History of modern america major themes essay sample

1. Expansion of Federal Government Since the Late 1800’s
Expansion of federal government powers accelerated after the American Civil War, which – according to an article by Holcombe (1997) – established the federal government’s supremacy over the individual states. The picture below illustrates the tragedy of war and in particular the “ American versus American” aspect of the war, which resulted in massive casualties to Americans on both sides in the conflict. The war cost millions of lives as well as breakdowns in previous relationships. Former friends and even family members became divided by allegiance to their chosen cause, causing enmities that in some cases endured long afterwards.

According to Holcombe, the post-war expansion of Federal government powers also helped what he calls “ interest groups” to become established and grow, including the war veterans, who cost the Treasury payouts of millions of dollars in war pensions from their limited funds, based on liberalized eligibility rules. That restricted government spending in other areas.
With the later passing of Government regulatory Acts into law, what Holcombe refers to as the “ Progressive Era” began at the start of the 20th century. In 1906 the Food & Drug Administration was set up, followed in 1913 by creation of the Federal Reserve, then in 1914 the Federal Trade Commission. Holcombe suggests that the government – once “ committed to protecting the liberty of its citizens” was now equally committed to their economic welfare.
Then along came the First World War, which triggered massive expansion of federal powers. As well as nationalization of the railways and regulation of water transportation, other expansions of controls included the food industry. The US Food Administration controlled it through all stages from agriculture itself through to distribution and the sales. These controls soon expanded to encompass the whole economy. Of special note was federal income tax, which rose from an initial basic rate of 7% in 1913 to a staggering 77% by 1918. Clearly, the sum of all these measures and controls was a drastic reduction in individual freedoms.
Government growth continued thereafter, and in the 1920’s federal spending in various areas of the economy averaged a growth of over 10%, with law enforcement being the highest at 17%, in part due to the resources required to police the prohibition of alcohol. However, Holcombe claims that during prohibition, the tax collected from alcohol never exceeded the cost of enforcement of the law(!) On a more positive note, government did take measures to help US agriculture during the 1920’s, so not all federal expansion was a bad thing.
Undoubtedly, the lives of US citizens have been affected in a number of ways by expansion of federal powers, though not necessarily always in a negative way.

2. Cultural Developments
According to a CliffsNotes article (n. d.), “ A tide of economic and social change swept across the country in the 1920s.” In those years following the First World War, wages were rising and prices falling, and social conventions were evolving. Women – in the decade where they first got to vote and encouraged by the new radio and movie industries – were changing the ways they behaved and dressed. For example, the picture below shows the so-called “ flapper” look, epitomizing the newly acceptable freedoms of dress and uninhibited social behavior.

Between 1950 and 1980, according to an article “ Cultural Change: 1950-1980” (June, 2008), increasing birth rates gave rise to mass suburbia, and for many the economic picture was rosy. However, for African Americans in the 1960s this was a time of discrimination and a fight for change. Martin Luther King helped African Americans gain landmark civil rights and voting rights. The picture shows him on 28th August 1963, when he delivered his famous “ I have a dream!” speech to an estimated 200, 000 civil rights supporters in Washington D. C.

These events and others like mass student protests over the Vietnam War and politically-motivated protest activity by Hispanics and Native Americans brought social / cultural changes to an already open and diverse society, which was becoming more of a multicultural society.
Crouch (n. d.), published a Blog post entitled “ Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade” (2001 to 2011). I have selected from those the following:
Firstly, the rapid rise in the usage of mobile phones. In the last ten years, the number of cell phones rose from 97 to 293 million, along with an increase in WiFi capability. Plus of course the dramatic increase in use and popularity of the Social Networks like Facebook and the widespread use of Twitter. Social contact via the Internet is now almost universal and immediate.
Crouch claims that another major change this decade has been that cultural majorities are no more. Predominantly black or Hispanic city center neighborhoods are now more international in nature. He states that we are all minorities now. The following picture illustrates that trend, which is helping to bring communities together and reduce racial tensions.

The third cultural change in the 2001-2011 decade that I have picked from the Crouch article is in respect of informality. Crouch claims that everywhere, e. g. in business, politics, and so on, men are discarding the tie, and in relationships marriage is increasingly taking a back seat.
Overall, I would say that our culture has evolved progressively with time, but with certain aspects of change accelerated by specific events, so changing out of step with general trends.

3. Reform Movements from the Late 1800s
An article entitled “ Ideas and Movements, 19th century” on the United States History website, refers back to the years before the Civil War, which the article calls “ the First Reform Era”. It describes the time as signifying “ a major push for change”, when social activists worked to improve working conditions in industry and to see that prisoners and mental patients were treated more humanely. The major push in that period was that of the abolitionists, who fought to bring an end to what they saw as the morally unacceptable face of slavery. That reform eventually became a reality in 1865 when slavery was abolished, in no small part due to the efforts of William Lloyd Garrison, a lifelong campaigner for that cause. Refer to the Ohio History Central website for further details.
Prior to the First World War, according to the Ideas and Movements article, most reform efforts were concentrated in two separate areas, women’s rights and temperance. Women activists campaigned for their rights using civil disobedience and other forms of protest. The picture below shows two women’s rights campaigners.

