Officially, the United States began as an independent nation with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. European colonists reached the Gulf and Pacific coasts, but the largest settlements were by the English on the Atlantic coast, starting in 1607. By the 1770s, the Thirteen Colonies contained two and a half million people. They were prospering, and had developed their own political and legal systems. The British government’s threat to American self-government led to war in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With major military and financial support from France, the Patriots won the American Revolution. In 1789, the Constitution became the basis for the United States federal government, with war hero George Washington as the country’s first president. The young nation continued to struggle with the scope of central government and with European influence, creating the first political parties in the 1790s, and fighting a second war for independence from Britain in 1812.
U.S. territory expanded westward across the continent, brushing aside Native Americans and Mexico, and rejecting the advice of Whigs who wanted to deepen the economy rather than expand the geography. Slavery of Africans was abolished in all the Northern states at the turn of the 19th century, but it flourished in the Southern states because of heavy European demand for cotton. After 1820, a series of compromises postponed a showdown on the issue of slavery, but in the late 1850s, 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 a crisis as eleven slave states seceded to found the Confederacy in 1861. The bloody American Civil War (1861–65) redefined the nation and remains the central iconic event. The South was eventually defeated and, in the Reconstruction era, the United States ended slavery, extended rights to African Americans, and readmitted secessionist states with loyal governments. The national government was much stronger, and it now had the explicit duty to protect individuals. Reconstruction was never completed by the U.S. government and left the blacks in a world of Jim Crow political, social and economic inferiority. The entire South remained poor, while the North grew rapidly.
Thanks to an outburst of entrepreneurship in the North and the arrival of millions of immigrant workers and farmers from Europe, the United States became the leading industrialized power at the turn of the 20th century. Disgust with corruption, waste, and traditional politics stimulated the Progressive movement, 1890s–1920s, which pushed for reform in industry and politics and put into the Constitution women’s suffrage and Prohibition of alcohol (the latter repealed in 1933). Initially neutral in World War I, the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, and funded the Allied victory the following year. The nation refused to follow President Woodrow Wilson‘s leadership and never joined the League of Nations. After a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 marked the onset of the decade-long world-wide Great Depression. A political realignment expelled the Republicans from power and installed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and his elaborate and expensive New Deal programs for relief, recovery, and reform. Roosevelt’s Democratic coalition, comprising ethnics in the North, labor unions, big-city machines, intellectuals, and the white South, dominated national politics into the 1960s. 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 bombs, Japan in the Far East.
The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as opposing superpowers after the war and began the Cold War confronting indirectly in an arms race, the Space Race. U.S. policy was built around containment of the expansion of Communism. American programs to revitalize the economies of Western Europe proved successful in the late 1940s, and NATO was formed as a permanent military alliance with largely American leadership. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were fought to contain Communist expansion. Liberalism won numerous victories in the days of the New Deal and again in the mid 1960s, especially in the success of the civil rights movement. Conservatism made its comeback in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, leaving the United States the only superpower. The economy was in transition after 1970 from heavy industry (with strong labor unions) to a service economy based on high technology. International conflict returned in 2001 following the September 11 attacks and the death of Osama bin Laden. At the turn of the 21st century, the worldwide Great Recession opened an era of stagnation or slow growth.
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.
After a period of exploration by people from various European countries, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Swedish, Russian and Portuguese settlements were established. In the 16th century, Europeans brought horses, cats, cattle, and hogs to the Americas and, in turn, took back to Europe maize, turkey, potatoes, tobacco, beans, and squash. The disease environment was very unhealthy for explorers and early settlers. The Native Americans became exposed to new diseases such as smallpox and measles and died in very large numbers, usually before large-scale European settlement began.
Spanish, Dutch, and French colonization
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 Vázquez 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. Much larger and more important Spanish settlements included Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Antonio, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
New Netherland was the 17th century Dutch colony centered on 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 Buren, Theodore 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 Cajun culture 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.
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 labor such 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. 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.
The 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 York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, 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 1770s 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.
Political integration and autonomy
The French and Indian War (1754–1763) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies. 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–and his greatest invention 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 to help pay for troops stationed in North America following the British victory in the Seven Years’ War.
The British government imposed a series new taxes 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 1760s and early 1770s.
The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a direct action by activists in the town of Boston to protest against the British taxes. 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. Patriots 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. The American Revolutionary War began at Concord and Lexington in April when the British tried to seize ammunition supplies and arrest the Patriot leaders.
Formation of the United States of America (1776–1789)
Washington’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’.”
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 Enlightenment ideals 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.
In the 1780s the national government was able to settle the issue of the western territories, which were ceded by the states to Congress and became territories; with the migration of settlers to the Northwest, soon they became states. Nationalists worried that the new nation was too fragile to withstand an international war, or even internal revolts such as the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 in Massachusetts. Nationalists—most of them war veterans—organized in every state and convinced Congress to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The delegates from every state wrote a new Constitution that created a much more powerful and efficient central government, one with a strong president, and powers of taxation. The new government reflected the prevailing republican ideals of guarantees of individual liberty and of constraining the power of government through a system of separation of powers.
Although some delegates had hoped to end slavery, southern delegates negotiated protection of the international slave trade for 20 years. In addition, three-fifths of the population of slaves was to be counted toward each state’s total population for purposes of Congressional apportionment. As slavery expanded in the South during the following decades, this provision increased the political power of southern representatives in Congress.
To assuage the Anti-Federalists who feared a too-powerful national government, the nation adopted the United States Bill of Rights in 1791. Comprising the first ten amendments of the Constitution, it guaranteed individual liberties such as freedom of speech and religious practice, jury trials, and stated that citizens and states had reserved rights (which were not specified).
The American Revolution was the main source of the non-denominational American civil religion that shaped patriotism ever since. It 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), rituals (raising the Liberty Tree), flags (the Betsey Ross flag), sacred holidays (July 4) and a holy scripture (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).
The American colonies and the new nation grew very rapidly in population and area, as pioneers pushed the frontier of settlement west. The process finally ended around 1890-1910 as the last major farmlands and ranch lands were settled. Native American tribes in some places resisted militarily, but they were overwhelmed by settlers and the army and after 1830 were relocated to Indian reservations in the west. The highly influential “Frontier Thesis” argues that the frontier shaped the national character, with its boldness, violence, innovation, individualism and democracy.
