Indigenous and European contact
The first inhabitants of North America migrated from Siberia across the Bering land bridge, arriving at least 15,000 years ago, although growing evidence suggests an even earlier arrival. Some, like the pre-Columbian Mississippian culture, developed advanced agriculture, grand architecture and state societies. After first contact by the Spanish conquistadors, the native population declined for a variety of reasons, mainly because of diseases such as smallpox and measles. Violence was not a major factor in the overall decline of Native Americans, although conflicts among them and with Europeans affected certain tribes and various colonial settlements. In the Hawaiian Islands, the first Native Americans arrived from Polynesia around 1 AD. Europeans, led by the British explorer James Cook, arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.
In the early days of colonisation, many European settlers suffered from food shortages, disease and attacks by Native Americans. Native Americans were also often at war with neighbouring tribes and allied with Europeans in their colonial wars. At the same time, however, many natives and settlers became dependent on each other. The settlers traded food and animal skins, the natives traded guns, ammunition and other European goods. The natives taught many settlers where, when and how to grow maize, beans and squash. European missionaries and others thought it important to “civilise” Native Americans and encouraged them to adopt European farming techniques and ways of life.
After Spain sent Christopher Columbus on his first voyage to the New World in 1492, other explorers followed. The Spanish founded small settlements in New Mexico and Florida. France founded several small colonies along the Mississippi. Successful English colonisation on the east coast of North America began with the Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607 and the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony in 1620. Early experiments in communal living failed until the introduction of private farms. Many of the settlers were dissident Christian groups who came seeking religious freedom. The first elected legislature on the continent, the Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619, and the Mayflower Compact, signed by the Pilgrims before they landed, set precedents for the model of representative self-government and constitutionalism that would develop throughout the American colonies.
Most of the settlers in each colony were small farmers, but over the decades other industries developed that were as diverse as the colonies. Crops grown were tobacco, rice and wheat. Extractive industries developed in furs, fishing and timber. Manufactories produced rum and ships, and towards the end of the colonial period, Americans produced one-seventh of the world’s supply of iron. Towns sprang up along the coast to support local economies and serve as trading hubs. English settlers were joined by waves of Scots-Irish and other groups. As land on the coast became more expensive, the freed indentured servants moved west.
Commercial crop cultivation by slaves began with the Spanish in the 1500s and was adopted by the English, but life expectancy was much higher in North America due to lower disease and better nutrition and treatment, leading to a rapid increase in the number of slaves. Colonial society was largely divided over the religious and moral implications of slavery, and the colonies passed laws for and against the practice. But by the turn of the 18th century, African slaves replaced indentured servants for work in the crops, especially in the southern regions.
The British settlement of Georgia in 1732 established the 13 colonies that would later become the United States of America. All had local governments with elections open to most free men, with a growing devotion to the old rights of the English and a sense of self-government encouraging support for republicanism. With an extremely high birth rate, a low death rate and steady settlement, the colonial population grew rapidly. Relatively small Amerindian populations were displaced. The Christian revival movement of the 1730s and 1740s, known as the “Great Awakening”, fuelled interest in religion and religious freedom.
During the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), British troops conquered Canada from the French, but the French-speaking population remained politically isolated from the southern colonies. Excluding the Indians who were conquered and expelled, these 13 colonies had a population of more than 2.1 million in 1770, about a third of the British population. Despite the steady influx of newcomers, the rate of natural increase was such that by the 1770s only a small minority of Americans were foreign-born. The distance between the colonies and Britain allowed for the development of self-government, but its success led the monarchs to periodically attempt to reassert royal authority.
Independence and Expansion (1776-1865)
The American War of Independence was the first successful colonial war of independence against a European power. The Americans had developed an ideology of “republicanism” which claimed that government was based on the will of the people as expressed in their local legislatures. They demanded their rights as Englishmen and “no taxation without representation”. The British insisted on the administration of the realm through parliament, and the conflict escalated into war.
After the passage of the Lee Resolution on 2 July 1776, which was the actual vote for independence, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, which proclaimed in a long preamble that the people were created equal in their inalienable rights and that these rights were not protected by Great Britain, and declared that the thirteen colonies in the United States were independent states and had no allegiance to the British Crown. The fourth day of July is celebrated every year as Independence Day. In 1777, the Articles of Confederation established a weak government that lasted until 1789.
