History of the United States



Timeline of United States History
1500-1600 1600-1700 1700-1800 1800-1900 1900-present
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 colonial period 1500-1776
2 age of expansion 1776-1865
3 age of industrialization 1865-1914
4 World War period 1914-45
5 Cold War 1945-91
6 contemporary era 1991-present
Summary of United States History
colonial period
ca. 1500-1776
Britain struggles with France for control of eastern North America;
Britain achieves dominance by winning the Seven Years' War (1756-63);
US achieves independence via the American Revolution (ca. 1775-83)
formative age
age of expansion
ca. 1776-1865
American territory expands across the continental US;
age of expansion ends with the Civil War (1861-65)
age of industrialization
ca. 1865-WWI
the US undergoes rapid industrialization, causing it to emerge as a primary world power;
territory is acquired beyond the continental US (namely Alaska and various islands)
great world power
(greatest New World power)
World War period
ca. 1914-45
WWI (US fights with the Allies) > 1920s (US economy booms) >
1930s (Great Depression) > WWII (US fights with the Allies)
Cold War
ca. 1945-91
US and USSR struggle for global political dominance superpower
contemporary era
ca. 1991-present
US reigns as world's only superpower


The continental United States can be divided into four main regions: Northeast, Midwest, West, and South. The West is often subdivided into the Pacific and Mountain states, while the Northeast consists of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

Regions of the Continental US
Largest US Cities by Region
US region largest city (metro population)
New England Boston, Massachusetts
mid-Atlantic New York, New York
South Dallas, Texas
Midwest Chicago, Illinois
Mountain Phoenix, Arizona
Pacific Los Angeles, California

In the nineteenth century, New York emerged as the largest American city (and the nation's cultural capital), which it remains today. The second-largest American city of that century was Chicago, hence the nickname "Second City". Chicago now ranks third, however, having been surpassed in the twentieth century by Los Angeles.

Main Article

Colonial America

ca. 1500-1776
Summary of the American Colonial Age
colonial period
ca. 1500-1776
Britain struggles with France for control of eastern North America;
Britain achieves dominance by winning the Seven Years' War (1756-63);
US achieves independence via the American Revolution (ca. 1775-83)

European colonialism in America began shortly after the arrival of Columbus, with the Spanish settlement of Florida. Permanent English settlement dates to ca. 1600, with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Thenceforward, British colonies came to dominate most of the eastern coast of what is now America. The inhabitants of these colonies perceived themselves as British until the decades leading up to independence; only then did a unique American identity emerge.5,31

Of all the imperial European powers, the British were by far the most successful in attracting European immigrants to their colonies (see European Colonialism). These immigrants, while largely British (i.e. English, Scottish, or Irish), arrived from many different European countries.A323,5

Some colonies were owned by the monarch, others by British nobles, and still others by chartered companies. A fundamental economic distinction emerged between the rural southern colonies, whose economies relied largely on a few plantation crops (e.g. tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton), and the relatively urbanized northern colonies, whose economies were more diverse (including both raw material production and manufacturing). The northern colonies also tended to be more socially progressive.A271,5

Naturally, British culture was imported to the American colonies. Two critical features of this culture were representative government (in which representatives from across a nation participate in the governance of that nation; see History of Democracy) and liberalism (in which government prioritizes individual freedom; see Enlightenment). In Britain, representative government was achieved through Parliament, which significantly limited the monarch's power; consequently, individual freedoms (e.g. freedom of speech and religion, freedom of economic activity, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment) were relatively strong in Britain (compared to the rest of Europe, which generally featured absolutist monarchs). Crucially, liberalism allowed capitalism to thrive (see History of the Western Economy).A372-73,H880,K236-39,K270-71

Thus did British colonies, via strong traditions of representative government, liberalism, and capitalism, grow prosperous and self-reliant, making them well-prepared for independence. In sharp contrast, the colonies of other nations tended to feature centralized, absolutist governments (in emulation of their home nations, e.g. France, Spain), in which economic activity was rigidly controlled; these colonies remained politically and economically undeveloped, and thus poorly prepared for independence. Indeed, non-British colonies in the Americas were generally treated as extraction colonies; raw material production (especially plantation agriculture and mining) was the only form of economic development, and political development was limited to the minimum required for these simple economies to function.A271,B208,B253,K234-39,5

During the colonial age, Britain struggled with Spain (in the South) and the Netherlands (in the Northeast) for control of eastern North America. (The short-lived Dutch territory in North America was known as "New Netherland"; the city of New York was originally the Dutch settlement of "New Amsterdam".) Yet Britain's foremost colonial rival was France, whose territory in North America was called New France. The grand finale of the French-British imperial struggle was the Seven Years' War (1756-63), which drew in most of Europe and was fought throughout much of the world. (The New World portion of this conflict is also known as the French and Indian War.) Britain won this war, thereby seizing the territory of New France and securing dominance of North America.

