Great Events in American History

A list of some of the great moments and events in the history of the United States, by chronological order – from the arrival of Columbus to landing a man on the moon.

Settlement of Indigenous people from Asia (c. 15,000 BC) It is estimated that the first human civilisations in the land mass of America occurred around 15000BC. It is likely that the first settlers arrived from Asia and the northwest passage through Siberia and Alaska. Around this time, the Bering straight was not submerged in water but could be passed by migrating humans.

Landing_of_Columbus_(2) The arrival of Christopher Columbus (1492) Although not the first European to land in the Americas, the journeys of Christopher Columbus began the Spanish and European colonisation of the Americas. His pathfinding voyages encouraged future European missions to begin colonies in the Americas.

The_Birth_of_Pennsylvania_1680_cph.3g07157 Pennsylvania Frame of Government 1682 Pennsylvannia was an early American colony. Charles II gave the colony to William Penn, an English Quaker. Penn sought to institute a colony based on religious freedom, individual liberty and democracy.  The constiution gave significant power to two elected assemblies. It was an important experiment in the development of American democracy. Philadelphia played a pivotal role in the American Revolution.

Boston_Tea_Party_w Boston Tea Party (1773) A protest by ‘The Sons of Liberty’ against the Tea Act of 1773 which protestors claimed imposed taxes without representation. The protestors (Some dressed up as Native Americans) destroyed chests of tea from the East India Company. The protest escalated and was a key moment in the American Revolution.

US-original-Declaration-1776 Declaration of Independence (1776) Adopted by the Second Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, in Philadelphia. The thirteen colonies overcame different opinions to regard themselves as one nation and to break with the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Declaration, written by Thomas Jefferson, was not just a statement of political independence but an iconic exposition of individual rights.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”

Treaty_of_Paris Paris Peace Treaty (1783) After seven years of fighting – often outnumbered by British forces, in 1783, America and Britain signed a peace treaty which offered favourable terms to the United States and brought the War of Independence to a close.

Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1 United States Constitution (1787 and 1789) Created in 1787, the US constitution was a document which laid out the framework for the new United States government. It began with the preamble. ‘We the People—affirm that the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens. ” The constitution was adopted at a time when the new US government had little money, and there was divided opinion over how government should be formed.

Bill_of_Rights_Pg1of1_AC Bill of Rights (1791) Shortly after the adoption of the US Constitution, a bill of rights with then Amendments were adopted. These bill of rights put forward by James Madison include guarantees of certain liberties, such as freedom of speech and a right to a free and fair trial by jury. The bill of rights was proposed by ‘anti-Federalists’ who were concerned about the power of a national government.

Louisiana_Purchase Purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France (1803) In 1803, President Jefferson negotiated the sale of the mid-west territories – stretching from the Mississipi to New Mexico, Colorado and Montana. It added 828,000 sq miles of territory at the cost of just 68 million Francs.

War_of_1812_Montage War of 1812-15 with Britain. The war was concluded in 1815 with a peace treaty. Although initially unpopular, by the end of the war, the war had solidified national feeling. It led to a new period of decline in political partisanship. The new president Monroe (1816) won in a landslide, ushering in a period sometimes referred to as the “Era of Feelings.”

seneca-falls Seneca Falls Convention (1848) A convention of women’s rights which made the then-radical call for women to be given equal voting rights. The Convention was organised by local Quakers, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and is considered to be the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement.

Meeting_Union_Square Civil war (1861-1865) In 1861, southern states broke away from the Union to form a Confederacy. At heart was a dispute over slavery, with southern states resenting the perceived attempts by the Union government to limit the spread of slavery. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln famously stated a ‘”A house divided against itself cannot stand.” To Lincoln, the Civil War became a mission to maintain and safeguard the Amerian experiment in Republican democracy.

emancipation-proclamation-1863 Emancipation Proclamation On 1 January 1893, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the status of slaves in rebel south states to that of freemen. It was issued as a war measure and excluded areas, not in the rebellion. However, it was a groundbreaking announcement which made ending slavery a goal of the civil war and paved the way for the 13th Amendment a couple of years later.

Lincolnatgettysburg Gettysburg Address (1863) Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln offered a short 271-word speech to mark those who had fallen on the battlefield. The inspirational address spoke of a ‘new nation under’ God – “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The speech is an iconic testament of American values and ideals.

AdoptionOf13thAmendment Thirteenth Amendment (1865) Abolition of slavery. At the end of the civil war, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the legal status of slaves was still unclear. What had seen impossible at the start of the civil war was passed after a narrow votes in Congress. States wishing to rejoin the union had to ratify the amendment.

450px-East_and_West_Shaking_hands_at_the_laying_of_last_rail_Union_Pacific_Railroad_-_Restoration Completion of Transcontinental railroad (1869). On 10 May, the first railroad across the American continent was completed at Promontory Summit in Utah – symbolically linking the East and West coasts. It ushered in a new era of transcontinental travel, rapidly expanding the West cost and mid-west of America.

Spanish-American_War Spanish-American War (1898) The US intervened in the Cuban War of Independence supporting rebels against Spanish control. The war was a notable success for the US and after the Paris Peace Treaty led to the US gaining former Spanish territories in the Pacific, such as the Philippines. It was a new development in the US’s involvement in global affairs and led some to describe it as the beginning of an ‘American Empire.’

