From ‘the United States are’ to ‘the United States is’

Political scientist Melissa M. Lee on how the linguistic shift from plural to singular demonstrates the evolution of sovereign authority in the U.S.

A photograph of a wheeled cannon pointing out at the horizon
The U.S. fought a bloody civil war over whether sovereign authority should reside at the state or federal level. Battles like the one at Gettysburg, pictured here, were only a small part of the ideological fight. (Photo by John Kostyk on Unsplash)

How did the United States change from a plural entity—these United States—to a singular one? What does that linguistic shift tell us about power and authority? Melissa M. Lee, the Klein Family Presidential Assistant Professor of Political Science investigates such questions in “From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th Century America,” a new paper co-authored with Nan Zhang of the Mannheim Center for European Social Research and Tilmann Herchenröder of the University of Oxford. 

“Far from being an accident of grammar, the question about whether the United States is a plural or a singular grammatical entity has a lot of meaning behind it,” Lee says. “Within my field of political science and international relations, how we speak matters. It reflects our values and what we think is important.” 

To examine the shift from plural to singular, Lee and colleagues looked at U.S. Congressional speeches from 1851 to 1899 and newspaper editorials from 1800 to 1899. Sovereignty is the organizing principle of all modern states, but the location of where final authority lies—whether in a monarch or parliament, federal government or constituent states—is often a matter of debate, Lee says. 

In the case of the United States, this question was ultimately settled with a bloody civil war, Lee says. The Union’s victory in 1865 reinforced the federal government’s claim to sovereign authority over the individual states, but according to Lee’s research, this idea was more quickly and readily adopted in the North and spread more slowly the South, as seen through the plural usage of “the United States are,” as opposed to the Northern convention of “the United States is.”

Penn Today sat down with Lee in a Q & A to discuss her research and what history can teach us about modern statecraft.

headshot of a Melissa Lee.
Melissa M. Lee is the Klein Family Presidential Assistant Professor of Political Science.

How did you become interested in this subject?

A lot of my work is on the state: What does it mean to be a state? Why are some states better than others at regulating people and providing goods and services? 

My first book is about the state’s physical presence across territory. In the United States for example, you’re governed whether you live in Alaska or Washington, D.C. And that’s not true for a lot of places in the world. 

In this paper, one of the aspects of statehood that we investigate is the idea of being a state, the idea that there is this entity that can exert final authority, that gets to make the rules in the end.

In the United States, we no longer question whether there should be such an authority, it’s where that authority resides which takes on particular meaning. Even now, we hear these appeals for states’ rights, even though the constitutional question has been settled. This really emerges out of my broader work on what it means to be a state in this modern era. In this paper, you can think of it as: A state is a state when you think of it as a state. People accept that the state exists and that entity has the authority to regulate your life, make binding decisions about your life, throw you in jail, all those kinds of things. 

What are you seeing in political language today that has roots in this historic period and the question of central vs. local authority?

For a while the South was actually pro- strong national sovereignty, but they’re only pro when the power of the government can advance their own interests, which is the protection of slavery. I think you see something similar today, where you feel more supportive of the government when the government is advancing your interests and you’re less supportive otherwise.

As a Californian, I sometimes hear these stories about pockets of California that want to secede. When they don’t like what the federal government’s doing, then they talk about secession: ‘We’re such a powerful economy; we can go it alone.’ 

You don’t hear that kind of talk when the government’s doing things that are good for California. How we feel about state power tends to reflect what state power means in our own lives and what it means for the actualization of our values as policy.

In the paper you refer to ‘potentially confounding variables,’ such as infrastructure and education access, how they can enable or impede state-making?

There’s this idea in political science literature that contact is an important factor for acculturing people to the idea of the state. You need to have repeated contact with the state via interaction with bureaucrats and civil servants or tax collectors or the military, just to get the populace used to the idea that it is going to be governed by an outside entity. Even in our daily lives, that is how most people run into the government: through everyday interactions. As the state does that, it also becomes more effective at being able to meet the needs of the population, if the state wants to do that.

