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.
A few weeks afterwards, 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, 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 millions of 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. In the 1900-1903 war to conquer the Philippines, more than 1 million people died. In the midst of that war, U.S. Army General Shefter said: "It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords." Such attitudes are clearly seen today as a betrayal of American ideals of civil rights and justice. A simular attitude was held by many American military and political leaders toward the various Native American tribes, which were mostly forced onto small reservations so that white farmers and ranchers could take over the lands the Native Americans had once roamed freely over.
A ceaseless flood of European immigrants and the development of an industrial base the likes of which the world had not yet seen also characterized this period.
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 by the ever more challenging Cold War, the arms race and the space race. Meanwhile, the American people completed their great migration from the farms into the cities, began shifting the economy from an industrial base to a service economy, and enjoyed the prosperity of triumphalist America, all while the sowing within themselves the seeds of the discontent that would flower into the social revolution of the late 1960s.
History of the United States (1964-1980)
For details, see the main History of the United States (1964-1980) article.
As the Cold War dragged on, the United States entered the Vietnam War, found itself fragmenting socially as women, minorities and young people rebelled against the status quo, and therein faced its greatest crisis since the Civil War. And then suddenly, it was all over and the country found itself in the doldrums of the 1970s, battling stagflation, Watergate and the first appearances of international terrorism.
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.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and the Eastern bloc shattered, the wealth of the United States grew to unprecedented proportions, as did its debt and international entanglements. Social change continued, albeit more slowly than in the 1960s, as the baby boomers put the finishing touches on their revolution. And as the 21st century was born, the United States came to believe that despite its victory in the Cold War, it still faced a major threat in Islamist terrorism, both at home and abroad.
- 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
- Houghton Mifflin Company: U.S. History Resource Center (http://college.hmco.com/history/us/resources/students/index.html)