The United States of America is usually referred to as the United States or America. It is a federal republic on the continent of North America, which has 50 states. The U. S. includes Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands as territories. America is bordered by Canada, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. In America the basic unit of currency is the United States dollar. The U. S. decimal currency consists of paper money and coins.
This currency is issued by the U. S. Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve System. The money issued by the Federal Reserve is called Federal Reserve notes. Almost all the money in the United States are Federal Reserve notes. The Treasury issues United States notes. These notes come in $100 denominations, as well as all coins. Coins are made in six denominationsthe penny, or 1; the nickel, or 5; the dime, or 10; the quarter, or 25; the half-dollar, or 50; and the dollar, or 100.
Federal Reserve notes are also issued in six denominationsthe $1 bill, $5 dollar bill, $10 bill, $20 bill, $50 bill, and $100 dollar bill. In 1969 Denominations of $500, $1000, $5000, and $10,000 bills were discontinued, and $2 bills were stopped in 1976; however, some of these notes remain in circulation. Banks in the United States are chartered under the laws of either a state or the federal government. State-chartered banks are regulated by officials of the state in which they are located.
National banks are under the supervision of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency In 1913 the Federal Reserve Act created the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve is the central banking organization of the United States. By law, all national banks are required to belong to the Federal Reserve System. State banks may voluntarily become members if they meet certain requirements. Each member bank operates within 1 of the 12 Federal Reserve banks. In 1994, the bank holding companies with the most assetswere Citicorp, Chemical Banking Corporation, J. P. Morgan & Co.
Incorporated, Chase Manhattan Corporation, and Bankers Trust New York Corporation, all based in New York City; BankAmerica Corporation, based in San Francisco; NationsBank Corporation and First Union Corporation, both with headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Banc One Corporation, based in Columbus, Ohio. Of these, Citicorp was by far the largest, with assets valued at more than $221 billion. In the United States most domestic commerceis carried on by wholesalers and retailers. Wholesalers are people who buy goods from producers and sell them to retail business firms. Retailers sell goods to the final consumer.
Wholesale and retail trade together account for about 16 percent of annual GDP of the United States and employ about 20 percent of the labor force. Wholesale Trade In the early 1990s the United States had about 478,000 wholesale establishments, which together registered sales of more than $1. 9 trillion. The distribution of groceries and related products, the leading type of wholesale business, had annual sales of about $290 billion, or some 15 percent of all wholesale activity. Next in rank were machinery, equipment, and supplies; motor-vehicle parts and supplies; professional and commercial equipment, and electrical goods.
Wholesalers tend to be located in large urban centers that enable them to distribute goods over wide sections of the nation. The New York City metropolitan area is the country’s leading wholesale center; it serves as the national distribution center for a variety of goods and as the main regional center for the eastern United States. Other leading wholesale centers include Los Angeles, the main center for the western part of the United States; Chicago; San Francisco; Philadelphia; Houston; Dallas; and Atlanta.
Retail Trade In the late 1980s the United States had over 1. illion retail establishments with aggregate annual sales of nearly $2. 1 trillion. Automotive dealers, with about 22 percent of the total yearly retail trade, and food stores, with about 19 percent, are the leading retailers. Other major types of retail business include those involving sales of clothing; meals and snacks; automotive fuels, lubricants, and supplies; lumber and other building materials; pharmaceuticals and cosmetics; and furniture and sleep equipment. The volume of retail sales is directly related to the number of consumers in an area.
The three leading states in annual retail salesCalifornia, Texas, and New Yorkare also the three most populous states. California has about 12 percent of the nation’s population and accounts for the same proportion of retail sales. Hawaii and New Hampshire have the most retail sales per household. The New York City metropolitan area, which includes Long Island and northern New Jersey, accounts for more than $132 billion in retail sales; the region of Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Riverside ranks second, with more than $111 billion annually.
