Thematic essay question

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Thematic Essay Practice – Geography and United States Government Actions

US History/Napp Name: __________________
From the June 2004 New York States Regents/ U.S. History & Government

Directions: Write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs addressing the task below, and a conclusion.
Theme: Geography and United States Government Actions

Geographic factors often influence United States government actions, both foreign and domestic. Some of these factors include location, physical environment, movement of people, climate, and resources.


Identify two actions taken by the United States government that were influenced by geographic factors, and for each action:

Discuss the historical circumstances that resulted in the government action

Discuss the influence of a geographic factor on the action

Describe the impact of the government action on the United States

Some suggestions you might wish to consider include the Louisiana Purchase (1803), issuance of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), passage of the Homestead Act (1862), decision to build the transcontinental railroad (1860s), acquisition of the Philippines (1898), decision to build the Panama Canal (early 1900s), and passage of the Interstate Highway Act (1956).
Gathering the Facts:

  1. The Louisiana Purchase (1803)

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803) was a land deal between the United States and France, in which the U.S. acquired approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million dollars.

  • As the United States had expanded westward, navigation of the Mississippi River and access to the port of New Orleans had become critical to American commerce.

  • [At the same time] Napoleon’s plans to re-establish France in the New World were unraveling. The French army sent to suppress a rebellion by slaves and free blacks in the sugar-rich colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) had been decimated by yellow fever, and a new war with Britain seemed inevitable.

  • France could not afford to send forces to occupy the entire Mississippi Valley, so why not abandon the idea of empire in America and sell the territory to the United States?” ~

  1. Issuance of the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

  • In October 1823, President Monroe was concerned about Spain reclaiming sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere.”

  • President Monroe made four basic statements in what is today referred to as the Monroe Doctrine –

1) The United States would not get involved in European affairs.

2) The United States would not interfere with existing European colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

3) No other nation could form a new colony in the Western Hemisphere.

4) If a European nation tried to control or interfere with a nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States would view it as a hostile act against this nation.

  • In his Monroe Doctrine, President said that the peoples of the West ‘are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.’ ~

  • The doctrine was an outgrowth of concern in both England and the United States that the continental powers would attempt to restore Spain’s former colonies, in Latin America, many of which had become newly independent nations.” ~ Britannica

  1. Passage of the Homestead Act (1862)

  • The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States.

  • Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens.

  • 270 million acres or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.

  • A homesteader had only to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of ‘proving up’ and keeping this ‘free land.’

  • Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to ‘prove up.’ A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers.” ~

  1. Decision to Build the Transcontinental Railroad (1860s)

  • A railroad linking America’s east and west coasts had been a dream almost since the steam locomotive made its first appearance in the early 1830s.

  • The need for such a link was dramatized by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 that brought thousands to the West Coast.

  • At that time only two routes to the West were available: by wagon across the plains or by ship around South America. Traveling either of these could take four months or more to complete.

  • Although everyone thought a transcontinental railroad was a good idea, deep disagreement arose over its path. The Northern states favored a northern route while the Southern states pushed for a southern route. This log jam was broken in 1861 with the secession of the Southern states from the Union that allowed Congress to select a route running through Nebraska to California.

  • Construction of the railroad presented a daunting task requiring the laying of over 2000 miles of track that stretched through some the most forbidding landscape on the continent.

  • Tunnels would have to be blasted out of the mountains, rivers bridged and wilderness tamed. Two railroad companies took up the challenge. The Union Pacific began laying track from Omaha to the west while the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento.

  • Progress was slow initially, but the pace quickened with the end of the Civil War. Finally the two sets of railroad tracks were joined and the continent united with elaborate ceremony at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The impact was immediate and dramatic. Travel time between America’s east and west coasts was reduced from months to less than a week.” ~

  1. Acquisition of the Philippines (1898)

  • The Philippines became a territory of the United States after the Spanish-American War. Under the December 10, 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the islands to the United States for $20 million.” ~

  • The westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century was not limited to North America, but rather included an ongoing push to establish a stronger U.S. presence in and across the Pacific Ocean. This maritime expansion, driven mostly by commerce, had important implications for U.S. foreign policy.

  • The appeal of profits to be earned from the China trade served as the initial impetus to motivate U.S. citizens and officials to enter into the Pacific region. China was the source of some of the world’s most sought after commodities – tea, porcelain, and silk – and Western merchants had sought access to this highly lucrative trade since at least the 17th century. Following U.S. independence, U.S.-based merchants continued to seek opportunity in China.

