Historical background of USA


Before Europeans set foot on the American continent, complex cultures flourished in different parts of the Americas. Those peoples varied enormously, ranging from poor nomadic food gatherers of the interior plains of North America to opulent fishing societies of the Pacific North-West, from the woodland hunting tribes of what is now the northern United States to the wealthy and powerful peoples of Central America. Together they constituted somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people, of which about ten million lived in North America. Many areas in the western hemisphere contained denser populations than regions of Western Europe in the age of Christopher Columbus. America was not "a vacant wasteland" awaiting the arrival of "civilized Europeans".

Across the continent, from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard, lived groups of interrelated cultures. Speaking such languages as Siouxan, Algonquian, and Iroquoisan, they formed complicated societies that often differed markedly from one another. Relying upon agriculture, as well as on fishing, hunting and trapping, the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands built stable villages, some of them with as many as five thousand inhabitants. Living either in birch-covered wigwams or in rectangular longhouses, they usually palisaded their villages with long stockades. They also possessed, in their light birch-bark canoes, a reliable means of commerce and communication with other tribes.

The chiefdoms of the Pacific Northwest were blessed with an incredibly rich environment based on the vast stock offish, especially salmon, and abundant edible plants. The large succulent fish annually made their way upstream to spawn and then return to the sea, and the indigenous peoples learned to make nets and, weirs to harvest this crop. The natives of the region also developed techniques to preserve their fish, thus assuring sufficient food in seasons of scarcity. The natural abundance encouraged the formation of a sedentary society even though agriculture remained generally undeveloped in this region.


Although intrepid Norsemen skirted the New World's Northern shore about A. D. 1000, the news of their discovery remained veiled in the mist of Viking sagas for centuries. The Americas were not visited again until 1492, when Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas. North America was at first considered nothing but a vast, maddening obstacle between spice-hungry Europe and the riches of the Orient. For 150 years it remained largely unsettled by Europeans. During that time, however, Spanish adventurers roamed Florida, the gulf coast, and the Southwest in -a vain search for treasure. French voyageurs braved the Canadian wilderness in pursuit of furs, and Dutch and Swedish traders established small outposts on the Northeast coast in present-day New York and Delaware.

The English, too, came looking for easy riches. In December 1606, a London Company sent a group of settlers on board three ships to colonize the North American territory called Virginia. They reached the New World in May 1607 and founded Jamestown, which became the first permanent English settlement on the American continent.

The most well-described in all history books is probably the landing of the "Mayflower" in November 1620. Instead of reaching the mouth of the Hudson River, battered off course by Atlantic storms, the sturdy little ship approached the Massachusetts coast and anchored in Plymouth harbor. The leaders (part of a religious group later called Pilgrims) resolved to land anyhow. The 102 passengers founded New England's first Colony, and it was the Mayflower Compact (a number of rules and regulations) that kept the Colony united till 1691, when Plymouth became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The British proved more adaptable than their rivals and readier to see the possibilities of colonization. Between 1607, when the first ill-equipped settlers landed at Jamestown, and 1733, when a shipload of British debtors went ashore to found Georgia, Britain managed to establish a dozen bustling Colonies.

By the 1770s Britain had eliminated — almost completely — its chief competitor, France, from the North American Continent.

The British Colonies, scattered along the Atlantic seaboard, varied widely. They could even be called the different worlds of colonial America. The regional variations can be presented in the following way.

New England Colonies

Massachusetts Puritans spread inland and along the coast to people this region's stony soil. Most became small farmers or artisans, dwelt in villages, and fiercely insisted on self-government. Others depended on the sea: they fished, built or manned ships, or traded with England. Busy ports, such as Boston and Newport, were havens for merchants who slyly evaded British attempts to tax and regulate their trade 'with French and Dutch ^colonies.

Middle Colonies

New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, first settled by Dutch and Swedish traders, and Pennsylvania were the most cosmopolitan of the English Colonies. Most residents were prosperous farmers, but numbers of tradesmen, mechanics, and shippers clustered around Philadelphia and New York. More genial and tolerant than New England, more energetic than the South, the Middle Colonies best represented the creative ferment of classes and cultures that would characterize America after the Revolution.

