The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.
- Walt Whitman
The United States is more than just a geographical or political entity. It is a dream of a society that upholds individual liberty. It stands for equality, justice, and freedom, and above all the United States represent a promise that if a person puts in hard work in a virtuous way, he can go as far as his God-given talent will take him. The history of this great nation is rich and has some intensely proud moments and also some moments scarred with inhumane and heinous acts. History offers a mixed picture about the nation itself, but nevertheless provides profound insights into what made the US, the country it is today. This essay is an attempt to explore the complex history of the United States, and trace its evolution both as a political power and egalitarian society.
Though people have been living in North American continent, as early as 12,000 years ago, much of the recorded history of this region begins with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on its shores, in the year 1492. Columbus was not the founder of the American continent, as people lived there long before he arrived and he is not even the first European to arrive there, as Norsemen of Europe attempted colonization of America as early as 985 AD. However, his arrival in the Caribbean islands, during his search for a new route to Asia, opened up a sea route from Europe to America and paved way for systematic colonization of the continent by the Europeans.
In fact, many modern history books of America start with 1492, and Columbus occupies a central position in them, portrayed both positively and negatively. Indigenous people lived in the country was named as Indians by Columbus, who mistook the land for Asia. The Native Indians had occupied the Americas for thousands of years and had a culture of their own. They were adept in agriculture, hunting, and many other crafts. They lived in sync with nature, had their own ways of worshiping, and had a thriving community life.
The Native Indians were friendly towards the visitors at first and greeted them enthusiastically. Columbus wrote in his journals that,
“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned”
But their generosity was met with animosity by the Europeans. Columbus collected all the riches he could from the land, killed the natives who antagonized him, and took many others as samples to the mainland Europe. Many sailors followed Columbus, like John Cabot in the year 1497, Juan Ponce de Léon in 1513, and Hernando De Soto in 1539. Almost all the European powers tried to establish their colonies at the expense of the local population.
When Columbus came to America, there were approximately 10 million Indigenous people inhabiting the land North of Mexico. However, once they came into contact with the Europeans their numbers shrank to half, due to disease brought by the Whites, famine, conflicts and slavery. Whatever heights the United States would scale in the subsequent centuries, does not erase the fact that the new found country was built upon the ruins and near annihilation of an entire ethnic group.
During the fifteenth century, Europe was a dominant power and the European countries were looking for territorial expansion. Also the protestant movement, which gained momentum during the sixteenth century, divided the European Christendom and many people wanted to escape from religious persecution in their home country. America, with its vast geography and riches, presented a perfect opportunity for settlement to the immigrants.
The first permanent settlement in America was established by the Spanish in Florida. All major European powers started colonizing America, following the Spanish. England too joined in the race for colonies and Virginia and Massachusetts were two of its earlier colonies. In the years that followed, the thirteen British colonies would form the United States. In the nineteenth century alone close to 50 million Europeans immigrated to the Americas, and they became the dominant race of the continent.
The governance in the American colonies mostly was based on the British model. In England, the glorious revolution that took place between 1688 and 1699, restricted the power of the monarch and gave more powers to the people elected parliament. The American colonists, who closely observed these changes, started questioning the authority of the Royal governors. They wanted more representation in the parliament, and insisted that the laws that affected the colony should be made only with the consent of the colonies.
The British army, after a long fought war (French-Indian War), had quelled the French threat in the American colony in the year 1763. However, in the process it suffered heavy costs and to offset them, the British government imposed a lot of taxes on the colonists. The dissatisfaction of the colonists towards the direct taxes, imposed through acts such as the Townshend Acts from 1767 and the Stamp Act of 1765, combined with a wave of intellectual awakening that was sweeping the colonies, led to the American Revolutionary War.
The Battles of Lexington and Concord, which took place during the year 1775, marked the beginning of the military hostilities between the Royal British Army and their supporters in the colonies, termed as Loyalists, and the army of the Patriots headed by George Washington. The conflict lasted till the year 1783 and ended with the treaty of Paris, with the Patriotic forces comprehensively defeating the Loyalists. The declaration of independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson was adopted on July 4, 1776 and the newly formed nation was called the United States of America.
The American Revolution is one of the most significant events, of not just American history, but in general an important landmark in the world history. It showed to the world that the mighty British Empire could be defeated, by some group of agrarian workers who had no common government but were united by a common cause. The revolution resulted in a society which overthrew a monarchy, for the sake of democratically elected governance. The words uttered by Patrick Henry, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’, became the battle cry of the freedom fighters around the world.
