The end of the Civil War did not bring an end to many of the disagreements and tensions that had predicated the war. While the South was militarily and economically devastated by the war, the aftermath of abolition and the need to rebuild the infrastructure and the economy in the South were hampered by political disagreement and social discord both regionally and nationally. The U.S. Congress, as well as President Lincoln (and, after Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson), often had sharp disagreements about how to deal with the problems the South faced. The post-war era became known as Reconstruction, and in hindsight Reconstruction was considered to be a failure (Henretta 2004). It would be unfair and incorrect to lay the blame for the failure of Reconstruction at the feet of President Lincoln; it was a combination of factors that would serve to undermine the efforts undertaken during Reconstruction.
One of the primary issues of concern during Reconstruction was that of Freedmen and former slaves. Those who had toiled as slaves before the war were eager to demand equal rights, a position that was opposed by many in the South. Just because the South had won the war did not mean that the ideological motives and beliefs of most whites in the South had changed, and few whites in the South supported equal rights for blacks. Although President Lincoln had supported abolition, he was not exactly a fervent supporter of equal rights for blacks, and he took a fairly moderate position in terms of the scope and swiftness of Reconstruction (Henretta 2004).
This moderate stance on the part of President Lincoln –a stance which was largely mirrored by his predecessor, Andrew Johnson- was vehemently opposed by the radical Republicans in Congress (Henretta 2004). These Radical Republicans were eager to push for full and equal rights for former slaves and other blacks in the South, a position that led to a significant amount of strife and conflict. By 1867 the Radical Republicans had largely assumed control of Congress, and they established military control of much of the governmental structure in the South, and attempted to use the threat of military force to push through their agenda. The Radical Republicans gained traction for their position when they supported the successful candidacy of President Ulysses S. Grant, who also supported their views on Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was eventually seen as a failure, as the efforts by the Radical Republicans were met with staunch opposition by white Democrats, and continued infighting and political strife undermined the efforts of the Republicans (Henretta 2004). It is possible that, had Lincoln taken a harder line on Reconstruction that the same force that he had wielded to win the war could have forced the issue of Reconstruction. After such a hard-fought war, however, Lincoln seemed hesitant to take such a hard line. This does not mean, though, that Reconstruction failed because Lincoln did not act firmly or swiftly enough. The issues at hand, from the social and cultural divisions still present in the South to the decimated Southern economy, meant that any efforts to rebuild those systems and structures would require significant time and effort. It may well be that Reconstruction was doomed to fail, as there were simply too many issues to confront and too many divisions between those with differing views on how to best bring the South back. Lincoln may deserve some of the blame for the failure of Reconstruction, but the issues at hand were far greater than any one man could have been responsible for overcoming.
The history of the United States predates the actual founding of the nation, and extends back to the colonial era. As the colonies grew and developed, the shared independent streak that eventually prompted the Revolutionary War was one of the few traits they had in common. Colonies in different regions developed different economic systems, social structures, and cultural identities (Henretta 2004). These differences would eventually help to foment the Civil War a generation later. Even after the end of the war, the nation still had differences that both defined what it meant to be an American and reinforced the diverse social and cultural systems in different states. Over the course of American history, some of the country’s major milestones would be marked by war. The Civil War was the defining moment in the country’s history in the 19th century, while World War II was the defining moment for the nation in the 20th century. In the aftermath of World War II the economic, social, and political structures of the United States would continue to be shaped by the ensuing Cold War. The question of which of these wars was the most significant has no clear answer, as each had an enormous impact on the United States, and served to largely define what it meant to be an American.
The Civil War arose as a result of nearly a century of disagreements, compromise, and dissension between the North and the South. The question of what actually prompted the war has no single answer; although the issue of slavery is one of the most significant factors, it was not the only problem that predicated the war. Many of the Southern states believed that the actions of Congress unfairly supported the economic and political aspirations and interests of the North, and South Carolina went to far as to attempt to nullify federal laws it felt unfairly harmed the South. The issue of slavery was eventually a breaking point between the North and South, however, and when pro-abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected, one after another of Southern states began to secede from the Union. When the war finally came to an end, the newly unified nation was still barely held together, but the war did test the strength of the federal government, and ushered in an era of increased federalism that would continue to grow into the next century.
World War II was a defining time not just for the United States, but for much of the world. It helped to define enmities and friendships that would continue long after the war was over, and the economic and political success of the United States after the war would see it, along with the Soviet Union, staking out its position as one of the world’s superpowers (Henretta 2004). This was a new era for the U.S. and the world, as the military might now existed to allow the superpowers to effectively destroy each other. It also kicked off the economic and political race between the capitalist system embraced by the U.S. and its allies and the communist system of the Soviet Union. In this new era, the United States took a position on the global stage as the leader of the free world, and this new position of prominence, while sometimes challenged, is still largely maintained to this day.
The Cold War era that lasted for almost the rest of the 20th century would largely define the United States’ role in the world for decades. The divisions that predicated the Civil War a century earlier were largely forgotten, and the arms race and political standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union gave the U.S. a new common enemy that allowed Americans to forge a national bond quite unlike the cultural and political identities that had divided Americans during the 19th century. The Cold War would end without any direct military conflicts between the two superpowers, and would leave the U.S. as the ostensible victor, though the victory was not a military one, but an economic one.
The capitalist system embraced by the U.S. has largely informed the global movement towards open trade and increased cooperation between many nations (Henretta 2004). In a very real sense, each of these wars served to bring forth a new cultural and political identity, and each of these wars helped to shape the course of social, economic and political events for years to come. It is impossible to select one of these wars as the most significant, as each in its way played immeasurable roles in the nation’s history.