Southern Colonies

Agriculture was the heart of Southern life, and the tidal rivers were its arteries. Along their, banks flourished vast, self-sufficient plantations that shipped their crops to foreign markets from their own wharves. Because plantations were scattered and isolated, development of the South lagged behind that of the other Colonies; Charleston was its only real city until after the Revolution. Along the Appalachian Frontier independent woodsmen cultivated small farms.

From the above description one can see that some Colonies were divided into hundreds of small farms; others had a few sprawling plantations intermingled with smaller holdings; yet others traded and shipped. But all Colonies had something in common^- they drew sustenance from the production of agricultural and other raw materials for the mother country.

The Colonies often quarreled among themselves, but loyalty to the King and faith in parliamentary self-government were common to all. As long as the distant rulers kept their hands off local affairs, relations were generally friendly. It was only after 1763, when London sought closer control over their affairs without consulting them, that the colonists rebelled.


By the end of the 18«h century, the whole of the Eastern coast of North America had been colonized. The entire У separate Colonies differed widely and their differences generated almost constant sectional friction. There were bitter inter-colonial squabbles over religion, trade and boundaries. Within the Colonies, too, there were disagreements between factions, in some cases resulting in civil wars. "Fire and Water are not more heterogeneous than the different Colonies in North America", wrote one early visitor, and until 1754 even repeated threats of annihilation by France and its allies failed to produce unity.

Yet, despite their differences, the colonists were slowly transformed into one quarrelsome but distinctive people. Several factors contributed to this process. Perhaps the most important was the fact that the colonists were overwhelmingly Protestant and English. They shared the English language, they believed in British customs and traditions of parliamentary self-government and trial by jury, and they were loyal to the British King. Their rich colonial culture — their books and buildings, fabrics and furnishings, portraits and poetry — was solidly based on British models. They saw themselves as transplanted Englishmen and called England "home", though after the first generation most had never been there. Major exceptions to this early homogeneity were the Dutch of New Netherland, Germans and Scotch-Irish on the backwoods frontier, and large numbers of African slaves.

The very fact of leaving the settled life of the Old World for the uncertainties of the New one bespoke a profound independence of mind and spirit. The vast majority of the colonists were farmers who owned and worked their land. They were all animated with the spirit of an industry which was unrestrained because each person worked for himself without any part being claimed by a despotic prince, a rich abbot or a mighty lord. Such self-employment bred self-reliance and the determination to succeed.


Whatever their private wishes, the King and his ministers could maintain only minimal control over their far-off possessions, separated from them by some 3,000 miles of open sea. For the colonists, the great thing about this empire, apart from the sheer pride of belonging to it, was that it let you alone. Some colonists lived a lifetime without ever encountering a royal official, and they had far more control of their own government than their compatriots in Britain had.

Only in matters of trade did England have a consistent imperial policy. The Colonies were expected to supply the mother country with raw and semi-finished materials, including furs, fish, rice, tobacco and timber. In exchange they received a host of manufactured goods from the homeland. Both sides profited handsomely. Special Acts of the British Parliament required that all American goods should be carried in British or colonial vessels and sold only to British buyers. Those Acts discouraged American manufacturing so as to protect British firms from competition. American trade with other nations or their colonies was officially forbidden. And even in this situation, favorable for itself, the Crown decided to tighten the grip on the Colonies.

Since Britain's treasury was almost empty after different wars, Parliament asked the colonists to contribute towards the cost of maintaining the British army through centrally-raised taxes. But there was serious opposition to this "taxation without representation" (the British Parliament did not contain any American-elected members).

After the taxes had been repealed, there was relative peace everywhere except Boston, but when Parliament freed the tea of the nearly bankrupt British East India Company from import duties, numerous merchants throughout the colonies were threatened with bankruptcy, and colonial opinion united against the British. So, when the first cargoes of this tea arrived in Boston harbor, the American Patriots boarded the three ships on the night of the 16th of December 1773 and threw the tea into the sea. It was the famous Boston Tea Party.

The British Parliament reacted to this "act of vandalism" by closing Boston harbor. In return to this, representatives from every colony, except Georgia, met in Philadelphia in the First Continental Congress in September 1774 and replied by imposing a trade embargo on Britain. For 15 months Britain's North American Colonies had been in revolt. Gradually, the daring word "independence" was on everyone's lips, and a cause, thought radical only a few months earlier, had achieved an astounding degree of respectability.

