American history

This isn't intended to be a detailed factual retelling of America's short history, a subject to which I pretend no specialised knowledge. Rather, I intend to provide a broad outline of each period in American history, starting with the 'heroic' phase of the Revolution and culminating in the United States' contemporary position as the world's only superpower and first-order world-historical actor. I end with a brief look at the future.

Such a task could be accomplished an almost infinite number of ways. This is mine. I'd be happy to hear from you about yours and possibly incorporate your comments to make my arguments stronger.

The Revolution

When European historians and commentators discuss the genesis of the idea that government is accountable to the people and that each person has unalienable rights which exist prior to any government sanction, they often point to the example of the French Revolution as the first practical expression of these ideas. Of course, they are correct only in the context of Europe. Like the French Revolution, the American Revolution was the outcome of the impact of these revolutionary ideas on an increasingly untenable political situation. Revolutions have a tendency to happen when, in the words of Macauley, 'nations move onwards, while constitutions stand still'.

The American nation had moved on in two distinct ways with which the colonial government did not keep up - indeed, could not keep up. Firstly, new political ideas were impacting the colonies, emanating from the European Enlightenment. They stressed the importance of natural law and natural rights as opposed to deference to established authority and property. Situated far away from King George III, ties to the motherland came to be seen as more of a burden than a boon. A distinctively American colonial nationalism sprung up as the colonists began to imagine the existence of an 'American' political community.

Benedict Anderson has argued strongly that the emergence of newspapers added greatly to the formation of this 'imagined community'. Through reading stories about one another in the press, the people of each of the thirteen colonies begin to conceive of themselves as linked by a common bond of circumstance. This was reinforced by the fact colonial officials might move to different jobs in any of the thirteen colonies, but never to London. Hence their journeys up the rungs of the civil service ended in the colonial environment, underlining the fact they were citizens of the colonies rather than citizens of Britain as their ancestors had been.

These feelings were reinforced by the feeling of oppression that began to spread among the colonies after the accession of George III and his program to make the American colonies more profitable for Britain. The King felt that he and his Parliament had the right to impose whatever taxes he pleased on the colonies, despite the fact the citizens of these colonies were not represented in the Parliament. Yet was not this precisely the doctrine which had been repudiated in Britain itself in the Glorious Revolution of 1688? The colonists were not impressed by the double standards, and began to co-ordinate together in opposition to the King.

A crucial moment was the Stamp Act of 1765, which attempted to impose a stamp tax on all printed material, such as official documents, legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets and playing cards. This was part of an effort by the British government to make the colonists share some of the burden for their own protection, as at the time there were 6,000 British troops stationed in North America to guard the frontier to the West. However, to the colonists it appeared to be an attempt to suppress their freedom of speech and to deprive them of the myriad benefits of printed material to civilised man.

British troops began to arrive in the colonies, and encountered constant abuse from the colonists. In 1770, the so-called 'Boston massacre' occurred, in which five unarmed Americans were shot by redcoats after the Americans had pelted them with snow and trash. Five years later, full-scale violence broke out between the Americans and the British. The British enjoyed the support of a substantial number of colonists, and ex-slaves and native Americans fought on either side. German mercenaries were crucial to the British effort, showing the character of the British state - dynastic and with a German King. The Americans fought a nationalistic war - their allies, the French and Spanish, had their own reasons to fight the British and aid the nascent United States.

The Constitution

Once the dust was settled, the British were defeated. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 set about deciding the character of the new nation, and in so doing created one of the legends about America's founding. Like all good legends, much of it is true. The Constitution is considered sacrosanct by almost all American politicians, which leads to the paradox that those on either side of the partisan divide believe their opponents would rather see it torn to shreds. Whenever an argument arises over a particularly contentious issue, such as the debate over substantive due process as a protection of property, or the limits of the state's ability to carry out surveillance, the Constitution is invoked, usually without reference to any specific article. Proponents of a measure argue that innovation is needed lest the Constitution be outmoded and people lose respect for it; opponents that the measure clearly indicates that such respect is already lost.

