The United States of America #1688 (1976)

United States of America - Scott #1688 (1976)
United States of America – Scott #1688 (1976)

I’ve been dreading the entry focusing on my homeland, the United States of America, for quite some time. I knew it was coming. When relatively “simple” entities such as Congo Free State or Crete consume four hours and more of work, producing seven or eight thousand words of text, I know covering the U.S.A. in the same amount of detail is a Herculean task best taken in small doses.

In a way, I’ve been doing that since the very inception of this blog on July 1, 2016, 498 days ago. In the ensuing 500 entries, I have published 67 entries about stamps issued by the United States Postal Service or its predecessor, the United States Post Office Department, These have covered great pieces of American history from pre-colonial days on up to the Space Race and have featured a number of the interesting personages that the nation of my birth has produced.

United States of America with Territories and other Possessions (1970)
United States of America with Territories and other Possessions (1970)

However, I have not done a simple entry that attempts to cover — in a nutshell — the entire breadth of American general history. I have yet to examine the full timeline of the republic’s postal history. Nor have I featured a stamp which I feel epitomizes all that I feel is memorable about the United States of America.

This brings me to the second item that initially caused great fear in preparing for this article: “Which stamp should I use?” I have never really had a “FAVORITE” U.S. stamp other than there being sets of stamps that I admire (the Columbians and Trans-Mississippians spring immediately to mind). As far as those illustrating “America”, I have always had a soft spot for those portraying events of the American Revolutionary period.

I was just beginning to collect stamps in 1975 and 1976, the period in which the nation was preparing to celebrate its Bicentennial. My family and I visited Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1975; most of the Smithsonian museums were closed for renovations but I was still caught up in patriotic fervor, something I experienced in the United States only one additional time (that being in the few days following September 11, 2001). My favorites at the time were the Bicentennial stamps portraying famous paintings of the Revolution. The set of souvenir sheets of which Scott #1688 is a part were beyond my meager means for many years and I have only recently purchased them. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” has long been my favorite incident of the war and so the choice became easy.

NOTE: I began putting this blog entry together in early August. At the time, I’d planned to try to weave the postal and philatelic histories through the general history. I gave up on that idea once I’d reached 10,000 words. I tried to break up the text quite regularly with appropriate (royalty-free) images. The article is a bit out-of-order alphabetically but I’m happy that it’s finally finished. I hope you enjoy it!\

The United States of America (U.S.A.), commonly known as the United States (U.S.) or America, is a federal republic composed of 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. Forty-eight of the fifty states and the federal district are contiguous and located in North America between Canada and Mexico. The state of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The state of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries. With over 324 million people, the United States is the third most populous country in the world. It is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations, and is home to the world’s largest immigrant population. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city is New York City; nine other major metropolitan areas — each with at least 4.5 million inhabitants — are Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, and San Francisco.

The land area of the contiguous United States is 2,959,064 square miles (7,663,940.6 km²). Alaska, separated from the contiguous United States by Canada, is the largest state at 663,268 square miles (1,717,856.2 km²). Hawaii, occupying an archipelago in the central Pacific, southwest of North America, is 10,931 square miles (28,311 km²) in area. The populated territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and U.S. Virgin Islands together cover 9,185 square miles (23,789 km²).

The United States is the world’s third- or fourth-largest nation by total area (land and water), ranking behind Russia and Canada and just above or below China. The ranking varies depending on how two territories disputed by China and India are counted and how the total size of the United States is measured: calculations range from 3,676,486 square miles (9,522,055.0 km²) to 3,717,813 square miles (9,629,091.5 km²) to 3,796,742 square miles (9,833,516.6 km²) to 3,805,927 square miles (9,857,306 km²). Measured by only land area, the United States is third in size behind Russia and China, just ahead of Canada.

The coastal plain of the Atlantic seaboard gives way further inland to deciduous forests and the rolling hills of the Piedmont. The Appalachian Mountains divide the eastern seaboard from the Great Lakes and the grasslands of the Midwest. The Mississippi–Missouri River, the world’s fourth longest river system, runs mainly north–south through the heart of the country. The flat, fertile prairie of the Great Plains stretches to the west, interrupted by a highland region in the southeast.

The Rocky Mountains, at the western edge of the Great Plains, extend north to south across the country, reaching altitudes higher than 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in Colorado. Farther west are the rocky Great Basin and deserts such as the Chihuahua and Mojave. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges run close to the Pacific coast, both ranges reaching altitudes higher than 14,000 feet (4,300 m). The lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States are in the state of California, and only about 84 miles (135 km) apart. At an elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190.5 m), Alaska’s Denali (Mount McKinley) is the highest peak in the country and North America. Active volcanoes are common throughout Alaska’s Alexander and Aleutian Islands, and Hawaii consists of volcanic islands. The supervolcano underlying Yellowstone National Park in the Rockies is the continent’s largest volcanic feature.

The United States, with its large size and geographic variety, includes most climate types. To the east of the 100th meridian, the climate ranges from humid continental in the north to humid subtropical in the south. The Great Plains west of the 100th meridian are semi-arid. Much of the Western mountains have an alpine climate. The climate is arid in the Great Basin, desert in the Southwest, Mediterranean in coastal California, and oceanic in coastal Oregon and Washington and southern Alaska. Most of Alaska is subarctic or polar. Hawaii and the southern tip of Florida are tropical, as are the populated territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Extreme weather is not uncommon — the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico are prone to hurricanes, and most of the world’s tornadoes occur within the country, mainly in Tornado Alley areas in the Midwest and South.

The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782.
The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782.

The U.S. ecology is megadiverse: about 17,000 species of vascular plants occur in the contiguous United States and Alaska, and over 1,800 species of flowering plants are found in Hawaii, few of which occur on the mainland. The United States is home to 428 mammal species, 784 bird species, 311 reptile species, and 295 amphibian species.[212] About 91,000 insect species have been described. The bald eagle is both the national bird and national animal of the United States, and is an enduring symbol of the country itself.

There are 59 national parks and hundreds of other federally managed parks, forests, and wilderness areas. Altogether, the government owns about 28% of the country’s land area. Most of this is protected, though some is leased for oil and gas drilling, mining, logging, or cattle ranching; about .86% is used for military purposes.

The date of the start of the history of the United States is a subject of debate among historians. Older textbooks start with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492 and emphasize the European background of the colonization of the Americas, or they start around 1600 and emphasize the American frontier. In recent decades, American schools and universities typically have shifted back in time to include more on the colonial period and much more on the prehistory of the Native Americans.

Indigenous people lived in what is now the United States for thousands of years before European colonists began to arrive, mostly from England, after 1600. The Spanish built small settlements in Florida and the Southwest, and the French along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. By the 1770s, thirteen British colonies contained two and a half million people along the Atlantic coast east of the Appalachian Mountains. After the end of the French and Indian Wars in the 1760s, the British government imposed a series of new taxes, rejecting the colonists’ argument that any new taxes had to be approved by them. Tax resistance, especially the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, led to punitive laws called the Intolerable Acts by Parliament designed to end self-government in Massachusetts. American Patriots (as they called themselves) adhered to a political ideology called republicanism that emphasized civic duty, virtue, and opposition to corruption, fancy luxuries and aristocracy.

Postal services began in the first half of the 17th century serving the first American colonies. In the earliest days, Ship captains arriving in port with stampless mail would advertise in the local newspaper names of those having mail and for them to come collect and pay for it, if not already paid for by the sender. Postal delivery in the United States was a matter of haphazard local organization until after the Revolutionary War, when eventually a national postal system was established. Stampless letters, paid for by the receiver, and private postal systems, were gradually phased out after the introduction of adhesive postage stamps, first issued by the U.S. government post office July 1, 1847, in the denominations of five and ten cents, with the use of stamps made mandatory in 1855.

The Boston Massacre, known as the Incident on King Street by the British, was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers shot and killed people while under attack by a mob.
The Boston Massacre, known as the Incident on King Street by the British, was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers shot and killed people while under attack by a mob.

Armed conflict began in 1775 as Patriots drove the royal officials out of every colony and assembled in mass meetings and conventions. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared that there was a new, independent nation, the United States of America, not just a collection of disparate colonies. With large-scale military and financial support from France and the military leadership of General George Washington, the American Patriots won the Revolutionary War. The peace treaty of 1783 gave the new nation the land east of the Mississippi River (except Florida and Canada). The central government established by the Articles of Confederation proved ineffectual at providing stability, as it had no authority to collect taxes and had no executive officer. Congress called a convention to meet secretly in Philadelphia in 1787. It wrote a new Constitution, which was adopted in 1789. In 1791, a Bill of Rights was added to guarantee inalienable rights. With Washington as the first president and Alexander Hamilton his chief political and financial adviser, a strong central government was created. When Thomas Jefferson became president he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States. A second and final war with Britain was fought in 1812.

Territorial expansion of the continental United States of America, 1803-1912.
Territorial expansion of the continental United States of America, 1803-1912.

 

Encouraged by the notion of manifest destiny, federal territory expanded all the way to the Pacific. The U.S. always was large in terms of area, but its population was small, only 4 million in 1790. Population growth was rapid, reaching 7.2 million in 1810, 32 million in 1860, 76 million in 1900, 132 million in 1940, and 321 million in 2015. Economic growth in terms of overall GDP was even faster. However, compared to European powers, the nation’s military strength was relatively limited in peacetime before 1940. The expansion was driven by a quest for inexpensive land for yeoman farmers and slave owners. The expansion of slavery was increasingly controversial and fueled political and constitutional battles, which were resolved by compromises. Slavery was abolished in all states north of the Mason–Dixon line by 1804, but the South continued to profit off the institution, producing high-value cotton exports to feed increasing high demand in Europe. The 1860 presidential election of Republican Abraham Lincoln was on a platform of ending the expansion of slavery and putting it on a path to extinction.

Seven cotton-based deep South slave states seceded and later founded the Confederacy four months before Lincoln’s inauguration. No nation ever recognized the Confederacy, but it opened the war by attacking Fort Sumter in 1861. A surge of nationalist outrage in the North fueled a long, intense American Civil War (1861–1865). It was fought largely in the South as the overwhelming material and manpower advantages of the North proved decisive in a long war. The war’s result was restoration of the Union, the impoverishment of the South, and the abolition of slavery. In the Reconstruction era (1863–1877), legal and voting rights were extended to the freed slave. The national government emerged much stronger, and because of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, it gained the explicit duty to protect individual rights. However, when white Democrats regained their power in the South during the 1870s, often by paramilitary suppression of voting, they passed Jim Crow laws to maintain white supremacy, and new disfranchising constitutions that prevented most African Americans and many poor whites from voting. This situation continued for decades until gains of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and passage of federal legislation to enforce constitutional rights.

Irish immigrants arrive in New York Harbor, viewing the Statue of Liberty prior to landing and processing at Ellis Island.
Irish immigrants arrive in New York Harbor, viewing the Statue of Liberty prior to landing and processing at Ellis Island.

The United States became the world’s leading industrial power at the turn of the 20th century due to an outburst of entrepreneurship in the Northeast and Midwest and the arrival of millions of immigrant workers and farmers from Europe. The national railroad network was completed with the work of Chinese immigrants and large-scale mining and factories industrialized the Northeast and Midwest. Mass dissatisfaction with corruption, inefficiency and traditional politics stimulated the Progressive movement, from the 1890s to 1920s, which led to many social and political reforms. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed women’s suffrage (the right to vote). This followed the 16th and 17th amendments in 1913, which established the first national income tax and direct election of US senators to Congress. Initially neutral during World War I, the US declared war on Germany in 1917 and later funded the Allied victory the following year.

After a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 marked the onset of the decade-long worldwide Great Depression. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the Republican dominance of the White House and implemented his New Deal programs for relief, recovery, and reform. The New Deal, which defined modern American liberalism, included relief for the unemployed, support for farmers, Social Security and a minimum wage. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II along with Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and the smaller number of Allied nations. The U.S. financed the Allied war effort and helped defeat Nazi Germany in the European theater. Its involvement culminated in using the newly invented nuclear weapons on Japanese cities that helped defeat Imperial Japan in the Pacific theater.

The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as rival superpowers after World War II. The U.S. was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only country to use them in warfare, and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR confronted each other indirectly in the arms race, the Space Race, proxy wars, and propaganda campaigns. U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was built around the support of Western Europe and Japan along with the policy of containment, stopping the spread of communism. The United States joined the wars in Korea and Vietnam to try to stop its spread. In the 1960s, in large part due to the strength of the civil rights movement, another wave of social reforms were enacted by enforcing the constitutional rights of voting and freedom of movement to African-Americans and other racial minorities. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991, leaving the United States as the world’s only superpower.

After the Cold War, the United States focused on international conflicts around the Middle East in response to the Gulf War in the early 1990s. The beginning of the 21st century saw the September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda in 2001, which would later be followed by U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, the United States had its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, which has been followed by slower than usual rates of economic growth during the 2010s.

The United States is a founding member of the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organization of American States (OAS), and other international organizations. It is a highly developed country, with the world’s largest economy by nominal GDP and second-largest economy by PPP. Though its population is only 4.3% of the world total, Americans hold nearly 40% of the total wealth in the world, making the U.S. the wealthiest country in the world. The United States ranks among the highest in several measures of socioeconomic performance, including average wage, human development, per capita GDP, and productivity per person. While the U.S. economy is considered post-industrial, characterized by the dominance of services and knowledge economy, the manufacturing sector remains the second-largest in the world. Accounting for approximately a quarter of global GDP and a third of global military spending, the United States is the world’s foremost economic and military power. The United States is a prominent political and cultural force internationally, and a leader in scientific research and technological innovations.

Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespucius in Latin) first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as conjectured by Christopher Columbus, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to the peoples of the Old World. In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the lands of the Western Hemisphere “America” in honor of Vespucci.

First uses of the adjective “American” referenced European settlements in the New World. “Americans” referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and subsequently to European settlers and their descendants. English use of the term “American” for people of European descent dates to the 17th century; the earliest recorded appearance is in Thomas Gage’s The English-American: A New Survey of the West Indies in 1648.

The first documentary evidence of the phrase “United States of America” is from a letter dated January 2, 1776, written by Stephen Moylan, Esq., George Washington’s aide-de-camp and Muster-Master General of the Continental Army. Addressed to Lt. Col. Joseph Reed, Moylan expressed his wish to carry the “full and ample powers of the United States of America” to Spain to assist in the revolutionary war effort.

The first known publication of the phrase “United States of America” was in an anonymous essay in The Virginia Gazette newspaper in Williamsburg, Virginia, on April 6, 1776. The second draft of the Articles of Confederation, prepared by John Dickinson and completed by June 17, 1776, at the latest, declared “The name of this Confederation shall be the ‘United States of America.'” The final version of the Articles sent to the states for ratification in late 1777 contains the sentence “The Stile of this Confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America'”. In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the phrase “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” in all capitalized letters in the headline of his “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence. This draft of the document did not surface until June 21, 1776, and it is unclear whether it was written before or after Dickinson used the term in his June 17 draft of the Articles of Confederation. In the final Fourth of July version of the Declaration, the title was changed to read, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”.

