The United States of America is a large country in North America, often referred to as “the USA”, “the US”, “the United States”, “the United States of America”, “the States”, or simply “America”. Home to the world’s third-largest population, with over 318 million people, it includes both densely populated cities with sprawling suburbs and vast, uninhabited natural areas.
With its history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, it is a “melting pot” of cultures from around the world and plays a dominant role in the world’s cultural landscape. It’s home to a wide array of popular tourist destinations, ranging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago to the natural wonders of Yellowstone and Alaska, to the warm, sunny beaches of Florida, Hawaii and Southern California.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” — Mark Twain. The Innocents Abroad
The United States cannot be defined solely by television and movies. It is large, complex, and diverse, with several distinct regional identities. Due to the vast distances involved, traveling between regions often means crossing through many different landscapes, climates, and even time zones. Such travel can often be time-consuming and expensive but is often very rewarding.
The contiguous United States or the “Lower 48” (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the population living on the two coasts. Its land borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. The US also shares maritime borders with Russia, Cuba, and the Bahamas. If counting the Insular Areas and Minor Outlying Islands, the United Kingdom, Samoa, and Haiti would also share maritime borders.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three mountain ranges and are covered with a diversity of flora and fauna, a thick canopy of dense vegetation. They offer spectacular sightseeing and excellent camping spots. The loess lands of the southern Mid-West and the Limestone cliffs and mountains of the south add beauty to the region, with lush vegetation coating the surfaces of cliff faces that border rivers, and mist shrouding beautiful green mountains and gorges. The Rockies are, on average, the tallest in North America, extending from BC, Canada to New Mexico, with many areas protected as national parks. They offer hiking, camping, skiing, and sightseeing opportunities, as well as desert and subtropical getaways in the southern lowlands of the region. The combined Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are the youngest. The Sierras extend across the “backbone” of California, with sites such as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park; the Sierras transition at their northern end into the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.
The Great Lakes define much of the border between the eastern United States and Canada. More inland seas than lakes, they were formed by the pressure of glaciers retreating north at the end of the last Ice Age. The five lakes span hundreds of miles, bordering the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and their shores vary from pristine wilderness areas to industrial “rust belt” cities. They are the second-largest bodies of freshwater in the world, after the polar ice caps.
The western portions of the USA are rugged and contain arid landscapes, complete with wind-shaped desert sand dunes like White Sands, New Mexico. In California, Death Valley is the lowest spot on the USA mainland (282 feet below sea level) and is one of the hottest places on Earth. Natural areas include vast areas of desert untouched by humans. Camping and hiking through the majestic landscapes of the Southwest is a big vacation draw for many Americans.
Florida is very low-lying, with long white sand beaches lining both sides of the state. The tropical climate enables many exotic (both native and non-native) plants and animals to flourish. The Florida Everglades are a pristine “river of grass,” made up of tropical jungles and savanna are home to 20-foot alligators and crocodiles, among many other creatures.
The USA contains every biome on earth. The USA has something for everyone; tropical jungles, subtropical and temperate savannas, searing deserts, Mediterranean-like coast lines, frozen mountain peaks, coniferous forest, steamy subtropical river system, and more.
Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountains, Wyoming
The climate of the continental United States varies considerably across the country due to differences in latitude and various geographic features.
The Southern and South Central portions of the country contain a variety of humid subtropical climates, for which the northernmost terminus is around the Ohio river and environs. This area of the United States has long, hot, humid summers and mild to cool winters on average. The Entire eastern half of the United States often succumbs to very hot weather during the summer with high humidity. At the southern portions of the south, in the Deep South, a number of tropical-transitional climates are found, and Florida and far southern Texas host a variety of tropical climates. The Midwest region hosts a variety of climates, from humid subtropical in the southern regions, to a warm temperate regime in the central portions, and a humid continental regimes in the more northerly areas of the region. The entire region is susceptible to extensive amount of very hot, humid weather, and more northerly regions of the Midwest often succumb to bitterly cold temperatures in the winter.
