When the London Company sent out its first expedition to begin colonizing Virginia on December 20, 1606, it was by no means the first European attempt to exploit North America. In 1564, for example, French Protestants (Huguenots) built a colony near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. This intrusion did not go unnoticed by the Spanish, who had previously claimed the region. The next year, the Spanish established a military post at St. Augustine; Spanish troops soon wiped out the French interlopers residing but 40 miles away.
Meanwhile, Basque, English, and French fishing fleets became regular visitors to the coasts from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. Some of these fishing fleets even set up semi-permanent camps on the coasts to dry their catches and to trade with local Indians, exchanging furs for manufactured goods. For the next two decades, Europeans' presence in North America was limited to these semi-permanent incursions. Then in the 1580s, the English tried to plant a permanent colony on Roanoke Island (on the outer banks of present-day North Carolina), but their effort was short-lived.
In the early 1600s, in rapid succession, the English began a colony (Jamestown) in Chesapeake Bay in 1607, the French built Quebec in 1608, and the Dutch began their interest in the region that became present-day New York. Within another generation, the Plymouth Company (1620), the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), the Company of New France (1627), and the Dutch West India Company (1621) began to send thousands of colonists, including families, to North America. Successful colonization was not inevitable. Rather, interest in North America was a halting, yet global, contest among European powers to exploit these lands.
There is another very important point to keep in mind: European colonization and settlement of North America (and other areas of the so-called "new world") was an invasion of territory controlled and settled for centuries by Native Americans. To be sure, Indian control and settlement of that land looked different to European, as compared to Indian, eyes. Nonetheless, Indian groups perceived the Europeans' arrival as an encroachment and they pursued any number of avenues to deal with that invasion. That the Indians were unsuccessful in the long run in resisting or in establishing a more favorable accommodation with the Europeans was as much the result of the impact on Indians of European diseases as superior force of arms. Moreover, to view the situation from Indian perspectives ("facing east from Indian country," in historian Daniel K. Richter's wonderful phrase) is essential in understanding the complex interaction of these very different peoples.
Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that yet a third group of people--in this case Africans--played an active role in the European invasion (or colonization) of the western hemisphere. From the very beginning, Europeans' attempts to establish colonies in the western hemisphere foundered on the lack of laborers to do the hard work of colony-building. For the most part, Europeans were not especially picky about who did the work, as long as it wasn't them. The Spanish, for example, enslaved the Indians in regions under their control. The English struck upon the idea of indentured servitude to solve the labor problem in Virginia. Virtually all the European powers eventually turned to African slavery to provide labor on their islands in the West Indies. Slavery was eventually transferred to other colonies in both South and North America.
Because of the interactions of these very diverse peoples, the process of European invasion/colonization of the western hemisphere was a complex one, indeed. Individual members of each group confronted situations that were most often not of their own making or choosing. These individuals responded with the means available to them. For most, these means were not sufficient to prevail. Yet these people were not simply victims; they were active agents trying to shape their own destinies. That many of them failed should not detract from their efforts.
The American Revolution
Until the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, few colonists in British North America objected to their place in the British Empire. Colonists in British America reaped many benefits from the British imperial system and bore few costs for those benefits. Indeed, until the early 1760s, the British mostly left their American colonies alone. The Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War) changed everything. Although Britain eventually achieved victory over France and its allies, victory had come at great cost. A staggering war debt influenced many British policies over the next decade. Attempts to raise money by reforming colonial administration, enforcing tax laws, and placing troops in America led directly to conflict with colonists. By the mid-1770s, relations between Americans and the British administration had become strained and acrimonious.
The first shots of what would become the war for American independence were fired in April 1775. For some months before that clash at Lexington and Concord, patriots had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British if that became necessary. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces around Boston, had been cautious; he did not wish to provoke the Americans. In April, however, Gage received orders to arrest several patriot leaders, rumored to be around Lexington. Gage sent his troops out on the night of April 18, hoping to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. When the British arrived in Lexington, however, colonial militia awaited them. A fire fight soon ensued. Even so, it was not obvious that this clash would lead to war. American opinion was split. Some wanted to declare independence immediately; others hoped for a quick reconciliation. The majority of Americans remained undecided but watching and waiting.
