the whole social structure resting upon them,- the merchants and the barons who robbed them, the fairs and the country dependent upon them.
This European trade system was being revolutionized and transformed during the years that the Moslem: were cutting the trade arteries that united it with the Orient.
Improvements in navigation and shipbuilding had made the voyage around Gibraltar cheaper and safer than the overland trip across France and Germany. The discovery of rich mineral deposits in Germany and England, and the development of the English and Flemish woolen industry contributed still further to this alteration.1
The fairs decayed, the castles on the Rhine grew
1 Brooks Adams, "The New Empire," pp. 50-55.
less profitable, and a new group of commercial cities grew on the Baltic and the North seas.
These cities formed a confederation known as the Hanseatic League. Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, and other important trading centers entered into this League, and it grew in power until it possessed its own navy, enacted its own laws governing trade relations, made treaties, and had many of the attributes of a strong nation. The very existence of such a powerful federation composed of mercantile cities is significant of the dominant position of commerce during this period.
The Hanseatic League soon entered into other fields of commerce than those depending upon the Oriental goods brought through the Straits of Gibraltar. Its merchants not only built up an extensive local trade within Europe, but, more significant still in connection with the discovery of America, they were developing a caravan trade direct with the Orient by way of an overland route through Russia and China.
The trade of the Hanseatic League and of England, Holland, and western Europe in general was essentially an ocean trade, developing shipbuilding, training sailors, and offering prizes to navigators. Extraordinary efforts were made to increase the size of ships. Henry V of England experimented in the building of ships that would have been considered large at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Boats of 900 tons burden were built at the Southampton docks in 1449.1
A summary of the situation at the close of the fifteenth century will show a
combination of forces making for
1 Cunningham, "Growth of English Industry and Commerce," Vol. I, pp. 413. "Cambridge Modern History," Vol. I, pp. 7-16.
discovery and exploration. The merchants were the ruling class in society. Commerce was built around the Oriental trade. The principal routes of this trade were closed. Within Europe trade centers and routes had shifted to the Atlantic coast. In so shifting there had come a development of navigation and shipbuilding technique such as was essential to any extensive voyage of discovery. Commercial Europe, after facing for centuries toward the East with its outposts on the Mediterranean, was now looking out across the Atlantic from the shore of western Europe.
This commercial world was devoting all its energies to the search for a route to Asia, and there was a general tendency to seek this via the Atlantic. Portugal was already creeping around Africa. In 1445 Dinnis Diaz had sailed beyond Cape Verde, the uttermost point of the great westward bend of the African continent. Further progress would have been rapid had not a new and hitherto unexpected obstacle developed. The explorers had reached the source of slave-supply and found this trade more profitable than hunting for trade routes to India.
Hence one expedition after another sent out for purposes of discovery, returned, bringing tales of failure to reach further points on the coast, but laden with human booty to be sold. . . . Only the most vigorous pressure, exercised on the choicest spirits among the Portuguese captains, served to carry discoveries further.1
These navigators had gone far enough, however, to satisfy the rulers of Portugal that India could be reached
1 E. P. Cheney, "European Background of American History," pp. 66-70;
around Africa, and they were consequently indifferent to the plea of Columbus.1
The merchants of the northern cities hoped much from the routes which they could control through Russia and Siberia, or along the Black Sea to China, and were likewise indifferent to westward sailing explorations. The Italian merchants were trying to bargain with the Moslem whom the Crusades had been unable to crush. A western route would only contribute to their decline, and Columbus found no favor for his plan in his native Genoa.
There were three commercial nations on the Atlantic that would profit directly by a western route. Each could hope to control such a route, and none saw any possibility of similar advantages in any other route. These were England, Spain, and France. Columbus made simultaneous application to the first two. England was suspicious of his Spanish affiliations, had plenty of navigators who were beginning explorations, and therefore rejected his offer, and he sailed under a Spanish flag.
It was an "Age of Discovery." Explorers were pushing out in all directions. Many
had already suggested that the road to India lay to the west. Contrary to the
popularly accepted legends that have become embalmed in textbooks, the rotundity
of the earth was quite generally accepted in scientific circles.
1 "Cambridge Modern History," Vol. I, p. 21:
The circumnavigation of Africa was nearly accomplished ; of this route to the wealthy East the Portuguese would enjoy a practical monopoly, and it could be effectively defended. . . . Even if the westward passage were successfully accomplished, it was manifest that Portugal would be unable to monopolize it, and that discovery must ultimately inure for the benefit of the stronger maritime nations of western Europe.
The discovery of America by Columbus was but the inevitable resultant of the operation of forces that were bound to send some one across the Atlantic at about the close of the fifteenth century.