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If you were taught anything of the beginnings of U.S. history in a U.S. school, you would have learned the rhyme In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue/ In fourteen hundred and ninety three, Columbus sailed back across the sea. If you learned the same history in Europe, you may remember your teacher expounding upon people like Cartier, Eiríksson, De Gama, or John Smith. All of these are good points to start from, but the history of the United States from the first human footprint on its soil to the present is a very long, complex one.
This article shall make an attempt to explain that history, divided into parts.
The exact date for when humans began to populate what is now the Western Hemisphere is not knowable, but what is known from archaeological evidence is that humans followed the great migrations of herds across a land bridge where the Bering Strait is today beginning roughly 10,000 years ago. From what is now Alaska, they spread south across the wilderness of Canada into what is now the Western U.S. (much of the east was still covered by an enormous glacier and would remain so for quite some time.) As the temperature heated up, these proto-Native Americans started arriving in other territories, eventually forming new and highly disjunct languages and cultures from the original wanderers and each other: the Pai told stories of Coyote the Trickster by the fireside and grew beans in canyon bottoms, the Lenape hunted deer and gathered oysters from tidal estuaries in the east, the Lakota followed the herds of bison over enormous prairies, and the Ashinaabeg harvested wild rice in the swamps of the north. For thousands of years, these peoples lived by the land, completely undisturbed and isolated while other civilizations across the seas rose and fell, Rome was built and buried in history; even the discovery of Vinland by Leifr Eiríksson would be short lived and dismissed as just a legend for nearly a millennium.
Beginning in the late 15th century, interest in the Western Hemisphere intensified: in the effort to find a faster route to the riches of Asia, the Spanish and Portuguese discovered two very large landmasses with awesome potential for exploitation. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI brokered an agreement between Spain and Portugal with the Treaty of Tordesillas and later the Treaty of Zaragoza , effectively carving up what was to be South Asia and North and South America. From this point, overall, the race was on: by 1520, Hernan Cortes had annihilated the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and brought enormous piles of gold back with him to Spain. This fuelled the greed of Spain considerably: by 1545, the Incas had fallen to Pizarro and the Spaniards were mining huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels and were cultivating new crops like cacao to be exported across the sea: it was during this period that the oldest two cities in what would become U.S. territory were founded as fortresses designed to guard the precious (and often pirated) cargo aboard Spanish galleons: Saint Augustine, Florida (1565) and San Juan, Puerto Rico (1521.) Spain would also send expeditions farther north, investigating what are now California and the Southwest: evidence of this can still be seen today in the occasional wild mustang, many of which are direct descendants of saddle breeds from Renaissance-era Spain.
With the introduction of Europeans came the introduction of many destructive forces that eventually would wipe out a significant portion of the Native American population, as the New World had largely been isolated from the diseases of the Old World and the destructive advances in weaponry like gunpowder, which had originated in China. Smallpox, plague, measles, cannons, and guns: sadly, these forces weakened the indigenous populations so badly the way for European domination of the Americas was nearly a certainty. The Spanish and Portuguese by and large enslaved the Native populations they encountered "in the name of God", giving the excuse of bringing religion to the heathens, and later would be the first to introduce Africans to the New World to replace the ever dying, ever more unwilling Native Americans. The history of Native Americans in their own land would be chronicled in tears from this point on: over time, the more activity that came from European interlopers, the less land they had to count as theirs.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, old rivals grew ever more jealous of the obscene amounts of wealth that was flooding back into the Iberian Peninsula from conquered territories both in the Americas and Asia: Britain, The Netherlands, Sweden, and France were not included in the original treaties and 40 years past brokerage three of these four had undergone the throes of the Reformation (there was little chance of getting back within the good graces of the Pope to renegotiate a new treaty.) Therefore, all of the above essentially ignored the treaties and Catholic France had the leeway to send its first settlers across the Atlantic, starting in 1534 with Cartier's first expedition. Initially, France was unsuccessful as most of the colonies it set up were destroyed by Natives or inclement weather; it was not until 1605 that success was to be had with the foundation of Port Royal (now Newfoundland) and the 1608 foundation of Quebec: the start of New France.(New France's territory would claim huge swaths of the United States as well, including large portions of New England.)
In 1607, England followed France across the sea and set up its firs permanent colony at Jamestown in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia, named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. At first, the main objective was to find gold as the Spanish had many years before, but the settlers who came to Jamestown would find nothing of the sort: their Powhatan neighbors were mainly a subsistence tribe, not metalsmiths. At this point in history, European colonists were mainly invested in the idea of trade and striking it rich, but the English were the first to successfully set up large agricultural settlements with the first plantings of tobacco and later raw materials like lumber, rice, and cotton. As the plantations grew, so did the need for labor: in this, the British would copy the Spanish. In 1619, a Dutch trader ship arrived in Virginia with the first load of slaves to disembark and work the plantations of the South. This would lead to slave codes later which systematically would take away a slave's basic human rights and would continue for many hundreds of years in some form or another.
Not all British colonies were founded because of a need to get rich; by the early 1600's, Calvinism had taken root in Britain and to say the least King James I was not very fond of the Separatists. Eager to get rid of a rather vocal group, he granted some the ability to settle in Virginia (read: far, far away from him.) This grant would actually result in the Puritans' infamous landing on Plymouth Rock and the founding of Massachusetts. These two colonies were followed by colonies founded on the ideals of either religious tolerance, for proprietary reasons, and in the last case a penal colony: in order, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York (taken from the Dutch/Swedes,) Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia rounded off the original thirteen colonies and completed them by 1733.
