"Early German woodcut of a New World scene" Spencer Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-7be9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Documents and Debates: Chapter 1: Early Contact

ByRay Tyler
On June 9, 2020

Looking for thematic primary sources for your classroom? Teaching American History can help!

We’ve developed the two-volume Documents and Debates Collection to illustrate the issues at stake in some of the most crucial moments in American history. Scholars from the Ashbrook Center edited each volume in the collection. Sarah Morgan Smith edited Volume 1, covering 1493 – 1865 and Ashbrook Senior Fellow David Tucker edited Volume 2, which covers 1865 – 2009. Each chapter also includes study questions and an introduction to the topic.

We begin with the first chapter of Documents and Debates, Volume 1: 1493 – 1865. Titled “Early Contact,” Chapter 1 reveals a perhaps surprising difference of opinion among Spanish writers during the first European ventures in “the New World.” 

It is difficult for 21st-century minds to comprehend the brutal treatment indigenous people received from the early Spanish explorers. The documents in this chapter ask essential questions about Christopher Columbus’ treatment of the island natives he encountered. How did Columbus justify the harsh measures he took to pacify the natives? Did others criticize his actions?  

Indeed there were Spanish critics of the “brutal and rapacious” treatment Columbus and others inflicted on the indigenous people. Theologian Francisco de Vitoria, for example, “sought to mitigate the harshness of the conquest by arguing that law—civil, natural, and divine—should prevail everywhere.” De Vitoria argued that “even in the Old Testament, where much was done by force of arms, the people of Israel never seized the land of unbelievers either because they were unbelievers or idolaters or because they were guilty of many sins against nature.” It was morally wrong to slay innocent people, “except when there are no other means of carrying on the operations of just war.” (Document D)

Columbus countered that indigenous culture in the New World was lawless and hostile to European civility. He complained that Spanish authorities had judged his actions “as they would a Governor who had gone to Sicily, or to a city… placed under regular government.” He asked instead “to be judged as a Captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a numerous and warlike people, whose customs and religion are very contrary” to those of Spain (Document B). Successive expeditionary leaders acted as Columbus had, while the arguments of their critics reached Spanish royal authorities, influencing the transfer of power between governors of the Spanish settlements.

Each chapter in the Documents and Debates Collection consists of an introduction to the topic of debate, document excerpts representing competing perspectives on it, and discussion questions to help your students analyze these perspectives. Other discussion questions guide students in making connections between the debate at hand and other debates in American history. These features are available in both the paperback and PDF versions of Documents and Debates: Volume 1

In two weeks, June 23, we’ll introduce you to the first chapter of  Documents and Debates, Volume 2, 1865-2009: Reconstructing the South. We will post one chapter per month from each volume of the  Documents and Debates Collection until all twenty-nine debates with recordings are complete. 

As we explore these volumes in the weeks ahead, you’ll find they cover the enduring issues in American life: the effort to balance freedom and equality as well as liberty and order; the struggle for inclusion and full participation of African-Americans, women, and working people; the conflict over how America should organize its economy and what role government should have in American economic life; and the argument over how America should use its power in the world. 

Access Chapter 1 Here!


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