The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas
What is now the United States was initially populated by indigenous peoples who migrated from northeast Asia. Today, their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Although Native Americans are often portrayed as having lived a mundane and primitive lifestyle which consisted of day to day survival, the truth is that prior to European contact, the continent was densely populated by many sophisticated societies. For example, the Cherokee are descended from the Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape, while the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. As was the case in other nations in the Americas, the primitive existence attributed to Native Americans was generally the result of mass die-offs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox which spread like wildfire in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the time most Native American tribes directly encountered Europeans, they were a post-apocalyptic people.
During the late 16th and 17th centuries, multiple European nations began colonizing the North American continent. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of present day continental United States. Of those early settlements, it was the original British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts that formed the cultural, political, legal and economic core of what is now the United States.
Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants, known as Puritans, who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Its neighbor to the southwest, Rhode Island, was founded by refugees from the religious fanatics of Massachusetts. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland.
Virginia, on the other hand, became the most dominant of the southern colonies. Because of a longer growing season, these colonies had richer agricultural prospects, specifically cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate in large plantations. Slavery became an important part of the economy in the South, a fact that would cause tremendous upheaval in the years to come.
By the early 18th century, the United Kingdom had established a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On July 4th, 1776, colonists from the Thirteen Colonies, frustrated with excessive taxation and micromanagement by London and encouraged by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from the UK and established a new sovereign nation, the United States of America. The resulting American Revolutionary War culminated in the surrender of 7,000 British troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. This forced the British government to initiate peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, by which the victorious Americans assumed control of all British land south of the Great Lakes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. British loyalists, known as Tories, fled north of the Great Lakes into Canada, which remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown and would not become fully independent until 1982.
Although the Thirteen Colonies had united during the war in support of the common objective of getting rid of British tyranny, most colonists’ loyalties at the end of the war lay with their respective colonial governments. In turn, the young country’s first attempt at establishing a national government under the Articles of Confederation was a disastrous failure. The Articles tried too hard to protect the colonies from each other by making the national government so weak it could not do anything.
In 1787, a convention of major political leaders (the Founding Fathers of the United States) drafted a new national Constitution in Philadelphia. After ratification by a supermajority of the states, the new Constitution went into effect in 1791 and enabled the establishment of the strong federal government that has governed the United States ever since. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the Revolutionary War, was elected as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By the turn of the 19th century, a national capital had been established in Washington, D.C.
As American and European settlers pushed farther west, past the Appalachians, the federal government began organizing new territories and then admitting them as new states. This was enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare and disease. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee tribe was forcibly relocated from the Southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma, which was known as “Indian Territory” until the early 20th century. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought French-owned territory extending from the Mississippi River to parts of the present-day Western United States under American control, effectively doubling the country’s land area.
The United States fought the War of 1812 with Britain as a reaction to British impressment of American sailors, as well as to attempt to capture parts of Canada. Though dramatic battles were fought, including one that ended with the British Army burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., the war ended in a virtual stalemate. Territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, with the United States acquiring more and more of their territory for white settlers.
Florida was purchased in 1813 from Spain after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a short-lived independent republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 resulted in acquisition of the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. After 1850, the borders of the continental United States reached the rough outlines it still has today. Many Native Americans were relegated to reservations by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases transmitted by large numbers of settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail and other routes.
Tensions between the US and the British government administering Canada continued to persist because the border west of the Great Lakes was ill-defined. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 failed to adequately address the complex geography of the region; the boundary dispute remained unsettled until 1871.
Meanwhile, by the late 1850s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The rapidly industrializing North, where slavery had been outlawed several decades before, favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. In 1861, the Southern states, fearing domination by the North and the Republican President Nominee Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Union and formed the breakaway Confederate States of America. These events sparked the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict on American soil, with over 200,000 killed in combat and a overall death toll exceeding 600,000. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, thereby cementing the federal government’s authority over the states. The federal government then launched a complex process of rehabilitation and re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898 after a brief revolution fomented by American settlers. After decisively defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States gained its first “colonial” territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (granted independence shortly after World War II), Puerto Rico and Guam (which remain American dependencies today). During this “imperialist” phase of US history, the US also assisted Panama in obtaining independence from Colombia, as the need for a Panama Canal had become palpably clear to the US during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the new country of Panama promptly granted the United States control over a swath of territory known as the Canal Zone. The US constructed the Panama Canal in 1914 and retained control over the Canal Zone until 1979.
