United States of America
The United States of America is a large nation in North America. Its government is a republic of fifty semi-independent states. The government consists of three main branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. The executive branch is headed by the President of the United States of America (elected every four years), the legislative branch consists of the U.S. Congress, and at the top of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court of the United States (whose nine members serve for life). The U.S. Constitution calls for these three branches of government to provide checks and balances on each other to prevent any one branch from taking over permanently. This form of government, inefficient, based on bickering and back-and-forth exchange of power, and frustratingly complex, is noteworthy because it has survived more than two hundred and fifty years (at the cost of one bloody civil war fought in the 1860's to prevent dissolution of the union of states).
See U.S. States and Territories for details about the 50 states and other U.S. territories.
The United States of America is also informally called the United States, U.S.A, U.S., US, or (inaccurately) America.
The United States occupies a band across the entire width of North America, and includes Alaska, a peninsula at the northwest extreme of North America, and Hawaii, a group of volcanic islands in the north Pacific Ocean.
The Atlantic Coastal Plain occupies the eastern seaboard of the United States. The plain very gradually rises westward to the Appalachian Mountains, and is drained by a large number of rivers. Some of these rivers are very economically and historically important. The main river systems draining the east side of the Appalachians to the Atlantic Ocean are the Connecticut River, the Hudson River, the Delaware River, the Susquehanna River, the Potomac River, the James River, the Santee River, and the Savannah River. The peninsular part of Florida extends southwards, and separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico.
The Appalachian Mountains, which run southwest to northeast near the east coast, are an ancient mountain range which existed before the separation of North America. Due to their great age, the Appalachians are low rolling mountains, reaching a peak altitude at Mount Mitchell in North Carolina of 2037 m (6,684 feet).
West of the Appalachian Mountains is a very large broad basin which extends west to the Rocky Mountains. Along the northern boundary of the United States is a series of 5 large lakes, called the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes ultimately drain to the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. Most of the rivers which drain into the Great Lakes are rather small. South of the Great Lakes drainage is the Ohio River valley. The Ohio River drains much of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky to the Mississippi River. The Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. South of the Ohio River, the Tennessee River drains some of Kentucky, most of Tennessee, and northern parts of the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, from the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio River just upstream of the Ohio's discharge to the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River runs from north to south, dividing the United States. The Mississippi River discharges into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. The conventional beginning of the Mississippi River is in Minnesota. The main tributaries of the Mississippi are the Ohio River, the Tennessee River, the Arkansas River, and the Missouri River. With its tributaries, the Mississippi River drains the central half of the United States from the crest of the Appalachians to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. East of the Mississippi River, and for some distance west, the natural vegetation of the area was deciduous forest. At some distance west of the Mississippi River, the forest gives way to open prairie, a region known as the Great Plains. The Great Plains slowly rise westwards toward the Rocky Mountains, a high large mountain range extending from New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, and into Montana. The Rockies are significantly younger and higher than the Appalachians; the highest point is at Mount Elbert in Colorado, at 4401 m (14,440 feet) above mean sea level.
West of the Rockies lie a number of smaller mountain ranges and basins, forming the Basin and Range country. The northern part of this region, primarily in Montana and Idaho, is well-watered and drains to the Pacific Ocean through the Columbia River , its major tributary the Snake River, and their tributaries. To the south lies the Great Basin, which, due to its low rainfall, has no drainage to an ocean. The Great Basin covers most of Nevada and much of Utah, and extends into the surrounding states. In prehistoric time, much of the Great Basin was covered by two large lakes, Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan, which drained into the Snake River, but as the region became desert, the lakes lost their outlet and shrank. Utah's Great Salt Lake is the main remnant of Lake Bonneville, and various small salt lakes in Nevada are all that remains of Lake Lahontan. To the south of the Great Basin are the small mountain ranges of New Mexico and Arizona, which nominally drain through the Gila River and the Colorado River to the Gulf of California.
Further west lie the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, and the Cascades of Washington, Oregon and far northern California. The Sierra Nevada was formed geologically recently by uplift as the North American tectonic plate gradually absorbed smaller terranes. The highest point in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney, at 4421 m (14,505 feet)in the southern Sierra Nevada. The Cascades are volcanic in origin, and still have various active volcanos as the Juan de Fuca Plate is subducted below the North American Plate. The most recent large eruption was the explosion in 1980 of Mount Saint Helens in Washington. Lassen Peak in California was volcanically active from 1914 to 1921, with a large explosion in 1915. The highest point in the Cascades is Mount Rainier, at 4392 m (14,410 ft).
