Political disinformation in the United States for 230 years has created confusion about certain words important to an understanding about what was new and different in the world after the Revolutionary War.
Key to the confusion is the American jumbling together of words that once had truly different definitions and implications - country, nation, state, and union.
For purposes of clarity and simplicity, as used here from this point on the following words have specific meanings based upon pre-17th Century concepts:
- "Country" means "any considerable territory demarcated by topographical conditions."
- "Nation" means "any distinctive population with a common language, culture, and considerable history."
- "State" means "a central civil government or authority that exercises the legitimate use of force within defined geographical boundaries."
- "Union" means "a number of states or nations joined together for defined purposes to be accomplished by a separately created autonomous authority."
It's not a country - here's why
Again, "country" as will be used here means "any considerable territory demarcated by topographical conditions."
As explained in Wikipedia:
In English the word has increasingly become associated with political divisions, so that one sense, associated with the indefinite article – "a country" – through misuse and subsequent conflation is now a synonym for state, or a former sovereign state, in the sense of sovereign territory or "district, native land"....
The equivalent terms in French and other Romance languages (pays and variants) have not carried the process of being identified with political sovereign states as far as the English "country".... In many European countries the words are used for sub-divisions of the national territory, as in the German Bundesländer, as well as a less formal term for a sovereign state. France has very many "pays" that are officially recognised at some level, and are either natural regions, like the Pays de Bray, or reflect old political or economic entities, like the Pays de la Loire.
A version of "country" can be found in the modern French language as contrée, based on the word cuntrée in Old French, that is used similarly to the word "pays" to define non-state regions, but can also be used to describe a political state in some particular cases. The modern Italian contrada is a word with its meaning varying locally, but usually meaning a ward or similar small division of a town, or a village or hamlet in the countryside.
For purposes of sharing an understanding of the political world as understood by our Founding Fathers, here is a map of Europe at the time of the creation of the United States of America:
Fundamentally, Europe was divided into constantly warring empires with shifting boundaries. While topographical conditions may have slowed some conquests, our concept of "country" did not set boundaries for kingdoms and empires which are "states" by our definitions. And that was an attitude that Europeans brought to the Americas and which has resulted in a blurring of the terms "country" and "state."
As can be seen on the map below, North America is a large geographic area with significant topographical conditions:
If a people whose only mode of transportation on land is walking "discover" such a geographic area and through walking logically divide it into more than one division without intent, it is reasonable to assume that the dominate shape for divisions would most likely be in a north-to-south direction, more or less. And indeed, the result of an actual natural migration produced this map:
Further some predominantly English-speaking Europeans came along and, initially struggling just to survive, began to occupy a land bounded by topography:
But these folks were Europeans used to warring empires with shifting boundaries not constrained by topography. So over the next 150 years in defiance of the idea of a topographically-defined "country" they and their descendants drew some lines dividing that continental topography in illogical ways...
... and, more irrationally, even further like this:
To summarize, the United States is not a "country" defined by obvious topographical extremes. Even the oceans did not stop it from including Hawaii as one of the internal "state" governments even though it is 2,500 miles from the American Continent. In fact, the Rocky Mountains were known as the Continental Divide but even that didn't suggest creating separate "countries" based on topography. The United States is not a country as we define it.
It's not a nation - here's why
As it will be used here "nation" means "any distinctive population with a common language, culture, and considerable history." And it is this map that indicates a division of the North American Continent by "nations" of indigenous peoples...
As already discussed, the American "melting pot" did not include those indigenous North American nations, African slaves and their descendants, and the indigenous Spanish speaking residents of lands purchased or conquered by the United States. Not only that, the United States encouraged immigration from around the world, such as from China to build the Transcontinental Railroad, resulting in these maps today...
...which makes it very clear that the United States is not a "nation" by our definition as "any distinctive population with a common language, culture, and considerable history."
As a reminder, as explored in another post Saving the Union is a struggle against pots, bowls, and mosaics, between individuality, identity, and assimilation, amid unprecedented wealth disparity the historical fact that the term "melting pot" was a concept to encourage immigrant "English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes" who back home in Europe constantly fought wars with each other to form an English-speaking culture. Had anyone before 1920 suggested adding other races, they would have been met with incredulous laughter.
So it is a perfectly logical outcome of this history that emotionally for many within the United States "nationalism" means only white English-speaking nationalism. But that doesn't reflect the population born and living here.
Again the United States is not a "nation."
It is not a state but rather a union - here's why
As it will be used here "state" means "a central civil government or authority that exercises the legitimate use of force within defined geographical boundaries." Given the definitions accepted here, most would want to say the United States is a "state."
Except, of course, within the defined geographical boundary that is the United States pursuant to Constitutional law there are 50+ "state" governments which independently exercise the legitimate use of force within defined internal geographical boundaries. There is nothing confusing about the wording of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.So the United States is not even a "state" in the our use of the word (for this discussion entering into the arguments over the so-called "implied powers" is not relevant). Rather, it is a "union" which means "a number of states or nations joined together for defined purposes to be accomplished by a separately created autonomous authority." The following is the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States (emphasis added):
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.And here is where the confusion exists. In that document, the Constitution of the United States, a "Union" was formed. That "Union" meant "a number of states or nations joined together for defined purposes to be accomplished by a separately created autonomous authority."
The existing real states jointly assigned the Union the limited authority to use a very few of their powers and functions while retaining the vast balance of powers of a state to themselves.