In June 1775, the Continental Congress created, on paper, a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander. Washington's first task, when he arrived in Boston to take charge of the ragtag militia assembled there, was to create an army in fact. It was a daunting task with no end of problems: recruitment, retention, training and discipline, supply, and payment for soldiers' services were among those problems. Nevertheless, Washington realized that keeping an army in the field was his single most important objective.
During the first two years of the Revolutionary War, most of the fighting between the patriots and British took place in the north. At first, the British generally had their way because of their far superior sea power. Despite Washington's daring victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late 1776 and early 1777, the British still retained the initiative. Indeed, had British efforts been better coordinated, they probably could have put down the rebellion in 1777. But such was not to be. Patriot forces, commanded by General Horatio Gates, achieved a significant victory at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777. Within months, this victory induced France to sign treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States. In retrospect, French involvement was the turning point of the war, although that was not obvious at the time.
Between 1778 and 1781, British military operations focused on the south because the British assumed a large percentage of Southerners were loyalists who could help them subdue the patriots. The British were successful in most conventional battles fought in that region, especially in areas close to their points of supply on the Atlantic coast. Even so, American generals Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan turned to guerrilla and hit-and-run warfare that eventually stymied the British. By 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was ordered to march into Virginia to await resupply near Chesapeake Bay. The Americans and their French allies pounced on Cornwallis and forced his surrender.
Yorktown was a signal victory for the patriots, but two years of sporadic warfare, continued military preparations, and diplomatic negotiations still lay ahead. The Americans and British signed a preliminary peace treaty on November 30, 1782; they signed the final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, on September 10, 1783. The treaty was generally quite favorable to the United States in terms of national boundaries and other concessions. Even so, British violations of the agreement would become an almost constant source of irritation between the two nations far into the future.
The New Nation
At the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain in 1783, an American could look back and reflect on the truly revolutionary events that had occurred in the preceding three decades. In that period American colonists had first helped the British win a global struggle with France. Soon, however, troubles surfaced as Britain began to assert tighter control of its North American colonies. Eventually, these troubles led to a struggle in which American colonists severed their colonial ties with Great Britain. Meanwhile, Americans began to experiment with new forms of self-government. This movement occurred in both the Continental Congress during the Revolution and at the local and state levels.
After winning their independence, Americans continued to experiment with how to govern themselves under the Articles of Confederation. Over time, some influential groups--and these by no means reflected the sentiments of all Americans--found the Confederation government inadequate. Representatives of these groups came together in Philadelphia to explore the creation of yet another, newer form of government. The result was a new constitution. Not all Americans embraced this new Constitution, however, and ratification of the document produced many disagreements. Even so, the Constitution was ratified, and with a new constitution in place, Americans once again turned to George Washington for leadership, this time as President of the new republic.
Although Washington proved to be personally popular and respected, conflict over the proper functions and locus of governmental power dominated his two terms as president. These disputes soon led to the formation of factions and then political parties that were deeply divided over the nature and purposes of the federal government, over foreign affairs, and over the very future of the new nation. Events during the single term of John Adams, our second president, made these divisions even worse and they continued into the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
Even so, President Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the new nation by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase also led Jefferson to form the Lewis and Clark expedition to discover just what was contained in the new land. Jefferson's successor as President, James Madison (1809-1817)--one of authors of the constitution--led the new nation through another war with Great Britain. This, of course, was the unpopular War of 1812. This war ended in 1815 and if nothing else it convinced Britain that the United States was on the map to stay. Meanwhile, Americans began to develop a culture and way of life that was truly their own and no longer that of mere colonials.
During this period, the small republic founded by George Washington's generation became the world's largest democracy. All adult, white males received the right to vote. With wider suffrage, politics became hotly contested. The period also saw the emergence--and demise--of a number of significant political parties, including the Democratic, the Whig, the American, the Free Soil, and the Republican Parties.
Meanwhile, the young republic expanded geographically from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Stars and Stripes were raised over Texas, Oregon, California, and the Southwest. Expansion, however, proved to be a mixed blessing for Americans. While many white settlers found new opportunities to the West, their settlement displaced other groups including Indian tribes and Mexicans. In addition, territorial expansion gave African-American slavery a new lease on life and led to increasing conflict between North and South.