Great Britain recognises the independence of the United States after the defeat at Yorktown. The Peace Treaty of 1783 recognised American sovereignty from the Atlantic coast west to the Mississippi River. Nationalists led the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 to draft the US Constitution, which was ratified by the state conventions in 1788. The federal government was divided into three branches in 1789 on the principle of creating useful checks and balances. George Washington, who had led the Revolutionary Army to victory, was the first president elected under the new constitution. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was passed, which prohibited federal restrictions on individual liberties and guaranteed a number of legal protections.
Although the federal government criminalised the international slave trade in 1808, highly profitable cotton farming exploded in the Deep South after 1820, and with it the slave population. The Second Great Awakening, especially between 1800 and 1840, converted millions to evangelical Protestantism. In the North, it stimulated numerous social reform movements, including abolitionism; in the South, Methodists and Baptists proselytised among the slave population.
The American drive to expand westward led to a long series of Indian wars. The purchase of Louisiana, a territory claimed by France, in 1803 nearly doubled the size of the nation. The War of 1812, declared against Britain over various grievances and ending in a draw, reinforced American nationalism. A series of military incursions into Florida led to Spain ceding this and other Gulf Coast territories in 1819. Expansion was aided by the power of steam as steamboats began to ply the great American river systems, linked by new canals such as the Erie and the I&M; then even faster railways began to spread across the nation’s lands.
From 1820 to 1850, the Jacksonian democracy began a series of reforms that included the expansion of white male suffrage and led to the emergence of the second party system, with the Democrats and Whigs as the dominant parties from 1828 to 1854. The Trail of Tears, in the 1830s, exemplifies the policy of relocating Indians who were resettled on Indian reservations in the West. The United States annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845 at a time of expanding “manifest destiny”. The Oregon Treaty with Britain in 1846 gave the United States control of what is now the American Northwest. Victory in the Mexican-American War led to Mexico ceding California and much of what is now the American Southwest in 1848.
The Californian gold rush of 1848-49 stimulated westward migration and the founding of new western states. After the Civil War, new transcontinental railway lines facilitated the relocation of settlers, expanded domestic trade and intensified conflict with Native Americans. For half a century, the disappearance of the American bison (sometimes called “buffalo”) dealt an existential blow to many Plains Indian cultures. In 1869, a new peace policy sought to protect Native Americans from abuse, avoid further wars and secure their eventual citizenship in the US, although conflicts, including some of the largest Indian wars, continued throughout the West into the 1900s.
The Civil War and the Period of Reconstruction
Disagreements between the Northern and Southern states in early American society, particularly over black slavery, eventually led to the American Civil War. Initially, the states that joined the Union alternated between slave and free states, so that there was a balance of sections in the Senate, while the free states outnumbered the slave states in population and in the House of Representatives. But with the addition of new territories in the West and more free states, tensions between slave and free states increased, with arguments over federalism and territorial division, whether and how slavery should be expanded or restricted.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln, the first president of the largely anti-slavery Republican Party, in 1860, the convents of the thirteen slave states finally declared secession and formed the Confederate States of America, while the federal government claimed secession was illegal. The ensuing war was first directed against the Union, then, after 1863, as casualties mounted and Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the abolition of slavery became a second war aim. The war remains the deadliest military conflict in American history, with some 618,000 soldiers and many civilians killed.
After the Union’s victory in 1865, three amendments were added to the US Constitution: The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to the nearly four million African Americans who had been slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed their right to vote. The war and its settlement led to a significant increase in federal power to reintegrate and rebuild the southern states while guaranteeing the rights of the newly freed slaves.
White Southern conservatives, who called themselves “Redeemers”, took control after the end of Reconstruction. In the 1890s to 1910s, Jim Crow laws disenfranchised most blacks and some poor whites. Especially in the South and West, Blacks, Indians, Chinese and Hispanics faced systematic discrimination, including segregation and occasional vigilante justice.
In the North, urbanisation and an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe provided a surplus of labour for the industrialisation of the country and transformed its culture. National infrastructure, including the telegraph and transcontinental railways, encouraged economic growth and the settlement and development of the Old West. The later invention of electric light and the telephone also had an impact on communication and urban life.
The end of the Indian Wars allowed for further expansion of mechanised land and thus increasing surpluses for international markets. Continental expansion was completed with the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. In 1893, pro-American elements in Hawaii overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Hawaii, which was annexed by the United States in 1898. Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were ceded by Spain in the same year, after the Spanish-American War.
The rapid economic development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered the emergence of many leading industrialists. Tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were responsible for the nation’s progress in railways, oil and steel. Banking becomes an important part of the economy, with J.P. Morgan playing a notable role. Edison and Tesla begin the widespread use of electricity in industry, homes and for public lighting. Henry Ford revolutionises the automobile industry. The US economy explodes to become the largest in the world and the United States achieves great power status. These dramatic changes were accompanied by social unrest and the rise of populist, socialist and anarchist movements. This period finally ended with the advent of the Progressive Era, which saw significant reforms in many areas of society, including women’s suffrage, prohibition of alcohol, regulation of consumer goods, greater anti-trust measures to ensure competition and attention to workers’ conditions.