Other important retail centers are the metropolitan regions comprising Chicago (including Gary, Indiana); San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, California; Philadelphia, Wilmington, Delaware, and Trenton, New Jersey; Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan; Washington, D. C. , and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs; and Boston, Lawrence, Salem, Lowell, and Brockton, Massachusetts. Government For information on the departments and major agencies of the U. S. government, see separate articles on the individual departments and agencies.
For additional information on the three major branches of government, see Congress of the United States; President of the United States; Supreme Court of the United States. The supreme law of the land is the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was drafted by a convention in 1787, was ratified by the required two-thirds of the states by June 1788, and was put into effect in 1789, The Constitution may be amended by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress or by a special national convention called for the purpose, subject to ratification by vote of three-fourths of the legislatures of the states or state conventions.
The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were adopted in 1791. These provide for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, the right to petition the government, and various due process and criminal procedure rights for individuals. Seventeen additional amendments were adopted between 1795 and 1992, abolishing slavery, providing for an income tax, and providing for universal suffrage for all people 18 or older, among other purposes.
The Constitution provides for a union of states, now numbering 50, each with its own constitution, republican form of government, and reserved powers, within a federal system. The national government is responsible for external affairs and has concurrent powers with states, commonwealths, and self-governing territories over domestic matters. The chief of state is the president of the United States and the seat of government is the District of Columbia, which has limited home rule and no voting representation in the national legislature.
The Constitution establishes three separate branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch has its own area of authority. These areas overlap, making it necessary for the three branches to share in, and compete for, the power to govern effectively. Each branch has some constitutional authority that it can use to impede the functioning of the other branches, creating a system of checks and balances. The purpose of this somewhat cumbersome machinery of government, as intended by the framers of the Constitution, is to prevent the concentration of power in a small group of politicians, which could lead to tyranny.
Since the adoption of the Constitution, the national government has increased its functions in economic and social matters and has shared more responsibilities with the states. Executive Article II of the Constitution provides for a president and vice president chosen by a majority of voters in the Electoral College, for a fixed term of four years. The 22nd Amendment (1951) limits presidents to two terms in office. By state law, electors are chosen by a plurality of the popular vote in each state and in the District of Columbia.
In almost all cases the winner of the popular vote is elected president. In the 1984 presidential election, less than 55 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots; after a decline to approximately 50 percent in 1988, turnout increased to approximately 54 percent in 1992. The American president typically has a greater range of functions than prime ministers in parliamentary governments because the president serves as ceremonial chief of state as well as head of government.
Unlike most presidents in other nations, the American president is also the head of his or her party, an important legislative leader, and the chief executive. The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the U. S. armed forces. The president defends the nation against invasion or attack and may order American armed forces into combat. The president’s authority to deploy forces on his or her own initiative is regulated by Congress under Article I, Section 8, which reserves to Congress the power to declare war, and under provisions of the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
The president’s diplomatic powers include negotiation and ratification of treaties, with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate; the appointment of ambassadors to foreign nations, also with the consent of the Senate; and the reception of foreign ambassadors. The president negotiates, on his or her own authority, executive agreements with leaders of other nations. By law the president prepares an executive budget and an economic report, which are submitted to Congress each year.
The president submits requests for legislation, the most important of which usually regard taxation and other economic and military matters. The president also exercises executive authority over the various government departments and agencies. An extensive advisory system serves the president. Aides in the White House, where the president resides and has offices, provide advice, manage press relations, schedule appointments and travel, and communicate with Congress, government departments, lobbying groups, and the president’s political party.
Staff agencies in the executive office include the Office of Management and Budget, which prepares presidential budget requests and controls spending; the National Security Council, which is concerned with the nation’s defense; and the Council of Economic Advisers. The President’s cabinet also serves as a source of information and advice. It consists of the heads of the governmental departments and a few other officials, such as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the U. S. mbassador to the United Nations (UN).
The cabinet has no power of its own. The executive branch of the government comprises 14 departments: the Department of State, Department of Treasury, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, and Department of Veterans Affairs. Some government agencies are not directly supervised by the president.
These include independent establishments such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Reserve System. Legislature All legislative powers granted by the Constitution in Article I are exercised by the Congress of the United States. Congress consists of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate contains 100 senators, two representing each statea provision of the Constitution not subject to amendment. The 435 members of the House are elected by the different states on the basis of their population at the most recent U. S. ensus.
California has the largest number of representatives, 52; several states, such as Delaware and Vermont, have only 1. Representatives serve two-year terms, and senators six-year terms. Every two years all 435 members of the House are elected, and one-third of the senators. In presidential election years, about 45 percent of eligible adults vote for members of Congress; in other election years, only about 35 percent vote. The Senate and House are organized by the majority party in each chamber, which chooses the presiding officer, the majority leader, and the chairpersons of each committee.
Through much of American history the party controlling the White House did not control both houses of Congress. This situation, known as divided government, can lead to reduced output of legislation and an increase in presidential vetoes of bills passed by Congress. Unlike the chief executives of parliamentary systems in other countries, the U. S. resident neither resigns nor calls for new elections, even when majorities in Congress reject the president’s programs.
Congress has extensive powers in domestic affairs, including the power to tax, borrow money and pay debts, coin money and regulate its value, and regulate commerce among the states. Congress helps to establish and oversees the departments and agencies of the executive branch; it also establishes the lower federal courts and determines their jurisdiction. Congress has the power to declare war, raise and maintain the armed forces, establish tariffs, and regulate commerce with foreign nations. A bill is passed by Congress by majority vote of those present in each chamber; it is then sent to the president.
The president may sign the bill, to indicate approval, or allow the bill to become law without signing it; or may veto the bill and return it to Congress, giving reasons for this action. The president’s veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the members of Congress voting in each chamber. Each house of Congress has some distinct powers. Revenue measures must originate in the House of Representatives. The House, with a majority vote, can initiate proceedings to impeach (charge with misconduct) the president. If the Electoral College cannot produce a majority to elect a president, the House chooses one of the top three contenders.
If both the president and the vice president die, are incapacitated, or are removed from office, the Speaker of the House becomes president. The Senate advises and consents to presidential treaties and to nominations for major executive officials, ambassadors, justices of the Supreme Court, and federal judges. The Senate tries all impeachments, with a two-thirds vote necessary to convict. In the event of a deadlock in the Electoral College, the Senate chooses the vice president from the top two contenders. The president pro tempore of the Senate comes after the Speaker of the House in the line of succession to the presidency.
The legislative branch also includes agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office. Judiciary The federal court system derives its powers from Article III of the Constitution. The system includes the Supreme Court of the United States, established by the Constitution; and 12 courts of appeal (sometimes called circuit courts), 91 district courts, and special courts such as the Tax Court, the Claims Court, and the Court of Veterans’ Appeals, all established by Congress.
See Courts in the United States. The federal courts perform two constitutional functions. First, they interpret the meaning of laws and administrative regulations; this is known as statutory construction. Second, the courts determine whether any law passed by Congress or state legislatures, or any administrative action taken by the national or state executive branches, violates the U. S. Constitution; this is known as judicial review. Federal courts can declare null and void laws or actions, at the national and state levels, that violate the Constitution.
This power of judicial review exists in a few other nations, but in none is it so significant in resolving important issues or in checking and balancing branches of government. The nine justices of the Supreme Court and the other federal judges are nominated by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The president, in making district court nominations, usually follows the recommendations of senators from the president’s party. All federal judges and justices of the Supreme Court serve on good behavior for life.
They may be removed from office only through the process of impeachment, which has been used fewer than 20 times, and never successfully against a Supreme Court justice. Decisions of the Supreme Court that involve the statutory construction of laws may be overturned by Congress. Decisions involving judicial review may be checked and balanced in either of two ways. The president and Senate may deliberately fill vacancies on the Supreme Court with new justices who can be expected to overturn the decision; or the Constitution can be amended, as was the case after the Supreme Court ruled income tax unconstitutional.
