The United States of America—also referred to as the United States, the USA, the U.S., America, or (archaically) Columbia–is a federal republic of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each of the 50 states has a high level of local autonomy under the system of federalism.
The United States was born as a nation with the Declaration of Independence made by the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. It was recognized internationally by the Treaty of Paris (1783) after the defeat of British forces in the Revolutionary War. Its roots, however, begin in the seventeenth century, when British, Dutch, and German colonists began migrating to North America seeking freedom and economic opportunity. They included Puritans, Quakers, and others who wanted to freely practice their religion; many of these devout men and women thought of America as God’s “new Israel,” a place to build a godly society that would become a beacon of hope to the world. This can be called America’s Protestant root, one which has had a lasting impress on its identity. Equally important were the motives and hopes of people seeking economic freedom in a new land without the restrictions of European class society; they came, from the colonists of Jamestown (1609) to the later waves of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The frontier would encourage this love of freedom and its endless possibilities; anyone, regardless of his or her background, could become wealthy by self-reliance and hard work under a system of free-market capitalism. America’s identity is thus rooted in the power of these two universal ideas – the exemplary society and the land of freedom and opportunity. In this it is unique among nations, which by and large base their identity on ethnicity or tribe: Germany for Germans, Japan for Japanese, and so on. The idea of America transcending ethnicity made it a successful multi-ethnic society.
beginning, slavery and racism have been the nemesis of the United States. Slavery, considered essential by plantation owners in the South, was reluctantly permitted in the Constitution, even though it contradicted the universal rights that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and violated the Protestant conscience (as expressed in the Abolitionist movement). The struggle to establish full rights for all Americans would lead to a bloody Civil War (1861–1865) that abolished slavery, and a hundred years later the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. finally ended legal racial discrimination and set the U.S. on the course to becoming a genuinely color-blind society.
In the nineteenth century, the U.S. became an industrial power. The nation became a center for invention and technological development; major technologies that America either developed or was greatly involved in improving are electricity, the telephone, the automobile, television, computers, the Internet, nuclear power, air travel, space travel, and genetic engineering. With its new-found might and its native idealism, in the twentieth century America took a major role on the world stage as a defender of democracy in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War (which included the Korean and the Vietnam Wars). In the twenty-first century, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has been acting as the world’s only superpower, and yet in the face of new challenges like the ambiguities of the War on Terrorism it is unsure of how to define its role in the world.
The European colonization of the Americas began after Christopher Columbus (re)discovered them in 1492. There is speculation that Norwegian expeditions to North America led by Leif Eriksson c. 1000 C.E. and the Chinese to South America c. 1421 predated Columbus. Yet the saga of the United States began with Columbus’s European discovery.
In the seventeenth century, many British, Dutch, and German colonists began migrating to North America seeking freedom and economic opportunity. In the North, many colonists included Puritans, Quakers, and others who wanted to freely practice their religion. Some thought of it as God’s new Israel and set out to build the Kingdom of God in America. In the South, many plantations were built to export agricultural products to Europe. In 1754, at the Albany Congress, Benjamin Franklin made the first serious proposal for a union of British colonies in North America. However, the colonists became increasingly frustrated by British rule and, in 1776, 13 colonies issued the Declaration of Independence. They formed a confederation of states in 1777, which was ratified in 1781 as the Articles of Confederation. This government failed because it was unable to raise revenues to pay for the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). George Washington called the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and after long debate, the United States Constitution was adopted in 1789, forming the world’s first constitutional federal republic. The young republic was confirmed after it survived British invasion in the War of 1812.
From the beginning, slavery has been the nemesis of the United States. The practice of slavery, considered essential by plantation owners in the South, was inherited from colonial rule. At the founding, it was reluctantly allowed by northerners with the hope that the practice would eventually be phased out. Some viewed it as denying people rights that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. However, the practice continued in the South, and when efforts were made to expand the practice into new territories, and supported by the Supreme Court with the Dred Scott decision, it became an issue that helped precipitate the Civil War (1861–1865).
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people seeking freedom and prosperity poured into the United States from Europe. New states were added to the original 13 as the nation expanded across the North American continent, obtaining territories held by Spain, France, Mexico, Britain, and Russia. Many Native American nations were destroyed and resettled in the process. The U.S. became an industrial power as trade protection, banking reforms, and corporate legislation helped domestic companies expand. The country flexed its naval muscle in the Spanish-American War (1898), which led to the acquisition of overseas territories in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
The twentieth century has been termed “the American Century,” despite the hardships of the Great Depression (1929–1939). The nation became a center for invention and technological development; major technologies that America either developed or was greatly involved in improving are electricity, the telephone, the automobile, television, computers, the Internet, nuclear power, air travel, space travel, and genetic engineering.
The United States took a major role on the world stage as the defender of democracy in World War I, World War II, the Cold War (which included the Korean and the Vietnam Wars), and the Gulf War. After World War II the United States emerged as one of two superpowers, the other being the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States was left as the world’s leading military power. It became involved in police actions and peacekeeping beginning in the 1990s, through United Nations actions in Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia, and Liberia, and NATO actions in Libya.
After terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. started a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and later a war in Iraq. These attempts to reign in Islamic fundamentalism and bring democracy and political stability to the Middle East by the use of military force have met with only limited success. They challenge the United States to rethink its role in the world and how it can best deal with an increasingly pluralistic world and an unlimited budget.
Vision of the Founding of the United States
The 13 colonies which formed the United States were based on different philosophies and religions within Western Civilization. Puritans settled in New England, Baptists in Rhode Island, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland, Dutch Reformed in New York, and Episcopalians in Virginia. Unity among these religious faiths could only be achieved through a national philosophy that was general and tolerant.
Benjamin Franklin‘s own philosophy paralleled that of the American founding. Born to a candlemaker in Puritan Boston, he became a wealthy self-made publisher, philosopher, and world-renowned scientist in Philadelphia, the most cosmopolitan city in the colonies, where free religious expression was cherished. Franklin personally donated money to every church in Philadelphia, to the revivalist preacher George Whitefield, and to the Jewish synagogue, under the philosophy that religion by whatever name promotes the moral rectitude and spiritual self-discipline required of a free people. Franklin also founded the American Philosophical Society. When Thomas Paine wanted to publish his manuscript on the errors and contradictions in Christianity and the Bible, Franklin told him to burn it because it was not constructive and could undermine the morality of the people.
While fighting a common enemy in the English crown, most people in the United States, regardless of religion, agreed that certain truths were universal and self-evident: that human beings were created equal and they desired life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This was the sacred bedrock of their philosophy enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. They believed in a Creator whose laws governed the universe and they attempted to create a more perfect system of justice that reflected these universal laws. Based on their study of history, philosophy, and literature (the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, and modern European philosophy), they developed a constitution that also emphasized personal freedom and responsibility, equal justice and checks and balances on power.
In the philosophy of the founders, families and religions in the private sphere, not the government, were responsible for the cultivation of citizens capable of self-governance and democracy. Checks and balances on power prevented anyone from abusing power and becoming a tyrant (like the king in England). No earthly authority was entitled to absolute power; that was left to the Creator. The Constitution also prevented any faith from being established as a national religion. This led to a very lively free market in religion.
A Special Role in the World
Many early Christian colonists believed that God would work through them to establish God’s sovereignty in America, that the Old World was in the clutches of Satan, and that America was reserved for the “last days,” when a “new heaven and a new earth” would appear. They were a “second Israel,” “God’s faithful remnant,” in a new land. Such biblical language was adapted to the unique situation in which these fervent believers found themselves building afresh and having these views reinforced in church sermons every Sunday. Many communities and towns were given biblical names like “New Canaan” in Connecticut, or theological terms like “Providence” in Rhode Island.
The theme of God’s Sovereignty corresponded to the Founders’ notion of a Supreme Being, whose laws governed the universe, and of which their laws were to be a reflection. This theme was present during the Constitutional Convention when Benjamin Franklin gave an impassioned speech urging delegates to put aside petty interests for the sake of future generations. For Franklin and others, they had a special chance to create a new model of government for the world. Jacksonian Democrats who spoke of expansion referred to the Manifest Destiny of the United States.
This founding philosophy first faced the test of slavery, which contradicted the principles of freedom and “unalienable rights” that America stands for. Strengthened by waves of Christian revivals in the 1840s, Americans in the North and West flocked to the cause of Abolitionism, generating the moral fervor that helped fuel the Civil War.
However, as popular theology in the nineteenth century shifted from the “Sovereignty of God” to the more limited Christocentic idea of the “Reign of Christ,” a number of Protestants attempted to challenge the more inclusive society envisioned by the Founders. Persecutions followed in which Freemasons and Deists, whose philosophy most closely corresponded to the more liberal founders, were publicly made to stand up in churches and renounce their belief. Roman Catholics were widely persecuted to the point where they felt they had to create private schools to protect their children.
In response, nineteenth-century liberals and transcendentalists, exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, secularized the theme of the special role of the United States as a leader in human progress. The United States itself, rather than God, became the rescuer, the safe haven, and the land of hope. This theme is stamped in bronze on the Statue of Liberty with the poetic imagery of Emma Lazarus:
- Give me your tired, your poor,
- Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
- The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
- Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
- I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Beginning in the 1870s, progressivists, increasingly influenced by Darwinism and Marxism, lobbied for government social-welfare programs to supplement what they saw as inadequate programs run by the churches. Progressives, often with an atheistic faith, were as far to the left of the Enlightenment thinkers as Christian revivalists were to the right.
Meanwhile, the moral idealism of Protestantism continued to leaven American society. The popular theme promoted by the churches to the masses in this period of progressivism was perfectionism and the literal building of the Kingdom of God in America with a theology known as the social gospel. Orphanages and schools for poor workers, such as Hull House founded by Jane Addams, encouraged the ethic of compassion and solidarity with slum-dwellers as society industrialized. Andrew Carnegie and other business tycoons began the tradition of American philanthropy, based on the belief that their wealth was ultimately a gift of God and should be used according to the tenets of the Gospels. The moral crusading continued with Prohibitionists crusading against public intoxication.
The twentieth century saw America’s idealism channeled into safeguarding democracy abroad, through participation in World War I and World War II, as well as the Cold War. Fighting the evil represented by the Nazi regime, and later the communist regimes that were enslaving millions, gave Americans a sense that they were truly fulfilling the special role for which divine Providence had prepared the nation.
Yet, any certainty about America’s role in the world was undone in the late twentieth century by a “culture war” between the conservative right and the liberal left. Yet neither side’s narrow and partial philosophy that represented special interests was by itself capable of sustaining national life. The growth of the welfare state, decried by the right, and the influence of corporations on government, attacked by the left, gave an additional economic dimension to this conflict, that eventually came at the expense of the Middle Class. This led to the rise of a “Tea Party” that emphasized limited government and the virtues of thrift and self-reliance. Also at issue was America’s attitude towards the United Nations: many on the right see American exceptionalism as making it morally superior to the quarreling and corrupt UN system, while many on the left believe America should be a partner with the UN in creating a multilateral world order.
Hence, even though the United States found itself the sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became a nation deeply divided over its sense of purpose and place in the world.
There are three levels of government in the United States—federal, state, and local. All of these are elected by the American people.
The federal government is the national government. The Constitution of the United States initially limited the powers of the federal government to defense, foreign affairs, printing money, controlling trade and relations between the states, and protecting human rights. However, the federal government has increasingly overstepped these bounds, especially in welfare and education. The federal government is made up of the Congress (the legislative branch), the President (the executive branch), and the Supreme Court (the judicial branch). These three branches were intended to supply checks and balances on each other.
The Congress is a bicameral lawmaking institution composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which meet in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. The House has 435 representatives, also called congressmen and congresswomen, who are elected by the people of a congressional district to represent that district for a term of two years. The number of districts for each state depends on the size of the population of the state, but each state has at least one representative. During the 2000 United States census, the districts had an average size of about 640,000 people.
The Senate consists of 100 senators, who are also elected by the people of a state to represent that state for a term of six years. Each state has two senators, regardless of its size. The Constitution initially gave the power to elect senators to the state legislatures; the 17th Amendment (1913) transferred this ability to the people, eliminating an important check and balance on power between the two houses that the founders intended.
At the top of the executive branch is the President of the United States, who acts as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The President signs laws into action and can also issue pardons. He has few other Constitutional duties, among them being the requirement to give a State of the Union address to Congress periodically. Since counting began with Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation (1862), U.S. Presidents have issued nearly 14,000 executive orders, which are like edicts or decrees. The Supreme Court has rarely challenged the practice, and it has become a common way for the president to increase his power.
Congress has its own ways of checking the powers of an excessively imperial President through its control of the budget and appropriations, through the Senate’s role in the approval process of cabinet appointments, by holding congressional hearings to expose presidential wrongdoings, and by its power to impeach the President and other high officials in the executive branch.
Below the President is the Vice President, who is first in line of succession and is the President of the Senate, with the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. Both of these are elected by the people via an electoral college for four-year terms.
Next are the members of the Cabinet. These are positions created by the President to assist in performing his or her executive duties. The departments they head include the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, and the State Department.
The Constitution instructed the Congress to establish a Supreme Court and inferior courts as necessary. The Supreme Court initially had six justices and its number stabilized at nine in 1869. The Supreme Court was intended to interpret the law and to decide on conflicts between states. A case could be appealed from a state court to a federal court only if there was a federal question, the supreme court of a state was to be the final authority on the interpretation of that state’s laws and constitution, which governed relations among citizens of states. The Supreme Court can declare legislation made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions.
