ryanAmerican History(ML), Mini Lessons

Common Sense American History: New World Revolutions

When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World – the American continent – he was not the first European to have visited the continent nor was he the first person to arrive in the Americas. Vikings had sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland around the year 1000 and established a settlement in Vinland, but it was abandoned a short time later. The Americas to which Columbus arrived had native inhabitants throughout the continent with diverse cultures, languages, and social organizations. For Columbus and Western Europeans, his arrival in 1492 was a discovery for them.

Most of our lives are spent in settled circumstances. We live in particular places, subject to various (and multiple) authorities – our community association, city or town, state, and country. In most instances, it is clear what those authorities allow, or don’t allow, us to do.

But imagine you are Columbus – or the natives who he first encountered. How would you know what rules, norms, or laws should govern your interactions? There was no international law, and therefore not even a definition of “pirate.”

  1. Imagine we find life on another planet. What norms would govern those encounters? What if the “other” side doesn’t follow the same ones? Does that change our obligations? Would we then be allowed to become “space pirates?”
  2. The idea of “civilization” is relatively new (it emerged around the time of Columbus’s voyages). To “civilize” means to bring a certain specific set of practices to a group of people not practicing them. To be “civilized” is thought of as being more advanced than being uncivilized. In our time, we rarely use that word, but we do talk about spreading democracy and promoting human rights. Do you believe we, as Americans, have any obligations to bring democracy and human rights to places where they are lacking? If so, how and why?

This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook.  Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers.  Click here to download the Common Sense American History materials.

Image Citation:

“Landing of Columbus”, by John Vanderlyn, 1846, Commissioned by Congress for the Capitol Rotunda, [digital image].  Retrieved from <>.