15 Defining Moments in U.S. History Americans Shouldn’t Forget but Do

From the Declaration of Independence to the September 11 attacks, many events have fundamentally shaped the United States. These defining moments have had tremendous impacts on the country’s past, future, and legacy.

Spanning nearly 250 years, these events represent the origins of the United States and its complex history. In their own ways, each one has deeply influenced American culture and society.

These are 15 moments that shaped American history in transformative ways. We collected them from news and government sources.

1: Declaration of Independence

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No list of defining U.S. moments would be complete without the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The declaration signified the independence of the 13 American colonies from Great Britain.

The declaration famously asserts that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

2: Louisiana Purchase

Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana.
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In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which nearly doubled the size of the country. The land included nearly 830,000 square miles, an area that would eventually encompass all or part of 15 states.

The United States purchased the land for $15 million, which amounted to four cents per acre. The purchase expanded the country and helped the United States become a major world power.

3: Emancipation Proclamation

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During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring enslaved people within rebellious states to be free. While the proclamation had many limitations, it was a major turning point in the war. 

Lincoln’s proclamation turned the emancipation of enslaved people into the central goal of the Civil War. It was a breakthrough in the path to ending slavery in the United States.

4: Battle of Gettysburg

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Though it didn’t end the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 influenced its outcome. It was the bloodiest single battle of the war, taking over 50,000 people’s lives.

The Battle of Gettysburg ended in a Union victory against the Confederacy, led by General Robert E. Lee. It prevented Lee from invading the North and negotiating the independence of a separate Confederate nation.

5: Wright Brothers Flight

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After several years of research and development, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully built the first powered airplane in 1903. The Wright Flyer flew in December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The inaugural flight lasted for only 12 seconds and traveled a mere 120 feet. However, the 1903 Wright Flyer spurred rapid advancements in aeronautical engineering.

6: 19th Amendment

Woman voting.
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The 19th Amendment, ratified by Congress in 1920, guaranteed American women the right to vote. The amendment marked the culmination of a decades-long campaign for women’s suffrage.

While the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, many states continued to have laws that kept women of color from voting. True voting equality didn’t come until many years later.

7: Stock Market Crash

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After years of rising stock prices, the market crashed dramatically in the fall of 1929. By October 29th, now known as Black Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 183 points in less than two months.

The catastrophic stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression. The depression lasted for 10 years and had devastating effects on the U.S. economy.

8: Pearl Harbor

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The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 precipitated America’s entry into World War II. Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base, leading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask Congress to declare war.

Over 2,400 U.S. soldiers and civilians died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy.”

9: Brown v. Board of Education

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In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education found that segregation in schools violated the 14th Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s ruling overrode the earlier precedent of “separate but equal.” It was a significant victory in the American civil rights movement.

10: JFK Assassination

Tombstone staying 1963, when John F. Kennedy died.
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On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot while traveling in a presidential motorcade in Dallas. Though he was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital, Kennedy was pronounced dead shortly after the shooting.

Kennedy’s assassination became a defining moment in U.S. history as many Americans learned about the tragedy in real time through television news. The president’s death also devastated his political supporters, who became wary about the country’s future.

11: MLK Assassination

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
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Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent leader in the American civil rights movement, known for his nonviolent resistance and powerful speeches. He was shot to death while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

King’s assassination led to nationwide mourning and widespread rioting across the United States. After King’s passing, President Lyndon B. Johnson advocated for the passage of civil rights legislation to honor King’s legacy.

12: Moon Landing

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In July 1969, two American astronauts became the first people to walk on the moon. As Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon’s surface, he delivered the famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The moon landing, the culmination of the space race, was a major victory for the United States. Additionally, the mission had significant impacts on space exploration in the decades to follow. 

13: Nixon Resignation

Political speaker.
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In August 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. His resignation followed his administration’s cover-up of the Watergate scandal, which rocked the American political landscape.

After Nixon’s resignation, Vice President Gerald Ford became the 38th president of the United States. Ford eventually pardoned Nixon from criminal prosecution for his role in the Watergate scandal.

14: 9/11 Attacks

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Many Americans who lived through 9/11 can tell you exactly where they were when the Twin Towers fell on that September morning in 2001. The September 11 attacks, carried out by the al-Qaeda Islamist extremist group, involved four hijacked planes that crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a field in western Pennsylvania.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks. Today, the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York honors the victims and tells the stories of survivors, first responders, and witnesses.

15: President Obama Election

Woman holding voted stickers.
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In November 2008, Barack Obama won a historic election, becoming the first African American president in the country’s history. His election signified progressive changes in Americans’ attitudes about race.

Obama defeated Sen. John McCain after a contentious campaign cycle. Ultimately, the election resulted in the highest voter turnout in four decades.

19 Historical U.S. Myths That Annoy History Buffs to the Core

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If your teacher taught it in history class, it’s normal to assume it’s true. Ask any historian, though, and you might be surprised to learn the stuff of school history lessons is often riddled with inaccuracies. 

19 Historical U.S. Myths That Annoy History Buffs to the Core

9 Times in History When Gas Prices Spiked to Crazy High Levels

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The frustration you feel when pulling up to the pump and seeing a higher price is nothing new. Gas prices have had peaks and valleys since World War II, and they’ve disrupted Americans’ lives many times. 

9 Times in History When Gas Prices Spiked to Crazy High Levels

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