Recent historians have emphasized the multicultural nature of the frontier. Enormous popular attention in the media focuses on the “Wild West” of the second half of the 19th century. As defined by Hine and Faragher, “frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states.” They explain, “It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.”
Through wars and treaties, establishment of law and order, building farms, ranches and towns, marking trails and digging mines, and pulling in great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast fulfilling the dreams of Manifest destiny. As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the west in fiction and film took firm hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike. America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image. “No other nation,” says David Murdoch, “has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”
Early national era (1789–1849)
Washington established a strong government
George Washington—a renowned hero of the American Revolutionary War, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention—became the first President of the United States under the new Constitution in 1789. The national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia and finally settled in Washington DC in 1800.
The major accomplishments of the Washington Administration were creating a strong national government that was recognized without question by all Americans, and, following the plans of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, assuming the debts of the states (the debt holders received federal bonds), creating the Bank of the United States to stabilize the financial system, setting up a uniform system of tariffs (taxes on imports) and other taxes to pay off the debt and provide a financial infrastructure. To support his programs Hamilton created a new political party—the first in the world based on voters—the Federalist Party.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed an opposition Republican Party (usually called the Democratic-Republican Party by political scientists). Hamilton and Washington presented the country in 1794 with the Jay Treaty that reestablished good relations with Britain. The Jeffersonians vehemently protested, and the voters aligned behind one party or the other, thus setting up the First Party System. Federalists promoted business, financial and commercial interests and wanted more trade with Britain. Republicans accused the Federalists of plans to establish a monarchy, turn the rich into a ruling class, and making the United States a pawn of the British. The treaty passed, but politics became intensely heated.
The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when western settlers protested against a federal tax on liquor, was the first serious test of the federal government. Washington called out the state militia and personally led an army, as the insurgents melted away and the power of the national government was firmly established.
Washington refused to serve more than two terms—setting a precedent—and in famous his farewell address, he extolled the benefits of federal government and importance of ethics and morality while warning against foreign alliances and the formation of political parties.
John Adams, a Federalist, defeated Jefferson in the 1796 election. War loomed with France and the Federalists used the opportunity to try to silence the Republicans with the Alien and Sedition Acts, build up a large army with Hamilton at the head, and prepare for a French invasion. However, the Federalists became divided after Adams sent a successful peace mission to France that ended the Quasi-War of 1798.
During the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, there were dramatic changes in the status of slavery among the states and an increase in the number of freed blacks. Inspired by revolutionary ideals of the equality of men and their lesser economic reliance on it, northern states abolished slavery, although some had gradual emancipation schemes. States of the Upper South made manumission easier, resulting in an increase in the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South from less than one percent in 1792 to more than 10 percent by 1810. By that date, a total of 13.5 percent of all blacks in the United States were free. After that date, with the demand for slaves on the rise with the development of the Deep South for cotton cultivation, the rate of manumissions declined sharply, and an internal slave trade became an important source of wealth for many planters and traders.
Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in the 1800 election. Jefferson’s major achievement as president was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which provided U.S. settlers with vast potential for expansion west of the Mississippi River.
Jefferson, a scientist himself, supported expeditions to explore and map the new domain, most notably the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson believed deeply in republicanism and argued it should be based on the independent yeoman farmer and planter; he distrusted cities, factories and banks. He also distrusted the federal government and judges, and tried to weaken the judiciary. However he met his match in John Marshall, a Federalist from Virginia who was his distant cousin. Although the Constitution included a Supreme Court, its functions were vague until Marshall, the Chief Justice (1801–35), defined them, especially the power to overturn acts of Congress that violated the Constitution, first enunciated in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison.
War of 1812
Americans were increasingly angry at the British violation of American ships’ neutral rights in order to hurt France, the impressment (seizure) of 10,000 American sailors needed by the Royal Navy to fight Napoleon, and British support for hostile Indians attacking American settlers in the Midwest. Despite strong opposition from federalists in the Northeast who did not want to disrupt trade with Britain, Congress declared war in June 1812.
The war was frustrating for both sides. American invasions of Canada were repeatedly repulsed, as the American militia proved ineffective because the soldiers were reluctant to leave home. The American high command remained incompetent until the last year. The British blockade ruined American commerce, bankrupted the Treasury, and further angered New Englanders, who smuggled supplies to Britain. The Americans under General William Henry Harrison finally gained naval control of Lake Erie and defeated the Indians under Tecumseh in Canada, while Andrew Jackson ended the Indian threat in the Southeast.
The British raided and burned Washington, carrying away numerous slaves, but were repelled at Baltimore in 1814. Also in 1814 a major British invasion of New York State was turned back. In early 1815 Andrew Jackson decisively defeated a major British invasion at the Battle of New Orleans, making him the most famous war hero.
With Napoleon (apparently) gone, the causes of the war had evaporated and both sides agreed to a peace that left the prewar boundaries intact. Americans celebrated a new spirit of national pride, as the antiwar Federalist Party practically disappeared. The Indians were the big losers; they never gained the independent nationhood Britain had promised and no longer were a threat as settlers poured into the Midwest.
Era of Good Feelings
As strong opponents of the war, the Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814 that hinted at disunion. National euphoria after the victory at New Orleans ruined the prestige of the Federalists and they no longer played a significant role. President Madison and most Republicans realized they were foolish to let the Bank of the United States close down, for its absence greatly hindered the financing of the war. So they chartered the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.
The Republicans also imposed tariffs designed to protect the infant industries that had been created when Britain was blockading the U.S. With the collapse of the Federalists as a party, the adoption of many Federalist principles by the Republicans, and the systematic policy of President James Monroe in his two terms (1817–25) to downplay partisanship, the nation entered an Era of Good Feelings, with far less partisanship than before (or after), and closed out the First Party System.
