The earliest known use of the name America is from 1507, when a globe
and a large map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in
Saint-Die-des-Vosges described the combined continents of North and South
America. Although the origin of the name is uncertain, the most widely held
belief is that expressed in an accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio,
which explains it as a feminized version of the Latin name of Italian explorer
Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespucius); in Latin, the other continents'
names were all feminine. Vespucci theorized, correctly, that Christopher
Columbus, on reaching islands in the Caribbean Sea in 1492, had come not to
India but to a "New World".
The Americas were also known as Columbia, after Columbus, prompting
the name District of Columbia for the land set aside as the U.S. capital.
Columbia remained a popular name for the United States until the early
twentieth century, when it fell into relative disuse; but it is still used
poetically and appears in various names and titles. A female personification of
the country is also called Columbia; she is similar to Britannia.,
Columbus Day, a holiday in the U.S. and other countries in the Americas,
commemorates Columbus's October 1492 landing.
The term "united States of America" was first used officially in the
Declaration of Independence, adopted on 4 July 1776. On 15 November 1777, the
Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first of
which stated "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be 'The United States of
The adjectival and demonymic forms for the United States are American,
a point of controversy among some.
Before the European colonization of the Americas, a process that began at the
end of the 15th century, the present-day continental U.S. was inhabited
exclusively by various indigenous tribes, including Alaskan Natives, who arrived
on the continent over a period that may have begun 35,000 years ago and may have
ended as recently as 11,000 years ago. The first confirmed European landing in
the present-day United States was by a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Leon, who landed
in 1513 in Florida, and as part of his claim, the first European settlement was
established by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles on the site of a Timucuan Indian
village in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida. The first successful English
settlement was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, followed in 1620 by the
Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1609 and 1617, respectively,
the Dutch settled in part of what became New York and New Jersey. In 1638, the
Swedes founded New Sweden, in part of what became Delaware, New Jersey, and
Pennsylvania after passing through Dutch hands. Throughout the 17th and early
18th centuries, England (and later Great Britain) established new colonies, took
over Dutch colonies, and split others. With the division of the Carolinas, in
1729, and the colonization of Georgia, in 1732, the British colonies in North
America, excluding present-day Canada, numbered thirteen. These thirteen
colonies would be drawn closer together over the coming decades.
Tensions between American colonials and the British during the revolutionary
period of the 1760s and 1770s led to open military conflict in 1775. George
Washington commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War
(1775–1783) as the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of
Independence on 4 July 1776. The Second Continental Congress had been formed to
confront British actions, and did create the Continental Army, but did not have
the authority to levy taxes or make federal laws. In 1777, the Congress adopted
the Articles of Confederation, uniting the states under a weak federal
government, which operated from 1781 until 1788, when enough states had ratified
the United States Constitution. The Constitution, which strengthened the union
and the federal government, has since remained the supreme law of the land.
From 1803 to 1848, the size of the new nation nearly tripled as settlers
(many embracing the concept of Manifest Destiny as an inevitable consequence of
American exceptionalism) pushed beyond national boundaries even before the
Louisiana Purchase. The expansion was tempered somewhat by the stalemate in the
War of 1812, but was subsequently reinvigorated by victory in the
Mexican–American War in 1848.
As new territories were being incorporated, the nation was divided over the
issue of states' rights, the role of the federal government, and, by the 1820s,
the expansion of slavery. The Northern states were opposed to the expansion of
slavery whereas the Southern states saw the opposition as an attack on their way
of life, since their economy was dependent on slave labor. The failure to
permanently resolve these issues led to the Civil War, following the secession
of many slave states in the South to form the Confederate States of America
after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The 1865 Union victory in the Civil
War effectively ended slavery and settled the question of whether a state had
the right to secede. The event was a major turning point in American history,
with an increase in federal power.
After the Civil War, an unprecedented influx of immigrants, who helped to
provide labor for American industry and create diverse communities in
undeveloped areas, together with high tariff protections, national
infrastructure building, and national banking regulations, hastened the
country's rise to international power. The growing power of the United States
enabled it to acquire new territories, including the annexation of Puerto Rico
after victory in the Spanish–American War, which marked the debut of the United
States as a major world power.
At the start of the First World War, in 1914, the United States remained
neutral. In 1917, however, the United States joined the Allied Powers, helping
to turn the tide against the Central Powers. For historical reasons, American
sympathies were very much in favor of the British and French, even though a
sizable number of citizens, mostly Irish and German, were opposed to
intervention. After the war, the Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles,
because of a fear that it would pull the United States into European affairs.
Instead, the country pursued a policy of unilateralism that bordered at times on
During most of the 1920s, the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced
prosperity as farm prices fell and industrial profits grew. A rise in debt and
an inflated stock market culminated in a crash in 1929, triggering the Great
Depression. After his election as President in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt
instituted his plan for a New Deal, which increased government intervention in
the economy in response to the Great Depression.
