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History of the United States


American Revolution – 1776

Before 1917 and 1789 there is 1776.

110px-Great_Seal_of_the_United_States_(obverse).svgPrehistory Pre-Colonial Colonial period 1776–1789 1789–1849 1849–1865 1865–1918 1918–1945 1945–1964 1964–1980 1980–1991 1991–present

The History of the United States as covered in American schools and universities typically begins with either Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the Americas or with the prehistory of the Native peoples, with the latter approach having become increasingly common in recent decades.

Indigenous populations lived in what is now the United States before European colonists began to arrive, mostly from England, after 1600. By the 1770’s, thirteen British colonies contained two and a half million people. They were prosperous and growing rapidly, and had developed their own autonomous political and legal systems. The British Parliament asserted its authority over these colonies by imposing new taxes, which the Americans insisted were unconstitutional because they were not represented in Parliament. Growing conflicts turned into full-fledged war beginning in April 1775. On July 4, 1776, the colonies declared independence under a document written by Thomas Jefferson from the Kingdom of Great Britain and became the United States of America.

Const_ConvWith large-scale military and financial support from France and military leadership by General George Washington, the Patriots won the Revolutionary War and peace came in 1783. During and after the war, the 13 states were united under a weak federal government established by the Articles of Confederation. When these proved unworkable, a new Constitution was adopted in 1789; it remains the basis of the United States federal government, and later included a Bill of Rights. With Washington as the nation’s first president and Alexander Hamilton his chief financial advisor, a strong national government was created. In the First Party System, two national political parties grew up to support or oppose Hamiltonian policies. When Thomas Jefferson became president he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of American territorial holdings. A second and last war with Britain was fought in 1812. The main result of that war was the end of European support for Native American (Indian) attacks on western settlers.

Under the sponsorship of the Jeffersonian Democrats and the Jacksonian Democrats, the nation expanded to the Louisiana purchase and all the way to California and Oregon, and a quest for inexpensive land for Yeoman farmers and slave owners who promoted democracy and expansion, at the cost of violence and a disdain for European culture. The expansion, under the rubric of Manifest Destiny was a rejection of the advice of Whigs who wanted to deepen and modernize the economy and society rather than merely expand the geography. Slavery was abolished in all states north of the Mason–Dixon line by 1804, but it flourished in the Southern states largely due to heavy demand for cotton.

After 1820, a series of compromises postponed a showdown on the issue of slavery. In the mid-1850’s, the new Republican power took political control of the North and promised to stop the expansion of slavery, which implied its eventual death. The 1860 presidential election of Republican Abraham Lincoln triggered the secession of eleven slave states to found the Confederacy in 1861. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the centerpiece of American history. After four years of bloody warfare, the Union, under President Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general defeated the South with Robert E. Lee as its foremost general The Union was saved, slavery was abolished, and the South was impoverished. In the Reconstruction era (1863–77), the United States ended slavery and extended legal and voting rights to the Freedmen. The national government was much stronger, and because of the Fourteenth Amendment it now had the explicit duty to protect individual rights. Reconstruction ended in 1877 and from the 1890’s to the 1960’s the system of Jim Crow kept blacks in segregation. The entire South remained poor until the 2nd half of the 20th century, while the North and West grew rapidly and prospered. The per capita income in the South remained under half the national average until after 1945.

The United States became the world’s leading industrial power at the turn of the 20th century due to an outburst of entrepreneurship in the North and the arrival of millions of immigrant workers and farmers from Europe. The national railroad network was completed, and large scale mining and factories industrialized the Northeast and Midwest. Middle class dissatisfaction with corruption, inefficiency and traditional politics stimulated the Progressive movement from the 1890’s to 1920’s, which pushed for reforms and allowed for women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol. Initially neutral in World War I, the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, and funded the Allied victory the following year. After a prosperous decade in the 1920’s, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 marked the onset of the decade-long world-wide Great Depression. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and implemented his New Deal programs for relief, recovery, and reform, defining modern American liberalism. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II alongside the Allies and helped defeat Nazi Germany in Europe and, with the detonation of newly invented atomic bombsJapan in the Far East.

US History II Homepage PhotoThe United States and the Soviet Union emerged as opposing superpowers after World War II and began the Cold War, confronting one another indirectly in the arms race and Space Race. U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was built around the containment of Communism, and the country participated in the wars in Korea and Vietnam to achieve this goal. Liberalism won numerous victories in the days of the New Deal and again in the mid-1960’s, especially in the success of the civil rights movement, but conservatism made its comeback in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, leaving the United States the only superpower. As the 21st century began, international conflict centered around the Middle East and heightened significantly following the September 11 attacks and the War on Terrorism that was subsequently declared. The United States experienced its worst economic recession since World War II in the late 2000’s, which has been followed by slower than usual rates of economic growth during the 2010’s.

Prehistory of the United States – Pre-Columbian era

Native Americans in the United States

It is not definitively known how or when the Native Americans first settled the Americas and the present-day United States. The prevailing theory proposes that people migrated from Eurasia across Beringia, a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska, and then spread southward throughout the Americas. This migration may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago and continued through to about 10,000+ years ago, when the land bridge became submerged by the rising sea level caused by the ending of the last glacial period.  These early inhabitants, called Paleoamericans, soon diversified into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.

The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the Early Modern period. While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus‘ voyages of 1492 to 1504, in practice the term usually includes the history of American indigenous cultures until they were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades or even centuries after Columbus’ initial landing.

Colonial period

220px-Coronado-RemingtonThe Spanish conquistador Coronadoexplored parts of the American Southwest from 1540 to 1542.

Colonial history of the United States

After a period of exploration sponsored by major European nations, the first settlements were established in 1607.  Europeans brought horses, cattle, and hogs to the Americas and, in turn, took back to Europe maize, turkeys, potatoes, tobacco, beans, and squash. The disease environment was deadly for many explorers and early settlers exposed to new diseases. The impact of new disease was even worse on the Native Americans, especially smallpox and measles. They died in very large numbers, usually before large-scale European settlement began.

Spanish colonization of the Americas – Dutch colonization of the Americas – French colonization of the Americas

Spanish explorers were the first Europeans with Christopher Columbus‘ second expedition, which reached Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493; others reached Florida in 1513.  Quickly Spanish expeditions reached the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. In 1540, Hernando de Soto undertook an extensive exploration of Southeast. Also in 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored from Arizona to central Kansas.  The Spanish sent some settlers, creating the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, but it attracted few permanent settlers. Spanish settlements that grew to become important cities include Santa FeAlbuquerqueSan AntonioTucson,San DiegoLos AngelesSanta Barbara and San Francisco.

220px-Non-Native_American_Nations_Control_over_N_America_1750European territorial claims in North America, c. 1750 France, Kingdom of Great Britain and Spain

New Netherland was the 17th century Dutch colony centered on present-day New York City and the Hudson River Valley, where they traded furs with the Native Americans to the north and were a barrier to Yankee expansion from New England. The Dutch were Calvinists who built the Reformed Church in America, but they were tolerant of other religions and cultures. The colony was taken over by Britain in 1664. It left an enduring legacy on American cultural and political life, including a secular broadmindedness and mercantile pragmatism in the city, a rural traditionalism in the countryside typified by the story of Rip Van Winkle, and politicians such as Martin Van BurenTheodore Roosevelt,Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

New France was the area colonized by France from 1534 to 1763. There were few permanent settlers outside Quebec and Acadia, but the Wabanaki Confederacy became military allies of New France through the four French and Indian Wars with the British colonies who were allied with the Iroquois Confederacy. During the French and Indian War, New England fought successfully against Acadia and the British removed Acadians from Acadia (Nova Scotia) and replaced them with New England Planters.  Eventually, some Acadians resettled in Louisiana, where they developed a distinctive rural Cajunculture that still exists. They became American citizens in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.  Other French villages along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers were absorbed when the Americans started arriving after 1770.

