The United States of America, also referred to as the United States, U.S.A., U.S., America,¹ or the States, is a federal republic in central North America, stretching from the Atlantic in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. It shares land borders with Canada in the north and Mexico in the south, shares a marine border with Russia, in the west, and has a collection of districts, territories, and possessions around the world. The country has fifty states, which have a level of local autonomy according to the system of federalism. A United States citizen is usually identified as an American.¹
The United States traces its national origin to the declaration by thirteen British colonies in 1776 that they were free and independent states. Since the mid-20th century, it has surpassed all other nations in contemporary economic, political, military and cultural influence.
The U.S. was founded under a tradition of having the rule come from the people under the representative democracy model. This model of government (presidential-congressional) has since been adopted by many other countries, mostly in Central America and South America.
Main article: History of the United States
Following the European colonization of the Americas, the United States became one of the world's first modern representative democracies after its break with Great Britain, with a Declaration of Independence in 1776. The original political structure was a confederation in 1777, ratified in 1781 as the Articles of Confederation. After long debate, this was supplanted by the Constitution of a more centralized federal government in 1789. During the 19th century, many new states were added to the original thirteen as the nation expanded across the North American continent and acquired a number of overseas possessions. Three major traumatic experiences for the nation were the Civil War (1861-1865), the Great Depression (1929-1939), and September 11, 2001. Following the end of World War II and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has become the world's leading economic and military superpower.
Main article: Politics of the United States
The United States of America consists of fifty states with limited autonomy in which federal law takes precedence over state law. In general, matters that lie entirely within state borders are the exclusive concern of state governments. These include internal communications; regulations relating to property, industry, business, and public utilities; the state criminal code; and working conditions within the state.
The various state constitutions differ in some details but generally follow a pattern similar to that of the federal Constitution, including a statement of the rights of the people and a plan for organizing the government. On such matters as the operation of businesses, banks, public utilities and charitable institutions, state constitutions are often more detailed and explicit than the federal Constitution. In recent years, the federal government has assumed broader responsibility in such matters as health, education, welfare, transportation, housing and urban development.
The federal government itself consists of three branches: the executive branch (headed by the President), the legislative branch (the Congress), and the judicial branch (headed by the Supreme Court). The President is elected to a four-year term by the Electoral College carried out through the process of a nation-wide popular vote. The various legislators are chosen by popular vote in the 50 states. Members of Congress are elected for terms of two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and Senate, for life. This tripartite model of government is generally duplicated at the state level. Local governments take various forms.
The federal and state governments are dominated by two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. The dominant political culture in the United States is, as a whole, somewhat to the right of the dominant political culture in European democracies, though the issues at odds are somewhat different. Given their complex support bases it is difficult to specifically categorize the two major parties' appeal. Within the United States political culture, the Republican Party is described as center-right and the Democratic Party is described as center-left. Minor party and independent candidates are very occasionally elected, usually to local or state office, but the United States political system has historically supported "catch-all parties" rather than coalition governments. The ideology and policies of the sitting President of the United States commonly play a large role in determining the direction of his political party, as well as the platform of the opposition.
Political parties in the United States do not have formal "leaders" unlike many other countries, although there are complex hierarchies within the political parties that form various executive committees. Party ideology remains very individually-driven, with a diverse spectrum of moderates, centrists, and radicals within each party.
The two parties exist on the federal, state, and local levels, although the parties' organization, platform, and ideologies are not necessarily uniform across all levels of government.
Both major parties draw some support from across the diverse socio-economic classes which compose the multi-ethnic capitalist society which makes up the United States. Business interests provide the bulk of financial support to both parties, generally favoring the Republican party. The Republicans generally receive more funding and support from groups promoting traditional Christian morality, while the Democratic party receives more support from labor unions and minority ethnic groups, while still receiving significant business donations. Because federal elections in the United States are among the most expensive in the world, access to funds is vital in the political system. Thus corporations, unions, and other organized groups that provide funds and political support to parties and politicians play a very large role in determining political agendas and government decision-making.
The immense cultural, economic, and military influence of the United States has made foreign relations an especially important topic in its politics, with considerable concern about the image of the United States throughout the world.
Main article: Political divisions of the United States
At the time of the United States Declaration of Independence, the thirteen colonies transformed themselves into states, initially connected in a loose confederation, and later united as a unified country (cf. the United States). In the following years, the number of states within the U.S. grew steadily, due to western expansion, the conquest and purchase of lands by the national government, and the subdivision of existing states, resulting in the current total of fifty. The states are generally divided into smaller administrative regions: counties, cities and townships.
