Marking a momentous period in American history, Radio 4 charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)
This series has now ended.
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Empire of Liberty
The America Debate
Justin Webb presents a debate to launch Radio 4's new American history series. He asks what influences have most shaped America today.
A panel of distinguished guests from both sides of the Atlantic includes series presenter Professor David Reynolds, Professor Howard Zinn, author of the best-selling A People's History of the United States, Professor Shelby Steele from the Hoover Institution and Professor Susan Castillo from Kings College, London.
America's first inhabitants probably arrived from Asia around 12,000 BC over a 'land bridge' between Siberia and Alaska at the end of the last Ice Age. Although America was settled from north to south, the dynamic of development ran from south to north. The most advanced region was from Peru to Mexico, home to the Inca and Aztec empires, but there were other sophisticated indigenous civilisations throughout America, including the peoples who built the biggest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas at Cahokia Mounds in modern day Illinois. Cahokia is now a World Heritage Site, placing it on a par with Stonehenge and the Pyramids.
Columbus - Bearer of Death
Columbus wasn't the first European to 'discover' the New World - Viking sailors had visited Newfoundland in the 10th century - but his arrival in 1492 signified the beginning of a catastrophic period for indigenous Americans (whom Columbus wrongly called Indians).
The European invaders, numbered in their thousands, conquered millions of Indians. Horses and firepower mattered, but equally important were the unwitting weapons of influenza and smallpox against which the Indians had no immunity. A mid-range estimate is that the Indian population of North America plummeted from around 5 million to 0.5 million in the 150 years after Columbus landed.
Borderlands of the Spanish Superpower
By 1550 the Spanish Crown controlled much of South and Central America, bringing maize, tobacco, strawberries and tomatoes back to Europe. Treasure from the New World helped finance Spain's European wars and the fight against Protestantism.
The Spanish also extended their empire into what is now the southern United States, including Florida and New Mexico. But in contrast to its southern and central American empire, Spanish North America remained a series of isolated outposts. The Hispanic legacy remains evident in North America in food, place names and words such as 'tornado' and 'chocolate' but North America, unlike South America, would not be a Spanish domain.
New France Astride America's Heartland
Nor would it be French. France began to colonise North America in the 1600s, starting in what is now eastern Canada and spreading in the 1680s down the Mississippi. French explorers founded Louisiana and New Orleans. But the French North American colonies were fragile and economically unsustainable. In 1700 New France had 15,000 people, more than Spanish North America, but far less than the white population of England's North American colonies which was nearly 250,000.
There was nothing in the early years of English settlement to suggest their North American colonies would do any better than those of the Spanish or French. Jamestown in Virginia - the first permanent English settlement established in 1607 - was initially decimated by disease and starvation. Yet there were three important differences which gave the English the edge in Virginia - private ownership of land, which encouraged enterprise; local self-government, which although not democratic was still generous for the period; and, crucially, the hugely profitable crop of tobacco.
Problems in attracting sufficient European indentured labour encouraged the planters to turn to black slavery, already essential in the Caribbean. English success in settling the American South therefore depended on a potent but volatile mix of liberty and slavery that would define the future United States.
Quotes featured on this page were voiced by: Peter Marinker, Kerry Shale and Dan Starkey. Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.