The Plains states range from humid subtropical in swathes of Kansas and Oklahoma, to warm temperate in most of Nebraska and areas of South Dakota, to a rather harsh humid continental climate in parts of South Dakota and much of North Dakota. All border semi-arid and near desert climates that often get searingly hot and alternate between dry and humid for much of the year
The west is largely very hot with mostly mild winters, until you get to the northern mountain regions, where, primarily due to elevation, a variety of colder highland climates exist. Most of the region consists of extremely hot or warm arid climates, with very mild to cool winters. This is an extremely rugged, mountainous region. The west coast contains a variety of hot Mediterranean climates, as well as cooler subtypes of this climate, and an oceanic maritime climate in the northwestern regions. The west coast also contains a variety of subtropical and tropical transitional climes. Parts of Arizona and New Mexico have a monsoon season which lasts from June to September. Frequent training thunderstorms often occur in this area during the summer, which can result in flooding. Dust storms can also occur, caused by downdrafts of a decaying thunderstorm.
Florida contains a variety of tropical climates, with frequent thunderstorms and very high humidity. The climate nears the humid subtropical regime of the rest of the United States the further north in the state you travel. The humid subtropical climate regime is the predominant climate regime of the United States.
The Great Plains are notorious for their tornado season, which lasts from March to June. These severe weather outbreaks can also cause very large hail, damaging winds, and flooding. Severe weather in the Great Plains is often forecast days in advance by meteorologists and reported by local news stations via TV and social media.
Hawaii has a variety of tropical climates.
Central and northern Alaska features subarctic and arctic climates with short mild summers and long very cold winters.
The least variation of climate in the continental United States occurs during the summer, when much of the nation is warm to hot, with average highs from 80/90 F (21-32°C) weather, often reaching 100 F for many days at a time throughout many regions of the country. Desert valleys in the Western United States often see the highest temperatures in the nation, along with many days and sometimes weeks of very dry weather. San Francisco and coastal Washington have the coolest summers in the Western United States excluding alpine regions of eastern California and Colorado. The greatest difference in climate from region to region occurs during the winter season, which is mainly December to February, when temperatures can range from below 0 degrees (-18°C) in the Northern Great Plains, to a much milder 75 (24°C) in the southern regions of the country. Long stretches of below freezing temperatures are common during the winter season across the Northern Midwest and Northern Northeast, getting milder as you travel south, therefore, travelers should prepare to dress accordingly: American weather can be violent and unpredictable.
The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas
What is now the United States was initially populated by indigenous peoples who migrated from northeast Asia. Today, their descendants are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. Although Native Americans are often portrayed as having lived a mundane and primitive lifestyle which consisted of day to day survival, the truth is that prior to European contact, the continent was densely populated by many sophisticated societies. For example, the Cherokee are descended from the Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape, while the Anasazi built elaborate cliff-side towns in the Southwest. As was the case in other nations in the Americas, the primitive existence attributed to Native Americans was generally the result of mass die-offs triggered by Old World diseases such as smallpox which spread like wildfire in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the time most Native American tribes directly encountered Europeans, they were a post-apocalyptic people.
During the late 16th and 17th centuries, multiple European nations began colonizing the North American continent. Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia established colonies in various parts of present day continental United States. Of those early settlements, it was the original British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts that formed the cultural, political, legal and economic core of what is now the United States.
Massachusetts was first settled by religious immigrants, known as Puritans, who later spread and founded most of the other New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Its neighbor to the southwest, Rhode Island, was founded by refugees from the religious fanatics of Massachusetts. Other religious groups also founded colonies, including the Quakers in Pennsylvania and Roman Catholics in Maryland.
Virginia, on the other hand, became the most dominant of the southern colonies. Because of a longer growing season, these colonies had richer agricultural prospects, specifically cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were imported and forced to cultivate in large plantations. Slavery became an important part of the economy in the South, a fact that would cause tremendous upheaval in the years to come.
By the early 18th century, the United Kingdom had established a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast from Georgia north into what is now Canada. On July 4th, 1776, colonists from the Thirteen Colonies, frustrated with excessive taxation and micromanagement by London and encouraged by the ideals of Enlightenment philosophy, declared independence from the UK and established a new sovereign nation, the United States of America. The resulting American Revolutionary War culminated in the surrender of 7,000 British troops at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. This forced the British government to initiate peace negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, by which the victorious Americans assumed control of all British land south of the Great Lakes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. British loyalists, known as Tories, fled north of the Great Lakes into Canada, which remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown and would not become fully independent until 1982.