The Constitution has a number of features which at the time, and for some time afterwards, remained unique and a model for those in other countries seeking equal freedom. Firstly, it established the separation of church and state, a product of the 'Great Awakening' which can legitimately be seen as a child of the European Reformation. It allowed for broad freedom in political expression, declaring "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort". This was in sharp distinction to British laws, which could see you charged with treason for seditious speech.

Many people opposed the inclusion of something like the Bill of Rights in the original Constitution because it might give the impression that whatever rights were not granted were withheld, when in fact the opposite was intended. However, there was criticism that the Constitution was an essentially aristocratic document that would not give the people the liberty they desired, so the Constitution was amended ten times in two years to add the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments include the right to freedom of the press, freedom of religion, trial by jury, due process, the right to bear arms, and an article declaring that rights not listed are nevertheless retained by the people.

With a nation and Constitution duly established, the Americans were ready to enter the stage of history. Their first seventy years would be characterised by expansion westward into the Continent, and a fierce individualistic spirit which was the natural outcome of such unbridled opportunity.

The first seventy years

The dominant aspect of the history of the United States before the civil war was surely her expansion westward into land which was stateless, but housed the various native American nations. There are two broad interpretations of this expansion. One is that it was imperialist, and the only difference between it and European imperialism was the fact the land colonised was adjacent to the United States rather than overseas. The best analogy for the actions of the early Republic would, in this interpretation, be the Russian Empire or Nazi Germany. I would claim that this argument is analytically flawed, and that American expansion is best understood by a different framework. The conditions of this expansion shaped the early character of the Republic and left a pregnant ideological heritage to the twentieth century.

European imperialism was driven by the desire to augment the metropole's economic power through the exploitation of subject populations. The idea of any form of assimilation only came later when the colonial state had to increase the number of quislings it could count upon to participate in the political order, hence increasing the state's legitimacy. White settlement of the tropics was a side-effect, and not a particularly desirable one, as the climate and atmosphere was held to degrade the white race. American expansion was not based on a desire to exploit subject populations nor to provide economic resources for the metropole, but was a pure war of conquest. There was no white man's burden, no idea of bringing civilisation to the natives - simply the drive for land which white settlers could move into and develop. The new land would eventually become a full part of the Republic, in contrast to most European colonies.

The problem was that the land was inhabited by the native Americans. They would have to be, in the language of the time, "removed". Such was never really in doubt - what was up for discussion was how this removal would be carried out. As is so often the case on the borders between ethnic groups, locals were wont to take matters into their own hands if they did not feel the central government was doing enough to protect them. Hence a sense of urgency and inevitably was added to the desire of Americans to conquer the land, and the fate of the natives was sealed. They were pushed further and further westwards leaving trails of tears, or they were slaughtered on the frontier. In 1876 they were ordered onto reservations, and their culture began to decay.

Meanwhile, Americans set about taming the Continent. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson made the United States the most democratic country on the planet, and the seemingly unlimited economic resources of the Continent fostered an individuality which remains an important part of American political culture to this day. The isolationist strain in American foreign policy thought dates from this period, with James Monroe announcing in 1823 that America would not become entangled in European wars, but that the Americas were henceforth to be colony-free. European interference with the emerging states of Latin and Central America would not be permitted, and would be considered an act of war against the United States.

Perhaps the event of greatest symbolic significance in the expansion westward was the linking of east to west by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. It took ten year, starting in 1859, to complete. Two companies began building - one in the industrial east, and one in the west, employing Chinese labourers who had fled to America from poverty in their homeland - and eventually met at Promontory Summit, Utah. This railroad would help to stimulate the unprecedented economic growth that occurred in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, first the country would nearly rip itself in two and doom its constituent parts to obscurity.

