A Short History of The United StatesThe history of the United States has been a trial in democracy for more than 236 years. Subjects and concerns that were tackled in the early years continue to be addressed and resolved today: big government versus small government, individual rights versus group rights, free markets versus regulated commerce and labor, support for other countries versus isolationism. The expectations for American democracy have always been elevated, and the reality has sometimes been disappointing. Despite these occasional setbacks, the nation has grown and flourished, through a recurrent process of adjustment and compromise.
United States History: Early HistoryDuring the world’s most recent Ice Age, which occurred roughly 35,000 years ago, much of the world’s water was frozen into big sheets of ice. A land bridge, which was estimated to be as wide as 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), then connected Asia and North America. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago, and you’ll find there is evidence that humans existed in the region that is now the United States, as well as in other parts of North and South America.
The first settlers in what is now America crossed the land bridge from Asia. Historians believe they lived in the part of North America that is now Alaska for thousands of years. Later they moved south into today’s mainland United States, settling along the Pacific Ocean in the Northwest, in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, and along the Mississippi River in the Midwest.
Known as the Hohokam, Adenans, Hopewellians, and Anasazi, these early groups of human settlers built crude villages and began growing crops. Their lives were connected to the land; and family and community were very important to them. Researchers have shown they relied on storytelling as a way to share information, as well as picture writing known as hieroglyphics. The Native Americans prized nature as a spiritual force, traded with other tribes for food and other needed goods, and created enormous piles of earth in the shapes of snakes, birds and/or pyramids. They also fought regularly, largely due to land disputes. Historians are not certain why these early humans disappeared, but they were replaced by other Native American tribes—the Zuni, Hopi, etc.—who prospered for hundreds of years. By the time the first Europeans arrived in what is now the United Sates roughly two million people inhabited the region.
United States History: European Exploration of AmericaAccording to historians, the first Europeans to arrive in the “New World” were the Norse. They sailed from Greenland, where Erik Ericson (Erik the Red) had established a settlement in 985. In 1001, Ericson’s son, Leif Ericson, explored the northeast coast of what is now Canada. It was there, in Newfoundland, Canada, that archaeologists found traces of the Norsemen’s explorations.
Nearly 500 years would pass before other Europeans reached North America, and another 100 years for them to build permanent settlements. The early explorers did not originally set out to find America, nor did they know it even existed. Upon setting sail they were originally looking for seagoing trade routes between Europe and Asia. Even Christopher Columbus, who is often credited with the discovery of America, never reached what is now the mainland United States. An Italian, whose voyage was paid for by the Spanish Queen Isabella, Columbus merely reached some of the islands of the Caribbean in 1492. When the Europeans finally arrived in America—mostly from Spain and Portugal, but also from France, England and Holland—they discovered and a land with all the vast natural resources needed to create permanent settlements.
In 1497, an English explorer by the name of John Cabot arrived on Canada’s eastern seaboard, establishing a British claim to land in North America. During the 16 century, Spain sponsored multiple explorations to the New World, claiming more land in the Americas than did any other country. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida. Several years later, Hernando De Soto also landed in Florida and conducted explorations all the way to the Mississippi River to the northeast. Spain conquered Mexico in 1522, and in 1540, a Spanish explorer named Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, traveled north to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and into the Great Plains. Other Europeans, including Giovanni da Verrazano, Jacques Cartier, and Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the two American continents are named, explored further north. The first European settlement in North America was Spanish, founded in what is now St. Augustine in Florida. Thirteen British colonies to the north would later be established, marking the beginning of the formation of the United States of America.
United States History: The Colonial PeriodThe majority of people who came to the British colonies in the 17 century were of English descent. Others came from the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, France, Scotland and Northern Island. Some came to avoid religious or political persecution in their mother country, while others came looking for economic opportunity. Some had to work as servants to pay back the cost of their trip before gaining their freedom, and some, like black Africans, were brought here as slaves. In 1690, 250,000 people had settled in America—a number that would jump to 2.5 million one century later in 1790.