Climate The climate of a place is the seasonal pattern of its inputs of solar energy, wind, and precipitation. With the exception of the principal islands of Hawaii, no place in the United States ever sees the sun directly overhead. In general, sun intensity and, consequently, temperatures decrease from south to north; in summer, however, the decrease in intensity is partly offset by longer days in the north. Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota actually have higher record temperatures than New Mexico and Alabama.
In winter, on the other hand, the short days in the north exaggerate the effect of low sun angles, creating wide temperature differences from south to north. Forests use much solar energy to evaporate water, and therefore the humid states of the eastern United States do not get as warm as the dry western deserts. Oceans and lakes moderate temperatures; this is especially true of the western coast, where the ocean is cool and the wind is usually onshore. Finally, mountains are somewhat cooler by day and much colder at night than surrounding lowlands.
Effects of each of these factors can be seen in the accompanying table of temperatures. The pattern of precipitation is largely a consequence of the interaction of wind and topography. The wind system of the earth behaves with one simple goal: to equalize temperatures on earth by taking heat from the equator and carrying it to the poles. The process is grand in scope and complex in detail. Two features of global atmospheric circulation are particularly significant for the United States. One is a current of sinking air, a gentle, but persistent, downward movement of air from the upper atmosphere.
This subsidence is part of the global convection cycle and starts with updrafts of warm and humid air near the equator; the air loses moisture as it rises to the upper atmosphere and begins to move poleward. At about latitude 30 north the air begins to sink, bringing hot and dry conditions to the southwestern United States, especially in summer. The other significant part of atmospheric circulation is the jet stream, a shifting zone of fast winds blowing generally from west to east high above the ground. The path of the jet stream on any given day is a key to surface weather.
In summer, the jet stream is usually near the Canadian border, although on any given day it may loop as far north as Alaska or as far south as Louisiana. The jet brings wet Pacific air onshore in Washington and Alaska, but in other western states dry air masses from Mexico and Canada dominate. In the east, by contrast, the jet can pull moist air masses northward from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Canada. In winter, the entire wind system follows the sun southward. Pacific air masses now bring clouds and rain to the coastal mountains from California to southern Alaska.
The jet usually crosses the country at the latitude of Oklahoma, and cold, dry Canadian air covers the northern half of the country; however, day-to-day shifts of the jet may pull warm, moist Gulf air as far north as Illinois or bring Canadian air to Florida. Regional weather hazards are intimately associated with the seasonal position of the jet stream and associated fronts. Torrential rains are most common in the United States near the Gulf of Mexico, which is the major source of moisture for the country.
Tornadoes occur in the center of the United States, where Canadian and Gulf air masses often collide violently. Southern California has smog episodes and forest fires in late summer, when the jet stream and its associated rain are far to the north and the hot, dry sinking air from the tropical circulation dominates the weather. Hurricanes arise out of the late-summer warmth of the Atlantic Ocean and drift toward the southeastern states in the autumn. Heavy winter snows in the eastern United States are caused by the rapid cooling of the Gulf air, amplified in the Great Lakes region by local lake breezes.
December and March are the major snow months in Minnesota and the Dakotas; January there is a time of intense cold and little snowfall, because Gulf air cannot penetrate this far north in midwinter. Finally, the occasional kona (west coast) storms of Hawaii are wintertime incursions of North Pacific air that occur when the jet stream curves far to the south. Normal weather consists of trade winds that cause rain only on the northeastern slopes of each island. Rivers and Lakes Rivers respond to the quantity and seasonal pattern of precipitation in a region.
The streams of the eastern United States, principal among which are the Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna, Potomac, and Savannah, receive rainfall in every month and therefore are reliable avenues for waterborne commerce. Rivers of the interior, such as the Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, and Mississippi, often flood in spring and decrease in size during the hot weeks of late summer and the snow months of winter. Some flow regulation and flood control have been achieved on these rivers through a costly and controversial system of dams and levees.