The Civil War

The United States of 1860 contained various cultures, rooted in different socio-economic circumstances. In the north east, the descendants of Puritan immigrants presided over a growing industrial civilisation, prone to periodic moral 'Awakenings'. A frontier culture in the West was made up primarily of isolated farmers not yet incorporated into states. In the south, there was a paternalistic slave-based culture which contained something akin to an aristocracy - which, as Alexis de Tocqueville remarked at length in 1832, was virtually unheard of in the north east. Of the six million white people living in the south, it is probable that only three hundred and fifty thousand were slaveholders. Of these, perhaps seven per cent owned three quarters of all the slaves.

However, as the wielders of economic power which they passed to their sons, these men were the focal points of social and political power as well. The rich are able to influence opinion, spread patronage, and give loans, and in so doing dominate the discourse of an agricultural society. This is not to absolve the lower sorts of their sins, because their acceptance of slavery and the racism implicit in it was beyond question. When critiques of their society began to spread from the north east, they were bound to view these Bible-thumping moralists with contempt and rally to the support of their own. The economic power the north east could wield over them by its monopoly on manufactures increased their resentment.

In the north, abolitionism was on the increase and the second 'Great Awakening' of religious values stressed the importance of individual thrift, industry and sobriety. The poor and unemployed were increasingly blamed for their own condition as they were being in Victorian England at the time. The emergence of mass politics in the north was leading to a groundswell of popular opinion against slavery, which was played upon by ambitious politicians. In the south this provoked a militant reaction as people leapt to the defence of the institution that kept body and soul together, and which was the ideological underpinning of their civilisation. When Abraham Lincoln, infamous in the south for his opposition to slavery was elected in 1860, seven states seceded from the Union shortly thereafter.

The Confederate States of America soon grew to encompass eleven states, with a new Constitution based on the original Articles of Confederation of the United States. Predictably, it had a weaker executive and placed more value on the right of States; it also specifically endorsed the institution of slavery. When Lincoln entered office on March 4, 1861, he declared that the secession of the southern states was 'legally void', begging for a return to normality. He declared his intention to use armed force to protect federal property, and the wanton disregard of the southern states for his threat soon led to full-scale war between the two halves of the union.

The North, known as the Union, ultimately prevailed in 1865. It is commonly thought that victory was due to the Union's much-superior industrial capacity, not to mention its greater manpower and infrastructure. The issuing by Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation, did much to raise the spirits of slaves in the south and confound the Confederate war machine. When the war was over, the thirteenth amendment was duly passed, banning slavery throughout the Union.

On the brink of world power

The period directly after the Civil War is commonly known as Reconstruction, the last few decades of the nineteenth century as 'the gilded age', and the period from then to World War I as 'the Progressive era'. As is often the case with historical demarcations, these are misleading. Taking this era as a whole, three themes predominate. The first is the rise of America to become the world's predominant industrial power, an outcome of the individualistic spirit and its nurturing in an environment of boundless possibility. The second is the concurrent rise of a new, collectivist spirit of the sort which inevitably arises under the dislocation of a rapidly-growing capitalist economy. The third is the brief practice of something similar to European imperialism, and then America's surprise engagement in the first world war.

America could become the world's primary industrial power thanks to a fortunate marriage of circumstance - the American ideology of individual thrift and industry, and its haloing of the concept of competition, along with a land of seemingly unlimited opportunity. In the first decades of expansion, there seemed to be enough resources for the taking for anyone with the gall to do it, and such men thrived in a rough, atomised society. Business was exalted; politics, considered a necessary evil conducted by the venal and corrupt. The spirit of 'Progressivism' and 'Populism' however, sought to reform government, even the Constitution, with what Walter Weyl called 'a new democratic spirit'.

