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Travel Guide > North America > USA

USA History & Politics

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America was once populated by people who are believed to have migrated from northeast Asia. In the United States their descendants are known by uncomfortable appellations such as Native Americans, or American Indians. While the Indians are often portrayed living a singular, usually primitive lifestyle, in fact, prior to European arrival, the continent was densely populated with sophisticated societies. The Cherokee, for example were part of the overarching Mississippian culture which built huge mounds and large towns that covered the landscape while the Anasazi built sophisticated cliff-side towns. The primitive existence depicted of Native Americans is generally the result of mass die-outs triggered by Old World diseases — in effect they were a post-apocalyptic people.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, parts of the region were colonized by European nations including Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia, and/or their religious missionaries. The British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were the kernel of what we now know as the United States of America. Religious immigrants from Massachusetts, run by a Puritan theocracy, would found most of the New England colonies, creating a highly religious and idealistic region. Virginia would become the most populous and influential of the southern slave societies. The southern areas, because of a longer growing season, had richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. As in Central and South America, African slaves were forced to cultivate large plantations.

By the early 18th century, 13 colonies ranged along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to Maine.

In the late 18th century, colonists declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. They achieved their freedom in a War of Independence also known as the Revolutionary War. The colonies formed a federal government, with its Constitution inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about individual liberty. The Treaty of Paris that negotiated the end of the War of Independence gave Americans all British land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

As American and European settlers pushed farther past the Appalachians, the United States gradually admitted new states in the Midwest. This was only enabled by the displacement and decimation of the Native American populations through warfare.

In the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 acquired a former French territory along the Mississippi River. The country fought the War of 1812 with Britain in an attempt to reassert its authority and try to capture Canada. The war ended in a virtual stalemate, and territorial boundaries between the two nations remained nearly the same. Nevertheless, the war had disastrous consequences for the western Native American tribes that had allied with the British, for now they were left completely to the mercy of the land-hungry Americans.

Florida was purchased in 1813 from the Spanish after the American military had effectively subjugated the region. The next major territorial acquisition came after American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of 1848 won the northern territories of Mexico, including the future states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, giving the continental US the rough outlines it has today. The Native Americans were concentrated in the west by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases.

In mid-1800s, many Americans were calling for the abolition of slavery. The industrializing North did not need slaves anyway, and favored national abolition. Southern states, on the other hand, believed that individual states had the right to decide whether or not slavery should be legal. The Southern states, fearing domination by the North, decided to secede from the Union, sparking the American Civil War. To date, it is the bloodiest conflict in U.S history , costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The North won. Slavery was abolished, but the former slaves and their descendants were to remain an economic and social underclass in the South.

The US purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, and Hawaii was annexed in 1898. The Spanish-American War gained the first "colonial" territories: Cuba (granted independence a few years later), the Philippines (also later granted independence) and Puerto Rico (which voluntarily remains a US territory).

In the Eastern cities of the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans, and Russian Jews joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country's growing industrialization. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty for industrial jobs in the North. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads crisscrossed the country, accelerating development.

With its entrance into World War I in 1917, the United States established itself as a world power. Real wealth grew rapidly in this period. In the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October of 1929, contributed to economic havoc, known as the Great Depression. Socialists and Communists seized the opportunity to win converts.

At the end of 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a military base in the Pacific, plunging the United States into World War II. In alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the U.S. defeated the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. At the end of this war, the United States was the dominant economic power in the world, responsible for nearly half of the world's production. It was the only force capable of containing the Communist Soviet Union, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.

After WWII, America experienced far greater affluence. A civil rights movement emerged that eliminated most institutional discrimination against African-Americans during the 1960s; a revived women's movement also led to wide-ranging changes in American society. Post WWII saw a shift to an economy primarily based on technology rather than agriculture. Today, many of the leading technology companies are based in the United States (especially on the Pacific Coast). The U.S. also took the lead in military and space technology, especially beginning in the 1960s.

The 1950s saw the beginnings of a major shift of population to the suburbs and largely contributed to the United States giving rise to the car culture and the convenience of fast food restaurants. The Interstate Highway System, constructed primarily from the 1960s–1980s, became perhaps the most comprehensive freeway system in the world. Major chain stores began popping up in cities across the country, and some later spread to foreign countries. The American consumer culture, as well as Hollywood movies and many forms of popular music, has arguably established the United States as the cultural center of the world.



The United States is a federation of 50 states as well as the District of Columbia, with each of the states retaining considerable autonomy within the federation. Each of the states has its own state government, with laws differing slightly between state.

The Federal Government consists of the President and his administration acting as the executive body, as well as the United States Congress acting as the legislative body. The President is elected indirectly by the people via an electoral college, and serves as both the Head of Government and Head of State. The Congress is bicameral, comprising an upper house, known as the Senate, and a lower house, known as the House of Representatives. Both houses are directly elected by the people. While more seats are given to more populated states in the House of Representatives (eg. 53 for California, but only 1 for Alaska), the Senate is equally represented by each state, which each state getting 2 seats regardless of population. For presidential elections, the number of electoral votes assigned to each state is equal to the total number of representatives and senators from the state. The District of Columbia has no representation in either house of Congress, though it is given 3 electoral votes in Presidential elections.

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