Timeline of U.S. History: Key Movements & Major Themes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will highlight the major developments and themes of U.S. History. We will briefly look at some of the most important events and developments in the life of the United States.

Significant Events

Let's brainstorm for a moment. Think back over the course of your life. A lot of important things happened, right? What were some of the most significant? Maybe the birth of a sibling? A major achievement, like winning a sports championship or some other kind of competition? Maybe you met someone famous. Maybe you overcame an illness or other major obstacle. What about relationships? Those are important. It would be impossible to list every single event that has taken place in your life, but hopefully you are aware of some of the most significant ones.

In this lesson, we will chart the course of some of the most significant developments and themes throughout the life of America. We don't have time to list every single one or point out every little detail, but we will highlight some of the most important ones. We will look at these in chronological order, which means in order from the the first to the last. Let's begin.

The Birth of the American Republic

Just as you had a birth, the United States of America had a birth. The American Revolution was a political and social movement that took place between the 1760s - 1783 and resulted in the formation of the United States of America. Before the American Revolution, Great Britain controlled the eastern section of what is now the United States. These were called the American colonies. By the 1760s, the American colonies were getting fed up with British tax policies and other efforts to limit colonial autonomy, and they began to organize resistance. The Sons of Liberty and other Patriot groups led the resistance. The American Revolution led to the Revolutionary War, fought between 1775-1783. The American victory in the war secured American independence and resulted in the creation of the United States as we know it today.

General George Washington and his men cross the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.

Antebellum America and the Civil War

America was blessed with strong leaders in its early years. Men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison guided the young Republic and ensured its long-term survival. Individualism and personal freedom became ingrained as key themes of the new nation. However, not everyone was free. From colonial times, the United States had a significant African slave population, and as the cotton industry boomed during the first half of the 19th century, America's slave population continued to grow. America's Founding Fathers basically put off the issue of slavery, leaving it to future generations to decide. The Antebellum Period, or the decades leading up to the Civil War, was marked by industrial advances, but also intense racial strife between Northern abolitionists who opposed slavery and pro-slavery Southerners.

Things came to a head with the outbreak of the American Civil War which was fought between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South between 1861-1865. Under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, the North (also called the Union) won the Civil War. This resulted in the prohibition of slavery and the granting of citizenship to African Americans. The war was a tragic chapter in American history that took many decades to heal.

A group of Union (Northern) African American soldiers pose for a photograph during the American Civil War.

Expansion and Modernization

Since American independence from Great Britain in 1776, the country had increasingly expanded. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson secured the Louisiana Purchase, in which the U.S. bought a western tract of land from France. This purchase doubled the size of America. After the Civil War, Americans began to look even farther to the west. The concept of Manifest Destiny filled the imagination of Americans. This was the belief that it was God's will, or that it was America's 'destiny,' to expand from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast.

Technological advances, like the railroad and steam power, aided this expansion. During the Gilded Age (1870s to 1900), modernization took place at an almost alarming pace. Urban centers exploded as skyscrapers stretched into the air. Soon these areas were 'electrified' thanks to Thomas Edison's vision of harnessing electrical power.

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