Weyl castigated the democracy of 1787 as a 'shadow democracy', and went on to say that even though Jacksonian democracy had granted formal political rights to all, these rights were meaningless without economic and social rights. Turning American particularly on its head, he argued that the individual spirit of Americans worked against their achievement of a full democracy rather than for it. Now that the Continent had been conquered and most of the property in it become private, he believed a new spirit was needed for America to carry on in prosperity. Along with many other Progressives, he called for the redistribution of wealth by the government, and the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow the federal government more leeway in such matters. He and others like him were castigated as socialists and revolutionaries, but Grover Cleveland was the last President who could govern by ignoring them, and he barely.

These ideas found fertile socio-economic ground in workers and farmers who were frequently upset by the business cycle and rapid structural change in the American economy. Elite groups were also afflicted by these developments, and some reached the same conclusion as their European counterparts - that an Empire would help to alleviate economic problems by providing new markets for American manufactures and agriculture. Some would answer Weyl by claiming that the individualistic spirit of America could only be fruitfully maintained by a continued expansion to a new frontier, something politicians down to George W. Bush have wrestled with. Hawaii was annexed, and after the Spanish-American war the USA took possession of the Philippines, Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Perhaps most surprising of all was the entry of the United States into World War I. Twice in the twentieth century America has elected Presidents on an antiwar ticket who have then taken them to battle, and Woodrow Wilson was the first example. Wilson was himself sympathetic to entering the war, and from the start aided the Allies economically; but he did not initially call upon Americans to prefer one side over the other. The reasons why the public eventually became convinced of the necessity of war were many, although an official commission reported in 1936 that the decision had been primarily economic. This could not be wholly true, as the public are rarely stirred by considerations of national debt.

The Zimmermann Telegram, an attempt by Germany to forge an alliance with Mexico and Japan against the United States, caused an outpouring of anti-German sentiment in the United States. Combined with unrestrained German attacks on American shipping of supplies to the Allies in Europe, the public were easily swayed into supporting the cause of their fellow Anglo-Saxon Brits against German dictatorship. In 1917, Congress declared war against Germany and her allies, and the Germans launched their final Spring Offensive to try and win before American troops could arrive at the front line. As we all know, they were unsuccessful and American blood and treasure saved Western Europe from the ambitions of the Kaiser.

It was now that America began its first experiment in the building of global diplomatic systems.

The short twentieth century: foreign affairs

The twentieth century as a historical construct in international affairs is best regarded as the period between 1914 and 1991. The events of this period are all intertwined, and no clear break can be perceived until 1991, when the United States found itself unsure of what to do with its inheritance of peace. Great War to Russian Revolution and Treaty of Versailles; Russian Revolution and Treaty of Versailles to World War II; World War II to Cold War. These events are all part of one large conflict, and as the most prominent actor in so many of them, America was deeply affected by them all.

Woodrow Wilson enthusiastically took up the idea of a League of Nations, a collective which would provide security and legitimacy for all its members. The world would be made up of equal sovereign nation-states, forged together by a great compact and common purpose. Colonised peoples desirous of independence were greatly galvanised by such promises; as was their anger when such promises failed to be delivered. For now, Britain remained the focus of the ire of the colonised due to the perception, rapidly becoming an illusion, that she was the dominant world power. Not until after World War II would the United States inherit this unhappy role.

The United States reverted to its essentially isolationist ways until World War II. As with Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged not to enter the war when elected in 1940; unlike Wilson, he made no bones about telling the American people who they should support in this war. It may seem strange that it was Japan who eventually attacked the United States, as she seemed to have little material reason to do so - but the particular contours and program of Japanese fascism would, in the minds of its proponents, inevitably bring about a war with the United States. They thought it was best to launch a pre-emptive surprise strike, which was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were successful in knocking out much of the United States' naval power in the short-term, but in the long-term doomed themselves and their allies to defeat.

