The United States and its entire history can be largely explained by its geography. Since its inception, the fundamental factor influencing and guiding the country’s development is that it is far from everything else. The US is bounded to the east and west by an ocean and to the north and south by friendly and militarily weak countries and this has meant that the US has almost never been threatened on the home-front. Many suspects that this is why the US has such a defined government and political structure—because it had the time to develop the system while it wasn’t worrying about the potential invasion. But geography had a much deeper role in the formation of the United States that stated back before the states were even united. It all started back in the colonial era.
The 13 colonies were essentially split into three geographically distinct groups that can explain why the areas look the way they do today. The New England colonies were heavily forested and had some fantastic natural ports like Boston and Newport. However, the area had a short growing season and a rocky landscape which meant that crops never grew very well. Therefore, the area ended up as a center for shipbuilding activity and fishing. To get their food they would trade with the breadbasket of America—the Middle Colonies.
The mid-Atlantic region was fantastic for farming. The area has a long, warm growing season and plentiful, arable soil. It also has navigable rivers stretching far inland that could help transport goods. Philadelphia and New York were the two major cities of the colonial era in this area and their locations reflect their roles. You’ll notice that both New York and Philadelphia are at the mouth of significant, navigable rivers while Boston is not. The inland mid-Atlantic farmers transported their goods via these rivers so the major cities grew as trading posts at the end of these rivers. If New England had been a farming based economy, its largest city would likely have developed here, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, but, even though it was navigable, the river was of little use to the area. Having a major ocean-going port in Boston was what was important for the maritime-based New England economy.
Further south was the Southern Colonies—home to some of the oldest colonial settlements. Now, there’s one line that you can put on a map to explain why southern cities are where they are. It’s called the fall line. The technical explanation is that this is where the soft sedimentary rock that forms the coastal plains meets the hard basement rock that forms the land farther inland. The simpler explanation is, however, that above this line rivers will have waterfalls and rapids. Below, they’ll be flat and navigable. Baltimore, Richmond, Durham, Raleigh, Columbia, Augusta, and a bunch of smaller cities all sit almost exactly on the fall line. There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is that below these cities the rivers were navigable so colonists could get to the cities, but what was perhaps more important was that they were far inland which gave protection.
Spain controlled Florida for much of colonial history and had a significant military presence. At the time it was reasonable to think that they would continue their expansion by moving up the coast so colonial cities in the South chose their locations in part based on natural fortifications. But some of the most significant events in US history happened because of one fact—the south is hot.
Very early into colonial history settlers in the south figured out that the area was fantastic for tobacco cultivation and England loved tobacco. The only problem was, tobacco is a much more labor-intensive crop than wheat or beans or corn. So the farmers bought in help… just not voluntarily. The American south became one of the biggest destinations of the slave trade and plantation owners were getting filthy rich. A big reason slavery existed for so long in the US was actually because the south was so physically big. You see, the job of Supreme Court justice used to be part-time. In the 19th century the justices would only come to DC for a portion of the year and, for the rest of the year they would travel around an assigned area and hear cases alongside local judges. The problem was, the north was much more densely populated and had better travel infrastructure than the south. The south was vast, sparsely populated, and had a very rudimentary road system. Therefore, judges assigned to the north were given a smaller area with a larger population while the southern judges were given a larger area with a smaller population so they could get around their whole circuit in the same time. Therefore, in the 19th century when considering the constitutionality of slavery, the south, the slave-owning area, was overrepresented in the Supreme Court. The crucial Dred Scott case in 1857 which cemented the legality of slavery in US territory was decided by a bench of five southern justices and four northern ones even though only 8 million of the country’s 27 million free inhabitants lived in southern states. Although some may call it a stretch, you can at least partially attribute the civil war to the weather in the south that made tobacco and cotton cultivation possible. So how did the US end up becoming the superpower it is today?
After the colonial era, the United States had to push out west to gain the strategic advantage of isolation. In 1800, what is now the US was essentially divided into three sections ruled by three countries: the United States, France, and Spain. In the colonial era, nobody really ventured west of the Appalachians. There was no real reason to and it was the unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until 1789 that the first explorer crossed the continent to the Pacific overland. The first problem preventing expansion was Spain and France’s ownership of the Mississippi River region, or more specifically, New Orleans. You see, New Orleans was perhaps the most important city on the continent because it lay where the most important river on the continent met the ocean. The Mississippi River has an absolutely enormous watershed that all drains here. He who controlled New Orleans controlled the entire middle country.
There were almost no roads going from east to west in North America in the early 1800s so to get something from Pittsburgh to New York, it was actually easier to ship by boat on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Atlantic than to make the 300-mile overland trek. Rivers were how people got things around so without access to New Orleans the US had no access to the rivers and without access to the rivers the US couldn’t get crops and other goods from this region to the outside world. Luckily, France agreed to sell New Orleans and the rest of their huge swath of land to the US in 1803 for the equivalent of $250 million 2017 dollars. This proved to be one of the best purchases in history as the area now has an estimated value of $1.2 trillion. The US then got access to the Pacific in 1819 in the Pacific Northwest then fully in 1848 at the end of the Mexican American war upon the secession of California and the southwest from Mexico.
The United States now existed from sea to shining sea. It was at this moment when people were convinced, with merit, that the US was untouchable. No real superpower existed in the western hemisphere which meant that nobody could truly threaten the existence of the United States. Any invading army would have to run supply chains across oceans which greatly reduces power and, at least historically, there was no threat of another superpower arising on the North America continent because of, once again, geography. Mexico was largely a desert and had no solid river system like the US to facilitate ease of movement. Without a solid transport system and ability to easily grow crops it had little chance of gaining the population and level of development necessary to rival the US.
Canada also had its own problems. It didn’t have any rivers crossing the country, its climate didn’t allow for much farming, and mountainous terrain made roads difficult. Few realize that even today only one two-lane road connects the entirety of eastern Canada to the entirety of western Canada. Just last year a bridge on the Trans-Canada highway collapsed and so, for 17 hours, there was no way to drive from east to west and the country was split in two. If ever Canada was invaded by land there would be no solid way to facilitate troop movement and it would likely operate more as regions than a cohesive country.
The US is therefore in a privileged position today where thousands of miles separate it from the serious issues of abroad. The North American continent is largely devoid of international conflict and so the United States’ success can be accurately attributed to its geographic isolation. When you don’t have to worry about protecting against a potential invasion you can devote more time to education, development, science, and politics. The United States is a country that worked almost by chance. It just happened that the right mix of people landed in the right place to create a world superpower so, without the fantastic geography of the continent, the United States almost certainly would not be the superpower it is today.