What follows is a basic outline of the history of the United States. This is written from memory, so /msg me if you think of something I forgot that should be included. Also note that such an outline can only reach a certain level of detail given reasonable constraints on my time - I have been forced to make active choices about what to include and what to leave out. The result I hope is a fairly balanced view. I would be happy to discuss this - please message me first before you post angry follow-ups about what I left out. I may have just forgot something.

This outline is intended to be informative in and of itself, but you will probably learn a lot more by clicking through the hardlinks.


World History > American History

Early History

The First Europeans

Colonial Expansion - The 17th and 18th centuries witness continued European expansion in North America.

Discontent and Revolution

  • Believing that the American colonies should bear part of the burden for wars fought on their behalf, the British Parliament enacts several new tax laws on the colonies to help alliviate British war debts (1764-1775).
  • Many colonials resent "taxation without representation" and anti-British feelings grow. British soldiers are dispatched to Boston, the largest center of revolutionary activity.
  • In 1770 British soldiers fire on an unruly Boston mob, killing five in the "Boston Massacre". Three years later, a Boston revolutionary cell led by Sam Adams famously destroys a shipload of tea to protest a new tea tax in the "Boston Tea Party".
  • The first shots of the American Revolution are fired on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, when British troops attempt to sieze colonial arms stockpiled in those towns. Paul Revere and others ride ahead to warn the village militias. That summer, the Second Continental Congress convenes to organize a concerted Colonial resistence to British authority.
  • On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress declares America's independence from Britain, marking the official start of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence is authored by a young Thomas Jefferson, who takes that opportunity to assert the rights of all mankind to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Of approximately 3 million people in the 13 British Colonies, approximately 1/3 will support the coming revolution, 1/3 will actively oppose it (so-called "Tories"), and 1/3 will be indifferent.
  • The Rebel forces, which never numbered more than about 10,000 men, fight a primarily defensive war under the capable command of George Washington. The British initially win several victories, taking New York City in late 1776 and capturing much of the South, but insupportably long supply lines, a decline in popular support at home, and the intervention by the French in 1778 combine to undermine the British war effort. In 1781 a combined French and American force traps Cornwallis at Yorktown, VA, and the British surrender on April 19, 1781, essentially ending the war, although the official Treaty of Paris is not signed until 1783.

Creating a Nation

  • At first the government of the new nation operates under the Articles of Confederation, written 1776-1777 and ratified in 1781. The Artcles prove too weak, granting Congress the power to declare war, conclude treaties and issue money, but denying it any ability to enforce laws.
  • In 1787 a Constitutional Convention is convened in Philadelphia with George Washington as its president to create a new founding document, resulting in the Constitution. The new government is divided into three branches: the executive branch headed a chief executive (the President) and his cabinet, a legislative branch, consisting of Congress, and the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court.
  • Two major conflicts arise during the convention and are solved with two compromises.
    • Smaller states clash with larger states over the membership of Congress, so a two house system is implemented with the all states having equal representation in the Senate, but with states having representation based on population in the House of Representatives.
    • Slave states clash with non-slave states over how slaves will be counted when determining the number of representatives. At length a "three fifths compromise" is reached, with each slave counting as 3/5 of a person.
  • The battle to ratify the new Constitution divides America's intellectual elite into two opposing camps: the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton, who favor a strong central government, and the Anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocate the primacy of states rights. These two groups form the basis of the two-party system still in existence today. Ultimately the Antifederalists are temporarily appeased by the addition of ten amendments to the Consitution, now known as the Bill of Rights, and ratification is achieved.
  • In 1788, the new electoral college unanimously elects George Washington the first president of the United States. Washington's thoughtful, carefully considered actions in two terms as president define the office for future generations.
  • In 1801 President John Adams names John Marshall the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Over the next 34 years Marshall's brilliantly argued decisions in several landmark cases establish many new powers for the federal government and carve out a new role for the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of the constitutionality of laws.