US-GNP-per-capita-1869-1918 World’s largest economy (1900). By 1900, the US had become the world’s largest economy. Fuelled by a wave of immigration from Europe and Asia, the US economy grew at a fast pace, with a growing industrial sector and a period of rising wages and prosperity, not previously seen in the world.

Suffragists_Parade_Down_Fifth_Avenue,_1917 Nineteenth Amendment (August 26, 1920) Equal voting rights for women. The constitutional amendment states. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

First World War (1917-18) Initially neutral, German aggression convinced a reluctant Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany in 1917. In 1914, the US army consisted of only 98,000 troops. By 1918, American troops were flooding into Europe, and this helped to swing the tide in favour of the Allies, leading to the German surrender in 1918.

wilson-declaring-war-februari_1917 Woodrow Wilson’s 14th Points (1919) In 1919, Woodrow Wilson was a dominant figure at the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson had written an idealistic list of 14 points, which envisaged a new world order based on a League of Nations, self-determination and human rights. However, the Allies imposed harsh reparations on Germany and the US Congress vetoed the US entry to League of Nations.

1920s-Jazzing_orchestra_1921 Roaring Twenties (1919–1929) The roaring twenties refers to the period of rapid economic expansion and rise in US living standards. It also saw an emergence of new music and a decline in strict morality. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ was associated particularly with the East coast of the US and major European cities, such as Paris and London.

unemployed-great-depression Wall Street Crash 1929 The boom years of the 1920s came to an abrupt end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, billions of dollars was wiped from the value of share prices – causing widespread bankruptcy. It ushered in the Great Depression years of the 1930s.

public-works-dam Roosevelt’s New Deal (1933 and 36) Elected in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a series of federal government interventions to provide public sector investment, support of trade unions and a limited welfare state. It mitigated the effect of the Depression, maintained support for democracy and altered the perception and role of the federal government in the US.

pearl-harbour Declaration of War December 1941. On 8 December 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Roosevelt and the US Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later the US also declared war on Germany signalling Germany’s entry into the global war against the Axis powers.

d-dayInto_the_Jaws_of_Death_23-0455M_edit D-Day  1944 On 6 June 1944 American, British and Allied forces landed troops on Normandy beaches, four years after the fall of France. It was the beginning of a long campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi rule and bring the second world war to a conclusion. The overall commander for D-Day was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

un-representatives-26-allied-nations-pledge-their-support Foundation of the United Nations 1945. On 6 June 1945, 50 countries met in San Francisco, the US to draw up a charter for a new international body – the United Nations. The UN came into existence on 26 October 1945 with its headquarters based in New York, US. Three years later the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was signed.

surrender-japan End of War in the Pacific (1945) Initially announced on 15 August, on 2 September 1945, Japan formally surrendered aboard USS Missouri just off Tokyo Bay – bringing an end to the global war. The surrender came shortly after the controversial dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

coal-bread-Hungerwinter,_Demonstration Marshall Plan 1948 The Marshall Plan was an economic recovery plan for western Europe. The United States gave over $12 billion in aid to Western Europe. This was motivated by a fear of Communism spreading throughout Europe and a desire to rebuild Europe economically.

Neptune_over_Soviet_ship_Oct_1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) In 1962, the Soviet Union moved nuclear missiles to Communist-controlled Cuba in response to US missiles placed in Turkey. This sparked a diplomatic crisis and is considered the closest occurrence of nuclear war. However, J.F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev came to an agreement to defuse the crisis and remove nuclear missiles from Cuba.

Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_July_2,_1964 Civil Rights Acts (1964 and 1965) Almost a century after the US ended legal slavery, African-Americans still faced widespread discrimination in voting, employment, education and housing. The civil rights acts were proposed by the Kennedy administration and passed under Lyndon Johnson. The civil rights acts were the culmination of a decade long civil rights movements, led by people such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks – who peacefully sought to challenge discrimination in America.

Great Society programs (1964-65) Legislation passed under the Johnson administration which sought to end racial discrimination and poverty. They included Medicare, Medicaid and social security to provide basic insurance and health care to the poor and elderly.

armstrong-on-the-moon Landing a man on the moon in 1969. In 1961, J.F. Kennedy made landing a man on the moon as a national priority. At the time, the Soviets appeared to have the upper hand in space exploration. But, over the next eight years, a programme was developed to pilot the Apollo 11 and a landing craft on to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to step on the moon on 21 July 1969.

WatergateFromAir Watergate Scandal (1974) Watergate was a political scandal which involved a robbery in Democratic headquarters in Washington D.C. It became remarkable due to the persistence of reporters who uncovered the burglary and also attempts to cover up the issue by President Richard Nixon. It led to the resignation of Nixon and much soul-searching but showed no individual was above the law and the durability of American democracy.

Reagan_and_Gorbachev_signing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) A Treaty signed between Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev to reduce nuclear forces. It was symbolic of the decline in cold-war tensions which had dominated the post-war period. Within two years, the Berlin Wall had come down, and Eastern European countries moved towards democracy.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan “Great Moments of American History”, Oxford, UK., 23 January 2019.


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