In early June 1776, representatives of American Colonies met in Philadelphia in the Second Continental Congress to formalize their rebellion by adopting a Declaration of Independence. They chose Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration. On July 4, 1776, after having made several revisions in Jefferson's text, the Congress adopted the Declaration. One delegation, New York, abstained. No man among those present at the Congress could, on that day, foresee the outcome; yet each well knew that before peace was restored, he and his countrymen would have to endure a long period of privation and strife.

The United States of America was born, but its survival, remained to be determined by the uncertain fortunes of war.


In the summer of 1776, when it occurred to the delegates assembled in Philadelphia that they needed a document to spell out the grounds of their dissatisfaction with Britain, the task was handed to Thomas Jefferson. To us, he seems the obvious choice. He was not.

In 1776 Thomas Jefferson was a fairly obscure figure, even in his own Virginia. Aged just thirty three, he was the second youngest of the delegates and one of the least experienced. The Second Continental Congress was in fact his first exposure to a wider world of affairs beyond those of his native Colony.

He had not been selected to attend the First Continental Congress and should not have been at the Second. He was called only as a late replacement for Payton Randolph, who had been summoned home to Virginia.

Jefferson's reputation rested almost entirely on one of his essays, written two years earlier, advising the British on how they ought to conduct themselves in their principal overseas possession. Although the essay had gained him some attention as a writer, to his fellow Virginia delegates he was known as a dilettante and admired for the breadth of his reading in an age when that truly meant something. He was adept at seven languages.

By no means, however, did he have what might be called a national standing. Nor did he display any evidence of desiring one. He showed a distinct lack of keenness to get to Philadelphia: on his way there he stopped to shop for books and to buy a horse, and once there he said almost nothing. "During the whole time I sat with him I never heard him utter three sentences together", John Adams later marveled.

Moreover, Jefferson went home to Virginia in December 1776, in the midst of debates, and did not return for nearly five months. Had he been able, he would gladly have abandoned the Congress altogether, leaving the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to someone else in order to take part in drawing up a new. constitution for Virginia, a matter much closer to his heart.

Nonetheless, because he showed a "peculiar felicity for expression", in John Adams's words, he was one of five men chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston were the others — and this Committee of Five in turn selected him to come up with a working draft.

The purpose, as Jefferson saw it, was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent". But of course the Declaration of Independence is much more than that. As one politician has written, it stands as "perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature".

The first adopted form of the Declaration was given the title "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled". It was the first time the country had been officially designated the United States of America, though in fact until 1778 the formal title was the United States of North America. Even after the Declaration, "united" was often left lower case, as if to emphasize it was merely descriptive, and the country was variously referred to throughout the Civil War as "the Colonies", "the united Colonies", the "United Colonies of America" or "the United Colonies of North America". The last two are the forms under which officers were commissioned into the army.


That the signing of the Declaration of Independence is celebrated on July 4 is one of American history's most singular mistakes. America did not declare independence on July 4, 1776. That had happened two days earlier, when the proposal was adopted. The proceedings on July 4 were a mere formality endorsing the form of words that were to be used to announce this breach. Most people had no doubt that July 2 was the day that would ring through the ages. "The second day of July, 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America", John Adams wrote to his wife on July 3.

John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, hastily ran off an apparently unknown number of copies. Dunlap's version was dated July 4, and it was this, evidently, that persuaded the nation to make that the day of revelry. The next year, at any rate, the great event was being celebrated on the fourth, and so it has stayed ever since. It was celebrated "with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other", in John Adams's words. The first anniversary saw the entrance of a new word into the language: "fireworks". Fireworks themselves were not new, but previously they had been called "rockets".

Until recently only twenty four of Dunlap's copies were thought to have survived — two in private hands and the rest lodged with institutions. But in 1992 a shopper at a flea market in Philadelphia found a copy folded into the back of a picture frame, apparently as padding. It was estimated to be worth up to $3 million.

So, July 4, 1776, was not Independence Day. Still less was the Declaration signed on that day, except by the president of the proceedings, John Hancock, and the secretary, Charles Thomson. It was not signed on July 4 because it had first to be transcribed on to parchment. The official signing did not begin until August 2 and was not concluded until 1781 when Thomas McKean of Delaware, the last of the signatories, finally put his name to it. Such was the fear of reprisal that the names of the signers were not released until January 1777, six months after the Declaration's adoption.