First World War, Great Depression and Second World War
The United States remained neutral from the start of World War I in 1914 until 1917, when it entered the war as an “associated power” alongside the official World War I allies and helped turn the tide against the Central Powers. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson played a leading diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference and lobbied for the United States to join the League of Nations. However, the Senate refused to give its consent and did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which established the League of Nations.
In 1920, the women’s rights movement pushed for the passage of a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of radio to mass communication and the invention of the first television. The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. After his election as president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, which included the establishment of the social security system. The great migration of millions of African Americans from the US South began before World War I and continued into the 1960s, while the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s impoverished many farming communities and triggered a new wave of westward migration.
Initially effectively neutral during World War II, when Germany conquered much of continental Europe, the United States began supplying equipment to the Allies through the Lend-Lease programme in March 1941. On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to join the Allies against the Axis powers. During the war, the United States was designated as one of the “four gendarmes” of Allied power that would plan the post-war world along with Britain, the Soviet Union and China. Although the nation lost more than 400,000 soldiers, it emerged from the war relatively unscathed and even gained economic and military influence.
The United States played a leading role in the Bretton Woods and Yalta conferences with the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other allies, which signed agreements on new international financial institutions and the reorganisation of Europe after the war. After the Allies won the war in Europe, an international conference in San Francisco in 1945 produced the United Nations Charter, which came into force after the war. The United States developed the first nuclear weapons and used them against Japan; the Japanese surrendered on 2 September, ending World War II.
The Cold War and the Civil Rights Era
After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for power in what became known as the Cold War, driven by an ideological divide between capitalism and communism and, according to the school of geopolitics, a divide between the Atlantic maritime camp and the Eurasian continental camp. Both camps dominated European military affairs, with the United States and its NATO allies on one side and the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies on the other. The United States developed a policy of containment in the face of growing communist influence. While the United States and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars and developed powerful nuclear arsenals, both countries avoided direct military conflict.
The United States often opposes movements in the Third World that it considers Soviet-sponsored. In the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, US troops fought Chinese and North Korean communist forces. The Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 and the first manned space flight in 1961 sparked a “space race” that saw the US become the first nation to put a man on the moon in 1969. A proxy war in Southeast Asia eventually turned into full US involvement, known as the Vietnam War.
Domestically, the United States experienced continued economic expansion and rapid growth of the population and middle class. The construction of a system of interstate highways transformed the nation’s infrastructure over the next few decades. Millions of people moved from farms and inner cities to large suburban settlements. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th and last US state to be added to the country. The burgeoning civil rights movement fought non-violently against segregation and discrimination, with Martin Luther King Jr. becoming a prominent leader and figurehead. A combination of court rulings and legislation, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, aimed to end racial discrimination. Meanwhile, a counterculture movement grew, fuelled by opposition to the Vietnam War, black nationalism and the sexual revolution. The launch of a “war on poverty” led to increased entitlements and social spending.
Stagflation set in during the 1970s and early 1980s. After his election in 1980, President Ronald Reagan responded to economic stagnation with free market reforms. After the collapse of détente, he abandoned “containment” and launched a more aggressive “rollback” strategy towards the USSR. After an increase in women’s labour force participation in the previous decade, by 1985 the majority of women aged 16 and older were in the labour force.
In the late 1980s, there was a “thaw” in relations with the USSR, and its collapse in 1991 ended the Cold War. This led to the unipolarity of the United States, which became the undisputed dominant superpower in the world. The concept of Pax Americana, which had emerged after World War II, gained popularity as a term for the new world order after the Cold War.
After the Cold War, the 1990s saw the longest economic expansion in modern US history, ending in 2001. The internet emerged from US defence networks, spread to international academic networks and then to the general public in the 1990s, dramatically influencing the global economy, society and culture. On 11 September 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists carried out attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly 3,000 people. In response, the United States launched the War on Terror, which included the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
In 1994, the United States concluded the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), linking 450 million people producing $17 trillion worth of goods and services. The aim of the agreement was to remove barriers to trade and investment between the United States, Canada and Mexico by 1 January 2008. Trade between the three partners has exploded since NAFTA came into force.
Barack Obama, the first African-American and multiracial president, was elected in 2008 in the midst of a great recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.