Democracy and territorial expansion led most Americans to feel optimistic about the future. These forces, reinforced by widespread religious revivals, also led many Americans to support social reforms. These reforms included promoting temperance, creating public school systems, improving the treatment of prisoners, the insane, and the poor, abolishing slavery, and gaining equal rights for women. Some of these reforms achieved significant successes. The political climate supporting reform declined in the 1850s, as conflict grew between the North and South over the slavery question.
Civil War and Reconstruction
In 1861, the United States faced its greatest crisis to that time. The northern and southern states had become less and less alike--socially, economically, politically. The North had become increasingly industrial and commercial while the South had remained largely agricultural. More important than these differences, however, was African-American slavery. The "peculiar institution," more than any other single thing, separated the South from the North. Northerners generally wanted to limit the spread of slavery; some wanted to abolish it altogether. Southerners generally wanted to maintain and even expand the institution. Thus, slavery became the focal point of a political crisis.
Following the 1860 election to the presidency of Republican Abraham Lincoln, 11 southern states eventually seceded from the Federal Union in 1861. They sought to establish an independent Confederacy of states in which slavery would be protected. Northern Unionists, on the other hand, insisted that secession was not only unconstitutional but unthinkable as well. They were willing to use military force to keep the South in the Union. Even Southerners who owned no slaves opposed threatened Federal coercion. The result was a costly and bloody civil war. Almost as many Americans were killed in the Civil War as in all the nation's other wars combined.
After four years of fighting, the Union was restored through the force of arms. The problems of reconstructing the Union were just as difficult as fighting the war had been. Because most of the war was fought in the South, the region was devastated physically and economically. Helping freedmen (ex-slaves) and creating state governments loyal to the Union also presented difficult problems that would take years to resolve.
Rise of Industrial America
In the decades following the Civil War, the United States emerged as an industrial giant. Old industries expanded and many new ones, including petroleum refining, steel manufacturing, and electrical power, emerged. Railroads expanded significantly, bringing even remote parts of the country into a national market economy.
Industrial growth transformed American society. It produced a new class of wealthy industrialists and a prosperous middle class. It also produced a vastly expanded blue collar working class. The labor force that made industrialization possible was made up of millions of newly arrived immigrants and even larger numbers of migrants from rural areas. American society became more diverse than ever before.
Not everyone shared in the economic prosperity of this period. Many workers were typically unemployed at least part of the year, and their wages were relatively low when they did work. This situation led many workers to support and join labor unions. Meanwhile, farmers also faced hard times as technology and increasing production led to more competition and falling prices for farm products. Hard times on farms led many young people to move to the city in search of better job opportunities.
Americans who were born in the 1840s and 1850s would experience enormous changes in their lifetimes. Some of these changes resulted from a sweeping technological revolution. Their major source of light, for example, would change from candles, to kerosene lamps, and then to electric light bulbs. They would see their transportation evolve from walking and horse power to steam-powered locomotives, to electric trolley cars, to gasoline-powered automobiles. Born into a society in which the vast majority of people were involved in agriculture, they experienced an industrial revolution that radically changed the ways millions of people worked and where they lived. They would experience the migration of millions of people from rural America to the nation's rapidly growing cities.
Progressive Era to New Era
The early 20th century was an era of business expansion and progressive reform in the United States. The progressives, as they called themselves, worked to make American society a better and safer place in which to live. They tried to make big business more responsible through regulations of various kinds. They worked to clean up corrupt city governments, to improve working conditions in factories, and to better living conditions for those who lived in slum areas, a large number of whom were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Many progressives were also concerned with the environment and conservation of resources.
This generation of Americans also hoped to make the world a more democratic place. At home, this meant expanding the right to vote to women and a number of election reforms such as the recall, referendum, and direct election of Senators. Abroad, it meant trying to make the world safe for democracy. In 1917, the United States joined Great Britain and France--two democratic nations--in their war against autocratic Germany and Austria-Hungary. Soon after the Great War, the majority of Americans turned away from concern about foreign affairs, adopting an attitude of live and let live.
The 1920s, also known as the "roaring twenties" and as "the new era," were similar to the Progressive Era in that America continued its economic growth and prosperity. The incomes of working people increased along with those of middle class and wealthier Americans. The major growth industry was automobile manufacturing. Americans fell in love with the automobile, which radically changed their way of life. On the other hand, the 1920s saw the decline of many reform activities that had been so widespread after 1900.