  • The Spanish-American War began with a dispute over Cuba, but a rising tide of interest in overseas empire among U.S. leaders, such as President William McKinley and future President Theodore Roosevelt, helped expand the conflict to Spanish possessions in Asia.

  • After a swift victory over Spain, the United States set up a temporary military administration to govern the islands and promote their political, economic, and social development. The United States established full colonial rule over the Philippines in 1900 during the Philippine-American War.” ~

  1. Decision to build the Panama Canal (early 1900s)

  • President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the realization of a long-term United States goal – a trans-isthmian canal. Throughout the 1800s, American and British leaders and businessmen wanted to ship goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

  • Following heated debate over the location of the proposed canal, on June 19, 1902, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of building the canal through Panama. Within 6 months, Secretary of State John Hay signed a treaty with Colombian Foreign Minister Tomás Herrán to build the new canal. The financial terms were unacceptable to Colombia’s congress, and it rejected the offer.

  • President Roosevelt responded by dispatching U.S. warships to Panama City (on the Pacific) and Colón (on the Atlantic) in support of Panamanian independence. Colombian troops were unable to negotiate the jungles of the Darien Strait and Panama declared independence on November 3, 1903.

  • The newly declared Republic of Panama immediately named Philippe Bunau-Varilla (a French engineer who had been involved in the earlier de Lesseps canal attempt) as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. In his new role, Bunau-Varilla negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, which provided the United States with a 10-mile wide strip of land for the canal, a one-time $10 million payment to Panama, and an annual annuity of $250,000.

  • The United States also agreed to guarantee the independence of Panama. Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal symbolized U.S. technological prowess and economic power. Although U.S. control of the canal eventually became an irritant to U.S.-Panamanian relations, at the time it was heralded as a major foreign policy achievement.” ~

  1. Passage of the Interstate Highway Act (1956)

  • Popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established an interstate highway system in the United States.

  • The movement behind the construction of a transcontinental superhighway started in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed interest in the construction of a network of toll superhighways that would provide more jobs for people in need of work during the Great Depression.

  • But with America on the verge of joining the war in Europe, the time for a massive highway program had not arrived.

  • At the end of the war, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 funded highway improvements and established major new ground by authorizing and designating, in Section 7, the construction of 40,000 miles of a ‘National System of Interstate Highways.’

  • When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in January 1953, however, the states had only completed 6,500 miles of the system improvements.

  • Eisenhower had first realized the value of good highways in 1919, when he participated in the U.S. Army's first transcontinental motor convoy from Washington, DC, to San Francisco. Again, during World War II, Eisenhower saw the German advantage that resulted from their autobahn highway network, and he also noted the enhanced mobility of the Allies, on those same highways, when they fought their way into Germany.

  • These experiences significantly shaped Eisenhower's views on highways and their role in national defense. During his State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954, Eisenhower made it clear that he was ready to turn his attention to the nation's highway problems. He considered it important to ‘protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.’

  • The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 emerged from the House-Senate conference committee. In the act, the interstate system was expanded to 41,000 miles, and to construct the network, $25 billion was authorized for fiscal years 1957 through 1969.” ~

Look at the thematic essay question again. Which two events will you choose?

In addition, in your own words, summarize each suggested Government Action Influenced by Geographic Factors:

The Louisiana Purchase (1803)

Issuance of the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Passage of the Homestead Act (1862)

Decision to Build the Transcontinental Railroad (1860s)

Acquisition of the Philippines (1898)

Decision to build the Panama Canal (early 1900s)

Passage of the Interstate Highway Act (1956)
Outlining the Thematic Essay:
Government Action: _______ Government Action: _______

  • Discuss the historical circumstances that resulted in the government action

  • Discuss the influence of a geographic factor on the action

  • Describe the impact of the government action on the United States

  • Discuss the historical circumstances that resulted in the government action

  • Discuss the influence of a geographic factor on the action

  • Describe the impact of the government action on the United States

Additional Notes:

Additional Notes:

Write the Essay:

Body Paragraph:


Body Paragraph:



Explain the meaning of the political cartoon. ______________________________________________________________________________

Explain the meaning of the political cartoon. _______________________________________

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