Although the Thirteen Colonies had united during the war in support of the common objective of getting rid of British tyranny, most colonists’ loyalties at the end of the war lay with their respective colonial governments. In turn, the young country’s first attempt at establishing a national government under the Articles of Confederation was a disastrous failure. The Articles tried too hard to protect the colonies from each other by making the national government so weak it could not do anything.
In 1787, a convention of major political leaders (the Founding Fathers of the United States) drafted a new national Constitution in Philadelphia. After ratification by a supermajority of the states, the new Constitution went into effect in 1791 and enabled the establishment of the strong federal government that has governed the United States ever since. George Washington, the commanding general of American forces during the Revolutionary War, was elected as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. By the turn of the 19th century, a national capital had been established in Washington, D.C..
As American and European settlers pushed farther west, past the Appalachians, the federal government began organizing new territories and then admitting them as new states. This was enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare and disease. In what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee tribe was forcibly relocated from the Southeastern United States to present-day Oklahoma, which was known as “Indian Territory” until the early 20th century. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought French-owned territory extending from the Mississippi River to parts of the present-day Western United States under American control, effectively doubling the country’s land area.
The United States fought the War of 1812 with Britain as a reaction to British impressment of American sailors, as well as to attempt to capture parts of Canada. Though dramatic battles were fought, including one that ended with the British Army burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., the war ended in a virtual stalemate. Territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, with the United States acquiring more and more of their territory for white settlers.
Florida was purchased in 1813 from Spain after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a short-lived independent republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 resulted in acquisition of the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. After 1850, the borders of the continental United States reached the rough outlines it still has today. Many Native Americans were relegated to reservations by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases transmitted by large numbers of settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail and other routes.
Tensions between the US and the British government administering Canada continued to persist because the border west of the Great Lakes was ill-defined. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 failed to adequately address the complex geography of the region; the boundary dispute remained unsettled until 1871.
Meanwhile, by the late 1850s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The rapidly industrializing North, where slavery had been outlawed several decades before, favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. In 1861, the Southern states, fearing domination by the North and the Republican President Nominee Abraham Lincoln, seceded from the Union and formed the breakaway Confederate States of America. These events sparked the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict on American soil, with over 200,000 killed in combat and a overall death toll exceeding 600,000. In 1865, Union forces prevailed, thereby cementing the federal government’s authority over the states. The federal government then launched a complex process of rehabilitation and re-assimilation of the Confederacy, a period known as Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass, particularly in the South.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the previously independent Hawaii was annexed in 1898 after a brief revolution fomented by American settlers. After decisively defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States gained its first “colonial” territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (granted independence shortly after World War II), Puerto Rico and Guam (which remain American dependencies today). During this “imperialist” phase of US history, the US also assisted Panama in obtaining independence from Colombia, as the need for a Panama Canal had become palpably clear to the US during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the new country of Panama promptly granted the United States control over a swath of territory known as the Canal Zone. The US constructed the Panama Canal in 1914 and retained control over the Canal Zone until 1979.
In the eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country’s growing industrialization. Many African-Americans fled rural poverty in the South for industrial jobs in the North, in what is now known as the Great Migration. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads was laid across the country, accelerating development.
With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power by helping to defeat Germany and the Central Powers. However after the war, despite strong support from President Woodrow Wilson, the United States refused to join the newly-formed League of Nations, which substantially hindered that body’s effectiveness in preventing future conflicts.
Real wealth grew rapidly in the postwar period. During the Roaring Twenties, stock speculation created an immense “bubble” which, when it burst in October 1929, contributed to a period of economic havoc in the 1930s known as the Great Depression. The Depression was brutal and devastating, with unemployment rising to 25%. On the other hand, it helped forge a culture of sacrifice and hard work that would serve the country well in its next conflict. President Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid in 1932 as a result of his ineffective response to the Depression. The victor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“FDR”) pledged himself to a “New Deal” for the American people, which came in the form of a variety of aggressive economic recovery programs. While historians still debate the effectiveness of the various New Deal programs in terms of whether they fulfilled their stated objectives, it is generally undisputed that the New Deal greatly expanded the size and role of the US federal government.
