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Historical Glossary

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XYZ affair

On 31 May 1797, John Marshall, Charles C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry were named commissioners to negotiate a treaty to improve relations with France. They arrived at Paris on 4 October, but the Duc de Talleyrand, French foreign minister, delayed talks until 18 October, when three of his anonymous agents (known as messeigneurs X,Y, and Z) intimated that talks would not start until Talleyrand received a bribe of $250,000 and France obtained a loan of $12,000,000. The delegation refused, and John Adams sent Congress proof of Talleyrand's bribe effort on 3 April 1798. The XYY affair inflamed US public opinion against France and badly discredited Democratic party candidates in the election of 1798.

Yakima Indians

This group, speakers of one of the Sahaptin languages, was closely related to the Nez Perce Indians and was the largest Indian nation in the upper Columbia River valley. They incorporated the horse into their culture after 1735, and experienced regular contact with Anglo-Americans after 1845. In 1855 leading Yakimas conceded possession of land outside certain bounds to the US and agreed to let whites cross their territory, but this agreement stirred great discontent among many villages and led to the Yakima wars. They now have a reservation in Yakima and Klickitat counties, Wash., at Toppenish.

Yakima wars

In September 1855, angry over recent treaty concessions to whites, Yakima Indians killed six miners, murdered their US agent, and forbade whites to enter their lands. On 6–9 October, 500 Yakimas defeated 100 soldiers from Fort Dalles, Wash., killed 5 and wounded 17, and captured their howitzer. Indians on Puget Sound then began hostilities; they attacked Seattle on 26 January 1856 with Yakima help. By 11 July, fighting had ended east of the Cascades. On 17 July, Oreg. volunteers defeated 300 Indians in the Grand Ronde Valley. The presence of 500 US regulars in Yakima territory caused fighting to peter out by autumn 1856, but without a formal Yakima capitulation. Fighting resumed on 17 May 1858, when 1,000 Yakimas and other Indians defeated 164 US soldiers. Colonel William Wright's 600 US troops defeated Kamiakin's 4,000 warriors on 1 September at the battle of Four Lakes (killing 60 Indians without a single loss) and ended the war on 5 September by defeating 700 warriors at the battle of Spokane Plain. By hanging 16 hostiles as examples and forcing all Indians on to reservations, Wright ended large-scale resistance to white settlement in the Columbia basin.

Yalta conference

Between 4 and 11 February 1945, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed the war against Japan and the political status of eastern Europe after World War II. In return for a Russian promise to declare war on Japan, it was agreed that Russia would gain control of the Kurile Islands, the lower half of Sakhalin Island, the right to occupy northern Korea, a military lease for the harbor at Port Arthur in Manchuria, and recognition of Outer Mongolia as a Soviet satellite. The Allies also agreed that Ukraine and Byelorussia would be seated as independent nations in the future United Nations. The Allies declared that postwar governments in eastern Europe would beorganized by free and secret elections that excluded only non-democratic (i.e. Fascist) elements. By not establishing exact guidelines for restoring elective democracy in liberated areas, the conference enabled Russia to interpret the Yalta agreements on its own terms and establish totalitarian regimes in eastern Europe.

Yamasee Indians

This nation, speakers of one of the Muskogean languages, occupied southeastern Ga. and northern Fla. in the 1590s, when Spanish missions were founded among them. In 1684–5—when they numbered about 1,200—the Yamasee destroyed the missions, resettled along the Savannah River, began trading deerskins with S.C. merchants, and later were English allies in the Tuscarora War. By 1715, having been alienated from the English by degrading mistreatment from fur traders, they orchestrated a general assault on S.C. in the Yamasee War, but were badly defeated the next year. They fled to Fla., where the Spanish welcomed them and let them launch attacks on the English. S.C. militia suppressed the Yamasee raids in the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727–8. Within a century, the survivors had lost their cultural identity by merging with Creek or Seminole Indians.

