If you managed to stay awake for some of your high school U.S. history classes, you have at least a vague sense of the country’s story as a series of maps. The only really fixed parameter on maps of the colonial era has been the Atlantic seaboard, which provided the dominant feature on each of the original thirteen colonies, whose westward boundaries were, as a matter of settlement, measured in dozens of miles, and whose northern and southern boundaries were often represented as straight lines understood to extend indefinitely. Such maps were often more aspiration than reality, because at the very moment they were being produced by the English, the French had their own maps that occupied some of the same territory. And though they weren’t published in any modern or conventional sense of the term, Indian tribes had their own maps that also portrayed them as occupying (or, at any rate, claiming) the same territory.
With the end of the American Revolution and a complex series of negotiations that culminated in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the newly created United States of America was now depicted by itself and Europeans as a solid slab of land bounded by two bodies of water: Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Mississippi River in the west. The boundaries of the states themselves within that slab (augmented by the admission of Kentucky and Vermont in 1791, followed by Tennessee five years later) remained vague and contested in the early republic. The government of Connecticut acknowledged the existence of New York and Pennsylvania to its west, but claimed all territory due west of its territorial boundaries all the way to California – a cheeky claim in all kinds of ways. One of the few things the weak national U.S. government of the 1780s got right was convincing such states to relinquish their claims in exchange for the national government assuming their debts, and in passing a series of laws we have come to know as the Northwest Ordinances. These laws, written by Thomas Jefferson, laid down an orderly process by which new states could be created from the unorganized pocket of the country that we typically consider the Middle West: the five states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848). I find it interesting that while the maps that created these states also effectively created the justification by which a series of Native Americans could be shoved out of this real estate, the names of these places reflect the language of their previous inhabitants to this day (Michigan, for instance, is a Chippewa term that translates to “great water,” which does a pretty good job of describing a place whose contours are defined by a series of lakes).
But you probably regard all this as trivia. More vivid, perhaps, are the maps you may remember seeing countless times in your childhood that show the huge territorial gains the United States made in the first half of the nineteenth century. You can probably visualize the huge wedge of land – bigger than the original U.S. itself – known as the Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson, overriding his small government scruples, purchased from France in 1803. You can probably also see the Mexican Cession of 1848, another huge chunk of territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War that made the U.S. a continental power. In between, literally and figuratively, was Texas, created as independent state by American settlers who revolted against Mexico in 1836 and whose admission into the Union nine years later was a cause of the Mexican War. Then there was the Oregon territory, a split-the-difference resolution of a boundary dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1846 that gave us that states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as slivers of Montana and Wyoming. Florida, another purchase, became essentially an offer a badly weakened Spanish empire couldn’t refuse in 1819 after General Andrew Jackson chased some Creek and Seminole Indians into it. Sell it or lose it, the Spaniards were essentially told. Decades of war against the Seminoles followed.
That pretty much fills in the map, though the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 added a big piece of North America that isn’t contiguous with the “Lower 48” (as Alaskans like to call it), and the annexation of Hawaii became an important naval base in the Pacific. Other acquisitions, like Guam and Puerto Rico (wrested from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898) have not been fully integrated into the United States. But the process of nation building is now largely complete, and largely centered on North America. The last two contiguous states to enter the Union on the North American continent, Arizona and New Mexico, were added in 1912. Alaska and Hawaii came aboard in 1959. It’s possible that Puerto Rico join the Union at some point – Puerto Ricans are ambivalent at the prospect – but as likely as not the number of stars on the flag isn’t going to get any larger.
Which may be why you probably don’t think much about what might be termed the territorial integrity of the United States. The map hasn’t changed any since the time your parents were born; it’s something you take for granted. You know you live in a big country, which was, compared to most of Europe, pretty big even in its original state (King Charles II’s 1682 grant to William Penn for Pennsylvania was bigger than England). Indeed, as nations go, they don’t come much bigger: the United States today is the third-largest nation on the planet as a matter of geography, coming in behind Russia and Canada. (It happens to be number three in population size as well, behind China and India). Given that about half of Russia and Canada are sealed under permafrost – at least for now – the U.S. has more on its rivals than mere square mileage would suggest. There’s a lot to work with between the redwood forest and the New York island.
But for all the charm in its variety – all those places you can ski, swim, survey autumn foliage or arid mesas – the span and diversity of the United States seems, as a matter of your national identity, secondary at best. Instead, it’s the abstractions that matter: common language, common law, common market. If these are not phenomenal achievements – I believe they are, ones that other societies past and present can only envy – they have certainly conferred tremendous benefits and indeed explain much of the nation’s rise to international pre-eminence. They have stitched the country together in ways that transcend any number of geographic differences. For proof you need not consider the virtually identical burger and fries (or pizza, or burrito) you can procure anywhere in a 3,000 mile span, but rather the rituals, from football games to proms, you can find at just about any American high school.
You realize that there are variations in climate and landscape across the continent, and that they have consequences in terms of accent and custom. But even if you’re not a big NASCAR fan, don’t celebrate Patriots Day or eat a lot of gumbo, you know about all these things thanks to a tightly stitched national media market and understand that they all fall under a capacious umbrella we know as American. I’m most aware of this when I watch a sports network like ESPN, where a scoreboard shows a dozen or more ball games taking place simultaneously at cities around the country, or when, coming out of a commercial break, a TV network gives us a shot of a local landmark before returning to the stadium. Geographic diversity is charming.
But I’m here to tell you that the shape of the United States is a little more fluid than you think, and that those maps that form the backdrop of our lives are at least a little illusory. As Americans, we tend to conflate the terms nation (a political construct), state (a geographic one) and country (a cultural one). But Kurds, a people sharing customs, language and history sprawled across Iraq, Turkey and other states in the Middle East, would not do this. Iraq, a state that consists of multiple – and hostile – ethnicities and religions, exists principally as a state because of the way the British drew its boundaries a century ago. Britain itself is a nation that includes Scotland, a country that in recent years has sought and received a measure of political autonomy. Much of the misery of the world derives from the lack of alignment between state, nation, and country.
Next: A sense of place -- and its contenders