U.S. History and Historical Documents
Discover highlights from American history, including military events and founding documents.
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:
- The American Revolution (sometimes referred to as the American War of Independence or the Revolutionary War) was a conflict that lasted from 1775-1783 and allowed the original 13 colonies to remain independent from Great Britain.
- American politician and soldier George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, serving two terms.
- Beginning in Great Britain in the late 1790s, the Industrial Revolution eventually made its way to the United States and changed the focus of the U.S. economy and the way it manufactured products.
- In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, successfully adding 530 million 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 War of 1812 resolved outstanding tensions between the United States and Great Britain. The two year war ended British military posts on U.S. soil and British interference with American trade.
- The American Civil War divided the United States in two—the Northern States versus the Southern States. The outcome of the four year battle (1861-1865) kept the United States together as one whole nation and ended slavery.
- 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 the 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.
- 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 the 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 a 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 walk on the moon’s surface.
- The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed the United States forever. Less than a month later (October 7, 2001) the United States began the War in Afghanistan, which is still happening today.
- On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. The war lasted for more than eight years before it was officially declared over on December 18, 2011.
- In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States.
Library of Congress Resources
The Library of Congress has compiled a list of historic 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 at the history of the United States.
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States.
- 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.
To learn more, you may want to:
- Read the complete text of the Declaration of Independence.
- Order a printed copy of the document.
- Contact the National Archives and Records Administration.
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 is 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 in all. The 27th Amendment, which was originally proposed in 1789, was not ratified until 1992.
Where to View the Constitution
You can view the original, parchment copy of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. You can also view an online copy of the U.S. Constitution or order a printed copy of the Constitution.
Military History and Museums
The United States Armed Forces date 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 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 to 1907. Airmen are responsible for carrying out aerial 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 Coast Guard is the only branch 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 offer visitors insight into the history, defining moments, and current status of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces:
- The U.S. 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, DC, 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.
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:
- Valley Forge National Historical Park is located in Pennsylvania and is a reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers at one of the best-known locations from the American Revolution.
- Adams National Historic Park is located in Massachusetts and offers visitors a chance to see the birthplace of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
- Morristown National Historic Park in New Jersey is a memorial to those members of George Washington’s army who survived an unusually cold winter.
War of 1812:
- The USS Constitution Museum, located in Massachusetts, provides interactive exhibits on life on the frigate as well as how the ship handled different battles.
- Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, is the location that inspired the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
- The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC, has collections and exhibits to help visitors remember the African Americans who fought in the Civil War.
- The National Park Service has an online Civil War database that contains information on the soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War.
- Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia reminds visitors of some of the Civil War’s most devastating battles.
- Gettysburg National Military Park is located on the site of the Civil War’s deadliest battle—and is often referred to as the turning point of the entire war.
- The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Maryland has exhibits on those who volunteered to take care of the sick and wounded during the Civil War.
World War I:
- President’s Park in Washington, DC, includes monuments to the thousands of fallen American soldiers of the First and Second Infantry Divisions.
- The National World War I Museum and 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:
- The US Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, is located in Virginia near Arlington National Cemetery.
- The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, near Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, includes the USS Arizona Memorial and exhibits on events that occurred in the Pacific Theater during the war.
- The National WW II Memorial in Washington, DC, is a tribute to those who served during the war in battle and at home.
- The Korean War Veterans Memorial depicts those who fought in the three-year war.
- In Washington, DC, 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.
The U.S. National Anthem
The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States. 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.