In terms of civilization, the progress of America from a collection of squabbling colonies to a globe-spanning superpower has been meteoric. Product of waves of immigration, it is currently the world’s fourth largest country and third most populous, spanning the width of the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific and site of some of humanity’s greatest cities. With the world’s largest GDP (gross domestic product), service sector, media industry, and military GFP (global firepower factor, not including nuclear weaponry), America could be considered the world’s foremost – or at least most influential – current civilization.
Some historians argue that America can be dated to the founding of thirteen English colonies along the eastern seaboard on the North America continent, colonies composed of landless second sons of British gentry, get-rich-quick adventurers, convicts, debtors, religious zealots, political radicals, and some folks just looking for a better life. Other immigrants – African slaves, European indentured servants and the like – arrived not by choice but due to misfortune. Whatever the circumstance, this rowdy rabble laid the foundation for the “melting pot.”
These newcomers quickly put their superior firepower and technology to use against the indigenous population, launching two centuries of conflict and atrocity. By 1776, the native tribes east of the Mississippi were either obliterated, displaced or subjugated. And, due to the expanding western frontier and their role in the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, the “Americans” soon developed an unseemly sense of self-sufficiency and independence. In a few short generations from those initial settlements at Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth and other inhospitable places, these Americans dared to agitate against The Crown for treatment equal to that accorded citizens in the homeland.
Led by Virginia gentry and New England intellectuals, the colonists went from celebrating a victory with Britain over the French to engaging in armed conflict against Britain in just 12 years. If the British Parliament had only followed Ben Franklin’s satirical “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One” (1773), a succinct summation of colonial grievances, England may have given up the Americas as a troublesome investment a lot sooner. Like most family squabbles, the most important factor was money; the colonials chafed under what they considered to be unfair economic restrictions and taxes from Great Britain. Meanwhile, the British (along with a few die-hard loyalists) generally thought that the Americans were an ungrateful rabble who had no idea how much money the Crown was spending on their protection and progress.
By the late 1770s the American colonies were in open revolt, and on July 4, 1776, after intense debate and hand-wringing, their collective representatives declared independence – setting off the Revolutionary War. The fight “raged” from April 1775 through October 1781. It was the usual confused civil conflict, guerrilla warfare in the South and much marching to-and-fro in the North. The Continentals (as the rebellious colonists were known) were outgunned and outmanned by the highly-trained and battle-tested British Army, particularly since the vaunted British Navy had absolute control of the seas ... until the French and Spanish joined toward the end of the 1770s.
In late 1781 the Continental Army besieged General Cornwallis’s British force at Yorktown. With the French Navy off-shore the British were unable to escape, and Cornwallis surrendered to the American George Washington, hero of the Revolution. Two years later, a peace treaty was finally signed, giving the new republic all lands east of the Mississippi (save Florida which went to Spain), allowing American merchants the right to pursue their avarice across the globe through “free trade,” and formally recognizing the new nation.
With the unpleasantness over, the American “patriots” set about cobbling together a federal republic. The initial attempt, the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” ratified in 1781 proved stunningly ineffectual, for it granted the government no authority to tax its citizens, no ability to maintain a military force, and had no executive officer to oversee things. The leaders of the new United States Congress quickly noted these and other flaws; they soon convened a secret convention meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles. Instead, after much pontificating and argument, the conventioneers drafted a new Constitution entire, one adopted by the states in 1789, giving the United States’ government its present shape – more or less. That same year Washington was elected the first president. In 1791 a Bill of Rights was added; since then 17 more amendments have been added and another six proposed to get it right.
With “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” now guaranteed for its citizens, the new nation set about its own happiness – rapid expansion. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, no longer interested in some barbaric outpost on a distant continent, sold the French territory of Louisiana and beyond to the United States in the greatest property transfer in history. Having little knowledge of what he had paid the exorbitant sum of $11.25 million for, President Jefferson dispatched a couple of military officers to explore and report back on the new territory. As it turned out, the upstart country had nearly doubled in size. But it was by no means the end of American land grabs, and only by the end of 1853 had the United States assumed its current continental expanse.