Argument over water projects is even more heated in the western United States, where mountain snowmelt is the principal source of water for the eastward-flowing Missouri, Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande rivers and the westward-flowing Colorado, Sacramento, Snake, and Columbia rivers. Most of these rivers shrink in volume as they flow away from their mountain sources; some, like the Colorado, are dammed and diverted for so many urban or agricultural uses that they no longer carry water to the sea. Along the Pacific seaboard are a few coastal streams that have their seasonal peaks during the winter rainy season.
In Alaska the drainage system is dominated by the Yukon, a river as long as the Rio Grande but considerably greater in volume. The surface water sources of the nation also include the five Great Lakes, which occupy an interconnected set of glacially scoured basins and together serve as a major transportation artery. Glaciers also left tens of thousands of smaller lakes throughout the northeastern United States, the upper Midwest, and much of Alaska. Among the larger of these are Champlain, Winnipesaukee, and Cayuga in the northeast and Winnebago, Red, and Mille Lacs in the Midwest.
The Great Salt Lake of Utah and many smaller salt basins of the Mountain states are remnants of much larger Ice Age lakes. Many groundwater aquifers, especially those of the Great Plains, are also relics of wetter climates of the past. Vegetation Because plants respond directly to local climate and to a lesser degree to local topography, the indigenous vegetation of the United States is marked by great diversity. In regions other than those dominated by forests are a wide variety of plants that are adapted to colder or drier conditions.
At the time European settlement began, about one-half of the United States was covered by forests. Today, because of extensive human modification, about 30 percent of the country’s land area is forested. Similarly, grasslands and other natural vegetative cover decreased in extent as the continent was settled. Northern Alaska, located in the northernmost part of the United States, is characterized by a windswept tundra, a region of lichens, mosses, hardy low shrubs, and flowering plants. Inland and to the south, the growing season lengthens and certain trees can survive.
A few species of needle-leaf trees, notably spruces and firs, dominate a vast but slow-growing evergreen forest, interspersed with lichen-covered rocky areas, grassy swamps, and aspen-choked fire scars. This forest, known as the taiga, stretches southeast from interior Alaska and has small outliers in northern New England and the Great Lakes region. South of the taiga the growing season is still longer and more tree species can survive. Here is found a mixed forest containing both needle-leaf and broadleaf trees, and including pines, maples, elms, birches, and oaks, as well as hickory, beech, and sycamore.
This type of mixed forest covered the region around the Great Lakes and most of the New England and Middle Atlantic states when European settlers arrived. Still farther south, the frost-free season exceeds six months, rainfall becomes more reliable, and the forest reaches its maximum diversity. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee contains more tree species than the entire continent of Europe. The Gulf of Mexico coast is even warmer than this mountainous area, but its plains and low hills do not support as complex a forest.
Moreover, the sandy soils and hot summers encourage fires, which suppress oaks and other hardwoods and favor the fast-growing pines that now represent the major forest resource of the nation. Other species found here include southern magnolia, pecan, red gum, and black gum (tupelo). A number of subtropical and tropical trees flourish in southern Florida. Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, salt marshes and groves of cypress and mangrove help to armor the shore against the eroding forces of wind and water. The diversity of the forest also decreases west of the Appalachian Mountains.
First, the mountaintop spruces, firs, and mountain ashes disappear. Then, rainfall decreases in quantity and reliability, and fires become more frequent. The lush bottomland hardwood forests of the Mississippi Valley slowly dwindle in size and complexity. Oak-hickory forests give way to isolated stands of oak and then to tall grass prairies, which, before cultivation, occupied the present Corn Belt from Indiana to the eastern Great Plains. Farther west, the climate becomes still drier, and the tall bluestem grasses yield to shorter grama and wheatgrass ranges.