Colonial America before the Seven Years' War
Colonial America after the Seven Years' War

Victory came with two major responsibilities, however: the repayment of a massive national debt incurred from the war, and the military protection of Britain's vast American territory. In response, British authority over the colonies was tightened. Restrictions were imposed on westward expansion, new taxes were introduced, and some colonies were transferred to direct monarchical control.A323-24,5

These imperial decisions were met with widespread colonial resentment, leading many Americans to speak out against being controlled and taxed by a government in which they lacked representation. They also began to question the necessity of British political and military protection, given that the French threat on the western frontier had been eliminated. The most famous act of dissent was the Boston Tea Party, in which patriots tossed boxes of tea (which had just arrived in British ships) overboard; this was a protest against tax on tea and trade regulations that favoured British imports of tea (over that of domestic producers).A323-24,5,7,10

Birth of the United States

As unrest mounted, the colonies prepared for battle. The Continental Army was organized as the main force to fight the British, and George Washington, a Virginian plantation-owner who had served as a British officer in the French and Indian War, was chosen to command it. The American Revolution (1775-83) broke out when a British attempt to suppress rebels in Massachusetts met with fierce resistance.6,9

Revolutionary America consisted of thirteen colonies along the eastern coast. These colonies officially proclaimed their sovereignty on July 4, 1776, via the Declaration of Independence.5

The Thirteen Colonies

While colonial determination and Washington's tactical genius contributed much to American victory, so did the Americans' home advantage, in terms of both familiar terrain (which was largely unmapped) and proximity to troops and supplies. Also crucial was the military assistance of Britain's imperial rivals, namely France, Spain, and the Netherlands.A325-26,6

The war can be divided into two theatres. In the land theatre, battles were fought throughout the Thirteen Colonies, leading ultimately to the defeat of British land forces. Likewise, in the sea theatre, the British fleet was eventually repelled from the American coast. The peace treaty that ended the war acknowledged the independence of the Thirteen Colonies (and restored Spanish ownership of Florida).A325-26,6

American independence was not a smooth transition, however; for decades, regional rebellions threatened to tear the country apart. Fortunately, these were successfully contained, and national unity would not be threatened again until the Civil War.A325-26,6

As noted earlier, British culture is the foundation of American culture. This simple fact is of enormous historical importance, given that the United States inherited the British institutions of strong representative government and liberalism (as opposed to the absolutism inherited by French and Latin American colonies). Yet even in Britain, representative government was still far from reaching its potential, in terms of both governing power (which was shared with the monarch) and suffrage (which was limited to a wealthy few).A325-26

In the United States, representative government was set free from monarchical interference. Moreover, suffrage was gradually extended, such that America became the first country to eliminate class-based restrictions from voting. The United States is consequently widely considered the world's first true democracy (see History of Democracy).A325-26

The original American system of government, which lasted until 1789, featured a weak federal government. This was a deliberate choice, driven by revolutionary desire to free the colonies from any centralized control. As it became clear that federal impotence was hindering American unity and progress, however, a new federal government was formed, with greatly expanded powers (including taxation, international diplomacy, and national defence).A325-26,K298-99,5

The new government was drawn up in the United States Constitution, which came into effect in 1789.5 (A constitution is a body of law that describes how a nation is to be governed.)

Age of Expansion

ca. 1776-1865
Summary of the American Age of Expansion
age of expansion
ca. 1776-1865
American territory expands across the continental US;
age of expansion ends with the Civil War (1861-65)

The freshly independent United States embarked on a long phase of westward expansion. This territorial growth was often proclaimed as the nation's manifest destiny (i.e. "self-evident destiny"), a notion consistently invoked to justify violence against Native Americans and other colonial powers.A373,5

The age of expansion (ca. 1776-1865) featured three especially notable presidents. The first is George Washington, elected the first president of the United States in 1789.

The second is Thomas Jefferson, third president and chief author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson conducted the Louisiana Purchase, in which America bought a vast territory (spanning roughly a quarter of the contiguous US) from France.11 (Napoleon had won this territory for France from Spain.)

