The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson


Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

United States History Perspective

Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. Turning Points in American History
    1. Turning Point – The Revolutionary War
    2. Turning Point – The Jacksonian Revolution
    3. Turning Point – The Civil War
    4. Turning Point – The Industrial Revolution
    5. Turning Point – The Great Depression
    6. Turning Point – World War II
    7. Turning Point – The Civil Rights Movement
    8. Turning Point – The Present
  3. Conclusions
  4. Further Readings

BackgroundTOC

In my introductory article “Condemned to Repeat It” I have spoken on the necessity of examining history in context and making historical judgments. It was in European Society, guided by Judeo-Christian values, that the idea of the dignity of the individual human being and human rights arose and bloomed. With this recognition came the ideal of self-government, the advancement of the arts and sciences. and the development of capitalism which supplied goods and services to the common man (see my comment on this in my article “Capitalism is Freedom and Liberty”). And the founding of the United States was to embody these ideals. Yet, even in the history of the United States, there were abuses and shortcomings of these ideals. This is because this development was a struggle that had setbacks during its advancement. Man is imperfect and makes bad choices, or is good or evil, and lacked the knowledge or experience of the proper morals and ethics to achieve these goals. But the United States people engaged in this struggle to improve our society and achieve these goals. Sometimes this struggle was bloody (The Civil War) and sometimes mostly not (The Civil Rights Movement). Having said this, I wish to examine the great turning points in American History that change our course of history and helped us to advance these ideals.

Turning Points in American HistoryTOC

Having said this, I wish to examine the great turning points in American History - The Revolutionary War, The Jacksonian Revolution, The Civil War, The Industrial Revolution, The Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Present. A turning point is one in which society has a political, economic, or social change (and usually all three at once) that changes the character of a nation. These are ours.

Turning Point – The Revolutionary WarTOC

The first turning point was, of course, the Revolutionary War. Prior to the troubles that initiated the Revolutionary war, the colonialists were proud to call themselves British citizens. They thought that the Monarchy and the Parliament of Britain where the greatest achievement in human governance. They were proud of the political rights that have been achieved in Britain. They were proud of their liberties and freedoms, and semi-independence from Britain, which they had achieved, mainly from the benign neglect that Britain had practiced. But after the French and Indian wars, Britain took a more active interest in its North American colonies. This active interest, the colonialist believed, was interfering with their liberties and freedoms. Unable to achieve a peaceful resolution to their concerns the colonialist rebelled. And this rebellion was unusual in human history in that the colonialist declare the rebellion and the reasons for in the "The Declaration of Independence". In the preamble, to the Declaration of Independence, they stated not only the moral right of a people to rebel but the human rights of all people within a government. They then listed the abuses of government power that were the reasons for a rebellion of a people against their government. This list of abuses encapsulated those items of which the government of a free people was not allowed to exercise. After the Revolutionary War, they had a minor rebellion against the "Articles of Confederation" that was the basis of the national government, and they established the "Constitution of the United States". This Constitution was established to define how a free people could retain their liberties and freedoms under a government constituted to ensure the human rights, freedoms, and liberties of its citizens. It was a positive Declaration of Independence from government involvement in an individual’s freedoms, done to ensure the human rights, freedoms, and liberties of all Americans. The combination of these two documents forms the basis of the American ideal. An ideal that was not perfectly implemented, but an ideal that was to consistently strive for. And the American nation became one nation under God, indivisible, with freedom and liberty for all.

Turning Point – The Jacksonian RevolutionTOC

With the election of Andrew Jackson as the 7th President of the United States in 1829, the background of the Presidents changed. Prior to President Andrew Jackson, our Presidents had been from the wealthy and gentry classes and a member of the Founding Fathers. President Andrew Jackson was the first common born self-made man to assume the Presidency, and he ushered in the era of populist elections for President. This also changed the focus of the Presidents from issues concerning the upper class to issues focused on the common man. Democracy of the common people had come to the office of the President.

Turning Point – The Civil WarTOC

The next great turning point in American history was the Civil War. A Civil War that was fought to determine whether the American ideal was for but a few, or but for all. As Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

But the Civil War did more than just establish that the American ideal was for all, as it had other consequences. The Civil War established that we were a society of all the people. Prior to the Civil War many citizens thought that they were citizens of their State first, and citizens of their Nation second. After the Civil War Americans began to think of themselves as a citizen of the Nation first, and a citizen of a State second.

The Civil War also pitted the commercial interest of the North against the agricultural interests of the South and established the predominance of the commercial interests in our nation.

Turning Point – The Industrial RevolutionTOC

By the end of the 19th century, America was becoming more industrialized. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had become an industrial nation. And this change had a great impact on America. A large percentage of the population had moved from rural agriculture locations to cities and large towns. Many, if not most people, went from independent income generation to being wage earners dependent on their employers’ fortunes. As a result, Unions grew and became an important factor in the American economy. Living condition changed dramatically as people were crowded together as tenants in housing that they did not own. Family life also changed as extended families living together lessened and the nuclear family became the de facto living arrangement. The physical quality of life improved as a result of labor-saving devices replacing grueling manual labor for many daily activities. As people lived closer together the neighborhood, rather than the village or town, became the social center of people’s lives. Modern communications arose (the phonograph, the motion picture, the radio, national news, and magazines, etc.) which provided a shared social basis for all Americans.