The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed the United States’ opinion that European powers should no longer colonize or interfere in the Americas. This was a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States. The Monroe Doctrine was adopted in response to American and British fears over Russian and French expansion into the Western Hemisphere.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate treaties that exchanged Native American tribal lands in the eastern states for lands west of the Mississippi River. President Andrew Jackson was a proponent of the forcible removal of native populations to the West; Whigs and religious leaders opped the move as inhumane. The act resulted most notably in the Trail of Tears, a forced migration of several native tribes to the West, with several thousand people dying en route. Many of the Seminole Indians in Florida refused to move west; they fought the Army for years in the Seminole Wars.
After 1840 the growing abolitionist movement redefined itself as a crusade against the sin of slave ownership. It mobilized support (especially among religious women in the Northeast affected by the Second Great Awakening). William Lloyd Garrison published the most influential of the many anti-slavery newspapers, The Liberator, while Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave, began writing for that newspaper around 1840 and started his own abolitionist newspaper North Star in 1847. The great majority of anti-slavery activists, such as Abraham Lincoln, rejected Garrison’s theology and held that slavery was an unfortunate social evil, not a sin.
Texas and California
The Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845, which Mexico had warned meant war. The U.S. army, using regulars and large numbers of volunteers, easily won the Mexican-American War, 1846–48. Public sentiment in the U.S. was divided as Whigs and anti-slavery elements opposed the war. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and adjacent areas to the United States, with the residents given full citizenship. Simultaneously gold was discovered, pulling over 100,000 men to northern California in a matter of months in the California Gold Rush.
Civil War era (1849–1865)
The central issue after 1848 was the expansion of slavery, pitting the anti-slavery elements that were a majority in the North, against the pro-slavery elements that overwhelmingly dominated the white South. A small number of very active Northerners were abolitionists who declared that ownership of slaves was a sin (in terms of Protestant theology) and demanded its immediate abolition. Much larger numbers were against the expansion of slavery, seeking to put it on the path to extinction so that America would be committed to free land (as in low-cost farms owned and cultivated by a family), free labor (no slaves), and free speech (as opposed to censorship rampant in the South.) Southern whites insisted that slavery was of economic social and cultural benefit to all whites (and even to the slaves themselves), and denounced all antislavery spokesmen as “abolitionists.”
Religious activists split on slavery, with the Methodists and Baptists dividing into northern and southern denominations. In the North, the Methodists, Congregationalists and Quakers included many abolitionists, especially among women activists. The Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran denominations largely ignored the slavery issue.
The issue of slavery in the new territories was seemingly settled by the Compromise of 1850 brokered by Whig Henry Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas; the Compromise included admission of California as a free state. The sore point was the Fugitive Slave Act to make it easier for masters to reclaim runaway slaves. Abolitionists fastened on the Act to attack slavery, as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The Compromise of 1820 was repealed in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, promoted by Senator Douglas in the name of “popular sovereignty” and democracy. It permitted settlers to decide on slavery in each territory, and allowed Douglas to say he was neutral on the slavery issue. Antislavery forces rose in anger and alarm, forming the new Republican Party. Pro and anti-forces rushed to Kansas to vote slavery up or down, resulting in a mini civil war called Bleeding Kansas. By the late 1850s the young Republican Party dominated nearly all northern states and thus the electoral college, and insisted that slavery would never be allowed to expand (and thus would slowly die out).
The southern slave societies had become wealthy based on their cotton and other commodity production, and some particularly profited from the internal slave trade. They were tied to northern cities such as Boston and New York by banking, shipping, and manufacturing. By 1860, there were four million slaves in the South, nearly eight times as many as the total slaves nationwide in 1790. The plantations were highly profitable because of the heavy European demand for raw cotton; most of the profits were invested in new lands and new slaves drawn from the declining tobacco regions. For 50 of the nation’s first 72 years a slaveholder served as president of the United States and, during that period, only slaveholding presidents were re-elected to second terms. In addition, southern states benefited by their increased apportionment in Congress due to the partial counting of slaves in their populations.
Slave rebellions were planned or actually took place —including by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831)—but they all failed. They led southern states to establish tighter slave oversight as well as reducing rights of free blacks. The Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford took the Southern position of making slavery legal everywhere, which outraged northerners.
After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, seven Southern states seceded from the union between late 1860 and 1861, establishing a new government, the Confederate States of America, on February 8, 1861. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the Confederacy in April 1861, four more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. Along with the northwestern portion of Virginia, which became West Virginia, four of the five northernmost “slave states” did not secede and became known as the Border States.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union”, which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states. The two armies had their first major clash at the First Battle of Bull Run, which ended in a surprising Union defeat, but, more importantly, proved to both the Union and Confederacy that the war was going to be much longer and bloodier than they had originally anticipated.
The war soon divided into two theaters: Eastern and Western. In the western theater, the Union was quite successful, with major battles, such as Perryville and Shiloh, producing strategic Union victories and destroying major Confederate operations.
Irish anger at the draft led to the New York Draft Riots of 1863, one of the worst incidents of civil unrest in American history
Warfare in the Eastern theater started poorly for the Union as the Confederates won at Manassas Junction (Bull Run), just outside Washington. Major General George B. McClellan was put in charge of the Union armies. After reorganizing the new Army of the Potomac, McClellan failed to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in his Peninsula Campaign and retreated after attacks from newly appointed Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Feeling confident in his army after defeating the Union at Second Bull Run, Lee embarked on an invasion of the north that was stopped by McClellan at the bloody Battle of Antietam. Despite this, McClellan was relieved from command for refusing to pursue Lee’s crippled army. The next commander, General Ambrose Burnside, suffered a humiliating defeat by Lee’s smaller army at the Battle of Fredericksburg late in 1862, causing yet another change in commanders. Lee won again at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, while losing his top aide, Stonewall Jackson. But Lee pushed too hard and ignored the Union threat in the west. Lee invaded Pennsylvania in search of supplies and to cause war weariness in the North. In perhaps the turning point of the war, Lee’s army was badly beaten at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, and barely made it back to Virginia.
Simultaneously on July 4, 1863, Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant gained control of the Mississippi River at the Battle of Vicksburg, thereby splitting the Confederacy. Lincoln made General Grant commander of all Union armies.
