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History of the United States

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Pre-Colonial America

For details, see the main Pre-Colonial America article.

Native Americans arrived on the North American continent at some time between the 9th millennium BC and 48,000 BC, and dominated the area until the influx of European settlers in the early 17th century.

Colonial America (1493-1776)

For details, see the main Colonial America article.

Colonial America was defined by ongoing battles with Native Americans, a severe labor shortage which gave birth to forms of unfree labor such as slavery and indentured servitude, and a British policy of benign neglect which permitted the development of an American spirit and culture which was distinct from that of its European founders.

History of the United States (1776-1789)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1776-1789) article.

During this period the United States won its independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War and established itself as the United States of America with 13 States.

History of the United States (1789-1861)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1789-1861) article.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 gave Western farmers use of the important Mississippi River waterway, removed the French presence from the western border of the United States, and provided U.S. farmers with vast expanses of land.

Within weeks of the United States gaining control of the territory, war broke out between Britain and Napoleonic France. The United States, dependent on European revenues from the export of agricultural goods, tried to export food and raw materials to both warring great powers and to profit off transporting goods between their home markets and Caribbean colonies. Both sides permitted this trade when it benefitted them, but opposed it when it did not.

Following the 1805 destruction of the French navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain sought to impose a stranglehold over French overseas trade ties. Thus, in retaliation against U.S. trade practices, Britain imposed a loose blockade of the American coast.

Believing that Britain could not rely on other sources of food than the United States, Congress and President Jefferson suspended all U.S. trade with foreign nations in 1807, hoping to get the British to end their blockade of the American coast. The embargo, however, devastated American agricultural exports while Britain found other sources of food.

Led by Southern and Western Jeffersonians, Congress declared war on Britain in 1812 under the pretext of opposing British interference with American shipping as well as British aid to Native Americans in Canada and west of the Mississippi. Westerners and Southerners were the most ardent supporters of the war, given their concerns about expanding settlement in Native American lands beyond the Mississippi and access to world markets for their agricultural exports. The New England Federalists opposed the war, and their reputation consequently suffered in its aftermath.

The War of 1812 essentially resulted in the maintenance of the 'status quo ante' after bitter fighting, which lasted until January 8, 1815 (after the peace treaty) on many fronts. Crucially, the Treaty of Ghent which officially ended the war saw the end of the British alliance with the Native Americans.

After Napoleon's defeat and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, an era of relative stability began in Europe. U.S. leaders paid less attention to European trade and conflict, and more to the internal development in North America. With the end of the wartime British alliance with Native Americans east of the Mississippi River, white settlers were determined to colonize indigenous lands beyond the Mississippi. In the 1830s the federal government forcibly deported the Southeastern tribes to less fertile territories to the west. The Supreme Court had actually ruled in support of native claims to land, but was ignored by Andrew Jackson, president at the time, in favor of his own agenda.

Americans did not question their right to colonize vast expanses of North America beyond their country's borders, especially into Oregon, California, and Texas. By the mid-1840s U.S. expansionism was articulated in terms of the ideology of "manifest destiny."

In May 1846 Congress declared war on Mexico. The U.S. defeated Mexico, which was unable to withstand the assault of the American artillery, short on resources, and plagued by a divided command. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ceded Texas (with the Rio Grande boundary), California, and New Mexico to the United States. In the next thirteen years, the territories ceded by Mexico became the focal point of sectional tensions over the expansion of slavery.

In 1854 the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act abrogated the Missouri Compromise by providing that each new state of the Union would decide its stance on slavery. The settlement of Kansas by pro- and anti- slavery factions, and eventual victory of the anti-slavery camp, was fuelled by convictions signalled by the birth of the Republican party. By 1861, the admission of Kansas to the Union signalled a break in the balance of power.

The History of the United States (1861-1865)

For details, see the main American Civil War article.

The next four years were the darkest in American history, as the nation tore itself apart over the long and bitter issues of slavery and states' rights. The increasingly urban and industrialized Northern states (The Union) eventually defeated the mainly rural and agricultural Southern states (the Confederacy), but between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans on both sides were killed and much of the land in the South was devastated. In the end, however, slavery was abolished and the American nation was slowly reconstructed.

History of the United States (1865-1918)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1865-1918) article.

The United States began its rise to international power in this period with substantial population and industrial growth domestically, and a number of imperalist ventures abroad. By the late 1800s, the United States had become the leading industrial power in world, building on new technologies (such as the telegraph and the Bessemer process), an expanding railroad network, and abundant resources to usher in the Second Industrial Revolution. An unprecident wave of immigration, 37 million people between 1840 and 1920, served both to provide the labor for American industry and to create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas, such as California. The expansion of industry and population had a substantial cost as well. Native American tribes were mostly forced onto small reservations so that white farmers and ranchers could take over their lands, and abusive industrial practices led to the origins of the labor movement in the United States.

During this period, the United States also became an international player in race for overseas possessions. In the 1900-1903 war to conquer the Philippines, more than 1 million people, mostly Fillipinos, were killed. The United State's late entry in the First World War on the side of the Allied Powers shifted the balance of the war, and made the United States a major military as well as financial power.

Interwar America and World War II (1918-1945)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1918-1945) article.

The Allied Powers imposed severe economic penalties on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's calls for agreeable terms, the economic impact of the reparations mandated by the Treaty were severe. The misery they helped produce in Germany helped Adolf Hitler to seize power in Germany in 1933. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles; instead, the United States signed separate peace treaties with Germany and her allies.

Disillusioned by the failure of the war to achieve the high ideals promised by President Woodrow Wilson, the American people chose isolationism: they turned their attention inward, away from international relations and solely toward domestic affairs.

