How Far We Have Come: A Survey of American History

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

— John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, April 26, 1777 —

Welcome to the second season of Fifteen-Minute History! I’m Jon Streeter, and I am thrilled that you have joined us here today. This season, Fifteen Minute-History is going to delve into a number of topics in American history, from the colonial period to the modern day. Our goal, as always, here at Fifteen-Minute History is to present exciting topics to our listeners and to bring you the facts of history in a clear and understandable way. Of course, there’s no way we can give you a complete history of the United States in a single season, so we are focusing in on some topics that are less familiar to casual students of the past while at the same time covering others that you’ve probably learned about before.

The United States is a unique country in many ways. Born in revolution against the mother country of Great Britain, America is above all a nation of ideas. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in our founding documents, and while we have often fallen short of these ideals, the country has always sought to uphold its principles even in the darkest of days. When you examine the history of the United States, there emerge a number of themes which transcend the years and whose threads are woven into the fabric of our society. That is the subject of today’s podcast.

“A Nation of Equals”

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers declared the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” This idea of equality—the belief that no matter your race or creed, your gender or occupation, you have an equal shot at success—is the “American Dream,” and it lies at the core of what it means to be a citizen of this country. Tragically, the idea of equality among men was held back for millions of Americans for much of its history. From the earliest years of the colonial period, black people were brought to the Thirteen Colonies in chains from Africa and sold into slavery to white Americans to work in their homes or on their farms and plantations. From the early 1600s until 1865, what Southerners once called their “peculiar institution” was a sad part of American society. Slaves toiled in the most brutal of conditions—they were beaten and sold like cattle, and they saw their children grow up in a world that promised them nothing more than the lash. Even when our independence was declared and our Constitution proclaimed, blacks were counted as only threefifths of a person and, in areas where slavery was eventually abolished, still treated as secondclass citizens. As the fires of the Civil War burned across this land and the armies of the Union and the Confederacy clashed over ideas like tariffs and states’ rights, the cause of freedom eventual emerged as the central evil which had to be cleansed from the American soul.

Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” declared to his countrymen in his second inaugural address that, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ With malice toward none, with charity for all, with the firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” These words stirred the hearts of the American people, and when the war ended a few months later they looked with hope at the president’s plan to peacefully and amicably restore the Union and lay slavery upon the ash heap of history. Sadly, with Lincoln’s assassination came the end of any desire among Northern leaders to restore a “just and lasting peace” with the rebels, and the decade of Reconstruction drove white and black Americans further apart in the Southern states. Jim Crow laws segregated the populations while the Ku Klux Klan terrorized freed African-Americans. Southern governors refused to permit former slaves to vote even after the passage of the 15th Amendment. In the end, the quarter-millennia of slavery in this country was followed by another century of racial division and rising tensions.

Once the Second World War had ended, the nation looked inward once again. Having seen the evils of the Holocaust and the institutional racism of Nazi Germany, progressive leaders in both political parties began to work to put an end to America’s sad history of legal separation between the races. In 1954, the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, sparking a civil rights movement that would transform the country in just under a decade. With the help of African-American leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of a nation who judged its citizens by the “content of their character,” in 1964 the Civil Rights Act swept away all federal and state laws which segregated the races, and it and proclaimed complete legal equality for all Americans. Of course, the work is not yet done, and America still grapples with racial issues stemming from our sad history.

African-Americans are not the only group in the United States which faced legal barriers to equality. Until just over a century ago, women were not permitted to vote in federal elections. Thanks to leaders of the suffrage and feminist movements like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sarah and Angela Grimké, Claire Booth Luce, and Susan B. Anthony, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed legal equality to women in the voting booth. Other minorities have likewise languished under discriminatory laws and actions by governments in this country, and America is still working to right these wrongs. The promise of equality is nearer at hand, but there is still much work to be done.

“Honest Friendship with all Nations”

Since its founding, the United States has enjoyed a unique position among the nations of the world. Its ocean frontiers have protected the country from foreign invaders and provided a sense of security unknown to much of the world. America has often found itself at odds with other nations, and our foreign policy has evolved with the course of world events. Soon after our independence was won, the nations of Europe were plunged into the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the United States found itself caught between our former British enemies (who were our largest trading partner) and our old ally France (whose revolutionary zeal and the bloodshed that followed shocked many Americans). For much of the Founding Era, America carefully navigated the treacherous waters of European politics, proclaiming its neutrality and signing non-aggression treaties with both combatants. In 1812, however, nationalists convinced President James Madison to declare war on Great Britain, leading to a three-year conflict with our old colonial masters. Much of the Midwest was conquered by the British and their Indian allies, the capital city of Washington was burned by an invading army, and only after a stunning victory at New Orleans in 1815 did peace return to the country.