Over time the 13 colonies that comprised America were established within three distinct regions. Most of the initial settlements were founded along the Atlantic Coast and on the rivers that flowed into the ocean. The first of these regions was in the Northeast, where, trees which could be used for timber covered the hills, and water power was widely available. This region, which would take on the name New England, included the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Here the economy was based on timber, fishing, ship-building, and various trade. 8
The second region is known as the Middle Colonies and included the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Here, due largely to the proximity to the Atlantic ocean, the weather was milder and the countryside was more varied, allowing people to find success in the fields of industry and agriculture. The society in the Middle Colonies was more diverse and sophisticated than that of the other two regions. People who settled in New York, for example, came from all over Europe, including many families of great wealth.
The third colonial region was known as the Southern Colonies, which included the states of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Due to the temperate climate in this region of the New World, the growing season was long and the soil was fertile. Most who settled here were simple farmers—farmers that often worked their small farms themselves
The wealthy landowners, however, boasted large plantations on which crops such as cotton and tobacco were grown for commerce. Many of these landowners used slaves to work the fields in exchange for food and shelter.
The relationships forged between settlers and the Native Americans (also called Indians) were good and bad. In some regions of the country, the two groups traded and, for the most part, were friendly. In most cases, however, especially as the settlements began to grow larger and larger, the Native Americans were compelled by force to move from the colonial regions, with most of them eventually heading east across the Mississippi River.
As the settlements grew, governments were established in each of the original 13 colonies—governments based on the British system that involved citizen participation. Back in Britain, the “Glorious Revolution of 1688-89” limited the king’s powers and added additional authority to the citizens. Meanwhile, the colonists in America began to observe these changes, and created colonial assemblies which claimed the right to act as local parliaments. These government bodies passed laws that limited the authority of the royal governor (a representative of the British monarchy) and increased their own authority. Major disagreements between the royal governors and the assemblies continued for several years, as the colonists began to realize that their interests often were different from those of the British government. Initially, the colonists fought for a form of self-government within a British commonwealth, but resistance from the British government ultimately sparked a call for total independence.
United States History: American IndependenceThe road toward American Independence was a rocky one; a road based on the idea of true democracy and liberalism. As the colonies continued to evolve and gain in population these ideas would eventually translate into action.
Following a costly war in the 1750s, in which England narrowly defeated the French, the American colonists were asked to provide monetary compensation to Britain to help pay for the monetary losses caused by the war and further establish the British Empire. Naturally, these policies, which restricted the colonists’ way of life and their own economic growth, were not very popular to say the least. Some of these policies included the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which restricted the colonists from settling any new land; the Currency Act of 1764, which prohibited the colonists from printing money; the Quartering Act of 1765, mandating colonists to provide food and shelter to royal soldiers; and the Stamp Act of 1765, which set a tax on all legal papers, licenses, newspapers and leases.
Angered over these prohibitive policies, the colonies united to form an organized resistance movement. Their main issue that sparked this movement was their inability to participate in the very government that taxed them, a concept known as “taxation without representation.” In October of 1765, delegates from nine of the thirteen colonies met in New York and passed resolutions banning the practice of unfair taxation. This move satisfied most of the people, however, a smaller group of radicals, which included Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, pushed for complete independence from Britain. Adams penned numerous newspaper articles on the subject and made scores of speeches, ultimately helping groups to organize as part of the revolutionary movement. In 1773, a tea tax imposed by the British angered a group of colonial traders, who would ultimately sneak on to three British ships in the Boston harbor and throw its entire cargo of tea overboard. This renowned and very memorable act of resistance came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.
In 1774, delegates of all the colonies except Georgia met in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Although all were angry over the British policies being imposed on them, the group was split between Loyalists, who wanted to remain subjects of the Crown, Moderates, who wanted to compromise and build a better relationship with England; and Revolutionaries, who wanted total independence. The latter group began stockpiling weapons in preparation for what they knew would be a bloody fight for independence.
