What are the basics of American culture

United States

Philipp Gassert

To person

Prof. Dr. Philipp Gassert has held the Chair of Contemporary History at the University of Mannheim since February 2014. He previously researched and taught at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., at the University of Heidelberg, the LMU Munich, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Augsburg. Philipp Gassert conducts research in German and European contemporary history as well as transatlantic history and US foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The history of the USA until 1787/91

Probably more than 13,000 years ago people settled in what is now the United States. The first high cultures formed there around 1000, before the first people immigrated from Europe and Africa in the 16th century, the latter under duress as enslaved people. In 1776, 13 British colonies declared independence, which became a reality in 1789.

The painting by John Trumbull entitled "Declaration of Independence" shows the negotiation of the US Declaration of Independence. (& copy picture-alliance, United Archives / WHA)

People immigrated to what is now the US territory at some point during the last ice age, over a land bridge from Asia or along the coasts. While high cultures existed in Central America over 3,000 years ago, the southwest of the USA was colonized from Central America in the first millennium. Before 1300, the Anasazi culture reached its prime. In Cahokia near St. Louis, enormous earth pyramids were built under Mesoamerican influence, the largest such structures in the world.

At the time of the first European contact around 1500, complex societies with a division of labor, intensive agriculture and extensive trade along the rivers and coasts existed in the south of today's USA. How many people lived in North America at the time is controversial. What is certain is that diseases introduced by Europe led to a massive population decline and to renewed wilderness of cultivated areas when European settlement activity began in the south and east of what is now the USA in the 17th century.

In the 17th / 18th In the 19th century, North America was increasingly shaped by European rivalries. Initially, a European-Indian border zone had formed in the north of the Spanish Empire (Santa Fé, 1589). Then the French created their trading empire in Canada (Québec, 1608). The Dutch (New Amsterdam on Manhattan, 1625) also took part in the fur trade. This exacerbated conflicts between some indigenous peoples who allied themselves with colonial powers against their traditional enemies. To stop the French, British and Russian advance (Alaska), Spain advanced into Arizona, Texas and California after 1700 (San Francisco, 1776).

Between 1600 and 1800 about 1 million Europeans migrated to North America, at the same time 2.5 million Africans were forcibly shipped there as enslaved people, but many of them died on the crossing. The English Atlantic colonies were formative for the USA, starting with the founding of Virginia (Jamestown, 1607). Here, as in Maryland, the pattern of the English settler colony, which aimed at agricultural exports, established itself. With the profitable cultivation of tobacco, the demand for labor increased. In 1619 Dutch privateers landed African enslaved for the first time.

Virginia's origins were commercial, New England's more ideological. Puritans, religious opponents of the Anglican state church, settled there. They relied on personal belief, religious rebirth, disciplined work, and strict morals. A group of Puritan separatists who Pilgrim Fathers, founded Plymouth in 1620. While they were still on the ship, they signed the "Mayflower Compact" and expressed their will to self-government. A second group of Puritan merchants under John Winthrop received the privilege of founding Massachusetts in 1630, where they established what was then a very radical form of self-government with election of officials and a representative collection (Assemblies) realized.

In relation to indigenous peoples, an "inclusive" border deviating from the Spanish and French border, which aimed more at mixing and integration, developed in the English colonies. The first major "Indian War" against the Pequot in 1636/37 ended in genocide. The slaughter of children and women was religiously legitimized. The main reason for the exclusive character of the English borders was the population dynamics. Where the British have concentrated on the fur trade, as on Hudson Bay, they too rely on adaptation and cooperation. From 1700 to 1763 the area populated in Europe doubled. At the first census in 1790, 3.9 million people lived in the USA, 750,000 of them from Africa. 48% were English, 12% Scots or Iro-Scots, about 10% German.


The growing freedom of the Europeans, who had representative assemblies in all colonies, the deterioration in the situation of the enslaved and the marginalization of the natives went hand in hand. In a phase of relative neglect by the Crown from 1713 to 1763, a new political culture emerged. A high proportion of white men had the right to vote. The Assemblies saw themselves as a counterbalance to the royal governors. Because more (white) Americans than Europeans were literate, they took part in politics more actively.

The North American also differed culturally Englishman increasingly from its European "brother". White North Americans did not define their identity primarily according to class criteria, as in Europe, to distinguish them from racially "others", namely indigenous peoples and blacks. The ethnic, cultural and religious heterogeneity of the central colonies was unique. New terms settled in the English language, which were adopted from French, Dutch, German or from indigenous peoples. Family ties were looser than in Europe, and plenty of land facilitated self-employment.

Spiritual life also contributed to the formation of "American identities". A religious revival began in the 1720s (Great awakening), which emphasized an experience of God that was not sanctioned by spiritual hierarchies. Intellectually, the Enlightenment undermined old thought patterns. Benjamin Franklin was their archetypal American representative. In it, inventive spirit combined with optimism for progress and pragmatism and business spirit that were soon perceived as "typically American".