British colonization of the Americas

220px-MayflowerHarborThe Mayflower, which transported Pilgrims to the New World. During the first winter at Plymouth, about half of the Pilgrims died.

The strip of land along the eastern seacoast was settled primarily by English colonists in the 17th century, along with much smaller numbers of Dutch and Swedes. Colonial America was defined by a severe labor shortage that employed forms of unfree laborsuch as slavery and indentured servitude, and by a British policy of benign neglect (salutary neglect) that permitted the development of an American spirit distinct from that of its European founders.  Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants.

The first successful English colony was established in 1607, on the James River at Jamestown which began the American Frontier. It languished for decades until a new wave of settlers arrived in the late 17th century and established commercial agriculture based on tobacco. Between the late 1610s and the Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to their American colonies.  A severe instance of conflict was the 1622 Powhatan uprising in Virginia, in which Native Americans killed hundreds of English settlers. The largest conflict between Native Americans and English settlers in the 17th century was King Philip’s War in New England; The Yamasee War in South Carolina was as bloody.

220px-1622_massacre_jamestown_de_BryThe massacre of Jamestown settlers in 1622. Soon the colonists in the South feared all natives as enemies.

New England was initially settled primarily by Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, although there was a small earlier settlement in 1620 by a similar group, the Pilgrims, at Plymouth Colony. The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New YorkNew JerseyPennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of diversity. The first attempted English settlement south of Virginia was the Province of Carolina, with Georgia Colony the last of the Thirteen Colonies established in 1733.

The colonies were characterized by religious diversity, with many Congregationalists in New England, German and Dutch Reformed in the Middle Colonies, Catholics in Maryland, and Scotch Irish Presbyterians on the frontier. Many royal officials and merchants were Anglicans.

Religiosity expanded greatly after the First Great Awakening, a religious revival in the 1740s led by preachers such as Jonathan Edwards. American Evangelicals affected by the Awakening added a new emphasis on divine outpourings of the Holy Spirit and conversions that implanted within new believers an intense love for God. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and forwarded the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic, setting the stage for the Second Great Awakening beginning in the late 1790s.

Each of the 13 American colonies had a slightly different governmental structure. Typically a colony was ruled by a governor appointed from London who controlled the executive administration and relied upon a locally elected legislature to vote taxes and make laws. By the 18th century, the American colonies were growing very rapidly because of ample supplies of land and food, and low death rates. They were richer than most parts of Britain, and attracted a steady flow of immigrants, especially teenagers who came as indentured servants. The tobacco and rice plantations imported black slaves from the British colonies in the West Indies, and by the 1770’s they comprised a fifth of the American population. The question of independence from Britain did not arise as long as the colonies needed British military support against French and Spanish power; those threats were gone by 1765. London regarded the American colonies as existing merely for the benefit of the mother country, a policy known as mercantilism.

18th Century – Political integration and autonomy

220px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieJoin, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.

The French and Indian War (1754–1763) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies. It was also part of the larger Seven Year World War. The influence of the main rivals of the British Crown in the colonies and Canada, the French and North American Indians, was significantly reduced. Moreover, the war effort resulted in greater political integration of the colonies, as reflected in the Albany Congress and symbolized by Benjamin Franklin‘s call for the colonies to “Join or Die.” Franklin was a man of many inventions-one of which was the concept of a United States of America, which emerged after 1765 and was realized in July 1776.

Following Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 with the goal of organizing the new North American empire and protecting the native Indians from colonial expansion into western lands. In ensuing years, strains developed in the relations between the colonists and the Crown. The British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765, imposing a tax on the colonies without going through the colonial legislatures. The issue was drawn: did Parliament have this right to tax Americans who were not represented in it? Crying “No taxation without representation“, the colonists refused to pay the taxes as tensions escalated in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s.

