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Glossary of American History





























Adams, John

As the nation's second president, Adams had to deal with deteriorating relations between the United States and France. Conflicts between the two countries were evident in the XYZ Affair and the "Quasi-War" of 1798 to 1800.

Alien and Sedition Acts

Four acts passed in 1798 designed to curb criticism of the federal government. Adopted during a period of conflict with France, the acts lengthened the period before an immigrant could obtain citizenship, gave the president power to deport dangerous aliens, and provided for the prosecution of those who wrote "false, scandalous and malicious" writings against the U.S. government.


In World War I, the United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia, the alliance that opposed and defeated the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and their allies; in World War II, primarily the United States, Great Britain, (free) France, and the Soviet Union that opposed and defeated the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

American Exceptionalism

Notion that America houses biologically superior people and can spread democracy to the rest of the world. An intellectual foundation of expansion and racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

American Federation of Labor

A confederation of labor unions founded in 1886, it was composed mainly of skilled craft unions and was the first national labor organization to survive and experience a degree of success, largely because of its conservative leadership that accepted industrial capitalism.

American System (of Henry Clay)

Henry Clay's program for the national economy, which included a protective tariff to stimulate industry, a national bank to provide credit, and federally funded internal improvements to expand the market for farm products.

American System of Production

The high cost of labor led to the establishment of a system of mass production through the manufacture of interchangeable parts.

Anaconda Plan

General Winfield Scott designed this strategic plan in the early days of the Civil War. to give direction to the Union war effort against the South. The plan advocated a full naval blockade of the South's coastline, a military campaign to gain control of the Mississippi River, and the placement of armies at key points in the South to squeeze-- like the Anaconda snake--the life out of the Confederacy. In various-ways, this plan helped inform overall Union strategy in militarily defeating the South.


These were opponents of the Constitution of 1787 who sought to continue the confederation of sovereign states and to keep power as close as possible to the people. In actuality, the Antifederalists were true federalists in seeking to balance powers among the states and the national government. Their confused identity may have cost them support in attempting to prevent ratification of the Constitution. See Federalists.


Literally meaning against the laws of human governance. Antinomians believed that once they had earned saving grace, God would offer them direct revelation by which to order the steps of their lives. As such, human institutions, such as churches and government, were no longer necessary. Mainline Puritans believed Antinomianism would produce only social chaos and destroy the Bay Colony's mission, so they repudiated and even exiled prominent persons like Anne Hutchinson, who advocated such doctrines.

Axis Powers

In World War II, the alliance of German and Italy, and later Japan.

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Bank of the United States

A central bank, chartered by the federal government in 1791. Proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank collected taxes, held government funds, and regulated state banks. The bank's charter expired in 1811. A second Bank of the United States was created in 1816. See Second Bank of the United States.

Bay of Pigs Fiasco

A plan to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and liberate Cuba with a trained military force of political exiles. The limited 1961 invasion was an unmitigated military failure and actually strengthened Castro's position in Cuba.

Beat Generation

A cultural style and artistic movement of the 1950s that rejected traditional American family life and material values and celebrated African-American culture. They tapped an underground dissatisfaction with mainstream American culture.

Big Stick Diplomacy

The proclaimed foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt, it was based on the proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," and advocated the threat of force to achieve the United States' goals, especially in the Western Hemisphere.

Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which protect the rights of individuals from the powers of the national government. Congress and the states adopted the ten amendments in 1791.

Billy Yank

This appellation was used to refer to common soldiers serving in Union armies during the Civil War. See Johnny Reb.

Birds of Passage

Immigrants who never intended to make the United States their home. Unable to make a living in their native countries, they came to America, worked and saved, and returned home. About 20 to 30 percent of immigrants returned home.

Black Codes

Laws passed by Southern state legislatures during Reconstruction, while Congress was out of session. These laws limited the rights of former slaves and led Congress to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.

Black Power

A rallying cry for more militant blacks advocated by younger leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, beginning in the mid-1960s. It called for African Americans to form their own economic, political, and cultural institutions.

Black Tuesday

October 29,1929, the day of the stock market crash that initiated the Great Depression.

Bonus Army

Group of unemployed World War I veterans who marched on Washington, D.C., in June 1932 to ask for immediate payment of their war pensions.

Brain Trust

Close advisors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the early days of his first term whose policy suggestions influenced much New Deal legislation.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Supreme Court decision of 1954 that overturned the "separate but equal doctrine" that justified Jim Crow laws. Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Burr, Aaron

Thomas Jefferson's first vice president, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

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This term refers to the heads of the executive departments.

Calhoun, John C.

