The American Experience in the Classroom: Timeline

Use the timeline to see how our featured artworks fit into the context of important events in American history.

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The events of September 11, 2001, have left an indelible mark on the physical and emotional landscape of the United States. Television, print, and web-based media outlets were flooded with photographs and video of the collapsing Twin Towers in the days following the attacks. The Internet quickly became one of the largest and most accessible repositories for 9/11 imagery, inspiring the work of German artist Thomas Ruff. For jpeg de01, Ruff downloaded a digital photograph from the Internet and then enlarged it beyond the limits of the original low-resolution file. The result is an unsettling and unfamiliar representation of the now iconic World Trade Center site. The towers appear to disintegrate before our eyes---a patchwork of pixels that frustrates our attempt to see the image clearly and suggests the inconsistent nature of collective memory.

Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin

The cotton gin greatly sped up the process of removing seeds from the cotton fiber. This had the positive impact of increasing U.S. cotton exports, but it also had the negative impact of enabling the expansion of slavery.

The U.S. Constitution is drafted

The Federal Convention convened in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, to revise the Articles of Confederation. Because the delegations from only two states were at first present, the members adjourned from day to day until a quorum of seven states was obtained on May 25. Through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles, the Convention would draft an entirely new frame of government. All through the summer, in closed sessions, the delegates debated, and redrafted the articles of the new Constitution. Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government, how many representatives in Congress to allow each state, and how these representatives should be elected--directly by the people or by the state legislators. - National Archives

The Bill of Rights is ratified

The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, were adopted as a single unit on December 15, 1791, and constitute a collection of mutually reinforcing guarantees of individual rights and of limitations on federal and state governments. The Bill of Rights derives from the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the colonial struggle against king and Parliament, and a gradually broadening concept of equality among the American people.

Bar and Grill

Jacob Lawrence painted Bar and Grill shortly after arriving in New Orleans in late summer 1941. Although he had just finished the sixty panels of his epic Migration series, he had only second-hand knowledge of the South, the point of origin for thousands of rural blacks who had made the great migration to industrial cities of the urban north. The South was a new experience for the young New Yorker. Living in a southern city where legislation required that he ride in the back of city buses and live in a racially segregated neighborhood, Lawrence discovered the daily reality of Jim Crow segregation. This experience emerged in Bar and Grill and other paintings that dealt with what he called "the life of Negroes in New Orleans."

Off to War

In 1942, on National Negro Achievement Day, William H. Johnson received a certificate of honor for his “distinguished service to America in Art.” The award recognized his scenes of black soldiers, which Johnson began painting after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Off to War shows a young man leaving his family in the rural South. Just up the road, a figure on a bus sticks his head out to urge him on. The family forms a pattern of red, white and blue that contrasts with the menacing, bile-colored horizon. Three telephone poles like the crosses on Calvary march into the distance, conveying a blessing on the young soldier or suggesting perhaps the sacrifice that he might have to make.

Letter from Overseas

Artist Thomas Hart Benton’s drawing of a woman reading a letter by lantern light reminds us of the harsh realities of war. The quiet solemnity of the scene combined with the swirling storm clouds leaves the viewer uneasy, anxious about the contents of the letter. Communication between those serving in the military overseas and those left behind on the homefront was entirely reliant on letter writing. A lifeline between those separated by war, letter writing was a daily or weekly event in most households. Letters from servicemen helped to assuage the worries of those back home, while letters from the homefront reminded soldiers that they were not forgotten. Soldiers would write encouraging words, informing their loved ones that they were in good health, eating well, and safe from danger. Loved ones would often write of seemingly ordinary daily tasks and events that helped remind soldiers of the life they left behind.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The treaty ends the Mexican-American War, giving the U.S. a massive amount of territory, including present-day California. This territory was added to during a peaceful purchase under the Gadsden purchase in 1853 with the land intended to accommodate a southern transcontinental railroad.

Samuel Morse Develops the Electric Telegraph

Morse develops and patents the electric telegraph, the first communication form of its kind to be sent long distance. Morse then develops what later became known as "Morse code" in order to transmit messages along telegraph wire.

The Star Stangled Banner is written

By the “dawn’s early light” of September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key, who was aboard a ship several miles distant, could just make out an American flag waving above Fort McHenry. British ships were withdrawing from Baltimore, and Key realized that the United States had survived the battle and stopped the enemy advance. Moved by the sight, he wrote a song celebrating “that star-spangled banner” as a symbol of America’s triumph and endurance. - Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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