The American Revolution and the War of Independence from Britain began in April of 1775 with a small fight between British troops and colonists. At Lexington those troops met armed colonists called Minutemen, named so because they could be prepared to fight on a moment’s notice. From that small battle sprouted a full-scale war for Independence; a seven-year war that resulted in the death and wounding of thousands of soldiers on both sides.
Later in 1775, Colonial representatives met again in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. They established a committee to create a document highlighting the colonies complaints against the king, and carefully explained their decision to separate from Britain. Thomas Jefferson was the primary writer of this document—a document entitled the Declaration of Independence that announced to the world the birth of a new nation; a nation based on ideals of freedom and universal human rights. The Declaration of Independence was accepted and ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. That date, now known as the Fourth of July or Independence Day, has since been celebrated annually in the U.S. in honor of the nation’s birthday.
United States History: The American ConstitutionIn 1783, the 13 original colonies officially became the United States of America. Prior to the end of the war, the colonies had developed Articles of Confederation—a plan to work together as one nation—but the connections between the 13 colonies were too fragmented. At the time, each state had their own money, army, navy and trade systems, resulting in an America that was essentially a nation of 13 countries.
Many of the colonists, including Alexander Hamilton of New York, believed that the Articles of Confederation, while well intentioned, needed to be rethought. Thus, in May of 1787, delegates gathered once again in Philadelphia with the aim of drafting a United States Constitution. After months of work, in September of 1787, the American Constitution was ratified, creating a three-branch system of central government and guaranteeing basic freedoms and liberty to all American citizens.
United States History: The United States of America: The Early YearsOn April 30, 1789, George Washington became the first president of the United States of America. Washington had served as a general in the War of Independence and was well-respected throughout the new union. With the assistance of the Congress, he created the Treasury, Justice and War departments. Together, the heads of these agencies—and the others that would later be created—form the President’s Cabinet. Washington served as president for a total of 8 years—two four-year terms.
Following Washington as President of the United States were John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson. These two presidents had dissimilar ideas about the role the government should play in the lives of Americans, which ultimately led to the creation of political parties. Alexander Hamilton led the Federalist Party, whose supporters included people involved with trade and manufacturing. They believed in a strong central government, with less power in the hands of the states. Most of their support was in the Northern regions, where most American manufacturing took place. The Republican Party, whose supporters included farmers primarily in the American South, was led by Thomas Jefferson. This party opposed a strong central government, believing the states should have more authority.
For the first twenty years of its existence, the United States, while friendly to all nations, remained neutral and loyal to none. However, France and Britain were again at war, threatening the security of the United States. America would ultimately go to war with Britain in 1812—the War of 1812—where the battles were mostly contained to the northeastern states along the American coast. One unit of the British army made its way to Washington D.C., the new U.S. capital, where it proceeded to set fire to the presidential mansion, forcing them President James Madison to flee the White House as it burned. America would eventually win the War of 1812, which culminated in the Treaty of Ghent of 1815. Among other things, the treaty ensured that Britain would not establish colonies south of the Canadian border.
By 1815, America was running much more smoothly, aided by a Constitution that provided a balance of liberty and order. The country enjoyed a low national debt, peace, prosperity and social progress. An important addition to American foreign policy was the Monroe Doctrine, named for President James Monroe. Among other provisions outlined in this document, the doctrine announced the solidarity of the newly independent nations in Central and South America, which served as a warning to Europe not to seek colonies in Latin America.
The United States doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase, and grew even larger with the purchase of Florida from the Spaniards. From 1816 to 1821, six new states were created, and between 1812 and 1852, the population of the country tripled in size. However, as the country grew, differences between the states became more evident and problematic. The United States was a country of civilized cities and lawless frontiers, one that loved the idea of freedom yet also tolerated slavery.
