Introducing the United States

These well-­known lyrics, written by Katharine Lee Bates, hold as true today as they did in 1893, when the original verses were penned. On a trip from her Massachusetts home to Colorado Springs, Colorado, Bates was awed by the magnificent view of the Great Plains from atop majestic Pikes Peak. The United States of America truly is a beautiful and bountiful land that has been blessed in countless ways by nature, culture, and history. It is also a country of vast natural and cultural extremes. Through time, the United States has experienced and survived a number of hardships. This brief book attempts to paint a geographical portrait of the land that is home to most readers.

The United States is a land for which superlatives come easily. Its nearly 3.8 million square miles (9,826,630 square kilometers) in area rank it third among the world's countries. Only Russia and Canada are larger, but much of their vast lands lie in regions of poorly developed harsh northern climates. The adjoining 48 states lie squarely within the relatively mild and easily developed middle latitudes. With slightly more than 300 million people, the United States also ranks third in population, behind China and India. Unlike in those countries, the American population enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living.

With few exceptions, nature has been kind to the United States. No country can even closely match its environmental diversity. Within its borders can be found all of the world's major climates, ecosystems, and land conditions. This diversity allows the practice of all human activities that are adapted to particular environmental conditions. Similarly, no country can match the United States in terms of environmental extremes, a category in which it holds many world records. The country's unsurpassed economic growth has been bolstered by vast areas of productive land and a wealth of varied metallic, energy, and building resources.

Introducing the United States

The United States has, however, been ravaged on numerous occasions by devastating natural disasters. In other respects, the country has historically been extremely fortunate. Buffered by two ocean barriers (three if Alaska and the Arctic Ocean are included) and only two neighboring countries, both of which are friendly, the United States has been relatively protected from foreign aggression. Opportunity-­seeking European settlers found a sparsely settled land that offered a veritable cornucopia of space, resources, and potential. Within several centuries, following the dream of manifest destiny, Europeans expanded across the continent to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, this early development was not without a very dark side. It was achieved at the expense of the indigenous Amerindian population, and much of the early economic development in the South was based on African slave labor. This abhorrent practice ultimately contributed to the tragic and bloody Civil War between the North and South.

No country can match America's rich mosaic of human diversity. People from every nation on Earth now call America their home. It has some flaws, but no other country has ever accepted and successfully integrated as many people from more diverse backgrounds than has the United States. The American social and cultural “melting pot” is one of the greatest human achievements in history. Most people who live in the United States—regardless of their racial, national, cultural, ethnic, or other heritage—consider themselves “American.” This achievement alone places the United States atop the world's countries in terms of tolerance. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a stable democratic government, and a thriving market economy have combined to create an environment in which individuals of all backgrounds can pursue their dreams. Despite a population that passed 300 million in 2006, the country's population density, growth rate, internal migration patterns, and other demographic indices present little cause for concern.

A close relationship exists between a country's government and political stability (or instability) and its economic growth and development (or stagnation). For more than two centuries, the United States has been a model of steadiness in both of these keys to human well-­being. Regardless of the political party in power, the government has risen to the occasion when faced with a critical challenge. Of course, there are always critics whose shrill cries of outrage bemoan what they believe is injustice. Nonetheless, such critics are still in this country, and their right to protest without fear of reprisal certainly is one reason why. Economically, the United States is far and away the world's leading power, producing $13 trillion (2006) in annual goods and services. It produces approximately one-­fourth of the entire world's economic output. In this capacity, the United States is the economic engine on which much of the world depends for its own economic well-­being.