West of the Sierra Nevada lies California's Great Valley or "Central Valley", bounded on the west by California's Coast Ranges. The drainage of the west slope of the Sierra Nevada flows into a series of small rivers, which ultimately feed the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River, which meet at the California Delta prior to discharging through San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean. The Great Valley is one of the flattest regions of the United States - 300 km (200 miles) north and south of the delta, which is at sea level, the elevation is on the order of 150 m (500 feet). The Coast Ranges are much lower and more divided than the Sierra Nevada, and form a number of small valleys between ranges; these ranges meet the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific coast is much more rugged than the Atlantic Coast. The coastal ranges of Oregon and Washington are similar to those of California.
Zones of sea-floor spreading create transform faults between them; one of the largest transform faults in the world is California's San Andreas Fault, which starts in Southern California near the Salton Sea and runs to the Mendocino Triple Junction at the borders of the North American Plate, the Juan de Fuca Plate, and the Pacific Plate. The fault runs further inland in Southern California, and closer to the ocean in Northern California; it enters the Pacific Ocean just south of San Francisco, and makes a brief landfall at Point Reyes in Marin County north of San Francisco. The San Andreas Fault generates devastating earthquakes every few hundred years; most recently in 1857 in Southern California and in 1906 in Northern California. Smaller but damaging earthquakes have occurred on the San Andreas Fault and adjacent faults.
The state of Alaska consists of a coastal strip west of British Columbia in Canada, and the bulk of the Alaska Peninsula. The coastal strip is characterised by fjords as the coastal mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. The main peninsula consists of a southern coastal plain where most human settlement exists. North of the coastal plain is the Alaska Range, which contains Denali, the highest point in North America at 6194 m (20,320 ft). The Alaska Range continues to the southwest to form the Aleutian Peninsula and ultimately the Aleutian Islands. North of the Alaska Range is Alaska's broad central valley, which is heavily forested, and which primarily drains through the Yukon River into the Bering Sea. Further north, near the Arctic Circle, is the Brooks Range of mountains, which gradually fall to the North Slope of Alaska into the Arctic Ocean.
The climate is diverse in the United States, but many parts have a continental climate, often with hot summers and great variations in temperature during a year.
The west coast has a maritime climate, with relatively mild winters. There is however a big difference between the northern and southern parts of the west cost. The northern parts receive a lot of precipitation, especially during the fall. The southern and central parts of California have a typical Mediterranean climate, with very little precipitation during late spring, summer, and early fall, and sun most of the year. One of the warmest areas of the world, Death Valley, is located in Southern California.
East of the Rocky Mountains are the Great Plains. This area consists of large steppes, having a unique climate. Moist winds from the Gulf of Mexico meet cold wind from the north, which leads to a lot of changing weather. The Great Plains are known for their tornadoes, and for snow and hail storms. The Midwest is known for short springs and falls, and often long winters.
The climate is mostly warm in the southern states along the Gulf, and there is rarely snow during the winter. The south often sees hurricanes in the fall, causing great damage.
The climate is more varied on the east coast and in the Appalachian Mountains, but a common denominator is that these areas often receive lot of precipitation. The climate of the east coast is to a lesser degree than he west coast affected by the ocean, so that is has a typical continental climate. The northeastern parts of the United States have a lot of snow in the winter, including the coastal areas.
The first human settlement of the territory of the United States was that of the Native Americans, migrating south and eastwards from Asia, across a land bridge which connected Alaska to Siberia during a period of glaciation. Native American culture within the territory of the United States had reached the level of small cities in the vicinity of Cahokia and in the Pueblos of the Southwest, and settled agricultural villages in much of the eastern part of the United States. In the Great Plains, the Native Americans were migratory nomads.
