American history up to 1945: Overview

Overview: American History up to 1945

Before the Europeans

We are conditioned to think of American history almost exclusively in terms of the history of European settlers. In fact, the people of the Americas had a complex and complicated pre-history that predated the arrival of Europeans by tens of thousands of years.

Before Columbus, the American continents were already populated. The indigenous people hadn’t always been there, and had not originated there, as some of their traditions state, but they had occupied American lands for at least 20,000 years.

By 1565, when the Spanish had established the first permanent European settlement at St Augustine, in present-day Florida, North America was inhabited by several distinct groups of people. All of these people had rich, mature cultures and established languages. They included the Thule, who were the ancestors of the Inuit in Greenland and Canada, the Taino and the Iñupiat in Alaska. All of these people go into decline following the arrival of settlers from Europe.

The Spanish brought no women with them in 1492, and raped the Taíno women, resulting in the first generation of ‘mestizo’- mixed ancestry people. It is only because of the presence of Europeans from the 15th century onward that we even have terms such as Indians or Native Americans.

Europeans in North America

By 1607 the English had settled in Jamestown, Virginia, and had begun growing tobacco. In 1620, Plymouth Colony was founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, an example followed by other English Puritans in New England.

North America was frequently a focus of the shifting alliances and conflicts of those European powers who had taken territories for themselves on the continent. In 1763 Britain expanded further into America by gaining control of territory up to the Mississippi river following victory over France in the Seven Years’ War.

By the 1770s the thirteen British colonial territories along the eastern coast of America began to question the nature of their relationship with the Crown, Government and Parliament in London. The main reason behind their complaints was the issue of taxation. In particular, the  colonies governed by the British saw no reason why they should be ‘taxed without representation’ as the colonies did not elect MPs to represent their interests in Parliament.

In 1774, as tension between the colonies and Britain grew, and as Britain closed down Boston harbour and deployed troops in Massachusetts, the colonists formed the First Continental Congress. The colonies were now heading towards open rebellion against continued British rule.

The American War of Independence

Between 1776 and 1783 The American War of Independence saw the thirteen colonies, supported by France, Spain and Holland, fight against the British Crown. On the 4th July 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was endorsed by Congress as a statement of their intention to be free from British rule. The American Revolution begins as George Washington leads a colonist Continental Army to fight against British rule.

On September 28, 1781, Washington, commanding a force of 17,000 French and Continental troops, began the siege known as the Battle of Yorktown. Against British General Lord Cornwallis and 9,000 British troops, Yorktown is the most important battle of the Revolutionary War.

After three weeks of non-stop bombardment from artillery, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 17, 1781, effectively ending the War for Independence. Although victory at Yorktown ended fighting in the American colonies, the wars dragged on at sea until 1783 when Britain finally agreed to recognise American independence by signing the Treaty of Paris.

After the War of Independence

After Yorktown the rebel states formed a loose confederation, codified in the Articles of Confederation.

The new political system put into place was based around the concept of ‘federalism’. This meant there would be no national government, currency, law, tax or tariff system, Political power was controlled by the states themselves.

This was a very important decision. It reveals something fundamental about the American attitude to government and power, not just in 1781, but through to the Civil War of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twenty-first – it illustrates American scepticism of big, central government.

However, the federal system quickly became confused and difficult to organise. There were too differences between the states, particularly in terms of trade regulations, tariffs and taxes.In 1787, in an attempt to ensure the revolution did not collapse entirely, a constitutional convention met in Philadelphia to frame a constitution (a written agreement on how America would be governed) for the thirteen states. With George Washington as the key figure, the 55 delegates – known as the ‘Founding Fathers’ – agreed on a short, written constitution of seven articles.

The American Constitution

The Constitution begins with the phrase, ‘We, the people.’ This is hugely significant. It places political sovereignty (ultimate political power) in the hands of the American people themselves, not in the hands of politicians or governments and certainly not in the hands of a King. The United States of America was to be a federal republic, and would remain so until the people decided otherwise.