Throughout the late 1600s and early 1700s, the English and the French were constantly battling over the colonies and the right to expansion in North America. Things finally came to a head during the French and Indian War (1754-63), in which the British and French clashed over the rights to the area comprising Canada and portions west of the Appalachian Mountains; Britain was the victor, gaining much of the land and the loyalty of most of the Native American tribes, but the victory was short lived as the war had drained a large amount of money from the public coffers.
George III's solution to the problem was to tax the colonists who had aided him in battle severely and "impose order" on the land he sought to rule, a land that up to this point had largely been left to itself through its colonial governments and charters. Unfortunately, it was a move that was ill advised as it illustrated to the average colonial how much the mercantile system practiced at the time benefitted Mother England and how little it benefitted the colonists: colonial Americans did not have MP's in Westminster to register their complaints with the king. They could not expound their views in London papers to appeal to the public from thousands of miles away nor could they appeal any decisions with the courts. Over time it became pretty evident that His Majesty could crush their way of life on a whim: during this period, local governments were suspended, taxes were imposed in such a way that trade with any other nation was crushed (this killed many livelihoods) and as the colonists grew more violent (as evidenced by the Boston Massacre and Virginia towns gathering men to form their own militias) certain cities like Boston were placed under martial law. Guns were strictly controlled: in colonial times this was a particularly cruel move due to the fact that a rifle was a means of providing meat, an item that could be expensive to poorer families if it had to be bought rather than shot (i.e., some families faced starvation.) All told, these actions were enough to foment open rebellion for the oldest two colonies and on April 19th, 1775 the first shot of the American Revolution was fired at Lexington, Massachusetts: the British had tried to take and destroy a cache of weapons hidden there and capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock, vocal opponents of the Crown and community leaders. The colonists responded by chasing them back to Boston, losing many lives in the process.
When the Second Continental Congress (a colonial era representative government) met the succeeding May, it was divided into thirds: one third were for open rebellion against the crown, one third (mainly the Southern colonies) were loyal, and one third were moderate. John Adams, a Massachusetts man and future President of the United States, likened getting all to agree on anything to "getting thirteen clocks to strike at once." Indeed, to his chagrin, a last ditch attempt was drafted to reconcile with King George called the Olive Branch Petitions. By autumn, the Congress had their answer from the crown: George responded with scorn and fury. He declared the colonies in an open state of rebellion; he did not even read any further admonitions to come and further granted the military the right to use whatever means at their disposal to suppress the rebels. The response even called for the execution of all the men present in Philadelphia: this turned the men who had just begged for His Majesty's mercy into outlaws to be hunted and hung on the gallows at Tyburn.
As George's answer became more public, it enraged the colonists and their governments more, tipping the scales towards armed combat against what was then the most powerful nation on earth: the colonies were ready to take on the British lion rather than be his beasts of burden. On July 4th, 1776 during a sweltering summer, the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Continental Congress and established the reasons why the colonies wanted freedom from Great Britain; it would later provide a foundation for later documents like the Constitution and establish a means to negotiate with European powers of the time as one nation. (For these reasons, to this day, the 4th of July is celebrated by citizens as the United States' official birthday.) The same day, the design for the Great Seal of the United States was commissioned and placed a uniquely American emblem as the symbol of the infant country-a bald eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and thirteen spears in another. For five more years the colonists fought vigorously, gaining the respect and backing of foreign powers, including sizeable commitments from the French, Dutch, and Spanish. In the South, British officers like Banastre Tarleton crystallized the anger of colonists that once leaned towards loyalty: Tarleton was a cavalry officer, a dragoon, who controversially rode his men into a group of militiamen after their surrender, slaughtering them and boasted of whoring and burning his way through the Carolinas. At Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, with the aid of the French fleet on one side and George Washington's troops on the other, General Cornwallis surrendered and in so doing allowed America to continue on its way as its own nation. The lion, in losing, had laid an eagle's egg.
In 1787 the current U.S. Constitution was drafted, creating the office of President, a bicameral Congress and a federal court system comprised of nine judges at the top whose job is to interpret the law. George Washington, who had commanded the American army during the Revolution, presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution and would eventually be elected the first President of the United States. The first capital of the U.S. under the Constitution was New York City; It was in what is now lower Manhattan where George Washington began the tradition of public officials swearing an oath on the Bible to "preserve, protect, and defend" the U.S. Constitution (it has since been adapted so that Jewish and other non-Christians may swear on the Koran or the Torah, respectively; those that have no specific belief in God may swear on a book of laws.) The capital would move several times before the creation of a permanent capital city in a malaria infested swamp which is now known as Washington D.C. (and currently is now no longer a swamp.) Thomas Jefferson, who had written the Declaration of Independence and who would eventually be elected the third President, complained that the Constitution did nothing to protect the rights of citizens-a legislator could trample the rights of individuals as easily as a king could, and the majority votes of larger states could drown out the voices of the smaller. Congress eventually proposed ten amendments to the Constitution setting forth the rights of citizens. These ten amendments are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights: since their inception, seventeen amendments have been added as per the instructions of the original portion of the Constitution. The first part of the Constitution establishes the means and right to have major laws of the land change as needed, plus a system of checks and balances to ensure no single branch of government has too much power.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was perhaps the best bargain in terms of land acquisition for the newly established states -- at 3 cents an acre, the colonies were able to purchase New France from then-cash strapped (and power mongering) Napoleon Bonaparte; it was further fortunate that in the thirty years since independence that the French had taken a leaf out of America's book and underwent a brutal revolution of its own: such an action cancelled a great deal of debt. Having gained 22% of its future landmass, the country continued to grow with the independence of Texas from the Mexicans and the Mexican War that occurred a decade later. With the Mexican Concession, the United States had established the boundaries for the continental 48 states. However, the balance of power within the United States was decidedly uneven: millions of Africans and their descendants were kept as slaves in the South, with no right to vote, barely any right to live, families often split apart at the auction block, and their masters growing inordinately rich off of the labor they produced. Male slaves of this era were often counted much like a farmer's prized ox in their master's ledgers; females were judged by their fecundity or (in the worst cases) treated as concubines for their master's pleasure rather than as people. During this period agricultural output in the South more than tripled with rice, tobacco, and most especially cotton being grown on very large plantations for export to the more industrialized North and to feed the ravenous appetite of the growing Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and France: there was little hope of wealthy Southerners ever letting go.