220px-Boston_Tea_Party_Currier_colored1846 painting of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a direct action by activists in the town of Boston to protest against the new tax on tea. Parliament quickly responded the next year with the Coercive Acts, stripping Massachusetts of its historic right of self-government and putting it under army rule, which sparked outrage and resistance in all thirteen colonies. Patriot leaders from all 13 colonies convened the First Continental Congress to coordinate their resistance to the Coercive Acts. The Congress called for a boycott of British trade, published a list of rights and grievances, and petitioned the king for redress of those grievances.  The appeal to the Crown had no effect, and so the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1775 to organize the defense of the colonies against the British Army.

Ordinary folk became insurgents against the British even though they were unfamiliar with the ideological rationales being offered. They held very strongly a sense of ”rights” that they felt the British were deliberately violating – rights that stressed local autonomy, fair dealing, and government by consent. They were highly sensitive to the issue of tyranny, which they saw manifested in the arrival in Boston of the British Army to punish the Bostonians. This heightened their sense of violated rights, leading to rage and demands for revenge. They had faith that God was on their side.

The American Revolutionary War began at Concord and Lexington in April 1775 when the British tried to seize ammunition supplies and arrest the Patriot leaders.

300px-Population_Density_in_the_American_Colonies_1775Population density in the American Colonies in 1775.

American Revolution

History of the United States (1776–1789)

220px-Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851Washington’s surprise crossing of the Delaware River in Dec. 1776 was a major comeback after the loss of New York City; his army defeated the British in two battles and recaptured New Jersey.

The Thirteen Colonies began a rebellion against British rule in 1775 and proclaimed their independence in 1776 as the United States of America. In the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) the American capture of the British invasion army at Saratoga in 1777 secured the Northeast and encouraged the French to make a military alliance with the United States. France brought in Spain and the Netherlands, thus balancing the military and naval forces on each side as Britain had no allies.

General George Washington (1732–1799) proved an excellent organizer and administrator, who worked successfully with Congress and the state governors, selecting and mentoring his senior officers, supporting and training his troops, and maintaining an idealistic Republican Army. His biggest challenge was logistics, since neither Congress nor the states had the funding to provide adequately for the equipment, munitions, clothing, paychecks, or even the food supply of the soldiers.

As a battlefield tactician Washington was often outmaneuvered by his British counterparts. As a strategist, however, he had a better idea of how to win the war than they did. The British sent four invasion armies. Washington’s strategy forced the first army out of Boston in 1776, and was responsible for the surrender of the second and third armies at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). He limited the British control to New York and a few places while keeping Patriot control of the great majority of the population.

The Loyalists, whom the British counted upon too heavily, comprised about 20% of the population but never were well organized. As the war ended, Washington watched proudly as the final British army quietly sailed out of New York City in November 1783, taking the Loyalist leadership with them. Washington astonished the world when, instead of seizing power for himself, he retired quietly to his farm in Virginia.  Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset observes, “The United States was the first major colony successfully to revolt against colonial rule. In this sense, it was the first ‘new nation’.”

220px-Declaration_independenceTrumbull’s Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, declared the independence of “the United States of America” in the Declaration of Independence. July 4 is celebrated as the nation’s birthday. The new nation was founded on Enlightenmentideals of liberalism in what Thomas Jefferson called the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and dedicated strongly to republican principles. Republicanism emphasized the people are sovereign (not hereditary kings), demanded civic duty, feared corruption, and rejected any aristocracy.

Civil religion

us_history_webThe American Revolution was the main source of the non-denominational American civil religion that has shaped patriotism and the memory and meaning of the nation’s birth ever since. Battles are not central (as they are for the Civil War) but rather certain events and people have been celebrated as icons of certain virtues (or vices), as historians have noted, the Revolution produced a Moses-like leader (George Washington), prophets (Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine) and martyrs (Boston Massacre, Nathan Hale), as well as devils (Benedict Arnold), sacred places (Valley Forge, Bunker Hill), rituals (Boston Tea Party), emblems (the new flag), sacred holidays (July 4) and a holy scripture whose every sentence is carefully studied and applied in current law cases (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).

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