The Constitution goes on to establish the basic structure and functions of the branches of American government. It establishes checks and balances between the different parts of government and sets out the nature of the relationship between the states and central / federal government. At the same time it strengthens federal government (the government of the whole country).

America was to have an elected head of state – the President (the first in 1789, George Washington) and a legislature – the Congress. Congress was divided into two chambers, the Senate and an elected House of Representatives. A Supreme Court was created to be the ‘guardian’ of the Constitution.

Under the Constitution, all states were equal. The Constitution also attempts to limit the power of government, state and federal. Finally, the Constitution was to be the supreme law of the USA – there would be no higher source of law.

The finishing touches to the Constitution took place in 1791 when the Bill of Rights (amendments to the Constitution) were passed to guarantee individual freedoms. The Constitution has only been amended on 27 other occasions.

Westward Expansion of the USA

The USA’s population grew rapidly, doubling every 25 years. In 1860 the population of the United states was 31 million. Most of this growth came from natural increase, and some was the result of immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany.

By 1850 one in two Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. In 1783 when the thirteen colonies won independence from Britain, the USA had ‘title’ over territory as far west as the Mississippi River. In the early 1800’s there was colonial competition between the USA and several European powers. Britain still controlled Canada and the Oregon territory.  The French controlled the vast lands west of the Mississippi. The Russians controlled the Alaskan coast and in Florida, the South and West, a vast Spanish empire existed.

However, by 1890 the USA dominated most of the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It achieved this through a combination of purchase and war.

Purchase included the vast Louisiana Territory, bought for $15 million from France in 1803, and the Gadsden Purchase of land in the Gila desert from Mexico in 1853.

War is used in 1819 when the USA acquired Florida from Spain, and again in 1848 to acquire large areas of land in the South West and West from Mexico. The USA also had to defeat the Native Americans to finalise their claim over the land from east to west.

This involved conflict between the government and 250 Native American tribes. US success was mainly due to superior military technology and divisions among the Native Americans. One of the greatest achievements was the westward movement of population and the settlement and cultivation of the prairies (large flat areas of grassy land with few trees). However this was only achieved through the wiping out of the vast herds of buffalo and the destruction of Native American society.

US governments strongly believed it was their God-given right – their ‘Manifest Destiny’ – to dominate the continent, and virtually every treaty they made with the Native Americans would later be broken.

The move westward also had a major impact on the East. When a new state was admitted to the Union the issue of whether it would be a free state or a slave state was raised. Conflict was prevented for a while between the ‘free North’ and the ‘slave South’ with a number of uneasy compromises, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 began the chain of events that led to the outbreak of civil war in 1861 (see later section – Westward Expansion and Slavery).

By 1890 the wars against the Native Americans had come to an end and the USA now extended from the Atlantic in the east to the Pacific in the west. The end of westward expansion helped to launch the USA on to the world stage. With vast mineral wealth and extensive agriculture and industry, the USA now rivalled the economic powers of Britain and Germany as they entered the 20th century.


Virtually all the Africans who ‘settled’ in America in the 17th and 18th centuries came as slaves. Although the trading of slaves from Africa had been abolished in 1808 this did not lead to a decline in slavery. As the trade in African slaves ended, so the value of slaves increased. By the 1850s, the price of an average slave had risen from $300 to $2,000. The issue of slavery divided Americans then and continues to divide historians today.

Slavery was a harsh, cruel and violent system. It involved enormous physical and sexual violence and did little to preserve ‘normal’ relationships between slaves and denied slave families the right to remain together as a unit.

Slavery had existed in all American states. In 1860 there were 4 million slaves, mainly in the South. They worked, for no pay, in a range of mostly agricultural jobs that required large amounts of human labour.

