In 1607 a small group of English adventurers lands in Jamestown. Thirteen years later the Pilgrims settle in Plymouth, New England. These men and women are all driven by the promise of a new life; all face huge dangers from disease, starvation and conflict. The two colonies are very different, yet in time both grow. One man’s entrepreneurial dream, tobacco, and the first African Americans, turn the swamps of the South into a land of opportunity. The hardworking and resourceful Puritans forge the North into a trading powerhouse with shipbuilding at its core. Within 100 years they have the highest standard of living in the world: testament to a unique American spirit. Yet success and wealth prompt British jealousy, taxation, resistance and then war. This is the story of how, over seven generations, a group of European settlers survive against all odds, claw themselves up, and then turn against their colonial masters. A diverse group of men, women and children are about to become truly American.
July 9, 1776 – the Declaration of Independence is read to crowds in New York. Offshore, over 400 ships bristling with soldiers and guns are massing. It is the largest British invasion force until D-Day. America’s thirteen colonies have taken on the might of the world’s leading superpower. Within months, George Washington’s army has been decimated and defeat seems inevitable. Yet by 1783, America is free. It is a conflict that tests the resolve of Patriot soldiers to the breaking point. It takes us from the trenches of Manhattan, to the harsh winter camp of Valley Forge, and from the forests along the Hudson, to the spy-ridden streets of occupied New York and finally, to victory at Yorktown. American forces learn the hard way how to master the landscape, new weapons, and unconventional battle tactics. And with this elite force, forged through revolution, Washington saps the strength of the British Army to prevail in what has become a titanic battle of wills. As the British leave, a new nation, the United States of America, is born.
As the American nation is born, a vast continent lies to the west of the mountains, waiting to be explored and exploited. Yet this land is not empty – Native American Indians are spread across the land mass, as are Spanish colonists and French explorers. For the pioneers who set out to confront these lands, following trailblazers like Daniel Boone, the conquest of the West is a story of courage and hardship that forges the character of America. Armed with knowledge from hardened mountain men like Jedediah Smith, millions of Americans keep heading ever westward. Their journeys by wagon train are fraught with danger, across distances never imagined possible. But the allure of adventure, opportunity and economic gain is too strong. While some struggle to create new lives on the frontier, others are rewarded with riches on a scale never seen before, as the world rushes in to mine California’s gold. America now stretches from “sea to shining sea.” And when American pioneers master the waters of the Mississippi basin with a radical invention, the steamboat, a new era opens.
America becomes a nation at the moment a revolution in commerce and industry sweeps across the western world. The construction of the Erie Canal – an audacious feat of engineering achieved against the odds with black-powder and hard work – results in hundreds of workmen being killed, but the pay-off is immense. This vast new country, rich in resources, experiences rapid change in trade, transport and manufacturing, quickly turning America into one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. New York booms, the factory town of Lowell becomes the cradle of the American industrial revolution, and in the South, with the invention of the cotton gin, cotton is king. Now two different Americas, united in prosperity but divided by culture, face each other across a growing gulf. The issue is slavery. It underpins the prosperity of the South, but the North, though complicit, shows growing unease. There are violent clashes in Kansas. Abolitionist John Brown carries out a suicidal mission to try to end slavery in Virginia. He fails. With the election of Abraham Lincoln the stage is set for war.
The Civil War rages. The terrible new technology of the minie ball is devastating Union and Confederate forces alike. It is 20th-century technology meeting 18th-century tactics and the result is a death toll never before seen on American soil. But the strict discipline and unshakeable belief in their cause have welded Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army into a formidable force. And Lee is the ultimate military commander. His victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run leads him to within 20 miles of Washington and it looks as if the Union might lose. But President Abraham Lincoln is fighting a very different kind of war – one of technological innovation and military centralization. It’s a war that General Lee can’t even see. Lincoln uses the rail network, the telegram, supply lines, and even advances in battlefield medicine and the media to mobilize men and machines as never before to fight the world’s first technological war. As the battle reaches its bloody climax at Atlanta the industrial capacity of the North is harnessed as Lincoln declares “Total War.” With General William Sherman’s March to the Sea, the South is definitively crushed. The industrial might that sees the Union prevail now leaves America poised to explode into the 20th century as a global superpower.
In 1869 the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of America, more than two thousand miles apart, are linked by continuous metal rails. The Transcontinental Railroad – the world’s first – is the most ambitious human enterprise since the Great Wall of China, and much of it is built by Chinese laborers. The railroad doesn’t just change the lives of Americans, it alters the entire ecology of the continent, and there are casualties. The vast Plains, where buffalo roam and Native Americans civilizations flourish, become home to farmers who build houses of grass – until daring loggers in the North drive lumber down the rivers to build the new homes and cities of the Midwest. It’s the railroad that creates a new American icon – the cowboy – who trails cattle thousands of miles to meet the railheads and bring food to the East. But a simple new invention will change the lives of settlers, cowboys and Native Americans: barbed wire. Steel rails and now steel wire parcel up the Plains. In less than a quarter of a century, the heartland is transformed – not by the gun, but by railroad, fence, and plow.