By the early 1800's, though the United States had voted to stop importing slaves directly from West Africa, the population was self-sustaining, even growing. By legal definitions, blacks counted for three-fifths of a human being apiece: in a system where electoral votes were partly determined by population such a measure gave a slight advantage to slaveholders. This was clearly unfair even to those who could vote as it gave slaveholders undue influence in Congress and national elections. As the country's territory grew, most Northern states gradually abandoned the practice of slavery, with New Jersey being the last to ban it outright in 1846. From 1820-1858, controversy would continually erupt over which newly acquired territories would be free and which would have slavery; at one point during the 1830's the issue became so contentious that a "Gag Rule" was placed upon it in both Houses of Congress.
In popular culture, books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and Huckleberry Finn would see their first publications, each questioning the morality of a "necessary evil." Henry "Box" Brown traveled around the country, recounting to large audiences his story: after his wife and children were sold to a trader, he risked his life to get to Philadelphia by packing himself in a crate for a dangerous 27 hour journey. Once uncased and realizing he was free, he fell to his knees, tearfully singing a hymn of joy-he was finally a free man, beholden to none. In church pulpits of the North, many preachers would thunder and curse the inhumanities of their southern counterparts, some going as far as being part of a network established by freed blacks and sympathetic whites to smuggle entire families of runaways north into cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven, and even as far north as Ontario and Quebec: the Underground Railroad. Brave men and women involved often would smuggle blacks out of the South to places where they could live in freedom with stops on the path in the forms of church basements, farmhouses, and hidden rooms behind businesses. Among slaves, instructions for escape could sometimes be found hidden in spirituals at church:
‘Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children
God's gonna trouble the water.....
....‘When the sun comes up and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.’
The basis of the spiritual above is found in Exodus, chapter 14: the story of the Israelites escaping slavery. The instructions tell a slave to wade in the water at night where they are less likely to be seen and where dogs will have a trickier time tracking their scent. The other part tells a slave to follow the river north. The drinking gourd refers to Ursa Minor, (a constellation which looked a lot like a utensil slaves used in the hot sun to drink from) the tail of which is the North star.
There were more deadly manifestations of malcontent as well. In 1831, Nat Turner led one of the largest slave revolts in the history of the nation: he led hundreds of blacks in insurrection and slaughtered whatever whites he could find; his failure to free himself and his brethren from bondage not only resulted in his hanging but also resulted in greater paranoia amongst white slaveholders and a lethal crackdown. Twenty years later, egged on by increasing legislation that tightened the grip of southern owners over slaves, a white man by the name of John Brown advocated a militant brand of abolitionism: in Kansas Territory he took part in the Pottawatomie Massacre, hacking to death five pro-slavery settlers, and later on he lead an attack on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a "jailbreak" of slaves in the raid. (He was captured and hanged in the attempt.) A young Illinois lawyer by the name of Lincoln would write of the times:
A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Unfortunately, the future 16th president was wrong: the house fell. Eventually this internal strife devolved into the Civil War, lasting five years and having repercussions which still echo to the present. The Civil War still remains the bloodiest engagement in the history of the United States where large percentages of the population lost their lives and literally turned rivers red with blood for days. The war began in 1861 when secessionary forces of the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, irrevocably casting the die for battle between the slave holding South and the free North. Brother turned against brother, father against son, and far from the romantic images of Margaret Mitchell it was a tense and difficult time for all: the South today is littered with huge mass graves of Civil War soldiers. Raiding and looting were common practices on both sides as were countless back road skirmishes in the border states between North and South. William Tecumseh Sherman, a Northern general, even had a scorched earth policy in which he obliterated plantations and settlements; his journals show his intent was to crush the spirit of the Rebels and undermine their ability to continue fighting. On the Southern side, Nathan Bedford Forrest would successfully lead an attack and capture of Fort Pillow in Tennessee: he would also allow his soldiers to massacre a battallion of black Union soldiers after they had surrendered and after the war would become one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first of two orders that would become the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a masterstroke politically as it warded off any foreign aid to the Confederate States: Britain and France had abolished the slave trade earlier and if they aided the Confederacy at this time it would be all but a nullification of prior actions and pledges, hypocrisy. The Proclamation added soldiers to the ranks of the Union: when the Union was the victor in a given battle, oftentimes the slaves from surrounding plantations would follow the camps and enlist themselves, so much so that schools teaching them to read , to write, and to fight were set up in their dozens. Once signed it aided in the final freeing of slaves in June 1865 and set the course for what today are called the Civil War Amendments (XIII-XV.) These amendments denied the government the right to enslave peoples, denied any U.S. citizen the right to enslave others to pay off a debt, and guaranteeing citizens the right to due process of law and equal protection under the law.