In December 1941, the Empire of Japan surprise attacked Pearl Harbor, a American military base in Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II, a war which had already been raging in Europe for two years and in Asia since 1937. Joining the Allied Powers, the United States helped to defeat the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan. By the end of World War II, with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, the United States had firmly established itself as the dominant economic power in the world; it was then responsible for nearly half of the world’s industrial production. The newly developed atomic bomb, whose power was demonstrated in two bombings of Japan in 1945, made the United States the only force capable of challenging the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
After World War II, America experienced an economic resurgence and growing affluence on a scale not seen since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the racism traditionally espoused in various explicit and implicit forms by the European-American majority against the country’s African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native American, and other minority populations had become impossible to ignore. While the US was attempting to spread democracy and the rule of law abroad to counter the Soviet Union’s support of authoritarian Communist governments, it found itself having to confront its own abysmal failure to provide the benefits of democracy and the rule of law to all of its own citizens. However, in the 1960s a civil rights movement emerged which ultimately eliminated most of the institutional discrimination against African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, particularly in the Southern states. A revived women’s movement in the 1970s also led to wide-ranging changes in gender roles and perceptions in US society, including to a limited extent views on homosexuality and bisexuality. The more organized present-era US ‘gay rights’ movement first emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s.
During the same period, in the final quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent a slow but inexorable transition from an economy based on a mixture of heavy industry and labor-intensive agriculture, to an economy primarily based on advanced technology (the “high-tech” industry), retail, professional services, and other service industries, as well as a highly mechanized, automated agricultural industry.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, millions of US manufacturing jobs fell victim to outsourcing. In a phenomenon since labeled “global labor arbitrage,” revolutionary improvements in transportation, communications, and logistics technologies made it possible to relocate manufacturing of most goods to foreign factories which did not have to pay US minimum wages, observe US occupational safety standards, or allow the formation of unions. The outsourcing revolution was devastating to many cities, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, whose economies were overly dependent upon manufacturing, and resulted in a group of hollowed-out, depressed cities now known as the Rust Belt.
The United States also assumed and continues to maintain a position of global leadership in military and aerospace technology through the development of a powerful “military-industrial complex”, although as of the turn of the 21st century, its leadership is increasingly being challenged by the European Union and China. US federal investments in military technology also paid off handsomely in the form of the most advanced information technology sector in the world, which is primarily centered on the area of
Northern California known as Silicon Valley. US energy firms, especially those based in petroleum and natural gas, have also become global giants, as they expanded worldwide to feed the country’s thirst for cheap energy.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population from rural towns and urban cores to the suburbs. These population shifts, along with a changing economic climate, contributed heavily to Urban decay from the 1970s until the late 1990s. The postwar rise of a prosperous middle class able to afford cheap automobiles and cheap gasoline in turn led to the rise of the American car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s to the 1980s, became the most comprehensive freeway system in the world, at over 47,000 miles in length. It was surpassed by China only in 2011, although the US is believed to still have a larger freeway system when non-federal-aid highways are also included.
In the late 20th century, the US was also a leader in the development and deployment of the modern passenger jetliner. This culminated in the development of the popular Boeing 737 and 747 jetliners; the 737 is still the world’s most popular airliner today. Cheap air transportation together with cheap cars in turn devastated US passenger rail, although freight rail remained financially viable. In 1970, with the consent of the railroads, who were eager to focus their operations on carrying freight, Congress nationalized their passenger rail operations to form the government-owned corporation now known as Amtrak.
During the 20th century, the US retail sector became the strongest in the world. US retailers were the first to pioneer many innovative concepts that later spread around the world, including self-service supermarkets, inventory bar codes to ease the tedium of accurately tallying purchases, “big box” chain stores, factory outlet stores, warehouse club stores, and modern shopping centers. American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, books, and art, all combined to establish the United States as the cultural center of the world. American universities established themselves as the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, thanks to generous assistance from the federal government in the form of the GI Bill, followed by massive research and development investments by the military-industrial complex, and later, the Higher Education Act. Today, US universities are rivaled only by a handful of universities in the UK, mainland Europe, and Asia.