Between 1880 and 1930, nearly 24 million new immigrants arrive in America. Many go to work building a new frontier: the modern city, and one of America’s greatest inventions. The high cost of land in cities like New York and Chicago means the only way to build is up. A new kind of building, the skyscraper, is made possible by steel. Produced on a massive scale by Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, steel production underpins the infrastructure of the modern city. This new urban frontier draws rural migrants and newly arrived immigrant workers. For many, the Statue of Liberty is their first sight of the New World and Ellis Island is the gateway to the American Dream. The lawless city offers opportunities for many, astronomical wealth for a few. Police chief Thomas Byrnes uses his violent new innovation, “the third degree,” to keep a lid on crime. The millions flocking to urban areas often experience terrible conditions in disease-ridden tenements. Jacob Riis, photographer and reformer, brings their plight to the world with his groundbreaking photographs in the book “How the Other Half Lives.” Workers in new high rise factories become urban martyrs in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, as the city struggles to make these new buildings safe. Powered by steel and electricity, the city begins to be tamed and defined by mass transportation, stunning skylines, electric light...and the innovative, industrious American spirit.
In 1910 California, a column of oil nearly 200 feet high explodes out of a derrick and sets off a chain of events that will turn America into a superpower. Oil production doubles overnight and prices plummet from $2 to 3 cents a barrel. Quick to capitalize on this abundant cheap fuel is Henry Ford, a maverick entrepreneur who vows to bring the motor car to the masses. In 1900 there are 8,000 cars in the country. By 1930 there are over 20 million. As the population becomes more mobile, the entire shape of America changes. Cities grow as centers of industry, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. In one of the greatest engineering projects of the century, thousands of workers divert enough water hundreds of miles across a desert to quench sprawling Los Angeles’ thirst. Mass production and job opportunities prompted by the First World War draw African Americans to northern cities like Chicago, but racial conflict follows. Many Americans see the burgeoning cities as havens of vice, and chief among them is drink. A popular campaign to ban alcohol succeeds, yet when it comes, Prohibition triggers a wave of organized crime. One man set to benefit is Al Capone. He makes the equivalent of $1,500 a minute from bootleg alcohol. For a time he seems untouchable. But even he is not above the law.
In October 1929, the Twenties boom crashes on Wall Street. Between 1929 and 1932, $2 billion in deposits evaporate. The American Dream has become a nightmare. The Crash coincides with the start of the Great Depression. Unemployment rises to more than one-fourth of the workforce and as confidence in U.S. banks disintegrates, bank closures sweep the nation. On the Great Plains, economic difficulties are compounded by natural disaster. Years of intensive plowing and severe drought dry out the land. Vast dust storms fill the skies and drive people west. Inaugurated in the depths of the depression, new president Franklin D. Roosevelt starts to turn things around. The New Deal and public works projects save America from despair and destitution. The construction of the Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore employs thousands of men and signals recovery and hope for the future. However, world conflict is brewing in Europe – brought home to Americans by the symbolic boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
It is 1939 and while war breaks out in Europe, America remains mired in a ten-year depression. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings America into world war, changing the nation from an isolationist continent to a global player – and ensuring economic prosperity once more. America launches a war effort – and as always, bigger is better. The nation taps into the vast manufacturing reserves that have been idle for ten years: factories, electrical plants, railroads. The war gives jobs to seven million unemployed, half of them women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters.” By 1944, the U.S. is producing 40% of the world’s armaments, having developed the jeep, radar, and Norden bombsight. The might of America’s strategy and supplies turns the tide of war. The U.S. Air Force launches pioneering daylight bombing raids over occupied Europe in B-17 bombers. Under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, D-Day is an astonishing success. In 1945, war in the Pacific is brought to a close by the ultimate piece of technology, the atomic bomb. A new world order has been created – and America has changed forever.
These two episodes look at the defining moments from 1945 onwards and trace them back to their antecedents in earlier American history. Some of America’s most prominent faces share their ideas on the definitive moments in American history, and reflect on what has made us who we are. This turbulent period, so recent in memory, also shines a light on what is best and most inspiring about being American. We tell the story of post-war America, including the building of the interstate highways and suburbia, the tensions of the Cold War, the euphoria of the Civil Rights movement, hippies and counterculture, the dark hours of Vietnam and Watergate, the Reagan era, Silicon Valley and the groundbreaking election of Barack Obama. Following the theme of technological innovation throughout the series we’ll look at how the U.S. landed humans on the moon and contributed to enormous technological inventions like the Internet. But above all, we’ll look at what has endured through 400 years in the American character.