As vice president, Calhoun anonymously expounded the doctrine of nullification, which held that states could prevent the enforcement of a federal law within their boundaries.


Broadly influential Protestant theology emanating from the French theologian John Calvin, who fled to Switzerland, where he reordered life in the community of Geneva according to his conception of the Bible. Calvinism emphasized the power and omnipotence of God and the importance of seeking to earn saving grace and salvation, even though God had already determined (the concept of predestination) who would be eternally saved or damned.

Camp David Accords

An historic 1979 peace agreement negotiated between Egypt and Israel at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. Under the pact, Israel agreed to return captured territory to Egypt and to negotiate Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Capital Punishment

During the early nineteenth century, a movement arose to end the death penalty.


People who moved to the South during or following the Civil War and became active in politics, they helped to bring Republican control of southern state governments during Reconstruction and were bitterly resented by most white Southerners.

Carter, Jimmy

Georgia governor in 1970, and president in 1976. His progressive racial views reflected an emergent South less concerned with racial distinctions and more concerned with economic development and political power.

Cautious Revolutionaries

Sometimes called reluctant revolutionaries, these leaders lacked a strong trust in the people to rise above their own self-interest and provide for enlightened legislative policies (see public virtue). At the time of the American Revolution, they argued in favor of forms of government that could easily check the popular will. To assure political stability, they believed that political decision making should be in the hands of society's proven social and economic elite. John Dickinson, John Adams (very much an eager revolutionary), and Robert Morris might be described as cautious revolutionaries. (see radical revolutionaries)

Central Powers

In World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary and their allies.

Channing, William Ellery

America's leading exponent of religious liberalism, Channing was one of the founders of American Unitarianism.

The China Lobby

An informal group of media leaders and political pundits who criticized the communist takeover of China, claiming the United States could have prevented it.

City Upon a Hill

Phrase from John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," in which he challenged his fellow Puritans to build a model, ideal community in America that would serve as an example of how the rest of the world should order its existence. Here was the beginning of the idea of America as a special, indeed exceptional society, therefore worthy of emulation by others. The concept of American exceptionalism has dominated American history and culture down to the present.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Landmark legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin in employment and public facilities such as hotels, restaurants, and playgrounds. It established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Clay, Henry

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator, and unsuccessful candidate for the presidency, he was an advocate of the "American System," which called for a protective tariff, a national bank, and federally funded internal improvements. See American system (of Henry Clay).


The effort to encourage masters to voluntarily emancipate their slaves and to resettle free blacks in Africa.

Columbian Exchange

The process of transferring plants, animals, foods, diseases, wealth, and culture between Europe and the Americas, beginning at the time of Christopher Columbus and continuing throughout the era of exploration and expansion. The exchange often resulted in the devastation of Native American peoples and cultures, so much so that the process is sometimes referred to as the "Columbian collision."

Committee on Public Information (CPI)

U.S. propaganda agency of World War I.

Committees of Correspondence

As American leaders became increasingly anxious about a perceived British imperial conspiracy to deprive them of their liberties, they set up networks of communication among the colonies. Beginning in 1773 colonial assemblies began to appoint committees of correspondence to warn each other about possible abuses. In some colonies, such as Massachusetts, local communities also organized such committees, all with the intention of being vigilant against arbitrary acts from British officials.

Common Sense

This best-selling pamphlet by Thomas Paine, first published in 1776, denounced the British monarchy, called for American independence, and encouraged the adoption of republican forms of government. Paine's bold words thus helped crack the power of reconciliationist leaders in the Second Continental Congress who did not believe the colonies could stand up to British arms and survive as an independent nation.

Compromise of 1877

A bargain made between southern Democrats and Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes after the disputed presidential election of 1876. The southern Democrats pledged to let Hayes take office in return for his promise to withdraw the remaining federal troops from the southern states. The removal of the last troops in 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction.

Coney Island

Popular site of New York amusement parks opening in 1890s, attracting working class Americans with rides and games celebrating abandon and instant gratification.


Not every person living in the North during the Civil War favored making war against the Confederacy. Such persons came to be identified as Copperheads. Often affiliated with the Democratic party and residing in the Midwest, Copperheads favored a negotiated peace settlement that would allow the South to leave the Union. Some of them were arbitrarily thrown into jail without proper habeas corpus proceedings after publicly advocating their views.

Court Packing

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's controversial plan to appoint Supreme Court justices who were sympathetic to his views, by offering retirement benefits to the sitting justices.

Coverture Coverture

Coverture Coverture is closely connected with patriarchy because this concept contends that the legal identity of women is subordinated first in their fathers and, then, in their husbands, as the sanctioned heads of households. See patriarchal.

