U.S. History and Historical Documents

Learn more about the history of the United States.

American History

The history of the United States is vast and complex, but can be broken down into moments and time periods that divided, unified, and changed the United States into the country it is today:

1700-1799

  • The American Revolution (sometimes referred to as the American War of Independence or the Revolutionary War) was a conflict which lasted from 1775-1783 and allowed the original thirteen colonies to remain independent from Great Britain.
  • Beginning in Great Britain in the late 1790s, the Industrial Revolution eventually made its way to the United States and changed the focus of our economy and the way we manufacture products.

1800-1899

  • In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, successfully adding 530,000,000 acres of land to the United States. The area was purchased from France for $15 million. The following year, President Jefferson assigned Meriwether Lewis (who asked for help from William Clark) to head west and explore the newly purchased land. It took about a year and a half for the duo to reach the west coast.
  • The American Civil War divided the United States in two – the Northern States versus the Southern States. This four year battle (1861-1865) kept the United States together as one whole nation and ended slavery.

1900-1999

  • On December 17, 1903 brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first people to maintain a controlled flight in a powered, heavier-than-air machine. The Wright Flyer only flew for 12 seconds for a distance of 120 feet, but their technology would change the modern world forever.
  • On April 6, 1917 the United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany.
  • After nearly 100 years of protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins, women of the United States were officially granted the right to vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920.
  • The worst economic crisis to happen in the United States occurred when the stock market crashed in October 1929 resulting in the Great Depression.  
  • On June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart set out to become to first woman to fly around the world (a 29,000-mile trip). Earhart (and her navigator Fred Noonan) only made it to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean before mysteriously disappearing. The whereabouts of Earhart, Noonan, and the plane are still unknown.
  • World War II officially begins in September 1939 after Germany invades Poland. The United States didn’t enter the war until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
  • On August 6 and August 9 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.  
  • After World War II, an agreement was reached to divide Korea into two parts: a northern half to be controlled by the Soviet Union and a southern half to be controlled by the United States. The division was originally meant as a temporary solution, but the Soviet Union managed to block elections that were held to elect someone to unify to country. Instead, the Soviet Union sent North Korean troops across the 38th parallel leading to the three-year long (1950-1953) Korean War
  • From 1954-1968, the African-American Civil Rights movement took place, especially in the Southern states. Fighting to put an end to racial segregation and discrimination, the movement resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
  • The Vietnam War was a nearly 20 year battle (November 1, 1955 - April 30 1975) between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam won the war and Vietnam became one unified country.
  • The Apollo 11 mission (July 16 – 24 1969) allowed United States astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to become the first humans to step on the moon’s surface.

2000-Present

Library of Congress Resources

The Library of Congress has compiled a list of historical events for each day of the year, titled "This Day in History". The website is updated daily and visitors can view the previous day's history as well as whatever documents, pictures, or outside information is available for each historical event. 

The American History section of the Library of Congress is separated by time period or subject and offers an in-depth look into the history of the United States. 

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Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States.

To learn more, you may want to:

Fast Facts

  • It took Thomas Jefferson 17 days to write the Declaration of Independence.
  • On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain.
  • On July 4, 1776, Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence, marking July 4 as Independence Day.

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U.S. Constitution

The foundation of the American Government, its purpose, form, and structure are in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitutional Convention adopted the Constitution on September 17, 1787.  

The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. It guarantees greater constitutional protection for individual liberties and lists specific prohibitions on government power. There are 27 Constitutional Amendments to the Bill of Rights. The 27th Amendment, which was originally proposed in 1789, wasn't ratified until 1992.  

Where to View the Constitution

You can view the original, parchment copy of the Constitution at the National Archives Building. You can also view an online copy of the U.S. Constitution or order a printed copy of the Constitution.

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Famous Speeches

Over the course of history, a countless number of speeches have been given in all types of settings, for all types of reasons. But these select few stand out as memorable either for a famous line everybody recognizes, where they were given, or the overall importance of the speech itself. 

 

Patrick Henry: Addressing the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry expressed his desire to create a volunteer-based military in every Virginia county.

