Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of the USA.
Pre-colonial America (prior to 1585)
30,000 years ago, ancient peoples crossed the Bering straight from Kamchatka to Alaska and populated the Americas with hundreds of rich societies. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Americas were a land beaming with cultural diversity, estimated to have as high a population as Europe before the Columbian Exchange brought devastating diseases across the Atlantic.
Previous generations have tended to stereotype Native Americans as being primitive, nature-loving, hunter-gatherers rather than credit the incredible array of cultures displayed across the continents. There were peaceful tribes like the Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo peoples of the arid deserts of the southwest who built incredible clay structures.
The Maya and Aztec people of Central America and Mexico were known for their warlike human-sacrificing empires. There were nomadic buffalo-hunting tribes like the Apache, Comanche, and Sioux who lived in tipis, and there were agriculturally-focused tribes in the southeast, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw, who lived in permanent structures and practiced advanced techniques like interseeding and crop rotation to avoid depleting soil nutrients.
Colonial America (1585-1763)
The English began exploring and settling the New World in the late 16th century. This proved challenging, as the first English colony at Roanoke quickly disappeared after being left for 3 years by its governor, John White. It wasn’t until 1607 that the first permanent colony, Jamestown, Virginia was established.
Though the vast majority of settlers died in the winter of 1609-1610, the spring brought new settlers and the strategy of farming tobacco, which allowed the fledgling colony to survive. 10 years later, the Calvinists, also known as ‘Pilgrims’, landed at Plymouth rock near Boston and established a second colony.
The 13 colonies developed into 3 distinct regions, the economies of which were largely dictated by topography and climate. New England, made up of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, was theocratic and trade-focused.
The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware became the ‘breadbasket’ of the colonies by focusing on growing grains and oats. Finally, the Southern Colonies of North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia produced cash crops such as tobacco, rice, and eventually, cotton.
Causes of the American Revolution (1763-1783)
Initially, the colonies enjoyed a period of ‘salutary neglect,’ in which Britain rarely enforced any of its mercantilist trade policies. The colonies grew prosperous, becoming used to their autonomy, but this robust era ended with a victory in the colonies’ first major conflict. The conclusion of the ‘French and Indian War,’ or ‘Seven Years War,’ saw Britain and the colonies expel France from North America, at a great financial cost to the British Empire.
Finally, Britain began enforcing its latent trade policies, and instituting new taxes such as the infamous ‘Stamp Act’ to get the colonists to help pay the costs of the war. Many colonists supported the taxation, but wanted to be given the same rights as citizens born in England, specifically the right to vote and send representatives to the British Parliament.
Not wanting to go down the slippery slope of allowing representatives from all parts of their massive empire, the British refused. This gave rise to the famous ‘no taxation without representation’ offense the colonists would use to push for independence.
The American Revolution (1776-1783)
After a period of escalation, shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775 and King George III declared the colonies to be in rebellion. In 1776, a ‘Declaration of Independence’ was signed and a makeshift government was constructed. Britain won the majority of contests at the start of the war until momentum was shifted in 1777 with the Battle of Saratoga, which convinced France to declare war on Britain.
The impact of the French entering the war was immense, providing high-quality military supplies and more importantly, forcing Britain to fight the conflict on a global scale rather than concentrate the full force of their mighty empire solely on the colonies.
The American army spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, where 2 major developments took place: colonial soldiers were inoculated against smallpox, and renowned Prussian officer Baron Von Steuben was hired to train the army into a world-class force. Soon after, Washington’s forces began scoring victories, culminating in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, where the last British Army in the colonies was forced to surrender.
The young republic (1783-1812)
The former colonists’ first attempt at a government with the ‘Articles of Confederation’ proved to be a failure as the lack of a federal authority led to problems. The most glaring incident was ‘Shay’s Rebellion,’ where poor farmers in Massachusetts led a revolt that had to be put down by a privately funded militia.
The states then sent delegates to Philadelphia for the ‘Constitutional Convention’ and drafted a new government with 3 branches, including a powerful executive. The Constitution was ratified by the states and George Washington became the first and only unanimously-elected president in U.S. History. The Bill of Rights was officially added two years later in 1791.
In the early years, the U.S. often found itself at odds with the European powers of France and Great Britain. As the two powers battled one another, American ships were often targeted by both sides, a situation which escalated to the ‘War of 1812’ between the U.S. and Britain. Though the war ended in a draw, it started a period of U.S. isolationism when it came to global affairs.
Antebellum period (1812-1861)
The period leading up to the Civil War is called the ‘Antebellum’ period, from the Latin for “before the war.” This time is known for its 3 major periods of change: westward expansion, northern industrialization, and southern slavery.
The northern states industrialized with the aid of a constant influx of cheap immigrant labor and cheap natural resources from the western territories. The construction of railroads and factories led to urbanization and widespread population growth.
“Manifest Destiny,” or the belief that American expansion was moral and justified by God, led to rapid westward expansion. Natives were moved with force, and land was taken from Mexico in a war in the late 1840s.
