United States History: Century Trends

Figure 1.--While America's foundation goes back to the original English colonies (17th century), the modern American nation came out of the firey test of the Civil War. Before the Civil War we were New Yorkers and Virginians. After the War the fundamental issue of slavery was resolved and we were Anericans. This not only had important consequences for America, but in the 20th century for Europe as well, consequences addressed by Winston Churchill, half American himelf, in his provcative counter-factual essay, 'Had Lee not won at Gettsyburg'. Here we see Johnny Clem, the Drummer Boy of Shiloh and his younger brother. The photograph was taken just after the War with Johnny now an older teenager and an officer. The coloration is modern.

History is commonly presented in a chronological format. Here is a basic chronological presentation of American history beginning with European settlement (16th century). America emerged from the thirteen original English colonies along the Eastern Seaboard. Several other countries implanted or attempted to plant colonies in North America (France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden). And individuals from many other countries would emigrate to America after the colonies and later the United States were established. Germans were particularly important. By a quirk of fate, the English Civil War (1630s-40s) would cut the colonies at a very early stage off from royal control for an extended period. During this time, elected colonial legislatures would establish themselves as a central factor in governance, often exceeding the authority of royal governors. With the Restoration (1660), British monarchs began to try to establish royal authority, but were never fully successful. America developed along two different models in the North and South, free and slave labor. Colonists were confronted with the task of developing a vast frontier on their own initiative leading to the rise of self-reliance and individual initiative and a decline of a social class structure dating back to the medieval era. With the Revolution (1770s), America entered upon what was at the time a great experiment, a democratically elected republic. The issue of slavery became a major issue became an increasingly divisive issue and was finally only settled by the Civil War (1860s). After the War, Americans settled the West and built an industrial economy of unprecedented dimensions, creating opportunities for average individuals to lead decent lives. As a result, millions of Europeans often of humble backgrounds flocked to the United States to share in those opportunities. America throughout the 19th century refrained from involvement in European affairs and wars. This was no longer possible in the 20th century. The United played a crucial role in European affairs. In World war I America prevented the German Empire from dominating the Continent. Unlike Britain, the Germans failed to recognize America's potential power. In World War II the United States prevented the unfathomable horrors of Hitler and the NAZIs from undoing the long march of Western civilization. The question was if a free, democratic peoples could resist totalitarian dictatorships. And in the Cold war, America prevented totalitarian Communism from dominating the Continent. After the fall of Communism, America has been confronted with the challenge of Islamo-Fascism, China is another major challenge with the country adopting market capitalism, but not yet sure about the benefits of democracy. At home, many Americans have begun to doubt the benefits of free market capitalism and individual initiative.

Pre-Colombian History

North America was populated by many different people with a wide range of cultures remained unconquered. The history of the Americas was thus still largely the history of the Native American peoples. Native American populations were very substantial before the arrival of the Europeans and European diseases. Thevmost advanced people were in Meso America. The Aztecs controlled a vast empure centered on the Central Valley of Mexico. The Maya futher south were lest centralized, but cilturrlly more important. The advancd civilizations of Meso-America influenced the more primitive tribes to the north, although the extent if that influence is still not fully understood. Also not fully understod is just when Europeans first began interacting with Native Americans. There is some evidence of Solutrean contact in prehistoty. The first verifiable contact was the Vikings, first on Greenlan and than Nrth America itself (10th century AD). The next known contact was Portuguese and Spanish fishermen who began operating on the Grand Banks off modern Canada. It is not known when this began, but it was a well estanlished activity before Clounbus' voyages (15th cntury). And there was contact with the Native Americans bcause the fish had to be landed and dried before being brought back to Europe. Some of the fishermen brought back fur pelts obtained from Native Americans.

