Throughout the four-and-half-billion-year story of our planet, countless critical events have positioned the unfolding of that story on a thin, knife-edge of possibility, decisive turning points that determined how the rest of history would play out. Those turning points, or tipping points, are the pivotal moments that have defined and shaped our world and the lives of all the creatures who have ever lived in it. Had those moments not occurred, the world as we know it, would be a very different place.
Every seventh grader knows of at least one moment that changed the world forever: the cosmic collision 65,000,000 years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and ushered in the age of mammals. The ancient world was dominated by those dinosaurs, many of them giant creatures that occupied every environmental niche on our planet. That world ended when an asteroid as big as Mount Everest smashed into the Yucatán Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico, plunging the entire planet into a climate change so abrupt that the dinosaurs were unable to survive. The destruction of the dinosaurs paved the way for mammals and eventually for mankind to rise to dominance. Without that asteroid strike, humans almost certainly wouldn’t be here.
Some of these world changing events have been brief, but key events that took place in mere seconds. Others were more lengthy or were made up of a number of minor moments that combined and coalesced to create the whole. What they do have in common is that their impact on history has been immense and permanent.
The list of world changing moments is virtually endless and many are lost forever in the darkness of a long gone ancient past. It is in America, however, that a particularly fascinating side of world history has unfolded. If history and the American people themselves are kinder to their nation, it is a story that will continue to unfold.
Like the history of our planet, the history of the United States is also composed of many irreplaceable moments that profoundly shaped the nation and its people.
But what were the Moments that Made America? Some were incidents that shaped the entire planet. One such “moment” was the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea that sent North America and later, South America drifting away from the giant land mass that would become Europe and Asia so that America could develop its own environment and eventually its own culture. Unlike that continent shaping moment two hundred million years ago, some of the events that affected America profoundly were not recognized as important when they occurred and only became obvious through the hindsight of history.
Occasionally, the story of America has been shaped by single individuals, unique men and women whose character, courage, determination and strength of will forged a new direction for the nation.
Among those unique individuals are two presidents whose timely arrival and character were instrumental in shaping the future of America. Their arrival at the two most crucial moments in American history and their influence on the events of those times is almost uncanny. This is certainly part of the reason that many Americans believe there is a divine force that has taken a special interest in the nation. One of those men was the nation’s first president: George Washington. The other was the country’s 16th: Abraham Lincoln.
Not all key America-shaping events were positive. Many were tragic or acted to diminish what the nation might have been. The forcible removal of Native Americans from the Southeastern United States during Andrew Jackson’s presidency is one painful example. Nothing, however, matches the nightmare of the American Civil War that raged from April 1861 to April 1865. That it helped make America the nation it is today is undeniable, but it killed more Americans than all other wars combined. Like many defining moments in America history, the war itself took many years for a series of actions and events to precipitate and make that conflict inevitable. Then, it took four years made up of a number of irreplaceable moments for that war to unfold the way it did.
America is a strange nation, unlike any other. A few come close: its neighbor, Canada for example. But spend a few hours in both countries and the differences become crystal clear. Spend any time in any other country and the differences are unmistakable.
America is everywhere! Its movies, books, television programs are translated into scores, perhaps hundreds of languages and are part of the viewing or reading habits of billions. America has appropriated the foods of countless nations, made those foods their own, then sent hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, ketchup and a hundred other re-inventions back to their places of origin and around the world so that people who might never visit America can eat “American” foods.
Perhaps somewhere in the world there is a remote village. It is located high up on some distant mountain plateau or deep within some tiny clearing in a vast rainforest. In this village there are people who have never heard American music, never seen an American film, never tasted a Coca Cola or hamburger, never worn a pair of blue jeans, ridden in an American car or never heard of the American experiment with freedom. Such a village is, of course, highly unlikely because American culture, for good or ill, has conquered the world.
It has been an unusual conquest. There has been little need for guns or tanks or bombs, though such things helped occasionally. The conquered, if they weren't demanding the conquest, probably didn't know it was taking place until it was too late.
America is unlike any nation the world has ever known. From the very beginning of the European settlements on the North American continent, a deep, not always unspoken belief has permeated the American spirit. This is the conviction that some Divine Providence has a direct interest in America. This belief has been responsible for much of American individual behavior and collective action, including very positive efforts to attain individual freedom, end slavery, rescue the weak and injured, and in general, making itself the country responsible for saving the world. In his Inaugural Address, America’s first President, George Washington, spoke of this belief: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency”.
Americans aren't the only people who believe God is on their side. They just believe they have more proof.