With expansion came conflict, and 1861 saw the ultimate family feud: the Civil War (or War for Southern Independence, or the War Between the States, or the War of Secession, or Mr. Lincoln’s War, or less-polite names). What followed was four-years of the bitterest type of conflict, leaving some 600,000 Americans dead and 400,000 wounded. The war resulted in the emancipation of Southern slaves, the virtual annihilation of the Southern infrastructure, constitutional limitations on states’ rights, long-lasting regional acrimony, and – sure to be heartening to every American – an income tax to finance the Union war effort.
No longer distracted, and driven by a sense of manifest destiny, hopes for a better life, and the usual hunt for adventure and wealth, homesteaders, prospectors, merchants, preachers and outlaws flooded the lands to the west. In a couple of generations, even remote reaches of America had a semblance of sophistication (after slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants), given the fortunes being made in minerals and livestock and timber, and sensibility, thanks to the God-fearing families settling this “Wild West.” All along the eastern and gulf seaboards, European immigrants – drawn by the “American Dream” – poured into the country. These were the people who died by the thousands to break the sod, build the railroads, mine the mountains, and end the lawlessness.
Despite distractions in distant lands, Americans at the beginning of the 20th Century were optimistic and gripped by a complacent belief in liberalism and progressivism – marked by political reform, scientific progress, sound Christian values, urbanization, and imperialism. Meanwhile, authors and composers were crafting a new kind of American literature and music. But while American industrial, cultural, and economic power continued to grow, American military strength did not keep pace.
All this optimism and idealism came to a sudden halt in the first decades of the new century: America’s involvement in the First World War, the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza pandemic, the Stock Market crash and resulting “Great Depression,” the “moral decay” of the Roaring Twenties and the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl. The good times were over. With the initiation of Prohibition (remember what they say about the best of intentions), the unholy union of Big Business and Big Politics was joined by “Big Crime” (and later, “Big Media”); not-so-organized crime became organized and the “families” that had only nibbled at the edges of the American economy now took large bites while gangsters such as Dillinger and Capone became media and folk heroes not seen since the days of the dime westerns.
The United States was only saved from all this by the outbreak of the “Good War.” On December 7, 1941 – after the conflict in Europe had raged for two years while the United States stayed ostensibly aloof – America was attacked by the Empire of Japan. Within days, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States and the Second World War was on. After learning from its mistakes, by late 1942 the country was on the offensive in all theaters and supplying the Allies with the tons of materials they needed to win the war. The war ended in 1945 when America dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities.
However, the newly-minted superpower quickly found itself embroiled in a different kind of war. Initiated by the Soviets drawing an Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Revolution and the first successful Russian atomic bomb test, the “Free World” squared off against the “Evil Empire” (as the Soviet Union was labelled by U.S. President Reagan in 1983). The West and the East contended for the “hearts and minds” of Earth’s inhabitants. In every realm (including the space race and scientific progress) and place, the contestants spent vast sums and great efforts building ever more lethal weapons, subverting governments, creating armed alliances, conducting convoluted espionage, suppressing or assassinating political dissidents, engaging in proxy wars, and flooding each other’s airwaves with propaganda. Meanwhile the citizens of all nations watched the skies for mushroom clouds to blossom. In 1989, the Curtain finally came down as the East European nations threw out the Soviets. By any reasonable calculation, the Cold War was a colossal, expensive blunder for everyone concerned.
The United States enjoyed a new era of peace and self-satisfaction ... for about a decade. On September 11, 2001, a group of terrorists traced to an organization named “al-Qaeda” flew commercial jetliners into the World Trade Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The September assault took almost 3000 lives, mostly civilian, and caused an estimated $10 billion in damage. The ongoing “War on Terror” had begun.
In the midst of all this, America moved towards putting into practice the lofty ideals of freedom and equality it had espoused since its inception. Since the Second World War several social movements including Women’s Lib, Civil Rights, Red Power, LBGT Rights (among others), have altered the patterns of American life. The media spread these – and some less savory aspects of – America to every corner of the globe. Heretofore, the world’s great empires have been based on either military might or industrial power, but America’s may be the first based on the export of culture and its beliefs embedded therein by a globe-spanning media machine.