Equally mistaken is the idea that adoption of the Declaration of Independence was announced to a breathless Philadelphia on July 4 by the ringing of the Liberty Bell. For one thing, the Declaration was not read out in Philadelphia until July 8, and there is no record of any bells being rung. Indeed, though the Liberty Bell was there, it was not so called until 1847 when the whole inspiring episode was recounted in a book titled "Washington and His Generals", written by one George Lippard, whose previous literary efforts had been confined almost exclusively to producing third-rate novels. He made the whole thing up.


The members of the Second Continental Congress belonged to the elite of colonial society. They were men of status and wealth, men who in normal circumstances might be expected to shrink from the very word "rebellion" and seek shelter under the comforting mantle of established authority. Yet in July 1776 those men — successful lawyers, merchants, ministers, plantation owners, and artisans— signed their names to one of the most revolutionary documents of modern times in which they pledged to each other "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" in the cause of American independence and the seemingly quixotic ideal that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

The American War of Independence — with George Washington as Commander-in-Chief— lasted for about six years. American troops, most of them undermanned, ill-trained, and poorly equipped, harassed and stung British forces that were often overwhelmingly superior in numbers and weapons. Occasionally the Americans advanced, but more often they retreated; and often their cause seemed hopeless.

After the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, the French entered the war, providing decisive military and economic assistance. The fighting ended when Washington, aided by the French army and navy, surrounded the British forces at Yorktown in October 1781. The peace settlement, signed two years later, recognized the independence, freedom and sovereignty of the thirteen Colonies. But at that time the United States of America was not a real Nation: it was a loosely knit confederation brought together by common dissatisfaction and shared aspirations.


The American Revolution was a rare historical event. Unlike other successful uprisings it was not nationalistic: thirteen quarrelsome Colonies were united by their common history, language and customs; by their common sense of betrayal as British subjects; and by their common suspicion of remote and centralized power. The hard-fought conflict brought them together as Americans, but once peace w$s won, the new States swiftly reverted to their old and independent ways. The Nation of almost 4 million was threatening to break apart even before it emerged from infancy.

George Washington wondered if the Revolution he had led had been worth all the blood and effort. "We are either a united people under one head, for Federal purposes", he wrote, "or we are thirteen independent sovereignties, eternally counteracting each other".

When the Thirteen Colonies began their revolution in 1775, the leaders of the Nation had only the vaguest notion of what kind of a united government would emerge once victory was won. Because of the history of uneasy relations with England's monarch, most Americans believed that the broad form should be that of a republic. But they were wary of granting great power to a central government, even one of their own making.

It took 5 years of debate for all the States to approve the Articles of Confederation, America's short-lived first constitution, which went into effect on March 1, 1781. The Articles established a Congress which could make war, negotiate peace, conduct foreign relations, control the currency, borrow money, settle boundaries, and oversee relations with the Indian tribes. But Congress lacked the power to tax, to regulate commerce, or to enforce its own measures. There was no national judiciary and no chief executive. By 1787 the States themselves saw the need for greater Federal strength, and a few influential men already envisioned an entirely new constitution.

So in 1787 the States sent 55 delegates to Philadelphia to the Constitutional Convention. Among those people were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Thomas Jefferson hailed the 55 delegates as an assembly of demigods. Certainly they were an extraordinary group of citizens-statesmen. They were remarkably young.— average age 43. For 16 weeks (May 25 — September 17, 1787) they debated the Nation's future behind closed doors.

What emerged from the Philadelphia Convention was a document — now the world's oldest written constitution — that kept the new Nation from splitting into as many as a dozen tiny ones; safeguarded its independence and republicanism against attack from both within and without; and struck a shrewd balance between State and Federal power.

There were many opponents to the Constitution, and even some supporters had their doubts. "I consent to this Constitution", wrote Benjamin Franklin, "because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best".

And yet, the Constitution turned out to be an extraordinary document by which America still abides more than two centuries later. One of the secrets of the Constitution's longevity lies in the flexible ambiguity its authors built into it. The Founding Fathers wisely avoided the temptation to solve, every foreseeable problem on paper. Instead, they arranged that this document should be adaptable to inevitable changes. So the Constitution may well be what John Adams called it in 1787: "The greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen". It was, indeed, a work of collective genius that still commands the Nation's utmost respect.