The Federalist Papers of 1787–1788, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison to advocate the ratification of the United States Constitution, use the word “American” in both its original, Pan-American sense, but also in its United States sense: Federalist Paper 24 refers to the “American possessions” of Britain and Spain, (i.e., land outside of the United States), while Federalist Papers 51 and 70 refer to the United States as “the American republic”. The preamble of the Constitution as ratified in 1789 states “…establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

People from the United States increasingly referred to themselves as “Americans” through the end of the 18th century; the 1795 Treaty of Peace and Amity with the Barbary States refers to “American Citizens”, and George Washington spoke to his people of “[t]he name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity” in his 1796 farewell address. Eventually, this usage spread through other English-speaking countries.

The short form “United States” is also standard when referring to the country’s name. Other common forms are the “U.S.”, the “USA”, and “America”. Colloquial names are the “U.S. of A.” and, internationally, the “States”. “Columbia”, a name popular in poetry and songs of the late 18th century, derives its origin from Christopher Columbus; it appears in the name “District of Columbia”. In non-English languages, the name is frequently the translation of either the “United States” or “United States of America”, and colloquially as “America”. In addition, an abbreviation (e.g. USA) is sometimes used.

The phrase “United States” was originally plural, a description of a collection of independent states — e.g., “the United States are” — including in the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865. The singular form — e.g., “the United States is” — became popular after the end of the American Civil War. The singular form is now standard; the plural form is retained in the idiom “these United States”. The difference is more significant than usage; it is a difference between a collection of states and a unit.

A citizen of the United States is an “American”. “United States”, “American” and “U.S.” refer to the country adjectivally (“American values”, “U.S. forces”). In English, the word “American” came to be applied especially to people in British America, and thus its use as a demonym for the United States derives by extension. Today, the unqualified noun “American” in all forms of the English language now chiefly refers to natives or citizens of the United States; other senses are generally specified with a qualifier such as “Latin American” or “North American”.

The only officially and commonly used alternative for referring to the people of the United States in English is to refer to them as citizens of that country. Another alternative is US-American, also spelled U.S.-American, US American, and U.S. American. Several single-word English alternatives for “American” have been suggested over time, including “Usonian”, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the nonce term “United-Statesian”. The writer H. L. Mencken collected a number of proposals from between 1789 and 1939, finding terms including “Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Frede, Unisian, United Statesian, Colonican, Appalacian, Usian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican, United Stater”. Nevertheless, no alternative to “American” is common in English. Names for broader categories include terms such as Western Hemispherian, New Worlder, and North Atlantican.

“Yankee” (or “Yank”) is a colloquial term for Americans in English; cognates can be found in other languages. Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to people specifically from New England or the Northern United States, though it has been applied to Americans generally since the 18th century, especially by the British. The earliest recorded use in this context is in a 1784 letter by Horatio Nelson.

Although some Spanish speakers use the translation of “American” (Americano), the official Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas de la Real Academia Española nonetheless recommends instead estadounidense because “American” can also refer to all of the inhabitants of the continents of North and South America. In Spanish-speaking Latin America and the Caribbean, Americans are estadounidenses, and in colloquial uses, gringos, but the word usually has a disparaging meaning depending on the context in which it is used. In Brazilian Portuguese, the everyday term is usually americano or norte-americano and estadunidense is the preferred form in academia.

It is not definitively known how or when the Native Americans first settled the Americas and the present-day United States. The prevailing theory proposes that people migrated from Eurasia across Beringia, a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska during the Ice Age, and then spread southward throughout the Americas and possibly going as far south as the Antarctic Peninsula. This migration may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago and continued through to about 10,000+ years ago, when the land bridge became submerged by the rising sea level caused by the ending of the last glacial period. These early inhabitants, called Paleoamericans, soon diversified into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.

The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the Early Modern period. While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus’ voyages of 1492 to 1504, in practice the term usually includes the history of American indigenous cultures until they were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades or even centuries after Columbus’ initial landing.

Native American cultures are not normally included in characterizations of advanced stone age cultures as “Neolithic,” which is a category that more often includes only the cultures in Eurasia, Africa, and other regions. The archaeological periods used are the classifications of archaeological periods and cultures established in Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips’ 1958 book Method and Theory in American Archaeology.

Numerous Paleoindian cultures occupied North America, with some arrayed around the Great Plains and Great Lakes of the modern United States of America and Canada, as well as adjacent areas to the West and Southwest. According to the oral histories of many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have been living on this continent since their genesis, described by a wide range of traditional creation stories. Other tribes have stories that recount migrations across long tracts of land and a great river, believed to be the Mississippi River. Genetic and linguistic data connect the indigenous people of this continent with ancient northeast Asians. Archaeological and linguistic data has enabled scholars to discover some of the migrations within the Americas.

Native development in Hawaii began with the settlement of Polynesians between the 1st century to the 10th century. Around 1200 AD, Tahitian explorers found and began settling the area as well. This became the rise of the Hawaiian civilization and would be separated from the rest of the world for another 500 years until the arrival of the British. Europeans under the British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Within five years of contact, European military technology would help Kamehameha I conquer most of the people, and eventually unify the islands for the first time; establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Spanish explorers were the first Europeans with Christopher Columbus’ second expedition, to reach Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493; others reached Florida in 1513. Spanish expeditions quickly reached the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. In 1540, Hernando de Soto undertook an extensive exploration of the Southeast. In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored from Arizona to central Kansas. Small Spanish settlements eventually grew to become important cities, such as San Antonio, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; Los Angeles, California; and San Francisco, California.

New Netherland was a 17th-century Dutch colony centered on present-day New York City and the Hudson River Valley; the Dutch traded furs with the Native Americans to the north. The colony served as a barrier to expansion from New England. Despite being Calvinists and building the Reformed Church in America, the Dutch were tolerant of other religions and cultures. The colony, which was taken over by Britain in 1664, left an enduring legacy on American cultural and political life. This includes secular broad-mindedness and mercantile pragmatism in the city as well as rural traditionalism in the countryside (typified by the story of Rip Van Winkle). Notable Americans of Dutch descent include Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Frelinghuysens.

New France was the area colonized by France from 1534 to 1763. There were few permanent settlers outside Quebec and Acadia, but the French had far-reaching trading relationships with Native Americans throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest. French villages along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers were based in farming communities that served as a granary for Gulf Coast settlements. The French established plantations in Louisiana along with settling New Orleans, Mobile and Biloxi.

The Wabanaki Confederacy were military allies of New France through the four French and Indian Wars while the British colonies were allied with the Iroquois Confederacy. During the French and Indian War — the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War — New England fought successfully against French Acadia. The British removed Acadians from Acadia (Nova Scotia) and replaced them with New England Planters. Eventually, some Acadians resettled in Louisiana, where they developed a distinctive rural Cajun culture that still exists. They became American citizens in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. Other French villages along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers were absorbed when the Americans started arriving after 1770, or settlers moved west to escape them. French influence and language in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast was more enduring; New Orleans was notable for its large population of free people of color before the Civil War.

The strip of land along the eastern seacoast was settled primarily by English colonists in the 17th century along with much smaller numbers of Dutch and Swedes. Colonial America was defined by a severe labor shortage that employed forms of unfree labor such as slavery and indentured servitude and by a British policy of benign neglect (salutary neglect). Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants. Salutary neglect permitted the development of an American spirit distinct from that of its European founders.

The first successful English colony, Jamestown, was established in 1607 on the James River in Virginia. Jamestown languished for decades until a new wave of settlers arrived in the late 17th century and established commercial agriculture based on tobacco. Between the late 1610s and the Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 to 120,000 convicts to their American colonies. A severe instance of conflict was the 1622 Powhatan uprising in Virginia in which Native Americans killed hundreds of English settlers. The largest conflicts between Native Americans and English settlers in the 17th century were King Philip’s War in New England and the Yamasee War in South Carolina.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914). Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

New England was initially settled primarily by Puritans. The Pilgrims established a settlement in 1620 at Plymouth Colony, which was followed by the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of diversity. The first attempted English settlement south of Virginia was the Province of Carolina, with Georgia Colony — the last of the Thirteen Colonies — established in 1733.

The colonies were characterized by religious diversity, with many Congregationalists in New England, German and Dutch Reformed in the Middle Colonies, Catholics in Maryland, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians on the frontier. Sephardic Jews were among early settlers in cities of New England and the South. Many immigrants arrived as religious refugees: French Huguenots settled in New York, Virginia and the Carolinas. Many royal officials and merchants were Anglicans.

Religiosity expanded greatly after the First Great Awakening, a religious revival in the 1740s led by preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. American Evangelicals affected by the Awakening added a new emphasis on divine outpourings of the Holy Spirit and conversions that implanted within new believers an intense love for God. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and carried the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic, setting the stage for the Second Great Awakening beginning in the late 1790s. In the early stages, evangelicals in the South such as Methodists and Baptists preached for religious freedom and abolition of slavery; they converted many slaves and recognized some as preachers.

Each of the 13 American colonies had a slightly different governmental structure. Typically, a colony was ruled by a governor appointed from London who controlled the executive administration and relied upon a locally elected legislature to vote taxes and make laws. By the 18th century, the American colonies were growing very rapidly as a result of low death rates along with ample supplies of land and food. The colonies were richer than most parts of Britain, and attracted a steady flow of immigrants, especially teenagers who arrived as indentured servants.

In the American colonies, informal independently-run postal routes began in Boston as early as 1639, with Boston to New York City service starting in 1672. Officially sanctioned mail service began in 1692 when King William III granted to an English nobleman a delivery “patent” that included the exclusive right to establish and collect a formal postal tax on official documents of all kinds. Years later, taxation implemented through the mandatory purchase of stamps was an issue that helped to spark the American Revolution. The tax was repealed a year later, and very few were ever actually used in the thirteen colonies, but they saw service in Canada and the British Caribbean islands.

The tobacco and rice plantations imported African slaves for labor from the British colonies in the West Indies, and by the 1770s African slaves comprised a fifth of the American population. The question of independence from Britain did not arise as long as the colonies needed British military support against the French and Spanish powers. Those threats were gone by 1765. London regarded the American colonies as existing for the benefit of the mother country. This policy is known as mercantilism.

An upper-class, with wealth based on large plantations operated by slave labor, and holding significant political power and even control over the churches, emerged in South Carolina and Virginia. A unique class system operated in upstate New York, where Dutch tenant farmers rented land from very wealthy Dutch proprietors, such as the Rensselaer family. The other colonies were more equalitarian, with Pennsylvania being representative. By the mid-18th century Pennsylvania was basically a middle-class colony with limited deference to its small upper-class. A writer in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1756 summed it up:

The People of this Province are generally of the middling Sort, and at present pretty much upon a Level. They are chiefly industrious Farmers, Artificers or Men in Trade; they enjoy in are fond of Freedom, and the meanest among them thinks he has a right to Civility from the greatest.

The French and Indian War (1754–63) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies. It was also part of the larger Seven Years’ War. The influence of the main rivals of the British Crown in the colonies and Canada, the French and North American Indians, was significantly reduced with the territory of the Thirteen Colonies expanding into New France both in Canada and the Louisiana Territory. Moreover, the war effort resulted in greater political integration of the colonies, as reflected in the Albany Congress and symbolized by Benjamin Franklin’s call for the colonies to “Join or Die”. Franklin was a man of many inventions – one of which was the concept of a United States of America, which emerged after 1765 and was realized in July 1776.

Join, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.
Join, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.

Following Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 with the goal of organizing the new North American empire and protecting the native Indians from colonial expansion into western lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. In ensuing years, strains developed in the relations between the colonists and the Crown. The British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765, imposing a tax on the colonies without going through the colonial legislatures. The issue was drawn: did Parliament have this right to tax Americans who were not represented in it? Crying “No taxation without representation”, the colonists refused to pay the taxes as tensions escalated in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, mail routes among the colonies existed along the few roads between Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In the middle 18th century, individuals like Benjamin Franklin and William Goddard were the colonial postmasters who managed the mails then and were the general architects of a postal system that started out as an alternative to the Crown Post (the colonial mail system then) which was now becoming more distrusted as the American Revolution drew near. The postal system that Franklin and Goddard forged out of the American Revolution became the standard for the new U.S. Post Office and is a system whose basic designs are still used in the United States Postal Service today.

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor", lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party (1846)
“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor”, lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party (1846)

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a direct action by activists in the town of Boston to protest against the new tax on tea. Parliament quickly responded the next year with the Coercive Acts, stripping Massachusetts of its historic right of self-government and putting it under army rule, which sparked outrage and resistance in all thirteen colonies. Patriot leaders from all 13 colonies convened the First Continental Congress to coordinate their resistance to the Coercive Acts. The Congress called for a boycott of British trade, published a list of rights and grievances, and petitioned the king for redress of those grievances. The appeal to the Crown had no effect, and so the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1775 to organize the defense of the colonies against the British Army.

Ordinary folk became insurgents against the British even though they were unfamiliar with the ideological rationales being offered. They held very strongly a sense of “rights” that they felt the British were deliberately violating – rights that stressed local autonomy, fair dealing, and government by consent. They were highly sensitive to the issue of tyranny, which they saw manifested in the arrival in Boston of the British Army to punish the Bostonians. This heightened their sense of violated rights, leading to rage and demands for revenge. They had faith that God was on their side.

The American Revolutionary War began at Concord and Lexington in April 1775 when the British tried to seize ammunition supplies and arrest the Patriot leaders.

Population density in the American Colonies, 1775
Population density in the American Colonies, 1775

In terms of political values, the Americans were largely united on a concept called Republicanism, that rejected aristocracy and emphasized civic duty and a fear of corruption. For the Founding Fathers, according to one team of historians, “republicanism represented more than a particular form of government. It was a way of life, a core ideology, an uncompromising commitment to liberty, and a total rejection of aristocracy.”

The Thirteen Colonies began a rebellion against British rule in 1775 and proclaimed their independence in 1776 as the United States of America. In the American Revolutionary War (1775–83) the American captured the British invasion army at Saratoga in 1777, secured the Northeast and encouraged the French to make a military alliance with the United States. France brought in Spain and the Netherlands, thus balancing the military and naval forces on each side as Britain had no allies.

General George Washington (1732–99) proved an excellent organizer and administrator, who worked successfully with Congress and the state governors, selecting and mentoring his senior officers, supporting and training his troops, and maintaining an idealistic Republican Army. His biggest challenge was logistics, since neither Congress nor the states had the funding to provide adequately for the equipment, munitions, clothing, paychecks, or even the food supply of the soldiers.

