Section 7: Geography and Holidays
The United States of America is both a geographic place and a political community. America has been blessed with geographic advantages. Compared to other parts of the world, it has had generally peaceful relations with the two countries on its borders, Canada and Mexico, in addition to having two oceans — the Pacific to the West and the Atlantic to the East — helping guard it from external threat.
The United States is also a political community, one most clearly embodied in the Constitution but also found in important traditions and symbols, including the US flag, the national anthem, and Independence Day.
Section 7: Geography and Holidays
The Canadian-American Border
The border between the United States and Canada is the longest land border between two countries in the world, and thus many states share a border with our northern neighbor. Canada was once also a British colony and remained one long after the US declared independence.
Among the states bordering Canada in the northeast are the upper New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as New York. The border that the states of Washington, Idaho, and Montana share with Canada was once potentially a site of conflict with Great Britain, before a peaceful resolution helped lay the groundwork for the friendship between not only the United States and Great Britain. That friendship has carried over to our strong relationship with Canada once it too became independent of Great Britain.
The Mexican-American Border
Four states share a border with Mexico: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Texas became an independent country after revolting from Mexico in 1836. The independent Texas became a state of the Union in 1846, which triggered the Mexican-American War. During and after that war, the United States sought to acquire the minimally populated and more remote parts of Mexico which had been more difficult for Mexico to govern from afar. These lands became the states of California, New Mexico, and Arizona.
In addition to the 50 states and the federal District of Columbia, the United States has several territories. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are found to the southeast, in the Caribbean Sea, while Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands are in the Pacific Ocean.
The big idea
“As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;--let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty.
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs —let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”
- Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, 1838
Section 7.2 Symbols and Holidays
The American flag has 13 stripes, each representing one of the original colonies. The number of stars has changed over time as states joined the Union. Thus, there are now 50 stars on the flag, one for each state.
Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the British attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Congress designated the Star-Spangled Banner the American national anthem in 1931.
Independence Day, which we celebrate on July 4, is the federal holiday commemorating the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and our separation from Great Britain during the Revolution.
There are several U.S. national holidays in addition to Independence Day. Some celebrate important religious or cultural holidays, such as New Year’s Day or Christmas. Memorial Day and Veterans Day commemorate the contributions of our armed services to protecting America. Thanksgiving was initially proclaimed a federal holiday by George Washington, who called for a day for Americans to thank God for the blessings rendered to the republic, a practice which was made permanent by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.
Other holidays celebrate the contributions of distinguished Americans to the country’s history. For example:
- President’s Day: formerly celebrated as Washington’s Birthday but expanded to cover other presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln.
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrates the civil rights activist and his legacy.
- Labor Day celebrates the contribution of workers to America.
- Columbus Day: added during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and commemorates the discovery of the New World.