Exploration and Expansion

Sectional Conflict

  • By the turn of the 19th century, slavery appears to be dying out. The south continues to diversify its crops from labor intensive rice and tobacco to include grains and livestock, and all further importation of slaves into the United States is banned in 1808.
  • By the 1830s, however, the proliferation of a superior cotton gin (invented by Eli Whitney in 1793), and the increasing demand for cotton by newly industrialized textile manufacturers in the North and Great Britain, spurs an increasing reliance by Southern planters on labor-intensive cotton and a consequent renewed commitment to slavery.
  • Missouri's 1818 petition for admission to the Union as a slave state sparks a furious debate that is only temporarily defused by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that simultaneously admits Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, to maintain the balance of power, and prohibits slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30' parallel.
  • Sectional tensions increase when the pro-North administration of John Quincy Adams passes the Tariff of 1828, greatly beneficial to Northern maufacturing, but a "Tariff of Abominations" to the southern planters it hurts most.
  • Tensions abate somewhat under the presidency of nationally popular war-hero Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), as much of the nation unites behind his attack on moneyed interests in the form of the Bank of the United States. Jackson's deft supression of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 temporarily ends divisive debate on the tariff issue.
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831 galvanizes Southern fears of slave insurrection, leading to the imposition of increasingly harsh slave laws and the dramatic decline of the Southern wing of the abolitionist movement.
  • The dormant sectional rivalry is reignited by 1846 debates over the future dispostion of western territories aquired in the Mexican War. The Wilmot Proviso, an attempt to ban slavery in these territories, illustrates the potential for sectional rivalry to cross party lines.
  • With great effort, Congress makes a final attempt at reconciliation with the Compromise of 1850, which allows California entry to the union as a free state while imposing a more stringint fugitive slave law and guaranteeing the right of all future states to determine their slave or free status via popular vote.
  • In the 1850s, the forces of compromise and conciliation are dealt three fatal blows:
    • The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repeals the Missouri Compromise, allowing the people of the two newly organized territories to vote on slavery for themselves. Mobs of antislavery and proslavery partisans flood into Kansas on the eve of the vote, violently clashing in the tragic episode known as "Bleeding Kansas." The bitter political battles over Kansas shatter the last truly bisectional party - the Democratic Party - and paves the way for the rise of the purely Northern Republican Party.
    • The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 denies the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories, damaging the potential for future legislative compromises.
    • A violent raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry by virulent abolitionist John Brown inflames passions on both sides, especially when much of the North hails Brown as a hero and martyr.

Civil War

  • On November 6, 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln is elected to the Presidency on a platform calling for the exclusion of slavery from all territories and the ultimate extinction of the institution of slave labor. In a display of the growing political power imbalance between North and South, Lincoln is elected despite not even appearing on the ballot in 11 of 15 slave states.
  • Fearing that the new administration will try to expedite the emancipation of the slaves, South Carolina seceeds from the Union on December 20, and is soon followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
  • A Southern Convention convenes at Montgomery, Alabama in February and establishes the Confederate States of America, adopting a constitution and electing Jefferson Davis president of the new rebel nation.
  • The Upper South wavers, but when South Carolinian troops bombard Federal troops at Fort Sumpter in Charleston harbor on April 12 and war seems inevitable, North Carolina, Virgina, Arkansas, and Tennessee seceed as well. Both sides optimistically anticipate a short victorious war of less than a year.
  • The war opens with a blundering defeat for the Union at the First Battle of Bull Run. Over the next three years, the South wins victory after victory against a long line of inept Union commanders.
  • In the east, overly cautious Union general George B. McClellan's attempted naval invasion of Virgina is thwarted in the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. Robert E. Lee then assumes supreme command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virgina. Lee harasses McClellan in the Seven Days Battle and turns back a second Union invasion at Second Bull Run, but his own northward thrust is blunted at the bloody stalemate of Antietam. Lee then turns back a suicidal Federal assault at Fredricksburg and scores a stunning victory at Chancelorsville, but loses his brilliant right-hand man Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire. Facing diminishing supplies and manpower and a crushing Union naval blockade, Lee concocts a bold plan to invade Pennsylvania and threaten Washington DC from the north, in hopes of luring the Army of the Potomac into a decisive defeat. This plan fails at Gettysburg in July, 1863, when a desperate Lee wastes 12,000 veteran troops in the futile frontal assault known as Pickett's Charge. As Lee limps back to Virgina, the tide has turned decisively to the North's favor.
  • Meanwhile in the west, Union general Ulysses S. Grant pushes into west Tenessee, defeating the Confederates at Shiloh in 1862, while in east Tennessee Union general William S. Roscrans chases a Confederate army under Braxton Bragg, only to be crushed at Chicamauga. Rosecrans is relieved of command, while Grant is promoted, and drives relentlessly toward the Mississipi River. On July 4, 1863 - a day after Gettysburg - Grant captures Vicksburg - the last Confederate stronghold in the west.
  • Grant is named supreme Union commander, and begins a vicious war of attrition against Lee in the east. From the west, Union troops under William Tecumseh Sherman march to Atlanta and the sea, leaving a swath of devastation to undermine the South's will to fight.
  • Caught between two Union armies, Lee surrenders at Appomattox Court House, Virgina on April 9, 1865. Four days later, Lincoln is assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
  • In the bloodiest sustained fighting ever in recorded history up until that time, the war claims over 600,000 American lives - more than in all other American wars before or since combined.