Eight years after the war’s end, President James Monroe proclaimed a doctrine for American foreign policy which now bears his name. He announced to the world that the United States would not become involved in European affairs, and that in turn it would not permit European interference in the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine set the stage for American expansion across North America. The country waged war against Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Great Plains, was torn apart by the Civil War, and intervened in the nations of Latin America to ensure friendly (but often unpopular and undemocratic) rulers governed their peoples. For nearly a hundred years, America was isolated behind its ocean barriers, emerging only at the turn of the 20th century in a war with Spain that brought the country its first overseas imperial possessions and then when President Theodore Roosevelt announced America’s resurgent might with his “Great White Fleet.”

All this changed in April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the Great War, which had raged across Europe for three years. The unimaginable and heretofore-untapped economic and military might of the American people was unleashed against the German Empire and brought it to its knees. America then retreated once again, believing that the Europeans could contain future German aggression, and in any case, American lives were not worth the dynastic squabbles of another European war. Of course, our oceans did not protect us, and when Adolf Hitler plunged Europe into a second war twenty years later, America assisted the British for a year until being drawn into the conflict by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The four years of the Second World War transformed the United States into the world’s mightiest superpower, and when the dust settled, the former Great Powers of Europe and the imperial nation of Japan lay in ruins (the latter having surrendered only after the use of two atomic bombs). Perhaps this time, American soldiers would have finally secured peace for the world.

Just a few short years later, it became clear that new threats lay across the ocean, and the technologies of the mid-20th century meant that America could no longer rely on distance to protect herself. The Soviet Union, an erstwhile wartime ally, had grown aggressive in its spread of the deadly idea of communism, and as one country after another fell under the iron grip of Moscow, America had to act. With the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s, the United States began to act as “world policeman,” intervening across the globe to ensure that freedom and democracy were protected. This led to the two great conflicts of the Cold War—Korea and Vietnam—as well as dozens of smaller military interventions and countless billions of dollars poured into nations around the world. Communism had to be contained “over there,” or else it would soon spread over here.

As the world celebrated the end of the Cold War in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, America once again hoped that a more peaceful time was at hand. For twelve years, the nation enjoyed its “peace dividend” until a bright Tuesday morning in September 2001. When death came for three thousand Americans in the skies above Manhattan, at the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in Shanksville, PA, the United States realized that her time on the world stage was not yet done. The War on Terror has now raged for nearly two decades, and American blood has been shed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and many other nations in the battle against radical Islamic terrorists. The United States again finds itself involved in overseas military operations, and its role in the wider world remains a starring one.

Progress, Positive and Negative

In 1789, the average American lived in a small home, often with only a single room. It was heated by a Franklin stove, and all the necessities of life had to be made or bought in a town many miles away. Today, Americans enjoy a quality of life that was beyond even the wildest dreams of our forefathers—our homes are safe and secure, technology permits leisure above that of any other nation, and the sum knowledge of the human species is available at our fingertips. Though not the sole driving force behind innovation and progress, America’s role in bringing humanity “from the swamp to the stars” is one of the nation’s defining characteristics. Innovators like Benjamin Franklin, George Winthrop, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have found in this land the freedom to pursue their dreams of developing new technologies and new ideas.

Of course, all progress comes with a cost. This is true not just with inventions and technological development. Our quest for equality was paid for with the blood of over half a million Americans on the fields of battle in the Civil War. The freedom American soldiers have brought to many parts of the world cost thousands of lives in Europe and Asia. As Americans have seen their lives transformed by technology, many of them have become more isolated. Technology brings the world to our hands, but it can also deprive us of the tools of human interaction. Today’s children are able to communicate with people on the other side of the planet, but they sometimes struggle to have a conversation with their friends face-to-face. Revolutions in robotics and automated vehicles threaten to put millions of Americans out of work. The United States, like the rest of the world, must face the reality that progress often comes with a price, and the American people must decide for themselves how far is too far.

A Bright Future

Each of the themes in American history seen here today are drawn from our past, and yet they directly impact our future. The promise of equality must be fulfilled for us all, and the American people are rising to that challenge. The blessings of security must be paid for, and our soldiers and first responders have never shirked from that responsibility. The inventions and ideas of the future coming from Silicon Valley and a thousand basements and college dormitories will take this country and the world into a future none of us can even fathom. The greatest question of all is this: will we, citizens of this great nation, learn from our mistakes and embrace the promise of America, and will we take our fellow Americans along for the ride? The American people must understand the past if they are to be secure in their future. The lessons of history are there, on the page, and they’re in this podcast, for any and all to see and hear. We at AET and at Fifteen-Minute History hope that this season will help to illuminate these lessons of the past, and that as you listen to us on your way to work, at the gym, or while cooking dinner, you will take a moment to appreciate your country and its blessings, and that you will work to preserve her for your posterity.