A Very Brief Introduction to the History of the United States

The United States of America began on July 4th, 1776, when some leaders of the British colonies in North America published their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. But we can’t begin studying US history there because we need to understand the historical context of those colonies.

Many US history teachers begin in 1607, when Jamestown, the first successful British colony in North America, was founded. (As we’ll see, in this case “successful” means “most people died, but not quite everyone.”) But Jamestown also had a historical context: it followed more than a century of Spanish colonization of the Americas, including the founding of Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1535, and Puerto Rico, founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon. Florida has become a state and Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, so their stories should definitely be a part of United States history!

So we could start in 1492, when Columbus’s first trans-Atlantic voyage initiated Spanish colonization of the Americas. Or, we should go back to the Vikings, who attempted the first known European colonization of the Americas (and perhaps there were others that we don’t know about yet).

But Europeans weren’t the first people in the Americas. All of the European colonists in North and South America encountered and interacted with people who were already there, so we will begin with the very first people to live in the Americas: the American Indians. The British colonies of North America were very content to be ruled by Great Britain until 1763. However, from that year some colonists became increasingly unhappy with British rule, until in 1776 some of their leaders actually declared independence from Britain, creating the United States. Britain did not release its colonies without a fight: the Revolutionary War officially lasted until 1783 although the last fighting was in 1781. (The fighting actually started in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence.)

The United States originally only controlled a small part of North America near the Atlantic Coast: one of the main themes of American history is how the United States—white Americans in particular—expanded westward to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. That expansion was itself one of the causes of the Revolution, which

From 1776 to 1789, the United States did not have a strong federal government yet; for example, there was no President or Supreme Court. Each state had (and still has) its own government; the “federal government” is the central government that includes all the states. This arrangement is very complex, and another major theme of American history is the relationship between the states and the federal government. The period from 1776 (especially from 1781, when the fighting of the Revolutionary War ended) to 1789 is often called “the Critical Period” because without a strong federal government the United States almost fell apart.

But in 1789 the current federal government of the United States was created by the ratification of the Constitution. “Ratification” means that the voters of the United States agreed to create the federal government described by the Constitution. (The Constitution is a document that describes—or, better, “constitutes”—the federal government.) So, in 1789 George Washington became the first President of the United States. You have to watch out when historians talk about “the American Revolution,” because they might mean everything from when the colonial discontent began in 1763 to when the Constitution took effect in 1789, or they might only mean the years when the war was being fought (1775 to 1781). For the next few years, one of the most important political issues in the United States was whether to side with Great Britain against France or with France against Great Britain. Finally, in 1812 the United States and Great Britain went to war again. You will remember that date easily, because even though that war lasted several years, we call it the War of 1812.

After the War of 1812, the United States could usually ignore European politics. Instead, domestic issues became more important, especially slavery. In fact, perhaps the single most important theme of the whole of American history is race and ethnicity. But don’t imagine it was simply a matter of white people against black people and American Indians! Things have always much more complex than that, not only because there have always been many kinds of “white people,” “black people,” and very many kinds of American Indians: instead, even defining the boundaries of these identities was complicated. At one point, Irish immigrants had to prove that they should be considered “white!” Besides, people always married or had children with other kinds of people. “One drop” of black ancestry meant that a person, no matter what the color of their skin, would be considered “black,” but of course sufficiently light-skinned “black” people could often just move to a place where no one knew about their ancestry and “pass” as white! The more you study the history of race in the United States, the more complicated things turn out to be.

In 1861, the leaders of most southern states believed that they could not preserve slavery while remaining in the union created by the Constitution, so they “seceded” and created their own federal government, known as the Confederacy. (This is similar to the colonies declaring independence back in 1776.) The northern states went to war to preserve the union (of the “United” States), with or without slavery.

We call the era right before the Civil War the “antebellum period” because it preceded the Civil War. (“Antebellum” means “before the war.”) Most history teachers consider the Colonial era and the antebellum period (with or without the Civil War) as about half of American history.

The Civil War ended in 1865 with a complete victory for the union. In fact, not only did they preserve the union, they abolished slavery and greatly strengthened the federal government. From 1865 to 1877 the north ruled parts of the south as a conquered territory while they “reconstructed” the union. The major theme of the era of Reconstruction is how southern whites reduced free blacks to a new form of inequality known as Jim Crow—a process that actually continued long after 1877, when the north withdrew its last troops from the south, formally ending Reconstruction.

Social class is another important theme throughout the whole of American history—in fact, it is inseparable from race—but it was especially important in the decades after the Civil War. This was the era of business tycoons like Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan. To work in this roaring economy, immigrants traveled to the United States from Russia, Italy, Germany, Greece, China, Japan, and many other places, bringing their religions and other traditions with them. These immigrants often clashed with each other and with Americans whose ancestors had immigrated in previous generations; they all clashed with the capitalists that profited from their labor. For some people, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a golden age for America, but for critics like Mark Twain the gold on the surface only concealed a horrible reality underneath. Twain’s name for the period—“the gilded age”—has stuck.

By 1890 the American west was no longer a theater of war between the United States and American Indians. Instead, mostly white farmers, miners, and businesspeople of all sorts continued struggling over who would control the land.

Two very important

To summarize, we’ve essential broken the history of North America into a few eras:


Key Terms

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides