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American Geography: What of it? Part I: An Introduction to Uniqueness

The "American Experiment", as called by its observers since its inception, is often associated with images of individual freedom, liberty, and prosperity. However, one of the, if not the, defining aspect of this concept is its uniqueness in being an American creation. While much of the First World has come to adapt similar values, there was no other example matching the United States in its attempt to administer its Enlightenment-influenced principles on its people prior.


More than any other contributing factor, geography has especially played a role in making this American Experiment uniquely American. Various other factors can and have been brought up in the past to explain this phenomenon, including the resilience and determination of the American people, the country's longtime Protestant Christian religious foundation, and its continuous adherence to free-market capitalism. Certainly, all of these have their merits as well as their faults to explain how such an experiment could advance and last for so long in America. Ultimately, however, each fail to address the entire picture on why the American Experiment came about first in world history. Resilience of other groups of people, such as the Japanese, the British, and the Finnish in their struggles against the Asian mainland, continental European empires, and Russia, respectively, as well as their resilience in preserving and developing their homelands, didn't necessarily correlate with their rise to become free, prosperous societies as much as their entry into the American-led First World alliance during the Cold War. It is also noteworthy that all of these cases occurred after the advent of Enlightenment ideas through the West and Japan. In addition, there have been other countries with a strong Protestant Christian or non-Catholic religious base who did not adapt Enlightenment ideas as pervasively as America, late medieval and Bismarck-era Germany, Sweden, Finland, and large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa being examples. Finally, Britain and the Netherlands already had developed free-market capitalist systems far before America gained its independence, but rather followed America in creating their own modernized societies and states.


Before I delve into the details of America's role as a first in world history, I would like to clarify that I am merely describing why America was able to be the first country in world history to adapt Enlightenment values on a mass scale and thus spread it through the world via its mass influence, not that any other country was largely unable to do so. Indeed, some countries, such as England and the Netherlands were closer to such a step than America at its founding and arguably could constitute a better argument for being the world's example, considering England adopted the Magna Carta that created a Parliament and checked the English king's power nearly eight centuries before American independence and that the Netherlands's monarchy was a far cry from its absolutist peers such as France and Spain on the European continent. Nevertheless, America is nowadays the country associated with such values and widely considered the country where the destitute of Europe (and after 1965 the rest of the world) would flock to for a better future. Geography can provide the ultimate reason for explaining this phenomenon.


A rigid aspect of geopolitics are borders that a country often has no choice in determining; borders that also often expose a state to conflict with another, if not more, states. This would not present a problem in an ideal hypothetical world, where two states would be in mutual agreement and have no reason for conflict. In reality, this is not how states work, since the state exists to preserve the survival of its people, which often includes competing for resources and territory. Competition over these interests often results in conflict, of which the outcome involves at least one and sometimes both sides being disadvantaged. Moreover, to maintain a competitive advantage over their neighbors to prevent losing sovereignty, states have had to establish organized governments and make the most of their population. Furthermore, while most modern states no longer require such rigorous management of their domestic affairs, agrarian states had the limitations of communication, distance, and a limit to disparity in strength between them and their enemies, meaning that even at the peak of the ancient empires of Rome, Han China, and Mauryan India, rulers could rarely spare their time and energy on bettering their subjects. Even if they wanted to, the limitations of human and animal muscle, the dominant source of energy in an agrarian state, prevented mass human wealth. Humans and animals are live organisms in constant need of maintenance and water and food, and considering the great burden it was upon states to provide for an already tiny portion of elite citizens and rulers, bringing that same standard of life to everyone else would have depleted the state's resources several times over. Along with this civilian burden was the massive military upkeep required of all agrarian states due to a lack of the overwhelming power difference between armies observed in the industrial era (remember: Germanic tribes, Mongol raiders, and Scythian nomads brought down the Roman, Chinese, and Assyrian empires in ways Islamic State or any other terrorist syndicate could only dream of today). To keep such military parity, all ancient states had to devote a large part of their resources and efforts to maintaining a massive army, at the expense of individual liberty.


Even of states sufficiently isolated from their competitors by geography, like Japan and the various pre-European Polynesian kingdoms in the South Pacific, lack of conflict would not automatically translate into individual benefit. From the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598, the shogun of Japan who compelled his subjects to give up weaponry by confiscating them, until the Black Ships incident of 1853, where an sudden American naval appearance in Edo Harbor ended Japan's policy of sakoku (closed country), Japan became one of the rare countries in history where warfare simply did not occur, domestically or with other countries, thanks to its aforementioned policy (which literally carried out what it said; Japan's only contact with the outside world was with Dutch traders at Dejima Harbor in Nagasaki Bay). It could therefore turn inwards to promote domestic growth and prosperity, which it did for the large part of that time. This did not, however, bring about a revolutionary change akin to America's; in fact, Japanese customs, societal, and cultural attitudes remained relatively similar during those three centuries of sakoku. Similarly, several Polynesian islands throughout the Pacific that developed societies were isolated enough to, on the whole, avoid most forms of external conflict, such as Tiktopa and Easter Island, yet they also did not end up developing their own Enlightenment-esque revolutions; on the contrary, Tiktopa today survives with just about a thousand people, while Easter Island's various chiefdoms underwent severe collapses, the island itself barely retaining its original population on a near-destitute island. Sufficient conditions for political development do not automatically entail its prevalence, as shown.


This is where the circumstances of America's geography, as well as those of its time in history and its proximity to other geographies, would culminate in the birth of the American experiment.


Indeed, it is an imperative to realize that geography, while a primary factor in political development, cannot be exploited without its use by humans, and as an extension the capabilities of humans. To also be covered later, technological and natural developments can both unlock the potential of - and render obsolete - geography.

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