As a battlefield tactician, Washington was often outmaneuvered by his British counterparts. As a strategist, however, he had a better idea of how to win the war than they did. The British sent four invasion armies. Washington’s strategy forced the first army out of Boston in 1776, and was responsible for the surrender of the second and third armies at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). He limited the British control to New York City and a few places while keeping Patriot control of the great majority of the population.

The Loyalists, whom the British counted upon too heavily, comprised about 20% of the population but never were well organized. As the war ended, Washington watched proudly as the final British army quietly sailed out of New York City in November 1783, taking the Loyalist leadership with them. Washington astonished the world when, instead of seizing power for himself, he retired quietly to his farm in Virginia.] Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset observes, “The United States was the first major colony successfully to revolt against colonial rule. In this sense, it was the first ‘new nation’.”

John Trumbull's 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.
John Trumbull’s 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, declared the independence of “the United States of America” in the Declaration of Independence. July 4 is celebrated as the nation’s birthday. Historian George Billias says:

Independence amounted to a new status of interdependence: the United States was now a sovereign nation entitled to the privileges and responsibilities that came with that status. America thus became a member of the international community, which meant becoming a maker of treaties and alliances, a military ally in diplomacy, and a partner in foreign trade on a more equal basis.

The new nation was founded on Enlightenment ideals of liberalism in what Thomas Jefferson called the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and dedicated strongly to republican principles. Republicanism emphasized the people are sovereign (not hereditary kings), demanded civic duty, feared corruption, and rejected any aristocracy.

In the 1780s, the national government was able to settle the issue of the western territories, which were ceded by the states to Congress and became territories. With the migration of settlers to the Northwest, soon they became states. Nationalists worried that the new nation was too fragile to withstand an international war, or even internal revolts such as the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 in Massachusetts.

Nationalists — most of them war veterans — organized in every state and convinced Congress to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The delegates from every state wrote a new Constitution that created a much more powerful and efficient central government, one with a strong president, and powers of taxation. The new government reflected the prevailing republican ideals of guarantees of individual liberty and of constraining the power of government through a system of separation of powers.

The Congress was given authority to ban the international slave trade after 20 years (which it did in 1807). A compromise gave the South Congressional apportionment out of proportion to its free population by allowing it to include three-fifths of the number of slaves in each state’s total population. This provision increased the political power of southern representatives in Congress, especially as slavery was extended into the Deep South through removal of Native Americans and transportation of slaves by an extensive domestic trade.

To assuage the Anti-Federalists who feared a too-powerful national government, the nation adopted the United States Bill of Rights in 1791. Comprising the first ten amendments of the Constitution, it guaranteed individual liberties such as freedom of speech and religious practice, jury trials, and stated that citizens and states had reserved rights (which were not specified).

George Washington's legacy remains among the two or three greatest in American history, as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, hero of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States.
George Washington’s legacy remains among the two or three greatest in American history, as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, hero of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States.

George Washington — a renowned hero of the American Revolutionary War, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention — became the first President of the United States under the new Constitution in 1789. The national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia and finally settled in Washington DC in 1800.

The major accomplishments of the Washington Administration were creating a strong national government that was recognized without question by all Americans. His government, following the vigorous leadership of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, assumed the debts of the states (the debt holders received federal bonds), created the Bank of the United States to stabilize the financial system, and set up a uniform system of tariffs (taxes on imports) and other taxes to pay off the debt and provide a financial infrastructure. To support his programs Hamilton created a new political party — the first in the world based on voters — the Federalist Party.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed an opposition Republican Party (usually called the Democratic-Republican Party by political scientists). Hamilton and Washington presented the country in 1794 with the Jay Treaty that reestablished good relations with Britain. The Jeffersonians vehemently protested, and the voters aligned behind one party or the other, thus setting up the First Party System.

Federalists promoted business, financial and commercial interests and wanted more trade with Britain. Republicans accused the Federalists of plans to establish a monarchy, turn the rich into a ruling class, and making the United States a pawn of the British. The treaty passed, but politics became intensely heated.

The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when western settlers protested against a federal tax on liquor, was the first serious test of the federal government. Washington called out the state militia and personally led an army, as the insurgents melted away and the power of the national government was firmly established.

Washington refused to serve more than two terms — setting a precedent — and in his famous farewell address, he extolled the benefits of federal government and importance of ethics and morality while warning against foreign alliances and the formation of political parties.

John Adams, a Federalist, defeated Jefferson in the 1796 election. War loomed with France and the Federalists used the opportunity to try to silence the Republicans with the Alien and Sedition Acts, build up a large army with Hamilton at the head, and prepare for a French invasion. However, the Federalists became divided after Adams sent a successful peace mission to France that ended the Quasi-War of 1798.

During the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, there were dramatic changes in the status of slavery among the states and an increase in the number of freed blacks. Inspired by revolutionary ideals of the equality of men and influenced by their lesser economic reliance on slavery, northern states abolished slavery.

States of the Upper South made manumission easier, resulting in an increase in the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South (as a percentage of the total non-white population) from less than one percent in 1792 to more than 10 percent by 1810. By that date, a total of 13.5 percent of all blacks in the United States were free. After that date, with the demand for slaves on the rise because of the Deep South’s expanding cotton cultivation, the number of manumissions declined sharply; and an internal U.S. slave trade became an important source of wealth for many planters and traders.

In 1809, president James Madison severed the U.S.A.’s involvement with the Atlantic slave trade.

Jefferson’s major achievement as president was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which provided U.S. settlers with vast potential for expansion west of the Mississippi River.

Territorial expansion of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase depicted in white.
Territorial expansion of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase depicted in white.

Jefferson, a scientist himself, supported expeditions to explore and map the new domain, most notably the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson believed deeply in republicanism and argued it should be based on the independent yeoman farmer and planter; he distrusted cities, factories and banks. He also distrusted the federal government and judges, and tried to weaken the judiciary. However he met his match in John Marshall, a Federalist from Virginia. Although the Constitution specified a Supreme Court, its functions were vague until Marshall, the Chief Justice (1801–35), defined them, especially the power to overturn acts of Congress or states that violated the Constitution, first enunciated in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison.

Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in the 1800 election. Americans were increasingly angry at the British violation of American ships’ neutral rights in order to hurt France, the impressment (seizure) of 10,000 American sailors needed by the Royal Navy to fight Napoleon, and British support for hostile Indians attacking American settlers in the Midwest. They may also have desired to annex all or part of British North America. Despite strong opposition from the Northeast, especially from Federalists who did not want to disrupt trade with Britain, Congress declared war on June 18, 1812.

The war was frustrating for both sides. Both sides tried to invade the other and were repulsed. The American high command remained incompetent until the last year. The American militia proved ineffective because the soldiers were reluctant to leave home and efforts to invade Canada repeatedly failed. The British blockade ruined American commerce, bankrupted the Treasury, and further angered New Englanders, who smuggled supplies to Britain. The Americans under General William Henry Harrison finally gained naval control of Lake Erie and defeated the Indians under Tecumseh in Canada, while Andrew Jackson ended the Indian threat in the Southeast. The Indian threat to expansion into the Midwest was permanently ended. The British invaded and occupied much of Maine.

In 1865, artist William Henry Powell painted
Lawrence to the USS Niagara. Powell used actual sailors as models for the unknown oarsmen, and noted the diversity of Perry’s crew by including an African-American, seated toward the right. The frame features Perry’s post-battle message to General William Henry Harrison in gold lettering at the top, which would become one of the most famous sentences in American military history: “We have met the enemy and they are ours”. The name and date of the battle are on the cartouche at the bottom.” class=”size-medium” /> In 1865, artist William Henry Powell painted “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie”, which now hangs in the Ohio Statehouse. Eight years later, he created this larger version in a temporary studio in the U.S. Capitol. The work depicts the moment when Oliver Hazard Perry made his way from the USS Lawrence to the USS Niagara. Powell used actual sailors as models for the unknown oarsmen, and noted the diversity of Perry’s crew by including an African-American, seated toward the right. The frame features Perry’s post-battle message to General William Henry Harrison in gold lettering at the top, which would become one of the most famous sentences in American military history: “We have met the enemy and they are ours”. The name and date of the battle are on the cartouche at the bottom.

The British raided and burned Washington, but were repelled at Baltimore in 1814 – where the “Star Spangled Banner” was written to celebrate the American success. In upstate New York a major British invasion of New York State was turned back. Finally in early 1815 Andrew Jackson decisively defeated a major British invasion at the Battle of New Orleans, making him the most famous war hero.

With Napoleon (apparently) gone, the causes of the war had evaporated and both sides agreed to a peace that left the prewar boundaries intact. Americans claimed victory on February 18, 1815, as news came almost simultaneously of Jackson’s victory of New Orleans and the peace treaty that left the prewar boundaries in place. Americans swelled with pride at success in the “second war of independence”; the naysayers of the antiwar Federalist Party were put to shame and the party never recovered. The Indians were the big losers; they never gained the independent nationhood Britain had promised and no longer posed a serious threat as settlers poured into the Midwest.

As strong opponents of the war, the Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814 that hinted at disunion. National euphoria after the victory at New Orleans ruined the prestige of the Federalists and they no longer played a significant role as a political party. President Madison and most Republicans realized they were foolish to let the Bank of the United States close down, for its absence greatly hindered the financing of the war. So, with the assistance of foreign bankers, they chartered the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.

The Republicans also imposed tariffs designed to protect the infant industries that had been created when Britain was blockading the U.S. With the collapse of the Federalists as a party, the adoption of many Federalist principles by the Republicans, and the systematic policy of President James Monroe in his two terms (1817–25) to downplay partisanship, the nation entered an Era of Good Feelings, with far less partisanship than before (or after), and closed out the First Party System.

The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed the United States’ opinion that European powers should no longer colonize or interfere in the Americas. This was a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States. The Monroe Doctrine was adopted in response to American and British fears over Russian and French expansion into the Western Hemisphere.

In 1832, President Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, ran for a second term under the slogan “Jackson and no bank” and did not renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States of America, ending the Bank in 1836. Jackson was convinced that central banking was used by the elite to take advantage of the average American, and instead implemented state banks, popularly known as “pet banks.”

The Indian Removal Act resulted in the transplantation of several Native American tribes and the Trail of Tears.
The Indian Removal Act resulted in the transplantation of several Native American tribes and the Trail of Tears.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate treaties that exchanged Native American tribal lands in the eastern states for lands west of the Mississippi River. Its goal was primarily to remove Native Americans, including the Five Civilized Tribes, from the American Southeast; they occupied land that settlers wanted. Jacksonian Democrats demanded the forcible removal of native populations who refused to acknowledge state laws to reservations in the West; Whigs and religious leaders opposed the move as inhumane. Thousands of deaths resulted from the relocations, as seen in the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Many of the Seminole Indians in Florida refused to move west; they fought the Army for years in the Seminole Wars.

After the First Party System of Federalists and Republicans withered away in the 1820s, the stage was set for the emergence of a new party system based on well organized local parties that appealed for the votes of (almost) all adult white men. The former Jeffersonian (Democratic-Republican) party split into factions. They split over the choice of a successor to President James Monroe, and the party faction that supported many of the old Jeffersonian principles, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, became the Democratic Party.

Opposing factions led by Henry Clay helped form the Whig Party. The Democratic Party had a small but decisive advantage over the Whigs until the 1850s, when the Whigs fell apart over the issue of slavery.

After 1840, the abolitionist movement redefined itself as a crusade against the sin of slave ownership. It mobilized support especially among religious women in the Northeast affected by the Second Great Awakening. William Lloyd Garrison, a radical abolitionist, published the most influential of the many anti-slavery newspapers, The Liberator, while Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave, began writing for that newspaper around 1840 and started his own abolitionist newspaper North Star in 1847. The great majority of anti-slavery activists, such as Abraham Lincoln, rejected Garrison’s theology and held that slavery was an unfortunate social evil, not a sin.

The introduction of postage stamps in the United Kingdom in May 1840 was received with great interest in the United States as well as around the world. Later that year, Daniel Webster rose in the U.S. Senate to recommend that the recent English postal reforms — standardized rates and the use of postage stamps — be adopted in America.

It would be private enterprise, however, that brought stamps to the United States. On February 1, 1842, a new carrier service called  the City Despatch Post began operations in New York City, introducing the first adhesive postage stamp ever produced in the western hemisphere, which it required its clients to use for all mail. This stamp was a 3-cent issue bearing a rather amateurish drawing of George Washington, printed from line-engraved plates in sheets of 42 images. The company had been founded by Henry Thomas Windsor, a London merchant who at the time was living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Alexander M. Greig was advertised as the post’s “agent,” and as a result, historians and philatelists have tended to refer to the firm simply as “Greig’s City Despatch Post,” making no mention of Windsor. In another innovation, the company placed mail-collection boxes around the city for the convenience of its customers.

A few months after its founding, the City Despatch Post was sold to the U.S. Government, which renamed it the “United States City Despatch Post.” The government began operation of this local post on August 16, 1842, under an Act of Congress of some years earlier that authorized local delivery. Greig, retained by the Post Office to run the service, kept the firm’s original Washington stamp in use, but soon had its lettering altered to reflect the name change. In its revised form, this issue accordingly became the first postage stamp produced under the auspices of a government in the western hemisphere.

New York Postmaster's Provisional listed as United States Scott #9X1, released in 1845. Image from Wikipedia (not my stamp!)
New York Postmaster’s Provisional listed as United States Scott #9X1, released in 1845. Image from Wikipedia (not my stamp!)

An Act of Congress of March 3, 1845 (effective July 1, 1845), established uniform (and mostly reduced) postal rates throughout the nation, with a uniform rate of five cents for distances under 300 miles (500 km) and ten cents for distances between 300 and 3000 miles. However, Congress did not authorize the production of stamps for nationwide use until 1847; still, postmasters realized that standard rates now made it feasible to produce and sell “provisional” issues for prepayment of uniform postal fees, and printed these in bulk. Such provisionals included both prepaid envelopes and stamps, mostly of crude design, the New York Postmaster’s Provisional being the only one of quality comparable to later stamps.

The provisional issues of Baltimore were notable for the reproduced signature of the city’s postmaster — James M. Buchanan, a cousin to President James Buchanan. All provisional issues are rare, some inordinately so: at a Siegel Gallery auction in New York on March 2012, an example of the Millbury provisional fetched $400,000, while copies of the Alexandria and Annapolis provisionals each sold for $550,000. Eleven cities printed provisional stamps in 1845 and 1846.

United States - Scott #1 and 2 (1847). Images from Wikipedia.
United States – Scott #1 and 2 (1847). Images from Wikipedia.

Congress finally provided for the issuance of stamps by passing an act on March 3, 1847, and the Postmaster-General immediately let a contract to the New York City engraving firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson. The first stamp issue of the U.S. was offered for sale on July 1, 1847, in New York City, with Boston receiving stamps the following day and other cities thereafter. They consisted of an engraved 5-cent red brown stamp depicting Benjamin Franklin (the first postmaster of the U.S.), and a 10-cent value in black with George Washington. Like all U.S. stamps until 1857, they were imperforate.