Article V allowed for amendments to be made to the Constitution (once passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and then ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states). The Constitution, finally ratified by all thirteen states in 1791, already contained ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights (the freedoms of religion, speech and the press, etc.), to protect the citizen against possible tyranny by the federal government. So far only twenty six amendments have been made to the Constitution.


For all the genius of that remarkable document, the Constitution of the United States, it had a glaring defect, according to many critics. They deplored the absence of articles specifically prohibiting the Federal Government from invading an individual's rights of life, liberty, and property. But the consensus at the Constitutional Convention was that no Federal bill of rights was needed because the States guaranteed individual rights in their constitutions. However, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York made their ratification of the Constitution contingent upon the adoption of a Federal bill of rights.

When the newly established Congress met in 1789, one of its first priorities was to amend the Constitution, provided for in Article V. James Madison proposed a series of amendments, and 12 of them were adopted by Congress. In 1791, 10 of the 12 amendments were ratified by the States.

The articles, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, have stood the test of time, but the exact meaning of some is still debated. For example, should the second amendment's right "to keep and bear Arms" to maintain a "Militia" be interpreted as an all-inclusive right to keep firearms? Where do the modern forms of electronic eavesdropping stand in relation to the fourth amendment's stricture against "unreasonable searches and seizures"? In the light of the eighth amendment's statement on "cruel and unusual punishments" how should the death penalty be considered? Judicial interpretation will continue to shade their precise meaning, but the freedoms bestowed by these articles, as indicated below, are basic to the American way of life.
At Home and in the Community

We are exempt from: We are entitled to:
Unreasonable or unwarranted searches and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and effects Worship as we please
The taking of property for public use without just compensationSpeak freely
The quartering of soldiers in our homes Publish the truth
Assemble peaceably
Keep and bear arms

In a Court of Law

We are exempt from:We are entitled to:
Being tried twice for the same offensePetition for redress of grievances
Bearing witness against ourselves Due process of law regarding life, liberty, and property
Excessive bailSpeedy public trial by impartial jury
Excessive finesBe informed of the nature and cause of an accusation
Infliction of cruel and unusual punishmentsConfront any witnesses against us
Obtain witnesses in our favour
Assistance of counsel for defense


The American Revolution was achieved by the "original 13 states" on the eastern seaboard. The Treaty of 1783, which ended the war with Britain, gave another huge area of land, further to the west, to the new country, and over the next fifty years the whole of the American mainland was brought under the US control. Some of that land was acquired by treaty, such as Florida; some by purchase, such as Louisiana (the Mid-West) which was sold to the US by Napoleon in 1S03; and some by war, such as Texas and California, which were ceded by Mexico in the war of 1845-1847.

Having gained control of the continent, the Americans began to expand across it, continually pushing westwards from their original settlements, forming new farmsteads, villages and towns in the wilds, and displacing and dispossessing the Native Americans in the process. By the end of the century this form of continuous colonizing or "pioneering" had led to the settlement of the entire United States from the east coast to the west.

For most of the pioneers, life was a constant struggle against the Indians and the land itself, which had to be laboriously cleared before it could be planted. Religion was very important in the settlers' lives. Camp meetings provided solace and hope as well as a reason for widely scattered neighbours to congregate and enjoy each other's company.


For the Indians of the United States, the American dream of gaining control of as much land as possible has been nothing less than a nightmare. From the landing of the first settlers, the Indians have been the victims of almost unrelieved woe. Those tribes that escaped annihilation by the white man's bullets and diseases suffered instead something close to cultural genocide.

At the root of the centuries-long confrontation between red man and white was one inescapable fact: the Indians inhabited vast territories that the whites had to have in order to fulfill their destiny to develop the continent. It mattered little what precautions the Indians took to preserve their lands, what alliances they formed, what concessions they made, what solemn treaties they secured from the settlers: the story was always the same. Whenever the white moved west he displaced the Indian by force of arms, by destroying his hunting grounds, or by fraudulent treaties in which the uncomprehending red man often exchanged his patrimony for glittering trinkets.

Some Indian tribes met the onrush of white civilization by adopting Christianity as well as the white man's dress and mannerisms, and turning to a wholly agricultural lifestyle. One such, the most renowned of the so called Five Civilized Tribes, was the Cherokee Nation of western Georgia, which even had its own written constitution. But the Cherokees' assimilation proved no protection against expulsion when white settlers began to claim for their lands.

