The United StatesThe United States, known in official circles as the United States of America and commonly referred to as “America” or by the well-known abbreviations U.S.A. or U.S., is a large country in North America, located just south of Canada, with which it forms the largest continuous land border in the world. It is bordered to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west by the Pacific Ocean, and to the south by both Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico.
The United States is a federal republic of 50 independent states, united under a strong national government and representative democracy. In addition to the 48 contiguous states that occupy the middle latitudes or mainland of the continent, the U.S. also includes the island state of Hawaii, situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; and Alaska, located in the extreme northwest corner of North America. With a total land area of 3,678,190 square miles (9,526,468 km), the United States is the fourth largest country in the world by area, trailing only Russia, Canada, and China in this particular category. The national capital of the U.S. is Washington DC, also known as the District of Columbia, a federal region that has served as the capital city since it was created in 1790.
A Brief HistoryBy world standards, the United States is fairly young, a country that became 236 years old in 2012. Although now a very large country both geographically and in terms of population, it did not achieve its current size until the mid-19 century. The United States, or America as it was first called, was the first European colony to secede successfully from its motherland. It was also the first nation built on the premise that independence and dominion rests with its citizens and not with the government.
For approximately the first 150 years of its existence, the United States was not heavily involved in international affairs. Instead the country focused on its own territorial expansion and economic growth.
In the early to mid 19 century, a number of social, political and economic debates, including a dispute over the legality and morality of slavery, began to split the pro-abolition and industrial north from the mostly rural south. In November of 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a staunch opponent of slavery, was elected the 16 president of the United States, which further fractured the already unstable relationship between the northern and southern states. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March of 1861, seven states, beginning with South Carolina, had already officially seceded from the union. During his inauguration speech, Lincoln remained steadfast on his position with regard to the slavery issue and vowed to reunite the country, despite the cost. One month later, in what would later come to be known the battle of Fort Sumter (South Carolina), the first shots were fired between the Northern (Union) and Southern (Rebel) troops, marking the beginning of the United States Civil War—a four year campaign that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
In the 20 century, following both of the World Wars, the United States emerged as one of the most preeminent powers in the world—a world superpower. In the years that followed, the country had a difficult time accepting this new title, and it did not always carry out all of the requisite duties of it willingly. Even today, the principles and ideals of its founders continue to be tested by the pressures and exigencies of its dominant status.
Although the country has been involved in many wars since the early 20 century—the Korean and Vietnam War; two campaigns in Iraq; and, most recently, an extended peace-keeping mission in Afghanistan, today the United States has begun to place more of its focus on national affairs, particularly on rebuilding its struggling economy. Although the United States still offers its residents opportunities for incomparable personal advancement and wealth, the depletion of its resources, contamination of its environment, and the continuing social and economic debate about inequality and poverty all threaten the fabric of the country.
Government and SocietyThe Constitution
The Constitution of the United States, the world’s oldest written constitution, was created in an effort to correct some of the deficiencies of the country’s first constitution—the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789). This important document provides for a federal system of government, in which certain powers are granted to the national government and others are reserved to the states. At the national level, the U.S. government is broken down into three branches: the executive branch, legislative branch and judicial branch. This separation of powers ensures checks and balances within the government and prevents one branch of government from subordinating the other two. The U.S. Constitution was officially ratified on June 21, 1789 and was formally put into place when the country’s first president, George Washington, was elected on March 4, 1789.
When you consider its age, it is amazing that the U.S. Constitution continues to serve as the guiding document for life and liberty in the United States. In the more than 200 years since its ratification, only 27 amendments have been added to the document, amendments that among other things have abolished slavery, given women the right to vote, and guaranteed due process to all U.S. citizens.
The Branches of National Government
The legislative branch of the U.S. government consists of two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives, collectively known as the Congress. There are 100 members in the senate, two for each of the fifty states. In the House of Representatives, each state has a different number of representatives, with the number determined by the state's population. Currently, there are 435 members of the House. The legislative branch, as a whole, is charged with passing the nation's laws and allocating funds for the operation of the federal government and providing assistance to the 50 U.S. states.