The nation did not fully recover until 1941, when the United States was
driven to join the Allies against the Axis Powers after a surprise attack on
Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. World War II was the costliest war in American
history, but helped to pull the economy out of depression as the required
production of military materiel provided much-needed jobs and women entered the
workforce in large numbers for the first time.
After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers
in an era of ideological rivalry dubbed the Cold War. The United States promoted
liberal democracy and capitalism, while the Soviet Union communism and a
centrally planned economy. The result was a series of proxy wars, including the
Korean War, the Vietnam War, the tense nuclear showdown of the Cuban Missile
Crisis, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The perception that the United States was losing the space race spurred
government efforts to raise proficiency in mathematics and science in schools
and led to President Kennedy's call for the United States to land "a man on the
moon" by the end of the 1960s, which was realized in 1969.
Meanwhile, American society experienced a period of sustained economic
expansion. At the same time, discrimination across the United States, especially
in the South, was increasingly challenged by a growing civil-rights movement
headed by prominent African Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr., which led
to the abolition of the Jim Crow laws in the South.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States continued to
intervene militarily overseas, for example in the Gulf War.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. foreign policy focused on the
threat of terrorist attacks. In response, the government under George W. Bush
began a series of military and legal operations termed the War on Terror,
beginning with the overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban government in October
2001. Soon after, the United States launched the controversial 2003 invasion of
Iraq, with support from 30 governments, which George W. Bush referred to as the
'Coalition of the Willing'. Although the Bush administration justified its
invasion with a charge that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, no
such stockpile was found, and the Bush administration later admitted having
acted on flawed intelligence.
Government and politics
The United States is the longest-surviving extant constitutional republic,
with the oldest wholly written constitution in the world. Its government
operates as a representative democracy through a congressional system under a
set of powers specified by its Constitution. There are three levels of
government: federal, state, and local. Officials at all three levels are either
elected by voters in a secret ballot or appointed by other elected officials.
Executive and legislative offices are decided by a plurality vote of citizens in
their respective districts, with judicial and cabinet-level offices nominated by
the Executive and approved by the Legislature. In some states, judicial posts
are filled by popular election rather than executive appointment.
The federal government comprises three branches, which are designed to check
and balance one another's powers:
- Legislative: The Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of
- Executive: The President, who appoints, with Senate approval, the
Cabinet and other officers to help administer federal law.
- Judiciary: The Supreme Court and lower federal courts, whose judges are
appointed by the President with Senate approval.
The United States Congress is a bicameral legislature. The House of
Representatives has 435 members, each representing a congressional district for
a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states according to
population every tenth year. Each state is guaranteed at least one
representative: currently, seven states have one each; California, the most
populous state, has 53. Each state has exactly two senators, elected at large to
six-year terms; one third of the 100 senators are elected every second year.
Under the country's federal system, the relationship between the state and
national governments is complex; under U.S. law, states are considered sovereign
entities. However, the American Civil War and Texas v. White established
that states do not have the right to secede, and, under the Constitution, they
are not allowed to conduct foreign policy. Federal law overrides state law in
the areas in which the federal government is empowered to act; but the powers of
the federal government are subject to limits outlined in the Constitution. All
powers not granted to the federal government in the Constitution are left to the
states or the people themselves. However, the "Necessary and Proper" and
"Commerce" clauses of the Constitution legally allow the extension of federal
powers into other affairs, though this is the topic of considerable debate over
The Constitution contains a dedication to "preserve liberty" with a "Bill of
Rights" and other amendments, which guarantee freedom of speech, religion, and
the press; the right to a fair trial; the right to keep and bear arms; universal
suffrage; and property rights. However, the extent to which these rights are
protected and universal in practice is heavily debated.
There are two major political parties: the Republican Party and the
Democratic Party. The Republicans are generally socially conservative and
economically classical-liberals with some right-leaning centrists. The Democrats
are generally socially liberal and economically progressive with some
left-leaning centrists. Growing numbers of Americans identify with neither
party—with some claiming the title Independent and others joining emerging
parties, including the Green, Libertarian, and Reform parties. Except for a
Democratic plurality in the Senate in 2001–2002, the Republican Party has held
the majority in both houses of Congress since the 1994 elections; since 2001,
the president has been George W. Bush, a Republican.
Foreign relations and military
The United States has vast economic, political, and military influence on a
global scale, which makes its foreign policy a subject of great interest and
discussion around the world. Almost all countries have embassies in Washington,
D.C., and consulates around the country. However, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and
Sudan do not have formal diplomatic relations with the United States. The United
States is a founding member of the United Nations (with a permanent seat on the
Security Council), among many other international organizations.