The third is Abraham Lincoln, who averted the bifurcation of America by leading the North to victory in the Civil War (1861-65). This conflict, which focused largely on the federal abolition of slavery (which the South opposed), began with the South's proclamation of secession from the United States (as the Confederate States of America, or simply "the Confederacy"). Slavery was central to the Southern economy, which relied heavily on plantation crops.A375-76,5

No conflict has yet surpassed the Civil War in terms of American casualties, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As in all pre-World War conflicts, disease (from unsanitary conditions) was the primary killer. Many of the fallen were emancipated slaves who chose to fight for the North.A377-78,K314-15

The North, which held the advantage in terms of both population and industrialization, eventually claimed victory in the Civil War. American reunification was enabled by the Reconstruction, a painstaking process of Southern economic and political reorganization. Though Southern African-Americans obtained full citizenship, grievous oppression persisted.A377-78,K314-15,5

Age of Industrialization

ca. 1865-WWI
Summary of the American Age of Industrialization
age of industrialization
ca. 1865-WWI
the US undergoes rapid industrialization, causing it to emerge as a primary world power;
territory is acquired beyond the continental US (namely Alaska and various islands)

During the age of industrialization (ca. 1865-1914), booming American industries (notably steel and oil) developed, and population growth surged as European immigration peaked. The nation was connected by the transnational railroad, and an overseas "American empire" was amassed, including Alaska and various island territories in the Pacific (e.g. Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, Philippines) and Caribbean (e.g. Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands). Overseas territories were vital for resupplying American naval, merchant, and whaling vessels. Imperialism in the Pacific region was also extended economically, in the form of lopsided trade agreements with China and Japan.A379-80,5

The primary American conflict of the "age of industrialization" was the Spanish-American War, in which Spain lost the final traces of its empire to the United States. The largest component was the Philippines, which descended into political turmoil, eventually (after WWII) attaining independence.A380

As the overwhelmingly dominant power of the New World, American interference in Central and South American affairs was inevitable. The foremost example during the "age of industrialization" was the fomentation of a local revolution in Columbia, which had refused to allow American construction of a canal that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Via this revolution, a piece of Columbia seceded to form the independent nation of Panama, which (in return for American support) approved the canal.A381

World War Period

ca. 1914-45
Summary of the World War Period
World War period
ca. 1914-45
WWI: US fights with the Allies
1920s: US economy booms
1930s: Great Depression
WWII: US fights with the Allies

The United States remained neutral in World War I until 1917, when German attacks on American merchant vessels compelled a defensive response (see World War I).

The subsequent interwar period featured two phases. The booming 1920s witnessed the rise of true mass production, bringing a wide range of factory-made goods to the general population. (The phenomenon of mass production/consumption of goods is often dubbed consumerism; thus, consumerism was born in the 1920s.) The 1930s, on the other hand, were dominated by the Great Depression, in which many thousands lost their jobs, homes, and savings.5

This economic disaster contributed to the landslide victory of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose anti-depression policies are known collectively as the New Deal.5 These policies included mortgage relief, student grants, unemployment benefits, workers' rights (e.g. union and collective bargaining rights, maximum working hours and minimum wages), and tightened financial regulations.A452,K384-85,13

The New Deal reflects the political philosophy of positive liberalism, which asserts that government should provide citizens with a minimum standard of welfare in order to ensure they can fully exercise their freedoms (see History of Western Philosophy). A nation that strives to achieve positive liberalism is known as a welfare state.13

The New Deal helped protect America's democracy. In Europe, the suffering of the Great Depression fuelled many dictatorships, including those of Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. European nations that averted dictatorship did so largely by adopting welfare-state policies; thus, the rise of the welfare state was not American-led, but rather a broad international movement throughout the West.A452,13

Joint international progress was also achieved in civil rights, which can be defined as "the rights of all people to freedom and equality". Though progress in civil rights can be traced back many centuries, the pace increased rapidly in the twentieth century, with many forms of legal discrimination (based on such characteristics as gender, ethnicity, and sexuality) finally being eliminated.

