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
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
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
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
ratified, and with a new constitution in place, Americans once again turned
to George Washington for leadership, this time as President of the new
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
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
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
People's History of the United States : 1492-Present (Perennial Classics)
by Howard Zinn.
History of the American People by Paul M. Johnson, Perennial (March
Politically Incorrect Guide to American History by Thomas E. Woods
Jr., Regnery Publishing, Inc. (December, 2004).
History for Dummies by Steve Wiegand, For Dummies (February 15, 2001).