Us history Civil War to the Present

US History Civil War to the Present:

A Thematic History

Caveat emptor: These lectures have sometimes been written and typed in haste so I hope they aren’t too poorly written and too confusing. Additionally, since I grew up, in part, in Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe (where English is often translated into English not American English) they contain spellings more consistent with English, Canadian English, and Australian English rather than American English. Finally, I consider myself just as much a European as American historian so I have tried to link developments in the US to developments in Europe and other Settler Societies (like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) if far too briefly.

A word about reading these lecture notes. First, the lecture notes are meant to be the main text book for the class and are organised like a textbook. They are also meant to be read like a book from beginning to end. The lectures are organized into chapters—there are fifteen and a forward, an introduction, and a conclusion. These are bolded. Most of the chapters usually contain a number of subsections which are italicized.

So, off we go…

A useful site for a variety of materials on American history can be found at

A nice site containing a wealth of important documents on American history can be found at

A great source for government documents can be found here:

The National Archives site has a lot of interesting documentary material on US history,

The National Security Archive has much interesting documentary material relating to US history at

A nice site containing a wealth of historical maps on the US can be found at

For links to data go to (page down)

A great wealth of audio programmes and documentary materials from history can be found at / and /

For a site exploring the US Supreme Court see /


History is not, in my perhaps not so humble opinion, hard or positivistic sciences (though we can get them closer to or further away from “hard science”). That doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts, however. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. Not every analyst agrees on why Kennedy was assassinated—did a lone gunman do it? Were there several shooters? Was Lee Harvey Oswald a patsy? Nor do all analysts agree on the reasons for the assassination of Kennedy—was Castro paying back Kennedy for the CIA attempts to assassinate him? Was it the mafia who assassinated JFK? Was the CIA behind the assassination attempt? Is there any unquestionably right answer here?

History then is an interpretive discipline, perhaps even an art form. Historians have long disagreed with each other about the stuff of history. And historians have long been impacted by their own social and cultural contexts both of which influence how they read or interpret history. I tend to read history through the prism of my cynicism and anti-utopianism. If you are looking for the Pollyanna, everything is going to be alright, we are heading toward a bright future, I am not your man. I am not a neo-liberal or neo-capitalist or a Leninist utopian. I tend to see history in negative hues emphasizing human depravity, to use a religiously tinged term that is somewhat out of fashion these days. If I wanted to phrase this in more secular terms I would say, I see humans as fallible. When I look at history I see wars, abuse, patriarchalisms, misogynies, rapes, brutalities, destructions, inhumanities, and, well you get the point. One of my critics at RateMyProfessors recognized this and was apparently appalled by it. To each his or her own. I do see some of the good things humans have done as well. A human gave us one of the great artistic achievements in media history, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Humans are, after all, angels and demons to use that religiously tinged terminology again.

You don’t have to agree with my perspective. Feel free to believe that capitalism is slowly but surely bringing about heaven on earth. If you are going to argue against my perspectives, however, I expect you to ground your criticisms on the best available evidence and to debate with me not ignore what I said or wrote.

One more thing about doing history, history always involves selectivity. Neither I nor anyone else can tell you everything—and history is about everything from sports to fashion to the everyday lives of human beings to the TV programmes we watch—about everything. Neither I nor anyone else can tell you everything that happened during every single minute of every single day during every single year.

Finally, there are two issues that my “reviewers” on RateMyProfessors bring up that I want to address because I find them, to put it bluntly, rather “bizarre”. Let me explain why.