Government and society morphed to adapt to these new environs. New laws and regulation were created, and government activities and services expanded. People wanted and demanded more government to assist them and check the excesses of capitalism. The era of big government had begun.  

Turning Point – The Great DepressionTOC

Prior to the Great Depression American society had made a significant change as previously discussed. We had transformed ourselves from an agrarian society to an industrial society with the resulting shift of population from rural to urban areas. We also changed the income foundation of the family to a wage earner basis. Prior to the Great Depression government had taken a more laissez-faire attitude towards involvement with the individual's freedoms and liberties, as well as in regulating commercial interests, and by today's standards, this involvement was not significant. With the coming of the Great Depression and its economic hardships upon the American people, the government became more activist. Government labor projects and welfare assistance grew to alleviate this economic hardship. This involvement impacted the American people’s freedoms and liberties, our social structure, as well as the economic foundation of the country. There was also a shift in the focus of government from a local-state basis to a federal basis. Whether these impacts were positive or negative is still being debated today, and we are still struggling with the bounds of government involvement in society and the balance of local, state, and federal powers. Many of today's debates on the issues revolve around these bounds and the rights and liberties of an individual regarding versus the rights and liberties of all individuals in our society. What can be said is that the era of big government had been established because of the changes that were a result of the Great Depression.

Turning Point – World War IITOC

Prior to World War II, the United States was generally an isolationist nation. We had fought in the Spanish American War and World War I but after the hostilities ceased, we turned inward into our isolation. World War II turned us forever outwards into the international arena. Our military might during World War II, and our economic might after World War II, would not allow us to turn inward into isolation. We became the primary force for democracy and opposition to Communism and support of Human Rights across the world. Most of what we stood for after World War II was for the good of mankind, but some of it was not or so poorly implemented as to cause problems. The high point was the end to Communism, while the low point was the Vietnam War. Throughout this period robust debate was common as policy changes and course corrections were implemented. We had become, and still, are, the major player on the international scene.

Turning Point – The Civil Rights MovementTOC

The 1950s and 1960s saw a great change in American society – The Civil Rights Movement. For nearly a century after the Civil War American society was highly discriminatory, mostly against Blacks, Asians, Irish, Jews, and people of southern European descent. The aftershocks of World War II were Americans of all stripes fought and died next to each other, raised the awareness that “All men are created equal”. Quietly at first, then with more vocal unrest Americans began to realize that their society was discriminatory and that this discrimination was immoral. People of good will across the United States began to rise-up (and wise-up) to this unjust and immoral discrimination. Many Americans, at first, resisted this change. They began to change their opinions when fully confronted (mostly led by religious leaders) to the immorality of discrimination. Once Americans accepted the discriminatory nature of their society, they did what they have always done – they set about to change America for the better. Civil Rights laws were passed that ended discrimination in government, the workplace, commerce, and other aspects of American life. Today, all thoughtful Americans recognize that discrimination is morally wrong and that all Americans should only be judged by the content of their character and no other factors.

Turning Point – The PresentTOC

There is actually a fifth turning point in American history, and we are in that turning point right now. It is unlike the previous turning points, in that it is happening very quietly, and passing almost unnoticed by most Americans. As America is transforming itself from the industrial age to the information age this is having a significant impact on American society. In the information age, we are sharing, both voluntarily and involuntarily, personal information about ourselves. This information is being gathered by both governmental and nongovernmental entities and being utilized for purposes that may or may not be for the good of the individual and our freedoms and liberties. How we decide to allow this information to be utilized will have a significant impact on the future of American society. Our freedoms and liberties, and our interactions with the government will significantly change what information about ourselves is to be considered private and protected, or public and freely available to all. We as Americans need to wake up to this turning point and become involved in determining the future course of our society based on this turning point.

ConclusionsTOC

United States history was built on an ideal of “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”, as well as “Freedom and Liberty for All” that have be enshrined in our Constitution as “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. We have not always met that ideal, but we strived and continue to strive for that ideal. If we continue to strive for that ideal, and keeping in mind our Human and Constitutional Rights, we can continue to be a beacon of hope and inspiration “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

Further ReadingsTOC

I normally recommend shorter books but in the case of United States history, a shorter book often does not do justice to the subject. Therefore, I am recommending longer, but more through, books that provide a comprehensive, dispassionate, but a balanced approach to American history. These books will give you a full appreciation of American history prior to the 20th century. Given that the issues and controversies of 20th century American history are still hotly debated I have not found one book that discuss this period of American history in a dispassionate manner. Therefore, I will leave it up to you, the reader of this article, to discover books of this period of American history.

Finally, a book that encompasses all of American history that is:

“an in-depth portrait of a great people, from their fragile origins through their struggles for independence and nationhood, their heroic efforts and sacrifices to deal with the 'organic sin’ of slavery and the preservation of the Union to its explosive economic growth and emergence as a world power and its sole superpower. Johnson discusses such contemporary topics as the politics of racism, education, Vietnam, the power of the press, political correctness, the growth of litigation, and the rising influence of women. He sees Americans as a problem-solving people and the story of America as "essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence... Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint humanity."