The 15th Century

The Portuguese began the European voyages of discovery by sailing south seeking to roundthe coast of Africa to sail east to Asia. Some say that as aesult of these voyages south that they encountered Brazil. Columbus had a different idea. He decided to reach Asia by sailing west and ran into the Americas only a few years before the turn of the 16th century (1492). Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas, but he was the first European to publicize what he had done. Ironically he thought he had reached Asia which is why he called the indigenous people Indios--Indians. The term may have been adopted because the Native americans looked more like Indians (south Asians) than Chinese. European colonization was initially limited to the Caribbean--the Spanish Main. Within only a few years, however, the Europeans began to have a huge, largely disasterous impact on the Native American peoples. European diseases traveled faster amd more widely than the Europeans themselves.

The 16th Century

America was still mostly dominated by Native American peoples at the onset of the century (16th century). Spanish Conquistadores conquered the Aztecs and other tribes in Meso-America, but the more primitive tribes to the north in what is now the United States and Canada remained unconquered. And the advent of wild horses dramatically changed the culture of the Planes tribes. While difficult to assess, American history is often seen as beginning with the establishment of the first small English colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth in the 17th century. It was developments in Europe during the 16th century that prepared the foundation. Since the fall of Rome, the center of Europe was the German Holy Roman Empire. Locked in internal dynastic and religious feuds, however, the Empire was unable to dominate Europe. In particular France was a challenge. And the competition between France and Germany meant that it was the smaller, more isolated countries on the periphery of Europe that would play the dominant role in the settlement of the Americas. Here Spain and Portugal led the way and the huge quantities of gold and silver flowing into Spain helped make that country immensely powerful in the 16th century. Thus it looked like they would dominate the colonization of North America as they had done in South America. Yet it would be a relatively small European country--the English that would play the dominate role in North America. The issue was settled by the stunning English naval victory over the Spanish Armada (1588). The English victory not only preserved the country's independence, but also meant that North America would be developed on a very different basis than Hispano America. The first English attempt by Sir Walter Raleigh at Roanoke Island encoutrered the Eastern Woodlands--Algonquian-speaking peoples. The colony was found abandoned under mysterious corcumstances (1588). Thus at the end of the century there still was no permnent English colony anywhere in North America. The Spanish at this time, however, were well established in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America and even in Florida. And the French were also trying to found colonies.

The 17th Century

The central issue in American history during the 17th century was what European power would control North America. At first the issue was contested between England and Spain, but in the early-17th century with the decline of Spanish sea power and the founding of English and French colonies, it developed primarily into a struggle between France and Britain. (The Act of Union between England and Scotland created Britain during the reign of King James, the monarch for which Jamestown was named.) At the time the Caribbean took on an enormous importance because of the huge profits to be had from sugar. And here labor had to be imported giving rise to the iniquitous Atlantic slave trade. The struggle for North America was much more than a dynastic struggle like the wars in Europe. It was in the end to be a struggle between royal absolutism and representative government. The colonial experience in representative government went beyond even that of Britain itself. The open frontier created opportunities not available to most British people. The English Civil War left the American colonists largely to their own devices during the formative period of the principle colonies. The Spanish and French colonies remained firmly under royal control from Madrid and Paris. Eventually the British would challenge representative government in their colonies, but this was not the case in the 17th century.

The 18th Century

The Great Awakening is sometimes glossed over in surveys of American history. It should not be. The Great Awakening was a key phenomenon in the making of the American character. Early colonial America were separate and very different colonies. The Great Awakening swept over each of the 13 English colonies. It was their first common American experience. The colonies evolved a democratic political structure and because of the Frontier, much more egalitarian than Britain itself. Britain and France fought what amounted to as a world war in the 18th century. The French and Indian War decided who would control of North America. The English colonists were a major factor in the British victory in North America. After the War Britain expected America to pay for the costs of Empire. Britain also attempted to both limit the movement west and control economic development and trade. And they attempted to curtail the prerogatives of the colonial legislatures. The result was rebellion which astonishingly resulted in an American victory and independence. The new American Republic not only achieved independence, but control of the continent as far west as the Mississippi. Early problems with national government led to a new Federal Constitution, one of the most remarkable documents in human history. The Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions have provided the frame work for resolving every major national issue--with the exception of one. The framers of the Constitution could not address the issue of slavery. To ensure ratification, a Bill of Rights was drafted. The Constitution provided for the major institutions of government, except political parties which began to develop even before the Constitution was ratified.