The 5-cent stamp paid for a letter weighing less than 1/2 ounce and traveling up to 300 miles, the 10-cent stamp for deliveries to locations greater than 300 miles, or, twice the weight deliverable for the 5-cent stamp. Each stamp was hand engraved in what is believed to be steel, and laid out in sheets of 200 stamps. The 5-cent stamp is often found today with very poor impressions because the type of ink used contained small pieces of quartz that wore down the steel plates used to print the stamp. On the other hand, most 10-cent stamps are of strong impressions. A fresh and brilliantly printed 5-cent stamp is prized by collectors.

The use of stamps was optional: letters could still be sent requiring payment of postage on delivery. Indeed, the post office did not issue any 2-cent value for prepaying drop letters in 1847, and these continued to be handled as they had been. Nevertheless, many Americans took up using stamps; about 3,700,000 of the 5-cent and about 865,000 of the 10-¢ent were sold, and enough of those have survived to ensure a ready supply for collectors, although the demand is such that a very fine Scott #1 sells for around $500 as of 2003, and Scott #2 in very fine condition sells for around $1,400 in used form. Unused stamps are much scarcer, fetching around $6,000 and $28,000 respectively, if in very fine condition. One can pay as little as 5 to 10 percent of these figures if the stamps are in poor condition.

The post office had become so efficient by 1851 that Congress was able to reduce the common rate to three cents (which remained unchanged for over thirty years), necessitating a new issue of stamps. Moreover, the common rate now applied to letters carried up to 3000 miles. This rate, however, only applied to prepaid mail: a letter sent without a stamp still cost the recipient five cents—clear evidence that Congress envisioned making stamp use mandatory in the future (it did so in 1855). The 1-cent drop-letter rate was also restored, and Post Office plans did not at first include a stamp for it; later, however, an essay for a 6-cent Franklin double-weight stamp was converted into a drop-letter value.

Along with this 1¢ stamp, the post office initially issued only two additional denominations in the series of 1851: 3¢ and 12¢, the three stamps going on sale that July and August. Since the 1847 stamps no longer conformed to any postal rate, they were declared invalid after a short period during which the public could exchange old stamps for new ones. Ironically, however, within a few years the Post Office found that stamps in the old denominations were needed after all, and so, added a 10-¢ent value to the series in 1855, followed by a 5 cents stamp the following year.

Plate from
Plate from “Picturesque America”, Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1872). Drawn by F.O.C. Darley, Engraved by Henry Bryan Hall.

The American colonies and the new nation grew rapidly in population and area, as pioneers pushed the frontier of settlement west. The process finally ended around 1890–1912 as the last major farmlands and ranch lands were settled. Native American tribes in some places resisted militarily, but they were overwhelmed by settlers and the army and after 1830 were relocated to reservations in the west. The highly influential “Frontier Thesis” of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner argues that the frontier shaped the national character, with its boldness, violence, innovation, individualism, and democracy.

The first settlers in the west were the Spanish in New Mexico; they became U.S. citizens in 1848. The Hispanics in California (“Californios“) were overwhelmed by over 100,000 gold rush miners. California grew explosively. San Francisco by 1880 had become the economic hub of the entire Pacific Coast with a diverse population of a quarter million.

From the early 1830s to 1869, the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by over 300,000 settlers. ’49ers (in the California Gold Rush), ranchers, farmers, and entrepreneurs and their families headed to California, Oregon, and other points in the far west. Wagon-trains took five or six months on foot; after 1869, the trip took six days by rail.

Manifest Destiny was the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent. This concept was born out of “A sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.” Manifest Destiny was rejected by modernizers, especially the Whigs like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln who wanted to build cities and factories — not more farms. Democrats strongly favored expansion, and won the key election of 1844. After a bitter debate in Congress the Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845, leading to war with Mexico, who considered Texas to be a part of Mexico due to the large numbers of Mexican settlers.

The Mexican–American War (1846–48) broke out with the Whigs opposed to the war, and the Democrats supporting the war. The U.S. army, using regulars and large numbers of volunteers, defeated the Mexican armies, invaded at several points, captured Mexico City and won decisively. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848.

Many Democrats wanted to annex all of Mexico, but that idea was rejected by southerners who argued that by incorporating millions of Mexican people, mainly of mixed race, would undermine the United States as an exclusively white republic. Instead the U.S. took Texas and the lightly settled northern parts (California and New Mexico). The Hispanic residents were given full citizenship and the Mexican Indians became American Indians.

A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush. Photo taken on July 9, 1850.
A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush. Photo taken on July 9, 1850.

Gold was discovered in California in 1849, attracting over 100,000 men to northern California in a matter of months in the California Gold Rush. A peaceful compromise with Britain gave the U.S. ownership of the Oregon Country, which was renamed the Oregon Territory.

The central issue after 1848 was the expansion of slavery, pitting the anti-slavery elements in the North, against the pro-slavery elements that dominated the South. A small number of active Northerners were abolitionists who declared that ownership of slaves was a sin (in terms of Protestant theology) and demanded its immediate abolition. Much larger numbers in the North were against the expansion of slavery, seeking to put it on the path to extinction so that America would be committed to free land (as in low-cost farms owned and cultivated by a family), free labor, and free speech (as opposed to censorship of abolitionist material in the South).

Southern whites insisted that slavery was of economic, social, and cultural benefit to all whites (and even to the slaves themselves), and denounced all anti-slavery spokesmen as “abolitionists.” Justifications of slavery included economics, history, religion, legality, social good, and even humanitarianism, to further their arguments. Defenders of slavery argued that the sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. They also argued that if all the slaves were freed, there would be widespread unemployment and chaos.

Religious activists split on slavery, with the Methodists and Baptists dividing into northern and southern denominations. In the North, the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Quakers included many abolitionists, especially among women activists. The Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran denominations largely ignored the slavery issue.

The issue of slavery in the new territories was seemingly settled by the Compromise of 1850, brokered by Whig Henry Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas; the Compromise included the admission of California as a free state in exchange for no federal restrictions on slavery placed on Utah or New Mexico. The point of contention was the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased federal enforcement and required even free states to cooperate in turning over fugitive slaves to their owners. Abolitionists pounced on the Act to attack slavery, as in the best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Compromise of 1820 was repealed in 1854 with the Kansas–Nebraska Act, promoted by Senator Douglas in the name of “popular sovereignty” and democracy. It permitted voters to decide on the legality slavery in each territory, and allowed Douglas to adopt neutrality on the issue of slavery. Anti-slavery forces rose in anger and alarm, forming the new Republican Party. Pro- and anti- contingents rushed to Kansas to vote slavery up or down, resulting in a miniature civil war called Bleeding Kansas. By the late 1850s, the young Republican Party dominated nearly all northern states and thus the electoral college. It insisted that slavery would never be allowed to expand (and thus would slowly die out).

The Southern slavery-based societies had become wealthy based on their cotton and other agricultural commodity production, and some particularly profited from the internal slave trade. Northern cities such as Boston and New York, and regional industries, were tied economically to slavery by banking, shipping, and manufacturing, including textile mills.

The United States, immediately before the Civil War. All of the lands east of, or bordering, the Mississippi River were organized as states in the Union, but the West was still largely unsettled.
The United States, immediately before the Civil War. All of the lands east of, or bordering, the Mississippi River were organized as states in the Union, but the West was still largely unsettled.

By 1860, there were four million slaves in the South, nearly eight times as many as there were nationwide in 1790. The plantations were highly profitable, due to the heavy European demand for raw cotton. Most of the profits were invested in new lands and in purchasing more slaves (largely drawn from the declining tobacco regions).

For 50 of the nation’s first 72 years, a slaveholder served as President of the United States and, during that period, only slaveholding presidents were re-elected to second terms. In addition, southern states benefited by their increased apportionment in Congress due to the partial counting of slaves in their populations.

Slave rebellions, by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), Nat Turner (1831), and most famously by John Brown (1859), caused fear in the white South, which imposed stricter oversight of slaves and reduced the rights of free blacks. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the states to cooperate with slave owners when attempting to recover escaped slaves, which outraged Northerners. Formerly, an escaped slave that reached a non-slave state was presumed to have attained sanctuary and freedom under the Missouri Compromise. The Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; angry Republicans said this decision threatened to make slavery a national institution.

After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, seven Southern states seceded from the union and set up a new nation, the Confederate States of America (Confederacy), on February 8, 1861. It attacked Fort Sumter, a U.S. Army fort in South Carolina, thus igniting the war. When Lincoln called for troops to suppress the Confederacy in April 1861, four more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. A few of the (northernmost) “slave states” did not secede and became known as the border states; these were Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

During the war, the northwestern portion of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy. and became the new Union state of West Virginia. West Virginia is usually associated with the border states.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when elements of 100,000 Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In response to the attack, on April 15, Lincoln called on the states to send detachments totaling 75,000 troops to recapture forts, protect the capital, and “preserve the Union”, which in his view still existed intact despite the actions of the seceding states. The two armies had their first major clash at the First Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Manassas), ending in a Union defeat, but, more importantly, proved to both the Union and Confederacy that the war would be much longer and bloodier than originally anticipated.

The war soon divided into two theaters: Eastern and Western. In the western theater, the Union was relatively successful, with major battles, such as Perryville and Shiloh along with Union gunboat dominance of navigable rivers producing strategic Union victories and destroying major Confederate operations.

Warfare in the Eastern theater began poorly for the Union as the Confederates won at Manassas Junction (Bull Run), just outside Washington. Major General George B. McClellan was put in charge of the Union armies. After reorganizing the new Army of the Potomac, McClellan failed to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in his Peninsula Campaign and retreated after attacks from newly appointed Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

President Abraham Lincoln with Allan Pinkerton and Major General John Alexander McClernand at the Battle of Antietam.
President Abraham Lincoln with Allan Pinkerton and Major General John Alexander McClernand at the Battle of Antietam.

Feeling confident in his army after defeating the Union at Second Bull Run, Lee embarked on an invasion of the north that was stopped by McClellan at the bloody Battle of Antietam. Despite this, McClellan was relieved from command for refusing to pursue Lee’s crippled army. The next commander, General Ambrose Burnside, suffered a humiliating defeat by Lee’s smaller army at the Battle of Fredericksburg late in 1862, causing yet another change in commanders. Lee won again at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, while losing his top aide, Stonewall Jackson.

Lee pushed too hard and ignored the Union threat in the west. Lee invaded Pennsylvania in search of supplies and to cause war-weariness in the North. In perhaps the turning point of the war, Lee’s army was badly beaten at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, and barely made it back to Virginia.

On July 4, 1863, Union forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant gained control of the Mississippi River at the Battle of Vicksburg, thereby splitting the Confederacy. Lincoln made General Grant commander of all Union armies.

The last two years of the war were bloody for both sides, with Grant launching a war of attrition against General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This war of attrition was divided into three main campaigns. The first of these, the Overland Campaign forced Lee to retreat into the city of Petersburg where Grant launched his second major offensive, the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign in which he besieged Petersburg. After a near ten-month siege, Petersburg surrendered. However, the defense of Fort Gregg allowed Lee to move his army out of Petersburg. Grant pursued and launched the final, Appomattox Campaign which resulted in Lee surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia numbering 28,000 on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended with no postwar insurgency.

The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864.
The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864.

Based on 1860 census figures, about 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% from the North and 18% from the South, establishing the American Civil War as the deadliest war in American history. Its legacy includes ending slavery in the United States, restoring the Union, and strengthening the role of the federal government.

The outbreak of the American Civil War threw the postal system into turmoil. On April 13, 1861, (the day after the firing on Fort Sumter) John H. Reagan, postmaster-general of the Confederate States of America, ordered local postmasters to return their U.S. stamps to Washington D.C. (although it is unlikely that many did so), while in May the Union decided to withdraw and invalidate all existing U.S. stamps, and to issue new stamps. Confederate post offices were left without legitimate stamps for several months, and while many reverted to the old system of cash payment at the post office, over 100 post offices across the South came up with their own provisional issues. Many of these are quite rare, with only single examples surviving of some types. Eventually the Confederate government issued its own stamps.

In the North, the new stamp designs became available in August, and old stamps were accepted in exchange, with different deadlines for replacement set for different regions of the country, first ranging from September 10 to November 1, later modified to November 1 to January 1, 1862. The whole process was very confusing to the public, and there are number of covers from 1862 and later with 1857 stamps and bearing the marking OLD STAMPS NOT RECOGNIZED.

The 1861 stamps had in common the letters “U S” in their design. To make them differentiable from the older stamps at a glance, all were required to have their values expressed in Arabic numerals (in the previous series, Arabic numerals had appeared only on the 30-cent stamp). Numerals apart, several of these were superficially similar to their earlier counterparts — particularly because Franklin, Washington and Jefferson still appeared on the same denominations as previously. Differences in the design of the frames are more readily apparent.

A 2-cent stamp in black featuring Andrew Jackson was issued in 1863 and is now known to collectors as the “Black Jack”. A black 15-cent stamp depicting the recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln was issued in 1866, and is generally considered part of the same series. While it was not officially described as such, and the 15-cent value was chosen to cover newly established fee for registered letters, many philatelists consider this to be the first memorial stamp ever issued.

The war greatly increased the amount of mail in the North; ultimately about 1,750,000,000 copies of the 3-cent stamp were printed, and a great many have survived to the present day, typically selling for 2-3 dollars apiece. Most are rose-colored; pink versions are much rarer and quite expensive, especially the “pigeon blood pink”, which goes for $3,000 and up.

The stamps of the 1861 series, unlike those of the two previous issues, remained valid for postage after they had been superseded—as has every subsequent United States stamp.

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. In a single stroke it changed the legal status, as recognized by the U.S. government, of 3 million slaves in designated areas of the Confederacy from “slave” to “free.” It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally and actually free. The owners were never compensated. Plantation owners, realizing that emancipation would destroy their economic system, sometimes moved their slaves as far as possible out of reach of the Union Army.

By June 1865, the Union Army controlled all of the Confederacy and liberated all of the designated slaves. Large numbers moved into camps run by the Freedmen’s Bureau, where they were given food, shelter, medical care, and arrangements for their employment were made.

The severe dislocations of war and Reconstruction had a large negative impact on the black population, with a large amount of sickness and death.

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right).
The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right).

The latter half of the nineteenth century was marked by the rapid development and settlement of the far West, first by wagon trains and riverboats and then aided by the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Large numbers of European immigrants (especially from Germany and Scandinavia) took up low-cost or free farms in the Prairie States. Mining for silver and copper opened up the Mountain West. The United States Army fought frequent small-scale wars with Native Americans as settlers encroached on their traditional lands. Gradually the U.S. purchased the Native American tribal lands and extinguished their claims, forcing most tribes onto subsidized reservations.