Great Depression and World War 2
The widespread prosperity of the 1920s ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929 and the great economic depression that followed. The depression threatened people's jobs, savings, and even their homes and farms. At the depths of the depression, over one-quarter of the American workforce was out of work. For many Americans, these were hard times.
The New Deal, as the first two terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency were called, became a time of hope and optimism. Although the economic depression continued throughout the New Deal era, the darkest hours of despair seemed to have passed. In part, this was the result of FDR himself. In his first inaugural address, FDR asserted his "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." As FDR provided leadership, most Americans placed great confidence in him.
The economic troubles of the 1930s were worldwide in scope and effect. Economic instability led to political instability in many parts of the world. Political chaos, in turn, gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler's in Germany and the military's in Japan. (Totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Italy predated the depression.) These regimes pushed the world ever-closer to war in the 1930s. When world war finally broke out in both Europe and Asia, the United States tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict. But so powerful and influential a nation as the United States could scarcely avoid involvement for long.
When Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States found itself in the war it had sought to avoid for more than two years. Mobilizing the economy for world war finally cured the depression. Millions of men and women joined the armed forces, and even larger numbers went to work in well-paying defense jobs. World War Two affected the world and the United States profoundly; it continues to influence us even today.
The entry of the United States into World War II caused vast changes in virtually every aspect of American life. Millions of men and women entered military service and saw parts of the world they would likely never have seen otherwise. The labor demands of war industries caused millions more Americans to move--largely to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts where most defense plants located. When World War II ended, the United States was in better economic condition than any other country in the world. Even the 300,000 combat deaths suffered by Americans paled in comparison to any other major belligerent.
Building on the economic base left after the war, American society became more affluent in the postwar years than most Americans could have imagined in their wildest dreams before or during the war. Public policy, like the so-called GI Bill of Rights passed in 1944, provided money for veterans to attend college, to purchase homes, and to buy farms. The overall impact of such public policies was almost incalculable, but it certainly aided returning veterans to better themselves and to begin forming families and having children in unprecedented numbers.
Not all Americans participated equally in these expanding life opportunities and in the growing economic prosperity. The image and reality of overall economic prosperity--and the upward mobility it provided for many white Americans--was not lost on those who had largely been excluded from the full meaning of the American Dream, both before and after the war. As a consequence, such groups as African Americans, Hispano Americans, and American women became more aggressive in trying to win their full freedoms and civil rights as guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution during the postwar era.
The postwar world also presented Americans with a number of problems and issues. Flushed with their success against Germany and Japan in 1945, most Americans initially viewed their place in the postwar world with optimism and confidence. But within two years of the end of the war, new challenges and perceived threats had arisen to erode that confidence. By 1948, a new form of international tension had emerged--Cold War--between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. In the next 20 years, the Cold War spawned many tensions between the two superpowers abroad and fears of Communist subversion gripped domestic politics at home.
In the twenty years following 1945, there was a broad political consensus concerning the Cold War and anti-Communism. Usually there was bipartisan support for most US foreign policy initiatives. After the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, however, this political consensus began to break down. By 1968, strident debate among American about the Vietnam War signified that the Cold War consensus had shattered, perhaps beyond repair.
Late 20th Century
The end of the Vietnam War helped to end debates about that war. The Iran Hostage Crisis and the failure of the Presidency of Jimmy Carter helped Americans to realize the dangers of the Islamic world and the how dependent they had become on foreign oil. Ronald Reagan led the United State to a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. George Bush helped to liberate the nation of Kuwait and to frustrate Iraqi aggression in 1990-1991. President Clinton oversaw a successful economy and war in Yugoslavia but ultimately was impeached (but not convicted) for perjuring himself in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
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 '60s, as the baby boomers put the finishing touches on their revolution. And as the 21st century was born, the United States came to realize that its Cold War victory was anything but the end of history, as battling islamic terrorism, at home and abroad, became the country's newest raison d'être. At the start of the 21st Century, the USA was the greatest nation (militarily, economically, scientifically and culturally) that the world had ever seen leading to the description of the current world as Pax Americana.
American History Bibliography
- A People's History of the United States : 1492-Present (Perennial Classics)
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