On September, 1787, most of the states agreed to the newly drafted constitution, which proposed that the country should be ruled by a strong central Federal government with the assistance of State governments. George Washington became the first president of the Untied States of America on April 30, 1789. America showed to the world that, aristocracy and monarchy can be effectively replaced by new forms of social structures. The American Revolution gave the world the ideas of democratic and republic governance. American society was viewed by the rest of the world as the epitome of individual liberty. From that day in history, the values of individual freedom and liberty have been the core guiding principle of the US.
Slavery, as an institution, was practiced in America even before the arrival of Europeans. The native tribes captured members of other tribes for manual labor and sometimes for human sacrifice. The first black servants were brought to America by the English settlers in Virginia, to work in their tobacco plantation. In the year 1619, a million black servants were brought from Africa to serve in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South America and the Caribbean. Slavery gradually became the backbone of the American economy. The first American slave ship, the Desire, sailed from the port of Marblehead in the year 1637, and by the year 1800, close to 15 million slaves were transported from Africa to America.
Slavery was mainly practiced in the Southern states, which were dependent on slaves for working in their plantations. The Northern states mainly indulged in finance, trading and production based industries, and they were not as dependent on slaves like the southern states. Northerners felt strongly that slavery was wrong and inhumane, while the southerners were vehemently opposed to treating blacks as equals. Many slaves escaped to the north of the country, so that they can be free from the oppression they suffered in the southern plantations.
Abraham Lincoln was a young politician in the 1850s, and he was known for his anti-slavery views. He famously told,
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,
This government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.”
The southern states declared that they would leave the Union if Lincoln was elected president, and once he won the election in 1860, they started seceding from the Union. This led to the civil war, which was fought between the Union army and the confederate army, representing seven southern slave states, from 1861 to 1865. Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, which made slavery illegal, in the year 1863. This proclamation made slavery abolition a primary goal of the civil war. The war claimed 750,000 soldiers and is one of the bloodiest wars fought on American soil. The union forces defeated the confederacy and slavery was outlawed throughout the country.
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century witnessed the revival of many groups who were historically oppressed and denied their rights, in America, such as African Americans, Women, and Native Americans. During the year 1865, the 13th Amendment of the constitution outlawed involuntary servitude, and the African Americans were granted citizenship. Though they faced prejudice and apathy, particularly from the Southern community, they made some positive strides during this period.
Many black leaders, like Booker. T .Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, emerged during this period, and the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was formed in 1909. Half a century after its formation, NAACP and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. spearheaded the civil rights movement, which earned many rights for the African Americans and made America a more assimilative society.
The Women suffrage movement, though was commenced much before the civil war started, gained momentum along with the anti-slavery campaigns. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was started in the year 1890, and it fought for equal right for women. The efforts of many feminist leaders led to a policy change and in the year 1920 women were granted voting rights by the constitution.
The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 put an end to the armed resistance of Native Indians against the colonists. In the year 1868, the Navajo tribe frustrated by the conditions in their reservation camp left their camp and started walking towards their homeland, in what they termed as ‘long walk’. The US government did not try to stop them, as in the past, and allowed them to retain their homeland, by allocating them 3.5 million acres of land within their four sacred mountains. They practiced farming and agriculture and by the year 1892 they had 16 million acres of land, their 15,000 sheep grew to almost one million, and their population increased from 8,000 to 22,000. Code of Indian Offences was proposed in the year 1883, which granted the Indian tribes, the right to judge the offences committed in their region. The government also spent large amount in giving education to the Indians.
Early colonization, overthrowing the British rule (American Revolution), and slavery emancipation (Civil War) are three major historical developments that shaped the United States. Though there were heavy causalities paid, certain factions unfairly treated, and there were a lot of bloodshed, America reinvented itself in every stage of its history. Today millions of immigrants throng the shores of this great nation, fleeing from oppression, persecution, social evils, lack of economic opportunities and poverty. For all of them, this nation offers a hope. A hope that if one is talented and virtuous in his pursuit, then he has every chance of succeeding, irrespective of his religion, creed or color. In conclusion, it may be said that the US consists of a group of people, belonging to various ethnicity and origin, living together in a society that upholds freedom and equality, and provides fair treatment and boundless opportunities both for economic and social fulfillment.
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