In 1949, in an effort to contain communism during the Cold War, the United
States, Canada, and ten Western European nations formed the North Atlantic
Treaty Organisation, a mutual-defense alliance in which they have since been
joined by 14 other European states—including Turkey, which straddles the
Eurasian border, and some former Soviet states. In an example of realpolitik,
the United States also established diplomatic relations with Communist countries
that were antagonistic to the Soviet Union, like the People's Republic of China
during the Sino-Soviet split. Recently, the foreign policy of the United States
has focused on combating terrorism as well as the proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction. Calls by a majority of American citizens continue for
increased border security against illegal immigration and the shipment of
illegal narcotics, with their primary goal the protection of American interests
and the safety of U.S. citizens around the world, against such threats as
terrorist infiltration at the border with Mexico.
The United States has a long-standing tradition of civilian control over
military affairs. The Department of Defense administers the U.S. armed forces,
which comprise the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. The
Coast Guard falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security
in peacetime but is placed under the Department of the Navy in times of war.
The military of the United States comprises 1.4 million personnel on active
duty, along with several hundred thousand each in the Reserves and the National
Guard. Service in the military is voluntary, though conscription may occur in
times of war through the Selective Service System. The United States is
considered to have the most powerful military in the world, in part due to the
size of its defense budget; American defense expenditures in 2005 were estimated
to be greater than the next 14 largest national military budgets combined, even
though the U.S. military budget is only about 4% of the country's gross domestic
product. The U.S. military
maintains over 700 bases and facilities on every continent except Antarctica.
The American military is committed to having a technological edge over its
potential enemies and has an extensive research program to maintain such an
edge. Defense-related research over the years yielded such major breakthroughs
as space exploration, computers, the Internet, hypertext, nuclear energy, the
Global Positioning System, stealth aircraft, "smart" weapons, better
bullet-proof vests, microwaves, and more recently ground-based lasers intended
to target and destroy inbound cruise missiles. These force multipliers have
traditionally borne more materiel expense than personnel expenses. Military
technology maintains a close relationship with the civilian economy and has
contributed to general technological and economic development of the United
States, and often, via technology transfer, other countries as well. Conversely,
the military has also benefited from the American civilian infrastructure.
The conterminous, or contiguous, forty-eight states—all the states but Alaska
and Hawaii—are also called the continental United States. Some include Alaska in
the "continental" states, because, although it is separated from the "lower
forty-eight" by Canada, it is part of the North American mainland. All of these
terms commonly include the District of Columbia. Hawaii, the fiftieth state, is
an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts, and
possessions, notably the federal district of the District of Columbia—which
contains the nation's capital city, Washington—and several overseas insular
areas (commonly known as the United States Minor Outlying Islands), the
most significant of which are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana
Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands. Palmyra Atoll is the
United States' only incorporated territory; but it is unorganized and
uninhabited. In addition, since 1898, the United States Navy has leased an
extensive naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Former U.S. possessions include the Panama Canal Zone, which was a U.S.
territory from 1903 until 1979. Additionally, the Philippine Islands were
American territory from 1898 until 1935, when the United States established the
Commonwealth of the Philippines as a transition between territorial status and
full Philippine independence, which occurred in 1946. Because it was part of the
United States at the time of World War II, the Philippines is the only
independent nation with a memorial pillar at the National World War II Memorial
in Washington, DC.
In addition to the actual states and territories of the United States, there
are also nations which are associated states of the U.S. The Federated States of
Micronesia (since 1986), Palau (since 1994), and the Marshall Islands (since
1986) are associated with the United States under what is known as the Compact
of Free Association, giving the states international sovereignty and ultimate
control over their territory. However, the governments of those areas have
agreed to allow the United States to provide defense and financial assistance.
The U.S. also treats these nations uniquely by giving them access to many U.S.
domestic programs, including disaster response and recovery and hazard
mitigation programs under FEMA. The freely associated states are all dependent
on U.S. financial assistance to meet both government operational and capital
needs. The Office of Insular Affairs administers this financial assistance. The
freely associated states also actively participate in all Office of Insular
Affairs technical assistance activities. Together with the Commonwealth of the
Northern Mariana Islands, each of these associated states were once part of the
U.S.-administered UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which existed from
1947 until 1986 in the case of the Marshall Islands, the Northern Marianas, and
the Federated States of Micronesia; Palau's trusteeship ended in 1994.
Geography and climate
The United States is the world's third largest country by land area, after
Russia and Canada. It is bounded by the North Atlantic Ocean to the east, the
North Pacific Ocean to the west, Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and
Canada to the north. Alaska also borders Canada, with the Pacific Ocean to its
south and the Arctic Ocean to its north. The island state of Hawaii is situated
in the Pacific, southwest of the North American mainland.
The U.S. has an extremely varied geography, particularly in the West. The
eastern seaboard has a coastal plain which is widest in the south and narrows in
the north. The coastal plain does not exist north of New Jersey, although there
are glacial outwash plains on Long Island, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket.