In the eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country’s growing industrialization. Many African-Americans fled rural poverty in the South for industrial jobs in the North, in what is now known as the Great Migration. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads was laid across the country, accelerating development.
With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power by helping to defeat Germany and the Central Powers. However after the war, despite strong support from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States refused to join the newly-formed League of Nations, which substantially hindered that body’s effectiveness in preventing future conflicts.
Real wealth grew rapidly in the postwar period. During the Roaring Twenties, stock speculation created an immense “bubble” which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to a period of economic havoc in the 1930s known as the Great Depression. The Depression was brutal and devastating, with unemployment rising to 25%. On the other hand, it helped forge a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in its next conflict. President Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid in 1932 as a result of his ineffective response to the Depression. The victor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“FDR”) pledged himself to a “New Deal” for the American people, which came in the form of a variety of aggressive economic recovery programs. While historians still debate the effectiveness of the various New Deal programs in terms of whether they fulfilled their stated objectives, it is generally undisputed that the New Deal greatly expanded the size and role of the US federal government.
In December 1941, the Empire of Japan surprise attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II, a war which had already been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia since 1937. Joining the Allied Powers, the United States helped to defeat the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan. By the end of World War II, with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, the United States had firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world; it was then responsible for nearly half of the world’s industrial production. The newly developed atomic bomb, whose power was demonstrated in two bombings of Japan in 1945, made the United States the only force capable of challenging the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
After World War II, America experienced an economic resurgence and growing affluence on a scale not seen since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the racism traditionally espoused in various explicit and implicit forms by the European-American majority against the country’s African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American, and other minority populations had become impossible to ignore. While the US was attempting to spread democracy and the rule of law abroad to counter the Soviet Union’s support of authoritarian Communist governments, it found itself having to confront its own abysmal failure to provide the benefits of democracy and the rule of law to all of its own citizens. However, in the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which eliminated some institutional discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women’s movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in gender roles and perceptions in US society, including to a limited extent views on homosexuality and bisexuality. The more organized present-era US ‘gay rights’ movement first emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s.
During the same period, in the final quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent a slow but inexorable transition from an economy based on a mixture of heavy industry and labor-intensive agriculture, to an economy primarily based on advanced technology (the “high-tech” industry), retail, professional services, and other service industries, as well as a highly mechanized, automated agricultural industry.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, millions of US manufacturing jobs fell victim to outsourcing. In a phenomenon since labeled “global labor arbitrage,” revolutionary improvements in transportation, communications, and logistics technologies made it possible to relocate manufacturing of most goods to foreign factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. The outsourcing revolution was devastating to many cities, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, whose economies were overly dependent upon manufacturing, and resulted in a group of hollowed-out, depressed cities now known as the Rust Belt.
The United States also assumed and continues to maintain a position of global leadership in military and aerospace technology through the development of a powerful “military-industrial complex”, although as of the turn of the 21st century, its leadership is increasingly being challenged by the European Union and China. US federal investments in military technology also paid off handsomely in the form of the most advanced information technology sector in the world, which is primarily centered on the area of Northern California known as Silicon Valley. US energy firms, especially those based in petroleum and natural gas, have also become global giants, as they expanded worldwide to feed the country’s thirst for cheap energy.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population from rural towns and urban cores to the suburbs. These population shifts, along with a changing economic climate, contributed heavily to urban decay from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The postwar rise of a prosperous middle class able to afford cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline in turn led to the rise of the American car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, became the most comprehensive freeway system in the world, at over 47,000 miles in length. It was surpassed by China only in 2011, although the US is believed to still have a larger freeway system when non-federal-aid highways are also included.
In the late 20th century, the US was also a leader in the development and deployment of the modern passenger jetliner. This culminated in the development of the popular Boeing 737 and 747 jetliners; the 737 is still the world’s most popular airliner today. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn devastated US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, with the consent of the railroads, which were eager to focus their operations on carrying freight, Congress nationalized their passenger rail operations to form the government-owned corporation now known as Amtrak.
During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers were the first to pioneer many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including self-service supermarkets, inventory bar codes to ease the tedium of accurately tallying purchases, “big box” chain stores, factory outlet stores, warehouse club stores, and modern shopping centers. American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, books, and art, all combined to establish the United States as the cultural center of the world. American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, thanks to generous assistance from the federal government in the form of the GI Bill, followed by massive research and development investments by the military-industrial complex, and later, the Higher Education Act. Today, US universities are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.