Finally, the judicial branch of the United States government is made up of the United States Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. Its primary function is to preside over cases that challenge current or proposed legislation or require Constitutional interpretation. The U.S. Supreme Court has nine Justices, who are chosen by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and have a lifetime appointment.
EconomyIn terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross Domestic Product per capita, the United States is one of the world’s greatest economic powers. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. produces about one-fifth of the world’s economic output. This success can be partially explained by the wealth of its natural resources and the country’s massive agricultural production, but even more so by the country’s highly-developed industry sector. Notwithstanding the United States’ relative economic self-sufficiency in many economic areas, the country is the one of the most vital cogs in the arena of world trade, with its exports and imports representing a sizable majority of the world total. For decades, the economy of the United States has been more diversified than that of any other country in the world, and the majority of its people enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living.
The People of the United StatesAccording to a 2012 estimate, the current population of the United States is approximately 316.1 million, making it the third largest country in the world, after China and India, in terms of population. Data from the 2010 Census indicates that approximately 82.4 percent of the population resides in the more urban regions of the country, while the remaining 17.6 self-identify as rural residents.
The United States is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse nations on earth. Although a small portion of this diversity can be attributed to the now-dwindling populations of indigenous peoples (American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts), most can be explained by the massive waves of immigration into the country, beginning in the early to mid 1800s and continuing onward for more than a century. This steady stream of immigration, with people arriving from every corner of the planet, particularly from Europe, Asia and South America, formed a massive pool of foreign born citizens, a pool unrivaled by any country in the world. Throughout the 19 and early 20 centuries, more than 60 million immigrants arrived in the United States, further enriching and diversifying the national character. Many were fleeing their homeland to escape political or economic hardship, while others were driven by a dream of abundant employment opportunities, cheap land, and the dream of finding wealth and prosperity in the New World.
After decades of immigration and assimilation, the majority of U.S. citizens today can trace no discernible ethnic identity. Most people self-identify as merely “American,” while a smaller number of people claim a mixed identity. In terms of racial distribution in the United States, the 2010 census showed the following:
|Race||Percent of Population|
|White or European American||63 Percent|
|Black or African American||16 Percent|
|Other (Asian, Native American, etc.)||8 Percent|
Although Caucasians remain an overwhelming majority in the United States as a whole (and in most states), in certain states this is not the case. In California, for example, White residents now account for about 39 percent of that state’s population, while those of Hispanic origin make up the majority at 40 percent. This trend—the rapidly-growing Hispanic population—is only expected to continue in the coming years, not just in California, but in many southwest states, including Arizona and Texas. This can largely be attributed to the United States’ proximity to México and the high birth rates among the Hispanic/Latino population. As you might imagine, the only state in the U.S. in which the White population accounts for only a small minority of the total is Hawaii, where Caucasian residents account for just 17 percent of the population.
In addition to the immigration of foreign-born citizens into the U.S., historically Americans have also been known to migrate within the country as well. In the 19 century, these migratory patterns mostly ran from east to west—as Americans sought out to settle the great frontier—and from rural communities to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1900s, people migrated from the American South to the Northeast and Midwest, but since the 1950s, the migration of the American people has primarily been limited to movement from the overcrowded tenements of major cities to outlying suburbs, and from aging, and once-prosperous northern metropolises to the growing urban agglomerations of the South, West and Southwest.
Geographic and Demographic Variety
Perhaps the most captivating and distinguishable attribute of the United States is its unprecedented and, quite frankly, impressive geographic variety. The physical environment and climate in the country is quite varied. It ranges from rugged, snow-capped mountains to miles of flat prairie land in the heart of the country; from the subtropical climate in the south to the Arctic chill of the north; and from the moist rainforests in the gulf regions to the arid, hot and barren deserts of the American southwest. Although the population of the United States is one of the largest on the globe, the population density is actually relatively low when compared to other developed nations; while the country is home to some of the largest urban concentrations in the world, in places such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, there are also vast regions of the country that are practically devoid of human habitation.