Christopher Columbus discovered North America in 1492. The first permanent European settlers were Spanish explorers who arrived at San Augustin (Florida) in 1565. The first English settlers founded Jamestown (Virginia) in 1607. In 1620, colonists on the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth in Cape Cod Bay. By 1732 the 13 British colonies that would become the United States of America had been established.
The role of the colonies was to produce raw materials for England and consume manufactured goods imported from there. They became increasingly vocal in their objections to that role with its increasing taxes and manufacturing restrictions.
Tensions grew. Great Britain responded with increasing arrogance and repressive measures. In 1773, colonists reacted to one of these, the Tea Act, by boarding English ships and dumping more than a thousand chests of tea into Boston Harbor and the Delaware River. Great Britain’s response was more repression.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. It agreed to boycott British goods and cease exports to Great Britain unless the ‘Intolerable Acts’ were repealed. They weren’t. Violent skirmishes at Lexington and Concord began the American war for independence.
In 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, with George Washington as Commander-in-chief. It then affirmed American loyalty to Great Britain and entreated the King to prevent further conflict. A ‘Declaration of Causes’ promised to lay down arms “when Hostilities shall cease …” but before it was received in England, Great Britain issued a ‘Proclamation of Rebellion’ declaring American rebels to be traitors.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence uniting the colonies as independent states in a war for independence. The Declaration begins:
These principles, together with the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, comprise the raison d’être of the United States of America.
After more than 50 land and sea battles, Great Britain acknowledged American Independence. The Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783.
In 1787, a convention of state delegates hammered out a new constitution, which begins with a preamble setting forth the founders’ purpose:
It then sets forth a system of ‘checks and balances’ intended to ensure effective functioning without abridging individual rights. The new Constitution took effect in 1789. The first 10 amendments guaranteeing individual and states’ rights (Bill of Rights) were ratified) in 1791.
George Washington was America’s first President under the new Constitution. He could have been king. But Washington was committed to the Republic; he absolutely refused to stand for a third term, thereby setting a precedent that lasted until 1940.
Territorial expansion begun with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 continued until 1916, by which time land area had more than quadrupled. Helped by waves of immigrants, population surged by 56 times that of 1776, to about 140 million by 1945.
America became a respected and sometimes feared military and naval power before the end of the 19th century, largely because of the many wars it
The United States made an early commitment to education and regularly reinforced that commitment with land grants and federal support. By 1840, 55 per cent of children attended school. By 1870, all states had free elementary schools and, by 1918 all children were required to complete elementary school. In 1945, the median number of school years completed by all U.S. adults was 8.8. By the mid-1970s almost 90 percent of adults had completed high school.
America’s history includes a continuing chronicle of individuals’ freedoms – expanding availability but also encroachments, erosions and direct attack by governments, citizens and institutions. At its founding, not all people in the United States had equal political status, nor were all given liberty to pursue happiness. The most egregious of such shortcomings involved slavery, American Indians and women.