Eli Whitney invented the cotton engine, or ‘gin’ in 1793, this triggered a massive explosion in the growth and cultivation of cotton plants to satisfy the demands of British cotton mills. Cotton is a very labour intensive crop and requires picking by hand – slaves proved to be the most efficient and cheapest means of bringing in the cotton harvest. In 1790, the annual cotton production of the Southern states was just over 3,000 bales (a bale weighing 227kg). By 1860 the number of bales had risen to over 4 million.

Most Americans in this period accepted the fact that there were a number of different social and economic systems existing in the USA at the same time. Other Americans expected that, given time, slavery would die out. Other Americans became ‘abolitionists’ and campaigned actively to bring about the end of slavery.

The majority of Southerners were not slave-owners. In 1860 the white population of the Southern states was around 8 million. 400,000 of these were slave-owners but only 50,000 of these owned more than 20 slaves on a plantation.

Most Southerners accepted slavery as a part of their way of life. Slaves also reminded poorer whites in the South that there was a social class below them in society. Southerners quickly began to associate attacks and criticism of slavery as attacks and criticism of the Southern states and their way of life as a whole.

Most abolitionists supported gradual emancipation (freedom) and believed that slave-owners should be compensated.  Many abolitionists also believed that freed slaves should be encouraged to ‘return’ to Africa.

In 1822 the US government purchased Liberia on the west coast of Africa and encouraged ex-slaves to go ‘back to Africa’. The policy was a failure, most African Americans considered themselves to be American. They had no wish to go to Liberia.

William Lloyd Garrison represented a new and more forceful form of abolition that started to develop in the 1830s. The militant National Anti-Slavery Association was established in 1838. It quickly attracted 250,000 members. Many of the leading abolitionists were evangelical Protestants, most were well-educated. Women played a crucial role, as did free blacks.

The abolitionists found it difficult to agree on a strategy and had no success whatsoever in winning white supporters in the South. Abolitionist literature was banned from most Southern states whilst the movement had only limited appeal in the North. Many Northerners, fearing the sudden movement north of liberated slaves, mistrusted the abolitionists.

Although the abolitionists did little in the short-term to help the slaves, they did much to polarise and focus public opinion. They stirred the consciences of a growing number of Northerners and kept slavery at the forefront of public attention.

Slavery and Westward Expansion

The Founding Fathers had decided not to tamper with slavery in the South. They acknowledged slavery’s existence, but avoided using the word ‘slave’.

The Northern states gradually abolished slavery so that by the beginning of the 19th century only the southern states continued to practice what they referred to as their ‘peculiar institution’. This would lead to problems when deciding exactly how, and on what basis, new members to the United States would be admitted. The key question was: as new states applied to join the Union, would they be free or slave?

By 1819 the Union had grown to twenty-two states: eleven free, eleven slave. In 1819, Missouri (a slave state) applied to join the Union.

Free states opposed Missouri’s application. A major debate raged between Southern and Northern members of Congress, neither side wanted the ‘balance’ of Congress to be weighed against their own interests.

This was not necessarily an argument about the issue of slavery itself, it was a ‘sectional’ argument about the political power and influence of individual states relative to their ‘sections’ of the north or south.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was agreed as a solution. To balance the admission of Missouri as a slave state, a new free state of Maine was created – free states and slave states remained equally represented in Congress.

It was also agreed that there would be no slavery in the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ north of latitude 36 degrees 30. South of this line (known as the Mason-Dixon Line) slavery could continue to exist.

The following years saw various attempts to maintain the balance between slave and free states based around further attempts at compromise. Texas had existed as an independent slave state since 1836 and in 1845 was annexed (taken) into the Union as a new slave owning state (allowed because Texas was below the Mason-Dixon line.) Nevertheless, Northern concerns about the power of slave owning states in the South continued to grow.

War with Mexico raised further questions as to whether states created from seized Mexican lands would be free or slave. In 1846, a plan that slavery should be excluded from any territory gained from Mexico failed to pass Congress.

Voting in Congress was now entirely sectional: all Southern States voted against, all Northern States voted for. Some Southern states begin to talk of secession (leaving the Union).