Abraham Lincoln would also order, once the South conceded and the war ended, a massive policy to rebuild the country that was never fully completed: in the wake of the Civil War the economy of the South was a wreck and the population was filled with many disillusioned and angry men; much of the South was under martial law and countless many newly freed slaves faced severe gaps in education and lack of direction as all had been dependent on the plantation system for generations. Abraham Lincoln began to draft plans for the South but, like many before him, would give his life for his country and wound up at the wrong end of an assassin's bullet.
After the Civil War, the country finished "filling out" its current form in the lower 48 and underwent a period of rapid growth: between 1870 and 1940, industry flourished in America and was fed by a second enormous wave of emigration from around the world; these people would become the ancestors of many Americans today. In the eastern cities, the Irish became a force to be reckoned with as they helped create the first political committees, formed large portions of the police force and fire brigades, and voices like Mother Jones spoke out against the use of child labor in textile mills and factories.
In the late 19th century, the ruling Qing Dynasty of China had apparently lost the Mandate of Heaven as the Orient became subject to the imperial aspirations of Great Britain and others: a combination of Opium Wars and natural disasters made life difficult for the average Chinese indeed. Legends of "Gold Mountain" trickled across the sea to a willing audience and soon San Francisco was teeming with Cantonese speaking immigrants, most of them originating from an area along the Pearl River. Despite facing racism from the local populations (and usually not finding any gold) they would remain steadfast and determined to build the railways through the canyons of the deserts and prairies and introduce new methods of fishing to California and Washington (today what began as their predilection for crabs and abalone has spawned a very lucrative business.)
In Hawai'i, they would be among many Asians that would provide the foundation stock for the current population: many Chinese, Japanese, and others were sent into the pineapple fields to work the enormous plantations eventually to save enough and prosper on their own, starting their own businesses and "benevolent associations", in budding cities like Honolulu. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even New York they would become an important foundation stock for what are now successful scientists, lawyers, and even a few lawmakers: many Chinese Americans may trace their ancestry back through a few set locations off the coast of San Francisco or to the back alleys and tenements of Manhattan.
In ports like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, armies of people from Southern Italy traveled across the ocean bringing with them their customs, languages, and brute strength to work the factories: demand for American goods in Europe was very high. Joining the Irish, they would reinforce and firm up the presence of the Catholic Church in America, an important feat at this time given America's early distaste for "popery" amongst a largely Protestant population. It was further important because of the staggering need for religious based charities/community centers to aid the adjustment to a very different culture with a language most immigrants seldom heard before. (Religious charities and organization often served as the focal point for social work and activism in America, continuing to the present: many schools were set up by the Catholic Church, and it was here that immigrant children learned to read, write, and speak English.) With the arrival of Italians came foodstuffs that were totally unrecognizable to the American palate, up to the 1880's largely based upon traditions from Northwest Europe: small businesses like bakeries and cafés flourished, and, for example, once and for all the myth that the tomato was poisonous was disproven to the American public. Italian families that headed west to California also eventually reintroduced the secret of creating wine, an art that had been mostly forgotten since the days of Spanish rule and a foundation for a future cash crop that today is worth billions.
In the Upper Midwest, Poles and Russians flooded the meatpacking industries of Milwaukee and Chicago by the thousands bringing with them new political ideas of socialism and a few early copies of Marx and Lenin. All over the nation, Germans came, fleeing natural disasters at home to bring their skills as craftsmen to the cities, to teach ancient methods of brewing beer and cheese making to Milwaukee and Detroit, and as farmers they expanded West, adapting the land from prairie alongside other Europeans to one of the most productive agricultural centers in the world.
The wealth that all this generated allowed the United States to ascend the world stage as a power and made its population explode to become several times the size of many European powers. The money helped finance the aspirations of men like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, men whose new approaches to manufacturing and invention would set the tone for the coming twentieth century. Simultaneously the wealth created new legal challenges at home: by 1920, labor laws protecting the rights of workers had been established thanks to the knowledge of Ashkenazi Jews and their previous experience in the Labor Bund of Eastern Europe: a people whose background included pogroms and centuries worth of discrimination was extremely useful in advocating social democracy and populism. Anti-trust laws were put in place to reign in large companies, to keep them from preying on the populace and manipulating the market. The Food and Drug Administration was founded after the efforts of muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair exposed the unsanitary practices in food processing assembly lines and others exposed the dubious validity of certain "medicines" that killed more than they cured. The advent of photojournalism added further weight to Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, showing readers exactly how difficult it could be in the worst slums of America and how the rights of immigrants could be easily tampered with: it was certainly enough to gain the compassion of Theodore Roosevelt, who would make many reforms both as Police Commissioner of New York City , as Governor of New York, and later as President himself.
In August of 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed. For many, many years prior, women had been lobbying the government for suffrage rights: when the U.S. was first founded, the rights of citizens generally only translated to men with property and women were subordinate to their husbands' wishes. (In fact, the phrase "rule of thumb" refers to laws originally drawn up in New England in which a husband was permitted to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb.) Whatever property or assets a woman might inherit from her father automatically passed to her spouse upon marriage. Higher education for females was extremely rare and often discouraged: none of the early universities in the United States admitted women and few females in the early twentieth century had any skills beyond the home or basic skills in reading and math. If a woman wanted a divorce for whatever reason, it was nigh impossible to obtain one: society disdained the female that "failed" to tend to hearth, home, and husband, the courts favored handing custody over to the husband if children were involved, and as women were economically dependent upon their spouses, they could not even hire their own lawyer to handle the case.