The invention of the ‘cotton gin’ allowed enslaved workers to produce 50 times the amount of cotton per day. Slavery expanded dramatically, becoming entrenched in southern economy and culture.
The American Civil War and reconstruction (1860-1877)
The issue of slavery festered until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Since he had campaigned on preventing the expansion of slavery, his victory prompted southern states to secede. The war began when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter Federal Military Base in South Carolina in 1861.
The American Civil war would go on to last 4 years, killing over 620,000 American soldiers. The North was able to win due to its significant material advantages including population, railroad development, factories, and the size of its navy. Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as a necessary wartime measure to weaken the Confederate states and prevent them from gaining an alliance with European nations, which had banned slavery decades before.
The Reconstruction Period (1865-1877) saw tremendous progressive gains at the federal level but many were largely nullified as southern whites regained power at the state and local levels. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were passed, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and giving voting rights to black Americans. However, the lack of any reparations, combined with the passage of segregation and restricting voting rights, led the South to the racist “Jim Crow” era.
The Gilded Age (1870-1900)
The combination of cheap labor, access to abundant natural resources, and a nearly complete lack of restriction on business practices led to a period of unprecedented economic growth, but also growing inequality. Some of the richest men to ever live, known as the “Robber Barons,” built incredible wealth through establishing monopolies and ruthlessly crushing both their competitors’ and their employees’ attempts to unionize and gain more rights.
During this period, movements to improve both worker’s rights and women’s rights began to build momentum, but both would not see great improvements until the next century. In the South, African Americans began fleeing persecution and lynchings in large numbers. This began the “Great Migration” that would last for most of the next century. The infamous Plessy vs Ferguson Supreme Court Decision of 1896 declared segregation legal and would stay in place into the 1950s.
The early 20th century (1900-1920s)
The turn of the century saw the United States cement itself as the leading economic power in the world. This happened because of robust industrial growth, continued waves of immigration, and tremendous profit, stemming from trade in World War I. While every other industrial power was mired in the war and heading into debt in 1914, the U.S. initially stayed neutral and played arms dealer for its eventual allies.
In 1917, thanks to incidents with German submarines and the infamous ‘Zimmerman Telegram,’ a request by Germany to Mexico to invade the United States, President Woodrow Wilson entered the war. When Germany and its allies capitulated in 1918, President Wilson pushed his ‘Fourteen Points’ agenda for preventing future conflict.
The most notable point was the establishment of a ‘League of Nations’ to settle international disputes. However, staunch isolationists in the United States prevented it from joining, leaving the league crippled. Meanwhile, the U.S. took its post-war economic momentum and saw soaring growth in the ‘roaring 20s.’ American women finally gained the right to vote via the 19th Amendment, passed in 1919.
Mid-20th century (1930s-WW2)
The economic boom of the 1920s ended in the stock market crash of 1929 and triggered the Great Depression. The crash was caused by soaring inequality, agricultural overproduction, and rampant stock speculation. In 1932, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted his ‘New Deal,’ kickstarting the most progressive government spending in U.S. history. Social Security, the federal minimum wage, and even the 40-hour workweek were all adopted along with an infrastructure spending plan to create jobs and foster growth.
When World War II broke out, the United States was neutral until the surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941. There was an outpouring of nationalism and production as the U.S. built an industrial war machine unlike any before.
Momentum was taken from Japan at the battle of Midway in 1942, and Germany’s fate was sealed with the Normandy landings of 1944. President Harry Truman made the controversial decision to utilize the newly invented atomic bomb on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing nearly 200,000 Japanese casualties and leading to Japan’s final surrender.
Civil Rights era (1954-1968)
Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston set the stage for the end of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation by winning multiple court cases. Houston’s protégé, Thurgood Marshall, would continue his legacy, becoming the first black supreme court justice after winning Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, banning segregated schools.
In 1955, a 14-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till was brutally lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi. The woman would later admit her accusation was a lie. This caused outrage across the country that helped spur Civil Rights into full swing, starting with a boycott organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama in support of Rosa Parks and culminating with the 1963 ‘March on Washington’ and his classic “I have a Dream” speech. The movement produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation, as well as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Housing Rights Act.
Cold War (1945-1991)
The ‘Cold War’ began with the end of World War 2. During the Yalta conference of 1945, the Soviet Union was granted a post-war ‘sphere of influence’ that would include parts of Japan and Germany’s Eastern European former holdings. The Soviet Union established an “Iron Curtain” of communist governments across Eastern Europe and split both Germany and Korea into communist and capitalist segments.
Meanwhile, the U.S. adopted a policy of ‘containment,’ working to stop the spread of communism, and formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to oppose the communist Warsaw Pact. The ensuing arms race came closest to going nuclear during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but direct conflict never broke out.
The U.S. fought several wars during this period, including in Korea from 1950-1953 and in Vietnam from 1962-1973. The Korean War eventually ended in a stalemate after 4 years of fighting. When inflicting heavy civilian casualties turned popular opinion against the U.S., Vietnam became the United States’ first major military defeat.
The Americans and Soviets worked against one another for decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, creating a largely neo-Western prevailing world consensus.