The “Gilded Age” was a term that Mark Twain used to describe the period of the late 19th century with a dramatic expansion of American wealth and prosperity, underscored by the mass corruption in the government. Reforms of the Age included the Civil Service Act, which mandated a competitive examination for applicants for government jobs. Other important legislation included the Interstate Commerce Act, which ended railroads’ discrimination against small shippers, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolies in business. Twain believed that this age was corrupted by such elements as land speculators, scandalous politics, and unethical business practices. As financiers and industrialists such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller began to amass vast fortunes, many U.S. observers were concerned that the nation was losing its pioneering egalitarian spirit.

By 1890, American industrial production and per capita income exceeded those of all other world nations. In response to heavy debts and decreasing farm prices, wheat and cotton farmers joined the Populist Party. An unprecedented wave of immigration from Europe served to both provide the labor for American industry and create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. From 1880 to 1914, peak years of immigration, more than 22 million people migrated to the United States. Most were unskilled workers who quickly found jobs in mines, mills, factories. Many immigrants were craftsmen (especially from Britain and Germany) bringing human skills, and others were farmers (especially from Germany and Scandinavia) who purchased inexpensive land on the prairies from railroads who sent agents to Europe. Poverty, growing inequality and dangerous working conditions, along with socialist and anarchist ideas diffusing from European immigrants, led to the rise of the labor movement, which often included violent strikes.

Skilled workers banded together to control their crafts and raise wages by forming labor unions in industrial areas of the Northeast. Before the 1930s, few factory workers joined the unions in the labor movement. Samuel Gompers led the American Federation of Labor (1886–1924), coordinating multiple unions. Industrial growth was rapid, led by John D. Rockefeller in oil and Andrew Carnegie in steel; both became leaders of philanthropy (Gospel of Wealth), giving away their fortunes to create the modern system of hospitals, universities, libraries, and foundations.

The Panic of 1893 broke out and was a severe nationwide depression impacting farmers, workers, and businessmen who saw prices, wages, and profits fall. Many railroads went bankrupt. The resultant political reaction fell on the Democratic Party, whose leader President Grover Cleveland shouldered much of the blame. Labor unrest involved numerous strikes, most notably the violent Pullman Strike of 1894, which was shut down by federal troops under Cleveland’s orders. The Populist Party gained strength among cotton and wheat farmers, as well as coal miners, but was overtaken by the even more popular Free Silver movement, which demanded using silver to enlarge the money supply, leading to inflation that the silverites promised would end the depression.

The financial, railroad, and business communities fought back hard, arguing that only the gold standard would save the economy. In the most intense election in the nation’s history, conservative Republican William McKinley defeated silverite William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the Democratic, Populist, and Silver Republican tickets. Bryan swept the South and West, but McKinley ran up landslides among the middle class, industrial workers, cities, and among upscale farmers in the Midwest.

Prosperity returned under McKinley, the gold standard was enacted, and the tariff was raised. By 1900 the U.S. had the strongest economy on the globe. Apart from two short recessions (in 1907 and 1920) the overall economy remained prosperous and growing until 1929. Republicans, citing McKinley’s policies, took the credit.

“A False Alarm on the Fourth”, published in Puck Magazine on July 2, 1902. Uncle Sam tells Lady Peace: “It’s all right. There’s no fighting. The noise you hear is just my family celebrating!” The illustration shows Uncle Sam, holding a firecracker, trying to reassure a concerned-looking female figure with wings labeled “Peace” that all the noise she hears is for the celebration of the Fourth of July. Celebrating with Uncle Sam are several figures labeled “Alaska, New York, Texas, Mass., Hawaii, Porto Rico, North, South”; one disgruntled figure labeled “Philippine” is climbing over a wall, also an African American is sitting near Uncle Sam. Some are lighting strings of firecrackers, “Texas” is shooting guns, and “Mass.” is firing a cannon in the direction of the wall “Philippine” is climbing over. The U.S. Capitol building is in the background and a dove with olive branch hovers over the figure of “Peace”.

Dissatisfaction on the part of the growing middle class with the corruption and inefficiency of politics as usual, and the failure to deal with increasingly important urban and industrial problems, led to the dynamic Progressive Movement starting in the 1890s. In every major city and state, and at the national level as well, and in education, medicine, and industry, the progressives called for the modernization and reform of decrepit institutions, the elimination of corruption in politics, and the introduction of efficiency as a criterion for change.

Leading politicians from both parties, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, and Robert La Follette on the Republican side, and William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic side, took up the cause of progressive reform. Women became especially involved in demands for woman suffrage, prohibition, and better schools; their most prominent leader was Jane Addams of Chicago, who created settlement houses.

“Muckraking” journalists such as Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis exposed corruption in business and government along with rampant inner city poverty. Progressives implemented anti-trust laws and regulated such industries of meat-packing, drugs, and railroads. Four new constitutional amendments — the Sixteenth through Nineteenth — resulted from progressive activism, bringing the federal income tax, direct election of Senators, prohibition, and woman suffrage. The Progressive Movement lasted through the 1920s; the most active period was 1900–18.

The United States emerged as a world economic and military power after 1890. The main episode was the Spanish–American War, which began when Spain refused American demands to reform its oppressive policies in Cuba. The “splendid little war”, as one official called it, involved a series of quick American victories on land and at sea. At the Treaty of Paris peace conference the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

Cuba became an independent country, under close American tutelage. Although the war itself was widely popular, the peace terms proved controversial. William Jennings Bryan led his Democratic Party in opposition to control of the Philippines, which he denounced as imperialism unbecoming to American democracy. President William McKinley defended the acquisition and was riding high as the nation had returned to prosperity and felt triumphant in the war. McKinley easily defeated Bryan in a rematch in the 1900 presidential election.

After defeating an insurrection by Filipino nationalists, the United States engaged in a large-scale program to modernize the economy of the Philippines and dramatically upgrade the public health facilities. By 1908, however, Americans lost interest in an empire and turned their international attention to the Caribbean, especially the building of the Panama Canal. In 1912, when New Mexico and Arizona became the final mainland states, the American Frontier came to an end. The canal opened in 1914 and increased trade with Japan and the rest of the Far East. A key innovation was the Open Door Policy, whereby the imperial powers were given equal access to Chinese business, with not one of them allowed to take control of China.

The song
The song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” was a hit in 1915, selling 650,000 copies. Its expression of popular pacifist sentiment “helped make the pacifist movement a hard, quantifiable political reality to be reckoned with.”

As World War I raged in Europe from 1914, President Woodrow Wilson took full control of foreign policy, declaring neutrality but warning Germany that resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships supplying goods to Allied nations would mean war. Germany decided to take the risk and try to win by cutting off supplies to Britain through the sinking of ships such as the RMS Lusitania; the U.S. declared war in April 1917 mainly from the threat of the Zimmermann telegram. American money, food, and munitions arrived quickly, but troops had to be drafted and trained; by summer 1918 American soldiers under General John J. Pershing arrived at the rate of 10,000 a day, while Germany was unable to replace its losses.

The result was Allied victory in November 1918. President Wilson demanded Germany depose the Kaiser and accept his terms in the famed Fourteen Points speech. Wilson dominated the 1919 Paris Peace Conference but Germany was treated harshly by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as Wilson put all his hopes in the new League of Nations. Wilson refused to compromise with Senate Republicans over the issue of Congressional power to declare war, and the Senate rejected the Treaty and the League.

Suffragists march down New York City's Fifth Avenue in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote.
Suffragists march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times Photo Archives

The women’s suffrage movement began with the June 1848 National Convention of the Liberty Party. Presidential candidate Gerrit Smith argued for and established women’s suffrage as a party plank. One month later, his cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined with Lucretia Mott and other women to organize the Seneca Falls Convention, featuring the Declaration of Sentiments demanding equal rights for women, and the right to vote. Many of these activists became politically aware during the abolitionist movement.

The women’s rights campaign during “first-wave feminism” was led by Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony, among many others. Stone and Paulina Wright Davis organized the prominent and influential National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850. The movement reorganized after the Civil War, gaining experienced campaigners, many of whom had worked for prohibition in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By the end of the 19th century a few western states had granted women full voting rights, though women had made significant legal victories, gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody.

Around 1912, the feminist movement began to reawaken, putting an emphasis on its demands for equality and arguing that the corruption of American politics demanded purification by women because men could not do that job. Protests became increasingly common as suffragette Alice Paul led parades through the capital and major cities. Paul split from the large National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which favored a more moderate approach and supported the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, and formed the more militant National Woman’s Party. Suffragists were arrested during their “Silent Sentinels” pickets at the White House, the first time such a tactic was used, and were taken as political prisoners.

The old anti-suffragist argument that only men could fight a war, and therefore only men deserve the right to vote, was refuted by the enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of American women on the home front in World War I. Across the world, grateful nations gave women the right to vote. Furthermore, most of the Western states had already given the women the right to vote in state and national elections, and the representatives from those states, including the first woman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, demonstrated that woman suffrage was a success. The main resistance came from the south, where white leaders were worried about the threat of black women voting. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, and women could vote in 1920.

NAWSA became the League of Women Voters, and the National Woman’s Party began lobbying for full equality and the Equal Rights Amendment, which would pass Congress during the second wave of the women’s movement in 1972. Politicians responded to the new electorate by emphasizing issues of special interest to women, especially prohibition, child health, and world peace.

In the 1920s the U.S. grew steadily in stature as an economic and military world power. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles imposed by its Allies on the defeated Central Powers; instead, the United States chose to pursue unilateralism. The aftershock of Russia’s October Revolution resulted in real fears of Communism in the United States, leading to a Red Scare and the deportation of aliens considered subversive.

While public health facilities grew rapidly in the Progressive Era, and hospitals and medical schools were modernized, the nation in 1918 lost 675,000 lives to the Spanish flu pandemic.

In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol were prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment, Prohibition. The result was that in cities illegal alcohol became a big business, largely controlled by racketeers. The second Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly in 1922–25, then collapsed. Immigration laws were passed to strictly limit the number of new entries. The 1920s were called the Roaring Twenties due to the great economic prosperity during this period. Jazz became popular among the younger generation, and thus the decade was also called the Jazz Age.

Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as
Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Photograph taken in February/March 1936 by Dorothea Lange, for the Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information

During the 1920s, the nation enjoyed widespread prosperity, albeit with a weakness in agriculture. A financial bubble was fueled by an inflated stock market, which later led to the Stock Market Crash on October 29, 1929. This, along with many other economic factors, triggered a worldwide depression known as the Great Depression. During this time, the United States experienced deflation as prices fell, unemployment soared from 3% in 1929 to 25% in 1933, farm prices fell by half, and manufacturing output plunged by one-third.

In 1932, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a New Deal for the American people”, coining the enduring label for his domestic policies. The desperate economic situation, along with the substantial Democratic victories in the 1932 elections, gave Roosevelt unusual influence over Congress in the “First Hundred Days” of his administration. He used his leverage to win rapid passage of a series of measures to create welfare programs and regulate the banking system, stock market, industry, and agriculture, along with many other government efforts to end the Great Depression and reform the American economy.

The New Deal regulated much of the economy, especially the financial sector. It provided relief to the unemployed through numerous programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and for young men, the Civilian Conservation Corps that undertook jobs such as forest fire fighting and creating public works. Large scale spending projects designed to provide high paying jobs and rebuild the infrastructure were under the purview of the Public Works Administration.

Roosevelt turned left in 1935–36, building up labor unions through the Wagner Act. Unions became a powerful element of the merging New Deal Coalition, which won reelection for Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944 by mobilizing union members, blue collar workers, relief recipients, big city machines, ethnic, and religious groups (especially Catholics and Jews) and the white South, along with blacks in the North (where they could vote). Some of the programs were dropped in the 1940s when the conservatives regained power in Congress through the Conservative Coalition. Of special importance is the Social Security program, begun in 1935.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was notable not only as an avid stamp collector in his own right with a collection estimated at around 1 million stamps, but also for taking an interest in the stamp issues of the Post Office Department. He worked closely with Postmaster James Farley, the former Democratic Party Committee Chairman. Many designs of the 1930s were inspired or altered according to Roosevelt’s advice. A steady stream of commemoratives appeared during these years, including a striking 1934 issue of ten stamps presenting iconic vistas of ten National Parks — a set that has remained widely beloved. In a memorable sequence from Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, the young protagonist dreams that his National Parks stamps, the pride and joy of his collection, have become disfigured with swastika overprints. Choosing an orange color for the 2-cent Grand Canyon tableau instead of the standard 2 cents carmine red, the Post Office departed from Universal Postal Union color-coding for the first time.

 With a philatelist in the White House, the Post Office catered to collectors as never before, issuing seven separate souvenir sheets between 1933 and 1937. In one case, a collectors’ series had to be produced as the result of a miscalculation. Around 1935, Postmaster Farley removed sheets of the National Parks set from stock before they had been gummed or perforated, giving these and unfinished examples of ten other issues to President Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes (also a philatelist) as curiosities for their collections. When word of these gifts got out, public outcries arose. Some accused Farley of a corrupt scheme to enrich Roosevelt and Ickes by creating valuable rarities for them at taxpayer expense. Stamp collectors, in turn, demanded that these curiosities be sold to the public so that ordinary philatelists could acquire them, and Farley duly issued them in bulk. This series of special printings soon became known as “Farley’s Follies.”
As the decade progressed, the purples used for 3-cent issues, although still ostensibly conforming to the traditional purple, displayed an increasingly wide variety of hues, and one 1940 issue, a 3-cent stamp commemorating the Pony Express, dispensed with purple entirely, appearing in a rust brown earth tone more suitable to the image of a horse and rider departing from a western rural post office.

In the Depression years, the United States remained focused on domestic concerns while democracy declined across the world and many countries fell under the control of dictators. Imperial Japan asserted dominance in East Asia and in the Pacific. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy militarized and threatened conquests, while Britain and France attempted appeasement to avert another war in Europe.

U.S. legislation in the Neutrality Acts sought to avoid foreign conflicts; however, policy clashed with increasing anti-Nazi feelings following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that started World War II. Roosevelt positioned the U.S. as the “Arsenal of Democracy”, pledging full-scale financial and munitions support for the Allies — but no military personnel. This was carried out through the Lend-Lease agreements. Japan tried to neutralize America’s power in the Pacific by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which catalyzed American support to enter the war.

A small flag carried by the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines is planted atop Mount Suribachi at 10:20 a.m. February 23, 1945. This is the first flag raising on the top of Mt. Suribachi. The famous flag-raising photo was taken when the second flag was put up later that day. This photo was taken by Leatherneck's Lou Lowery. Official U.S. Navy photo.
A small flag carried by the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines is planted atop Mount Suribachi at 10:20 a.m. February 23, 1945. This is the first flag raising on the top of Mt. Suribachi. The famous flag-raising photo was taken when the second flag was put up later that day. This photo was taken by Leatherneck’s Lou Lowery. Official U.S. Navy photo.