Many changes during the Victorian era (industrialization, education, settlement of the Western states) forced females to rethink their status in society and at the state level at least a few places permitted females to vote in local and national elections. By 1914, however, women began to get impatient: the state-by-state approach advocated by NAWSA and Carrie Catt was getting tedious as most of the South was not budging, the North was a patchwork, and there were whispers of war in Europe (female suffrage had been advocated by an earlier generation but dreams were deferred by the Civil War.) 3 years earlier, a fire in a shirtwaist factory in New York City killed 140 immigrant workers, most of them women and young girls, in a terrible fire because the foreman had chained the door shut. The girls faced a choice of jumping to their deaths or be one of the voices that could be heard from the streets below, screaming as they burned to death: in the aftermath, it was realized by many of the surviving girls that they had no means of voting out anti-labor rights politicians nor petitioning the government to make fire escapes part of building codes.
Women like Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Inez Milholland, and Ruza Wenclawska went a more radical route and formed their own party in order to directly pressure the Wilson administration. By 1917 they were looking to see suffrage applied as a war measure. (At this time, women were working in unprecedented numbers, both at home in factories and in the trenches of World War I as nurses.) Drawing inspiration from the British suffragette movement and the Pankhursts (and owing to the fact that Paul and Burns knew them,) the younger suffragettes went as far as picketing a very popular president in front of his home, day and night, and later, when jailed on trumped up charges, went on hunger strikes to prove their point, willing to die, as Milholland said, "for us and for our daughters, forever."
These women would help set the tone for twentieth century politics in terms of social issues as most of their assemblies were nonviolent protests and many of their issues would gain final resolution in the mid-twentieth century when their granddaughters began to enter universities. Through their daughters, that generation would witness the strength and fortitude needed to stretch a dime during the Depression and later more freedom outside the household when the men went off to serve in WWII leaving them to work on assembly lines back home.
In September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and in so doing began WWII. Reluctant to get involved, the United States remained neutral mainly on the grounds that it had just suffered through the worst financial bought in its history and citizens were nervous about engaging in a foreign war "over there" again. The Second World War demanded tanks and guns and planes to be built in their thousands first for Britain's fleet through the Lend- Lease Act and then for America's own fleet after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1940. On the side of the Allies, (and a little bit late) America entered the war in December 1941 and in so doing solidified its role as a key player in world politics once and for all. Under the brilliant guidance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it wound up participating in three theatres, had the gumption to call up the draft for the largest scale war effort up to the present, enlisted the aid of the first female soldiers, and ushered in the nuclear age with the dropping of two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. (To this day, the United States notably remains the only world power that has actually used this option and recent history suggests it remains wary of ever using it again.)
After WWII, the U.S. and the USSR remained the two world powers left after the relative destruction of Europe, but the two powers had very different ideas about the way things should be run. The USSR had been using a Communist system that was largely an oligarchy whereas the U.S. was very much a believer in democracy and representative government. Over the next fifty years, the world divided once again along the lines of Cold War politics, with Western Europe taking the side of the U.S. and Eastern Europe and East Asia (save for Japan) taking the side of the USSR. Side effects of the Cold War were an arms and space race: as nuclear weaponry and other technologies advanced, so did the impetus for brinkmanship in the scientific fields. Biological weapons utilizing obscure or long "cured" diseases were invented alongside vaccinations for common diseases like polio. Journeys that once took months to make a century earlier could instead be completed in a few hours due to the improvement of airplanes. In a very short period of time, inventions like nuclear power as an energy source and new records for speed and aerodynamics were set. In 1969, the United States won the space race and became the first to plant a flag on the moon, heralding an even more heightened clash between the two titans that would last another twenty-five years.
The 1960's were not without problems or dishonor. The United States fought a disgraceful war that is largely considered one of its worst international blunders in an effort to "contain" Communism. The Vietnam War was an issue that often divided the younger generation from the older one because of the powers exercised by the federal government: the draft required males who had reached the age of 18 to serve in the Armed Forces. However, suffrage was granted to citizens aged 21 and older: those being sent to Vietnam could not elect leaders who represented their views in government. Federal law at the time did not dictate how long a president could wage war (or "conflict" as it was by law) before consulting Congress: a dangerous proposition that wound up costing many lives and threatened the original system of checks and balances. Furthermore, whether American interests were truly served by "containing" Communism in a former French colony was questioned as were the occasionally brutal, unnecessary tactics of the Army (soldiers returning from war were often given the moniker "baby killers.") The popular malaise and mistrust of the government that would settle in after the end of the war in 1974 would last quite some time and the disillusionment would seriously affect the newly born generation, resulting in a nihilistic view when they came of age. From the government's perspective, it gave a disincentive to invest in these young children in terms of their education and upbringing as well.
In 1989, the wall that divided Berlin fell and soon after so did the USSR: the Warsaw Pact that had held Eastern Europe ransom for so long was dissolved. Soon after German reunification, a gift the U.S. had given in 1950 finally got to ring over a land where Communism was defeated: the gift was a liberty bell, very similar in design to the original bell used to announce the writing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Millions of Americans turned on their televisions to watch as East Berliners and West Berliners hugged each other for the first time since the 1940's; over the next year the country would whoop with joy as one by one the nations behind the Iron Curtain gained their freedom.