The United States also holds several other territories, districts and possessions, notably the federal district of the District of Columbia, which is the nation's capital, and several overseas insular areas, the most significant of which are Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the United States Virgin Islands. The United States has held a Naval Base at an occupied portion of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 1898. The U.S. government claims a lease to this land, which only mutual agreement or United States abandonment of the area can terminate, something the current Cuban government disputes, claiming Cuba was not truly sovereign at the time of the signing.
The United States has made no territorial claim in Antarctica but has reserved the right to do so.
Main article: Geography of the United States
As the world's third largest country (total area), the United States landscape varies greatly: temperate forestland on the East coast, mangrove forests in Florida, the Great Plains in the center of the country, the Mississippi-Missouri river system, the Rocky Mountains west of the plains, deserts and temperate coastal zones west of the Rocky Mountains and temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. The arctic regions of Alaska and the volcanic islands of Hawaii only increase the geographic and climatic diversity.
The climate varies along with the landscape, from sub-tropical in Florida to tundra in Alaska. Large parts of the country have a continental climate, with warm summers and cold winters. Some parts of the United States, particularly parts of California, have a Mediterranean climate.
Main article: Economy of the United States
The economy of the United States is organized primarily on a capitalist model, but with some government regulation in many industries. There are also some social welfare programs like Social Security, unemployment benefits, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("welfare"), and Medicare. Such departures from a pure free-market economy have generally increased since the late 1800s, but are still far less pronounced in the United States than in other ("first world") industrialized countries.
The U.S. economy is marked by steady growth, low unemployment, low inflation, a large trade deficit and rapid advances in technology. Its economy is the most influential in the world. Several countries have coupled their currency with the dollar, or even use it as a currency, and the U.S. stock markets are globally seen as an indicator of world economy.
The country has rich mineral resources, with extensive gold, oil, coal and uranium deposits. Successful farm industries rank the country among the top producers of, among others, corn, wheat, sugar and tobacco. The U.S. manufacturing sector produces cars, airplanes and electronics. The biggest industry is now service; about three-quarters of U.S. residents are employed in that sector.
The largest trading partner of the United States is its northern neighbor, Canada. Other major partners are Mexico, the European Union and the industrialized nations in Asia, such as Japan, India and South Korea. Trade with China is also significant.
See also: List of United States companies
Main article: Demographics of the United States
Ethnicity and race
Americans, in part due to categories decided by the U.S. government, generally describe themselves as being either multiracial or one of five racial groups: White, sometimes called European-American or Caucasian; African-American, also called black; Hispanic, also called Latino, or specified as Chicano, Puerto Rican, etc.; Asian-American, frequently specified as Korean-American, etc.; and Native American, also called Indian.
These groups leave a great deal of room for ambiguity, as, for example, Middle Easterners are made to choose between Europe and Asia, neither of which is where they're from; the category Asian is popularly identified with East Asia, rather than Southeast Asia; Pacific Islander/Hawaiian natives, technically Native Americans, may be assigned to Asian-American because of their geographic origins in Oceania; African-American is associated with centuries-long residents, and does not make distictions between them and, say, recent Afro-Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica or refugees from Somalia, etc. Furthermore, the categories disregard the multi-ethnic heritage of many Americans.
The majority of the 290 million people currently living in the United States descend from European immigrants who have arrived since the establishment of the first colonies. Major components of the European segment of the United States population are descended from immigrants from Germany (23 percent), Ireland (16 percent), England (13 percent), Scotland, The Netherlands and Italy (6 percent), with many immigrants also coming from Scandinavian or Slavic countries. Other significant immigrant populations came from eastern and southern Europe and French Canada; few immigrants came directly from France.
Likewise, while there were few immigrants directly from Spain, Hispanics from Mexico and South and Central America are considered the largest minority group in the country, comprising 13.4 percent of the population in 2002. This has brought increasing use of the Spanish language in the United States.
See also: Immigration to the United States
As of 2001, the distribution for major religions in the United States was Protestant (52 percent), Roman Catholic (24.5 percent), "none" (13.2 percent), Jewish (1.3 percent) and between 0.3 and 0.5 percent each for Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Unitarian Universalist. An additional 0.3 to 0.5 percent, each, are professed agnostics and atheists. The largest single religious denomination in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church, followed by the Southern Baptist Convention.