Beyond the coastal plain, the rolling hills of the piedmont region end at the
Appalachian Mountains which rise above 6,000 feet (1,830 m) in North Carolina
and New Hampshire. From the west slope of the Appalachians, the Interior Plains
of the Midwest are relatively flat and are the location of the Great Lakes as
well as the Mississippi-Missouri River, the world's fourth-longest river system.
West of the Mississippi River, the Interior Plains slope uphill and blend into
the vast and often featureless Great Plains. The abrupt rise of the Rocky
Mountains at the western edge of the Great Plains, extends north to south across
the continental U.S., reaching altitudes over 14,000 feet (4,270 m) in Colorado.
In the past, the Rocky Mountains had a higher level of volcanic activity;
nowadays, the range only has one area of volcanism, Yellowstone National Park in
Wyoming, possibly the world's largest volcano. Dozens of high mountain ranges,
salt flats such as the Bonneville Salt Flats, and valleys are found in the Great
Basin region located west of the Rockies and east of the Sierra Nevada, which
also has deep chasms, including the Snake River. At the southwestern end of the
Great Basin, Death Valley lies below sea level. It is the lowest point in the
Western Hemisphere and is situated near the Mojave Desert. North of the Great
Basin and east of the Cascades in the Northwest is the Columbia River Plateau, a
large igneous province shaped by one of the largest flood basalts ever to appear
on Earth. It is marked by dark black rocks. Surrounding the Four Corners region
lies the Colorado Plateau, named after the Colorado River, which flows through
it. The Plateau is generally high in elevation, has highly eroded sandstone, and
is a blood red in some locations with many national parks, such as Arches, Bryce
Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Zion. West of the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevada
mountain range has Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the coterminous U.S. Along
the Pacific coast, the Coast Ranges and the volcanic Cascade Range extend from
north to south across the country. Alaska has numerous mountain ranges,
including Mount McKinley (Denali), the highest peak in North America. Numerous
volcanoes can be found throughout the Alexander and Aleutian Islands extending
south and west of the Alaskan mainland. The Hawaiian islands are tropical,
volcanic islands extending over 1,500 miles (2,400 km), and consisting of six
larger islands and another dozen smaller ones that are inhabited.
The climate of the U.S. is as varied as its landscape. In northern Alaska,
tundra and arctic conditions predominate, and the temperature has fallen as low
as minus 80 °F (−62 °C). On the other end of the spectrum, Death Valley,
California once reached 134 °F (56.7 °C); the second-highest temperature ever
recorded on Earth.
On average, the mountains of the western states receive the most snow and are
among the snowiest places on Earth. The greatest annual snowfall level is at
Mount Rainier, in Washington, at 680 inches (1,727.2 cm); the record there was
1,122 inches (2849.8 cm) in the winter of 1971–1972. Other places with
significant snowfall outside the Cascade Range are the Wasatch Mountains, near
the Great Salt Lake, and the Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. In the east, while
snowfall does not approach western levels, the region near the Great Lakes and
the mountains of the Northeast receive the most. Along the northwestern Pacific
coast, rainfall is greater than anywhere else in the continental U.S., with
Quinault Ranger in Washington having an average of 137.21 inches. Hawaii
receives even more, with 460 inches measured annually on Mount Waialeale, in
Kauai. The Mojave Desert, in the southwest, is home to the driest locale in the
U.S.—Yuma Valley, Arizona, with an average of 2.63 inches of precipitation each
In central portions of the U.S., tornadoes are more common than anywhere else
on Earth and touch down most commonly in the spring and summer. Deadly and
destructive hurricanes occur almost every year along the Atlantic seaboard and
the Gulf of Mexico. The Appalachian region and the Midwest experience the worst
floods, though virtually no area in the U.S. is immune to flooding. The
Southwest has the worst droughts; one is thought to have lasted over 500 years
and to have decimated the Anasazi people.
Flora and fauna
The U.S. has over 17,000 identified native plant and tree species, including
5,000 just in California (which is home to both the tallest and the most massive
trees in the world). With habitats ranging from tropical to arctic, the flora of
the U.S. is the most diverse of any country; yet, thousands of non-native exotic
species sometimes adversely affect indigenous plant and animal communities. Over
400 species of mammal, 700 species of bird, 500 species of reptile and
amphibian, and 90,000 species of insect have been documented. Many plants and
animals are very localized in their distribution, and some are in danger of
extinction. The U.S. passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to protect
native plant and animal species and their habitats.
Conservation has a long history in the U.S.; in 1872, the world's first
National Park was established, at Yellowstone. Another 57 national parks and
hundreds of other federally managed parks and forests have since been
designated. In some parts of the country, wilderness areas have been established
to ensure long-term protection of pristine habitats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service monitors endangered and threatened species and has set aside numerous
areas for species- and habitat-preservation. Altogether, the U.S. government
owns 1,020,779 square miles (2,643,807 km²) which is 28.8% of the total land
area of the U.S. The bulk of this land is protected park and forestland; but
some is leased for oil and gas exploration, mining, and cattle ranching.