The USSR could not hold itself together because monetarily it had exhausted itself: further, some nations of the Eastern Bloc, like Poland, were growing ever more insubordinate and restless. Territorially, unlike the USSR, the United States' holdings had increased peacefully with the statehoods of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959 and referendums on the status of Puerto Rico that continue to the present. Even the propaganda the Kremlin often levied at the United States was no longer valid: many social issues had undergone a revolution from the time of Nikita Kruschev on through to Gorbachev without the knowledge of the average denizen of Leningrad. In 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the great-grandson of Irish Potato Famine refugees, was sworn in as President: he was the first Catholic to break the superstition that a Catholic president would put the needs of the Pope before the needs of his nation. His election paved the way for many men and women of very different faiths to seek and win public office including governorships, both Houses of Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court.
In the 1970's the Havasupai of Arizona sued the Federal Government over the right to use a large portion of the Grand Canyon and won; similar events over violated Native American treaties were addressed and certain lands were even given back. (The Navajos of the Southwest are currently one of the largest landowning groups in the nation, owning a very large chunk of present day Arizona.)The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970 to great public attention, in many cases changing attitudes of the average citizen towards the old practices of Manifest Destiny and changing the way Native American history was taught and portrayed forever. The plight of long marginalized groups of Native Americans came to a head in 1978 when Native American activist groups from several tribes participated in the Longest Walk: a march nearly 4,000 miles long made to protest the Congressional intent to abolish certain treaties made long ago with Indian tribes. Certain prominent members of Congress, like JFK's younger brother Senator Edward Kennedy, even joined the march. A little more than ten years later, evidence of a change of heart towards Native Americans as a group was to be found in film: in 1990, Dances with Wolves won the Academy Award for Best Picture; with its portrayal of the Lakota language and historical accuracy it was a huge leap forward from 1953's Disney film, Peter Pan.
In the time between the advent of the Cold War and its conclusion, the Jim Crow laws, a relic of the antebellum past, had been struck down alongside most other racist practices during the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1970). Men like Martin Luther King Jr. endured beatings, jail, the Klan, and lynchings to ensure the very last demons of the Civil War were exorcised. He had thousands of followers who risked life and limb to practice their right to vote, to marry non-blacks, to attend whatever school they wanted, to go to college, and to take their place in society at last. Prior to King's birth and political rise, blacks often suffered inhumane treatment by the law and society, even brutal treatment: an unfortunate outcome of Abraham Lincoln's death was gross mismanagement of reconstruction of the South by officials which in the end resulted in institutionalized, systematic exclusion from social advancement, especially in the Southern States.The world Dr. King was born into was one where injustices like the Rosewood massacre and minstrel shows went hand in hand, and where even Hollywood was not above projecting racist, even vicious stereotypes of society onto its silver screens: in 1939, the first black person to win an Academy Award won for her role as a maid, a "mammy" to Scarlett O'Hara; In 1946 Disney's Song of the South brought a false image of the antebellum south to children everywhere that was so terrible that the modern Walt Disney Company refuses to release it in any format anywhere in the U.S. to this day. (To teach children that a slave is happy to be so and is mainly there to entertain them, like a toy, is unconscionable today, but was common prior to 1948.)
Black women, though no longer the chattel of white men, often had no recourse against sexual abuse at the hands of white males and black men were often scapegoated for any sort of crime from the petty to the more serious, with the same consequence: lynching. By the time Martin King was earning his PhD, he'd likely heard many versions of this jazz standard, originally by Billie Holliday:
‘Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
...Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather,
For the wind to suck,
For the rain to gather,
For the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop...
Other blacks of Martin's generation endured far worse: a young Malcolm Little watched as police did not acknowledge his father's murder by white supremacists and witnessed his mother's slow decline into insanity and later institutionalization; as this child aged he nearly would succumb himself to vicitmization by the system, a violent criminal with a drug habit. He would eventually grow up to be Malcolm X, and although his message was more radical than Dr. King's (he preferred violence in self defence over strict nonviolent protest) he did spur on African Americans to believe in themselves, their right to a place in this world, and gave a more articulate voice to the frustration of an entire people, a tall order at the time. Because of the efforts of these two men, legal and social walls would be brought down hard and fast. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren decided many cases that ensured what had been would never be again: Brown vs. the Board of Education , Loving vs. Virginia, Baker vs. Carr, and Lucy vs. Alabama were all decided between 1958 and 1970, and gave blacks a greater foothold in society, even reversing decisions made by the same Court decades earlier.
Twenty years after the murder of Dr. King, evidence that he had succeeded were to be found in the integration of schools, the election of the first black politicians since Reconstruction, interracial marriages (and the babies that result) increasing in number with each passing year, and by the celebration of this martyr's birthday as a national holiday. Forty years after Malcolm, his words are taught in high schools and universities across the nation and concepts that he inspired ( "black is beautiful," black arts movement) are to be found in the searing words of Maya Angelou, the edgy raucous works of Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and black faces and hairstyles gracing the cover of Vogue. His flinty rhetoric remains an inspiration to politicians to this day.
Election of Barack Obama
In the twenty two years that have passed since 1989, the United States has become the sole remaining superpower on earth with enormous influence on world politics and pop culture. It has been through a huge technological boom in the 1990's with the advent of the internet and computers. It has also come a very long way on issues of race from where it was fity years beforehand or even twenty-five years beforehand.
