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Why the U.S. Has No Name

October 23, 2014

Today, the United States is a country, a nation, and we tend to think it has been since its birth. But in 1776, and for ninety years after that, no one really knew whether the U.S. was a country or a complex alliance of many countries, like today’s European Union.

Had the New Englanders fought for the U.S., the capital might have been saved

Would loyal support from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have saved the capital during the War of 1812?

The Founding Fathers saw themselves as citizens of their own states—Virginia, Massachusetts, etc.—and not of the Union. But they weren’t sure. So when they wrote the Constitution, they left the question unanswered. In fact, they rejected a draft that said the Union was “perpetual,” which would have suggested a country. As a result, no one knew whether a state could leave the Union. New Jersey thought a state was a sovereign country and so could leave—and it repeatedly considered secession during the early 1800’s. So did several states in New England during the War of 1812, and these same states actually refused to send their militias to support the U.S. war effort. California, Oregon, and Utah also considered secession during the decades before 1860. And of course, eleven southern states tried to secede in 1861 to protect slavery, triggering the Civil War. Plus, Texas and California originally set up independent countries, despite the fact that most of their voting citizens where what we’d call “Americans.” None of these people saw themselves as traitors. They weren’t sure the U.S. was their country.

The question also cropped surrounding “nullification”: the idea the states, as independent countries, could decide how much to participate in the U.S. by nullifying federal laws they disliked. During the War of 1812, several New England states flirted with nullifying federal law in their territories. And South Carolina actually tried twenty years later. Who first suggested nullification? Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Even the U.S.’s name, or lack thereof, suggests a problem of identity. Founders of new countries generally give them unique names, like Bolivia (named after Simon Bolívar), South Africa, and Canada. But the U.S. Founding Fathers made no attempt to give their new … thing its own name (like Washingtona, Trans-Atlanta, Avalon, or even Great America). “United States of America” named a political organization, not a country. America, after all, referred to two whole continents, not the much smaller land the new Union occupied.

The confusion ended with the Union’s 1865 victory in the Civil War. By force of arms, the northern states ruled that secession was treason, federal power was supreme, and the Union was a country. That Union ceased to be “these United States,” plural, and became “the United States.”



Fore more, see Jay Winik’s excellent book, April 1865, The Month that Saved America (Harper Collins 2001), pp. 15-23.

© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

The Dominican Republic Once Agreed to Join the U.S.

October 15, 2014

Few in the English-speaking world realize that the Dominican Republic once agreed to join the United States. In 1869, D.R. President Buenaventura Báez signed an annexation treaty with U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The Caribbean nation, which shares an island with Haiti, would have become a U.S. territory, with the right eventually to apply for statehood. Read more…

Homo ghostus

September 27, 2014

I reported in an earlier post that Homo sapiens once shared the world with at least four other hominins: four other species of upright, tool-making, fire-burning people. The four are Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Flores hobbits (Homo floresiensis), and the Denisova hominins. We know of the Denisovans only from a single fossilized finger bone, or possibly two fossils. Scientists identified them as a separate species through extracted DNA. Well, now we’ve got evidence of a fifth species in the Lord of the Rings world of prehistory, and it’s more mysterious even than the Denisovans. That’s because we have no fossils for the fifth species. Read more…

The English Are Celtic (or Something)

September 22, 2014
It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn't keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).

It looks like the Celtic hero, King Arthur, couldn’t keep his people from going English (assuming he even existed).

Traditional histories say that when the English migrated to Britain during the 400’s A.D., they almost completely replaced the native Celtic population. In other words, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — the Germanic peoples who became the English — wiped out the Celts or herded them all into Wales and Cornwall. The result: England’s people are almost completely Germanic, and so is the English language.

But a recent linguistic analysis tells a different story. Read more…

How Scotland and England Merged in the First Place

September 18, 2014

Now that the Scots have rejected independence from the U.K., it’s worth asking how Scotland and England got hooked up in the first place.

For centuries, Scotland was England’s enemy — always reliable for a northern invasion when England’s number-one enemy, France, called for a diversion. That and fear of a French invasion through Scotland led England to interfere in Scottish affairs over and over, often via invasion. Read more…

How Queen Elizabeth I Held Back the Toilet

September 17, 2014
Sir John Harrington, toilet inventor and potty humorist

Sir John Harrington, toilet inventor and potty humorist

The forerunner of the modern toilet appeared in 1596. An English nobleman named Sir John Harrington invented it and gave one to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. Royal examples tend to shape culture. Witness the gentleman’s wig: a totally unnecessary hairpiece worn by well-bred Europeans during the 1600’s and 1700’s (and by some judges today) — triggered by a couple French kings who just wanted to cover thinning hair. So if the Virgin Queen had used the Sir John’s contraption, toilet tech probably would’ve spread long before the 1800’s, when toilets finally came into their own. But Elizabeth found Sir John’s machine too loud. (With a single toilet in the palace, news of royal bowel movements must have been distressingly public.) Read more…

Maps That Explain the Roman Empire

September 16, 2014

I’ve stumbled across a fun resource: 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire. It’s good reading and great use of visuals.


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