The economic history of the United States is a story of economic growth that
began with marginally successful colonial economies and progressed to the
largest industrial economy in the world in the the 20th and early 21st century.
The economic system of the United States can be described as a capitalist
mixed economy, in which corporations, other private firms, and individuals make
most microeconomic decisions, and governments prefer to take a smaller role in
the domestic economy, although the combined role of all levels of government is
relatively large, at 36% of the GDP. The U.S. has a small social safety net, and
regulation of businesses is slightly below the average of developed countries.
The United States' median household income in 2005 was $43,318.
Economic activity varies greatly across the country. For example, New York
City is the center of the American financial, publishing, broadcasting, and
advertising industries, while Los Angeles is the most important center for film
and television production. The San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest
are major centers for technology. The Midwest is known for its reliance on
manufacturing and heavy industry, with Detroit serving as the historic center of
the American automotive industry, and Chicago serving as the business and
financial capital of the region. The Southeast is a major area for agriculture,
tourism, and the lumber industry, and, because of wages and costs below the
national average, it continues to attract manufacturing.
The largest sector in the United States economy is services, which employs
roughly three quarters of the work force. The economy is fueled by an abundance
in natural resources such as coal, petroleum, and precious metals. However, the
country still depends for much of its energy on foreign countries. In
agriculture, the country is a top producer of corn, soy beans, rice, and wheat,
with the Great Plains labeled as the "breadbasket of the world" for their
tremendous agricultural output. The U.S. has a large tourist industry, ranking
third in the world, and is also a major exporter in goods such as airplanes,
steel, weapons, and electronics. Canada accounts for 19% (more than any other
nation) of the United States' foreign trade, followed by China, Mexico, and
While the per capita income of the United States is among the highest
in the world, the wealth is comparatively concentrated, with approximately 40%
of the population earning less than an average resident of western Europe and
the top 20% earning substantially more. Since 1975, it has had what can be
called a "two-tier" labor market, in which virtually all the real income gains
have gone to the top 20% of households. This polarization is the result of a
relatively high level of economic freedom.
The social mobility (like social class, a vague and abstract concept) of U.S.
residents relative to that of other countries is the subject of much debate.
Analysts writing for the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and
the New York Times generally find that social mobility in the United
States is low relative to other OECD states, specifically compared to Western
Europe, Scandinavia and Canada. They cite as primary factors the low state
intervention in educational matters that are thought to favor the wealthy since
income is highly correlated to education. In the U.S. the wealthy can send their
children to high-cost pre-University private schools, while those who cannot
afford it since there is no government assistance in this respect are sent to
public schools, which often perform much lower. In addition, the practice of
legacy preference at elite universities gives preference to the children of
alumni, who are often wealthy. This practice reduces available spaces for
better-qualified lower income students. Some analysts argue that relative social
mobility in the U.S. peaked in the 1960s and declined rapidly beginning in the
1980s. Alan Greenspan, has also suggested that that the growing income
inequality and low class mobility of the U.S. economy may eventually threaten
the entire system in the near future.
Conversely, some analysts, such as those writing for the Cato Institute,
Fraser Institute, and Timbro, argue that U.S. social mobility is greater than
numbers indicate, pointing to the absence of class hierarchy (e.g., European
class model, Indian caste system, etc.), and broader economic freedom. They also
highlight the existence of universal access to post-secondary education (the
only barrier to which is the inability to afford tuition costs, rather than lack
of connections or class). These analysts suggest that the absence of state
intervention in the U.S., along with the resulting high economic competition,
allows individuals greater opportunity to improve their conditions than welfare
The United States is an influential country in scientific and technological
research and the production of innovative technological products. During World
War II, the U.S. was the first to develop the atomic bomb, ushering in the
atomic age. Beginning early the Cold War, the U.S. achieved successes in space
science and technology, leading to a space race, which led to rapid advances in
rocketry, weaponry, material science, computers, and many other areas. This
technological progress was epitomized by the first visit of a man to the moon,
when Neil Armstrong stepped off of Apollo 11 in July 1969. The U.S. was also
perhaps the most instrumental nation in the development of the Internet, through
the funding of its predecessor, Arpanet, and the actual physical presence of
much of the Internet.
In the sciences, Americans have a large share of Nobel Prizes, especially in
the fields of physiology and medicine. The National Institutes of Health, a
focal point for biomedical research in the United States, has contributed to the
completion of the Human Genome Project. The main governmental organization for
aviation and space research is the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration. Major corporations, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, also
play an important role.
The automobile industry developed earlier and more rapidly in the United
States than in most other countries. The backbone of the nation's transportation
infrastructure is a network of high-capacity highways. From data taken in 2004,
there are about 3,981,521 miles (6,407,637 km) of roadways in the U.S., the most
in the world.