The last two years of the war was bloody for both sides, with Grant launching a war of attrition against General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This war of attrition was divided into three main campaigns. The first of these, the Overland Campaign forced Lee to retreat into the city of Petersburg where Grant launched his second major offensive, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign in which he sieged Petersburg. After a near ten-month siege, Petersburg surrendered. However, the defense of Fort Gregg allowed Lee to move his army out of Petersburg. Grant pursued and launched the final, Appomattox Campaign which resulted in Lee surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended with no postwar insurgency as happened in Iraq in 2003.
Based on 1860 census figures, about 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% from the North and 18% from the South, establishing the American Civil War as the deadliest war in American history. Its legacy includes ending slavery in the United States, restoring the Union, and strengthening the role of the federal government.
Reconstruction and a rise in power (1865–1918)
The major issues faced by Washington were the status of the ex-slaves (called “Freedmen”), the loyalty and civil rights of ex-rebels, the status of the 11 ex-Confederate states, the powers of the federal government needed to prevent a future civil war, and the question of whether Congress or the President would make the major decisions.
Three “Reconstruction Amendments” were passed to expand civil rights for black Americans. the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal rights for all, and citizenship for blacks; the Fifteenth Amendment prevented race from being used to disfranchise men.
Although ex-Confederates remained in control of most Southern states for over two years, that changed when the Radical Republicans gained effective control of Congress in the 1866 elections. President Andrew Johnson, who sought easy terms for reunions with ex-rebels, was virtually powerless; he escaped by one vote removal through impeachment. Congress enfranchised black men and stripped many ex-Confederate leasers of the right to hold office. New Republican governments came to power based on a coalition of Freedmen, Carpetbaggers (new arrivals from the North), and Scalawags (native white Southerners). They were backed by the U.S. Army. Opponents said they were corrupt and violated the rights of whites. State by state they lost power to a conservative-Democratic coalition, which gained control of the entire South by 1877. In response to Radical Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged in 1867 as a white-supremacist organization opposed to black civil rights and Republican rule. President Ulysses Grant’s vigorous enforcement of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 shut down the Klan and it disbanded. However there were other paramilitary groups, such as the White League and Red Shirts that worked to regain white political power in states across the South during the 1870s.
Reconstruction ended after the disputed 1876 election between Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. With a compromise Hayes won the election, the federal government withdrew its troops from the South, and Southern Democrats re-entered the national political scene. After 1890 southern states effectively disfranchised black voters. Blacks were segregated in public and remained second class citizens until the success of the Civil Rights movement in 1964-65.
Western expansion and Indian wars
Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (1869) at First Transcontinental Railroad, by Andrew J. Russell.
The latter half of the nineteenth century was marked by the United States’ development and settlement of the West, first by wagon trains and then aided by the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and frequent Indian wars as settlers encroached on traditional Native American lands. Gradually the US purchased their lands and extinguished their claims, forcing most tribes onto restricted reservations. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1894),
“The Indian wars under the government of the United States have been more than 40 in number. They have cost the lives of about 19,000 white men, women and children, including those killed in individual combats, and the lives of about 30,000 Indians.”
The “Gilded Age” was a term that Mark Twain used to describe the period of the late 19th century when there had been a dramatic expansion of American wealth and prosperity. Reform of the Age included the Civil Service Act, which mandated a competitive examination for applicants for government jobs. Other important legislation included the Interstate Commerce Act, which ended railroads’ discrimination against small shippers, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolies in business. Twain believed that this age was corrupted by such elements as land speculators, scandalous politics, and unethical business practices.
By 1890 American industrial production and per capita income exceeded those of all other world nations. In response to heavy debts and decreasing farm prices, wheat and cotton farmers joined the Populist Party. An unprecedented wave of immigration from Europe served to both provide the labor for American industry and create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. From 1880 to 1914, peak years of immigration, more than 22 million people migrated to the United States. The workers’ demand for control of their workplace led to the often-violent rise of the labor movement in the cities and mining camps. Industrial leaders included John D. Rockefeller in oil and Andrew Carnegie in steel; both became leaders of philanthropy, giving away their fortunes to create the modern system of hospitals, universities, libraries and foundations.
A severe nationwide depression broke out in 1893; it was called the Panic of 1893 and impacted farmers, workers and businessmen who saw prices, wages and profits fall. Many railroads went bankrupt and the political reaction saw the collapse of the Democratic Party, whose leader President Grover Cleveland shouldered much of the blame. Labor unrest involved numerous strikes, most notably the violent Pullman Strike of 1894, which was shut down by federal troops under Cleveland’s orders. The Populist Party gained strength among cotton and wheat farmers, as well as coal miners, but was overtaken by the even more popular Free Silver movement, which demanded using silver to enlarge the money supply, leading to inflation that the silverites promised would end the depression.
The financial, railroad and business communities fought back hard, arguing that only the gold standard would save the economy. In the most intense election in the nation’s history, conservative Republican William McKinley defeated silverite William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the Democratic, Populist and Silver Republican tickets. Bryan swept the South and West, but McKinley ran up landslides among the middle class, industrial workers, cities, and among upscale farmers in the Midwest.
Prosperity returned under McKinley, and the gold standard was enacted and the tariff was raised. By 1900 the U.S. had the strongest economy on the globe. Apart from two short recessions (in 1907 and 1920) the overall economy remained prosperous and growing until 1929. Republicans, citing McKinley’s policies, took the credit.
Dissatisfaction on the part of the growing middle class with the corruption and inefficiency of politics as usual, and the failure to deal with increasingly important urban and industrial problems, led to the dynamic Progressive Movement starting in the 1890s. In every major city and state, and at the national level as well, and in education, medicine, and industry, the progressives called for the modernization and reform of decrepit institutions, the elimination of corruption in politics, and the introduction of efficiency as a criterion for change. Leading politicians from both parties, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, and Robert LaFollette on the Republican side, and William Jennings Bryan on the Democratic side, took up the cause of progressive reform. Women became especially involved in demands for woman suffrage, prohibition, and better schools; their most prominent leader was Jane Addams of Chicago. Progressives implemented anti-trust laws and regulated such industries of meat-packing, drugs, and railroads. Four new constitutional amendments—the Sixteenth through Nineteenth—resulted from progressive activism, bringing the federal income tax, direct election of Senators, prohibition, and woman suffrage. The Progressive Movement lasted through the 1920s; the most active period was 1900–1918.