On November 4th, 2008, the United States elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama. It was a landmark event in a nation who still, in 2008, had senior citizens old enough to remember childhoods where lynchings were a common punishment in 30% of the country for the black man that dared to register to vote. Obama's election was an earth shaking event as finally, to paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou, the dreams and hopes of the slave were finally rising, to many tears of happiness. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, politicians from the African American community were doing what their parents and grandparents were prevented from ever accomplishing: getting elected to public offices. From the 1970s until 2008 they were not only successful in winning election to every major public office in the land, but also had become incrementally successful in uniting the many facets of the US body politic behind them: no easy task in a nation noted for its fractious politics. Many had prayed they would live to see the first nonwhite President and some doubted such would ever come, but come that man did. A man who, when the White House had been built in 1792, would have been only allowed there as a slave sleeping in the attic. When it was finally announced who California cast its ballots for, (-this state is inordinately powerful owing to its massive, diverse population and the fact that in this race it determined the winner -) the entire country, from one end to the other, from Harlem to San Francisco to TImes Square, exploded with excitement, dancing in the streets and posting it on YouTube for all the world to see. On the internet an oft-repeated quote was, "Rosa [Parks] sat so that Martin [Luther King] could march. Martin and Malcolm marched so that Obama could run. Obama is running so that our children can fly!"
January 20th 2009, was a clear, but very cold day of only about -5 °C . For roughly a week, people had been pouring into Washington DC from all over the nation and beyond. Hotels were sold out not only in Washington DC proper, but all over Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland as well. Some people were crazy enough to camp out on the Mall the night before in temperatures well below freezing just to get good seats. Many people had reserved aiplane tickets to Washington over a month in advance, selling out flights: some of these travellers were coming from across the border in Toronto and Vancouver. Others had driven for days to report to the National Mall from as far away as San Francisco-a journey that takes about a week to complete. The radios were announcing that the results were official and not only was this recent election of historic proportions because of Obama's race, but also because it had the highest volume of voters in nearly 50 years. Blacks and whites alike jammed themselves into buses leaving from church parking lots all over the South to get to the North by dawn. By eight in the morning., every walk of life, from celebrities like Steven Spielberg to inner city kids from Philadelphia, were jamming up the streets to get to the Inauguration Ceremony, overwhelming both the city's subway system and the city grid above.
Approximately four million people were present to witness the 44th president take office and millions more watched the broadcast . For a US president to assume office, he must swear on a Bible or book of meaning to promise to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Obama appropriately, laid his hand on an antique Bible that once belonged to the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. As he was speaking the Oath of Office, the Bible was held by his wife Michelle Robinson Obama, a powerful symbolic action that all Americans recognized, as everyone present knew from the campaign she and the Obama children are the descendants of slaves from South Carolina and Georgia.
Most of Obama's policies thus far indicate a desire to make a difference, but he has his work cut out for him, in spite of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize it is going to take much more than awards to make any sort of progress. The political problems are as unending as are their proposed solutions: Americans currently pay more for healthcare than any other nation but do not get any better results for all the money they pay and the original public system is dangerously compromised, with a large generation going into retirement and an increasing number of people unable to afford health insurance. The actions of the prior administration to Obama's not only strained relations over its foreign policy, but its actions at home did damage to the economy, to environmental protections, and severely damaged the credibility of government in the eyes of the people.
The U.S. appears to be undergoing a third, eye poppingly large wave of immigration with numbers that have not been seen since the 1920's, mostly from Spanish-speaking and Asian nations. (The 2010 census shows that the United States is attracting more people to her shores than all of Europe combined.) A very large number of these have entered the U.S. illegally, causing ethical, legal, and social quagmires. The problems vary from visa dispersal to much more deadly troubles. For example, for the past twenty years Chinese snakeheads have been caught smuggling and enslaving illegal migrants from Fuzhou to which they may owe a massive debt they cannot possibly repay in a timely manner and still have money to live on or send home in remittances. The migrants often live in constant terror of the law and the gangs to which the snakeheads belong. Cops have the power to deport them and the people are terrified culturally because of corrupt and brutal tactics of the police in their native land.
The snakeheads are a ruthless, vituperative lot who force the migrants into near feudal labor that is in extreme violation of state, federal, and long held constitutional laws (the 13th Amendment turned 145 years old in June 2010.) The snakeheads also kill any that go to the authorities or try to escape their grasp, or if this is not tenable they may hold a person's family back in China for ransom. Owing to China's notorious censorship, highly nationalistic school curriculum, and marginal education of rural areas, these recent migrants are also very poorly informed (if at all informed) about the truth surrounding certain historical events like the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, the cruelty of Chairman Mao and his Great Leap Forward, and the fall of the USSR. Many are illiterate in both Chinese and English. They do not understand their rights in a democracy, let alone their ability to organize and take down the powerful if they so wish: unlike in China, one does not need permission from any authority to protest in America and the phenomenon of flash mobs was born here, with resounding success. This recent group mostly does not ask for help from the older, Cantonese speaking populations as they do not speak a dialect that is intelligible with Cantonese, and further they have been indoctrinated against "Western decadence" all their lives. They distrust anyone not in their tightly defined social groups and rarely leave the neighborhoods they live in. As the Cantonese descended persons are more likely to be involved in government as city officials and lawyers, these Fukienese people often suffer in silence, even as some Cantonese-American based organizations desparately try to save them from such a fate.
