The following is a guest post by Charles Kurzman
America may be divided these days, but it is hardly as divided as when the United States of America were plural.
That’s the grammar used in the Declaration of Independence, which characterized “the thirteen united States of America” as “Free and Independent States.” The founders spoke of “these United States,” a phrase that sounds quaint today but was taken literally at the time.
Over the next two centuries, the United States became singular, at least grammatically, according to my analysis of verbs in the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications — 166 million sentences between 1789 and 1989.
Today, we are so wedded to the idea of the United States in the singular that we have unrealistic expectations of unity and consensus. At this moment of political polarization, we could learn something from the debate over verbs.
On one side were Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton who sought to create a centralized government, with a national bank and a standing army. In 1789, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, an ally of Hamilton’s, argued for a permanent diplomatic corps, which the country would need because “the United States is a member of the society composed of the assemblage of all the nations of the earth” – perhaps the first time that a member of Congress harnessed the United States to a singular verb.
Far more common, in the early decades of the Republic, were those who viewed the United States in the plural. “‘The United States’ is a political term used to describe the Federal Government, and carries no power with it per se,” Laurence Keitt of South Carolina asserted in 1860, citing the Declaration of Independence’s “Free and Independent States” and other founding documents of the Republic. Contrary to the “despotism” of “anti-slavery fanaticism,” Keitt insisted, sovereignty resided in each state, not in the United States. “The theory of the North is, that this is a consolidated Union of States; whilst the theory of the South is, that it is a Confederacy of States.” Within the year, South Carolina had seceded.
By that time, the United States was singular half as often as they were plural. During and after the Civil War, with Southern states’ rights advocates absent from Congress, the use of singular verbs continued to grow. By the late 1880s, the singular was twice as frequent as the plural. By the mid-20th century, the ratio was more than 10 to 1.
The same shift occurred in State of the Union addresses. Beginning with President Benjamin Harrison in 1889, these speeches have used singular verbs almost exclusively. Grover Cleveland, who served before and after Harrison, used only the plural in his first term; in his second term, the verbs were more than 80 percent singular.
Harrison was not the most memorable president, but his reference to a singular United States matched his aspirations for a central government that would play an active role in pursuing the nation’s priorities. He supported federal investment in education, urged Congress to ensure civil and political rights for African-Americans, endorsed the country’s first antitrust legislation, raised import tariffs to protect American industry, and created the first national pension system (only Union military veterans were eligible).
This vision of Harrison’s, and of the Federalists before him, has come to dominate American politics. Today, even anti-establishment movements frequently demand action by Washington. Debates over states’ rights continue on a number of high-profile issues, including gay rights, access to abortion, the suppression of minority voting power, and government-subsidized health care. But only a fringe believes that the United States should be considered plural. There doesn’t seem much chance of American Brexits.
Instead, Americans want more unity, not less. We worry that our country is too divided and reassure ourselves with anthems, pledges of allegiance, and paeans to solidarity.
We have come to value unity so highly that we are uncomfortable with disagreement, forgetting that this is what democracy is built for. Political divisiveness is not a momentary lapse but integral to the electoral and policy-making process. We must continually struggle to decide where we can compromise and where we cannot.
Yes, American politics is polarized and deadlocked, but it is useless to fantasize about the United States as a mythical singular entity. Contrary to current grammatical usage, the United States have never been unitary – we have always disagreed vehemently, along state lines and also along social and ideological lines. The best we can hope for is to build what unity we can while acknowledging these United States in the plural.