The widely-watched PBS documentary The Civil War included this commentary by Shelby Foote:
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. And after the war, it was always "the United States is," as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an "is."
Innumerable history lectures have featured similar rhetoric, but as a biologist friend of mine once said about a popular but flamboyantly inventive documentary in his area of specialization, "this is, well, poetically true". In real life, that is, it's false. The civil war may have "made us an 'is'", but it doesn't seem to have brought about any abrupt change in the grammar of "the United States".
I write "doesn't seem to" because no one seems ever to have checked, at least not very thoroughly. So after a few years of intending to get to it, I've done a bit of poking around. And I've discovered two things. First, we need a change in how historical text archives are managed. (At least, I do.) And second, number-agreement — on whatever time scale it happened — is not at all, in my opinion, the most interesting historical change in the grammatical treatment of "the United States".
The executive summary of these two points: First, web-based search of digital text archives is well and good, but it's also critical for scholars to be able to run arbitrary computer programs over entire historical text corpora. In most cases, there's no provision for distribution of the texts that would make that possible; in some cases, the "business model" for the digitization process may actually prevent it. Second, and more substantively, there's a striking increase during the 19th century in the propensity of the phrase "the United States" to occur in subject position, reflecting an increase in perceived agency and perhaps even in animacy (i.e. personification). In the early decades of the 19th century, "the United States" hardly ever occurs as a grammatical subject; today, about half of all textual occurrences are in subject position. Much more research will be needed to determine the time course of this change, but in newspaper text, it may have been associated with reporting and editorializing about military and diplomatic activities in the 1840s such as the struggle over Oregon and the Mexican-American War.
Let me start by tracing Shelby Foote's pontification to its historical roots. Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve wrote in Hellas and Hesperia; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America (1909) that
Not that I am ashamed of being a grammarian, and if I chose I might enlarge on the historical importance of grammar in general, and Greek grammar in particular. It was a point of grammatical concord which was at the bottom of the Civil War — "United States are," said one, "United States is," said another; and a whimsical scholar of my acquaintance used to maintain that the ignorance of Greek idiom that brought about the mistranslation "Men and brethren" (Acts ii, 29) is responsible for the humanitarian cry, "Am I not a man and a brother?" which made countless thousands mourn.
Gildersleeve, who fought for the Confederacy, is referring to a popular anti-slavery medallion by Josiah Wedgwood showing a kneeling slave in chains with the inscription "Am I not a man and a brother?". His little joke about United States number agreement was not apparently founded on any textual scholarship, but neither was it original — a similar thought can be found in G H Emerson, "The Making of a Nation", The Universalist Quarterly and General Review, January 1891:
For about a decade the states, under the technical name, "The United States of America," were a Confederacy; but when the Constitution was adopted the United States was. "They" gave place to "it." And as Mr. Fiske in his latest book, "Civil Government in the United States," has noted, the change from the plural to the singular was vital, though it has taken a War of Rebellion to make the difference unmistakable.
And Fiske in turn expressed the thought this way, in his 1891 work Civil Government in the United States Considered with some Reference to its Origins:
From 1776 to 1789 the United States were a confederation; after 1789 it was a federal nation. The passage from plural to singular was accomplished, although it took some people a good while to realize the fact.
All of these pre-Foote versions of the meme assume that the grammatical consequence of this political change was a gradual one, starting with the Constitutional Convention and proceeding through the 19th century. In this picture, the Civil War was one episode in a long argument over interpretation, starting earlier and continuing later; it was not the cause of any abrupt change in grammatical behavior. Foote's contribution to this area of meta-linguistic ideology was to invent (or at least popularize) the whole abrupt behavior-change story.
I've taken these citations from Ben Zimmer's discussions in alt.usage.english ("These United States", 10/5/2004), Language Log ("Life in these, uh, this United States", 11/24/2005) and in his Word Routes column at the Visual Thesaurus ("The United States Is… Or Are?", 7/3/2009). As Ben observes, there is at least one limited attempt at genuine textual scholarship on this point, in the form of a newspaper article by John W. Foster, "ARE OR IS?; Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes With the Words United States", NYT, May 4, 1901:
The reason which has largely controlled the use of the plural verb with "United States" is one of euphony. It seems more natural and euphonistic to couple with this phrase "have" or "were," rather than "has" or "was." In public documents, such as the Presidents' messages, I find a number of examples where both the singular and plural forms are used in the same paper, and sometimes in the same sentence. For instance, Secretary Bayard: "The United States have no reason to believe that any discrimination against its citizens is intended." As the writer gets away from the phrase in the plural form, he escapes the euphonistic influence, and recurs to the the true significance of the words.
The result of a somewhat cursory examination of the treatment of "United States" by our public men and official bodies may be found curious, if not decisive of the proper or permissive use of the verb and pronoun in connection with that phrase. It is found that in the earlier days of the Republic the prevailing practice was the use of the plural, but even then many of our pulbic men at times employed the singular. Among statesmen who have used the the singular form may be cited Hamilton, Webster, Silas Wright, Benton, Schurz, Edmunds, Depew. Of our Secretaries of State Jefferson, Marcy, Sweard, Fish, Evarts, Baline, Frelinghuysen, Bayard, Gresham, and Olney. Among diplomats Motley, C. F. Adams, E.J. Phelps, and Reid. Of living professors of international law and lawyers Woolsey of Yale, Moore of Columbia, Huffcut of Cornell, and James C. Carter of New York. In the earlier message of the Presidents the use of the singular verb is seldom found, Jackson's being the only one noted; but in later years Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley. Messages of the last three are found in which the singular verb alone is used throughout the message in connection with "'United States."