Coxey's Arrny

A movement founded by Jacob S. Coxey to help the unemployed during the depression of the 1890s, it brought out-of-work people to Washington, D.C., to demand that the federal government provide jobs and inflate the currency.

Crandall, Prudence

A Quaker schoolteacher, Crandall sparked controversy when she opened a school for the education of free blacks.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The conflict in 1962 prompted by Soviet installation of missiles on Cuba and President Kennedy's announcement to the American Public. After days of genuine fe~ar on both sides, the two sides negotiated a whereby the Soviet Union removed the missiles and the United States pledged not to invade Cuba.

Cuffe, Paul

An African American sea captain, Cuffe led the first experiment in colonization when he transported 38 free blacks to Sierra Leone in 1815.

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Dartmouth v. Woodward

A landmark 1819 Supreme Court decision protecting contracts. In the case, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the charters of business corporations are contracts and thus protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Dawes Severalty Act

Legislation passed in 1887 to authorize the president to divide tribal land and distribute it to individual Native Americans, it gave 160 acres to each head of the household in an attempt to assimilate Indians into citizenship.


June 6, 1944, the day Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, in France, leading to the defeat of Germany.


A term associated with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, referring to the declining zeal of later generations or movement away from the utopian ideals of those Puritan leaders, such as John Winthrop, who founded the colony. As an example of declension, see halfway covenant.


An economic policy, begun during the administration of Jimmy Carter, which freed air and surface transportation, the savings and loan industry, natural gas, and other industries from many government economic controls.


A relaxation of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that was begun by President Richard M. Nixon.

Diem, Ngo Dinh

Although a Catholic in a Buddhist nation and a leader with no popular charm, the American government manufactured Diem's 1956 election because of his anticommunist views. The American government gradually realized Diem's lack of popular support and stood by when he was assassinated in 1963.

Dien Bien Phu

Vietminh siege of 13,000 French soldiers in 1954 at a remote military outpost. The French surrender led to the 1956 elections designed to reunify Vietnam.

Divine Right Rule

Long-held belief that monarchs were God's political stewards on earth. Because their authority to rule supposedly came directly from God, the decision making of monarchs was held to be infallible and thus could not be questioned. Some of England's Stuart kings in the seventeenth century viewed themselves as ruling by divine right, a position that numerous subjects rejected, even to the point of civil war in the 1640s and the beheading of Charles I in 1649.

Dix, Dorothea

The leader of efforts to reform the treatment of the mentally ill.

Douglass, Frederick

The nation's most famous fugitive slave and African-American abolitionist, Douglass supported political action against slavery.

Dumbbell Tenement

Apartment buildings built to minimal codes and designed to cram the largest number of people into the smallest amount of space. The dumbbell indentation in the middle of the building, although unsightly, conformed to the

Tenement Reform Law of 1879

Tenement Reform Law of 1879 required all rooms to have access to light and air.

Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment

In November 1775 John Murray, Lord Dunmore (Virginia's last royal governor), issued an emancipation proclamation that freed all slaves and indentured servants living in Virginia who were willing to bear arms against their rebellious masters. As many as 2000 slaves fled to the British banner, and some became members of Dunmore's Ethiopian regiment. With little training in arms, this regiment fared poorly in a battle with Virginia militia in December 1775. An outbreak of smallpox later killed many of the ex-slaves who responded to Dunmore's proclamation.

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Electric Trolley

Public transportation for urban neighborhoods, using electric current from overhead wires. Between 1888 and 1902, 97 percent of urban transit mileage had been electrified.

Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation in September 1862 that all slaves would be declared free in those states that were still in rebellion against the Union at the beginning of 1863. Receiving no official response from the Confederacy, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. All slaves in the rebellious Confederate states were to be forever free. However, slavery could continue to exist in border states that were not at war against the Union. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation represented the beginning of the end of chattel slavery in the United States.

Embargo of 1807

An attempt to stop British and French interference with American shipping by prohibiting foreign trade.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo

A poet and essayist, Emerson espoused a philosophy called transcendentalism, which emphasized self-reliance and intuition.

Enclosure Movement

As the demand for wool heightened in England during the sixteenth century because of the emerging textile industry, Parliament passed laws that allowed profit-seeking landowners to fence in their open fields to raise more sheep. Thousands of peasants who, as renters, had been farming these lands for generations were evicted and thrown into poverty. Many moved to the cities, where as "sturdy beggas" they too often found little work. In time, some migrated to English colonies in America, where work opportunities were far more abundant.