All attempts at compromise over slavery were failing to answer a fundamental question: who should decide if slaves should be allowed in a territory – Congress, or the ‘people’ declared in the Constitution to have sovereign political power?

There is a further attempt at compromise in 1850 when California is accepted into the Union as a free state. At the same time, Utah and New Mexico organised as territories with no restrictions on slavery. Meanwhile, Congress passes the Fugitive Slaves Act (1850) that made it easier to return fugitive slaves in the North back to the South.

Legislation passed by Congress in 1854 regulated the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Settlers in both territories could decide for themselves whether to permit slavery.

Voting on the act in Congress was again sectional – South for, North against. The act finally upset the political balance between North and South established in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise.

By the late 1850s, slavery and expansion had pushed many Americans to fear for the future of the Union. The massively popular anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ proved to be a huge success in raising public awareness of the cruelties of slavery.  The historian David Potter said the Northerners attitude to slavery ‘was never quite the same after Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

John Brown’s raid on the federal  government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry also raised tensions. The plan was to arm black slaves and encourage them to kill their white owners.  The raid went badly. Six people were killed, including two of Brown’s sons. Brown was arrested and hanged.

The ‘Dred Scott Case’ also raised tensions. Dred Scott was a slave who had accompanied his owner (an Army surgeon) into several free states. Helped by abolitionists, Scott tried to sue for his freedom. The Supreme Court of the USA ruled to not allow his freedom. They stated that Black Americans did not have the same rights as whites and that US citizens had the right to take their ‘property’ into any state, even those above the Mason-Dixon line. Scott was property not a person.

These three events contributed to Northern outrage about slavery and Southern fears for their ‘peculiar institution’. All these problems became magnified through one key political event – the 1860 Presidential Election.

The 1860 Presidential Election

Two main parties dominated American politics by 1860 – the Democrats and the Republicans. The election of 1860 was one of the most important presidential elections in American history.

It pitched the Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln against a party split between the ‘official’ Democratic Party nominee Senator Stephen Douglas, Southern Democratic Party nominee John Breckinridge and Constitutional Union Party nominee John Bell. The main issue of the election was slavery and states’ rights. Lincoln emerged victorious and became the 16th President of the United States.

Although Lincoln got no votes in 10 slave states, he won all but one free state because there were more voters and states in the North. However, this led to Southern anger that they were becoming powerless to influence the Presidential election. Many Northerners saw a vote for the Republicans as a vote against the ‘Slave Power’ of the South.

The Union Splits

Lincoln’s election is often seen as the reason for the secession of the southern states. Secession is the term used to describe the process of leaving the Union.

The problem with secession is that it has no real meaning in the Constitution. States cannot leave. Unlike, say, UK membership of the European Union, membership of the United States was (and still is) permanent. Any attempt to leave the United States would therefore be seen as an attempt at rebellion within the Union. States could not secede, it wasn’t possible to do so.

During the 1860 election debates, Lincoln made it clear he had no intention or desire to interfere in existing slavery. Other factors weighed against any Republican moves on slavery. The Republicans did not control the Supreme Court or Congress (Democrats did) and the Fugitive Slave Act was being applied (by some) states in the North.

Many historians argue that secession, at this point, was not inevitable. Not all Southerners were enthusiastically pro-slavery and many were sympathetic to the North and the idea of a United States. Many in the South did not want a ‘divorce’ from the North and were prepared to ‘wait and see’ if Lincoln would attack slavery.

Furthermore, many Southerners were loyal to their state first rather than ‘The South’ as a section on its own. Previous talk of secession in 1832 had not been supported by other southern states. Finally, if the states were not united, organised or in possession of a clear plan – any attempt at secession would be likely to fail.

However, in contrast, many southerners were angry because they thought they had been denied their fair share of Western territories won in the Mexican Wars and resented paying taxes to help fund industry in the North. They also felt their way of life was being ‘dishonoured.’ The ‘Fire eaters’ (southerners who had long talked about the south being independent) capitalised on anti-north feeling and found themselves being supported by mainstream politicians, particularly southern Democrats.