The main contributions of the U.S. to the Allied war effort comprised money, industrial output, food, petroleum, technological innovation, and (especially 1944–45), military personnel. Much of the focus in Washington was maximizing the economic output of the nation. The overall result was a dramatic increase in GDP, the export of vast quantities of supplies to the Allies and to American forces overseas, the end of unemployment, and a rise in civilian consumption even as 40% of the GDP went to the war effort. This was achieved by tens of millions of workers moving from low-productivity occupations to high efficiency jobs, improvements in productivity through better technology and management, and the move into the active labor force of students, retired people, housewives, and the unemployed, and an increase in hours worked.

It was exhausting; leisure activities declined sharply. People tolerated the extra work because of patriotism, the pay, and the confidence that it was only “for the duration”, and life would return to normal as soon as the war was won. Most durable goods became unavailable, and meat, clothing, and gasoline were tightly rationed. In industrial areas housing was in short supply as people doubled up and lived in cramped quarters. Prices and wages were controlled, and Americans saved a high portion of their incomes, which led to renewed growth after the war instead of a return to depression.

The Allies — the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, China, as well as Poland, Canada and other countries — fought the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Allies saw Germany as the main threat and gave highest priority to Europe. The U.S. dominated the war against Japan and stopped Japanese expansion in the Pacific in 1942. After losing Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines to the Japanese, and drawing the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), the American Navy inflicted a decisive blow at Midway (June 1942). American ground forces assisted in the North African Campaign that eventually concluded with the collapse of Mussolini’s fascist government in 1943, as Italy switched to the Allied side. A more significant European front was opened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in which American and Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France from Britain.

Woman aircraft worker checking assemblies at the Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California. Photograph by David Bransby, June 1942.
Woman aircraft worker checking assemblies at the Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California. Photograph by David Bransby, June 1942.

On the home front, mobilization of the U.S. economy was managed by Roosevelt’s War Production Board. The wartime production boom led to full employment, wiping out this vestige of the Great Depression. Indeed, labor shortages encouraged industry to look for new sources of workers, finding new roles for women and blacks.

Wartime mobilization drastically changed the sexual divisions of labor for women, as young-able bodied men were sent overseas and war time manufacturing production increased. Throughout the war, an estimated 6.5 million women entered the labor force. Women, many of whom were married, took a variety of paid jobs in a multitude of vocational jobs, many of which were previously exclusive to men. The greatest wartime gain in female employment was in the manufacturing industry, where more than 2.5 million additional women represented an increase of 140 percent by 1944. This was catalyzed by the “Rosie the Riveter” phenomenon.

However, the fervor also inspired anti-Japanese sentiment, leading to internment of Japanese-Americans.

Research and development took flight as well, best seen in the Manhattan Project, a secret effort to harness nuclear fission to produce highly destructive atomic bombs.

Rural school children in front of World War II homefront posters. One studies a globe atop a Victrola. Photograph taken by John Vachon in San Augustine County, Texas, April 1943.
Rural school children in front of World War II homefront posters. One studies a globe atop a Victrola. Photograph taken by John Vachon in San Augustine County, Texas, April 1943.

The Allies pushed the Germans out of France but faced an unexpected counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in December. The final German effort failed, and, as Allied armies in East and West were converging on Berlin, the Nazis hurriedly tried to kill the last remaining Jews. The western front stopped short, leaving Berlin to the Soviets as the Nazi regime formally capitulated in May 1945, ending the war in Europe. Over in the Pacific, the U.S. implemented an island hopping strategy toward Tokyo, establishing airfields for bombing runs against mainland Japan from the Mariana Islands and achieving hard-fought victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Bloodied at Okinawa, the U.S. prepared to invade Japan’s home islands when B-29s dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing the empire’s surrender in a matter of days and thus ending World War II.

The U.S. occupied Japan (and part of Germany), sending Douglas MacArthur to restructure the Japanese economy and political system along American lines. During the war, Roosevelt coined the term “Four Powers” to refer four major Allies of World War II, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China, which later became the foundation of the United Nations Security Council. Though the nation lost more than 400,000 military personnel, the mainland prospered untouched by the devastation of war that inflicted a heavy toll on Europe and Asia.

Participation in postwar foreign affairs marked the end of predominant American isolationism. The awesome threat of nuclear weapons inspired both optimism and fear. Nuclear weapons were never used after 1945, as both sides drew back from the brink and a “long peace” characterized the Cold War years, starting with the Truman Doctrine in May 22, 1947. There were, however, regional wars in Korea and Vietnam.

In 1957, the American Flag was featured on a U. S. stamp for the first time. The Post Office Department had long avoided this image, fearing accusations that, in issuing stamps on which they would be defacing the flag by cancellation marks, they would be both committing and fomenting desecration. However, protests against this initial flag issue were muted, and the flag has remained a perennially popular U. S. stamp subject ever since.

Within the United States, the Cold War prompted concerns about Communist influence. The unexpected leapfrogging of American technology by the Soviets in 1957 with Sputnik, the first Earth satellite, began the Space Race, won by the Americans as Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. The angst about the weaknesses of American education led to large-scale federal support for science education and research.

In the decades after World War II, the United States became a global influence in economic, political, military, cultural, and technological affairs. Beginning in the 1950s, middle-class culture became obsessed with consumer goods. White Americans made up nearly 90% of the population in 1950.

President Kennedy's Civil Rights Address, June 11, 1963.
President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address, June 11, 1963.

In 1960, the charismatic politician John F. Kennedy was elected as the first and — thus far — only Roman Catholic President of the United States. The Kennedy family brought a new life and vigor to the atmosphere of the White House. His time in office was marked by such notable events as the acceleration of the United States’ role in the Space Race, escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham campaign, and the appointment of his brother Robert F. Kennedy to his Cabinet as Attorney General. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, leaving the nation in profound shock.

Amid the Cold War, the United States entered the Vietnam War, whose growing unpopularity fed already existing social movements, including those among women, minorities, and young people. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society social programs and numerous rulings by the Warren Court added to the wide range of social reform during the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism and the environmental movement became political forces, and progress continued toward civil rights for all Americans. The Counterculture Revolution swept through the nation and much of the western world in the late sixties and early seventies, further dividing Americans in a “culture war” but also bringing forth more liberated social views.

In 1971, the Post Office was reorganized, becoming the United States Postal Service (USPS). However, it is still heavily regulated, with, for instance, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee continuing to decide which commemorative stamps to issue.

Johnson was succeeded in 1969 by Republican Richard Nixon, who attempted to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese forces. He negotiated the peace treaty in 1973 which secured the release of POWs and led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The war had cost the lives of 58,000 American troops. Nixon manipulated the fierce distrust between the Soviet Union and China to the advantage of the United States, achieving détente (relaxation; ease of tension) with both parties.

Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal on August 9, 1974.
Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal on August 9, 1974.

The Watergate scandal, involving Nixon’s cover-up of his operatives’ break-in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex destroyed his political base, sent many aides to prison, and forced Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974. He was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford. The Fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War and resulted in North and South Vietnam being reunited. Communist victories in neighboring Cambodia and Laos occurred in the same year.

The first U.S. self-adhesive stamp was a 10 cent stamp from the Christmas issue of 1974. It was not considered successful, and the surviving stamps, though not rare, are all gradually becoming discolored due to the adhesive used. Self-adhesives were not issued again until 1989, gradually becoming so popular that as of 2004, only a handful of types are offered with the traditional gum (now affectionately called “manual stamps” by postal employees).

The OPEC oil embargo marked a long-term economic transition since, for the first time, energy prices skyrocketed, and American factories faced serious competition from foreign automobiles, clothing, electronics, and consumer goods. By the late 1970s, the economy suffered an energy crisis, slow economic growth, high unemployment, and very high inflation coupled with high interest rates (the term stagflation was coined). Since economists agreed on the wisdom of deregulation, many of the New Deal era regulations were ended, such as in transportation, banking, and telecommunications.

Jimmy Carter, running as someone who was not a part of the Washington political establishment, was elected president in 1976. On the world stage, Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. In 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage, resulting in the Iran hostage crisis. With the hostage crisis and continuing stagflation, Carter lost the 1980 election to the Republican Ronald Reagan. On January 20, 1981, minutes after Carter’s term in office ended, the remaining U.S. captives held at the U.S. embassy in Iran were released, ending the 444-day hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan produced a major realignment with his 1980 and 1984 landslide elections. Reagan’s economic policies (dubbed “Reaganomics”) and the implementation of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 lowered the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28% over the course of seven years. Reagan continued to downsize government taxation and regulation. The U.S. experienced a recession in 1982, but the negative indicators reversed, with the inflation rate decreasing from 11% to 2%, the unemployment rate decreasing from 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.5% in November 1984, and the economic growth rate increasing from 4.5% to 7.2%.

Reagan ordered a buildup of the U.S. military, incurring additional budget deficits. Reagan introduced a complicated missile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI (dubbed “Star Wars” by opponents) in which, theoretically, the U.S. could shoot down missiles with laser systems in space. The Soviets reacted harshly because they thought it violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and would upset the balance of power by giving the U.S. a major military advantage. For years Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev argued vehemently against SDI. However, by the late 1980s he decided the system would never work and should not be used to block disarmament deals with the U.S. Historians argue how great an impact the SDI threat had on the Soviets — whether it was enough to force Gorbachev to initiate radical reforms, or whether the deterioration of the Soviet economy alone forced the reforms. There is agreement that the Soviets realized they were well behind the Americans in military technology, that to try to catch up would be very expensive, and that the military expenses were already a very heavy burden slowing down their economy.

Reagan’s Invasion of Grenada and bombing of Libya were popular in the U.S, though his backing of the Contras rebels was mired in the controversy over the Iran–Contra affair that revealed Reagan’s poor management style.

The increasing frequency of postal rate increases from the 1970s on, and the necessity to wait for these to be approved by Congress, made it problematic for the Postal Service to provide stamps matching the increased costs in a timely manner. Until it was known, for example, whether the new first-class rate would be 16 cents or, instead, 15 cents, no denominated stamp could be printed.

The Postal Service found a way to bypass this problem in 1978. Preparatory to that year’s increase, an orange colored stamp with a simple eagle design appeared bearing the denomination “A” instead of a number; and the public was informed that this stamp would satisfy the new first-class rate, whatever it turned out to be. Subsequent rate increases resulted in B, C and D stamps, which bore the same eagle design but were printed, respectively, in purple, buff-brown and blue-green. When it came time for an E stamp in 1987, the Postal Service commissioned a more elaborate design: a color picture of the globe as seen from space (E for Earth). Rises since have prompted F for Flower, G for Old Glory and H for Hat stamps, all appropriately illustrated. The F stamp in 1991 was accompanied by an non-denominated “make-up” stamp with no pictorial design beyond a frame, which enclosed the words “This U. S. stamp, along with 25c of additional U. S. postage, is equivalent to the ‘F’ stamp rate.”

Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate challenges Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, shortly before the end of the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate challenges Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, shortly before the end of the Cold War.

Reagan met four times with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who ascended to power in 1985, and their summit conferences led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Gorbachev tried to save Communism in the Soviet Union first by ending the expensive arms race with America, then by shedding the East European empire in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day 1991, ending the U.S–Soviet Cold War.

The United States emerged as the world’s sole remaining superpower and continued to intervene in international affairs during the 1990s, including the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Following his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton oversaw one of the longest periods of economic expansion and unprecedented gains in securities values, a side effect of the digital revolution and new business opportunities created by the Internet. He also worked with the Republican Congress to pass the first balanced federal budget in 30 years.

In 1998, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of lying about a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted by the Senate. The failure of impeachment and the Democratic gains in the 1998 election forced House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, to resign from Congress.

The presidential election in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore was one of the closest in U.S. history and helped lay the seeds for political polarization to come. The vote in the decisive state of Florida was extremely close and produced a dramatic dispute over the counting of votes. The U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore ended the recount with a 5–4 vote. That meant Bush, then in the lead, carried Florida and the election. Including 2000, the Democrats outpolled the Republicans in the national vote in every election from 1992 to 2016, except for 2004.

Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. Photograph taken by Michael Foran.
Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. Photograph taken by Michael Foran.

On September 11, 2001 (“9/11”), the United States was struck by a terrorist attack when 19 al-Qaeda hijackers commandeered four airliners to be used in suicide attacks and intentionally crashed two into both twin towers of the World Trade Center and the third into the Pentagon, killing 2,937 victims — 206 aboard the three airliners, 2,606 who were in the World Trade Center and on the ground, and 125 who were in the Pentagon. The fourth plane was re-taken by the passengers and crew of the aircraft. While they were not able to land the plane safely, they were able to re-take control of the aircraft and crash it into an empty field in Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people including the four terrorists on board, thereby saving whatever target the terrorists were aiming for.

Within two hours, both Twin Towers of the World Trade Center completely collapsed causing massive damage to the surrounding area and blanketing Lower Manhattan in toxic dust clouds. All in all, a total of 2,977 victims perished in the attacks. In response, President George W. Bush on September 20 announced a “War on Terror”. On October 7, 2001, the United States and NATO then invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden.

The federal government established new domestic efforts to prevent future attacks. The controversial USA PATRIOT Act increased the government’s power to monitor communications and removed legal restrictions on information sharing between federal law enforcement and intelligence services. A cabinet-level agency called the Department of Homeland Security was created to lead and coordinate federal counter-terrorism activities. Some of these anti-terrorism efforts, particularly the U.S. government’s handling of detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, led to allegations against the U.S. government of human rights violations.

From March 19 to May 1, 2003, the United States launched an invasion of Iraq, which led to the collapse of the Iraq government and the eventual capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, with whom the U.S. had long-standing tense relations. The reasons for the invasion cited by the Bush administration included the spreading of democracy, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the liberation of the Iraqi people. Despite some initial successes early in the invasion, the continued Iraq War fueled international protests and gradually saw domestic support decline as many people began to question whether or not the invasion was worth the cost. In 2007, after years of violence by the Iraqi insurgency, President Bush deployed more troops in a strategy dubbed “the surge”. While the death toll decreased, the political stability of Iraq remained in doubt.

In 2005, after 111 years of producing American postage stamps, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing ended its involvement with the postal service.

On April 12, 2007, the first “Forever” stamp went on sale for 41 cents, and is good for mailing one-ounce First-Class letters anytime in the future — regardless of price changes. In 2011, the Post Office began issuing all new stamps for First-Class postage — both definitives and commemoratives — as Forever stamps: denominations were no longer included on them.

On February 25, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 2-1 that Frank Gaylord, sculptor of a portion of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, was entitled to compensation when an image of that sculpture was used on a 37-cent postage stamp because he had not signed away his intellectual property rights to the sculpture when it was erected. The appeals court rejected arguments that the photo was transformative.