Yamasee War

On 15 April 1715, Yamasee Indians, Creek Indians, and nearby tribes killed and plundered 160 fur traders and then attacked S.C. settlements within 12 miles of Charles Town. The English managed to harvest winter food supplies while a counteroffensive by 600 S.C. whites, 100 Va. volunteers, and 500 slaves drove back the enemy. In 1716 the Yamasees were deserted by their Indian allies and attacked by Cherokee Indians. Having lost many enslaved and killed, the tribe resettled in Fla. Serious fighting ended in mid-1716. Minor raiding continued, but subsided after the Creeks made peace on 15 November 1717. The Yamasee War established white dominance on the S.C. frontier, which stayed at peace until the Cherokee War.


This term was Dutch slang for an Englishman, and may have derived from Jan Kees (John Cheese). From 1700 to 1860, it was used exclusively when speaking of New Englanders. Only in the Civil War did it come to refer to all northerners. During World War I, it entered common European usage as a synonym for all Anglo-Americans—to the mortification of southerners.

Yates v. United States

On 17 June 1957, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Smith Act by modifying Dennis et al v. United States. The Court held that in order to convict a person of advocating violent overthrow of the government, the government must prove that the defendant committed overt subversive acts, and neither acted as a passive follower nor espoused abstract principles. The ruling's strict standards for convicting Communists and others with seditious ideologies discouraged the US from actively using the Smith Act to prosecute sedition.

Yazoo land claims

On 7 January 1795, the Ga. legislature sold four land companies 35,000,000 acres of the Yazoo River watershed (in Ga. and Ala.) for $400,000. In 1796 a newly elected legislature repudiated the sale, which had been influenced by bribery and corruption, but not before the land companies had sold shares to innocent parties. When Ga. ceded its western lands to the US in 1802, the land companies and third-party purchasers demanded compensation for their losses and their claims blocked settlement of the Yazoo region. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted the federal government to honor the various parties' claims, but their efforts were denounced by John Randolph as a scheme to enrich corrupt speculators sitting in Congress. The Supreme Court ruled on the case in Fletcher v. Peck. In 1814, with Randolph temporarily in private life, the US resolved the controversy by awarding $4,200,000 to the speculators and other claimants.

yellow journalism

This was a style of reporting events that pandered to a vulgar taste for lurid, sensational news as a means of outselling a competitor's newspapers. It emphasized emotional, simplistic arguments over reasoned, objective analysis. Its pioneers were Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. (Its name derived from a Journal cartoon figure called the “Yellow Kid.”) Its most notorious abuse was the deliberate inflaming of war fever after the USS Maine's sinking, which helped spark the Spanish-American War.

Yellow Peril

From 1880 to 1910, hysteria developed in the western US over unrestricted Chinese and Japanese immigration. Newspapers warned of a “yellow peril” that would lower living standards, spawn crime, and leave Anglo-Americans a minority on the Pacific coast. This anxiety coincided with apprehension over Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1905). These concerns resulted in riots against Asian laborers, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentlemen's Agreements (see Japanese immigration) and the Great White Fleet's voyage.

Yellow Tavern, battle of

On 11 May 1864, Major General Philip Sheridan's 10,000 USA cavalry defeated Major General J. E. B. Stuart's 4,500 CSA cavalry and killed Stuart, whose death cost the Confederacy its best cavalry leader.

yellow-dog contract

This was a labor contract that enabled employers to fire a worker who joined a labor union. The Erdman Act, National Industrial Recovery Act and National Labor Relations Act either banned them or provided other guarantees for union organization.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins

In 1886 the Supreme Court unanimously extended the Fourteenth Amendment's protections to all persons in the country, including noncitizens. The ruling followed logically from Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, given on the same day, which declared corporations to be legal persons.

Yorktown, battle of

On 6 October 1781, George Washington commenced besieging Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis's army at Yorktown with 7,980 Continentals, 3,150 militia, 7,800 French soldiers, and a French naval force with 1,000 sailors offshore. Trapped without hope of naval evacuation since the battle of Chesapeake Capes, Cornwallis surrendered at 2:00 p.m. on 17 October. US losses: 24 killed, 65 wounded. French losses: 60 killed, 192 wounded. British losses: 156 killed, 8,081 captured (including 326 wounded), 214 artillery pieces, and 24 naval transports. Yorktown was the war's last major battle; it led Lord North's government to resign and forced Britain to concede US independence.