European contact and settlement
The first European contact with North America was the settlement of Vinland in the vicinity of Newfoundland by the Vikings, around 1000 AD. Viking explorations may have reached into the territory of the United States, but the settlement failed, and very few records remained. Nearly 500 years later, in 1492, Christopher Columbus, sailing for Spain, reached several islands in the Caribbean Sea. Spanish colonization quickly followed. The first Europeans to reach the North American mainland were the Cabot expedition from Bristol in 1497. Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 claimed Florida for the Spanish. However, Spanish attempts to colonize Florida were unsuccessful until an expedition in 1565 founded St. Augustine, and drove out a French settlement which had been established nearby the year earlier.
The first English settlement in the territory of the United States was the Roanoke Colony, established in 1585, which disappeared around 1590. Throughout this time, English, Dutch, and French fishing vessels began fishing off the coast of New England, and occasionally landing to trade with the native Americans, but the native Americans did not permit settlements. An English colony was established at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, which became the first permanent English settlement in the United States.
Further settlements were made by the English at Plymouth in 1620, by the Dutch at several locations in New Netherlands in 1624 and 1625, and the Swedish at Christiana, Delaware in 1638. Permanent French settlements were established in the territory of Canada in 1599 at Tadoussac and in 1608 at Quebec, but the first permanent French settlements within the boundaries of the United States were not made until 1699 in Louisiana.
The English settlements grew faster than the others, and English military action resulted in the passing of the Dutch, Swedish, and French settlements along the Atlantic coast and Canada under British rule.
The United States
Two million British settlers in 13 colonies (along with German and other immigrants, and African slaves) comprised the Thirteen Colonies of 1775. Angered by deprivation of their historic rights by Britain, they revolted in 1775, and voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776, as the new nation, The United States of America. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which expressed the nation's commitment to republican ideals, and was signed on July 4, 1776. The war for independence against Britain, in league with France and others, was a success. George Washington, who led the military effort, chaired the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which divided powers between the states and national government, and divided powers in the latter among legislative (Congress), executive (President) and judicial (Supreme Court) branches.
The young nation established the world's first mass political parties in the 1790s. The Democratic party (founded 1828) and the Republican party (founded 1854) have traded control back and forth in the states and nationwide.
The country expanded westward, as the frontier shaped the characteristic American traits of expansion, adventure, violence and democracy. The new territories became states (except for Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S. but is treated separately). The slavery issue led to the American Civil War when the Republican party elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860 promising to stop the expansion of slavery, and the South seceded and tried to form a new country. The Confederacy was defeated, the union was saved, the slaves all freed and during Reconstruction the slaves were made citizens and voters.
After the war rapid industrialization and urbanization turned the nation into the strongest economic power. Woodrow Wilson used that power to shape the outcome of World War I. The economy crashed in 1929, causing a worldwide depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt met the challenge with New Deal programs of relief, recovery and reform, and built a Democratic party coalition, the New Deal Coalition, comprising unions, ethnics, city machines and the South, that dominated politics until the 1960s, with a commitment to equality. That commitment expanded to include Civil Rights for blacks after 1960.
The economy fully recovered in World War II, as Roosevelt made the U.S. the arsenal of democracy in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan. The Cold War (1947-1989) was a confrontation between the U.S. and its main allies (western Europe, Japan) on one side and the Soviet Union and its Communist allies on the other. Apart from localized wars in Korea and Vietnam, there were no major conflicts. The U.S. helped split China off from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, opening China up to capitalism and fast economic growth.
With victory in the Cold War in 1989, the U.S. became the world's only superpower, but its use of that power in the Middle East remains controversial. The 9-11 attacks by Muslim terrorists opened a "War on Terror". The economy is marked by steady growth, low unemployment and inflation, rapid advances in technology, a large growing super-rich element, and a high rate of immigration (including 12 million illegal immigrants).
Government Structure and Branches
The United States is a representative democracy, and its structure and system of checks and balances are established by the United States Constitution. The Federal government is divided by the Constitution into three branches - Executive, Judicial and Legislative.
There are three main levels of government in the United States, and they are hierarchical, i.e. local governments are subordinate to state governments, but the states are not usually subordinate to the Federal government. The question of the exact relationship is the issue of "federalism"; the main points were settled by the Civil War and Reconstruction, but small points remain a matter of political and constitutional debate.
The executive branch is led by the president. The president is responsible for appointing the cabinet, which is confirmed by the Senate. The current head of state and head of government is Joe Biden, serving a four-year term, and eligible for re-election to one additional term.