A last example is found in Spanish speakers. Though the vast majority of Hispanics that come to the United States come simply seeking a better life, the drug cartels they leave behind, the ones that make their lives miserable south of the border, take advantage of their migration, getting their tentacles into cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, and Miami. The extremely violent, Mafia-like nature of these cartels exacerbate problems of gang warfare and a black market for weapons as well as inflate national statistics on violent crime; they terrorize the neighborhoods they operate in and tempt poor young Latinos into a cycle of violence and death. Many of the narcotraficantes within these organizations have gone as far as to steal identities from US citizens, especially those from Puerto Rico, where passport theft is rampant.
A sizeable proportion of Hispanic migrants to the United States have had poor to nearly nonexistent education (illiterate in both Spanish and English) as most Latin American countries charge money for education and books that only a certain set can afford. Their illiteracy creates a difficult dilemma for the public school system in America. Every child within US territory is entitled to a free public education up to the age of eighteen. Hispanics are completely dependent on the system to educate their children and parents do not posess the skills to help their children through school often because 1) they have little education themselves 2) cultural values on education are very different, especially for daughters (who need to learn to be wives) and 3) supporting the family and loyalty to the family comes before education. Girls are encouraged to get married more than they are encouraged to go to college; they are encouraged to help out at home and help raise cousins and younger siblings more than they are encouraged to study their chemistry homework. Men and boys are encouraged to be machos and sometimes this causes problems when the school is headed and staffed by female instructors. Thus, the dropout rate of this group is very high. Controversies abound over how to educate a group that insists on instruction in Spanish in a nation where 80% of the populace speaks English, and if these people should be supported by tax dollars in the first place as their parents may have broken the law to get here.
The United States is still one of the three top destinations for immigration after over a hundred years. Currently it has a lottery system in regards to immigration that has changed very little since the 1960's and there is heated debate as to whether to increase the numbers permitted in the lottery, to do away with the lottery and replace it with a new system, to grant another massive amnesty as done roughly 15 years ago, or a mix of these. Finding the correct balance to allow those who just want a better life for themselves into the country and exclude or punish those with criminal intent is going to be very difficult by any standard and for President Obama this is one of the most challenging hurdles: a nation that has the phrase "give me your poor, your tired" engraved on a statue in the middle of the harbor of its largest city and also has millions hiding out illegally, fearing Immigration officials is a state of affairs that weighs heavily on the conscience of many voters.
Obama presides over a nation that is currently undergoing a very large change in demographics, a tidal wave of change. Generations X & the Millenials (b. 1961-1980 and 1981-2003, respectively) are entering adulthood and midlife, positions of power. The youngest third of the Millenial generation is now in high school and shall start to be eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election when they become 18 or older. Their parents, the Baby Boomers, are approaching senior citizenship and, given the advances in medicine and quality of life of the past half century, their grandparents from the WWII era are in extreme elderhood if they have not already passed on . These two younger generations have very different characteristics than their parents and grandparents and different ideas as well: all told it could mean a very different course for the United States in coming years.
Statistically, Americans born between 1970-2000 make up more than half of the current national electorate. In spite of having a sharp drop of births during the 1960's and 70's, the United States quickly had a large "echo boom" beginning around 1981 that continued for roughly 20 years and produced greater amounts of children than most other developed countries did. (Unlike most of the world powers the average age of an American by the year 2030 is expected not to break the high thirties unlike Japan, South Korea, and nearly all of Europe.) They both made up a very large percentage of the 2012 presidential elections as well as the 2010 midterm elections and if trends continue their influence in national politics is expected to grow, not shrink, with time.
They are accustomed to much heavier use of technology than the prior three generations and have enormous pressure on them to create more innovative technology at a much faster rate than their parents did. The older segment of this part of society are noted for having excellent entrepreneurial skills and "street smarts" (companies like Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube all were owned and invented by members of Generation X; much of Apple's current R&D team as well as designers also fit this profile.) The younger segment are much more likely than their parents to have advanced degrees in a broad scope of disciplines and 10 times as likely to have traveled abroad (outside of North America) at some point in their lives (they also currently carry more passports than their parents.) They are more than three times as likely than Baby Boomers to have been born to parents born outside America, the children of immigrants; they also thuse are much more likely to be born speaking more than one language, including, but not limited to, Hindi, Quechua, Tagalog, Korean, Thai, Creole, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Socially, they have very different ideas regarding marriage and dating, including marriage between the same gender and marriage where different races are involved. They are accustomed to being part of a very ethnically and racially diverse society and have been brought up in a society that is less compartmentalized than in other parts of the world or even the world their parents knew.
They were either children or not yet alive to witness the Cold War or the Civil Rights Movement, and the divisive political methods from those times do not make up their political frame of reference: evidence over the past three years suggest they are growing exhausted by the constant bickering of the Culture Wars as well as the political tactics of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Most of this segment of the population is increasingly expressing rage and contempt for their parents' actions and perceived irresponsibility from the 1980s to the present day. The combined deregulation of businesses under the aegides of Reagan, Clinton and Bush, the Stock Market crash of 2008, multiple foreign policy blunders, and Social Security funding-all of the above are enough to make the younger geneation incandescent with fury and frustration at the status quo something to watch in the coming years.
The level of distress within America is higher than any since FDR's first administration in 1932: only time shall tell if the current president shall rise to the occasion and bring America more securely into the 21st century. As the nation goes through an uncertain time, the public remains apprehensive, but determined. Time shall tell what comes next.
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