Americans seem to be confused about that. Perhaps that is because political history is not something we think is as important as, say, how to use technology to see cat videos to make us laugh. But sometimes we need to consider the concept of a "union" in the context of the American Revolution and Constitution which happened in the last quarter of the 17th Century. It literally was all the latest in government.
"Founding Father" Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706 which meant that even our oldest Founding Father had a clear understanding of the then new, cool British concept of a "union." That is because over the first two years of Franklin's life the concept of a political "union" was formalized during the process of creating Great Britain which most Americans probably think was created by the Romans at the time Jesus was alive.
Wikipedia provides a brief insight into what we frequently shorten to Britain:
The Kingdom of Scotland emerged as an independent sovereign state in the Early Middle Ages and continued to exist until 1707. By inheritance in 1603, James VI, King of Scots, became King of England and King of Ireland, thus forming a personal union of the three kingdoms. Scotland subsequently entered into a political union with the Kingdom of England on 1 May 1707 to create the new Kingdom of Great Britain. The union also created a new Parliament of Great Britain, which succeeded both the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England. In 1801, Great Britain itself entered into a political union with the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.In a different Wikipedia entry we can also learn:
Within Scotland, the monarchy of the United Kingdom has continued to use a variety of styles, titles and other royal symbols of statehood specific to the pre-union Kingdom of Scotland. The legal system within Scotland has also remained separate from those of England and Wales and Northern Ireland; Scotland constitutes a distinct jurisdiction in both public and private law. The continued existence of legal, educational, religious and other institutions distinct from those in the remainder of the UK have all contributed to the continuation of Scottish culture and national identity since the 1707 union with England.
In 1997, a Scottish Parliament was re-established, in the form of a devolved unicameral legislature comprising 129 members, having authority over many areas of domestic policy....
The Acts of Union were two Acts of Parliament: the Union with Scotland Act 1706 passed by the Parliament of England, and the Union with England Act passed in 1707 by the Parliament of Scotland. They put into effect the terms of the Treaty of Union that had been agreed on 22 July 1706, following negotiation between commissioners representing the parliaments of the two countries. By the two Acts, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland—which at the time were separate states with separate legislatures, but with the same monarch—were, in the words of the Treaty, "United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain".It might surprise many that within the Constitution of the United States the term "country" never appears. The term "nation" appears only in reference to "Commerce with foreign Nations" and to "punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations." The term "state" does appear, but always in reference to the proposed union of 13 states - you know, the real states per our definition which was the definition understood by Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers.
The Acts took effect on 1 May 1707. On this date, the Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament united to form the Parliament of Great Britain, based in the Palace of Westminster in London, the home of the English Parliament. Hence, the Acts are referred to as the Union of the Parliaments. On the Union, the historian Simon Schama said "What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history."
On the other hand, besides in the preamble quoted above, the term "union" is used as follows:
- New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union...
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government...
- He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union...
- Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers...
- To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union...
And is it surprising that the winning army in the Civil War was the Union Army? Was not the Union Army a land force that fought to keep and preserve the Union of the collective states? Did you never wonder why they called it the "Union" army?
In fact throughout the 19th Century, the Union was known as "these United States" which is a plural designation meaning more than one state. Titus Munson Coan who in his 1875 article "A New Country" in which he coined the term "Melting Pot" uses "these United States are" a decade after the end of the Civil War while trying to argue that it is a country, though what became the American Melting Pot "transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American" creating a "great nation of Christendom."
Coan's piece was written after the 1849 approval of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War, which permits Spanish-speaking brown folks to remain in the United States entitling them "to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the mean time, shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without; restriction." Coan's piece was written after the Civil War when the slaves were freed and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted which begins: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." But Coan had no confusion about who is in the American "nation" which is similar to most today's Americans of European descent living in the Red States indicated above.
But still, Coan wrote "these United States."
Linguist Mark Liberman in When did the Supreme Court make us an 'is'? noted that, contrary to one of his previous posts indicating the change to "the United States is" may have been made after the Civil War, he learned that Minor Myers of the Brooklyn Law School prepared a study Supreme Court Usage and the Making of an 'Is' which examined the use of the phrases “United States is” and “United States are” in opinions of the United States Supreme Court from 1790 to 1919 and determined that the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s and did not disappear until the 1920's.
As one comment speculated it is likely the plural persisted "at least through Reconstruction, and I'm afraid it hasn't entirely disappeared in some quarters."
No it it hasn't disappeared, and sometimes the use of the plural in the 21st Century creates a political buzz. For example, on Thursday, April 25, 2013, speaking at the dedication of the George W. Bush Library, then President Barack Obama asked God to bless "these United States."
Don't dismiss this as if it were Bush fumbling a speech. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years. In his 2013 inaugural address he closed with "Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America." Obama understands that those who drafted the Constitution never intended that the Union be other than "these states." When he says "these" states Constitutional Law professor Obama knows full well that it is "these" states that make up a Union.
Again, the singular usage "the United States is" did not become the "common" form until after World War I when it became obvious that the Union functioned as an "is" in a complex international scene where people could kill each other in the millions based on their "is-ness."
We need to understand "these United States" is a union created solely for purposes of a common military defense and assuring economic success of the numerous and separate states, not regulate mundane issues such as who can have sex with whom. That's one reason why in 1792 Americans insisted on leaving establishing government churches to the real states.