Young America movement

This was an intellectualized celebration of US patriotism, enlisting journalists and politicians in extravagant praise of the country's institutions in the 1840s. Its spokesmen embraced manifest destiny as a positive force in the west's civilization and economic development. The movement's proponents viewed the Constitution as inspiring revolts against despotism (such as the revolutions of 1848 in Europe) and becoming the model for an enlightened democratization of the world.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer

On 2 June 1952, the Supreme Court ruled (6–3) that President Harry S Truman had exceeded his authority in seizing the country's steel mills to preclude a strike during the Korean War. The justices held that the president's power as commander in chief did not justify the action, which required legislative approval from Congress.

Yuchi Indians

This Siouan language group lived in east Tenn. when first contacted by Hernán de Soto in 1540. Yuchi bands later dispersed; some integrated with the Shawnee and Cherokee, but most relocated to Ga. and Ala., where they allied with the Creek. Some joined the Seminole in Fla. by 1810. They never received recognition as an independent nation by the United States, and after 1830 they were removed with their affiliated tribes to Okla. where their descendants live on the reservations of other tribes. The Yuchi declined from about 2,500 in 1650, to 1,100 in 1830, and 216 in 1930.

Zenger trial

In 1732 N.Y. Governor William Cosby claimed that part of his own salary was wrongly appropriated by his predecessor, Acting Governor Rip Van Dam. Cosby appointed a special chancery court, which rendered verdicts without a jury, in which he sued Van Dam; he also dismissed Van Dam's supporters from political office and threatened their land titles. Cosby's enemies hired John Peter Zenger to edit the New York Weekly Journal, which began publication on 5 November 1733 and denounced Cosby as a danger to civil liberties and property rights. Cosby prosecuted Zenger for seditious libel, but Zenger was acquitted on 4 August 1735. The case blocked further abuse of seditious libel prosecutions in N.Y., but was not interpreted as a major precedent for freedom of the press until after 1820.

Zimmermann note

On 19 January 1917, Alfred Zimmermann, German foreign secretary, sent his ambassador in Mexico a coded message promising an alliance between the two nations if the US declared war on Germany. In that event, Germany would help finance a Mexican effort to reconquer territories lost by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. British intelligence decoded the telegram and gave the US a copy on 24 February. When revealed to the press on 1 March, it inflamed US public opinion against Germany in World War I.

Zuni Indians

This group of Pueblo Indians occupied the Zuni River valley in western N.Mex. and first met Spaniards in 1540. They did not take part in Popé's Revolt and avoided war with both Spaniards and Anglo-Americans, although they suffered from raids by Apache Indians. They probably numbered 2,500 in 1680. The US recognized their homeland in McKinley and Valencia counties, N.Mex., as a reservation, which contained 8,135 Zunis in 1984.

“crime against Kansas” speech

 On 19 May 1856, in a speech condemning the proslavery party in Kans., Senator Charles Sumner made insulting remarks about Senator Andrew Pickens (S.C.), including sexual innuendos and mocking references to a stroke-related speech impairment. On 22 May, after Sumner had failed to apologize for his behavior and the Senate had taken no action to censure him, Congressman Preston Brooks, Pickens's nephew, assaulted him on the Senate floor with a cane and caused severe brain damage, which kept Sumner's seat vacant until December 1859. Brooks resigned from the House, but was returned by his constituents. The episode further polarized southerners, who applauded Brooks, from northerners, who condemned southerners as fanatics capable of any violence. 

“Old Ironsides”

The US Navy's most famous ship, the USS Constitution was authorized on 27 March 1794 and launched on 21 October 1797. She served in the undeclared war with France, and in the wars with Barbary pirates she made five attacks on Tripoli from 25 July to 4 September 1804. Her dramatic victories in the War of 1812, especially over the HMS Guerrière (19 August 1812) and HMS Java (19 December 1812), gave major boosts to US morale. Her crew nicknamed her “Old Ironsides” after seeing several of the Guerrière's cannon balls bounce off her hull. She became a training ship in 1833, and has been permanently docked at Boston Navy Yard since 1897.

“Salary Grab” Act

(3 March 1873)    Congress raised its own pay from $5,000 to $7,500 (retroactive for two years), doubled the president's salary to $50,000, and increased compensation for the Supreme Court. Public outrage led Congress to repeal its own pay increases on 20 January 1874, although salaries for the president and Supreme Court were not reduced.

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