American History

American History

The United States of America came into existence on July 4, 1776. This was when 13 British colonies in North America declared their independence from Great Britain. Britain fought to keep the colonies in the British Empire but had to admit defeat in 1783. Four years later, the American states organized themselves into a new country. They created a constitution—a set of rules for governing the new country. The United States has been governed according to this Constitution ever since. Power was divided between the individual states and the central institutions of government—the president, the Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.


Since the beginning of the United States, its leaders have had different ideas about what the Constitution meant. Thomas Jefferson, who later became president, believed that the government should have as little power as possible. He preferred to leave powers with the individual states. Another group, led by Alexander Hamilton, believed that the new country needed a strong central government to help it develop. Americans still argue about these questions.


The freedoms and rights that the Constitution set out did not reach all people living in the United States. The people of African descent imported to America as slaves and the native Americans, who lived there before the arrival of European settlers, were excluded. Slavery was particularly important to the economy of the southern states. During the first decades of the 19th century, cotton production spread west into states such as Alabama and Mississippi. Slaves were used to gathering the cotton when it was ready. However, in the slavery of the northern state was dying out.


The original 13 states sat along the east coast of America. People from these states set out to explore the rest of the continent, settled and organized themselves into states that later joined the United States. In 1803 Ohio joined. Illinois joined in 1818, Missouri in 1821, Florida in 1845 and California in 1850. By 1860 there were 33 states in the union and every chance that more would join in the future. This expansion caused conflict between settlers and the native Americans. For example, the settlement of Florida led to a series of wars with the Seminole people. When the Seminole surrendered in 1842, many of them were moved far away from their homes. The expansion also caused arguments within the United States about whether slavery should be allowed in the new states.


In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. He was supported by abolitionists—people who wanted to end slavery. People in the southern states were afraid that the government of the United States would be dominated by northerners and opponents of slavery. Eleven of the southern states decided to secede—break away—from the United States and set up their own country, called the Confederate States of America. When the government of the United States refused to allow them to do this, a civil war broke out that was to last four years and cost over 600,000 lives.


The southern states could not hold out against the industrial power of the northern states, and by 1865 they were defeated. The government worked to bring back the southern states into the United States. This period was known as Reconstruction. Freed slaves were made citizens of the United States with the right to vote.

However, after 1877, when the southern states were allowed to govern themselves once more, laws were passed making it difficult for black people to vote. Other laws kept black and white people apart. This policy was known as segregation. Inequality between black and white Americans remained a huge problem for the United States. Not until the 1960s did black Americans in the southern states achieve full equality with white Americans.


In the late 19th century the United States became one of the biggest economic powers in the world. By 1900 the United States was producing over a quarter of the world’s iron and steel. Railways linked the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The United States was home to some of the richest men the world had ever seen, all making their fortunes from American industry. For example, John D. Rockefeller made his fortune from oil; Cornelius Vanderbilt opened a railway between New York and Chicago, and Meyer Guggenheim gained immense wealth from the mining industry. The United States began to expand its power overseas. In 1898 it went to war with Spain, helping to end Spanish control of Cuba and the Philippines.


Between 1815 and 1914 over 30 million people migrated to live in the United States. Many of these people were escaping from persecution and poverty in Europe. For example, during the terrible famine in Ireland during the 1840s around 1.5 million Irish people moved to the United States. Later immigrants included millions of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, and many people in the United States became proud of the fact that they provided a home for those looking for better lives. In 1903 a poem by Emma Lazarus was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which many immigrants passed on their voyage to the city of New York. The poem includes the lines:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free


When war broke out between Japan and China in 1937, and then in Europe in 1939, many Americans wanted to stay clear. They did not believe that the interests of the United States were under threat. This attitude changed in December 1941 when Japanese aeroplanes attacked the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack convinced many Americans that they could no longer remain neutral. The United States declared war on Japan, and then Germany and Italy who were Japan’s allies in Europe. After victory in 1945, the United States was left as one of the world’s two greatest military powers—alongside its new rival, the Soviet Union.


After World War II the leaders of the United States saw their country as representing freedom, democracy and economic wealth in the world. Their enemies were the communist countries, led by the Soviet Union. American soldiers were sent to fight against communist forces in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and the United States supported anti-communist governments all over the world. Sometimes these governments were undemocratic and brutal, and the United States was accused of being hypocritical and imperialist—trying to dominate and control other countries. Since the end of communism, some people have remained suspicious of American ambitions to extend their power. Even so, people all over the world buy products and use services provided by American companies—from hamburgers to Internet browsers.