One of my “reviewers” claims that I will insult you if I don’t agree with you. Not true. One of these individual who I “insulted” had the audacity to claim that he hated Buffy the Vampire Slayer though he had never seen it (this reminds me of a young woman who I once met and had a discussion with who claimed to hate Coen Brothers films but had never seen one). Another “reviewer” claimed I wasn’t sensitive to his/her views. There might be some truth to this latter since I do not take fully seriously feelings that aren’t backed up with empirical data. I suspect that this student is upset about my reaction to his/her take on college towns, specifically that they are any town (Albany, New York City, LA, Boston, Louisville, Iowa City, Bloomington, Indiana, Ithaca) that has a college in it. Such a position is, of course, meaningless. (and meaningless categorizations are not what the humanities and social sciences are all about). Anyone who has ever been in Ithaca knows that there is a difference between Ithaca and Albany. Ithaca is a college town. Cornell University dominates the city economically (Cornell employes one out of every three persons in Tompkins County), culturally (Cornell’s concerts, talks, exhibits dominate the city’s cultural life), demographically (those who go to Cornell and work there comprise a significant segment of the population of Ithaca and Tompkins County), geographically (Cornell constitutes a significant proportion of the geography of Ithaca), and politically (Cornell plays an important role in Ithaca politics). Albany, of course, is not a college town. Albany is not dominated geographically, demographically, politically, economically, or culturally by the University at Albany, Saint Rose, or the professional schools near Albany Med. It is a political town (the state is the city’s largest employer), a regional medical centre (Albany Med is the hospital for this region of upstate New York), and a regional shopping centre (people come from all around to shop at Crossgates Mall and Colonie Center). This is a class in which history is important. History is grounded in an empirical analysis of the empirical evidence. History (and Anthropology, Sociology, and the Humanities) focuses on factors intellectuals and academics have long regarded as of causal importance in human life—geography, demography, economics, politics, and culture—the very factors I utilized to explore whether Ithaca or Albany are college towns or not. Fundamental to all university subjects is the fact that if you haven’t seen something you simply cannot validly analyse it. If you haven’t seen and closely analysed all of Buffy or all of any TV show (or works by a particular director or author) you cannot trulyanalyse them.

Now despite the total lack of validity in what this young man said about Buffy what he said is historically and culturally important though not in the way he thought when he said it. Humanities scholars and social scientists not only need to explore how and in what contexts TV (film, literature, and so on) are produced but also how they are consumed. The fact that this individual hates Buffy without ever having seen it tells us something about him (and about humans in general). The young woman who hated Coen Brothers films who hated the Coen Brothers actually hated Coen Brothers films because they did not fit into her definition of “independent film”. This is, of course, ideological rather empirical analysis. It is “analysis” guided by normative prejudices rather than by descriptive analysis. In the final analysis these reactions tell us more about the consumer (the person making the statement) than the product (the object the consumer is making the statement about).

While I find it important to analyse how humans consume products in this class I want us to closely analyse products before we make normative (whether ideological, theological, metaphysical, or aesthetic) claims about them. In order to analyse Buffy as a product of specific historical, social, cultural, and economic moments and longer historical, social, cultural, and economic factors we have to explore the institutional and economic contexts in which Buffy was made, what those people who made Buffy thought they were doing, whether there were conflicts or consensus or both between these two groups, and whether there was conflicts or consensus within these two groups. Saying “I don’t like it because” simply will not do in an academic class. Personally I don’t think such statements should play in intellectual culture in general.

Let me repeat something, I am not one of those people who thinks that anything any student says is worthy of compliment. I expect every student in this class to be analytical and systematic in their comments and writings. I expect you, in other words, to be academics and intellectuals. I expect you to look at all of human history through those prisms through which all social scientists and teachers of the humanities use to explore human life—economics, politics, culture, demographics, and geography. An expression of feelings or thoughts without empirical backup is not acceptable in this class.

Now for the second matter. Another of my “reviewers” claims that a Canadian (I am a Canadian though I have lived in the US for most of my life) should not be teaching American history. The assumption here, I guess, is that only Americans can and should teach American history because only they can fully comprehend it. Let’s take this statement at face value for the moment. If it is correct this means that only Europeans can write European history, that only Spanish can write Spanish history and that only Catalonians can write Catalonian history. But let’s push this further. If my “reviewer” is accurate can we say that only women can write women’s history? That only Spanish women can write Spanish women’s history? That only Spanish bourgeois women can write Spanish bourgeois women’s history. That only bourgeois Catalonian women can write bourgeois Catalonian women’s history. Well, you get my drift. Pushed to its furthest extent I suppose this means that only a single individual can write a single individuals history. But let’s pull back from this nihilistic edge for a moment and pose some questions to my (not so) anonymous “reviewer”. Would my “reviewer” assert that only Europeans can study and teach European history? Would he urge any American engaged in the study of Europe in colleges all across the nation to find something else to do, something that is consistent with their “nationality”?

