America's Ancient Heritage
There is a very close connection between a child and parent. Parents are the people who gave us life, who feed us, who provide us a bed to sleep in, and who teach us how to brush our teeth and say “thank you.” We also look like our parents, speak the same language, and we pray, or don’t pray, as our parents do. In many ways, who we are depends greatly on who our parents are. If someone wanted to determine what kind of a person you would become when you get older, or what type of work you might do, he could study your parents and make some good guesses.
In the same way, a country looks very similar to the culture that founded it. The best word to describe this is heritage. Heritage means something inherited from the past. The United States of America started as 13 English colonies, originally founded by Great Britain in the 1600s. Because of this, much of America can be traced to our British heritage.
When we look at a person’s past for understanding, we do not stop with studying his or her parents. We also look at grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors as far back in time as possible. It is the same when we study America’s heritage. Even though Great Britain founded the 13 English colonies that would become the United States of America, we can trace America’s heritage to thousands of years ago, to cultures and countries much older than Great Britain.
Historians divide history into different periods, or times, so that we can understand them better. Ancient history refers to the beginning of the history of man up to the end of the Western Roman Empire (A.D. 476). Medieval history begins with the end of the Roman Empire and continues until about 1500. And modern history refers to the time from about 1500 to today. Our first unit focuses on the ancient heritage of America. Although the United States of America is a modern nation, beginning with the founding of Jamestown in 1607, its heritage can be traced back to ancient times.
The United States of America is strongly influenced by the great civilizations of the Ancient Near East and northern Africa. By great, we mean that the civilizations had a large influence on future civilizations. By civilizations, we mean that these peoples had complex agricultural, urban settlements that allowed for inventions and societal developments that made life better. Early, uncivilized peoples are hunters and gatherers who roam over an area (nomads), who do not read and write, and who do not have the technology to build permanent structures. Their lives are short and they do not give much to later nations. Great civilizations, however, are marked by people who develop writing, and who pass on to others inventions or technologies that prolong or improve life. Civilized nations in the ancient world used farming technology that allowed people to have permanent homes and a consistent food supply.
The world’s great early civilizations began on the banks of rivers. Ancient people who lived near rivers could fish for food, drink water, travel on boats, and use the water to irrigate their lands. Irrigate means to water fields so crops can grow. Water from large rivers allowed these people to build strong societies.
One of the beliefs of nearly all ancient people was that the world was created and ruled by many gods. There was a god for the wind, a god for the ocean, and a god for the rain. People who believe in many gods are called polytheists. Polytheists believe that if you want something, you can make a sacrifice to a god, and this god might then give it to you. If you want it to rain, you might kill an animal and burn it to make the rain god happy. Sadly, some polytheists sacrificed other humans, even children, to their gods.
Polytheists did not believe that there was a clear right and wrong. Since there were many gods, and sometimes the gods competed with each other, what was right often depended on what the ruler said was right. In Egypt, in ancient Africa, the leader was called pharaoh, and all Egyptians had to consider pharaoh a god. For the pharaoh, right was whatever made him strong. This meant that if the pharaoh believed killing someone made him strong, then killing was right.
One people of ancient times, the Hebrews, believed in one God. This idea is known as monotheism. The Hebrews believed that their God created a moral system built on what was right and what was wrong. Hebrews believed that God gave them their moral system as well as their system of laws. It is from the Hebrews that Western man received these foundations. America’s laws are founded on Mosaic Law, which includes the well-known Ten Commandments.
Much of America’s culture, language, laws, government, philosophy, and performing arts comes from ancient Greece and Rome. Classical Greece and Rome established democracy and representative democracy, cultural norms, and artistic practices that are exhibited in the United States of America today. The American Founding Fathers thought so highly of ancient Greece and Rome that they used the architectural styles of the Classical world, known as Neoclassicism, for the most important buildings in Washington, D.C. To appreciate American history, it is necessary to understand ancient Greece and Rome.
Within the Roman Empire, a Hebrew carpenter and his wife had a boy named Jesus who founded the first universal belief, the first religion open to all people in the world, and brought the idea of equality before God to all. This belief would have a direct role in the establishment of the United States of America. Jesus Christ taught that God loved all people in an equal manner and that salvation was open to all, regardless of one’s tribe or nation. About one thousand, seven hundred and seventy-six years after the birth of Christ, Thomas Jefferson wrote in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson linked the ancient religious beliefs of Christianity to the founding of the world’s first modern republic. This heritage from ancient times shaped the United States of America that we know today.