Government and politics
The United States is a federal republic comprising 50 states, the District of Columbia (Washington DC), 16 territories, and numerous Indian Reservations. The federal government derives its power from the Constitution of the United States, the oldest written constitution in the world in continuous use. Although federal law supersedes state law in the event of an express or implied conflict (known in legal jargon as “federal preemption”), each state is considered to be a separate sovereign, maintains its own constitution and government, and retains considerable autonomy within the federation. State citizens enjoy the power to vote for federal representatives, federal senators, and the federal President. The United States has two major political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, that dominate American politics at all levels. Due to the winner-take-all electoral system, smaller “third parties” as they are known to Americans are rarely competitive in any elections at any level, and the Democrats and Republicans have won every single presidential election since 1848. The Republican and Democratic dominant leads to a heavily criticized and frequently corrupt system of “pork-barrel politics” where necessary change is too-often subject to deadlock and bi-partisan point scoring.
Americans value their rights to political expression strongly, and politics are fiercely debated in American society. In fact, there are many popular web sites and cable channels devoted primarily to political opinion programming. American politics are very complex and change quickly. For example, gay people were not allowed to marry in any US state as recently as 2003, whereas gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states since 2015. Many Americans hold and passionately defend strong opinions on a wide range of political issues, many Americans, especially older Americans, are loyal to one party, and political debates often become heated and lead to insults, vulgarities, and personal attacks being exchanged. For these reasons, unless you are intimately familiar with American politics or already know and agree with the political views of the person you are talking to, you are best off not talking about politics at all!
American elections are frequent and lengthy, especially the presidential election. Presidential elections in the United States last nearly two years, so there is a 50% chance that you will be visiting the United States in the midst of one. The November election is preceded by a six-month period from January to June wherein all 50 states, 5 overseas territories, and D.C. each vote one-by-one twice; one time to select the Republican nominee, and the other to select the Democratic nominee. One of these two nominees will be elected President in November. The current president is Donald Trump. He was elected in November 2016 and sworn in on January 2017. Federal elections for Congressional positions take place every two years.
Compared to Western European Democracies, there are an extraordinary number of elected positions in the United States. On a single election day, there might be simultaneous elections for dozens of positions. Typically, the average American would be voting for school board members, city councilmen, mayors, deputy mayors, governors, state representatives, state senators, congressmen, senators, the president, and a number of other positions, such as tax assessor or coroner.
The President of the United States is elected indirectly every four years and serves as the head of government and head of state. Each state is allocated electoral votes, and whichever candidate gets the most votes in a state get all of that state’s electoral votes. Though rare, this means that a candidate can win the “electoral vote” and thus the presidency while gaining fewer popular votes than his opponent. Most recently, this happened in the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections.
The Congress is bicameral; the lower House of Representatives has seats assigned to the states proportionally, while the upper house, the Senate, comprises exactly two seats per state.
By way of contrast, the District of Columbia and the overseas territories have limited federal representation, as they can only elect “delegates” to the federal House of Representatives who cannot participate in votes by the Committee of the Whole on the House floor. (D.C. does, however, get three electoral votes with respect to the election of the federal President.) Because they lack state sovereignty, the governments of D.C. and the territories exist at the mercy of the federal government, which theoretically could dissolve them at any time.
The laws and legal systems of the U.S. will be complicated at best to understand and follow. State and territorial laws can vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, meaning that the US actually consists of at least 54 separate legal systems with regard to any area of law not within the purview of federal law. State and territorial laws are quite uniform in some areas (e.g., contracts for sales of goods) and extremely divergent in others (e.g., “real estate,” the American term for immovable property). If this was not confusing enough, sovereign Native American tribes are allowed to operate their own legal systems separate from both federal and state law. What’s more, the U.S. federal government practices the use of Federal Enclaves. Which are pieces of land or properties owned by the Federal government under an agreement of the state or territory. An example is U.S. national forests. As Federal owned land and property, most state and territorial laws do not apply. Examples are state and territorial anti-discrimination, minimum wage, and criminal laws. While state and territorial laws such as juvenile delinquency, restraining order laws still apply.
The federal government consists of the President of the United States and his administration acting as the executive branch, the United States Congress acting as the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts acting as the judicial branch. State government structures are organized similarly, with governors, legislatures, and judiciaries.