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, Americans could debate whether the U.S. was a country or a complex alliance of many countries, like today’s European Union.
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), Pakistan (based on an acronym), and South Africa. But the U.S. Founding Fathers made no attempt to give their new … thing its own name (like Washingtonia, 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.