During most of the 1920s the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced prosperity: prices for agricultural commodities and wages fell at the end of the war while new industries (radio, movies, automobiles, and chemicals) flourished. The unevenness was also geographic: the standard of living in rural areas fell increasingly behind that of urban and suburban areas which saw dramatic improvements in housing and urban planning. The boom was reflected by the extension of credit to a dangerous degree, including in the Stock Market, which rose to dangerously inflated levels.

In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol was prohibited by an amendment to the constitution in order to alleviate various social problems. It was enacted through the Volstead Act. Prohibition ended in 1933 by another change to the constitution; it is considered to have been a failure by most: consumption of alcohol did not decrease markedly while organized crime was strengthened. But it did represent the first instance of a constitutional amendment that directly regulated social activity. The 18th Amendment, then, represented the growing strength of the state in the early 20th century.

The Stock Market crash in 1929 and the ensuing economic depression have been endlessly debated, often along ideological lines. The limited amount of reliable economic information suggests that construction and housing stagnated after 1926, joining declines in the agriculture, mining, and petroleum industries. In all of these overproduction dragged down prices and profits. Wages did not rise fast enough to enable consumers to purchase all the new homes and home products available. Foreign trade was constrained by growing protectionism in the industrialized world. The Stock Market crash drained away remaining consumer confidence and, more importantly, the confidence of financial institutions. They were extremely reluctant to invest. Thus, the economy sank into a severe depression, referred to by Americans as the "Great Depression", marked by punishing levels of unemployment, negligible investment, and falling prices and wages.

In response to the depression, Congress and the Hoover administration enacted a somewhat isolationist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and, with its public works acts, tried to fix prices for farmers, and enacted a public works program based on the belief that the federal government was obliged to maintain high employment levels. These efforts were unprecedented, and economists today have still not come to a consensus over the appropriateness of these policies. While some feel that these efforts did not go far enough, and were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the depression, others believe that these policies were destructive and contributed to the worsening of the depression.

With millions unemployed, political ferment and discontent greatly increased among the working classes. An unsympathetic or repressive response from the U.S. government might well have sparked a socialist uprising, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, implemented a number of programs to aid the poor and unemployed. He also contributed to the future stability of the economy by instituting new regulations in business, particularly banking. Over the past twenty years, historians have de-emphasized the "revolutionary" legislation of the Roosevelt administration, seeing instead a logical, and even conservative, outgrowth of Hoover administration policies.

The recovery, however, was very slow. The nadir of the Great Depression was in 1933, but the economy showed very little improvement through the end of the decade, and remained grim until it was dramatically reshaped through America's involvement in World War II.

Isolationist sentiment in America had ebbed, but the United States at first declined to enter the war, limiting itself to giving supplies and weapons to Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. American feeling changed drastically with the sudden Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States quickly joined the British-Soviet alliance against Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, known as the "Axis Alliance". Even with American participation, it took nearly four more years to defeat Germany and Japan. Though the Soviet Union suffered far more casualties than its allies, America's active involvement in the war was vital to preventing an eventual Axis victory.

After the second world war, America experienced a period of great economic growth characterized by the growth of suburban housing, etc. The United States financed the reconstruction of Germany and Japan and eventually turned the former foes into allies.

History of the United States (1945-1964)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1945-1964) article.

The post-war era in the United States was defined internationally by the beginning of the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to expand their influence at the expense of the other, checked by each sides massive nuclear arsenals. The result was a series of conflicts during this period including the Korean War and the tense nuclear showdown of Cuban Missile Crisis. Within the United States, the Cold War prompted concerns about Communist influence, and also resulted in government efforts to encourage math and science towards efforts like the space race.

Meanwhile, the American people completed their great migration from the farms into the cities, and experienced a period of sustained economic expansion. At the same time, institutionalized racism across the United States, but especially in the American South, became increasingly challenged by the growing Civil Rights movement and African American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

History of the United States (1964-1980)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1964-1980) article.

The Cold War continued through the 1960s and 1970s, and the United States entered the Vietnam War, whose growing unpopularity fed already existing social movements, including those among women, minorities and young people. President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society social programs and the judicial activism of the Warren Court added to the wide range of social reform during the 1960s and 70s. The period saw the birth of feminism and the environmental movement as political forces, and continued progress towards Civil Rights. In the early 1970s, Johnson's successor, President Richard Nixon brought Vietnam War to a close, as the American-backed South Vietnamese govenment collapsed, all told, the war cost the lives of 58,000 American troops and many more Vietnamese. Nixon's own administration was brough to an ignominous close with the the political scandal of Watergate. The OPEC oil embargo and slowing economic growth led to a period of stagflation under President Jimmy Carter as the 1970s drew to a close.

Contemporary United States History (1980-present)

For details, see the main History of the United States (1980-1988) and History of the United States (1988-present) articles.

In the 1980, President Ronald Reagan was elected, and instituted a domestic program of tax cuts and an international policy of aggressive anti-Soviet actions. Although the United States deficit rapidly expanded, the Eastern Bloc began to unravel under increasing economic strain, finally and dramatically collapsing during the administration of President George W. Bush. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States still found itself involved in military action overseas, including the 1990 Gulf War. In 1992, President Bill Clinton oversaw the longest economic expansion in American history, culminating in the Internet bubble. At the beginning of the new millenium, the United States found itself unexpectedly attacked by Islamist terrorism, with the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.


  • The state of U.S.history, ed. by Melvyn Stokes, Berg Publishers 2002
  • A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, Perennial Classics 2003

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 12:54:10
Last updated: 08-16-2005 21:06:54