Unavoidable War and Social Change: the 5 Most Defining Moments in American History

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Obviously it’s impossible to narrow down all of American History to five events. What may seem like something major could be primarily symbolic or just the end result of hundreds of other important events. The biggest ones are not necessarily those that started the change, but there are clear turning points that are the result of slow and gradual build ups.

5 September 11th, 2001

It may be too early to be sure about the long-term impact that the events of September 11th will have on American history but the course of history has been clearly changed since and we are still feeling the effects. Besides the giant loss that American citizens experienced that day and the wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, the way that many Americans see the rest of the world has changed and only time will tell how that will impact the American future.


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The attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war marked the official end to U.S. policies of isolationism. It was now clear that we were the world power. When the end of the war put an end to Nazi atrocities, America learned that a sense of responsibility would also come with the new-found power: responsibility to prevent such atrocities from happening elsewhere if they could. As new communication and transportation technology began to flourish in the years after the war, this feeling was only made stronger by the idea of a global community. The end of WWII also marked the beginning of the Cold War. This was just another way that Americans were feeling the impact of people and events farther away than ever before. The war stayed cold and was never fought between the U.S. and the Soviet Union directly but it was fought indirectly and symbolically all over the world, everywhere from Hollywood to South-East Asia, and even as far away as the moon.

3 The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

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Ok, we stuck more than one in here again but this time we can justify it more easily. The Gilded age was the term used by Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner to describe the time period after the Civil War. They believed that the atmosphere of affluence and prosperity around the United States was just a veneer covering up major social problems. Turns out, they were probably right. The southern states didn’t feel it and neither did the many workers in the growing factories, railroads and mining industries. Immigrants began pouring in from Europe, creating overcrowding in urban slums and new cultures that Americans had to adapt to. It soon became clear that a lot of reform was needed, and the Gilded Age gradually turned into the Progressive Era. The primary goal was to clean up corrupt government, but the era was really marked by women’s suffrage, growing labor unions and the push for legislation to limit working hours, child labor and dangerous working conditions. As urban factory workers, immigrants took a big part in these efforts and began to be a part of American society. Of course, all of these attempts at reform also led to Prohibition but that’s another one you’ll just have to look up on your own!

2 The Civil War

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The Civil War was important in the number of Americans it impacted — more Americans killed than in any other way, which is of course what happens when you have Americans dying on both sides of the battlefield. But there were also many Americans for whom it spelled the final end of slavery and the beginning of liberty, equal rights and opportunities which had already been promised in the Constitution.The outcome of the war proved that the federal government was a force to be reckoned with and that while States would continue to have self-government and plenty of powers, at the end of the day the United States would be one undivided country with a shared destiny.

1 The American Revolution

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Let’s start out with the disclaimer that we’re well aware that we skipped the entire foundation of the colonies, establishment of governing bodies, French and Indian War, Salutary Neglect and its end, the Boston Massacre and Tea Party, the Albany Plan, the Shot Heard Round the World, the Continental Congresses, Declaration of Independence, ratification of the Constitution and the election of George Washington. Did you see how we managed to get all of that in there anyway? You can look it up. I’ll warn you, we’re skipping the War of 1812 too. But now that we’ve sneakily managed to get a whole bunch of extra events in here, we won’t go into too much detail about the importance of the American Revolution becomes it somewhat speaks for itself. It was, in fact, revolutionary. The idea that a group of people could break off from a government if it wasn’t working for them, was unheard of. And once they’d finished the war, the idea of checks and balances and constantly government turnover proved that this was a real revolution driven by idealism and not a hunger for power. But they didn’t stop there. As amendments to the Constitution, they added the Bill of Rights, saying that freedoms were a basic right and not a privilege. Of course, they didn’t have it all quite figured out.

What do you think was the most important event in American history? If it’s not on our list, add it here!

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