The United States emerged as a world economic and military power after 1890. The main episode was the Spanish–American War, which began when Spain refused American demands to reform its oppressive policies in Cuba. The “splendid little war”, as one official called it, involved a series of quick American victories on land and at sea. At the Treaty of Paris peace conference the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Cuba became an independent country, under close American tutelage. Although the war itself was widely popular, the peace terms proved controversial. William Jennings Bryan led his Democratic Party in opposition to control of the Philippines, which he denounced as imperialism unbecoming to American democracy. President William McKinley defended the acquisition, and was riding high as the nation had returned to prosperity and felt triumphant in the war. McKinley easily defeated Bryan in a rematch in the 1900 presidential election.
After defeating an insurrection by Filipino nationalists, the United States engaged in a large-scale program to modernize the economy of the Philippines, and dramatically upgrade the public health facilities. By 1908, however, Americans lost interest in an empire, and turned their international attention to the Caribbean, and especially the building of the Panama Canal. The canal opened in 1914, and increased trade with Japan and the rest of the Far East. A key innovation was the Open Door Policy, whereby the imperial powers were given equal access to Chinese business, with no one of them allowed to take control of China.
World War I
As World War I raged in Europe from 1914, President Woodrow Wilson took full control of foreign policy, declaring neutrality but warning Germany that resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships supplying goods to Allied nations would mean war. Germany decided to take the risk and try to win by cutting off supplies to Britain; the U.S. declared war in April 1917. American money, food and munitions arrived quickly, but troops had to be drafted, trained; by summer 1918 American soldiers under General John J. Pershing arrived at the rate of 10,000 a day, while Germany was unable to replace its losses.
The result was Allied victory in November 1918. President Wilson demanded Germany depose the Kaiser and accept his terms, the Fourteen Points. Wilson dominated the 1919 Paris Peace Conference but Germany was treated harshly by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as Wilson put all his hopes in the new League of Nations. Wilson refused to compromise with Senate Republicans over the issue of Congressional power to declare war, and the Senate rejected the Treaty and the League.
The women’s suffrage movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and the Declaration of Sentiments demanding equal rights for women. Many of the activists became politically aware during the abolitionist movement. The women’s rights campaign during “first-wave feminism” was led by Mott, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, among many others. The movement reorganized after the Civil War, gaining experienced campaigners, many of whom had worked for prohibition in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By the end of the 19th century a few western states had granted women full voting rights, though women had made significant legal victories, gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody.
Around 1912 the feminist movement, which had grown sluggish, began to reawaken, putting an emphasis on its demands for equality and arguing that the corruption of American politics demanded purification by women, because men could not do that job. Protests became increasingly common as suffragette Alice Paul led parades through the capital and major cities. Paul split from the large National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which favored a more moderate approach and supported the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, and formed the more militant National Woman’s Party. Suffragists were arrested during their “Silent Sentinels” pickets at the White House, the first time such a tactic was used, and were taken as political prisoners.
The old anti-suffragist argument that only men could fight a war, and therefore only men deserve the right to vote, was refuted by the enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of American women on the home front in World War I. Across the world, grateful nations gave women the right to vote. Furthermore, most of the Western states had already given the women the right to vote in state and national elections, and the representatives from those states, including the first woman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, demonstrated that woman suffrage was a success. The main resistance came from the south, where white leaders were worried about the threat of black women voting. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 and women could vote in 1920.
NAWSA became the League of Women Voters and the National Woman’s Party began lobbying for full equality and the Equal Rights Amendment which would pass Congress during the second wave of the women’s movement in 1972. Politicians responded to the new electorate by emphasizing issues of special interest to women, especially prohibition, child health, and world peace. The main surge of women voting came in 1928, when the big-city machines realized they needed the support of women to elect Al Smith, a Catholic from New York City. Meanwhile Protestants mobilized women to support Prohibition and vote for Republican Herbert Hoover.
Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression
In the 1920s the U.S. grew steadily in stature as an economic and military world power. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles imposed by its Allies on the defeated Central Powers; instead, the United States chose to pursue unilateralism. The aftershock of Russia’s October Revolution resulted in real fears of communism in the United States, leading to a Red Scare and the deportation of aliens considered subversive.
In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol were prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition encouraged illegal breweries and dealers to make substantial amounts of money selling alcohol illegally. The Prohibition ended in 1933, a failure. Additionally, the KKK re-formed during that decade and gathered nearly 4.5 million members by 1924, and the U.S. government passed the Immigration Act of 1924 restricting foreign immigration. The 1920s were also known as the Roaring Twenties, due to the great economic prosperity during this period. Jazz became popular among the younger generation, and thus was also called the Jazz Age.
Great Depression and New Deal
The Great depression (1929-39) and the New Deal (1933-36) were decisive moments in American political, economic and social history that reshaped the nation.
During the 1920s, the nation enjoyed widespread prosperity, albeit with a weakness in agriculture. A financial bubble was fueled by an inflated stock market, which later led to the Stock Market Crash on October 29, 1929. This, along with many other economic factors, triggered a worldwide depression known as the Great Depression. During this time, the United States experienced deflation as prices fell, unemployment soared from 3% in 1929 to 25% in 1933, farm prices fell by half, and manufacturing output plunged by one-third.
In 1932, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a New Deal for the American people”, coining the enduring label for his domestic policies. The desperate economic situation, along with the substantial Democratic victories in the 1932 elections, gave Roosevelt unusual influence over Congress in the “First Hundred Days” of his administration. He used his leverage to win rapid passage of a series of measures to create welfare programs and regulate the banking system, stock market, industry and agriculture, along with many other government efforts to end the Great Depression and reform the American economy. The New Deal regulated much of the economy, especially the financial sector. It provided relief to the unemployed through numerous programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and (for young men) the Civilian Conservation Corps. Large scale spending projects designed to provide high paying jobs and rebuild the infrastructure were under the purview of the Public Works Administration. Roosevelt turned left in 1935–36, building up labor unions through the Wagner Act. Unions became a powerful element of the merging New Deal Coalition, which won reelection for FDR in 1936, 1940 and 1944 by mobilizing union members, blue collar workers, relief recipients, big city machines, ethnic groups (especially Catholics and Jews) and the white South, along with blacks in the North (where they could vote). Some of the programs were dropped in the 1940s when the conservatives regained power in Congress through the Conservative Coalition. Of special importance is the Social Security program, begun in 1935.