The grasses of the northern Great Plains grow only during the short summer and flower in late summer or early autumn. By contrast, the grasses of the southern Great Plains grow rapidly in spring, flower early, and then go dormant during the hot, dry summers. Both kinds of grass become less productive as rainfall continues to diminish toward the west. Shrubby sagebrush (in the north) and mesquite and juniper (in Texas) are typical invaders on poorer grasslands that have been overgrazed or protected from fires.
A gradual transition to true desert vegetation is interrupted by the Rocky Mountains and other ranges, the elevation of which both increases rainfall and decreases temperature and evaporation. Trees become prominent on the lower and middle slopes. Hardy pines and junipers dominate at lower elevations, giving way to aspens, firs, and spruces at higher elevations. Still higher, the spruces and firs become stunted and widely spaced. Above this zone is treeless tundra, outwardly similar to Arctic vegetation, although the two kinds of tundra have different patterns of solar radiation, day length, and diurnal (day-to-night) temperature changes.
Shrubby low-lying deserts alternate with forested (and occasionally tundra- or ice-capped) mountains across all of the Mountain states and into the Pacific states. This region is agriculturally productive only when massive investments are made in irrigation. Death Valley, which lies below sea level, is but one of the many nearly barren lowlands. Vegetation in these regions includes species such as sagebrush, juniper, pion, rabbitbrush, mesquite, creosote bush, and yucca; the cactus “forests” that form a popular image of deserts are actually found on the slopes of mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert of southern Arizona and California.
On the higher but still relatively dry Colorado Plateau are found ponderosa and pion pines. The hot, dry summers and mild, moist winters of coastal southern California produce a distinctive shrub vegetation known as chaparral. The plants here have adapted to rainy winters, dry summers, autumn fires, and thin soils. Farther north on the western slopes of the coastal hills and Sierra Nevada, the winter rainy season is longer; forests of giant sequoia and redwood occupy this favored location, where there is enough rain to permit rapid growth but a long enough dry season to discourage competition from numerous species.
Still farther north, in western Oregon and Washington, a true rain forest appears as the dry periods shrink to less than a few weeks in midsummer. This luxuriant forest consists primarily of a great variety of needle-leaf trees: Douglas firs, true firs, hemlocks, cedars, spruces, and pines, each occupying its own preferred elevation zone here, and together constituting the second richest forest resource for the nation. The coastal forests of Alaska have fewer species than the rich rain forest to the south but a faster growth than the taiga to the north.
The natural vegetation of Hawaii is conditioned by its isolation, which has served to limit the number of species, and by the interplay of its mountains and the moist trade winds. Forests dominated by guava trees on the windward (northeast) coasts of the islands grade upward to a rich but swampy rain forest at moderate elevations, where the annual rainfall may exceed about 10,000 mm (about 400 in). The high mountains support shrub forest, and patches of tundra are found on the summits of the highest peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
The dry leeward (southwest) coasts are virtual deserts, with spiny koa and kiawe shrubs growing on the slightly wetter slopes. The religious affiliations of the inhabitants of the British colonies that formed the nucleus of the United States varied from region to region. Throughout the New England area the dominant faith was Congregationalism, established by Separatist and Puritan groups who were dissidents from the Church of England; settlers of the South Atlantic region adhered officially to the Church of England; and the Middle Atlantic region was a haven for a variety of sects and creeds.
The New England Separatists and Puritans came to North America in order to worship in their own way, without interference from the Church of England. The first group to reach New England were the Separatists called the Pilgrims, who in 1620 founded the Plymouth Colony. The colony, with its church, was absorbed eventually by the more powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1629 by Puritans. (see Puritanism). The churches of the Puritans were organized as separate congregations, each bound together by a covenant taken by its members; the name of the Puritans’ organized church was derived from this emphasis on congregationalism.
Religion was the focal point of social and political life in New England. Until 1691 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy, in which church attendance was compulsory, and church membership a qualification for voting and holding office. Non-Congregationalist denominations, notably the Baptists and Quakers (see Friends, Society of), were regarded with hostility and often persecuted by the colonial government.