United States History


Figure 1.--Here we see elementary school children in the 1940s. Their fathers had just returned home frpm World War II with no less an accomplishment than saving Western civilization. An important question is how history should be presented to children. When I began teaching I thought that American children got too large a dose of uncritical patriotism and sugar coated history. I now rather think that few American children leave school with a reasonable appreciation of the accomplishments of the American nation.

The United States was founded by English colonists (17th century). This firmly planted English culture and law on America. The principles of representative government were even more instilled with the English Civil War cut off the American colonists from royal rule. America fought two wars with Britain and for a time the British underpinnings of America life were obscured. America developed differently from Europe in large measure because of the Frontier which gave virtually every individual the opportunity to own property. This resulted in a very different class structure than in Europe. The American Republic was based on a government structure established by the Constitution (1789). It and a small number of amendments have proved to be a remarkably 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. 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. 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 democracy and a desire for national self determination. This resulted in the appearance of many small European states without the ability to maintain 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 NAZI Germany from dominating the Continent in World war II. And then after the War prevented the totalitarian Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe. 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 black Americans.

American Exceptionalism

The great debate in American history is today if the United States is an exceptional country. It is no accident that in the same year America declared ins independence as a democratic republic, that an obscure Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith explained the operation of free market capitalism and not country embraced his ideas like the new American Republic. Thus from the onset, America was an exceptional country, embracing the two killer apps of state success, political and economic liberty. Most Europeans intent on defining a nation in ethnic terms saw America as exceptional, but were convinced that it would not succeed or even last. The idea of American exceptional ism did not use to be an issue. The young men and boys who took up arms in the Civil War. They understood intuitively with only a very basic education what President Lincoln put into unforgettable words, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." America at the time was the only democratic republic of any importance. Left wing college professors imbued with Marxist ideology have since called that premise into question. They teach that America is not only not an exceptional country, but many believe that America has not even been a force for good in the world. They question free market economy as a engine of economic prosperity to be replace by social justice engineered by an ever-expanding and immensely expensive government. And now they are joined by a substantial part of the Democratic Party and President Obama who have largely signed on to this outlook. There are undoubtedly aspects of American history that are less than idea, even deplorable. And this is how left-wing historians present their argument, by comparing America to a utopian ideal that does not exist or has never existed. No nation on earth could stand up to such a comparison. The clear arc of American history has been for liberty, first landowners, next ordinary white males, then blacks, and finally women. And throughout this process, ordinary individuals, often uneducated and disdained by the cultural elite now dominating American universities have voted with their feet. Left-wing historians stress the tenements and crowded, unhealthy conditions of the rising American industrial cities in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, offering this as proof of capitalist exploitation of the working man. The central question which they are terrified their students might ask, is why if conditions are so bad did emigrants come to America in a steady stream. The simple answer is the obvious, living and working conditions were better in America than anywhere in Europe. And they were better because of the wealth creating engine of free market capitalism unimpeded by governmental restricts and costly bureaucracies. That dynamic of political and economic liberty crushed first the expansionist German Empire and then the totalitarian dictatorships rejecting liberal democracy and capitalism. Today many Americans unaware of the role of government in creating economic crisis are also questioning free market capitalism and American exceptionalism.

Chronology

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.

Sources

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.







HBC






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Created: January 27, 2003
Spell checked: 810:43 PM 2/20/2013
Last updated: 10:43 PM 2/20/2013