World War II
The Japanese hoped to cripple American naval power in the Pacific with the attack on Pearl Harbor, a naval base in Hawaii.
In the Depression years the United States remained focused on domestic concerns while democracy declined across the world and many countries fell under the control of dictators. Imperial Japan asserted dominance in East Asia and in the Pacific. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy militarized to and threatened conquests, while Britain and France attempted appeasement to avert another war in Europe. U.S. legislation in the Neutrality Acts sought to avoid foreign conflicts; however policy clashed with increasing anti-Nazi feelings following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that started World War II. Roosevelt positioned the U.S. as the “Arsenal of Democracy” pledging full-scale financial and munitions support for the Allies—but no soldiers. Japan tried to neutralize America’s power in the Pacific by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which catalyzed American support to enter the war and seek revenge.
The main contributions of the U.S. to the Allied war effort comprised money, industrial output, food, petroleum, technological innovation, and (especially 1944–45), soldiers. Much of the focus in Washington was maximizing the economic output of the nation. The overall result was a dramatic increase in GDP, the export of vast quantities of supplies to the Allies and to American forces overseas, the end of unemployment, and a rise in civilian consumption even as 40% of the GDP went to the war effort. This was achieved by tens of millions of workers moving from low-productivity occupations to high efficiency jobs, improvements in productivity through better technology and management, and the move into the active labor force of students, retired people, housewives, and the unemployed, and an increase in hours worked. It was exhausting; leisure activities declined sharply. People tolerated the extra work because of patriotism, the pay, and the confidence it was only “for the duration” and life would return to normal as soon as the war was won. Most durable goods became unavailable, and meat, clothing, and gasoline were tightly rationed. In industrial areas housing was in short supply as people doubled up and lived in cramped quarters. Prices and wages were controlled, and Americans saved a high portion of their incomes, which led to renewed growth after the war instead of a return to depression.
The Allies–the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union, as well as China, Canada and other countries—fought the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Allies saw Germany as the main threat, and gave highest priority to Europe. The U.S. dominated the war against Japan, and stopped Japanese expansion in the Pacific in 1942. After losing to the Japanese Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, and drawing the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), the American Navy inflicted a decisive blow at Midway (June 1942). American ground forces assisted in the North African Campaign that eventually concluded with the collapse of Mussolini’s fascist government in 1943, as Italy switched to the Allied side. A more significant European front was opened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in which American and Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France from Britain.
On the home front, mobilization of the U.S. economy was managed by Roosevelt’s War Production Board. The wartime production boom led to full employment, wiping out this vestige of the Great Depression. Indeed, labor shortages encouraged industry to look for new sources of workers, finding new roles for women and blacks.
However the fervor also inspired anti-Japanese sentiment, which responded by removing everyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast war zone. Research and development took flight as well, best seen in the Manhattan Project, a secret effort to harness nuclear fission to produce highly destructive atomic bombs.
The Allied pushed the Germans out of France, but faced an unexpected counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in December. The final German effort failed, and as 1945 opened Allied armies in East and West were converging on Berlin, as the Nazis hurriedly tried to kill the last remaining Jews. The western front stopped short, leaving Berlin to the Soviets as the Nazi regime formally capitulated in May 1945, ending the war in Europe. Over in the Pacific, the U.S. implemented an island hopping strategy toward Tokyo, establishing airfields for bombing runs against mainland Japan from the Mariana Islands and achieving hard-fought victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Bloodied at Okinawa, the U.S. prepared to invade Japan’s home islands when B-29’s dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, forcing the empire’s surrender in a matter of days and thus ending World War II. The U.S. occupied Japan (and part of Germany), sending Douglas MacArthur to restructure the Japanese economy and political system along American lines.
Though the nation lost more than 400,000 soldiers, the mainland prospered untouched by the devastation of war that inflicted a heavy toll on Europe and Asia.
Participation in postwar foreign affairs marked the end of predominant American isolationism. The awesome threat of nuclear weapons inspired both optimism and fear. Nuclear weapons were never used after 1945, as both sides drew back from the brink and a “long peace” characterized the Cold War years, 1947–1991. There were, however, regional wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The Cold War begins (1945–1964)
Following World War II, the United States emerged as one of the two dominant superpowers. The U.S. Senate on a bipartisan vote approved U.S. participation in the United Nations (UN), which marked a turn away from the traditional isolationism of the U.S. and toward increased international involvement.
The primary American goal of 1945–48 was to rescue Europe from the devastation of World War II and to contain the expansion of Communism, represented by the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 provided military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey to counteract the threat of Communist expansion in the Balkans. In 1948, the United States replaced piecemeal financial aid programs with a comprehensive Marshall Plan, which pumped money into the economy of Western Europe, and removed trade barriers, while modernizing the managerial practices of businesses and governments.
The Plan’s $13 billion budget was in the context of a U.S. GDP of $258 billion in 1948, and was on top of $12 billion in American aid to Europe between the end of the war and the start of the Marshall Plan. Soviet head of state Joseph Stalin prevented his satellite states from participating, and from that point on Eastern Europe, with inefficient centralized economies, fell further and further behind Western Europe in terms of economic development and prosperity. In 1949, the United States, rejecting the long-standing policy of no military alliances in peacetime, formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, which continues into the 21st century. In response the Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact of communist states.
In August 1949 the Soviets tested their first nuclear weapon, thereby escalating the risk of warfare. Indeed, the threat of mutually assured destruction prevented both powers from going too far, and resulted in proxy wars, especially in Korea and Vietnam, in which the two sides did not directly confront each other. Within the United States, the Cold War prompted concerns about Communist influence. The unexpected leapfrogging of American technology by the Soviets in 1957 with Sputnik, the first Earth satellite, began the Space Race, won by the Americans as Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. The angst about the weaknesses of American education led to large-scale federal support for science education and research.
