Defining Moments In American History


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The freedom, equality and prosperity that Americans enjoy today, can be attributed to some key historical events or turning points. Here are a few that make for interesting reading and may also provide some help in preparing for those pesky Social Studies State tests.

Boston Tea Party

While the name may evoke images of a fun social gathering, the Boston Tea Party was anything but that. Instead, it was a simple act of defiance against the British monarchy that ruled over America in 1773.

However, it is this seemingly isolated and relatively minor incident that spurred the 13 colonies to come together and fight for their independence.

What's amazing is that till this day, nobody even knows who staged the protests. That's because all of them were in costumes that vaguely resembled the Mohawk or Narragansett Indians, whom the Bostonians feared.

And while the tossing of the tea shipments into the Boston Harbor and transforming it into one giant teapot was ostensibly because they were fighting against the tax levied under the Tea Act of 1773, it had nothing to do with price of the beverage.

In fact, the tea was actually cheaper even with the tax, because Britain was trying to market its newly acquired East India Company and had therefore reduced the price of tealeaves to half of what the Bostonians normally paid. However, the residents didn't like the idea of a tax and more importantly, being told where to buy their tea from!

Good thing too, for had they not been so outraged, the chain of events that led to the American Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States of America would have most likely been delayed, for many years.

The Battle Of Gettysburg

Though the colonies put up a united front against the British, things disintegrated once the common enemy was gone. The main issue of contention was slavery - The Southern States, who depended on slave labor for their vast cotton plantations were big proponents, whilst the Northern States believed that it was cruel and should be abolished.

Things really came to a head in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln became President. The 16th leader of the Union was very vocal about his views against slavery and his intention to do everything he could, to try abolish it. Fearing that he may succeed, in early 1862, seven Southern States - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas - decided to secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America. They were soon joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina.

On April 12th, 1861 in an attempt to conquer the rest of the Union States, the Confederate army opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. After 34-hours of bombardment, they declared victory! The Civil War had begun!

For the next two years, the 24 Northern States continued to battle with the 11 Southern States with very little success. Then in July 1863, came the historical Battle of Gettysburg. The three-day skirmish which ended up being the bloodiest battle of the Civil War resulting in 50,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing, was by no means the last battle. It was however, the turning point in the Civil War.

That's because while the Union lost 23,000 soldiers, they won the battle -The first one since the War began. This helped give the Northern States the much needed confidence that they could defeat the opposition and keep the Union intact. It was this conviction that kept them going for another two years before the Southern States finally surrendered.

March On Washington

Given the freedom we all enjoy today and the fact that we have an African American President serving a second term, it is sometimes hard to fathom that just 50 years ago, segregation was a way of life especially, for people living in the Southern States.

African Americans were allowed to live in only certain neighborhoods, frequent only designated public areas and even forced to sit in different sections on buses and trains. Though they protested against this injustice in small groups it was not until a Pastor by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. managed to unite and give the African Americans enough courage to protest against segregation.

He encouraged the people to show their displeasure in a non-violent manner by organizing numerous marches and sit-ins, the most famous one of which, took place on August 28th, 1963.

In an attempt to convince the US Congress to pass a civil bill proposed by President John F. Kennedy, that would give all Americans equal access to public places, he asked people to come to Washington D.C. and stage a peaceful march to demonstrate their support.

Over 250,000 Americans from all over the country flew, drove, rode buses and even walked to participate in what the history books call the March on Washington! It was here, standing on steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Dr. King gave his most quoted, 'I have a dream' speech, in which he articulated his vision of a country where everyone would be equal.

The march and historic speech, which led to the first big victory for the African Americans, is what many historians believe finally helped put the civil rights movement on the national map. Not only was the equal access bill passed, but within a short time so was one that gave African Americans the right to vote and by 1968, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill which made it illegal to turn down African Americans trying to buy a house in a white neighborhood - Segregation was finally over. Unfortunately, Dr. King did not live to see his dream come true. That's because a week before the bill became law, the great visionary succumbed to an assassin's bullet whilst standing outside his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Gold Rush

Given the fact that California is today the most populous state in the country and home to eight of the nation's most populated cities, it may surprise you to learn that until 1849, most Americans resided east of the Mississippi River. But the discovery of gold nuggets in the American River by a carpenter named James Marshall changed all that.

While he and his boss James Sutter, tried to keep the exciting discovery a secret, word got out and soon prospectors from all over the country began to flock in. The trickle turned to a flood when President James K. Polk who wanted more Americans to move west, confirmed the rumor in 1848.

As is the case with most such speculations, some people got really lucky finding millions of dollars worth of the precious metal, whilst others, did not do so well.

However, what is interesting is that many fortunes were made by people that did not come to prospect. Lotta Crabtree made her fortune entertaining the campers, while Sam Brannon, the state's first millionaire, by selling supplies. Then there was Germany's Levi Straus who found his niche creating waist overalls for the prospectors and continued to prosper long after the gold was gone.

What would the United States of America have been like today had some of these key history-making events not occurred? Would we still be group of British colonies? Would we have been called the Confederate States Of America? Nobody knows, but we are sure glad things turned out the way they did, aren't you?

Resources: What was the Gold Rush, March on Washington, Battle of Gettysburg, Boston Tea Party

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