It is, therefore, possible to argue that the South was already split. However, for some, the election of Lincoln may have been the excuse they were looking for to challenge the power of the North.


On the 10th November 1860, four days after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina’s state legislature met to discuss their position in the Union. The move took everyone by surprise. They agreed to meet again later in the month to debate and vote on secession.

This created a chain reaction across the lower south. Congressmen from different southern states met to discuss if they too were willing to secede. When Congress met in Washington on December 20th, members from nine southern states declared ‘We are satisfied that the honour, safety and independence of the southern people are to be found only in a separate southern confederacy.’

On 30th December, South Carolina voted 169-0 to secede. This was followed by six others in January and February: Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas (all lower southern states).

The rebel states met in February to form their new government and elected Senator Jefferson Davis as their new President who had served in the Mexican Wars (1846-48) and in the Cabinet as War Minister.

The Confederate constitution protected slavery and individual states’ rights. In his inaugural address, Jefferson Davis asked one thing, – that the new Confederate states be left alone.

However, not all southern states left the Union at this point, eight southern states did not secede. The states with the most number of slave-holders voted in the greatest numbers to leave. Republicans saw this as proof of a ‘slave power conspiracy.’ The historian David Potter argues that secession had become ‘a slaveholder movement.’

However, it had all been achieved democratically. Votes were held in all states that seceded. Not all secessionists were slaveholders. Nevertheless, those states who had not voted to leave still respected the right of secession for those who had.

Four upper southern states – Missouri, Arkansas, Virginia & North Carolina – all voted against secession, all had smaller numbers of slave owners. Almost half of Maryland’s black population was free.

Many states in the upper-south traded with Northern states that bordered them and feared the economic consequences of leaving the Union. However, Virginia and Tennessee made it clear they would oppose the North. There was also a growing confidence that ‘King Cotton’ would mean the South could survive economically. Many thought the southern states were bluffing or that the Union would not force them to stay and that a compromise could be achieved. However, it became clear very quickly that South Carolina would not return to the Union.

Decades of tension between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina’s militia artillery opened fire on a Federal fort in Charleston Harbour. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back.

The twists and turns of attempts to find compromise and the eventual slide to secession raise obvious questions about the actual ‘cause’ of the Civil War that followed.

Was it because of southern determination to protect State rights over slavery, or was it because of northern aggression? Other explanations see the  answer in the clash between extremists, the Fire-Eaters and abolitionists. On the other hand, some historians see the war primarily as the product of a failure of compromise and therefore an unnecessary and tragic war.

Insofar as there is any shared view, it seems that the point on which most commentators can agree is that, somehow, slavery was to blame.

Slavery defined the South, this was not shared by North. Militant abolitionists in the North threatened Southerners, and the expansion of slavery – not the existence – polarised the nation. In this context, the victory of the Republicans in 1860, irrespective of their intentions towards slavery, was the last straw for the South. Secession followed.

Civil War 1861-1865

Lincoln responded to the attack on Fort Sumter by calling for a large volunteer army. Four more Southern states declared their secession. In the war’s first year, the Union assumed control of the border states and established a naval blockade as both sides massed armies and resources.

In 1862, battles such as Shiloh and Antietam caused massive casualties unprecedented in U.S. military history. In September 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made ending slavery in the South a war goal. Whatever the cause of the conflict had been, the Civil War now became a war to end slavery in the United States.

In the East, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee won a series of victories over Union armies, but Lee’s reverse at Gettysburg in early July, 1863 proved the turning point. The capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson by Ulysses S. Grant completed Union control of the Mississippi River. Grant fought bloody battles of attrition with Lee in 1864, forcing Lee to defend the Confederate capital at RichmondVirginia.

Union general William Sherman captured AtlantaGeorgia, and began his famous March to the Sea, devastating a hundred-mile-wide swath of Georgia. Finally, on April 10, 1865 – Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant departed from Appomattox Court House, where he had accepted the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Confederate resistance collapsed.

