Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 They Aren’t What They Used to Be 

May 27, 2004 
If I had to sum up American history in one sentence, I’d put it this way: Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.The United States aren’t what they used to be.

That’s not nostalgia. That’s literal fact. Before the Civil War, the United States was a plural noun. The U.S. Constitution uses the plural form when, for example, it refers to enemies of the United States as “their” enemies. And this was the usage of everyone who understood that the union was a voluntary federation of sovereign states, delegating only a few specified powers, and not the monolithic, “consolidated,” all-powerful government it has since become.

Maybe Americans prefer the present megastate to the one the Constitution describes. But they ought to know the difference. They shouldn’t assume that the plural United States were essentially the same thing as today’s United State, or that the one naturally “evolved” into the other.

The change was violent, not natural. Lincoln waged war on states that tried to withdraw from the Union, denying their right to do so. This was a denial of the Declaration of Independence, which called the 13 former colonies “Free and Independent States.”

Washington and Jefferson at times expressed their fear that some states might secede, but they took for granted that this was the right of any free and independent state. They advised against exercising that right except under serious provocation, but they assumed it was a legitimate option against the threat of a centralized government that exceeded its constitutional powers.

Before the Civil War, several states considered leaving the Union, and abolitionists urged Northern states to do so in order to end their association with slave states. Congressman John Quincy Adams, a former president, wanted Massachusetts to secede if Texas was admitted to the Union. Nobody suggested that Adams didn’t understand the Constitution he was sworn to uphold.

[Breaker quote: How "they" became "it"]But the danger to the states’ independence was already growing. Andrew Jackson had threatened to invade South Carolina if it seceded, shocking even so ardent a Unionist as Daniel Webster. Jackson didn’t explain where he got the power to prevent secession, a power not assigned to the president in the Constitution. Why not? For the simple reason that the Constitution doesn’t forbid secession; it presupposes that the United States are, each of them, free and independent.

Still, Lincoln used Jackson’s threat as a precedent for equating secession with “rebellion” and using force to crush it. This required him to do violence to the Constitution in several ways. He destroyed the freedoms of speech and press in the North; he arbitrarily arrested thousands, including elected officials who opposed him; he not only invaded the seceding states, but deposed their governments and imposed military dictatorships in their place.

In essence, Lincoln made it a crime — “treason,” in fact — to agree with Jefferson. Northerners who held that free and independent states had the right to leave the Union — and who therefore thought Lincoln’s war was wrong — became, in Lincoln’s mind, the enemy within. In order to win the war, and reelection, he had to shut them up. But his reign of terror in the North has received little attention.

He may have “saved the Union,” after a fashion, but the Union he saved was radically different from the one described in the Constitution. Even his defenders admit that when they praise him for creating “a new Constitution” and forging “a second American Revolution.” Lincoln would have been embarrassed by these compliments: He always insisted he was only enforcing and conserving the Constitution as it was written, though the U.S. Supreme Court, including his own appointees, later ruled many of his acts unconstitutional.

The Civil War completely changed the basic relation between the states, including the Northern states, and the Federal Government. For all practical purposes, the states ceased to be free and independent.

Sentimental myths about Lincoln and the war still obscure the nature of the fundamental rupture they brought to American history. The old federal Union was transformed into the kind of “consolidated” system the Constitution was meant to avoid. The former plurality of states became a single unit. Even our grammar reflects the change.

So the United States were no longer a “they”; they’d become an “it.” Few Americans realize the immense cost in blood, liberty, and even logic that lies behind this simple change of pronouns.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

small Griffin logo
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address:

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer
Archive Table of Contents

Current Column

Return to the SOBRANS home page.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 


SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

Reprinted with permission
This page is copyright © 2004 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.