We can critique such a “position” from a number of perspectives—my “reviewer” fetishises nationality (a phenomenon that is a social and cultural construct and which has only “existed” for a relatively short period of time in human history) and my “reviewer” assumes that all Americans think the same way (patently false). But let’s get real here. My “reviewer” is not upset because I am a Canadian. He is upset because my empirically grounded approach to US history is not congruent with his ideologically determined myth of US history. Such a reaction is common among those whose notion of history is guided by ideology rather than empiricism. Nationalism, and my “reviewer” is grounding his idea of how history should be done in nationalism, is, like religion (another ideologically grounded phenomenon), a meaning system. Meaning systems are fundamentally ideological (metaphysical, aesthetic, ethical). The question you have to ask and answer is whether you prefer a meaning system grounded in empirical evidence or whether you prefer one grounded in ideological myth, whether you prefer a nationalist myth or an analysis grounded in the facts. Take your pick. By the way, for those of you with a healthy sense of irony you might recognize that it is here in this assertion of the need for indigenous analysis of indigenous history that the “left” and the “right” meet in their own version of (a postmodernist) heaven.

Viewings and Listenings: Reflecting on History and General Themes in Western and US History

History as Detection

Michael Penn, “Try”


1997, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Talking History: Who Owns History, 1 July

Talking History: Historical Lies and Distortions, 27 June

Talking History: Teaching History in Schools, 22 September

Themes in Western History

The Ascent of Money, 2009, PBS


Big Ideas that Changed the World, “Democracy”,






Channel 5, June 2005

Big Ideas that Changed the World,“Consumerism”,





Channel 5, May 2006

Themes in US History

American Promise/American Nightmare


Simon Schama and Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, 16 January 2009

Bill Moyers Journals, Moyers and Howard Zinn on The Peoples History, PBS



Talking History: Voting in the US, 1 July (MP3)



American Experience, “New Orleans”, PBS


Talking History: The History of Las Vegas, 2 January


Talking History: American Freedom, 28 June (Real Media)


Talking History: American Patriotism, 17 December (Real Media)


Talking History: Money versus Morality, 10 October

Talking History: American Wilderness, 22 April


Talking History: American Vacations, 14 August (Real Media)


Talking History: American Humour, 14 October (MP3)


Talking History: Mardi Gras, 8 February (Real Media)


Gun Culture and Violence

Talking History: America and its Guns, 29 October (Real Media)


Talking America: The Gunfighter Myth, 4 January (Real Media)



Talking History: The American Families, 17 September (Real Media)



Talking History: American Beauty, 21 September (Real Media)


Talking History: American Girls, 6 March (Real Media)


Talking History: The History of Cheerleading, 12 November (Real Media)



Talking History: Child Labour in the US, 7 September (Real Media)


Religion and Secularism

Talking History: Religion in US History, 3 July

Talking History: Jesus in the US, 6 October

Talking History: Secularism in the US, above 19 September



Talking History: Anti-Semitism, 10 January

Science and Society

Talking History: American Contraception, 10 June


Talking History: Women’s Bodies, 30 May and 13 June (Real Media)

Talking History: The History of Insanity, 9 May (Real Media)


Talking History: Child Labour, 7 September



Talking History: Baseball, 21 May


Chapter One:

The Consequences of the Civil War

The Civil War, of course, remains one of the most important and seminal events in United States History even though its immediate memory has faded as those who fought in and experienced the war have passed away. In general terms, the American Civil War, which pitted the industrial Union, the North, against the more pastoral and slaveholding society of the Confederacy, the South, was one of the deadliest. The Union lost around 360,000, the Confederacy 258,000 or, to put it in per capita terms, the North lost around 50% of its military men, the South around 75%.

Military men were not the only ones who felt the sting of the “War Between the States” as many Southerners called it. Many cities in the South were laid waste by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and others as he fought a total war against the Confederacy. Many civilians died or became refugees as a result of Sherman’s scorched city policies. And finally since the North won that war it had an immense impact on the South’s African American slave population. Around four million slaves were liberated as a result of the Union victory.

The Civil War had other impacts as well. War, as scholars like Charles Tilly and others have pointed out, has played an important role in state building and the expansion of the state. The Civil War was no different. The Civil War would cost the North $2.3 billion dollars (in 1860 dollars). Because of this the North had to find new ways of raising monies to pay for the wars through bonds. Congress passed the Legal Tender (1862) and National Banking Acts (1863 and 1864) during the war which created a new national currency (the Greenback) and a new national system of banks established by general incorporation as opposed to specific charters granted by state legislatures. This meant that the Treasury Department also expanded during the War.