The generation that took part in World War II are often referred to as the 'Greatest Generation', even by intervention-shy left-wingers, who view their cause as noble and untarnished. Along with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, America defeated fascist Italy, then Nazi Germany, and then imperial Japan. The victory over Japan was underlined by the use of two nuclear weapons against Japan, one of the first instances of shock and awe bombardment. It has been claimed that one of the motivations for this was to stay Soviet expansionism, and this was to become the dominant focus of American foreign policy after the war and until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The metaphorical Iron Curtain was soon drawn over Europe and Asia. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and North Korea were behind it. To prevent the further expansion of Communism across the world, America flooded Europe and Asian countries with aid to rebuild their economies and secure their military capability. Despite Dwight D. Eisenhower's brief experiment with 'rollback' (following Communist aggression), the dominant word in the Cold War was 'containment'. The existence of a Soviet bloc was unhappily conceded (as acknowledged by Jeane Kirkpatrick when she declared totalitarian countries to be beyond grace), but it would not be allowed to grow any further. Early major tests of this were the Greek Civil War, the Korean War and, of course, the Vietnam War.

Vietnam left many lasting scars on the American psyche which are still not healed, which shall be discussed below. As a foreign policy endeavour, opinions are mixed. Some call it a success, pointing out that Vietnam did not become a successful Communist state. Most consider it a failure, arguing that even if the United States had continued fighting it could never have the political will to win the war of attrition. Even if political restraints had been removed and the North had been invaded, it is unlikely the USA could have won the battle of hearts and minds in the North, nor have turned it around in the South without a change of policy. Warriors battling against terrorism should take note.

After Vietnam, the country lost confidence in itself in a manner which was uncannily personified in the person of President Jimmy Carter. The 1973 Arab oil embargo showed the fragility of the world economy, and the depression of the '70s, which was the worst since the Great Depression, caused many to speculate that America might soon fall from the position of superpower. The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan added to the sentiment that all over the globe things were going in the favour of America's enemies. Even the Presidency, that haloed institution, had been disgraced by Richard M. Nixon.

Then there appeared on the scene Ronald Reagan, a man with an ample hagiography - as well as many strong detractors. Some consider him the last great Leader of the Free World; others, a simpleton whose deteriorating mental condition nearly brought about global annihilation (has anyone else between Barry Goldwater and George W. Bush attracted such rabid hatred?) Reagan's foreign policy was based on a number of principles, namely that the Soviet Union could not continue to exist in its present form and that the threat of nuclear war must be stopped. He stepped up pressure on the Soviet Union, which soon realised it could not compete with America's increased defence spending. The aggressive stance he took was advocated by many 'neoconservatives', so-called because of their origins in the Democratic Party.

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan had found a man with whom he could work. Slowly, due to internal pressure and pressure from the U.S. which saw this advantage and pressed it, Gorbachev set out to reform the Soviet Union. Eventually, he would destroy it in so doing.

The short twentieth century: domestic affairs

Following on the heels of a decade of prosperity, the Great Depression saw the start of the battles which raged for America's soul in the twentieth century. Herbert Hoover enacted government controls unknown to any previous peacetime federal government, and yet due to his eventual failure and election defeat he is often accused of fiddling while the economy burned. But it is true that Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidency set the scene for much of the next thirty-five years, as everyone on both sides of the partisan divide claimed to be his political legatee.

The New Deal which Roosevelt passed to try and raise America from the mire of the depression was the first systemised program of social democracy in the United States, and it would remain in place for the rest of the century and beyond. It did not seriously come under attack until the collapse of the 'liberal consensus' which prevailed in America after World War II. This consensus was based on an acceptance of the New Deal by Republicans, and an acceptance of strong anti-Communism by Democrats. The extreme Left of the Democratic Party was pushed off the scene, but its re-emergence in the '60s would provoke fresh attacks on social democracy and even the New Deal.