Mass transit systems exist in large cities, such as New York, which operates
one of the busiest subway systems in the world. With a few exceptions, American
cities are less dense than those in other parts of the world. Low density partly
results from and largely necessitates automobile ownership by most households.
Whereas the freight rail network is among the world's best (and most
congested), the passenger rail network is underdeveloped by European and
Japanese standards. This is partly due to the longer distances travelled in the
U.S.; a destination two thousand miles away is reached more quickly by air than
by rail. Government subsidies of air travel played a role in the bankruptcy of
passenger-rail corporations in the 1970s. The U.S. had been unique in its high
number of private passenger railroads. During the 1970s, government intervention
reorganized freight railroads, and consolidated passenger service under the
government-backed corporation Amtrak. No other country has more miles of rail
than the U.S.
Air travel is the preferred means of travel for long distances. In terms of
passengers, seventeen of the world's thirty busiest airports in 2004 were in the
U.S., including the world's busiest, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International
Airport (ATL). In terms of cargo, in the same year, twelve of the world's thirty
busiest airports were in the U.S., including the world's busiest, Memphis
International Airport. In the first half of 2006, Chicago's O'Hare International
Airport, often close behind Hartsfield–Jackson, processed more passengers than
the Atlanta airport.
Several major seaports are in the United States; the three busiest are
California's Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach, and the Port of New
York and New Jersey, all among the world's busiest. The Great Lakes also carry
shipping traffic, the lakes being extensively connected to one another, the
Mississippi River system, and the Atlantic Ocean. The first water link between
the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, the Erie Canal, allowed the rapid expansion of
agriculture and industry in the Midwest, and made New York City the economic
center of the U.S.
As of August 2006, there are an estimated 299,059,138 people in the United
States, with a population growth rate of about 0.59%. According to Census 2000,
about 79% of the population lives in urban areas, and the country has 31 ethnic
groups with at least one million members each, with numerous others represented
in smaller amounts. In terms of wealth distribution, thirty-five million
Americans live in poverty, about 12.6% of the population; twenty percent of the
population possesses 80% of the nation's wealth.
The majority of Americans (80.4% in 2004) are the descendants of white
immigrants; people of solely non-Hispanic white ancestry were 67.4% of the
population. The non-Hispanic white population is proportionally declining, both
due to immigration from nonwhite countries and due to a higher birth rate among
ethnic and racial minorities. If current immigration trends continue, the number
of non-Hispanic whites is expected to be reduced to a plurality by 2040-2050.
The largest ethnic group of European ancestry is German at 15.2%, followed by
Irish (10.8%), English (8.7%), Italian (5.6%) and Scandinavian (3.7%). Many
immigrants also hail from Slavic countries, such as Poland and Russia, as well
as from French Canada. African Americans, or Blacks, largely descend from
Africans who arrived as slaves during the seventeenth through nineteenth
centuries, and number about 35 million or 12.9% of the population. At about 1.5%
of the total population, Native Americans and Alaska Natives number about 4.4
million, approximately 35% of whom were living on reservations in 2005.
Current demographic trends include the immigration of Hispanics from Latin
America into the Southwest, a region that is home to about 60% of the 35 million
Hispanics in the United States. Immigrants from Mexico make up about 66% of the
Hispanic community, and are second only to the German-descent population in the
single-ethnicity category. The Hispanic population, which has been growing at an
annual rate of about 4.46% since the 1990s, is expected to increase
significantly in the coming decades, because of both immigration and a higher
birth rate among Latinos than among the general population. According to the
U.S. Bureau of the Census, the population of the United States will reach 300
million people in October 2006.
The United States has dozens of major cities, which play an important role in
U.S. culture, heritage, and economy. In 2004, 251 incorporated places had
populations of at least 100,000 and nine had populations greater than 1,000,000,
including several important global cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles,
and Chicago. In addition, there are fifty metropolitan areas with populations
per sq mi
||New York City, New York
||Los Angeles, California
||San Antonio, Texas
||San Diego, California
||San Jose, California
The Native Americans of the United States (also known as Indians
or American Indians, among others), are an ethnic group who have
populated the land that is today the United States since at least 9,000 B.C.,
more than one hundred centuries before the arrival of European settlers. As in
other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, the impact of European
colonization of the Americas changed the lives and cultures of the Native
Americans. In the 15th to 19th century, their populations were ravaged by
displacement, disease, warfare with the Europeans, and enslavement.
In the 19th century, the incessant westward expansion of the United States
incrementally compelled large numbers of Native Americans to resettle further
west, sometimes by force, almost always reluctantly. Under President Andrew
Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the
president to conduct treaties to exchange Native American land east of the
Mississippi River for lands west of the river. As many as 100,000 Native
Americans eventually relocated in the West as a result of this Indian Removal
policy. In theory, relocation was supposed to be voluntary (and many Native
Americans did remain in the East), but in practice great pressure was put on
Native American leaders to sign removal treaties.