Treasury was not the only federal agency to expand during the Civil War. The surveillance and intelligence apparatus of the American state also grew and Lincoln used this to help combat draft resistance and anti-war agitation at home and spy on the South abroad. War, of course, almost always leads to the suppression of civil liberties. 15,000 northerners were arrested after Lincoln suspended writs of habeas corpus, judicial mandates to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it could be determined whether or not that person was imprisoned lawfully and whether or not her she should be released from custody.

Federal intervention and stimulation did not end there. The Feds played an important role in expanding telegraph networks, stimulating inventions, expanding the industrial economy, expanding and stimulating higher education, and stimulating the settlement of the “frontier”. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 (/resources/morrill_acts.htm) provided federal public lands to “States and Territories to use to provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts” (examples of land grant colleges include Purdue, Iowa State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Kansas State, Cornell’s agriculture school). The Homestead Act of 1862 ( act.htm) offered potential settlers free title to 160 acres of land at $1.25 per acre if they had established residence and improved the land for five years. Both acts passed during an internecine civil war helped strengthen—some might say bought—the loyalty of citizens to the Union. War, then, played an important role in the creation or development of the modern American bureaucratic state.

The Civil War, like World Wars One and Two, after them also impacted gender. While men (including African American men who served in the navy and army: see the film Glory) were off fighting women assumed many of the responsibilities of absent males on the home front. They farmed, they managed plantations, they worked in factories, they involved themselves in commercial activities, they volunteered to provide medical care for wounded soldiers (as British women such as Florence Nightingale did for soldiers during the bloody Crimean War in the 1850s in Europe), and they volunteered to supply sanitary supplies and food for soldiers. All of this would, in part, help lay the groundwork for the increasing role of women in American post-war reform movements.

Vignette: A New Way of Doing Things? British Settler Societies

On the cultural level the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all think of themselves in some way, shape, or form, as God’s nation, as exceptional, as democratic lights in a dark authoritarian world bringing right government and right economic forms to a world living in political and economic darkness. Despite claims to being unike all four nations share a similar background. They are all the products of British colonization and imperialism. They were all populated by migrants from the British Empire, particularly England, Scotland, Ulster, and Ireland, and Norhern Europe. They all had native populations which were “conquered” over time and their land incorporated into the “motherland”—the Indians in the US and Canada, the Aboriginies in Australia, and the Maori in New Zealand. Some saw these as savage others as noble and vulnerable. They all had their rough edges. James Busby was sent by Great Britain to New Zealand in 1833 to bring the New Zealand “extreme frontier chaos” in NZ under control. Lawmen, military men, and women were said to have brought order to the raucous American West. They all had their frontiers and wildernesses to be tamed—the “West” in the US and Canada, the “Outback” in Australia, and the inner parts of the North and South Islands in New Zealand. They are all the products of the Enlightenment and all have memorialised their commitments to freedom and liberty. They were and are dominated by Christianity, particularly “protestant” Christianity. They were and are all capitalist in teconomic form. And they are all representative democracies.

But they are somewhat different representative democracies. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand maintained, by and large, a British style parliamentary system while the US transformed it out of the necessity of dealing with regional tensions between North and South into a somewhat novel type of representative legislation system. The academic cliché, clichés can, by the way, be true, is that in their early years Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were conservative in their political culture while the US was revoltionary. Canda, Australia, and New Zealand never revolted against their British rulers and when they became indpendent—Canada in 1867 with the union of the Canadas (Upper and Lower, West and East, Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Australia in 1901, New Zealand in 1907—they maintained the political and economic structures of their former British rulers (including the monarchy) and joined a “Commonwealth” of former British colonies who were still loyal to king, queen, and former country. Over time, say many commentators, these former British colonies have become more “radical” than even the United States. Some, like myself, attribute this to to the greater representative nature of a parliamentary system. In Canada today the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, both socialist, have significant representation in the federal parliament in Ontario.