Then geopolitics contributed to the cutting of the cord: France lost its Canadian territories in the Seven Years War (1754-1763), removing an external threat. A reorganization of the colonial empire through London provided the fuel. In 1763, settlement activity west of the Appalachians was banned in order to contain conflicts with indigenous peoples. That outraged simple settlers and wealthy land speculators. Attempts to use the colonies to repay war debts also provoked protests. Resistance escalated in the port city of Boston when 1,770 soldiers fired into an angry crowd, killing five civilians. In December 1773, colonists threw tea from ships into the water to thwart import taxes.


In 1774 delegates from 12 colonies met in Philadelphia. This Continental Congress solemnly proclaimed American rights, called for the revocation of the oppressive laws of the Crown, and called for a boycott of British goods. In April 1775 there was the first skirmish between British troops and the settler militias. The Continental Congress declared the state of defense. An army under George Washington as commander was used. Thomas Paine, a recently immigrated English journalist and radical, broke the taboo in early 1776 when he called for independence in his pamphlet "Common Sense".

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence. Delegate Thomas Jefferson gave the reason on July 4th. He eloquently counted the wrongdoings of King George III. on, declared unalterable human rights: life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness ("life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). The government requires the consent of the governed, who come together for the common good. The fact that this program and the principle of equality ("all men are created equal") inspired generations makes the Declaration of Independence a world historical document.

Without European help, the struggle for freedom against the clearly superior British would hardly have been successful. After a surprising American victory in Saratoga (1777), absolutist France was ready for an alliance. After Spain and the Netherlands also intervened on the side of the colonies, the British capitulated at Yorktown in 1781. With the Peace of Paris (1783) the USA became independent and the area up to the Mississippi was granted to them.

Do the events deserve to be called "revolution"? Many spoke of the War of Independence because social conditions remained intact. Indeed, the revolutionary leaders were (slave-holding) landowners, well-off lawyers, and traders. However, the revolution also had features similar to civil war. A brutal guerrilla war raged in the hinterland. Where colonists loyal to the crown, the so-called loyalists, held majorities, the revolutionary liberation war had the character of a civil war, which led to numerous civilian victims. About 100,000 loyalists fled to Canada and the West Indies, a higher proportion than during the French Revolution.

In terms of constitutional law, 1776 was a revolution. For the first time ever, a government without a crowned head was created in a territorial state. The fact that the constitutions of the individual states invoked the principle of popular sovereignty was also new, although the political systems were by no means democratic in the modern sense. The dispossessed had no right to vote, and neither did women. The situation of African Americans deteriorated, indigenous people were marginalized and killed.

The adoption of catalogs of fundamental rights was outstanding in world history. Virginia proclaimed a Bill of Rights as early as 1776: freedom of the press and expression, freedom of religion, right of assembly, right to indictment before a jury, protection from arbitrary arrest, from torture and cruel punishments, subordination of the military to civil power, the right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness as well as the right to a citizens' militia and the abolition of standing armies. The goal was not social equality. But what was revolutionary was that political privileges could no longer be inherited.

The constitution

After the Peace of Paris, federal power was in a deplorable state. Congress strayed without a firm seat. It owed the veterans part of the wages. There were riots and riots. In view of the revolutionary glow of the weather, an armed uprising by former soldiers and small farmers (Shay's rebellion, 1786/87), delegates from twelve states (except Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia in 1787. They created a strong federal executive with a president to counterbalance Congress. Meanwhile, the office of president was curbed by "checks and balances".

The constitution was fiercely contested: On the one hand, the critics of centralism were given their approval by the Bill of Rights (1791) relieved. Slavery was an explosive point of contention: the southern states did not want to include enslaved voters who were eligible to vote when determining the number of MPs, but not in direct taxes. Northern states, which were already taking the first steps towards the abolition of slavery, argued the other way round. Since enslaved people are not citizens, they have to be excluded from representation, but are fully taxed as property. The unity of the nation was bought with a problematic compromise: "three fifths" of the enslaved were taken into account when calculating the size of the respective congress delegation, ie a black was worth 3/5 of a white, which is diametrically opposed to the idea of ​​equality was.

This birth flaw in the US constitution was not formally eliminated until the civil war, de facto not until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The revolution and constitution were part of a larger process of transformation in the Atlantic area. Europe stood at the end of a class society in which social orders were based predominantly on inherited privileges, religion and tradition determined the position of each and every individual in society. America left this society behind, but had not yet reached the liberal-capitalist, democratic modernity. The revolution was a milestone on the way there. It created space for democratizing tendencies; the egalitarian rhetoric incited reforms, even if there are wide gaps between claim and reality - right up to the present day.