The judicial branch is headed by the "Highest Court in the Land," the Supreme Court of the United States (nicknamed "SCOTUS"). This court is composed of 9 justices (judges) who are appointed for life by the president. The Supreme Court serves as the last resort for appeals the court itself chooses to hear.
The legislative branch of the federal government is composed of the Congress. The Congress is bicameral (two houses), and consists of the House of Representatives and Senate. All states have two senators, and each state's number of representatives is decided by the state's population. The judicial branch consists of a system of federal courts, with the Supreme Court at the top. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to interpret federal law, determine if laws are incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, determines the legality of decisions made by the Court of Appeals and makes determinations of due process but does not normally make factual determinations or findings of fact.
The economy of the United States is based upon capitalism, with elements of a mixed economy. The U.S. is the world's economical powerhouse, and the standard of living is mostly high. The median income is $46,326 per household. The wealth is somewhat unevenly distributed; the top 20% have a household median income of $91,705, the lowest 20% have $19,178.
Private enterprises account for the biggest part of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, but the public sector is also substantial, consisting of 35% of the GDP. Government regulations are not as extensive as in many other western countries. The labor market is flexible, and social welfare services are more limited than in Europe. Social spending is increasing, and the cost of federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid is growing.
The central bank of the United States is the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve is independent from the government, and Congress does not interfere with its policies.
The U.S. is a major exporter of agricultural products. American agriculture is highly mechanized, and only 834,000 workers are employed in the sector. This has changed significantly over time; in 1870 half of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture.
Wheat, corn and soybeans are grown on in the Midwest. Soybeans and cotton are important in the South, but tobacco is being phased out after 400 years in Virginia (as well as North Carolina and Kentucky). California is the most important farm state, with a very large variety of crops and vegetables, with grapes for wine a specialty. Florida was historically a major citrus state, but its orange groves are becoming housing tracts. Dairy farming is important in several areas, especially California, Wisconsin and Vermont. Cattle, poultry, and hogs comprise the large livestock industry. Thanks to federal subsidies, a large and growing portion of corn is used to make ethanol.
Industry and mineral resources
The United States is rich on natural resources, and has for example gold, silver, petroleum, coal, iron, and uranium. The domestic supply of some natural resources is not sufficient, and the U.S. is the world's largest importer of oil, despite being one of the world's larger producers of oil. America has large supplies of coal, mostly in Wyoming, and West Virginia.
America has been one of the leading industrial nations in the world since the late 19th century. Manufacturing is accounting for a large part of the GDP, but the traditional heavy industries of the northeast have been in decline recently. The former Manufacturing Belt is now nicknamed the Rust Belt.
The automobile industry has long traditions in the United States. Henry Ford pioneered the use of assembly lines, and founded the Ford Motor Company. Michigan, specifically Detroit, became the home to the largest manufacturers, dubbed the "Big Three" (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler). The Big Three are now shrinking, as consumers move toward smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese models built in the U.S by Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.
Today, much of the United States is employed in the service industries, and in the knowledge economy.
The population of the United States reached 300 million in 2006. The population is heterogeneous, and consists of many ethnic groups. The majority of Americans are of primarily European descent. The most common ethnic backgrounds are English, Irish, and German. African-Americans, mostly descended from slaves brought from Africa in the 1700s, were recently displaced as the largest minority group by Hispanics, who arrived from Mexico and other Latin American nations.
English is the de facto national language, even though there is no official language at the federal level. Applicants for U.S. citizenship have to pass an English literacy test. About 82% of the population speak nothing but English at home; the second most common language is Spanish, but languages from Asia and the Middle East are also well-represented. 29 states have made English their official language; some consider this to be a response to the identification of languages other than English as symptomatic of a threat to 'American values.'
Two of the U.S.A.'s fifty states are officially bilingual: New Mexico (with Spanish) and Hawaii (with Hawaiian). Louisiana law also grants French some recognition. The U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico had Spanish as the sole official language from 1991; a 1993 law restored English to the same status.
Transportation in the United States is highly dependent on the automobile and airplane. Automobile use exceeds that of other industralized countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.  Large cities usually have public transportation, with buses the workhorse and light rail growing in popularity. Passenger rail travel has rapidly faded away, with only limited service provided by Amtrak, a government owned company. Intercity buses, such as Greyhound, serve a downscale clientele that lacks access to an automobile.