Canada’s 1867 Constitution

And then there are the geographic and demographic differences. The United States is temperate in climate, consists of 3.8 sq miles or 9.8 million sq. kilometers, has significant amounts of raw materials, and has a population of 307 million. Canada consists of 10 million square kilometers, most of it unoccupied, has significant though sometimes difficult to get at raw materials since its climate is temperate only near its border with the United States. It has a population of some 34 million most of whom live near the border with the US. Australia has a temperate though largely dry climate on its coasts, consists of 7.7 square kilometers, has significant amounts of raw materials, and has a population of some 21 million most of whom live on or near its coasts. New Zealand consists of 269,000 square kilmoetres, has a relatively temperate climate particularly in the north, and has a population of 4.3 million, less than the population of New York City. Size matters, in other words, but size doesn’t always tell the entire story. The US has a nominal per capita (per person) gross domestic product of $46,895, Canada, $45,428, Australia, $47, 400, and New Zealand, $30,049.

Settler Societies given their nature—they were settled by migrants from all over Europe and eventually the world—developed somewhat novel conceptions of identity over time. The US saw itself in theory if not in practise as a melting pot, a place where all people, well all White people, could and should become “Americans”. Canada saw itself as a mosaic of nations and ethnicities though historically English, Scots, Irish (Anglophones), and to a lesser extent, those of French background (Francophones), tended to dominate political and economic life in the new nation.

These broad notions of American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand identity haven’t meant that there weren’t “ethnic” tensions in these new nations. The legacies of slavery in the United States have meant that “Blacks” have remained mostly powerless, in poverty, and ghettoized down to the present. The Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam movements of the 1960s eventually flowered in the late 1960s and 1970s into a host of identity and ethnic identity rights movements including the Black Power Movement, the second and third waves of the Women’s Rights Movements, the Chicano Movement, the Indian Rights Movement, the Gay and Lebian Movement, and the Diabled Rights Movement. Some of the groups within these broader movements did resort to violence (for them they were just) and sometimes spoke of separation from the United States. This flowering of multicultural has caused tensions within American society that still remained unresolved today despite the fact that the US elected its first “Black” president in 2008.

Increasing immigration into the US beginning in the mid-1960s thanks to revisions in US immigration policies (remember immigration into the US was essentially limited to Northern Europeans, i.e., “Whites” after the 1920s) and “illegal” immigration to the US reinvigorated historic prejudices against Latinos and Latinas in American life particularly during periods of economic distress. The 1980s, saw an incease in Spanish speaking immigrants coming into the US and renewed attempts by many in the US to enshrine English as America’s language. The 1990s saw federal, state, and local governments pass laws to try to inhibit immigrations from Latin America to the US and to limit benefits to any illegal aliens in the United States. The 2000s saw “concerned Americans” calling themselves the Minutemen patrol the US Mexican border to try to limit “illegals” coming into the country and apprehend any who tried and its saw the beginnings of construction of a fence along segments of the US/ Mexican border whose goal was to keep “illegals” out.

Tensions between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec have had a major impact on Canadian social, political, economic, and cultural life and have distinguished Canada from the US, Australia, and New Zealand. While Francophones did play important roles in the Canadian federal government (often as co-prime minsters) and the provincial government of Quebec they were largely kept out of important roles in Canadian economic life including in Quebec. Francophones did play important roles in Quebec religious life through the Roman Catholic Church, which had a “special” and prominent place in Quebec life. When Quebec secularized in the 1960s the Church lost the place guarented to it by the Quebec Act. Tensions between Anglophones and Francophones did not decline or disappear, however. The 1960s saw the appearance of the Front de Libération du Québec (Quebec Liberation Front) which used “terrorism” and kidnappings a la the IRA to push for the separation of Quebec from Canada. The French Canadian prime minister at the time, Liberal Party member and democratic socialist Pierre Trudeau, put war measures in effect (the only time this happened in Canadian history) and suspended civil liberties. The FLQ went into decline and today has basically disappeared from Quebec life.

This did not mean an end to Quebec nationalism, however. Quebecois went to the polls in 1980 and 1995 to vote on separating from Canada. 60 percent rejected separatism in 1980. 50.6% rejected it in 1995. These tensions, as I noted, have had a major impact on Canadian life as I noted. The Constitution Act of 1982 and its charter of rights made Canada a dual language nation and guaranteed language education in the nation. Quebec refused to sign the Constitution and still hasn’t. One hears tales of “language police” trolling the streets of Montreal making sure that all store signs are in French/en francais.

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