Mel Brooks may claim to understand the history of the world, but it’s always good to do your own research. Today, we have the 24-hour news cycle to keep us informed of every little thing that happens, but few events carry the gravity to change the world substantially.
Both world history and the history of the United States subscribes to the same set of rules as any story — things don’t just happen. There are contributing factors leading up to each and every occurrence, even the smallest and most minute movement. Let’s take a look at the top 10 historical events that changed the world as Americans know it and got us where we are today.
The Deposition of Romulus Augustulus (476)
The Roman Empire stood for over 500 years. It was the first and one of the most impressive world powers ever, with a reach that stretched from Europe to Africa. Rome pioneered the concept of democratic government, brought the world roads and inspired monumental advances in science and philosophy.
It is difficult to choose the exact moment when an empire begins to crumble, but experts agree that military anarchy brought about its demise. It’s also clear that it was one of the moments in history that changed the world significantly. Romulus Agustulus was the last to hold power before abdicating to the military in 476. This change of power would lead to the Dark Ages and the loss of nearly all the knowledge gained by Rome.
Columbus Reaches North America (1492)
Let’s be clear, Cristóbal Colón — the real name of the man we know as Columbus — didn’t discover North America.
There were already native peoples living on the North American continent, and there is even contention as to whether Russian and French fur traders may have visited the continent during early trading expeditions, but Colón’s landing in San Salvador and the surrounding islands still carries enormous historical significance.
With knowledge of the new landmass, Colón’s Spanish backers, and soon other major powers from Europe, began the colonization of the Americas, creating the foundations for what is now the United States.
The Boston Tea Party (1773)
Three hundred years after the first landings of Colón, American colonies were thriving, and relations with the ruling English monarchy were deteriorating. The story of the Boston Tea Party is one of the best-known historical events that changed America.
Samuel Adams and members of the Sons of Liberty boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and threw nearly 350 chests of valuable tea overboard. It was the beginning of the American Revolution and caused the British to implement the Coercive Acts — laws demanding new taxes that would later be held up as tyrannical by American revolutionaries — on the young colonies.
The Fall of the Bastille (1789)
At nearly the same time that the American Revolution was taking place, a significant revolution was also occurring in Europe — the French revolution.
On July 14th, 1789, French revolutionaries overtook and sacked the Bastille, a royal fortress and also a prison where enemies of state might have been kept. It was an act of defiance in the face of French Bourbon rulers and would eventually lead to the deaths of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, as well as the Reign of Terror and the rise of Emperor Napoleon.
The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
Having emerged victorious from the Revolutionary War, the young United States of America formed from 13 original colonies. But what now? With a vast expanse of western North America that had only vaguely been surveyed by men like Lewis and Clarke, American President Thomas Jefferson feared that rival nations would seek to encroach on the land if he didn’t act.
At the time, the best claim on the land came from France. Jefferson struck a historic deal with the nation to purchase 530,000,000 acres of land for $15 million. That equates to three cents per acre in period currency. Not a bad deal, Tom, and one that would allow the US to expand from sea to shining sea.
The Wright Brother’s First Flight (1903)
We can trace blueprints for rudimentary flying machines back to 400BC in China, but until Orville and Wilbur Wright’s aviation experiments at Kitty Hawk, no one had been successful enough to inspire confidence that humans could, in fact, fly.
Those early biplanes have transformed the way that we travel, leading to an aviation industry that serves both commercial and defense purposes.
The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (1914)
The First World War is considered to have been triggered when a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Archduke of Austria and his wife, Sofia. Already in an uneasy state, Europe was thrown into war when Britain, France, Russia and Italy came to the aid of Bosnia, while Austria-Hungary received support from Germany, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
The German Invasion of Poland (1939)
Heavy sanctions were placed on Germany following the end of “The Great War.” However, with the rise of Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich, the new Nazi war machine was determined to restore Germany’s pride. Increasingly fascist philosophies eventually led to the Nazi’s most brazen move, an invasion of Poland that Hitler claimed was a defensive action.
The Soviet Union was the first to come to Poland’s aid. However, they couldn’t entirely quell the German aggression. Soon the allied powers, which included Great Britain, Italy, France, the USA, Canada, China, New Zealand and India were embroiled in a war with Germany, Italy and Japan. The Brenton Woods treaty that ended World War II did more to shape the world we know today than perhaps any other agreement.
The Assassination of JFK (1963)
After the end of WWII, America enjoyed a decade of what has been called “victory culture.” With a booming economy courtesy of the war’s end and a unifying feeling of national pride for having defeated the Axis powers, it was a time of progress for civil rights. Martin Luther King, the National Women’s Movement and other change-seekers began working on changing the fabric of American society for the better.
Entering the 1960s, John F. Kennedy was America’s new president, and America’s sweetheart. He was a champion of NASA’s space exploration program and stood with the civil rights movement. On November 22nd, 1963 he was fatally shot while riding in an open car. It was a humbling blow to a nation who loved their president. Today, we are still working towards the things JFK stood for.
The 9/11 Attacks
Some have called the attacks of September 11th, 2001 the only acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. That’s inaccurate; however, 9/11 is a landmark date in many ways because it brought us back to a place similar to the one JFK’s assassination did.
Instead of one man, — president or not — we lost nearly 3,000 American lives. The day has been likened to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it solidified the notion that we no longer live in a world where the enemy is clearly defined.
No nation-state took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, and while we did eventually track down Osama Bin Laden — the man who was held up as the orchestrator of the attacks through the terror group Al Qaeda — the day stands as a turning point in America’s relationship with the global community.
They say that to understand where we’re going, we have to understand where we’ve been. Our world is changing every day, and we are making history every moment. Are these the top 10 historical events that changed the world thus far in your eyes? There is an element of subjectivity, of course, but you can’t deny that each one had a significant impact on our world and either contributed to the formation of what is now America or has changed our understanding of what it means to live here.
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