History in the USA
What is today the United States was once inhabited wholly by an indigenous population known today as American Indians or Native Americans. Most were hunter gatherers. In the 16th and 17th centuries colonisation from Europe began, and by the early 18th century there were 13 British colonies spread along the Atlantic coast. Dissatisfaction with British rule – in particular resentment at taxation – erupted into an armed revolt in 1775 and in 1776 the 13 colonies declared independence. There followed a protracted revolutionary war that effectively ended with the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781. The newly formed nation acquired a constitution in 1789 that is still in force today and began a process of westward and southern expansion through purchases of land from France (1803) and Spain (1819). In the 1830s, settlers in Texas rebelled against the government of Mexico, formed a republic and then joined the US – thereby triggering a war between America and Mexico that resulted in a humiliating defeat for Mexico and the American acquisition of California, New Mexico and Arizona.
Mid-19th-century America was deeply politically divided – particularly over the issue of slavery, which was fundamental to the plantation economies of the south but was banned in the increasingly industrial north. In 1861, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, 11 of the slave states of the south declared that they were seceding from the US to form the Confederate States of America – and the US government responded with force. Some 600,000 Americans lost their lives in a four-year civil war before the Confederacy was decisively defeated, an outcome that led to the abolition of slavery.
With the end of the civil war, America entered a period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation as immigrants from Europe poured into the country to seek their fortunes . By the end of the 19th century, the US was the world's biggest and most advanced economy.
The US purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, annexed Hawaii in 1898 and bought the Philippines from Spain after the Spanish-American war of the same year – a conflict that confirmed the US as the dominant power in the Pacific, South America and the Caribbean. The US avoided becoming embroiled in the first world war until 1917, but its intervention was decisive in securing the defeat of Germany in 1918.
The 1920s saw the US turn isolationist again as it enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom – but the good times (and they were good times for most Americans, despite the prohibition of alcohol) came to an end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the deep depression that ensued. The 1930s were a tough decade for many – though they were also when Hollywood established its domination of the film world and American popular music first established a global reach.
The US stayed out of the second world war until Japan attacked its Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Germany declared war on the US – but its role in securing victory for the Allies was once again massive both in Europe and in the Pacific. The US emerged from the second world war in 1945 as indisputably the world's greatest military power. Only the Soviet Union, an implacable ideological foe, came close to matching American might.
The years immediately after the second world war saw the emergence of a mass consumer society for the first time, but America was far from at ease with itself. From the late 1940s, blacks fought a bitter battle to end racial segregation in the South – a battle they won, but only after 20-odd years. From 1964 onwards, America was deeply divided by its military intervention in Vietnam, which came to an ignominious end only in 1975.
Since the 1970s, the US has enjoyed mixed economic fortunes. Its information technology and media industries have continued as world leaders, but many manufacturing sectors have struggled. The US has retained all the military paraphernalia of a super-power – since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its only one – and has not been unwilling to use it, most famously in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks.