10 minute read

United States of America

United States of America, country whose territory is principally on the continent of North America, but which includes islands of the Hawaiian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. The United States is organized into 50 political subdivisions, or states, and the District of Columbia. In addition, the U.S. government maintains special political associations with various overseas territories including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, and Guam, American Samoa and Northern Marianas, all formerly parts of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Johnson, Midway, and Wake islands, also in the Pacific, are also dependent upon the United States. The contiguous states of the United States are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, Canada to the north, and Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea to the south. Alaska is separated from the 48 contiguous states by Canada and bounded by that country as well as the Pacific and Arctic oceans. The Hawaiian islands are in the central Pacific Ocean c.2,100 mi (3,380 km) from San Francisco, Calif. The nation's capital is Washington, D.C.

Land and People

With an area of 3,618,770 sq mi (9,372,614 sq km), the United States is geographically varied, and can be divided into approximately 6 regions. The Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Lowlands stretch south from Long Island to Florida and then west to Mexico. They extend inland an average of 200 mi (322 km) with many lagoons, sandbars, and good natural harbors. In southern Florida they include the Everglades and, on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi River delta. The Appalachian mountain chain separates the Atlantic Lowlands from the western interior. The Appalachians run northeast to southwest from Nova Scotia in Canada to the southern United States. A low mountain system, the Appalachians include the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and give way to the Allegheny Plateau. The north-central section of the United States has the Great Lakes, among the world's largest freshwater lakes. The Great Lakes region forms a natural boundary between the eastern and western United States, and between the United States and Canada. Beyond the Alleghenies are the Central and Interior Plains, stretching to the Rocky Mountains and drained by the Mississippi-Missouri river system and its branches. Its uplands include the Ozarks in Arkansas and Missouri, and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. The Rocky Mountains mark the western barrier of the Great Plains and are part of a mountain system extending from Alaska, through Canada and the United States and continuing down the length of South America. The highest mountain in the United States is Mt. McKinley in Alaska at 20,320 ft (6,194 m). Between the Rocky Mountains and the mountains of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges farther west lies the Western Plateau and Basin, or the Intermontane Region. It contains the Great Salt Lake and Grand Canyon. Finally, beyond the western mountains, are the Pacific Coastlands extending south from Puget Sound in the state of Washington to Central Valley in California. The lowest point in the United States is Death Valley in California, one of several desert regions to be found in the southwestern United States.

Climate in the continental United States is greatly influenced by geographic position. Winter temperatures vary greatly, being relatively high along the sheltered Pacific coast, but often extremely low in the interior and the east. Summer temperatures are mainly high in most areas with the southeast becoming subtropical and humid. Tornadoes can occur in spring, especially in the Mississippi valley, and summer thunderstorms and hurricanes are frequent along the south Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The original inhabitants of the Unites States were the Native Americans, racially distinct and consisting of various peoples of different languages and cultures. Displaced and decimated by successive waves of migration from Europe beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, remnant populations now live for the most part on reservations, principally in the Great Plains and Western states. The majority of the people of the United States are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who came to the United States in 2 distinct groups. From 1600 to 1820, most settlers were from England and Scotland. From the 1820s to the present, newcomers arrived from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia before the U.S. Civil War, then from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia. The U.S. population also includes a significant number of citizens who are descendants of the Mexicans who originally settled what is now the U.S. Southwest. African Americans are the descendants of men and women who were brought to North America as slaves as early as 1619. An exhaustive list of the origins of all U.S. citizens would include peoples from all over the world. Despite their varied origins, they have combined sufficiently to constitute an identifiable people with a common language, culture, and outlook. There is no established religion in the United States, but a majority of the people are Christians, chiefly Protestants but also Roman Catholics. The country's language is English, though many immigrants speak their own native languages.


In 1989, the gross national product of the United States was in excess of $5.2 trillion dollars, making it by far the world's richest country. The United States can grow nearly all temperate and subtropical crops and is not only self-sufficient in essential foods but regularly produces surpluses. About half the land surface is given to farming, including dairy farming and the raising of livestock. The country contains valuable forests, particularly in the northwest and Alaska, and rich fisheries in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf. Its considerable mineral wealth includes coal, iron ore, petroleum, and natural gas, but the needs of its vast economy and the consumption it generates have led to a decline in the reserves of some minerals, and the United States has increasingly become an importer of ores and of oil. Its enormous manufacturing sector produces steel, automobiles, aircraft, and aerospace technology, electronic equipment, textiles, and most kinds of consumer goods. The United States not only manufactures in quantity, but it also has long been a leader in setting standards for quality and efficiency in modern industrial production. In addition, a large sector of the economy is committed to research, development, and production in sophisticated weaponry and aerospace systems. Banking and the interrelated institutions that provide financial services and products worldwide are also major contributors to the economy.