Four days later, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended the Ford Theatre in Washington where he was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth, a popular 26-year-old actor who was also a Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist, had been plotting for months to abduct Lincoln and give the Confederacy another chance. But three days earlier, hearing the president talk of his plans to bring the nation together – in particular, Lincoln’s plans to grant some African-American men the right to vote – Booth’s decided to assassinate the President.

Booth escaped, but was tracked down and shot dead by Union soldiers four days later. Four co-conspirators, one woman and three men, were arrested, tried and found guilty and then hanged.

There is no evidence that leading figures in the Confederacy had anything to do with the assassination. Booth and his gang plotted and executed the plan alone, with no Confederate help.

The war, the deadliest in American history, caused 620,000 military deaths and an undetermined number of civilian casualties, ended slavery in the United States, restored the Union by settling the issues of nullification and secession and strengthened the role of the Federal government.

However, issues affected by the war’s unresolved social, political, economic and racial tensions continue to shape contemporary American thought.

Reconstruction under President Johnson

Following the assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson becomes 17th President of the United States. The US Constitution makes no arrangements for what we would recognise as ‘snap-elections’ or ‘by-elections’. If a President dies in office, or resigns, or is impeached – the Presidency passes to the sitting Vice President. In 1865, this was Andrew Johnson.

The Union now had to face a series of important issues: How could the southern states be brought ‘back into’ the Union? (had they ever left?). How could the Union be revived/restored as a concept in the minds of southerners? How would the economy of the South be rebuilt and how would emancipated slaves enjoy and recognise their freedom? Politicians in the North could not agree on answers to any of these questions.

Furthermore, on what terms would the southern states be accepted back into the Union? (if they’d ever left)and how should the United States treat the once-rebellious population of the South? Finally, who would decide reconstruction policy – the President, or Congress?

Johnson faced numerous problems in his attempts to deal with the South and was largely unsuccessful, even facing (and surviving) an attempt by Congress to impeach him.

In 1865, 25% of the southern military age population had been killed and the rural / agricultural economy all but destroyed by Union armies. The southern economy overall was in total collapse and the loss of slaves as ‘capital’ was estimated to have cost the southern economy around $2 billion. The southern banking system was on the point of collapse and there were massive levels of poverty and dependency on Federal hand-outs.

Finally, expectations of emancipated slaves were obstructed by racist and violent southern attitudes. As early as the summer 1865 it becomes clear that with the ‘Black Codes’ southern states are developing a ‘Confederate’ style Reconstruction designed to keep black people as second class citizens and to maintain, as much as possible, the pre-war southern way of doing things.

Reconstruction under President Grant

Grant had no more success with his ‘radical’ version of reconstruction than Johnson had with his own, more moderate, version. Although the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted African American men the right to vote, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.

Radical attempts at Reconstruction failed for a number of reasons. First, Congress began to sympathise with Southern opposition and became less and less willing to push Reconstruction policies that were clearly unpopular.

Secondly, the continued use of federal troops to crush southern opposition was no longer being supported by liberal Republicans. Other problems became apparent with the activities of the ‘Redeemers’ (southern Democrats who wanted to ‘redeem’ the party in the South) had allowed Democrats to regain control in a number of southern states, a trend helped by the Amnesty Act (1872), which allowed ex-Confederates back into politics and public life.

In 1873, a Stock Market ‘crash’ leads to economic depression whilst at the same time wars with Native Americans at Red River and the Black Hills distract Grant away from Reconstruction.

Finally, corruption proves to be a big problem for Grant. His record on tackling corruption was good, but the scandals mounted up to the point where, in 1876, Grant was not chosen by the Republicans to stand for what could have been his third term in office.

In the words of the historian Eric Fones: ‘what remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.’                           