The 19th Century

Two issues dominated America during the first half of the 19th century. Gradually Manifest Destiny gripped America and the creation of a continental power was made possible by first war in Europe (Napoleon decided to sell Louisiana) and than war in North America (the Mexican War). The second issue which dominated the first half of the 19th century was slavery. The Constitution and a small number of amendments proved to be a remarably successful structure for addressing major issues in national life. The sole exception proved to be slavery which was only resolved by a terrible Civil War (1861-65). America in the 19th century evolved from a largely agricultural to the world's most important industrial power. Bountiful natural resources, a foundation of English law, a free enterprise system, an effective public education system, and immigration combined to make America potentially the most powerful country in the world. Here historians differ on how they assess the second half of the century. Some stress the positive: the development of new industrial technologies, an expanding middle class, the creation of wealth, and the creation of opportunities for American and Europe's dispossessed. Other historian focus on the negative: the concentration of wealth, child sand female labor, unfair and unsafe working conditions, and other social problems. The social critics that describe working conditions in America are often quite accurate, although they often do not put their accounts in context. It is important to remember that a society's ability to address social problems is dependent on its ability to create wealth. Socialism in the 20th century has a mixed track record of distributing wealth and a failed ability to create wealth. While social conditions were intolerable for many, conditions in Europe were even worse. And the economic productivity created in the 19th century gave America not only the ability to address social problems in the 20th century, but to save Western Civilization from the totalitarian ideologies that arose in Europe during the 20th century.

The 20th Century

Some historians have called the 20th century the American Century. It was in the 20th century that America finally implemented the promise of its ideals to all its citizens and in the process saved Western civilization. America in the early 20th century was an exceptional country in that it was the only important Industrial power that had no military conscription and large army. Europe on the other hand devoted vast spending to armaments. England since the 16th century had played a role in maintaining the European balance of power. Britain no longer had this capability by the 20th century because of the rising power of Russia and Germany. The balance of power took on increasing importance in the 20th century because of the increasing spread of democratic ideals and a desire for national self determination. This resulted in the appearance of many small European states and restive ethnic groups without the ability to maintain or achieve their independence in the face of the massive resources which could be mobilized by Russia and Germany. The United States which had pursued an isolationist policy during the 19th century finally entered world politics. The United States prevented authoritarian Imperial Germany from dominating the Continent in World War I. Next America prevented totalitarian and genocidal NAZI Germany from dominating the Continent in World war II. And then after the War first prevented the totalitarian Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe and eventually helped to liberate Eastern Europe fro Soviet tutelage. It was under the umbrella of American power that today even the smallest European state can enjoy its national identity and independence in unprecedented security. Domestically America in the 20th century gradually implemented a series of progressive and liberal reforms designed to widen the opportunity of all Americans. The Civil Rights movement finally opened up opportunities for all Americans, especially black Americans.

The 21st Century

The 21st century is not yet the realm of historians, but still current events. Americans face quite a range of serious issues in the early 21st century, but there is not yet any emerging consensus on how to deal with the problems. Americans who had thought that with the end of the Cold War that they could again withdraw into a new isolationists were rudely shocked by the Islamic terrorist 9-11 Attack on the World Trade Center. Americans disagree as to the extent and character of the threat and how to address it. Americans also disagree as to dangers posed by Global Warming and how to deal with it. The domestic debate has focused on income debate and immigration.


Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (Knopf: 2002), 185p.

Kukla, Jon. A Wildrerness so Immense: The Louisana Purchase and the Destiny of America (Knopf, 2003), 430p.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). Frederick Jackson Turner is pne of the most influential historians in American history. He presented a paper to a special meeting of the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois (1893). He discussed the importance of the frontier. It was arguably the most important discussion of American history.


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Created: January 27, 2003
Spell checked: 810:43 PM 2/20/2013
Last updated: 2:21 PM 4/13/2017