In 2006, sculptor Frank Gaylord enlisted Fish & Richardson to make a pro bono claim that the Postal Service had violated his Intellectual property rights to the sculpture and thus should have been compensated. The Postal Service argued that Gaylord was not the sole sculptor, saying he had received advice from federal sources — who recommended that the uniforms appear more in the wind — and also that the sculpture was actually architecture. Gaylord won all of his arguments in the lower court except for one: the court ruled the photo was fair use and thus he was not entitled to compensation. Gaylord appealed and won the case on appeal. The case can now either be appealed to the United States Supreme Court or damages can be assessed by the lower court.

President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, December 6, 2012. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, December 6, 2012. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

In 2008, the unpopularity of President Bush and the Iraq war, along with the 2008 financial crisis, led to the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States. After his election, Obama reluctantly continued the war effort in Iraq until August 31, 2010, when he declared that combat operations had ended. However, 50,000 American soldiers and military personnel were kept in Iraq to assist Iraqi forces, help protect withdrawing forces, and work on counter-terrorism until December 15, 2011, when the war was declared formally over and the last troops left the country. At the same time, Obama increased American involvement in Afghanistan, starting a surge strategy using an additional 30,000 troops, while proposing to begin withdrawing troops sometime in December 2014. With regards to Guantanamo Bay, President Obama forbade torture but in general retained Bush’s policy regarding the Guantanamo detainees, while also proposing that the prison eventually be closed.

In 2010, automated stamp and bank automatic teller machines began dispensing thinner stamps. The thin stamps were to make it easier for automated stamp machines to dispense and to make the stamps more environmentally friendly.

In May 2011, after nearly a decade in hiding, the founder and leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan in a raid conducted by U.S. naval special forces acting under President Obama’s direct orders. While Al Qaeda was near collapse in Afghanistan, affiliated organizations continued to operate in Yemen and other remote areas as the CIA used drones to hunt down and remove its leadership.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq — rose to prominence in September 2014. In addition to taking control of much of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria, ISIS also beheaded three journalists, two American and one British. These events lead to a major military offensive by the USA and its allies in the region.

On December 28, 2014, President Obama officially ended the combat mission in Afghanistan and promised a withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops at the end of 2016 with the exception of the embassy guards.

On November 8, 2016, Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to become the President-elect of the United States. Trump’s election became mired in controversy after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that associates of the Russian government interfered in the election “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” This, along with questions about potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, led to the launch of investigations into the matter by the FBI, and the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees.

President Donald Trump being sworn in on January 20, 2017 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Melania Trump wears a sky-blue cashmere Ralph Lauren ensemble. He holds his left hand on two versions of the Bible, one childhood Bible given to him by his mother, along with Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.
President Donald Trump being sworn in on January 20, 2017, at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Melania Trump wears a sky-blue cashmere Ralph Lauren ensemble. He holds his left hand on two versions of the Bible, one childhood Bible given to him by his mother, along with Abraham Lincoln’s Bible.

Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president was held on Friday, January 20, 2017. In his first week as president, Trump signed six executive orders. His first order as president set out interim procedures in anticipation of repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). That same week, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, re-instated the Mexico City Policy, reopened the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline construction projects and signed an executive order to begin planning, designing and constructing a new Mexico border wall and reinforce border security.

On January 27, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which suspended admission of refugees for 120 days and denied entry to citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days, citing security concerns about terrorism. The order was imposed without warning and took effect immediately. Confusion and protests caused chaos at many airports, as travelers were detained on arriving in the United States or barred from boarding U.S.-bound planes. The administration then clarified that visitors with a green card were exempt from the ban.

Multiple legal challenges were filed against the order, and on February 5 a federal judge in Seattle blocked its implementation. On October 24, 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed the only remaining travel ban appeal as being moot because the revised order had expired. It expressed “no views on the merits” of the case.

On September 24, 2017, the temporary executive order, which was close to expiry, was replaced by Presidential Proclamation 9645, which permanently restricts travel from the originally targeted countries except Iraq and Sudan, and further bans travelers from North Korea, Chad, and Venezuela (only on certain government officials and their families). These provisions were slated to take effect on October 18, and the Supreme Court cancelled the hearing that was planned for October 10] On October 17, a federal judge in Hawaii blocked the portions of these provisions applying to the six Muslim-majority countries, leaving only the restrictions on North Korea and Venezuela to take effect.

Envelope produced by the United States Postal Service for their Bicentennial souvenir sheets - United States Scott #1686-1689 (1976).

Envelope produced by the United States Postal Service for their Bicentennial souvenir sheets – United States Scott #1686-1689 (1976).

During the summer of 1776, the Founding Fathers took a bold step that laid the first cornerstone of the American nation by voting to declare independence from Great Britain. The celebrations of America’s 200th birthday took place throughout the entire year of 1976 and in every corner of the country. At the July 4, 1976, celebrations in Philadelphia, President Gerald Ford remarked, “This union of corrected wrongs and expanded rights has brought the blessings of liberty to 215 million Americans, but the struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is never truly won. Each generation of Americans, indeed of all humanity, must strive to achieve these aspirations anew. Liberty is a living flame to be fed, not dead ashes to be revered, even in a bicentennial year.”

According to Alexander T. Haimann of the National Postal Museum, “The postage stamps of the United States issued in the years before the Bicentennial and continuing to the present day feature the people and events that symbolize the struggles and achievements of maintaining liberty and equality for every American.”

The official events for the American Bicentennial celebrations began on April 1, 1975, when the American Freedom Train departed Delaware to begin a 21-month, 25,338-mile tour of the 48 contiguous states. For more than a year, a wave of patriotism swept the nation as elaborate firework displays lit up skies across the U.S., an international fleet of tall-mast sailing ships gathered in New York City and Boston, and Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit. The celebration culminated on July 4, 1976, with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
The United States Postal Service issued 113 commemorative stamps over a six-year period in honor of the Bicentennial, beginning with the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Emblem stamp (Scott #1432). As a group, the Bicentennial Series chronicles one of our nation’s most important chapters, and remembers the events and patriots who made the United States a world model for liberty.

The commemorative stamps released in 1976 for the Bicentennial began with the ‘Spirit of ’76’ issue featuring Archibald Willard’s painting of the Revolutionary War drummer boy. It also issued commemorative stamps honoring Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Marquis de Lafayette.

On May 29, 1976, the Postal Service issued four souvenir sheets to commemorate INTERPHIL ‘76 — the Seventh International Philatelic Exhibition — in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Scott #1686-1689). There were four denominations: 13 cents, 18 cents, 24 cents, and 31 cents. Each of the souvenir sheets included five stamps as a part of the design. The stamps were perforated and could be detached and used for postage. Each pane depicts a painting of an event during the Revolutionary War. The paintings include “Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown” by John Trumbull, “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze and Eastman Johnson, and “Washington Reviewing Army at Valley Forge” by William T. Trego. The stamps were designed by Vincent E. Hoffman.

United States - Scott #1686 (1976)
United States – Scott #1686 (1976)

The first sheet, which contained five 13-cent stamps covering the current domestic first-class rate, featured a reproduction of John Trumbull’s painting “The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.”  Picturing the moment that “ended the war,” the scene shows American and French officers, including Washington, lined up to receive the British surrender.

A general in the British army, Cornwallis successfully led many troops into battle against the patriots.  These victories made him a natural candidate to direct Britain’s campaign to capture the South in 1780.  Since Georgia and South Carolina had already been captured, Cornwallis began to move northward into North Carolina.  After several losses, the British were forced to retreat to South Carolina, where they were crushed by patriot forces on January 17, 1781.

Eager to avenge the defeat, Cornwallis pursued the Continental Army to the southern border of Virginia.  Against British commander-in-chief General Clinton’s wishes, he continued his march into Virginia and established his base at Yorktown.  There, Washington surrounded him and began a siege operation which lasted for three weeks.  Without supplies and with no hope for escape, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, an action which ensured the American triumph.

Acting for Cornwallis, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara gave his sword to Major General Benjamin Lincoln.  News of the surrender spread rapidly throughout the colonies.  Reinforcements aboard a British fleet sailing to rescue Cornwallis turned back upon hearing the news.  When word of the crushing defeat reached Prime Minister Lord North, he resigned his position, and the new British cabinet began peace negotiations with the United States.  Occasional fighting, however, still continued in the South for more than a year.  On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war.

United States - Scott #1687 (1976)
United States – Scott #1687 (1976)

The 18-cent stamp met the surface letter-mail rate for the first ounce to countries other than Canada and Mexico. The souvenir sheet containing these stamps portrays John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” — a 12-by-18-foot (3.7 by 5.5 m) oil-on-canvas painting hanging in the United States Capitol rotunda that depicts the presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress. It was based on a much smaller version of the same scene, presently held by the Yale University Art Gallery. Trumbull painted many of the figures in the picture from life, and visited Independence Hall to depict the chamber where the Second Continental Congress met. The oil-on-canvas work was commissioned in 1817, purchased in 1819, and placed in the rotunda in 1826.

The painting is sometimes incorrectly described as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the painting actually shows the five-man drafting committee presenting their draft of the Declaration to the Congress, an event that took place on June 28, 1776, and not the signing of the document, which took place later.

The painting shows 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration; Trumbull originally intended to include all 56 signers but was unable to obtain likenesses for all of them. He also depicted several participants in the debate who did not sign the document, including John Dickinson, who declined to sign. Trumbull also had no portrait of Benjamin Harrison V to work with, but his son Benjamin Harrison VI was said to resemble his father, so Trumbull painted him instead. The Declaration was debated and signed over a period of time when membership in Congress changed, so the men in the painting had actually never all been in the same room at the same time.

Thomas Jefferson seems to be stepping on John Adams’ foot in the painting, which many thought was supposed to symbolize their relationship as political enemies. However, upon closer examination of the painting, it can be seen that their feet are merely close together. This part of the image was correctly depicted on the two-dollar bill version.

Trumbull’s painting has been depicted several times on United States currency and postage stamps. Its first use was on the reverse side of the $100 National Bank Note issued in 1863. The depiction was engraved by Frederick Girsch of the American Bank Note Company. The same steel engraving was used on the 24-cent stamp issued as part of the 1869 pictorial series of definitive U.S. postage stamps.

Trumbull’s painting is presently depicted on the reverse of the two-dollar bill. Featured in it are 40 of the 47 figures from Trumbull’s painting. Cut out from the scene are: the farthest four figures on the left—George Wythe, William Whipple, Josiah Bartlett, and Thomas Lynch, Jr.; the farthest two figures on the right—Thomas McKean and Philip Livingston; and one of three figures seated in the left rear — George Walton. Additionally, two unknown figures were added: one in between Samuel Chase and Lewis Morris and another between James Wilson and Francis Hopkinson, bringing the total number of figures shown in the presentation scene to 42.

United States - Scott #1689 (1976)
United States – Scott #1689 (1976)

The 31-cent stamps on Scott #1689 met the airmail letter rate for the first half ounce to countries other than Central America, Columbia, Venezuela, the Caribbean Islands, Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Pierre, and Miquelon. The 31-cent stamp also met the rate for a surface letter over one ounce and to two ounces to countries other than Canada and Mexico. The painting depicted is William T. Trego’s “The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777,” also known by the alternate title, “Washington Reviewing His Troops at Valley Forge,” as inscribed on the souvenir sheet.

In this work, Trego was inspired by a passage from Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington: “Sad and dreary was the march to Valley Forge . . .” and this passage was printed in the catalogue for the 1883 exhibition. The painting became the focus of a famous controversy when Trego sued the Pennsylvania Academy after receiving only the third prize in the annual Temple competition, despite the judges’ decision that his painting was the best of those entered. Though Trego ultimately lost the case in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1886, the two years of scandal provided the young artist with excellent publicity for his work. It is sometimes suggested that the young soldier saluting Washington is a portrait of the artist himself, but if Trego intended this, the resemblance is not strong.

To assure a balanced composition on such a large canvas (40 x 72 inches) populated with so many figures, Trego utilized various geometrical schemes, including the classical device of the golden section to position key individuals and vignettes for best effect. The horse in the exact center is looking directly at us, a device intended to draw us into the scene. The foreground grouping, which includes Washington and the two figures saluting him on either side, are framed within a space defined by two superimposed golden rectangles measured in from each end of the painting. A pyramid formed by drawing lines from the center top point down to each bottom corner further serves to define the space with Washington and the young soldier saluting him, and it determines the position of a gun which is held exactly parallel to that line. The poignant group of three men at the head of the line of march are in their own space just outside the space defined for the rest of the foreground figures.

The painting is currently on loan from the Museum of the American Revolution to Valley Forge National Historical Park.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze, Museum of Modern Art, New York City (1851). Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776, was a great success in America and in Germany. Leutze began his first version of this subject in 1849. It was damaged in his studio by fire in 1850 and, although restored and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen, was again destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. In 1850, Leutze began this version of the subject, which was placed on exhibition in New York during October of 1851. At this showing Marshall O. Roberts bought the canvas for the then-enormous sum of $10,000. In 1853, M. Knoedler published an engraving of it. Many studies for the painting exist, as do copies by other artists.

Scott #1688 contains five 24-cent stamps which prepaid the domestic first-class rate for a letter over one ounce and up to two ounces, As were the others in the series, the souvenir sheets were printed by lithography by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., and the stamps perforated to a gauge of 11.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. It commemorates General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. That action was the first move in a surprise attack against the German Hessian allied mercenary forces at Trenton, New Jersey, in the Battle of Trenton on the morning of December 26.

The original was part of the collection at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, and was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942, during World War II. Leutze painted two more versions, one of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The other was in the West Wing reception area of the White House in Washington, D.C., but is now in possession of The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota.

German-born Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816–1868) grew up in America, then returned to Germany as an adult, where he conceived of the idea for this painting during the Revolutions of 1848. Hoping to encourage Europe’s liberal reformers through the example of the American Revolution, and using American tourists and art students as models and assistants, among them Worthington Whittredge and Andreas Achenbach, Leutze finished the first painting in 1850. Just after it was completed, the first version was damaged by fire in his studio, subsequently restored, and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen. On September 5, 1942, during World War II, it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the Allied forces.

The second painting, a full-sized replica of the first, was begun in 1850 and placed on exhibition in New York in October 1851. More than 50,000 people viewed it. The painting was originally bought by Marshall O. Roberts for $10,000 (at the time, an enormous sum). After changing ownership several times, it was finally donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by John Stewart Kennedy in 1897.

The painting was lent at least twice in its history. In the early 1950s, it was part of an exhibition in Dallas, Texas. Then, beginning in 1952, it was exhibited for several years at the United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, not far from the scene of the painting. Today, it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 2002, the painting was defaced when a former Metropolitan Museum of Art guard glued a picture of the September 11 attacks to it. No major damage was caused to the painting.

The simple frame that had been with the painting for over 90 years turned out not to be the original frame that Leutze designed. A photograph taken by Matthew Brady in 1864 was found in the New York Historical Society in 2007 showing the painting in a spectacular eagle crested frame. The 12’ x 21’ carved replica frame was created using this photo by Eli Wilner & Company in New York City. The carved eagle-topped crest alone is 14′ wide.