Slavery became a major issue in the 1850s and early 1860s. Most Northerners, while morally against the idea of slavery, did not want to prevent it in the rural south, but they did oppose slavery in the new territories. The Southerners believed that these territories had the right to decide for themselves whether slavery would be allowed. It was at this time that a young politician from Illinois came along, a man named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed that slavery was not a local issue, but a national one. He initially agreed that the South could keep its slaves, but he fought to keep slavery out of the territories. His hope was that over time slavery would end of its own volition, as reflected in his famous quote: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.”
The South threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln became president, which he did in 1860, becoming the 16 President of the United States. Prior to delivering his First Inaugural Address in 1861, seven southern states had already seceded from the Union, tensions remained high between the North and the South, and the country was on the brink of Civil War.
United States History: Civil War and ReconstructionWith tensions between the North and South at an all-time high, the American Civil War erupted in 1861, with the first shots being fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Feeling the country, also known as the “Union,” was threatening their state and individual rights, the people of the South claimed the right to disengage from the Union and eventually formed its own Confederacy. Determined to keep the nation unified, President Lincoln led the Northern States into what would become the deadliest war in American history.
During the Civil War, both sides had certain advantages: the North had more raw materials for producing war supplies and a better railway system, while the South had more experienced military leaders and a better knowledge of the battlefields, as most of the battles were fought in Southern territory. The Civil War spanned 4 years in total, with tens of thousands of soldiers engaged. The bloodiest day of the war came on September 17, 1862, during the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. The Southern forces, led by General Robert E. Lee, failed to force back the Union troops led by General George McClellan. Lee escaped with his army, but the defeat signaled a major turnaround in the war.
Later in 1862, President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that effectively freed all slaves in the Confederate states, many of whom then joined the Union army. With the extra manpower and better supplies, the North began winning one important battle after another. Near the end of the war, General William T. Sherman and his troops marched across the southern states of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving a path of scorched destruction in their wake. This event marked the end of the war, and General Lee officially surrendered in Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in April of 1865.
Less than a week after the South surrendered, a Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln as he enjoyed a dramatic play at Ford’s theater in Washington D.C. Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17 president of the United States, and faced the challenge of reuniting the country in a period that is known as “Post-War-Reconstruction.”
President Johnson was a southerner by birth, and after taking over for President Lincoln he issued many pardons to southern soldiers and resistance leaders and gave them back their political rights. By the close of 1865, most of the Confederate states canceled the acts of secession but refused to abolish slavery. In addition, all of the southern states, except Tennessee, refused to give full citizenship to African American men. In response to this, the Republican led Congress passed a law barring rebel leaders from holding political office. The Union generals that now governed the South also blocked anyone who would not take an oath of loyalty to the Union from voting in elections. Congress strongly supported the rights of African Americans, but President Johnson, a southerner, tried to stop many of the policies aimed to help them. As a result, the House of Representatives impeached President Johnson, but because the Senate came up one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office, he was allowed to finish his term, and eventually began giving in to the Republican led Congress.
During Reconstruction, the Southern states were prohibited from sending representatives to Congress until they passed constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, giving black males the right to vote and granting all citizens—white and black—equal protection under the law. For a time the Southern states abided by these new policies, but once the Union General-Governors left the South, especially during the 1870s, white Southerners began to deny the newly-freed slaves their rights. Black men had the right to vote, but the threat of violence made them afraid to use their suffrage. Southern states introduced laws of segregation, a system that required black Americans and white Americans to use separate public facilities. Blacks had to drink from a different water fountain than whites, were denied entry into restaurants and other businesses, and were forced to sit at the back of the bus when using public transportation. Naturally, the facilities for blacks were nowhere near as nice as those reserved for whites, and this type of almost inhumane segregation would continue for the next 100 years, finally becoming a national issue towards the latter half of the 20 century.