In the decades after World War II, the United States became a global influence in economic, political, military, cultural, and technological affairs. Beginning in the 1950s, middle-class culture became obsessed with consumer goods. White Americans made up nearly 90% of the population in 1950.[clarification needed]
In 1960, the charismatic politician John F. Kennedy was elected as the first and—thus far—only Roman Catholic President of the United States. The Kennedy family brought a new life and vigor to the atmosphere of the White House. His time in office was marked by such notable events as the acceleration of the United States’ role in the Space Race; escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War; the Cuban missile crisis; the Bay of Pigs Invasion; the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham campaign; and the appointment of his brother Robert F. Kennedy to his Cabinet as Attorney General. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, leaving the nation in profound shock.
Climax of liberalism
The climax of liberalism came in the mid-1960s with the success of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) in securing congressional passage of his Great Society programs. They included civil rights, the end of segregation, Medicare, extension of welfare, federal aid to education at all levels, subsidies for the arts and humanities, environmental activism, and a series of programs designed to wipe out poverty. As recent historians have explained:
- “Gradually, liberal intellectuals crafted a new vision for achieving economic and social justice. The liberalism of the early 1960s contained no hint of radicalism, little disposition to revive new deal era crusades against concentrated economic power, and no intention to fast and class passions or redistribute wealth or restructure existing institutions. Internationally it was strongly anti-Communist. It aimed to defend the free world, to encourage economic growth at home, and to ensure that the resulting plenty was fairly distributed. Their agenda-much influenced by Keynesian economic theory-envisioned massive public expenditure that would speed economic growth, thus providing the public resources to fund larger welfare, housing, health, and educational programs.”
Johnson was rewarded with an electoral landslide in 1964 against conservative Barry Goldwater, which broke the decades-long control of Congress by the Conservative coalition. But the Republicans bounced back in 1966 and elected Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon largely continued the New Deal and Great Society programs he inherited; conservative reaction would come with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Meanwhile, the American people completed a great migration from 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 South, was increasingly challenged by the growing Civil Rights movement. The activism of African American leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched the movement. For years African Americans would struggle with violence against them, but would achieve great steps towards equality with Supreme Court decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which ended the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation between Whites and Blacks.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve equality of the races, was assassinated in 1968. Following his death others led the movement, most notably King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who was also active, like her husband, in the Opposition to the Vietnam War, and in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Over the first nine months of 1967, 128 American cities suffered 164 riots. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the rise and fall of Black Power, however the decade would ultimately bring about positive strides toward integration, especially in government service, sports, and entertainment.
The Women’s Movement
A new consciousness of the inequality of American women began sweeping the nation, starting with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan‘s best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, which explained how many housewives felt trapped and unfulfilled, assaulted American culture for its creation of the notion that women could only find fulfillment through their roles as wives, mothers, and keepers of the home, and argued that women were just as able as men to do every type of job. In 1966 Friedan and others established the National Organization for Women, or NOW, to act for women as the NAACP did for African Americans.
Protests began, and the new Women’s Liberation Movement grew in size and power, gained much media attention, and, by 1968, had replaced the Civil Rights Movement as the U.S.’s main social revolution. Marches, parades, rallies, boycotts, and pickets brought out thousands, sometimes millions; Friedan’s Women’s Strike for Equality (1970) was a nation-wide success. The Movement was split into factions by political ideology early on, however (with NOW on the left, the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) on the right, the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) in the center, and more radical groups formed by younger women on the far left).
Along with Friedan, Gloria Steinem was an important feminist leader, co-founding the NWPC, the Women’s Action Alliance, and editing the Movement’s magazine, Ms. The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1972 and favored by about seventy percent of the American public, failed to be ratified in 1982, with only three more states needed to make it law. The nation’s conservative women, led by activist Phyllis Schlafly, defeated the ERA by arguing that it degraded the position of the housewife, and made young women susceptible to the military draft.
However, many federal laws (i.e. those equalizing pay, employment, education, employment opportunities, credit, ending pregnancy discrimination, and requiring NASA, the Military Academies, and other organizations to admit women), state laws (i.e. those ending spousal abuse and marital rape), Supreme Court rulings (i.e. ruling the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied to women), and state ERAs established women’s equal status under the law, and social custom and consciousness began to change, accepting women’s equality. The controversial issue of abortion, deemed by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade (1973), is still a point of debate today.
The Counterculture Revolution and Cold War Détente (1964–1980)
Amid the Cold War, 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 B. Johnson‘s Great Society social programs and numerous rulings by the Warren Court added to the wide range of social reform during the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism and the environmental movement became political forces, and progress continued toward civil rights for all Americans. The Counterculture Revolution swept through the nation and much of the western world in the late sixties and early seventies, further dividing Americans in a “culture war” but also bringing forth more liberated social views.
Johnson was succeeded in 1969 by Republican Richard Nixon, who turned the war over to the South Vietnamese forces and ended American combat roles; he negotiated a peace treaty in 1973, secured the release of POWs and ended the draft. The war had cost the lives of 58,000 American troops. Nixon manipulated the fierce distrust between the Soviet Union and China to the advantage of the United States, achieving détente (cooperation) with both parties.
The Watergate scandal, involving Nixon’s cover-up of his operatives break-in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex destroyed his political base, sent many aides to prison, and forced Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974. He was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford, who was subsequently helpless to prevent the conquest of South Vietnam when North Vietnam invaded in 1975.
The OPEC oil embargo marked a long-term economic transition, as for the first time energy prices skyrocketed and American factories faced serious competition from foreign automobiles, clothing, electronics and consumer goods. By the late 1970s the economy suffered an energy crisis, slow economic growth, high unemployment, and very high inflation coupled with high interest rates (the term stagflation was coined). While economists agreed on the wisdom of deregulation, many of the New Deal era regulations were ended, as in transportation, banking and telecommunications.
Jimmy Carter, running as someone who was not a part of the Washington political establishment, was elected president in 1976. On the world stage, Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. In 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage, resulting in the Iran hostage crisis. With the hostage crisis and continuing stagflation, Carter lost the 1980 election to the Republican Ronald Reagan. On January 20, 1981, minutes after Carter’s term in office ended, the remaining U.S. captives held at the U.S. embassy in Iran were released, ending the 444-day hostage crisis.