The painting is notable for its artistic composition. General Washington is emphasized by an unnaturally bright sky, while his face catches the upcoming sun. The colors consist of mostly dark tones, as is to be expected at dawn, but there are red highlights repeated throughout the painting. Foreshortening, perspective and the distant boats all lend depth to the painting and emphasize the boat carrying Washington.

The people in the boat represent a cross-section of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet and a man of African descent facing backward next to each other in the front, western riflemen at the bow and stern, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back (one with bandaged head), and an androgynous rower in a red shirt, possibly meant to be a woman in man’s clothing. There is also a man at the back of the boat wearing what appears to be Native American garb to represent the idea that all people in the new United States of America were represented as present in the boat along with Washington on his way to victory and success.

According to the 1853 exhibition catalogue, the man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe, future President of the United States, and the man leaning over the side is General Nathanael Greene. Also, General Edward Hand is shown seated and holding his hat within the vessel.

The flag depicted is the original flag of the United States (the “Stars and Stripes”), the design of which did not exist at the time of Washington’s crossing. The flag’s design was specified in the June 14, 1777, Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress, and flew for the first time on September 3, 1777 — well after Washington’s crossing in 1776. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag, officially hoisted by Washington himself on January 1, 1776, at Somerville, Massachusetts, as the standard of the Continental Army and the first national flag.

Artistic concerns motivated further deviations from historical (and physical) accuracy. For example, the boat (of the wrong model) looks too small to carry all occupants and stay afloat, but this emphasizes the struggle of the rowing soldiers. There are phantom light sources besides the upcoming sun, as can be seen on the face of the front rower and shadows on the water, to add depth. The crossing took place in the dead of night, so there ought to have been little natural light, but this would have made for a very different painting.

The river is modeled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in jagged chunks as pictured, not in broad sheets as is more common on the Delaware. Also, the Delaware at what is now called Washington Crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting. It was also raining during the crossing. Next, the men did not bring horses or field guns across the river in the boats, but instead had them transported by ferries. Finally, Washington’s stance, obviously intended to depict him in a heroic fashion, would have been very hard to maintain in the stormy conditions of the crossing. Considering that he is standing in a rowboat, such a stance would have risked capsizing the boat. However, historian David Hackett Fischer has argued that everyone would have been standing up to avoid the icy water in the bottom of the boat (the actual Durham boats used have higher sides).

Scott catalogue page depicting Scott #1686-1689 and other 1976 Bicentennial stamps.
Scott catalogue page depicting Scott #1686-1689 and other 1976 Bicentennial stamps.

George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, which occurred on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, was the first move in a surprise attack organized by George Washington against the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey, on the morning of December 26. Planned in partial secrecy, Washington led a column of Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River in a logistically challenging and dangerous operation. Other planned crossings in support of the operation were either called off or ineffective, but this did not prevent Washington from surprising and defeating the troops of Johann Rall quartered in Trenton. The army crossed the river back to Pennsylvania, this time laden with prisoners and military stores taken as a result of the battle.

Washington’s army then crossed the river a third time at the end of the year, under conditions made more difficult by the uncertain thickness of the ice on the river. They defeated British reinforcements under Lord Cornwallis at Trenton on January 2, 1777, and defeated his rear guard at Princeton on January 3, before retreating to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

The unincorporated communities of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, and Washington Crossing, New Jersey, are named in honor of this event.

Map by William Faden, depicting Washington's crossing on the Delaware River. Manuscript, pen-and-ink and watercolor (1777)
Map by William Faden, depicting Washington’s crossing on the Delaware River. Manuscript, pen-and-ink and watercolor (1777)

While 1776 had started well for the American cause with the evacuation of British troops from Boston in March, the defense of New York City had gone quite poorly. British general William Howe had landed troops on Long Island in August and had pushed George Washington’s Continental Army completely out of New York by mid-November, when he captured the remaining troops on Manhattan. The main British troops returned to New York for the winter season. They left mainly Hessian troops in New Jersey. These troops were under the command of Colonel Rall and Colonel Von Donop. They were ordered to small outposts in and around Trenton.

Howe then sent troops under the command of Charles Cornwallis across the Hudson River into New Jersey and chased Washington across New Jersey. Washington’s army was shrinking, due to expiring enlistments and desertions, and suffered from poor morale, due to the defeats in the New York area. Most of Washington’s army crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania north of Trenton, New Jersey, and destroyed or moved to the western shore all boats for miles in both directions. Cornwallis (under Howe’s command), rather than attempting to immediately chase Washington further, established a chain of outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Bordentown and one at Trenton, and ordered his troops into winter quarters.

The British were happy to end the campaign season when they were ordered to winter quarters. This was a time for the generals to regroup, re-supply, and strategize for the upcoming campaign season the following spring.

“The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully (146.5 × 207 inches), 1819, was commissioned by the state of North Carolina for the Senate Hall of the State House in Raleigh. It currently hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Washington encamped the army near McKonkey’s Ferry, not far from the crossing site. While Washington at first took quarters across the river from Trenton, he moved his headquarters on December 15 to the home of William Keith so he could remain closer to his forces. When Washington’s army first arrived at McKonkey’s Ferry, he had four to six thousand men, although 1,700 soldiers were unfit for duty and needed hospital care. In the retreat across New Jersey Washington had lost precious supplies, as well as losing contact with two important divisions of his army. General Horatio Gates was in the Hudson River Valley and General Charles Lee was in western New Jersey with 2,000 men. Washington had ordered both generals to join him, but Gates was delayed by heavy snows en route, and Lee, who did not have a high opinion of Washington, delayed following repeated orders, preferring to remain on the British flank near Morristown, New Jersey.

Other problems affected the quantity and quality of his forces. Many of his men’s enlistments were due to expire before Christmas, and many soldiers were inclined to leave the army when their commission ended. Several deserted before their enlistments were up. The pending loss of forces, the series of lost battles, the loss of New York, the flight of the Army along with many New Yorkers and the Second Continental Congress to Philadelphia, left many in doubt about the prospects of winning the war. But Washington persisted. He successfully procured supplies and dispatched men to recruit new members of the militia, which was successful in part due to British and Hessian mistreatment of New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents.

The losses at Fort Lee and Washington placed a heavy toll on the Patriots. When they evacuated their forts, they were forced to leave behind critical supplies and munitions. Many troops had been killed or taken prisoner, and the morale of the remaining troops was low. Few believed that they could win the war and gain independence.

The morale of the Patriot forces was boosted on December 19 when a new pamphlet titled The American Crisis written by Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, was published.

These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Within a day of its publication in Philadelphia, General Washington ordered it to be read to all of his troops. It encouraged the soldiers and improved their tolerance of their difficult conditions.

On December 20, General Lee’s division of 2,000 troops arrived in Washington’s camp under the command of General John Sullivan. General Lee had been captured by the British on December 12, when he ventured too far outside the protection of his troops in search of more comfortable lodgings (or, according to rumors, a possible assignation). Later that same day General Gates’ division arrived in camp, reduced to 600 whose enlistments had ended, and by the need to keep the northern frontier secure. Soon after, another 1,000 militiamen from Philadelphia under Colonel John Cadwalader joined Washington.

With these reinforcements and smaller numbers of local volunteers who joined his forces, Washington’s forces now totaled about 6,000 troops fit for duty. This total was then reduced by a large portion due to forces who were detailed to guard the ferries at Bristol and New Hope, Pennsylvania. Another group was sent to protect supplies at Newtown, Pennsylvania and to guard the sick and wounded who had to remain behind when the army crossed the Delaware River. This left Washington with about 2,400 men able to take offensive action against the Hessian and British troops in Central New Jersey.

This improvement in morale was aided by the arrival of some provisions, including much-needed blankets, on December 24.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by George Caleb Bingham (36.6 × 57.5 inches), 1856-1871. Washington stands at the apex of a pyramid of figures, on horseback. Bingham portrays Washington and his crew riding on a broad, flat-bottomed raftboat, through icy waters; the boat seems to proceed directly toward the viewer. Currently at Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

General Washington had been considering some sort of bold move since arriving in Pennsylvania. With the arrival of Sullivan’s and Gates’ forces and the influx of militia companies, he felt the time was finally right for some sort of action. He first considered an attack on the southernmost British positions near Mount Holly, where a militia force had gathered. He sent his adjutant, Joseph Reed, to meet with Samuel Griffin, the militia commander. Reed arrived in Mount Holly on December 22, found Griffin to be ill, and his men in relatively poor condition, but willing to make some sort of diversion. This they did with the Battle of Iron Works Hill the next day, drawing the Hessians at Bordentown far enough south that they would be unable to come to the assistance of the Trenton garrison.

The intelligence gathered by Reed and others led Washington to abandon the idea of attacking at Mount Holly, preferring instead to target the Trenton garrison. He announced this decision to his staff on December 23, saying the attack would take place just before daybreak on December 26.

Washington’s final plan was for three crossings, with his troops, the largest contingent, to lead the attack on Trenton. A second column under Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader was to cross at Dunk’s Ferry, near Bristol, Pennsylvania, and create a diversion to the south. A third column under Brigadier General James Ewing was to cross at Trenton Ferry and hold the bridge across the Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton, in order to prevent the enemy’s escape by that route. Once Trenton was secure, the combined army would move against the British posts in Princeton and New Brunswick. A fourth crossing, by men provided by General Israel Putnam to assist Cadwalader, was dropped after Putnam indicated he did not have enough men fit for the operation.

Preparations for the attack began on December 23. On December 24, the boats used to bring the army across the Delaware from New Jersey were brought down from Malta Island near New Hope. They were hidden behind Taylor Island at McKonkey’s Ferry, Washington’s planned crossing site; security was tightened at the crossing. A final planning meeting took place that day, with all of the general officers present. General orders were issued by Washington on December 25 outlining plans for the operation.

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1849–1850). Black & white photograph of original painting by Emanuel Leutze. Damaged by fire in 1850. Destroyed by fire on September 5, 1942, after bombing raid.

A wide variety of watercraft were assembled for the crossing, primarily through the work of militia men from the surrounding counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy.

Captain Daniel Bray, along with Captain Jacob Gearhart and Captain Jacob Ten Eyck, were chosen by General George Washington to take charge of the boats used in the crossing, supervising the transport of infantry, cavalry, cannon, and howitzers. In addition to the large ferry vessels (which were big enough to carry large coaches, and likely served for carrying horses and artillery during the crossing), a large number of Durham boats were used to transport soldiers across the river. These boats were designed to carry heavy loads from the Durham Iron Works, featured high sides and a shallow draft, and could be poled across the river.

The boats were operated by experienced watermen. Most prominent among them were the men of John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, a company of experienced seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These men were joined by seamen, dockworkers, and shipbuilders from Philadelphia, as well as local ferry operators and boatsmen who knew the river well.

On the morning of December 25, Washington ordered his army to prepare three days’ food, and issued orders that every soldier be outfitted with fresh flints for their muskets. He was also somewhat worried by intelligence reports that the British were planning their own crossing once the Delaware was frozen over. At 4 pm Washington’s army turned out for its evening parade, where the troops were issued ammunition, and even the officers and musicians were ordered to carry muskets. They were told that they were departing on a secret mission. Marching eight abreast in close formations, and ordered to be as quiet as possible, they left the camp for McKonkey’s Ferry. Washington’s plan required the crossing to begin as soon as it was dark enough to conceal their movements on the river, but most of the troops did not reach the crossing point until about 6 pm, about ninety minutes after sunset. The weather got progressively worse, turning from drizzle to rain to sleet and snow. “It blew a hurricane,” recalled one soldier.

United States quarter dollar coin released in 1999 as part of the State Quarters Series, representing the state of New Jersey, depicts
United States quarter dollar coin released in 1999 as part of the State Quarters Series, representing the state of New Jersey, depicts “Washington Crossing the Delaware”.

Washington had given charge of the crossing logistics to his chief of artillery, the portly Henry Knox. In addition to the crossing of large numbers of troops (most of whom could not swim), he had to safely transport horses and eighteen pieces of artillery over the river. Knox wrote that the crossing was accomplished “with almost infinite difficulty”, and that its most significant danger was “floating ice in the river”. One observer noted that the whole operation might well have failed “but for the stentorian lungs of Colonel Knox”. Ice had formed in the river due to the Little Ice Age.

Washington was among the first of the troops to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through. The password was “Victory or Death”.[31] The rest of the army crossed without significant incident, although a few men, including Delaware’s Colonel John Haslet, fell into the water.

The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3 am on December 26. The troops were not ready to march until 4 am.

The two other crossings fared less well. The treacherous weather and ice jams on the river stopped General Ewing from even attempting a crossing below Trenton. Colonel Cadwalader crossed a significant portion of his men to New Jersey, but when he found that he could not get his artillery across the river he recalled his men from New Jersey. When he received word about Washington’s victory, he crossed his men over again but retreated when he found out that Washington had not stayed in New Jersey.

On the morning of December 26, as soon as the army was ready, Washington ordered it split into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington’s column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river. Only three Americans were killed and six wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 98 wounded. The Americans captured 1,000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder, and artillery.

Following the battle, Washington had to execute a second crossing that was in some ways more difficult than the first. In the aftermath of the battle, the Hessian supplies had been plundered, and, in spite of Washington’s explicit orders for its destruction, casks of captured rum were opened, so some of the celebrating troops got drunk, probably contributing to the larger number of troops that had to be pulled from the icy waters on the return crossing. They also had to transport the large numbers of prisoners across the river while keeping them under guard. One American acting as a guard on one of the crossings observed that the Hessians, who were standing in knee-deep ice water, were “so cold that their underjaws quivered like an aspen leaf.”

The victory had a marked effect on the troops’ morale. Soldiers celebrated the victory, Washington’s role as a leader was secured, and Congress gained renewed enthusiasm for the war.

Both sides of the Delaware River where the crossing took place have been preserved, in an area designated as the Washington’s Crossing National Historic Landmark. In this district, Washington Crossing Historic Park in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, preserves the area in Pennsylvania, and Washington Crossing State Park marks the New Jersey side. The two areas are connected by the Washington Crossing Bridge.

In 1851, the artist Emmanuel Leutze created the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” an idealized and historically inaccurate portrayal of the crossing. Fictional portrayals in film of the crossing have also been made, with perhaps the most notable recent one being The Crossing, a 2000 television movie starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington.

The 19th episode of the PBS miniseries Liberty’s Kids, entitled “Across The Delaware”, chronicles the crossing, beginning with the report and escape of Washington’s spy John Honeyman, and showing events up to the reenlistment of most of the Army after their supplies are restored, and a footnote is made by character Sarah Phillips of Washington’s follow-up attack, where the army delayed its retreat to capture the now ill-defended British garrison at Princeton, New Jersey. The episode makes one minor historical error: footage of the Hessians’ Christmas celebration depicts soldiers dancing to “Silent Night”, at least forty years before the carol was written.

Continental Colors

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