Conflicts, generally known as "Indian Wars", broke out between U.S. forces
and many different tribes. U.S. government authorities entered numerous treaties
during this period, but later abrogated many for various reasons. On January 31,
1876, the United States government ordered all remaining Native Americans to
move into reservations or reserves.
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 gave United States citizenship to Native
Americans, in part because of an interest by many to see them merged with the
American mainstream, and also because of the heroic service of many Native
American veterans in the First World War.
As of 2003 according to the 2003 United States Census Bureau estimates, there
were 2,786,652 Native Americans in the United States. However, an unknown number
of largely indiginous peoples from Latin American countries, particularly
Mexico, have migrated to the U.S. over the years. Other tribes, such as the
Yaqui have persisted on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border crossing freely
for many years until the current border clampdown (see illegal immigration).
Although the United States has no official language, English is the de
facto national language. In 2003, about 214.8 million, or 81.6%, of the
population aged five years and older spoke only English at home. Although not
all Americans speak English, it is the most common language for daily
interaction among both native and non-native speakers. Knowledge of English is
required of immigrants seeking naturalization. Some Americans advocate making
English the official language, which it is in twenty-seven individual states.
Three states also grant official status to other languages alongside English:
French in Louisiana, Hawaiian in Hawaii, and Spanish in New Mexico. Besides
English, languages spoken at home by at least one million Americans aged five
years and up are Spanish or Spanish Creole, spoken by 29.7 million; Chinese, 2.2
million; French (including Patois and Cajun), 1.4 million; Tagalog, 1.3 million;
Vietnamese, 1.1 million; and German, 1.1 million.
The United States government keeps no official register of Americans'
religious status. However, in a private survey conducted in 2001 and mentioned
in the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States, 76.7%
of American adults identified themselves as Christian; about 52% of adults
described themselves as members of various Protestant denominations; Roman
Catholics, at 24.5%, were the most populous individual sect; Judaism (1.4%), the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1.3%), and other faiths also have
firm places in American culture; about 14.2% of respondents described themselves
as having no religion; the religious distribution of the 5.4% who elected not to
describe themselves for the survey is unknown.
The country has a relatively high level of religiosity among developed
nations. About 46% of American adults say that they attend religious services at
least once a week, compared with 14% of adults in Great Britain, 8% in France,
and 7% in Sweden. Moreover, 58% of Americans say they often think about the
meaning and purpose of life, compared with 25% of the British, 26% of the
Japanese, and 31% of West Germans. However, this rate is not uniform across the
country: regular attendance to religious services is markedly more common in the
Bible Belt, composed largely of Southern and Southern Midwestern states, than in
the Northeast or the West.
Religion among some Americans is highly dynamic: over the period 1990–2001,
those groups whose portion of the population at least doubled were, in
descending order of growth, Wiccans, nondenominational Christians, Deists,
Sikhs, Evangelical Christians, Disciples of Christ, New Age adherents, Hindus,
Full Gospel adherents, Quakers, Bahá'ís, independent Christians, those who
refused to answer the question, Buddhists, and Foursquare Gospel adherents.
Over the same period, the group whose portion of the population grew by the
most percentage points was those who claimed no religion, making up 8.2% of the
adult population in 1990, but 14.2% in 2001. This group includes atheists,
agnostics, humanists, secularists and those who answered to the effect of "No
religion". The number of those with no religion varies wildly with location,
reaching a high in Washington, at 25%, and the rest of the relatively agnostic
western United States, and a low in North Dakota, at 3%, followed shortly by the
Bible Belt. In the U.S. women are generally more religious than men, at 42% and
31%, respectively; and younger Americans are more secular than their older
counterparts, at 14% and 7%, respectively. Among racial and ethnic groups,
blacks are the most religious, while Asians are the least, at 49% and 28%,
Education in the United States has been a state or local, not federal,
responsibility. The Department of Education of the federal government, however,
exerts some influence through its ability to control funding. Students are
generally obliged to attend school starting with kindergarten, and ending with
the 12th grade, which is normally completed at age 18, but many states may allow
students to drop out as early as age 16. Besides public schools, parents may
also choose to educate their own children at home or to send their children to
parochial or private schools. After high school, students may choose to attend
universities, either public or private. Public universities receive funding from
the federal and state governments, as well as from other sources, but most
students still have to pay student loans after graduation. Tuition at private
universities is generally much higher than at public universities.
There are many competitive institutions of higher education in the United
States, both private and public. The United States has 168 universities in the
world's top 500, 17 of which are in the top 20. There are also many smaller
universities and liberal arts colleges, and local community colleges of varying
quality across the country with open admission policies.