The end of the Cold War (1980–1991)
Ronald Reagan produced a major realignment with his 1980 and 1984 landslide elections. Reagan’s economic policies (dubbed “Reaganomics“) and the implementation of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 lowered income taxes from 70% to 28% over the course of seven years. Reagan continued to downsize government taxation and regulation. The U.S. experienced a recession in 1982 but the negative indicators reversed, as the inflation rate decreased from 11% to 2%, the unemployment rate decreased from 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.5% in November 1984, and the economic growth rate increased from 4.5% to 7.2%.
Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the U.S. military, incurring a costly budget deficit. Reagan introduced a complicated missile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed “Star Wars” by opponents) in which, theoretically, the U.S. could shoot down missiles with laser systems in space. Though it was never fully developed or deployed, the Soviets were genuinely concerned about the possible effects of the program and became more willing to negotiate.
Reagan’s rollback policy of weakening Communist states in critical regions involved covert funding and assistance to anti-Communist resistance movements worldwide. Reagan’s interventions against Grenada and Libya were popular in the U.S., though his backing of the Contra rebels was mired in the controversy over the Iran–Contra affair that revealed Reagan’s poor management style.
Reagan met four times with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who ascended to power in 1985, and their summit conferences led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Gorbachev tried to save Communism in the Soviet Union first by ending the expensive arms race with America, then by shedding the East European empire in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ending the U.S.–Soviet Cold War.
World superpower (1991–present)
The United States emerged as the world’s sole remaining superpower and continued to intervene in international affairs during the 1990s, including the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Following his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton oversaw one of the longest periods of economic expansion and unprecedented gains in securities values, a side effect of the digital revolution and new business opportunities created by the Internet. He also worked with the Republican Congress to pass the first balanced federal budget in 30 years.
In 1998, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for lying about a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but was later acquitted by the Senate. The failure of impeachment and the Democratic gains in the 1998 election forced House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, to resign from Congress.
The presidential election in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore was one of the closest in U.S. history, and helped lay the seeds for political polarization to come. The vote in the decisive state of Florida was extremely close and produced a dramatic dispute over the counting of votes. The U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore ended the recount with a 5–4 vote. That meant Bush, then in the lead, carried Florida and the election.
9/11 and the War on Terror
On September 11, 2001 (9/11), the United States was struck by a terrorist attack when 19 al-Qaeda hijackers commandeered four airliners and intentionally crashed into both twin towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon; the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. In response on September 20, President George W. Bush announced a “War on Terror“. On October 7, 2001, the United States and NATO then invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden.
The federal government established new domestic efforts to prevent future attacks. The controversial USA PATRIOT Act increased government’s power to monitor communications and removed legal restrictions on information sharing between federal law enforcement and intelligence services. A cabinet-level agency called the Department of Homeland Security was created to lead and coordinate federal counter-terrorism activities. Some of these anti-terrorism efforts, particularly the U.S. government’s handling of detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, led to allegations toward the U.S. government of human rights violations. President Obama forbade torture, but in general retained Bush’s policy regarding the Guantanamo detainees.
In 2003, the United States launched an invasion of Iraq, which led to the collapse of the Iraqi government and the eventual capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, with whom the U.S. had long-standing tense relations. The reasons for the invasion cited by the Bush administration included the spreading of democracy, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction (a key demand of the UN as well, though later investigations found parts of the intelligence reports to be inaccurate) and the liberation of the Iraqi people. Despite some initial successes early in the invasion, the continued Iraq War fueled international protests and gradually saw domestic support decline as many people began to question whether or not the invasion was worth the cost. In 2007, after years of violence by the Iraqi insurgency, President Bush deployed more troops in a strategy dubbed “the surge“. While the death toll decreased, the political stability of Iraq remained in doubt.
As president, Obama officially ended combat operations in the country on August 31, 2010, but kept 50,000 in Iraq to assist Iraqi forces, help protect withdrawing forces, and work on counter-terrorism. In December 2011, the war was declared formally over and the last troops left the country.
At the same time, Obama increased American involvement in Afghanistan, starting a surge strategy using an additional 30,000 troops, while proposing to begin withdrawing troops at a later point.
In May 2011, after nearly a decade in hiding, the founder and leader of Al Qaeda Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. armed forces acting under President Obama’s direct orders. While Al Qaeda was near collapse in Afghanistan, affiliated organizations continued to operate in Yemen and other remote areas, as the CIA used drones to hunt down and remove its leadership.
Events since 2007
In December 2007, the United States, and most of Europe, entered the longest post–World War II recession. Major problems included a housing market crisis, a subprime mortgage crisis, soaring oil prices, an automotive industry crisis, rising unemployment, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The financial crisis hit a critical point in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers and other important financial institutions failed. Starting in October the federal government lent $245 billion to financial institutions through the Troubled Asset Relief Program which was signed into law under the Bush administration.
Shortly after taking office, President Obama signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the economy recover from the deepening recession. In addition to the economic stimulus, the government took steps to rescue the auto industry and prevent future economic meltdowns. These included a bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, putting ownership temporarily in the hands of the government, and the “cash for clunkers” program which temporarily boosted new car sales. Congress enacted the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a bill that makes sweeping changes to the financial regulatory system. In June 2009, the recession officially ended and the U.S. economy began to expand once again. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.1% in October, followed by a slow economic recovery.
The beginning of the 2010s saw the rise of new political movements across the world, such as the conservative Tea Party movement in the U.S., the international populist Occupy movement and the pro-democratic Arab Spring movement in the Middle East. The 111th Congress saw the passage of major legislation such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act, which were signed into law by President Obama.
In the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans regained control of the House and installed John Boehner as Speaker. The newly divided Congress presided over a period of elevated gridlock and heated debates over whether or not raise the debt ceiling, extending tax cuts for citizens making less than $250,000 annually, and many other key issues. As a result of growing public frustration with both parties in Congress, their approval rating fell to an all time low of 11%.
As of July 2012, debates continue over the economy, the 8.2% unemployment rate, economic inequality, deficit spending, the financial crisis in state government, health care, the role of corporate spending in election campaigns, and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.