The decision of the Supreme Court in the earlier years rarely show the use of the singular, but several cases have been found, and in later years its use has been growing much more frequent.
The result of my examination is that, while the earlier practice in referring to the "United States" usually followed the formula of the Constitution, our public men of the highest authority gave their countenance, by occasional use, to the singular verb and pronoun: that since the civil war the tendency has been toward such use; and that to-day among public and professional men it has become the prevailing practice.
For today, I'll close with a few counts and examples from the Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers archive at Penn State, "A collection of newspapers from the civil war era dated from February 23,1831 to February 14,1877."
I checked the first 50 articles containing the phrase "the United States" in the year 1836, published between January 1 and April 25. These involved roughly 150 tokens of the phrase (I didn't try to count them, but there are typically several in an article where there is one). Of all of these, there was only one in subject position (with plural verb agreement), in a story about the Texas War of Independence:
Volunteers arrive daily; and our marine is in a state to blockade the Mexican ports. The result of the delay in the actual strife with the central government will be a radical separation; and if we may credit rumors, the United States propel to this; we shall see hereafter.
There is one other where "the United States" refers to the frigate rather than to the nation:
The United States, we believe, was built in Philadelphia. [refers to the ship "which has recently undergone a thorough repair at New York"]
The other examples are all attributives (the United States Mint, the United States Senate, the United States Infirmary, the United States Bank, the United States ports), or heads of prepositional phrases (the government of the United States, the president of the United States, the Bank of the United States, trade with the United States, the northern coasts of the United States), or verbal objects, or etc.
Searching similarly in the year 1846, I looked at the first 50 articles containing the phrase "the United States", published between January 1 and June 27. These contained 18 cases where the phrase occurs in subject position. (And singular agreement is almost as common and plural agreement.) FWIW, here the examples are:
It is contended, on the part of Great Britain, that the United States acquired and hold the Spanish title subject to the terms and conditions of the Nootka Sound convention
In the mean time, the United States were proceeding with the discoveries which served to complete and confirm the Spanish American title to the whole of the disputed territory.
Will the United States allow 20,000 of these bitter and irreconcilable foes [the Mormons] to take possession of any portion of the Pacific coast that is now or may hereafter by purchase become ours?
In the discussion on the address in the Chamber of deputies, the United States and Texas have likewise come in for a good deal of observation. […] He observed that it was appeared to him, from the remarks in the President's message, that the U. States were dissatisfied in the Texas affair, …
The United States in annexing Texas had assumed the responsibility that devolved upon Texas antecedent to that event.
The unprejudiced of all parties, we doubt not, will freely admit that the United States have a clear right to the territory on which Gen. Taylor is stationed with his troops, and if so, the charge of the Gazetter, that the President has invaded Mexico, is utterly untrue.
Certain it is, that if Texas had not that right, then the United States had not;
He attempted to show that President Polk had trampled upon the constitution of his country — that Gen. Taylor, by his orders, had invaded Mexico — that his army was posted upon soil which did not belong to Texas, and over which neither the Republic or the United States had even exercised civil jurisdiction.
This newspaper has always maintained that neither England nor the United States is entitled to Oregon, and it seizes this occasion to recommend the French government to insist on the whole territory being declared neutral.
…it is now entirely proper to remind our readers that the United States has for a long series of years in terms mild and conciliatory, been endeavoring to obtain from Mexico a fair and just rumuneration for the "injuries and wrongs"; sustained by our citizens.
Against Mexico the United States had a black catalogue of robbery, insult and perfidy, anterior to the Texan controversy.
As we said before, we have those in our midst who declare that the United States is in the wrong.
Is he really willing to vote for resolutions recommending a vigorous prosecution of the war, and in the same breath to declare that it is an unjust war, and that the United States is in the wrong?
From what I can collect, I am of opinion that if the United States, at present, were to attempt to conquer Mexico, or even to annex any considerable portion of its territory, they would cause great dissatisfaction in France; …
This calculation is based somewhat upon the idea that the United States will order an expedition from the Missouri river upon the northern provinces.
The United States of America will never recede in the face of Monarchy; they must greet a kindred Republic across the Rio Grande, or advance and entrench themselves upon the ragged steeps and defiles of the Sierra Madre.
In other words, while the treaty of peace and commerce between Mexico and the United States is in full force, the United States, presuming on her strength and prosperity, and on our supposed imbecility and cowardice, attempts to make you the blind instrumnets of her unholy and mad ambition, and force you to appear as the hateful robbers of our dear homes, and the unprovoked violators of our dearest feelings as men and patriots.
Two swallows don't make much of a summer, but that's all for now.
I've done a bit more research, which I'll cover in a later post, along with an account of the ideas about animacy, agency and subjecthood pioneered by Michael Silverstein ( "Hierarchy of Features and Ergativity", in R.M.W. Dixon (ed.), Grammatical Categories in Australian Languages, 1976), and widely discussed since by linguists (e.g. Judith Aissen, "Markedness and Subject Choice in Optimality Theory", Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 1999) and psycholinguists (e.g. F. Ferreira, "Choice of Passive Voice is Affected by Verb Type and Animacy", Journal of Memory and Language, 1994; Willem Mak et al. "Animacy in processing relative clauses: The hikers that rocks crush", Journal of Memory and Language, 2006).
If I could get hold of the underlying texts, then rather than painfully reading all this stuff by hand, I could classify examples automatically on a large scale, and make more serious progress much more rapidly on a picture of this phrase's changes in number agreement and subjecthood — and their relationship — over time and space. That's just what I hope to do, if the archivists are kind.