The first permanent European settlement in the United States was St. Augustine, Fla., founded by the Spanish in 1565. Early English settlements were in Jamestown, Va., in 1607; Plymouth, Mass., in 1620; Maryland in 1634, Connecticut in 1636, and Pennsylvania in 1681. There were also French, Dutch, and Swedish settlements. By the 18th century, Britain was the paramount power on the new continent with prosperous, flourishing colonies in what was later to become the United States. Opposition to Britain's policy toward its North American colonies led to the Revolutionary War in which the forces of the 13 colonies under the generalship of George Washington, and with timely and substantial assistance from France, defeated Britain's armies. The war lasted from 1775 to 1783. Independence was declared in 1776, and after the war the separate states joined to form a federal republic with George Washington as its first president, in 1789. Expansion westward followed.

The area of the United States was doubled by the Louisiana Purchase, made in 1803. Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819. U.S. ambitions for expansion into Canada ended with the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Settlers moved over the Alleghenies and west over the Great Plains. Texas was annexed in 1845 and much of the territory of the U.S. Southwest was acquired through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War of 1848. Five years later, southern New Mexico and southern Arizona were added to the United States with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and, at the other end of the continent, Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867.

As the country expanded, differences deepened between the cultures and economies of the northern and southern states. The southern states eventually elected to secede from the union and the result was the Civil War (1861–65), the bloodiest single conflict in the nation's history. Following the war came a period known as Reconstruction (1865–77). What was Reconstruction for the South was development and expansion for the rest of the country. The North became more and more industrialized and urbanized and the settlement of the West was hastened with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. As the nation became richer, more powerful, and more self-confident, its presence began to be felt abroad.

In 1898 Hawaii was annexed and other overseas territories came under U.S. control as a result of its victory in the Spanish-American War. The United States completed its entry into international affairs by participating (from 1917) in World War I (1914–18) and tipping the scales in favor of the Allies, the British and the French. Power and prosperity were soon followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, an economic breakdown so complete that many felt the country was on the brink of revolution. Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and instituted his New Deal reforms, which halted the economic decline. Worldwide economic frustration and ambition led to World War II (1940–45) and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marked the entrance of the United States into the war.

The United States emerged from World War II a military and economic superpower, leader of the Western, or free, world, and locked in rivalry with the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union. With an ideology of anti-communism, which it pursued relentlessly at home and abroad, and a policy of resisting and containing what it saw as the spread of communism, the United States committed itself to the Cold War. It participated in the Korean War (1950–53) and, later, in the Vietnam War (1961–73).

Domestically, the Congressional hearings and investigations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his staff into Communist subversion, the unofficial purges of people who had been slandered or blackballed, and the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union dominated much of the postwar decade. In the 1960s, at the same time the country was engaged in the Vietnam War, the government pursued its war on poverty, a combination of programs meant to alleviate poverty and equalize access to equal economic opportunity. The country also faced the profound social and legal crisis generated by the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The turmoil and unrest of the period was marked at the very outset by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and later of Dr. King, and then Robert Kennedy.

Richard Nixon's election to the presidency signalled the end to the Vietnam War, but not before Cambodia had been embroiled in the widening regional disaster. Defeat in Vietnam was followed by economic recession at home. The Nixon presidency saw a major diplomatic breakthrough in its recognition of Communist China, but lost its credibility and authority with the Watergate domestic political scandal. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. Both Gerald Ford and his Democratic successor, Jimmy Carter, worked to restore the sagging economy. The last year of Carter's presidency witnessed a further blow to the international standing of the United States with the ouster of the Shah of Iran by Iranian Muslim fundamentalists under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose followers held the U.S. embassy staff in Teheran hostage for more than a year.

The Republican administration of Ronald Reagan sought to revive the economy by radically reducing governmental regulation. The policy proved stimulating in the short run, but left the nation deep in debt, with a great part of its banking system in disarray, and the gap between rich and poor wider than it was before Reagan's program was initiated. Internationally, the Reagan presidency struck a more militant anti-Communist tone. Defense spending was increased and the administration was determined to regain ground from communism, particularly in Nicaragua. The result was the Iran-contra scandal, in which it was discovered that the executive branch had been selling arms to Iran to finance forces seeking to overthrow the Marxist regime in Nicaragua. The president denied knowledge of the transactions or involvement in any wrongdoing, but the hearings into the matter raised serious questions, among them, whether or not the president was competent to govern.

Ronald Reagan was succeeded by George Bush, whose administration inherited the severe economic consequences of his predecessor's policies, in particular the collapse of the savings and loan institutions and the weakening of the U.S. banking system. In foreign policy, President Bush urged a continuation of normalizing relations with China despite pressure from many quarters to censure China for the Tiananmen Square massacre of dissident students and workers. In 1993 Bush was succeeded by the Democrat Bill Clinton. Clinton stood for a better social policy, but was often frustrated by the Republican majority in the Congres and Senate. In 1998 Clinton was threatened with impeachment.


Additional topics

21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - United Empire Loyalists to Victor Emmanuel