Reconstruction and "Redemption"

    with contributions by sekicho

  • Andrew Johnson inherits the task of healing the nation from Lincoln, and becomes a stalwart opponent of the "Radical Reconstruction" sought by Republican leaders in Congress. While Republicans wish to delay the reinstatement of Democratic Southern senators to consolidate Republican power, continue wartime economic policies that favor Northern industry, and rapidly secure the rights of citizenship to the freed slaves (whom they hope will become Republicans), Johnson is a white Southerner and former Democrat who loathes big business, wishes a return to Jacksonian agrarian ideals, and is against full social equality for former slaves. In one of the bitterest battles between a president and Congress, Johnson grants amnesty to Confederate soldiers in 1865 and vetoes the Civil Rights Act and New Freedmen's Bureau Bill of 1866, while Congress responds by impeaching him in the House in 1868, and the Senate falls one vote short removing him from office.
  • Meanwhile, African Americans enjoy increased rights under the Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery, 1865), Fourteenth Amendment (granting citizenship, 1868), and Fifteenth Amendment (extending the right to vote, 1870). The first black congressmen are elected in 1870, black votes help Union general Ulysses S. Grant enter the White House in 1868, and a Civil Rights Act passes in 1875.
  • However, the rise of white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan signals that the struggle for black liberty is not yet over. Following a contentious election in 1876 that threatened to be sent to Congress, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes forges the Compromise of 1877, securing the support of white Southern Democrats in return for the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South and the end of the Radical Reconstruction's protection of black freedoms.
  • With black Republican power in the South dealt a death blow, white Democratic "Redeemer" governments sweep into power across the South in campaigns promising to end "Negro corruption" and expel Yankee "scalawags," yet in many cases the Redeemers prove even more corrupt than the governments they replace.
  • As the Redeemer governments become increasingly middle-class and pro-business, they find their power increasingly threatened by a potential alliance of blacks and poor white farmers. Practicing a strategy of divide and conquer, they emphasize racial differences, consolidating white votes with Jim Crow laws, constitutional disfranchisement of blacks, and racist rhetoric. What begins as political strategy eventually carries a heavy cost for the South with the rise of lynching, racial violence, endemic poverty, and a half century of distrust and oppression.

Conquest of the West

    with contributions by sekicho

  • In 1860, the lands between the Mississippi River and California are largely undeveloped, home to about 400,000 Native Americans and 50 million bison. But that is about to change. Dramatically.
  • The first Transcontinental Railroad is completed in 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific are joined at Promontory Point, Utah by a golden spike, opening the West to expansion on a much more massive scale. Much of the railroad is built by labor imported from China under the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, but after anti-Chinese riots break out in several California cities, and the state adds an amendment to its constitution forbidding Chinese labor, the Chinese Exclusion Treaty is put into force in 1880.
  • By the 1860s, most of the easy-to-access gold in California is gone, but new discoveries, particularly the massive Comstock Lode in Nevada, continue to draw immigrants into the West.
  • The Homestead Act of 1862 promises 160 acres to anyone who will settle for five years, setting off land rushes across the west as various territories are opened to homesteaders.
  • Cattle ranchers follow the railroads onto the Great Plains, leading huge cattle drives of up to 3,000 cattle to railheads in Kansas and Missouri to be shipped to the meat packing houses in Chicago, but the heyday of the cowboy is short-lived - only about a decade long, as overcrowding and the invention of barbed wire in 1874 bring an end to the open range.
  • The nation's relentless westward expansion continues to cause conflict with the Native Americans, and the "Indian Wars" enter a grisly final stage as the US government decides that all Native Americans must be forced onto reservations or else destroyed. The Native Americans do manage to defeat General George A. Custer's at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, Apache warlord Geronimo manages to elude the US Army into the 1880s, and Wovoka’s millenarian Ghost Dance religion briefly spreads renewed hope in 1889, but the final blow is struck when the last resistors are massacred at Wounded Knee in December, 1890. In 1890s, the government begins a policy of forcibly removing children from their families and educating them in Western-style schools, on the logic that "it is cheaper to educate an Indian than to kill him," - an attempt to wipe out native language and culture which is largely successful.
  • Long before the West is actually "closed," Americans begin constructing idealized memories of it in dime novels starring heroic figures such as Kit Karson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane, and in "Wild West" shows, most famously that of Buffalo Bill Cody. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition, historian Frederick Jackson Turner presents his paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," eulogizing the frontier as an essential element in the formation of a unique American character. Meanwhile, a sense that America's vast open spaces and natural beauty were rapidly disappearing leads to the rise of the conservationist movement and the establishment of the first National Parks, beginning with Yellowstone in 1872.
  • In a period of just 30 years from 1860 to 1890, the American West has been completely transformed. The lands between the Mississippi and California are home to 2.5 million new farms, the Native American population has fallen by nearly 50 percent to just over 200,000, entirely confined to a handful of tiny reservations, and the bison population has fallen from 50 million to less than 1,000 animals.

Immigration, Urbanization, and Industrial Revolution

The Rise of American Imperialism


A work in progress - this outline will gradually be completed as I find time. A nodeshell rescue.

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