The United States, as a developed nation, is noteworthy for its high level of Christian religious devotion. However, the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christian has declined somewhat in recent years from 86.2 percent in 1990 to 76.5 percent in 2001.
In terms of relative wealth, most U.S. residents enjoy a standard of personal economic wealth that is far greater than that known in most of the world. For example, 51 percent of all households have access to a computer and 67.9 percent of U.S. households owned their dwellings in 2002.
The social structure of the United States is somewhat stratified, with a significant class of very wealthy individuals, which are often alleged to hold disproportionate cultural and political influence. Its Gini coefficient of 40.8 percent is the highest of all developed nations (without including South Africa or Mexico in the list).
Main article: Culture of the United States
Elvis Presley, an American singer and star who had a large impact on music and youth culture in the world.
U.S. culture has a large influence on the rest of the world, especially the Western world. This influence is sometimes criticized as cultural imperialism. U.S. music is heard all over the world, and it is the sire of such forms as blues and jazz and had a primary hand in the shaping of modern rock and roll and popular music culture. Many great Western classical musicians and forums find their home in the U.S. and New York City is a hub for international operatic and instrumental music as well as the world-famed Broadway plays and musicals. U.S. movies (primarily embodied in Hollywood) and television shows can be seen almost anywhere. This is in stark contrast to the early days of the republic, when the country was viewed by Europeans as an agricultural backwater with little to offer the culturally "advanced" world centers of Asia and Europe. Nearing the mid-point of its third century of nationhood, the U.S. plays host to the gamut of human intellectual and artistic endeavor in nearly every major city, offering classical and popular music; historical, scientific and art research centers and museums; dance performances, musicals and plays; outdoor art projects and internationally significant architecture. This development is a result of both contributions by private philanthropists and government funding.
The United States is also a great center of higher education, boasting more than 4,000 universities, colleges and other institutions of higher learning, the top tier of which may be considered to be among the most prestigious and advanced in the world.
The United States Constitution provides extensive rights for its citizens, including freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom of religion, trial by jury, and protection from "cruel and unusual punishment". The United States accepts a virtually unequalled number of immigrants and has a variety of laws against racial and other forms of discrimination and other protections for minority groups.
Nevertheless, the United States has at times been criticized for violations of human rights, including racial discrimination in trials and sentences, police abuses, excessive and unwarranted incarceration, and the imposition of the death penalty ². In 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that United States had "made little progress in embracing international human rights standards at home."  (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/usa/).
As of 2004, the United States has the world's largest prison population at over 2 million inmates. Human Rights Watch believes its per capita incarceration rate to be second in the world only to Rwanda.  (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/usa/#drug&race) Roughly 1 in 15 Americans will spend time in prison during his or her lifetime.  (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/crimoff.htm).
The United States' suicide rate exceeds that of its homicide rate. Male circumcision is legal and, while controversial, is more widely practiced in the United States than in any other country.  (http://www.cirp.org/library/complications/williams-kapila/)
Many American-based corporations as McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Disney have spread to most countries. Some have displayed resentment at how American culture has spread worldwide. McDonald's particularly has been the subject of protest and even acts of vandalism.
Despite being only 6% of the world's population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's power.  (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/ene_ele_con) In terms of per capita usage, the U.S. ranks 9th.
Partly because of the United States' status as one of the world's most powerful nations, the English language has also spread worldwide. In France, lawmakers have made efforts to discourage use of English words such as "e-mail" and to avoid franglais, or English mixed with French. The concern that English is rapidly displacing other languages is widespread.
Main article: Holidays of the United States
Main article: List of United States-related topics
¹ In the English-speaking world, America has become synonymous with the nation of the United States while American refers to United States (U.S.) citizens; this is a standard usage in not only the U.S. itself, but also much of Europe and Australasia. The term Americas, on the other hand, includes the North and South American continents as a collective unit. In Spanish-speaking countries, particularly in Central and South America, the word América is used not to denote the U.S. but what English-speakers would term the Americas. Thus, some people of the Americas find it off-putting for the U.S. to be referred to as America and inhabitants of the U.S. as Americans. While, in some quarters, the accuracy and political correctness of such nomenclature is debated, current usage in English by sheer weight of occurrence inclines to America and American as linked to the nation and citizens of the United States.
United States government