In this context, political events include presidents and other important leaders, laws, legal decisions of the Supreme Court, civil conflicts, international relations, and wars. As you're studying your way through U.S. history, be armed with a reasonable idea of how political events fit together and have a general sense of the order in which leaders and laws happened.
The past has always been influenced by the beliefs and actions of ordinary people, not just by leaders. In addition to knowing laws and presidents, you also need to know economic and social factors to have a real understanding of history.
Economics includes prosperity, recessions, depressions (sometimes called panics in the past), taxes, tariffs on imported goods, inflation, corporate expansion, and profit incentives.
Thinking about economics helps explain human behavior. Economics led to the settlement of most of the United States. Many of the early settlers left Europe for America because they were starving, and settlers moved inland from the Atlantic coast because they needed land to farm so that they could make money and support their families. Britain's economic taxes pushed the colonists toward revolution, and in the decades before the Civil War, the South hung on to slaves because each slave was worth as much as $50,000 in modern money, and slaves picked cotton, which was the biggest profit maker in the United States. In the 1930s, the Great Depression made people so poor that they were ready to change the politics of the country.
Trends in social history
Social history includes beliefs about religion, race, national origin, and the roles of men, women, and families. Social developments also include the influence of literature, science, art, and philosophy on events. Here are a few examples of the strong social currents in American life:
- The first permanent settlements in Massachusetts consisted of Pilgrims and Puritans, groups who made the dangerous voyage to the unknown New World for religious, not economic, reasons. In fact, the Pilgrims' original decision to leave Europe was social: They had religious freedom in Holland, but they couldn't stand the idea that their children were growing up Dutch. (See Chapter 7.)
- Perhaps the greatest example of the power of literature and social thought was the best-selling novel of the 1800s: Uncle Tom's Cabin. The depictions of the evils of slavery in this book helped send hundreds of thousands of men off to fight and die in the Civil
War. (See Chapter 12.)
- Sensationalized newspaper stories and pictures helped launch the U.S. into war with
Spain in 1898. (See Chapter 14.)
- The Democratic Party's increasing support of civil rights helped lead to both the loss of its traditional political hold on the South and the fact that the Democrats managed to elect only one two-term president in the last half of the 1900s. (See Chapter 19.)
Understanding social trends has been an increasingly important part of history, and the AP U.S. History exam allots 40 percent of the multiple-choice questions to social history and cultural developments, making social history a major focus of the exam.