Some have complained that the Supreme Court sometimes exceeds its Constitutional mandate by de facto creating laws, not just interpreting them. For example, after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment (1868) was passed for the purpose of guaranteeing the rights of former slaves. However, it has primarily been used to give the federal government authority on economic and social matters that the founders had intended to be the jurisdiction of states. On the other hand, the President and/or Congress can reign in a court that they regard as excessively activist through the process of appointing new justices to fill vacancies on the Court.
Below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeals, and below them are the district courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law.
State and local governments
The state governments have the greatest influence over people’s daily lives. Each state originally had citizens from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Each has its own written constitution and has different laws. The highest elected official of each state is the governor. Each state also has an elected legislature with one or two houses, whose members represent the different parts of the state. Of note is the New Hampshire legislature, which is the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, and has one representative for every 3,000 people. Each state maintains its own judiciary, with the lowest level typically being county courts and culminating in each state supreme court, though sometimes named differently. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people; in others, they are appointed, as they are in the federal system.
The institutions responsible for local government at the town, city, or county levels make laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, zoning and land use, and law enforcement. The highest elected official of a town or city is usually the mayor.
The Constitution gave the president the authority to conduct foreign policy. In his Farewell Address, George Washington stated that the United States should form no alliances and should seek good trade relations with all nations. Except for expansion within North America, the United States adhered to this policy until the 1890s. At that time the United States began to build up a navy for the purpose of guaranteeing secure trade routes overseas. Shortly thereafter the U.S. began to exercise its muscle in “gunboat diplomacy,” taking Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1898). The United States has had peaceful relations with Canada, its largest trading partner, throughout its history.
At the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans began to support international institutions for world peace. Andrew Carnegie donated funds to build a house for the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Theodore Roosevelt supported the use of the Court to settle a dispute between Japan and Russia. However, Roosevelt refused to allow the Hawaiians to bring the United States to the Court to discuss the occupation of Hawaii. The United States eventually allied with France and Britain in World War I, motivated by the ideal of safeguarding democracy. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson lobbied Europe for fairer treatment of Germany and support for a League of Nations; however, the country returned to isolationism until Hitler had taken much of Europe and Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. After World War II, the United States was a key player in the formation of the United Nations. It was a time when America was at the peak of influence around the world, as the exemplar of democracy and freedom, and having demonstrated generosity even to its former enemies Germany and Japan.
During World War II the United States developed a large military supply industry that it continued to expand as an arms race with the Soviet Union continued through the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. However, rather than enjoying its status, perceived unilateralism and inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy has led to growing suspicion around the world.
With the Declaration of Independence, the 13 colonies were for a brief time each nation-states modeled after the European states of the time. However, with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, they surrendered certain powers to the federal government but retained the majority of legislative authority for themselves. In the following years, the number of states within the U.S. grew steadily due to Western expansion, the conquest and purchase of lands by the national government, and the subdivision of existing states, resulting in the current total of 50. By the end of the Civil War, the Union had become a nation-state in its own right, while the states had lost most of their autonomy. The states are generally divided into smaller administrative regions, including counties, cities, and townships. Several autonomous territories, or reservations, have been set aside for Native Americans by treaty.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts and possessions, notably the District of Columbia, which is the nation’s capital, and several overseas possessions, the most significant of which are Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States has held a Naval Base at an occupied portion of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 1898. The United States government claims a lease to this land, which only mutual agreement or U. S. abandonment of the area can terminate. The Cuban government disputes this arrangement.
The armed forces of the United States of America consist of:
- United States Army
- United States Marine Corps
- United States Navy
- United States Air Force
- United States Coast Guard
The combined U.S. Armed Forces consists of 1.4 million active duty personnel along with several hundred thousand each in the Reserves and National Guard. There is currently no conscription. The U.S. Armed Forces is the most powerful military in the world and their force projection capabilities are unrivaled by any other single nation.
The United States is located primarily in central North America. It has land borders with Canada and Mexico, as well as several territorial water boundaries with Canada, Russia, Cuba, and The Bahamas. It is otherwise bounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Straits of Florida. Two of the 50 states, Alaska and Hawaii, are not contiguous with any of the other states. The United States also has several territories and possessions around the world.
As the world’s third-largest country (by total area), the U.S. landscape varies greatly: temperate forestland and rolling hills on the East Coast, mangrove in Florida, the Great Plains in the center of the country, the Mississippi–Missouri river system, the Great Lakes which are shared with Canada, the Rocky Mountains west of the plains, deserts and temperate coastal zones west of the Rocky Mountains and temperate rain forests in the Pacific Northwest. Alaska‘s tundra and the volcanic, tropical islands of Hawaii add to the geographic and climatic diversity.