 

Abraham Lincoln: Following the battle at Gettysburg, the Civil War’s deadliest battle, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

  • Famous line: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…”

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt spoke to Congress to formally declare war on Japan, officially entering the United States into World War II.

  • Famous line: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

 

John F. Kennedy (JFK): During his short time as President, JFK delivered several famous/notable speeches:

  1. Inaugural Address:  On January 20, 1961 JFK delivers this speech after he is sworn in as President of the United States.
  • Famous line: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

     

    2. Moon Landing:  On May 25, 1961 JFK spoke in front of Congress, asking for an additional $7-9 billion over the next five years for the space program.

  • Famous line: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
    • Note: The first moon landing took place a little more than eight years later.\

   

    3. JFK address Germans in Berlin:  JFK delivered this speech to express the support the United States had for West Germany nearly 2 years after East Germany built the Berlin Wall.

  • Famous line: “And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (Translated: I am a “Berliner!”)

 

Martin Luther King Jr.: One of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 250,000 people during the March on Washington.

  • Famous line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin by by the content of their character.”


 

Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ): On March 15, 1965, President Johnson spoke to Congress following a week of deadly violence in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement.

  • Famous line: “And we shall overcome.”


 

Richard Nixon: Following the scandal at Watergate, support for President Nixon fell dramatically but before Congress could impeach him, Nixon addressed the nation on live television and officially resigned the office of President of the United States on August 9, 1974.

  • Famous line: “Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

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Military History and Museums

Military History

The United States Armed Forces date back to 1775, when America needed a defense force to protect the original 13 colonies from a British invasion. Today, there are five branches:

  • The United States Army is the oldest (established June 14, 1775) and largest of the five branches. Soldiers are responsible for performing land-based military operations.
  • The United States Marine Corps is the smallest of the four branches under the Department of Defense. Marines provide both land and sea support to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and, in times of war, Coast Guard.
  • The United States Navy mainly operates from the waters (seas and oceans) providing protection both in the water and in the air.
  • The modern-day United States Air Force is the youngest of the five branches (established September 18, 1947). Before the modern-day Air Force was created, it was an arm of the U.S. Army, dating back to 1907. Airmen are responsible for carrying out aerial military operations.
  • The United States Coast Guard is the smallest of the branches and the only one that falls under the Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard is multi-functional, with many peacetime missions. Coast Guard missions include: maritime search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, marine environmental protection and ports, waterways and coastal security. 

 

Military Museums

Military museums offer visitors insight into the history, defining moments, and current status of the branches of the United States Armed Forces:

  • The United States Army does not have an official museum but there are interactive exhibits available online as well as smaller, more focused museums located across the country.      
    • There is a plan in progress to develop a national museum in the Washington, DC area. 
  • The National Museum of the Marine Corps is located next to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia and features exhibits on the actions of Marines during World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
  • Located in downtown Washington, D.C., the National Museum of the U.S. Navy has exhibits on different navigational tools used by the Navy as well as artifacts captured by the Navy.
  • The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and features a collection of aircraft used throughout the history of the Air Force.
  • The United States Coast Guard Museum is located on the campus of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and features artifacts from the nearly 230-year history of the Coast Guard.

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Military Memorials and Monuments

Across the United States, military memorials and monuments commemorate wars, battles, and those who lived and served during those times. Popular points of interest by each major war include:

American Revolution:

War of 1812:

Civil War:

World War I:

  • The National World War I Museum & Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri has various artifacts from the war – including uniforms, tanks and weapons, and illustrations, political cartoons and soldiers' drawings created during the Great War.

World War II:

Korean War:

Vietnam War:

  • In Washington D.C., the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has the names of the 58,000 Americans who died during the conflict etched into the walls of the monument.

Visit the National Park Service to search for more military memorials and monuments located throughout the United States. 

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The U.S. National Anthem

The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States of America. To celebrate a victory over British forces during the War of 1812, U.S. soldiers raised a large American flag at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland on September 14, 1814. Inspired by those events, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem called "Defence of Fort M'Henry", which eventually became the Star Spangled Banner and the United States national anthem. 

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