It’s all about the state’s ability to reach the population it seeks to govern. Is there a railroad? A navigable river? Infrastructure connects you to a wider world outside of your little village or town. It creates more opportunity for cosmopolitanism. That’s important for imagining this entity that is larger than what you can see. 

We’re famously anti-government in the United States, like it’s part of our identity as Americans to be skeptical of central authority. So, the way that people encountered the state was not through the national tax collector. It was through the post office. If you were to run into a member of the federal government, it was typically someone who was working for the post office as a civil servant or acting as an agent on behalf of the post office. For the greater part of the 19th century, the United States Postal Service is the federal government. 

Education is really interesting in the context of state formation and state strength, because education becomes a vehicle for inculcating values. Schools are performing an important function for the state, which is to teach a common language, to teach common values, to teach a common identity. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning is building the idea of America as a nation. Education also promotes a single national language. That makes for a very effective state. But effective doesn't say anything about how that power is used. It can be effective for repressing people and be effective at providing and caring for people. This is where questions about checks on that power, how that power can be used, and who has access to that power become really important. 

There’s also a very important distinction around what constitutes ‘a good state.’ People don’t necessarily think more state is a good thing, right? More police are not necessarily a good thing, especially if you are a victim of police brutality. I try to be very careful, separating those things out. It comes up often in my work because I have a statist bias. 

Why do you have a statist bias?

Somebody once told me that you study what you’re scared of, what you fear or don’t understand. Coming of age at the time of 9/11 and the Iraq War led me to being a little skeptical about what the government was doing. I think it drove me to understand the power of the state, because the government was deploying the power of the state to do quite terrible things. It became important in my development as a scholar to understand, where does that power come from? What makes states capable?

But the state is this two-sided coin. On the one hand, especially as a person of color, I’m very skeptical about the state’s authority. On the other hand, the state can use its power to improve lives, so I also feel a very strong drive for public service. In college, I did two internships at the State Department because I was trying to understand how diplomacy plays a role in U.S. foreign policy. And then I went super local after that. I worked in a juvenile dependency court for a little while. I wanted to understand what public service is like at the local level. 

I’m skeptical of the state, but under certain conditions, state power can be used for good and those interactions with the population can be good. That’s the normative drive for some of the work that I do.

You write about how the American South did not immediately accept the ideology of the North after its defeat. Does that suggest that war has limited capacity to spread ideals?

War is not actually a successful way to spread ideas and get people to adhere to these ideas. 

This is sobering in terms of public policy, especially as we fight conflicts abroad where values are at stake. We think that one good use of American power is to bring freedom and democratic values, liberal values, free market values to other places. Although I want to be careful about generalizing too much, I do think my research suggests that we should be a bit more circumspect about whether fighting wars in the name of ideas will actually make people more receptive to these ideas. 

We think of Japan and Germany as these transformational cases that suddenly became democratic after authoritarianism, but they seem to be the exception in terms of what we know about the power of foreign intervention. We’ve never seen successes like that since, in terms of transforming a society, building a state, changing ideas, changing values. They’re famous cases, right? So, we tend to extrapolate from these famous cases. 

It’s hard to get people to change their minds. More likely, the people who are going to embrace Western, liberal, democratic values are already people who are inclined to do so in the first place. We should not conclude that after the highly disruptive nature of war, people are suddenly going to change their minds in the wake of defeat. Changing how people feel about such a fundamental aspect of authority takes a long time. In the United States, it takes the better part of a century and a bloody civil war. 

As someone who studies foreign intervention, I think this suggests that we need to be cautious about how we deploy military power to reshape societies. Given how long this transition took for the United States, how can we possibly expect it to happen so quickly in a place like Afghanistan? How can we possibly expect to build rebuild these war-torn countries so quickly and expect them to be functional?

This paper suggests that based on our own national example, we should be humble about the processes of change elsewhere. It becomes easy to forget how long it took for us.

“From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th century America” is forthcoming from American Political Science Review.