What Was the Central Paradox of American History?

The central paradox of American history lies in the country’s founding principles of freedom and equality, which were not always extended to all individuals. The United States was founded on the idea of individual rights, but this concept was not always applied consistently. While some groups were granted freedom and equal rights, others were systematically excluded or oppressed.

The Founding Era

The United States was founded in 1776 on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

However, at the time of the country’s founding, slavery was legal in many states. This meant that millions of African Americans were not considered equal to white Americans and were denied basic human rights.

The Civil War Era

In the mid-19th century, America was torn apart by civil war over the issue of slavery. The Union victory in 1865 led to the abolition of slavery throughout the country with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. However, even after slavery was abolished, African Americans still faced discrimination and violence from white Americans.

Jim Crow Era

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a system known as Jim Crow emerged in many southern states. This system of laws enforced racial segregation and denied African Americans access to many basic rights and opportunities such as voting rights or education opportunities.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement arose in response to this injustice. Led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., activists fought for equal rights under law for African Americans. In 1964, Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race or gender.


The central paradox of American history is that while America was founded on principles such as freedom and equality for all people, these rights were not always extended to all individuals. The struggle for civil rights and equality has been a long and ongoing battle in American history. While progress has been made, there is still work to be done to ensure that all Americans are granted the same rights and opportunities regardless of their race or ethnicity.