United States History: The Post-Reconstruction EraThe Post-Reconstruction era in the United States was a time of growth and transformation: the frontier became tamer; cities grew in size and number; factories, steel mills and railroads were built; and immigrants flocked to the United States with hopes of a better existence. The era is appropriately nicknamed the “Age of Inventions,” a time during which Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone; Thomas Edison invented the light bulb; and George Eastman invented the moving picture, later called a movie. Prior to 1860, the government had issued 36,000 patents in total, but from 1860-1890, 440,000 new patents were given to a wave of inventors and scientists.
Farming was still America’s primary economic sector, and business was booming. New discoveries helped scientists improve seeds; and new machines, like Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin began doing the same work that once took hundreds of hours of manpower. As a result, Americans produced enough crops to not only sustain themselves, but to sell to overseas markets for a hefty profit.
Near the end of the 19 century, many of the European powers began to colonize Africa and parts of Asia. Many people thought that America should do the same, while others resisted these efforts as imperialistic. Following a short war with Spain in 1898, the United States took control over many Spanish possessions, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. From an official standpoint, the U.S. encouraged these colonies to become self-governing, but in reality the United States maintained their control.
Idealism became the tone of American foreign policy during the late 1800s, but it coexisted with the desire to prevent European powers from acquiring any territory that might enable them to project military power towards the U.S. As the 20 century dawned, America had officially emerged as one of the world’s most powerful countries.
United States History: World War I and the Great DepressionFollowing the Assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand in 1914, World War I erupted, a battle that initially pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey against Britain, France, Italy and Russia. Other nations would eventually join the conflict, and eventually the war reached across the Atlantic to affect the United States. The Navies of Britain and Germany blocked American shipping lanes, and in 1915, nearly 130 Americans were killed when a German submarine sunk the British ocean liner Lusitania. America’s president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, demanded a stop to the attacks, but when they started again in 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and their allies.
By the time World War I was over, nearly 2 million American soldiers had helped to defeat the German and Austrian-Hungarian forces. The war officially came to an end on November 11, 1918, when a truce was signed at the Palace of Versailles in France. President Wilson adopted a “14-Point Plan,” which included the creation of the League of Nations.
After the war, the United States had problems with racial tension, struggling farms, and labor unrest. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, fear grew among Americans regarding the spread of communism, a fear that was nicknamed the “Red Scare.” Despite these problems, the U.S. enjoyed a brief period of prosperity. Many families purchased their first automobile, radio and refrigerator; women were granted the right to vote; and the musical style of Jazz was born. This period, or decade, of prosperity is appropriately nicknamed the “Roaring 20s.”
The boon of the 1920s would literally come crashing down on October 23, 1929—Black Tuesday—when the stock market collapsed, often seen as the event that ushered in the Great Depression. This bleak period in American history saw businesses and factories close, banks fail and farms depleted. By the winter of 1932, nearly a quarter of American adults were jobless.
The elections of 1932 saw the incumbent President Herbert Hoover lose to Franklin Roosevelt, who would later become one of the most influential presidents in American history.
United States History: The New Deal and the Second World WarWith the country in grave economic trouble, President Roosevelt proposed a “New Deal” to bring a close to the Great Depression, and during his first 100 days of office passed more legislation to that end than any president in United States history. The New Deal included many new U.S. programs: bank accounts became insured, new stock market rules were implemented, and workers gained the right to form unions to protect their rights. Farmers received much-needed aid, and people were hired by the government to plant trees, clean waterways and perform other projects designed to beautify America. The Social Security System was implemented to help the poor, the elderly and the disabled; and many Americans previously out of work found jobs to support their family.
Although the programs of the New Deal sparked a slight uptick in the economy, it wasn’t until the onset of the Second World War that Americans would fully recover economically. Although America had initially adopted a policy of neutrality while Germany, Italy and Japan were attacking other countries, the gloves came off, so to speak, when Japan attacked an American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, marking the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II.