In traveling through the United States, one cannot help but marvel over the seemingly paradoxical similarities and diversity. Regardless of one's location, certain conditions will be familiar: the language spoken; beliefs in regard to institutions such as government and religion; social expectations and interactions; various corporate chains that offer dining, retail sales, banking, and other services; laws that govern driving, conduct, and other behavior; and much else. Such homogeneity is best appreciated when one can compare and contrast these conditions with those of many other regions. In Europe, for example, during a single day, the author has traveled through areas in which five different native languages were spoken. In Nepal, which is considerably smaller than his home state of South Dakota, more than 120 different languages are spoken! Nonetheless, particularly for someone who has a keen geographic eye, the United States is anything but bland. In fact, if one looks closely, he or she will be treated to a remarkable banquet of varied physical and cultural features and conditions.

The United States of America has been and continues to be an astonishing environmental, human, and cultural experiment on a grand scale unparalleled in history. It is a country that, in many respects, continuously reinvents itself when faced with the need to adapt to changing conditions and new challenges. Currently, a number of troubling conditions are on the horizon; according to some observers, they have the potential to deliver a deluge of change. Many Americans worry about the outcome of the ongoing Middle Eastern conflicts. With two-­thirds of the world's total petroleum reserves and current production located there, what would happen to the energy-­dependent global economy if the region fell into chaos? Immigration, an aging population, the soaring national debt, energy-­related concerns, and environmental changes are among the other issues that deeply concern many Americans.

Before going further, it is important to define several key terms and concepts that appear throughout the book. The term culture, as used here, refers to a people's “way of life,” how they live—their language, religion, diet, how they make a living, and so forth. The word society refers to human groups and interactions. For example, we can refer to “American culture” and “U.S. society.” In the first context, the reference is to how Americans live and in the second how they interact with one another. Race, or one's biological inheritance, refers exclusively to physical (genetically acquired) features. There is no cause­effect relationship what­soever between race and culture. Races on the other hand, are arbitrarily determined social creations with little, if any, validity or meaning. People, of course, do differ in appearance, but such differences are minor when compared to those that relate to culture or socioeconomic status.

Other potentially confusing terms relate to the region, country, and U.S. residents. During recent years, it has been increasingly commonplace to refer to the United States and Canada as “North America,” rather than as “Anglo America.” This distinction recognizes the region's cultural diversity (Anglo means “English”), but it is incorrect and confusing. North America is a continent that extends northward from the political boundary between Colombia and Panama. Therefore, to avoid unnecessary confusion, the author prefers to use Northern America in reference to the cultural region formed by the United States and Canada.

It is also important to understand that the term America(n) technically applies to all residents of the Americas. Only the United States, however, adopted the term America in its name, the United States of America. Mexico is officially known as the United Mexican States, and the people call themselves “Mexicans.” By historical precedent, residents of the United States of America opted for “Americans” (rather than “United Statesians”!).

Nation is a final term that requires clarification. Perhaps because the country's subpolitical units are called “states,” Americans have adopted the term nation in reference to the country. This is incorrect. The United States is a state, the term used in reference to a political unit. The State Department, for example, is the branch of government that is responsible for interacting with other countries. A “nation,” on the other hand, is the territory occupied by a nationality of people, and it may or may not coincide with a politically governed territory. In speaking of aboriginal America, for example, it is correct to refer to the Cherokee, Iroquois, or Navajo nations.

Some people who live within the United States today do not identify themselves as “American.” This is typical of some first-­generation immigrants, who retain the national identity of their homeland. When a population feels a sense of belonging (nationality) to their country (state), then they may identify themselves by their country name, as is the case in “America” and “Americans.”

This book takes you on a journey through the United States. It begins with a tour of the country's physical landscapes and conditions and then travels through the corridors of time, reaching back to the earliest aborigines, the arrival of the Europeans and the resulting clash of cultures, and the evolution of the United States as the major power on the world stage. Subsequent chapters take an in-­depth look at the country's population and settlement, government and its role, and economic conditions and development. With this background information, you are ready to tour the country for a glimpse of contemporary life in the United States. Finally, we attempt to see what the future holds for the United States of America and its people.

Physical Geography

The United States Through Time

People and Culture

Government and Politics

The United States' Economy

Living in the United States Today

The United States Looks Ahead