Encomienda System

The government in Spain gave away large tracts of conquered land in Spanish America, including whole villages of indigenous peoples, to court favorites, including many conquistadores. These new landlords, or encomenderos, were supposed to educate the natives and teach them the Roman Catholic faith. The system was rife with abuse, however. Landlords rarely offered much education, preferring instead to exploit the labor of the local inhabitants, whom they treated like slaves.


A broadly influential philosophical and intellectual movement that began in Europe during the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment unleashed a tidal wave of new learning, especially in the sciences and mathematics, that helped promote the notion that human beings, through the use of their reason, could solve society's problems. The Enlightenment era, as such, has also been called the "Age of Reason." Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were leading proponents of Enlightenment thinking in America.

Enumerated Goods

Products grown or extracted from England's North American colonies that could be shipped only to England or other colonies within the empire. Goods on the first enumeration list included tobacco, indigo, and sugar. Later furs, molasses, and rice would be added to a growing list of products that the English colonies could not sell directly to foreign nations.

Equal Rights Amendment

Proposed Constitutional amendment that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender.

Era of Good Feelings

Phrase used to describe the years following the War of 1812, when one party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, dominated politics, and a spirit of nationalism characterized public policy.

Evangelical Revivalism (Revivals)

A current of Protestant Christianity emphasizing personal conversion, repentance of sin, and the authority of Scripture.

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The Fair Deal

Failed 1948 legislative package proposed by President Truman. It included an expansion of Social Security, federal aid to education, a higher minimum wage, a national plan for medical insurance, and civil rights legislation for minorities.

Farewell Address

In this 1796 statement, in which he expresses his intention not to run for a third term as president, George Washington warns of the dangers of party divisions, sectionalism, and permanent alliances with foreign nations.

Federal Reserve System

The central banking system of the United States, established with passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, charged with the responsibility of managing the country's money supply through such means as lowering or raising interest rates. A presidentially appointed board of seven members (the Federal Reserve Board) oversees the twelve regional banks of the Federal Reserve System.

Federalist Papers

These 85 newspaper essays, written in support of ratification of the Constitution of 1787 in New York by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, described the proposed plan of national government as a sure foundation for long-term political stability and enlightened legislation. Although having little effect on the ratification debate in New York, the papers soon became classics of political philosophy about the Constitution as the framework of federal government for the American republic.


In the campaign to ratify the Constitution of 1787, nationalists started referring to themselves as federalists, which conveyed the meaning that they were in favor of splitting authority between their proposed strong national government and the states. The confusion in terminology may have helped win some support among citizens worried about a powerful--and potentially tyrannical--national government. Some leading nationalists of the 1780s became Federalists in the 1790s. See Antifederalists. The term also refers to a political party founded by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s to support his economic program. See Antifederalists.

Finney, Charles Grandison

The "father of modern revivalism," Finney devised many techniques adopted by later revival preachers. He encouraged many women to participate actively in revival.


Radical leaders in the South during the years leading up to the Civil War, the fire-eaters were persons who took an extreme pro-slavery position. They repeatedly expressed their desire to see slavery spread throughout the United States, and they used states' rights arguments to support their uncompromising position.

Fireside Chats

Weekly radio addresses by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in which he explained his actions directly to the American people.

First 100 Days

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, when he proposed and Congress passed fifteen major bills that reshaped the U.S. economy.

First Continental Congress

This body was the most important expression of intercolonial protest activity up to 1774. Called in response to Parliament's Coercive Acts, the delegates met in Philadelphia for nearly two months. More radical delegates dominated the deliberations. Before dissolving itself, the Congress called for ongoing resistance, even military preparations to defend American communities, and a second congress, should King and Parliament not redress American grievances.


Term for a liberated woman who bucked conventional ideas of propriety in dress and manners during the 1920s.

Fourteen Points

President Woodrow Wilson's formula for peace after World War I.

Free Soil Party

An antislavery political party founded in 1848.

Freedmen's Bureau

(Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) An organization established by Congress on March 3, 1865 to deal with the dislocations of the Civil War. It provided relief, helped settle disputes, and founded schools and hospitals.

Freedom of Information Act

This law allows the public and press to request declassification of government documents.

Freedom Riders

Civil rights activists who in 1961 demonstrated that despite a federal ban on segregated travel on interstate buses, segregation prevailed in parts of the South.

Friedan, Betty

Author of The Feminine Mystique, the. 1963 book that articulated the discontent among white middle class housewives in the "Baby Boom" era. She founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Fugitive Slave Law

The most controversial element of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law provided for the return of runaway slaves to their masters.

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