The climate varies along with the landscape, from tropical in Hawaii and southern Florida to tundra in Alaska and atop some of the highest mountains. Most of the North and East experience a temperate continental climate, with warm summers and cold winters. Much of the American South experiences a subtropical humid climate with mild winters and long, hot, humid summers. Rainfall decreases markedly from the humid forests of the eastern Great Plains to the semiarid shortgrass prairies on the High Plains abutting the Rocky Mountains. Arid deserts, including the Mojave, extend through the lowlands and valleys of the American Southwest from westernmost Texas to California and northward throughout much of Nevada. Some parts of the American West, particularly Southern California, have a Mediterranean climate. Rain forests line the windward mountains of the Pacific Northwest from Oregon to Alaska.
The political geography is notable as well, with the Canadian border being the longest undefended border in the world, and with the country being divided into three distinct sections: The continental United States, also known as the lower 48; Alaska, which is physically connected only to Canada; and the archipelago of Hawaii in the central Pacific Ocean.
There are 52 metropolitan areas with populations greater than one million.
The economy of the United States began with two distinct visions. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a society of farmers, tradesmen, and artisans with family businesses. This model appealed to the colonists who had thrown tea in Boston Harbor in what has been called the first protest against globalization. The East India Company and Hudson’s Bay Company were viewed as tools of oppression used by King George III against the colonists. Jefferson wanted protection from corporations built into the Bill of Rights. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists aspired to a more capitalist economy modeled after England.
During its first 60 years, the United States was very ambivalent towards banks and corporations. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson closed the federal bank. Most states kept corporations on a tight leash, often only allowing those that existed for a public purpose, and then limiting their charters to 20 years.
Originally federal revenues were raised through tariffs on trade. These tariffs protected industry in the North and allowed them to flourish in a market where domestic goods could enjoy more profit yet be cheaper to the American consumer than foreign products. The tariffs, on the other hand, hurt the South, whose products were exported. Foreign countries imposed tariffs on Southern agricultural products like cotton in retaliation for American tariffs. Great debates, such as the one between Henry Clay and John Calhoun, persuaded many Southerners that they had to secede from the Union or perish economically.
After the Civil War, American industrialists gained increasing influence on the U.S. economy. By 1870 many corporate lawyers had become Supreme Court justices; they changed laws to be more favorable for industry. In 1886 in Santa Clara County vs. the Southern Pacific Railroad, corporations were given personhood with many of the same rights and protections as individual citizens. By the 1890s corporations were pushing for a navy to escort the shipment of products abroad, and a few years later they reversed their position on tariffs and advocated their substitution with income taxes to make U.S. products more affordable in foreign markets.
Capitalists continued to influence U.S. politics until the Great Depression, when unregulated investment schemes, overpriced stocks, and overextended banks led to an economic collapse. In the 1930s, with the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted more government regulation, such as founding the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and social welfare programs like Social Security and unemployment benefits. The welfare state gradually expanded, placing a greater burden on taxpayers through the Carter administration in the late 1970s. High inflation and interest rates as much as 20 percent on home loans prompted the Reagan “supply side” economic revolution of 1980, which led to an undoing of much industrial regulation and a dramatic growth in the economy, paving the way for U.S. leadership in globalization of the world economy.
However, corporate greed and unwise government laws, often based on collusion with special interests, led to corporate scandals and economic bubbles, like the U.S. housing bubble that collapsed in 2008. This bubble was also related to parallel tends in subsidized lending and over-building in Western Europe.
The United States has rich mineral resources, with extensive gold, oil, coal, and uranium deposits. Successful farm industries rank the country among the top producers of, among others, corn, wheat, sugar, and tobacco. The U.S. manufacturing sector produces, among other things, cars, airplanes, and electronics. The largest sector of the economy now is the service sector; about three-quarters of U.S. residents are employed in that sector.
Economic activity varies greatly from one part of the country to another, with many industries being largely dependent on a certain city or region; New York City is the center of the American financial, publishing, broadcasting, and advertising industries; Silicon Valley is the country’s primary location for high technology companies, while Los Angeles is the most important center for film production. The Midwest is known for its reliance on manufacturing and heavy industry, with Detroit serving as the center of the American automotive industry; the Great Plains are known as “the breadbasket of America” for their tremendous agricultural output, while Texas is largely associated with the oil industry; the southeastern U.S. is a major hub for medical research, as well as many of the nation’s textiles manufacturers.