While the United States initially abstained from entering World War II, Roosevelt eventually began to support Britain and Russia by lending funds and leasing military equipment. Then, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America joined the Allies (see World War II).5

The manufacturing boom of the Second World War propelled the American economy to staggering new heights. By war's end, the United States was responsible for well over half of global manufacturing, driven largely by government spending.A492,K418-19

Early Cold War America

ca. 1945-70
Summary of Cold War America
Cold War
ca. 1945-91
US and USSR struggle for global political dominance
ca. 1945-70 ca. 1970-80 ca. 1980-91
rising Cold War tension détente renewed tension > conclusion

The Cold War (ca. 1945-91) featured two global superpowers: the US and USSR. The war was "cold" in that direct American-Russian combat was avoided, given the likelihood of mutual destruction by nuclear weapons. Instead, the war consisted of a struggle for global influence, with each side disseminating propaganda and aiding national regimes in exchange for allegiance (and imposing sanctions on hostile regimes). Military operations were limited to regional struggles (see Cold War).

Cold War Spheres of Influence in 1980

The first Cold War president was Harry Truman, who formulated the policy of "containing" communism by supporting at-risk nations rather than by toppling existing communist regimes; this stance became known as the Truman Doctrine. (Note that the so-called "communist" nations of the world have actually been socialist dictatorships; see Marxism.) Truman also oversaw the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (a Western military alliance) and implemented the Marshall Plan (which provided loans for the reconstruction of Europe).5

The Cold War can be divided into three phases according to the degree of strain on Russian-American relations: an initial period of soaring tension (ca. WWII-1970), a temporary relaxation (the 1970s), and a final resurgence (ca. 1980-91). The final phase ended with a sudden dissipation of tension (including large weapons-reduction agreements), followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The period ca. 1945-70 was the most unstable and bloody phase of the Cold War. These years witnessed the development of the hydrogen bomb (which remains the most powerful weapon on Earth), as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which can deliver bombs to any target worldwide. The primary American military engagements of the Cold War, the Korean War and Vietnam War, raged.

This period also featured the space race, in which Russia and America competed in the field of space aeronautics and exploration. Four primary milestones may be identified. The "race" opened with the Russian launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. This was followed by the first manmade object on the moon (the crash-landed Luna 2 probe, in 1959) and the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin, in 1961), both Russian. The space race concluded with the first human moon landing, achieved by the United States in 1969.

Milestones of the Space Race
first nation to send an object... first nation to send a human...
...into orbit Russia (Sputnik, 1957) Russia (Yuri Gagarin, 1961)
...to another celestial body Russia (Luna 2, 1959) America (Neil Armstrong, 1969)

Fears of communist infiltration of government and media fuelled aggressive investigation of American citizens, sometimes leading to imprisonment (or even, in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, execution).5 This campaign of suspicion and terror is known as McCarthyism, after one of its foremost proponents, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Cold War tension culminated with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the outstanding challenge faced by President John F. Kennedy. Prior to Kennedy's presidency, a communist coup led by Fidel Castro had ousted the US-backed Cuban government. In response, the US developed a plan to topple Castro by sending a small force (composed of some thousand CIA-trained Cuban exiles) to incite a counter-revolution.

The operation, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (the Bay of Pigs lies on Cuba's southern coast), was executed under Kennedy's administration. The operation failed miserably: the exiles were quickly defeated by the Cuban army, and no revolution occurred.16

In 1962, it was discovered that Soviet nuclear missile sites had been constructed in Cuba.20 Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island, and for several days the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. An agreement was finally reached, however, in which Khrushchev withdrew the weapons from Cuba in exchange for the American withdrawal of nuclear missiles in Turkey, as well as a guarantee against future American invasion of Cuba.21

Economically speaking, the period ca. 1945-70 witnessed consistently high levels of growth and employment across much of the world (especially the Western world and East Asia), even in nations which had suffered heavy wartime destruction (notably Germany and Japan).22 Consequently, this period is often dubbed the "golden age of capitalism".

1960s America witnessed the birth of youth culture, in which young people cultivated a distinct lifestyle, including vocabulary, music, and fashion. Only since the 1960s has society featured a generation gap: a sharp cultural distinction between parents and children.H1093,K428-29

Late Cold War America

ca. 1970-91
Summary of Cold War America
Cold War
ca. 1945-91
US and USSR struggle for global political dominance
ca. 1945-70 ca. 1970-80 ca. 1980-91
rising Cold War tension détente renewed tension > conclusion

The 1970s was a period of détente (relaxing of tensions). Forces were gradually withdrawn from Vietnam under Richard Nixon, who argued that other nations must assume primary responsibility for defending themselves from communism (a position known as the "Nixon Doctrine"). The 1970s also witnessed a major global economic slowdown, due largely to OPEC price-setting (see Energy Crisis). Since oil is a fundamental input of industrialized economies, a sharp rise in oil prices imposed a major economic burden.5

