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Political Agreements & Treaties of the Western Hemisphere

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine important Western political agreements and treaties. We will identify their impact and learn how they have shaped Western history.

The Role of Treaties in History

It is easy to forget that the flow of history is powerfully impacted by political agreements, alliances, treaties, and other similar binding documents. For example, we all know World War II broke out largely because of Hitler's plan to expand Germany, but how often do we actually think about the ''Pact of Steel'' between Germany and Italy, or the Tripartite Treaty of 1940? We realize that the Spanish were heavily involved in colonizing the New World, but how often do we recognize the importance of the Treaty of Tordesillas?

In this lesson we will highlight some of the important political agreements, alliances, and treaties in modern Western history. We'll see how they've shaped the course of human events. Let's dig in!

15th Through 17th Century Agreements and Treaties

We'll begin with the the Treaty of Tordesillas since we just mentioned it. Signed in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas established a line of demarcation in the New World, designating which sections belonged to Spain and which belonged to Portugal. Under the treaty, most of the New World (including all of North America) fell to the Spanish. For the most part, the treaty was followed by the two countries, although it was ignored by other Protestant nations like France and Great Britain. As a result of the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain had a dominant presence in the New World until it was finally edged out by Great Britain and then the United States.

If you know your American history, you probably know this next one. The Mayflower Compact was signed in 1620 by 41 Pilgrim settlers while aboard the Mayflower. The Mayflower Compact established a system of law based on democratic values. The Mayflower Compact is often considered to be the earliest example of self-government in America.

Peace of Westphalia refers to a series of treaties signed in 1648 that brought an end to the Thirty Year's War and dramatically shaped European geopolitics, or political interactions among the nations of the world. The war involved a host of European states, and much of it was fought on German soil. The Peace of Westphalia resulted in the formation of an independent Dutch Republic and helped accelerate nationalism throughout the continent. It also helped established the principle of cuius regio eius religio, which is the idea that the religion of a nation should be determined by that nation's ruler, not by outside authorities (such as the Pope). The war had begun in part because Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, tried to impose Catholicism on all his subjects.

Diplomats gather at the Peace of Westphalia.
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18th Through 21st Century Agreements and Treaties

We have to mention the 1783 Treaty of Paris. This treaty brought an end to the American Revolutionary War and ensured the survival of the United States of America. A few years later, when the British and Americans fought one another in the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent brought an end to hostilities. It was signed in 1814. The War of 1812 has sometimes been called America's ''Second War of Independence.''

The 1783 Treaty of Paris.
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Though World War I ended in 1918, a formal treaty was not signed until 1919. The Treaty of Versailles formally ended the war. Article 231 of the treaty placed the blame for the war solely on Germany. This article required Germany to pay war reparations (money), and it was also forced to make land concessions. The Treaty of Versailles, of course, was signed in the Palace of Versailles in Paris, France. The Treaty of Versailles led to the formation of the League of Nations, which was an international assembly of nations whose aim was to prevent war and promote cooperation. The League of Nations is basically the the forerunner of our modern United Nations.

The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I.
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Let's look at two more. The first is NATO, which stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is an international military alliance which formed in 1949. Originally, it was established to counter the Soviet expansionism in Europe and provide collective security against the Soviet Union. It played a vital role during the Cold War and continues to exist today.

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