Liberty means at least two things: having freedom to and having freedom not to. A goal of liberty is to provide maximum development of an individual’s capacity to be human, to love, to think, to choose to be charitable, to believe in God and follow a religion or not to, to start and run a business, to have a family or to choose not to. It is the freedom an individual has to live his life to its full potential. The story of liberty is as old as the human race, and for much of our world’s history, including today, the great majority of people have not lived in liberty. Only recently, within the last few hundred years, have some people enjoyed a great deal of this freedom.
In modern times, the United States of America has been the leader of liberty. This is why France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the 1800s. It is why immigrants have come first to the United States of America, over other countries, since its inception in 1776. It is the reason that, even though the United States trails China and India in population by about 1.3 billion to 325 million, the U.S. has the greatest economy on Earth. Liberty is a universal idea that continues to fill the hearts and minds of people around the world.
The American Founding Fathers defined liberty in the American founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Like John Locke before him, Thomas Jefferson believed liberty rested on the principles that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founders believed that the rights of Americans rested on the idea that the Creator formed man with rights that no government had the authority to remove. God existed as the authority above government, above man, and the government was always subject to uphold and defend the rights given to man by the Creator. Jefferson and the other Founders fought Great Britain to establish a limited government so that individuals would have maximum freedom.
In the Constitution, liberty is defined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, and the right to assemble. The founders were very concerned about freedom of political speech, meaning the right to campaign or financially support the candidate of one’s choice without limitation. They wanted to make sure that government would never become so strong that it would limit Americans’ ability to participate in politics. Regarding freedom of religion, the founders wanted to make sure the government would not enforce a state religion, however, at the same time, they wanted Americans to never be limited in their practice of religious worship. There are other important rights in the first ten amendments, such as the right to bear arms, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the main point of the Bill of Rights was to make sure that government would never take away the liberty of Americans.
The story of liberty is the story of Western Civilization. It begins with early man, develops over the centuries, and in many ways, it comes to fruition with the birth of America. In ancient times, most humans on Earth believed in many gods; leaders imposed unfair laws on their subjects; and life was short and miserable for those without power. Unfortunately, this remains the case in some places today. However, about 4,000 years ago, the Hebrews believed in one God, in justice, and in morality, regardless of the circumstance of one’s birth. Then, around 2,500 years ago, the ancient Athenians created democracy, the idea that citizens had the right to vote for their leaders and laws and not be subject to a king. At about the same time, the Romans established a republic. Citizens had rights the government had to respect. As the Roman Republic spread, liberty decreased. In 27 B.C., the Roman Empire arose and the liberties people had under the Roman Republic greatly diminished. However, within the Roman Empire, Jesus Christ established a new religious belief where God loved everyone in an equal manner. For the first time in history, a religion offered salvation to all people, not just people of a certain nationality or tribe. This religious understanding of equality under God was transformed over time into the idea that all people should be treated the same by the law. And thus, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal.”
The story of liberty in America has not been a perfect one. From 1776 to 1865, slavery was legal in half of the country. How could a person have liberty if he were owned by another person? In addition, women were not allowed to vote and did not have the same property rights as men. From 1861 to 1865, Americans fought their greatest war, the Civil War, which resolved this paradox of liberty and slavery. Though it took 89 years, the rights Jefferson spoke about in the Declaration of Independence finally did spread to all men, black and white. In addition, throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the political rights of women expanded to be equal with men. However, liberty in America is still not perfect. It remains today an ideal that Americans strive for.
This volume of history is the story of liberty, specifically as it relates to American history. It traces the influence of ancient and medieval civilizations on the establishment and development of the United States of America through the Civil War. It is written with the hope that young Americans will appreciate the uniqueness of America as a leader of liberty. It is these young people who are called to further the cause of liberty within our country and throughout the world. p
John De Gree
John De Gree writes the current events with a look at the history of each topic. Articles are written for the young person, aged 10-18, and Mr. De Gree carefully writes so that all readers can understand the event. The perspective the current events are written in is Judeo-Christian.
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