Air service is extensive, with a dense network comprising major carriers and numerous regional carriers, The industry has been financially troubled since the 9-11 Attack, but prices keep falling. Most airlines use a hub-and-spoke configuration with the main hubs at Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. Airline deregulation occurred in 1978 ending the necessity for government approval of air fares and air routes within the United States.  The United States does not have a state owned flag carrier. The largest airlines include American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, US Airways, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.
In 1956, the federal government began systematic building of high speed superhighways linking all major cities and most minor ones. This "Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways" (called the Interstate Highway System), now composes 46,837 miles (75,360 km) of highway. 
Church and State are separated federally by the First Amendment, extended to the states by the Fourteenth; no government aid is allowed to religion or religious schools, although the exact line is controversial. Religion is an integral part of daily life for most Americans, and society is not as secularized as in many other developed nations. Six out of ten Americans feel that their faith plays a very important role in their lives. American freedom of religion was initially tried in Rhode Island which, unlike the more Puritan New England states, allowed a great diversity of religious practice, to the point where it was referred to by many as "Rogue Island". The First Amendment has roots in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom, written in 1779, to make it so that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever" and to ensure "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion".
About 90% of Americans are believers. Christianity is the largest religion, divided about equally among mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Roman Catholics. The United States has led to the founding of a number of new religious movements, some reaching the point of being recognized as world religions: Mary Baker Eddy claimed to have discover a specifically Christian "mind cure" which she established as the Church of Jesus Christ, Scientist - better known as the Christian Science movement - whose central church is in Boston, Massachusetts, Massachusetts. New York state resident Joseph Smith claimed to have found a set of gold plates placed which contained a follow-on volume to the New Testament detailing how Jesus travelled to America. This became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - popularly known as Mormonism - which now has a global following, and is based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Other religious movements founded in the United States include the Jehovah's Witnesses movement, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Church of Scientology.
Religion is an important part of American politics, and the personal beliefs of candidates are often used in political campaigns. All presidents of the United States have had a Protestant background, with the exception of John F. Kennedy who was Catholic.
Intellectual life and thought
While the United States is often thought of as a place that bears an antipathy to intellectualism and abstract thought, it has been the home of many great writers, scientists, philosophers, academics and others engaged in the life of the mind. The poetry and philosophy of Transcendentalism combined the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and German idealism with Romanticism and the Vedic philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. Transcendentalism can be seen in the work of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in the community founded by Bronson Alcott. The writings and ideas of the Transcendentalists have influenced American thought ever since.
A more recent American philosophical movement of note is that of pragmatism, the basing of truth on practical consequences. Charles Sanders Peirce is widely considered to be the originator of this philosophy, which was then developed in the writings of William James and John Dewey. As an example, James, a professor at Harvard, produced a series of Gifford Lectures on the varieties of religious experience, which looked at religion not from the truth value of the beliefs or the philosophical and theological considerations that go into believing them, but the psychological status of those beliefs - the benefits and drawbacks of different religious beliefs, and how they fit into the lives of adherents. A religious belief then may be true or false in the sense of corresponding to the facts, but, for the pragmatists, the practical consequences of the belief must be taken into account when determining the truth of the idea.
The anti-intellectual streak in American history was written about in depth by the historian Richard Hofstadter in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, where he stated that the causes of American anti-intellectualism stem from a business-minded utilitarian ethic, a self-reliant distrust of elites and a strident Protestant evangelical movement. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama's background as a law professor and as an intellectual caused many to suggest that it would make him out-of-touch, although many celebrated a change in style from President Bush's "folksy" persona.
- In many years, so much water is drawn from the Colorado river that none actually reaches the ocean.
- The timing of beginning of this settlement is disputed among scholars, with dates in the range of 30,000 to 100,000 years before the present.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved on July 16, 2007.
- Wardhaugh (2006: 367).
- Rickford (2004); Wardhaugh (2006: 368); Schmid (2001); Huntington (2004).
- Wardhaugh (2006: 367-368).
- Among Wealthy Nations, U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion. Pew Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved on July 16, 2007.
- CNN Commentary: Will 'intellectual' label hurt Obama?