Eventually, women obtained full voting rights in 1920 by the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, as described in an article by Imbornoni (n. d.), entitled “ Women’s Rights Movement in the U. S.: Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement 1848–1920”.
The temperance movement had campaigned from the early 1800s for moderation or abstinence in consuming intoxicating (alcohol-based) drink. As described in an article entitled “ Ideas and Movements” on the United States History website, the campaigns were led mainly by women who together with their children had suffered the effects of excessive drinking by their husbands and others. Their campaigns were rewarded in 1919 when Prohibition was brought in by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, but suffered a major setback when Prohibition was subsequently repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. A modern-day temperance organisation Alcoholics Anonymous, still exists. It promotes temperance, but treats alcoholism as a disease instead of a crime, and without pushing for government control.
The above examples of the activities of reform movements illustrate – in my view – that if the cause is just, and has a significant body of support, persistence pays off.

4. Important National Events in the Development of California
The California Gold Rush, which began after a pea-sized piece of gold was found in a sawmill race at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848. Although those involved attempted to keep the discovery secret they failed, and soon the California Gold Rush was underway. According to an article “ The California Gold Rush” on the Legends of America website, by 1849 some 80, 000 eager prospectors had arrived in California – most from other states in the U. S. but soon to be followed by others from countries around the world. California was transformed. The landscape in many places was destroyed by the digging and by erosion and mud slides from the runoff. Water supplies were polluted by mining chemicals and entire forests were hacked down to use for timbers in the mines. Positive benefits however were that California with its vastly increased population became a state much sooner, and that – following the boom – many prospectors stayed and turned to agriculture for a living.
According to an online article “ History of the Transcontinental Railroad”, (n. d.), the great influx into California following the discovery of gold meant that trade with the western United States gained increasing importance. However, it took until 1863 for work on the railroad to begin. Then work was set back by the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1865, but Charles Crocker, one of the powerful men behind the railroad, took on Chinese labor to replace the men lost to Nevada. Despite constant threat of attacks from Indians, the railroad made impressive progress. On one occasion they laid 10 miles of track in one day, as shown in the picture below:

The importance of the railroad when completed (May 1869), was that it encouraged and facilitated expansion into the west, as well as assisting the North factions with the Civil War.
“ World War II had pivotal effect on California and vice versa” is the title of an article published by the Orange County Register in September 2007. The article describes how the war changed California, yet there are those who claim that without California’s technology, manufacturing and its troops, victory in that conflict would not have been achieved.
The article describes how California was completely transformed from its sleepy origins into a major center for defense manufacturing and a staging post for U. S. forays into the Pacific theater.
In modern times California has become a leader in technology (Silicon Valley, for example) and is very much a leader in such fields generating prosperity for its citizens.

5. Environmental Matters
This essay describes some of the environmental issues that have concerned Americans in modern times. An article entitled “ Socially Responsible Design” on the website of the same name (May 2006) describes how the ecological movement was triggered in United States in the 1960s by social unrest. Attention was drawn to high pollution levels, environmental damage and depleting global resources. Initially a radically-based movement, it was fuelled by the contemporary oil crisis. “ Green design” became a catchphrase, whereby designers were encouraged to consider the life cycle of a new product, including issues like energy efficiency and recycling potential. Revising manufacturing processes, creating environmentally friendly (biodegradable) packaging, even building “ green” (energy-saving) buildings came within the scope of the movement. The picture below shows the design for such a building.

Coming right up to date, the big issue (environmentally-speaking) is climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming. A USA Today article entitled “ Understanding climate change” (n. d.), states that Climate change is the more accurate term to use because the changes occurring and that might occur in the future involve much more than just simple temperature increase. Climate changes may also affect rainfall patterns and can even lead to some places on Earth getting colder while others are becoming warmer.
Greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide have also become a major concern with regard to climate change, as the increased amounts of these gases in our atmosphere are bound to have effects on the global climate. Hence, the considered opinion of many scientists is that we humans are responsible for the climate change, although just how much of the effects are due to other sources like animal flatulence is still open to question.
In recent times, certainly through the last century, but mainly in the last few decades, we have become much more aware of environmental issues like climate change, depletion of fossil fuels, loss of agricultural land and rain forests. Some say it is too late, that the damage has been done and is irreversible. However, in my opinion that should not discourage anyone from continuing to make every effort to protect our environment – it’s the only one we have!

Works Cited

CliffsNotes. com. A New Society: Economic & Social Change. (n. d.). Web. 27 May 2012.
Crouch, Andy. Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade. (n. d.). Ideas for the common good. Web. 27 May 2012.
Cultural Change: 1950-1980. (June, 2008). USA History in Brief. US Department of State. Web. 27 May 2012.
History of the Transcontinental Railroad. (n. d.). Web. 27 May 2012.
Holcombe, Randal, G. Federal Government Growth Before the New Deal. (September, 1997). The Freeman. The Independent Institute. Web. 27 May, 2012.
Ideas and Movements, 19th century. (n. d.). United States History. Web. 27 May 2012.
Imbornoni, Ann-Marie. (n. d.). “ Women’s Rights Movement in the U. S.: Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement 1848–1920”. Web. 27 May 2012.
Ohio History Central. William L. Garrison. 24 May 2012.
Socially Responsible Design. (May 2006). Web. 27 May 2012.
The California Gold Rush. (n. d.). Legends of America. Web. 27 May 2012.
Understanding climate change. (n. d.). USA Today. Web. 27 May 2012.
World War II had pivotal effect on California and vice versa. (September 2007). Orange County Register. Web. 27 May 2012.