The 1980s experienced a renewal of Russian-American tensions. Most of the decade was spanned by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who took a hard stance on the Cold War in terms of both rhetoric and policy. Defence spending soared, various military operations were launched (notably in the Middle East), and renewed sanctions were effected on unfriendly regimes.5,23

Reagan also ushered in a new era of conservative social policy by embracing supply-side economics, which asserts that economic growth is driven primarily by the supply of goods and labour in an economy; growth is thus best promoted by encouraging companies to produce and people to work. Production is boosted through policies that reduce the costs of running a business, including lower corporate taxes, relaxed business regulations, and weaker unions. The size of the workforce is boosted by reducing unemployment insurance and other forms of social security.23

Supply-side economics is sometimes called trickle-down economics, as proponents have argued that the resulting total gain in wealth will ultimately find its way into the pockets of the middle and working classes. This is a controversial theory. While the 1980s did experience the return of strong economic growth, opponents have argued that the welfare gap between the upper and middle/lower classes widened.23

Russian-American relations thawed in the late 1980s, allowing Reagan to conclude several major weapons-reduction agreements with Gorbachev. The Cold War finally ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union during the tenure of George H. W. Bush, whose presidency is known for success abroad but a recession at home (which contributed to Clinton's victory over Bush in the next election). Bush's policies were generally similar to those of his predecessor.5,17,30

His most prominent international effort was the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), which consisted of two major operations in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. First was Operation Desert Shield, which featured an air/sea blockade of Iraq and the deployment of troops to bases in Saudi Arabia. When Iraq refused to withdraw, Operation Desert Storm ensued, in which Kuwait was liberated within days through a combination of land, air, and sea attacks.5

Contemporary America

ca. 1991-present
Summary of Contemporary America
contemporary era
ca. 1991-present
US reigns as world's only superpower
1993-2001 2001-09 2009-present
Clinton Bush Obama

Bill Clinton oversaw the longest period of continuous economic expansion in US history. As the first post-Cold War president, Clinton was widely perceived as bearing the responsibility of constructing an enduring global peace.4 His efforts in this regard included peace talks in Southwest Asia, as well as military operations in the Balkans (where conflicts had erupted among the splinter states of Yugoslavia) and Haiti (where the US restored the Haitian government to power following a coup). In Iraq, airstrikes were launched on oil refineries and military targets due to Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with UN weapons inspections.19

Clinton was succeeded by George W. Bush (son of George H. W.) who, during his first year in office, witnessed the bloodiest terrorist attack in history. On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists (mainly from Saudi Arabia) hijacked four domestic US flights. Three planes were deliberately crashed into buildings (one into each tower of the World Trade Centre in New York, and one into the Pentagon), while the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania (after its passengers revolted).37

9/11, in which nearly three thousand people were killed, sent terrorism to the top of the international policy agenda. First priority was given to the destruction of al-Qaeda, the Afghanistan-based international terrorist organization (led by Osama bin Laden) which had orchestrated the attacks. When US demands for the Afghan government (a dictatorship known as the Taliban) to dismantle al-Qaeda and extradite bin Laden were ignored, a US-led invasion of Afghanistan ensued. Though both the Taliban and al-Qaeda were driven into hiding within a year, the War in Afghanistan (2001-) continues, as coalition forces attempt to establish a stable democracy while fending off guerrillas.5

Meanwhile, suspicion mounted over Saddam Hussein's alleged development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). His persistent refusal to cooperate with UN inspectors eventually sparked the Iraq War (2003-11), initiated by the US and UK (without UN approval). Accusations of WMD development proved false.5,27

Bush's second term witnessed one of the worst economic crises in history, known simply as the financial crisis (2007-present). A "financial crisis" is essentially when something that is financially valuable (e.g. cash, bank accounts, stock market shares, loans) suddenly loses much of its value, resulting in the impoverishment of individuals, businesses, and/or governments. A financial crisis is considered to have ended once losses have been recovered.

The subsequent recession contributed to the election victory of Barack Obama, who injected the economy with a massive stimulus package, including bailouts for banks and auto manufacturers. On the international scene, Obama withdrew the last American troops from Iraq in 2011, and has greatly scaled back troops in Afghanistan.5,28

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