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Monday, January 29, 2024

The United States as Singular and Plural

LEE MM, ZHANG N, HERCHENRĂ–DER T. From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in Nineteenth-Century America. American Political Science Review. 2024;118(1):127-143. doi:10.1017/S0003055423000096

Contestation over the structure and location of final sovereign authority—the right to make and enforce binding rules—occupies a central role in political development. Historically, war often settled these debates and institutionalized the victor’s vision of sovereignty. Yet sovereign authority requires more than institutions; it ultimately rests on the recognition of the governed. How does war shape imagined sovereignty? We explore the effect of warfare in the United States, where the debate over two competing visions of sovereignty erupted into the American Civil War. We exploit the grammatical shift in the “United States” from a plural to a singular noun as a measure of imagined sovereignty, drawing upon two large textual corpuses: newspapers (1800–99) and congressional speeches (1851–99). We demonstrate that war shapes imagined sovereignty, but for the North only. Our results further suggest that Northern Republicans played an important role as ideational entrepreneurs in bringing about this shift.

From the article:

Our measurement strategy leverages a grammatical change in the civic language in which the term “United States” shifted from a plural to a singular noun. Whereas at the beginning of the nineteenth-century Americans said “the United States are,” by the end of the century they were much more likely to say “the United States is.” We treat plural/singular usage as a proxy for the popular imagination of sovereignty. Specifically, we take plural usage as indicating that Americans view the United States as having multiple sovereignties embodied in the several states, and singular usage as indicating that Americans conceive of the United States as possessing a single national sovereignty.

We are not the first scholars to attribute such meaning to the usage of the plural and singular forms of the United States. For example, Civil War historian Shelby Foote linked sovereignty and speech in his observation that “Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are.’ Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states” (quoted in Ward1990, 273). Similarly, McPherson notes that the Civil War “marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun” and that “the ‘Union’ also became the nation” (McPherson1988, 859).