Although the Cherokee holdings were guaranteed by a 1791 treaty between the tribe and the Federal Government, the administration of President Andrew Jackson supported the efforts of the Georgia government to force the Indians off their land. Finally, in 1838, Jackson's successor ordered his troops to expel the Cherokees and transport them to newly established Indian territory in distant Oklahoma. One soldier, sickened by his task, described an all too common scene that year: "I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes... In the chill rain I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into wagons and started toward the west".

The trek to Oklahoma, called by the Cherokees Trail of Tears, took a tragic toll: many of them fell ill, and thousands died from expose, disease, and starvation and were buried in unmarked graves.

THE CIVIL WAR (1861-1865)

Expansion brought problems, not least because of the very different societies of the North and the South. The problem of slavery was first raised over the status of Missouri when it was admitted into the Union in 1821.

The anti-slavery movement gained tremendous support after publication of a book called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher-Stowe, and political divisions over slavery in the Whig and Democratic parties led to the formation of the Republican Party, whose main principle was opposition to the extension of slavery.

When the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President in 1860, South Carolina announced that its union with all other states was dissolved and was immediately followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, which together formed a Confederacy with a constitution based on slavery.

The Northerner did not want war, and Lincoln in his opening speech as President declared that he would not interfere with slavery in the Southern states, but merely affirmed the constitutional right of the Union to determine the status of new states.

Lincoln refused to allow secession to disrupt the Union, however, and, as civil war became inevitable, Virginia also seceded on the constitutional grounds that every state in the Union enjoyed sovereign rights; Nebraska, North Carolina and Tennessee quickly followed. The twenty three states of the industrial North, with a population of 22,000,000, were, therefore, opposed by eleven Southern states, almost 4,000,000 of whose 9,000,000 inhabitants were slaves.

The three main theaters of action when a war broke out in 1861 were the sea, the Mississippi Valley and the .Eastern seaboard states. Although the Union had naval superiority, it was unable to establish an efficient blockade until 1863. In the Mississippi Valley in the west, General Grant and his forces gradually split the Confederacy in two, while in Virginia, Union forces suffered numerous defeats against the two brilliant Southern generals, Robert L. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. But the South was unable to obtain the decisive victory it needed to gain foreign recognition. The war became a lost cause for the South after the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, although it heroically fought on until April 1865, when Lee and his army were forced to surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. The war had cost the lives of 618,000 men— over half from disease.


The cry was "Gold!" and within a year of its discovery in 1848 on the south fork of the American River, the word spread near and far. From Oregon and New England, from Turkey and China, from France and Australia, men converged on California by the tens of thousands. At roaring gold camps, with names like Red Dog, Hangtown, and Rich Bar, they built huts and pitched tents and set about the business of panning the waters of the America^ or San Joaquin rivers or scratching in nearby hills in hopes that fortune would favor them.

By the late 1850s the California Gold Rush was over. Four decades later another major trek to new gold-fields began. This time Eldorado was in the North. Overnight, a remote region long scorned as a valueless icebox became the focus of feverish activity. Thousands of people, heedless of biting winds and subzero cold, streamed into Canada's Yukon Territory, following the discovery of gold in Klondike. Many who missed the Klondike rush headed west, into Alaska where gold discoveries precipitated another rush.

Indeed, some of the gold seekers were lucky, fabulously lucky. There were stories, some of them true, of men literally picking handfuls of gold rich pebbles off the ground. Others made fortunes by supplying gold seekers with necessities. For most, however, weeks of backbreaking labor yielded virtually nothing.


In less than fifty years, between the Civil War and the First World War, the United States was transformed from a rural republic into an urban state. The nation's economic progress, based on iron, steam and electric power, was speeded up by thousands of inventions like the telephone and typewriter, but the terrible working and living conditions, and the unfair monopolies that characterized the industrial revolution in Britain, were repeated on an even bigger scale.

An important factor was continuous and unrestricted immigration from Europe. While many of the 5 million immigrants who had come over between 1850 and 1870 had been able to obtain cheap land in the west, this was no longer possible for the 20 million people who poured into the country between 1870 and 1910 (mainly from southern and eastern Europe) and who were eager to work at almost any wages and under almost any conditions. The often better educated blacks, who had left the South in search of work, became the object of violent racial discrimination, particularly on the part of the newly arrived white immigrants, and were forced into ghettoes.