The ‘Gilded Age’: 1870s – 1890s

From the end of the Reconstruction era through to the turn of the century, the USA experienced rapid economic growth, especially in the northern and western states. American wages grew much higher than those in Europe did, particularly for skilled workers. This led to an influx of millions of European immigrants.

The rapid expansion of industrialisation led to a real wage growth of 60%, between 1860 and 1890, and spread across the ever-increasing labour force. The average annual wage per industrial worker (including men, women, and children) rose from $380 in 1880, to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48%.

However, the ‘Gilded Age’ was also an era of poverty and inequality, as millions of immigrants – many from impoverished regions – poured into the United States, and the high concentration of wealth in the hands of smaller, elite groups became more visible and contentious. This was particularly noticeable in the still impoverished southern states, especially for African Americans.

Writing about the period in the early 20th century, the black civil-rights activist WEB DuBois would note: ‘The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.’

Politically, the period saw power alternate between two fairly balanced versions of the Democrat and Republican parties although the corruption and scandals that surfaced during the later years of reconstruction would regularly return. Nevertheless, election turnout and participation in politics remained relatively high.

The Progressive Era: 1890s-1920s

The Progressive Era was a period of social activism and political reform that spread across the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s.

Problems caused by industrialisation, urbanisation, immigration, and political corruption were the main objectives of the Progressive movement which primarily targeted corrupt political ‘machines’ and their ‘bosses’.

By challenging and removing these corrupt representatives from office, direct democracy (more decision-making in the hands of the people) could be established. The movement also demanded regulation of monopolies (a process known as ‘trustbusting’) and corporations through antitrust laws, which were seen as a way to promote equal competition for the advantage of legitimate competitors.

The ‘Progressives’ also campaigned for new government roles and regulations, and new agencies to carry out those roles.

Support for the prohibition of alcohol, mainly to destroy the political power of local bosses based in saloons, but others out of a religious motivation, was another key characteristic of the progressive era and one that would result in a brief nationwide experiment with the ban of alcoholic drinks in 1920. Women’s suffrage was also promoted in an attempt at bringing a ‘purer’ female vote into the arena.

A third ‘progressive’ theme looked at different sectors of America and attempted to identify old ways that needed modernizing through scientific, medical and engineering solutions, this became known as the ‘Efficiency Movement‘. A key part of this movement was scientific management, or ‘Taylorism’.

The period ends with American involvement in European affairs, notably World War One. Initially, the USA had remained neutral in the conflict, largely due to strong pressure from German immigrant groups.

American troops were involved in the war from 1917 and contributed towards the eventual defeat of Germany and her allies. Of more importance was the American involvement in the subsequent peace conference and treaty at Versailles.

Here, under the direction of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, the  map of Europe was re-drawn, Germany was punished and the League of Nations was created as an attempt to give countries a diplomatic opportunity to discuss future issues rather than resorting to war. After, the US withdrew from European affairs and returned to what some observers called a ‘splendid isolation’.

‘Boom’ – the 1920s

America’s economy recovered quickly after World War One. Government was dominated by a Republican Party that favoured ‘big business’ and followed a policy of isolationism and focused on internal affairs. By the mid-1920s the economy was booming.

The 1920s are also associated with major cultural developments in America. Popular music, especially jazz, found a mass audience through radio and record players and cinema emerged as a mass-audience spectacle.

However, movements like the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ hid a darker side to life for many African-Americans who continued to experience racism, segregation, poverty and lynching under the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of many southern states.

A number of factors contributed to the boom. American industry had been boosted by the war and the Republicans followed a policy of economic ‘laissez faire’ which left the economy to regulate itself with little interference from government.

Protectionism also helped (import duties were raised in 1922) and mass production – cars, radios, refrigerators etc – all contributed to economic growth by stimulating consumer demand. This demand was encouraged by credit and ‘hire purchase’, where people could buy now and pay later. There was massive consumer spending.

With more money to spend, people invested on the stock market. As a consequence, many Americans were confident about the economy and there was a general belief that economic growth would be permanent. Share prices were going up fast and people were getting richer.

As American industry boomed, the price of shares in major companies begins to rise. Investors sell their shares at higher prices and make huge profits, which encourages more people to invest, pushing prices even higher.

People start to buy ‘on the margin’, which is essentially using borrowed money to buy shares. However, there was a downside to this sense of ‘get rich quick’.

Farmers did not prosper. New agricultural machines produced more, which lowered prices. The black population did not prosper as farmers laid them off, many moved North looking for work. Recent immigrants did not prosper, they were given low paid jobs and lived in overcrowded conditions. Workers in ‘old’ industries (eg. mining, textiles) did not prosper either, they continued to be the most low paid. In the midst of all this prosperity, 50% of American families earned less than $2000 a year.

By 1927, American industry was producing too many goods for which a market no longer existed or was in decline – how many fridges, cars and radios did one household need? However, the number of people investing on the stock market continued to grow. There were 20 million shareholders in the USA by the summer of 1929.

As prices reach an all-time high, financial experts start to worry when car and steel production fall causing a fall in profits. Panicked, investors start to sell their shares. Between Saturday 19th and Thursday 24th October 1929, millions of shares were sold.

On Friday 25th October, top bankers decide to support the market by buying millions of shares for more than they are worth. This seemed to temporarily calm the markets. The next day, President Hoover assured Americans that ‘the fundamental business of the country, is on a sound and secure basis’. However, when Wall Street opened on Monday 28th October there was an immediate rush to sell as many shares as possible. Three million shares were sold in the last hour of trading, nine million in total.

The following day, banks stopped supporting prices when sixteen million shares were offered for sale – no buyers were found. Many investors are ruined. Millions of shares are now worthless. This was the Wall Street Crash. The economic consequences would lead to the global ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930s.

‘Bust’ – 1930s

Between 1929 and 1933 – thirteen million people become unemployed as the crash of 1929 triggers what an economic meltdown. Still clinging to the idea that federal government should not get involved, President Hoover rejects direct federal relief.

After winning the 1933 election – President Franklin D Roosevelt (Democrat) launches his ‘New Deal’ recovery programme that includes major public works funded by federal government. These include massive construction projects that offer work to the unemployed.

At the time there were significant criticisms not only of the New Deal itself, but of the type of politics behind it, and what the New Deal represented. As such, criticisms of the New Deal can be broken down into two main positions:        criticism that the New Deal led to too much government intervention (it went too far), and criticism that it did not go far enough. These stemmed from fundamental divides within American politics shown in the different views of the two main parties – Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans had run the country since 1923, and had partly been blamed for the Great Depression; however, on the whole, they were still seen as the party that was more financially competent, whereas the Democrats had a legacy of overspending. Republicans were directly opposed to government intervention in both the economy and people’s everyday lives – as such, the New Deal was their worst nightmare. Furthermore, they opposed federal intervention in the running of the individual states, they preferred to keep ‘small government’, and let local towns and cities run themselves. Again, this was directly opposed to the centralising and federal principles of the New Deal.

On the other hand, there was a growing feeling that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats could be trusted with the economy, and new ‘radical’ ideas were starting to emerge. These ideas rejected the established political order, and proposed huge overhauls of taxation, property, and so on – they all believed that the New Deal was not going far enough, and was just repeating the mistakes of the 1920s.

World War Two

For similar reasons to those that had seen America refrain from intervening in the first world war, it initially chose not to become involved in the second. This changed in 1941 with the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The US declared war on Japan; Germany declared war on the US, which thereafter intervenes on a massive scale in World War II, eventually helping to defeat Germany.

In August 1945, President Truman (Roosevelt had died in April of the same year) gave the order to drop two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. World War Two was over.

America in 1945 was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. The themes and issues central to its history up to this point – the nature of government, the rights of individual states, a belief in wealth, what it is to ‘be’ an American and what it is to be an African American – all remain central to the narrative. This is no less the case today in the era of Donald Trump and George Floyd.

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