As Americans fought both in Japan and Europe, American industry focused heavily on the war effort. With most of the men away at war, women were enlisted into factories and built over 400,000 items of war machinery, from aircraft, to cargo ships, to tanks. American troops fought with Great Britain and the Soviet Union against the Nazi threat in Europe. From the time that Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 (Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941) until the German surrender in 1945, millions of people died on the battlefield, and millions more (mainly Jews and other minorities) were killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
The fighting continued in the Asian/Pacific Theater, even after the war had ended in Europe. These latter battles were among the bloodiest for American forces, as Japan refused to surrender even as American soldiers were approaching its doorstep. Most of the American people had had their fill of war, and believed invading Japan would cost far too many lives. The U.S. president at the time, Harry S. Truman, agreed with this notion, and decided instead to launch the world’s first (and still only) nuclear strike on Japan, first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki. The war finally ended in 1945, but the threat of nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of any United States enemy would soon cause widespread fear among the American population.
United States History: The Cold War Era to the PresentFollowing World War II, the United States and Great Britain had long-term disagreements with the Soviet Union over the future of Europe, most of which had been freed from Nazi occupation through their joint effort. The democratic United States and Communist Russia both wanted to establish governments that were friendly to their interests in Europe, and each believed that their system could best ensure its security, and produce the most liberty, equality and prosperity in the region. This period of disagreement has come to be known as the Cold War.
Much of Europe laid in ruin after World War II, and the U.S. feared that postwar economic weakness would increase the popularity of communism. To try and avoid this, the United States offered Europeans nations, including the Soviet Union, large sums of money to help them rebuild. Most Western European nations gladly accepted these offerings, but the communist nations of Eastern Europe refused. By 1952, through a program to rebuild Western Europe (called the Marshall Plan), the United States had invested $13.3 billion. Meanwhile, the Soviet military forced communist governments on nations in Central and Eastern Europe. The United States wanted to limit Soviet expansion, and demanded Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran. When the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, a U.S. airlift brought millions of tons of supplies to the divided city.
In 1949, the communist forces of Mao Zedong took control of China. Communist North Korea invaded South Korea with the support of China and the Soviet Union in 1950. The United States got support from the United Nations, formerly the League of Nations, for military intervention, and a bloody war—the Korean War—continued into 1953. Although an armistice eventually was signed, U.S. troops remain in South Korea to this day.
In the 1960s, the United States aided South Vietnam in its defense against communist North Vietnam in what would later be known as the Vietnam War. Thousands of American soldiers were killed and/or wounded in this (very unpopular) war, and with no foreseeable end to the conflict in sight, all American troops were called home by the end of 1973. Despite our help, in 1975 North Vietnam would eventually conquer the depleted armies of South Vietnam, prompting thousands of Vietnamese to relocate to the United States.
The 1960s through the 1980s was a period of major cultural change. Segregation, which had long affected the South, was officially abolished, thanks largely to the Civil Rights Movement and its remarkable leader Martin Luther King Jr. Women grew angry that they lacked the same opportunity as men, and women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem worked on laws that would ultimately grant women more educational and economic equality. Hispanic farm workers, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, also saw major life improvements, allowing them to form unions to help improve their working conditions and compensation.
As the new millennium dawned, newly elected President George W. Bush intended to focus his efforts on improving education, the United States economy and the Social Security system. This focus changed, however, on September 11, 2001, when foreign terrorists crashed four United States passenger planes: two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the U.S. Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the last into a field in rural Pennsylvania, after the brave passengers fought back against the suicide bombers.
President Bush declared war on worldwide terrorism and sent United States troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. These moves initially garnered nationwide approval from the American people, but as the wars dragged on, the people grew increasingly uneasy with his policies. In 2008, the American citizens chose Barack Obama as their new president—the first African American to ever hold that office. Once in office, Obama focused on improving the worst economic recession Americans had faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s—a focus he maintains today in his second (and legally, last) term in office.