Just as it is impossible to identify one war –or, really, any one event or set of circumstances- from U.S. history as being the most significant, so too is it impossible to select one President from U.S. history as being the most important. The first U.S. President, George Washington, was notable not only for being the first president, but also for helping to establish the tone for how the Chief Executive of the nation would carry out the duties of office. Many other significant U.S. Presidents have held the office; some, like Lincoln, are well-known for their association with historical shifts like the ending of slavery in the U.S. Others, such as Franklin Roosevelt, are notable for how they handled a broad array of economic and political circumstances; Roosevelt presided over the nation during both the Great Depression and World War II. While it would be difficult to choose between Lincoln and Roosevelt as being the most significant of their respective eras, the nod would probably have to go to Roosevelt.
There is no question that Lincoln’s presidency was enormously significant; just the fact that he was elected prompted several Southern states to announce secession from the Union. While Lincoln was a supporter of abolition, his real drive seemed to be based on his refusal to allow the dissolution of the United States. It is entirely possible that a different president may have handled the issue of secession differently, and if the issues that prompted the war had occurred under a different president it is not out of the realm of possibility that the United States may not have survived intact.
At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that the issues of slavery, states’ rights, and other problems that led to the Civil War did not arise simply because Lincoln was elected president. It is more than likely that the abolition movement would have eventually succeeded with or without the Civil War. Lincoln certainly had the determination to keep the country together, and as Commander-in-Chief he successfully prosecuted the war in a manner that kept the Union intact. In the end, however, Lincoln did not fundamentally alter what it meant to be an American in the same manner as did Roosevelt a century later.
Roosevelt presided over the nation at a time when its solvency was again being threatened; this time it was the Great Depression that tore at the country like a cancer. Over the course of his presidency, Roosevelt’s New Deal would fundamentally alter the very nature of the federal government, and he would usher in a new era of government activism and involvement in the lives of its citizens that continues to resonate today (Henretta 2004). The system of Social Security and the other programs that Roosevelt instigated were entirely new manifestations of federal power, and under his leadership the size and scope of the national government grew immeasurably.
Roosevelt also altered the course of American destiny on the international front when he took the nation to war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The United States had been hesitant to get involved in the war, but once it did, it became fully engaged, fighting on multiple fronts (Henretta 2004). After the war, Roosevelt would, along with Churchill and Stalin, help to carve up the map of the world in a way which would extend American influence in profound new ways. As the American post-war eco0nomy boomed, it also helped to fuel similar booms in Asia and Europe, as new markets and sources of materials were developed to feed the engine of capitalism. As is the case with Lincoln, it is possible to look back and wonder how things may have differed had a different president been at the helm during these important events. Regardless of what might have been, however, the fact is that Franklin Roosevelt helped to steer the U.S. out of the Great Depression, helped to lead it to victory during World War II, and steered it towards its new position as one of the world’s great superpowers.
In a sense, the United States has always been an imperialist nation. It was rooted in the imperialism of an earlier age, when Great Britain was expanding its empire through colonialism and military dominance. After the revolution, when the newly-formed United States was no longer under the political control of Britain, the imperial drive did no dissipate; it merely took on other forms. American imperialism has not always, or even mostly, been underpinned by military force, but the nation continued to grow from its inception until it became the sole surviving superpower after the Cold War. American imperialism has largely been driven by economic and political reality and ideology, but it is nonetheless quite real.
In the 19th century much of the foundation which predicated the imperialism of the 20th century was established. In the post-Civil War era, the United States began to expand and develop the capitalist system that would define it, and it expanded its geographical reach to much of North America (Henretta 2004). Advances in technology and industry reshaped the America economy, setting the stage for its role as the world’s economic superpower in the next century (Henretta 2004). It was always the unique nature of political life in the United States that set it apart from the rest of the world, and which underpinned the notion of American exceptionalism that built on the notion of manifest destiny of an earlier age.
The true force of American imperialism emerged in the 20th century, as the United States began to usurp Great Britain as the world’s economic leader. By the time that World War II came to an end, the U.S. was clearly established as one of the most powerful nations in the world (Henretta 2004). While it had effectively ended the war by military means, it was the economic post-war boom that would truly establish the U.S. as an imperial leader on a global scale. The U.S. and the Soviet Union became entrenched in the Cold War, but it was really the battle between their economic and political ideologies where they competed. Each nation was interested in convincing the world that its system was superior, and the U.S. expanded the reach of its empire largely by developing and sustaining an effective economic system that was embraced by much of the world.
The reach of American imperialism is global, but little of it was won through military force (Henretta 2004). The expansion of imperialism has been social, political, and cultural, as the American economic and political systems were seen by much of the world as the pinnacle of contemporary life. The continued success of the American capitalist system was entirely dependent on this form of economic and cultural imperialism, as it needed to constantly grow the markets for American goods and secure sources for materials and supplies in the developing word. As neoliberal globalism has allowed much of the world to catch up to the United States and to engage in mutual trade on a global scale, a significant measure of American superiority has been lost. The U.S. is no longer the manufacturing powerhouse it once was, and its economy has fundamentally shifted downward in recent decades. Despite these changes, the U.S. still maintains its position as one of the most powerful nations in the world, though the forces that drove its expanding imperialism in the past are waning, leaving the future of American imperialism an uncertain, open question.
Henretta, James A. America’s History. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2004.