The 1960s were the watershed of American cultural history in the twentieth century. Despite the failure of the New Left student rebellions to achieve their political program, they dominated the thoughts of both imitators and opponents for decades afterwards. The New Left sprung from the first generation of baby boomers to reach maturity, who found themselves economically comfortable and hence able to exercise a freedom of action unknown to their ancestors. With a college education now the norm, these people took longer to enter the real world. Animated by the righteous battles of the civil rights movement and enticed by counterculture, their enthusiasm was turned away from patriotic channels by the Vietnam War and the use of armed force against civil rights activists or students, notably by Governor Reagan in California in 1968.

Associated with the New Left in the minds of its enemies was Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, an attempt to go beyond the New Deal and extend social democracy in the United States. In attempting to do so, Johnson created a backlash which culminated in the 'Reagan Revolution' (in rhetoric if not reality) in the 1980s. The 1960s were such a watershed because they created a countervailing force, a New Right which was worried about the breakdown of law and order, concerned that affirmative action and poverty programs placed the interests of others above them, and wished a return to the values of patriotism, rationality and hard work which they believed had made the United States great. This was the 'silent majority' which supported Richard M. Nixon before his disgrace of the Republican Party and the Presidency.

The malaise which afflicted America in the 1970s found its expression in domestic as well as foreign affairs. Carter was a man who seemed to have abandoned the idea of American particularism, a man who his opponents saw as willing to let the United States slip from its position of world power by allowing an erosion of America's values at home and abroad. 'Stagflation', unemployment and queues for gas dominated the public mind, made worse by the world economic downturn that occurred after 1973. The dream of a constantly-growing capitalism economy which would provide prosperity for all through growth did not seem to match reality in the United States, just as was seeming the case in Western Europe.

Reagan's election represented, at the most fundamental level, the optimism that prevails in the American national character. Reagan offered a vision of America as the 'city on the hill' and promised that he would guide the American people to become great once again. By stimulating the economy through federal spending on defence, he could neatly offer the people prosperity at home and strength abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a resurgence of optimism to America that right would always prevail over wrong, and that her institutions and ideals were truly the greatest. This hubris would prove dangerous.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was left alone in the world as the only superpower. For a while, it wasn't clear that would happen next. When President George H.W. Bush announced a 'New World Order' following the Gulf War, some mistakenly thought this heralded a new age where a broad international coalition would work through the United Nations, spearheaded by the United States, to combat injustice. Of course, the Gulf War did not herald this at all, being simply Bush's homage to the foreign policy imperative not to let any one state gain hegemony of the oil supplies of the Middle East. The particularly odious nature of Saddam Hussein's regime made this a welcome marriage between morality and national interest.

Hyperpowers affect every sovereign state in the world; when they are economic and cultural hyperpowers, they affect their people as well. The United States has only a few broad foreign policy objectives now (by these I mean ones divorced from the practical defence of national interests), most of which boil down to the destruction of international terrorist gangs and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The last and most difficult goal facing the United States is to improve its image abroad, something which became painfully clear on September 11, 2001.

There is no denying that the fanatics of al-Qaeda - just like the fanatics who carried out the horrific Beslan massacre, surely the greatest atrocity of the twenty-first century to date - will always exist and will always attempt to harm the USA. Their totalitarian and fanatical ideology is not going away. All that can be done, for now, is to contain them. The USA cannot discredit their ideology on its own, as it needs the help of representatives of Islam and of Asian nations to do so. The attack on Iraq was but part of this, an attempt to discredit the idea of a lone dictator who can defy the West and get away with it. This is why the United States is currently employing its power as much as possible to bring, in co-operation with Middle Eastern nations, democratisation and economic development to the Middle East. This must be done on Middle Eastern terms if it is to succeed, but it must be done quickly if America's patience is not to wear too thin.

I wrote this off the top of my head so I don't have any 'sources' to offer as such. However, I can offer a short list of books which I have read in the past which I believe had the most influence on my notes here.

Further reading

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
Walter Weyl, The New Democracy
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
G.W. Morgan, Beyond the Liberal Consensus: A Political History of the United States Since 1965
Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (eds.) The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930 - 1980
G. Hodgson, More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century
Robert Kagan, Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty First Century