Virtual monopolies were created in every sector through mergers and takeovers, and the great captains of industry like Rockefeller in oil and Carnegie in steel, with their enormous economic and political power, were the representative figures of the age.

While such monopolies enabled the United States to invade Europe with its manufactures and brought the benefits of large-scale production to almost every American home, legislative changes were needed to control the power of these trusts. President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, began a social crusade in 1901 with the help of the progressive members in both Democratic and Republican parties. The activities of trusts were regulated and legislative reforms were introduced to improve general living and working conditions (such as an eight-hour working day). Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, added even more profound reforms. Protective tariffs were substantially reduced, a new anti-trust law was introduced and other important reforms were carried out in the field of agriculture and labor.


During its 13-year span, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution stood as a monument to the grim crusade for abstinence, which,- from modest American beginnings in the mid-19th century, had slowly gathered force until in 1920 it became the law of the land.

Touted by the Anti-Saloon League of America and other reform groups as a near panacea for just about everything that ailed the US— crime, marital discord, poverty, unemployment, child labor — the Prohibition Amendment was passed by Congress in 1917. "They out it over on us while the boys were away at war", its enemies said.

The required 36 states had ratified the amendment by January 16, 1919, and it went into effect a year later. Besides, Congress in October 1919 passed a special Act, which set up the machinery for enforcing national Prohibition. Under the terms of this Act, Federal agents were empowered to raid speakeasies, smash barrels of the then illegal liquor, and search for the bootleggers who trafficked it in.

Today the 1920s are often remembered with amused nostalgia as the heyday of peephole speakeasies, bathtub gin, and colourful bootleggers. On the darker side were the innumerable painful deaths, blindnesses inflicted by poisonous brews, the rise of organized crime and gangsterism as the underworld took charge of providing the citizenry with illegal booze, and the inadequacy of the undermanned and frequently corrupt enforcement agencies.

In 1929 President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to investigate how well the Prohibition law was being enforced. Columnist Franklin P. Adams summed up the commission's report in the following jingle:

Prohibition is an awful flop,
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.

It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.

By the 1930s the people had had enough of this unenforceable law. The 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th, was speedily passed by Congress and ratified by the States in 1933. Alcoholic beverages returned legally to American life, subject only to the jurisdiction of individual States, all of which had abandoned statewide prohibition by 1966.

The collapse of this attempt to impose abstinence on the American people demonstrated the difficulty of controlling moral conduct by law in the face of popular opposition.


The 1920s were a decade of conservatism and insecurely founded prosperity, in which tariffs were brought to their highest ever levels and taxes were drastically reduced. This remarkable rise in living standards, which caused the decade to be called the Roaring Twenties, ended suddenly in October 1929 with the Wall Street crash — the result of a long period of over-production by the nation's factories and farms, and speculative mania among the middle and wealthy classes. This crash marked the beginning of the worst depression in American history, commonly referred to as the Great Depression.

The period was full of contrasts. There was widespread fear following the Russian Revolution that communists would overthrow the government (the Red Scare), which led to the persecution of all left-wing groups. There was briefly mass support (four million members in 1925) for the Ku Klux Klan, which, in addition to blacks, now attacked Catholics, Jews and all those not born in America. Besides, restrictions were imposed on immigration, not only with regard to the number but also the countries of origin. Moreover, this was the period of prohibition by the Eighteenth Amendment (1919) to manufacture, transport or sell intoxicating liquors (when it ended in 1933, only eight states stayed "dry").

Franklin D. Roosevelt blamed the Depression on basic faults in the American economy and promised a "new deal" for the "forgotten man". He won the 1932 presidential election with an unprecedented majority and set about remedying the worsening situation with his New Deal in 1933.

This was the first administration to introduce government planning into the economy. Over the next two years millions of the unemployed were given jobs in public works projects, and emergency relief was provided for others in order to create greater internal demand for American products. Numerous measures were also taken to help the farmers, as a result of which their incomes more than doubled between 1932 and 1939.

The Second New Deal (1935-1939) aimed at providing security against unemployment, illness and old age, to prevent the terrible hardships of the Depression being repeated.