They Arent What They Used to Be
Thats not nostalgia. Thats 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 shouldnt assume that the plural United States were essentially the same thing as todays 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 didnt understand the Constitution he was sworn to uphold.
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 didnt 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 doesnt forbid secession; it presupposes that the United States are, each of them, free and independent.
Still, Lincoln used Jacksons 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 Lincolns war was wrong became, in Lincolns 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; theyd become an it. Few Americans realize the immense cost in blood, liberty, and even logic that lies behind this simple change of pronouns.
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