The United States ranks 24th in the reading and science literacy as well as
mathematical abilities of its high school students when compared with other
developed nations. The United States also has a low literacy rate compared to
other developed countries, with a reading literacy rate at 86 - 98% of the
population over age 15. As for educational attainment, 27.2% of the population
aged 25 and above have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, and 84.6% have
graduated high school.
The World Health Organization ranks the United States' health level 72nd
among the world's nations. Infant mortality is 5 per 1,000; among developed
nations, only Latvia ranks lower, at 6 per 1,000. However, this statistic is
contested by some experts, because other nations may not define infant mortality
as broadly as the United States. Obesity is also a public-health problem,
which is estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars every year.
Unlike most Western governments, the U.S. government does not guarantee
publicly funded health care to its citizens. Consequently, a high number of
people lack proper healthcare. Private insurance plays a major role in covering
health care costs. Health insurance in the United States is traditionally a
benefit of employment. However, emergency care facilities are required to
provide service regardless of the patient's ability to pay. Medical bills are
overwhelmingly the most common reason for personal bankruptcy in the United
States. The nation spends a substantial amount on medical research through such
federal agencies as the National Institutes of Health.
The culture of the United States began as an extension of the British empire,
but quickly evolved as an independent frontier culture supplemented by
indigenous and Spanish/Mexican cowboy culture as well as by subsequent waves of
immigration, first from Europe and Africa and later from Asia. Overall,
significant cultural influences came from northern Europe, especially from the
German, English and Irish cultures and later by Italian, Greek and Ashkenazi
cultures. Geographical place names largely reflect the combined English, Dutch,
French, Spanish and Native American components of U.S. American history.
One model of American culture has been that of being a melting pot in which
immigrants eventually assimilate into American culture bringing contributions
from their culture but ultimately adopting a unified American culture. A more
recently proposed model is that of the salad bowl in which immigrant cultures
retain at least some of the unique characteristics of their culture without
merging into the overall American culture. Modern sociologists tend to view
pluralism, rather than assimilation, as a goal for American society, largely
disregarding the idea of the melting pot.
A key component of American culture is the American Dream: the idea that,
through hard work, courage, and self-determination, regardless of social class,
a person can gain a better life.
American cuisine, embraces native American ingredients like turkey, potatoes,
corn, and squash which have become integral parts of American culture. Such
popular icons as apple pie, pizza, and hamburgers are either derived from or are
actual European dishes. Burritos and tacos have their origins in Mexico. And
Soul food, which originated from African slaves, is extremely popular in the U.S
as well. However, many of the food items now enjoyed worldwide either originated
in the United States or were substantially altered by American chefs.
Music in the United States also traces to the country's melting-pot
population through a diverse array of styles. Rock and roll, hip hop, country,
blues, and jazz are among the country's most internationally renowned genres.
Since the late 19th century, popular recorded music from the United States has
become increasingly known across the world, such that some forms of American
popular music are heard almost everywhere.
However, not all American culture is derived from some other form found
elsewhere in the world. For example, the birth of cinema, as well as its radical
development, can largely be traced back to the United States. In 1878, the first
recorded instance of sequential photographs capturing and reproducing motion was
Eadweard Muybridge's series of a running horse, which the British-born
photographer produced in Palo Alto, California, using a row of still cameras.
Since then, the American film industry, based in Hollywood, California, has had
a profound effect on cinema across the world. Other areas of development include
the comic book and Disney's animated films, which saw widespread popularity and
influence, especially in Asian Anime and Manga (the popularity of which has
transformed them from an obscure art into a global phenomenon), as well as
Chinese animation and Korean animation.
Sports are a national pastime, and playing sports, especially American
football, baseball, and basketball, is very popular at the high-school level.
Professional sports in the U.S. is big business, with most of the world's most
highly paid athletes. The "Big Four" sports are baseball, football, ice hockey,
and basketball. Baseball is popularly termed "the national pastime"; but, since
the early 1990s, American Football has largely been considered the most popular
sport in America.
Another popular sport is auto racing, especially NASCAR. Lacrosse, originally
played by some of the indigenous tribes, is a visible sport and growing. Soccer
(called football in most other parts of the world) is a popular
participatory sport, especially among children; but it does not have a large
following as a spectator sport, in contrast to its much greater popularity in
other countries. In recent years, however, the national league, Major League
Soccer (MLS), has seen a rise in popularity and internationally famous players
within the league. The FIFA World Cup is also gaining popularity in the United
States: during the 2006 World Cup, ratings were comparable to those of NBA
basketball playoffs. The United States is among the most influential regions in
shaping three popular board-based recreational sports—surfboarding,
skateboarding, and snowboarding—which have many competitions and a large,
dedicated subculture. Eight Olympiads have taken place in the United States. The
country generally fares very well in them, especially the Summer Olympics: for
instance, in the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. topped the medals table, with a record
103 medals (35 gold, 39 silver, and 29 bronze).