When did U.S. presidents make us an 'is'?

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In response to my recent posts "The United States as a subject" and "When did the Supreme Court make us an 'is'?", Rich Rostrom sent the following essay, reflecting some research he did a few years ago.

One popular comment on the Civil War is that "before the war, people said 'The United States are…', whereas after the war, they said 'The United States is…". That is, the common idea of 'the United States' changed from plural to singular – from a collection of states to a nation.

This comment was given much play in the Ken Burns PBS series a few years ago.

However, some have questioned it, as being rather too neat, and not actually supported by evidence.

I decided to make an inquiry, by examining a number of texts from the periods before and after the war, to see if there was a change in usage. I went to the Avalon Collection at Yale University for my sources.

The documents in the Avalon Collection include the Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents, Annual Messages of the early Presidents, and many of the treaties made by the United States.

I searched through these documents for all usages of the phrase "United States", and noted from context whether the phrase was a plural or singular. This could be determined by the form of an associated verb: "are"/ "is", of course, but also "have"/"has", or "do"/"does". An associated possesive is also indicative: "their"/"its".

All the indicative usages I found are quoted below.

The phrase did not appear as often as one might imagine – it is missing entirely from, for instance, some of the inaugural addresses.

In many other cases, it appears as a part of a longer phrase, such as "President of the United States" or "Constitution of the United States", or in a manner that does not distinguish singular from plural. For instance in the phrase 'the United States will…', 'United States' could be either singular or plural. It seems that some authors preferred to avoid any indicative usage.

Of all the documents I looked at, only 20 had an indicative usage. Some had more than one. Monroe's two inaugurals had nine plural usages. He seems to have been more decided on the point than anyone else.

The first singular usage appears in Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification of 1832; there is also a plural usage there. The next singular usage is in the Gadsden Purchase Treaty of 1853, where there are three such (and no plurals); a big change from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, where there are five plurals.

The next item (in chronological order) is Seward's treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska, in which "the United States agree to pay…" – after the War, but still plural.

I mentioned the various treaties. Most of these are routine treaties for commerce, navigation, trade-marks, naturalization, and so on. The boiler plate at the beginning of some of these lists the persons concerned in the making of the treaty: the President, the American negotiator, the foreign minister of the other power, and the other state or monarch. In several of these treaties, the boiler plate begins "The President of the United States of America, So-and-So, their Envoy…" etc.  That is, the envoy or minister of the United States in plural. This usage appears as late as an 1896 treaty with Argentina.   Some of the treaties had no indicative usage; none had singular usage.

The last four documents are the inaugural addresses of McKInley, Taft, and Hoover. All references in them are singular.

So while it is true the change in question took place, it is not at all clear that it took place at the time of the Civil War.

Here are the quoted usages.

Fourth Annual Message of George Washington, November 6, 1792 …

on the part of the United States or their citizens…

First Annual Message of John Adams, November 22, 1797

… vessels and merchandise taken within the limits and jurisdiction of the United States and brought into their ports…

Third Annual Message of John Adams, December 3, 1799

…the engagements contracted by the United States in their treaties with His Britannic Majesty…

First Inaugural Address of James Monroe, MARCH 4, 1817

During a period fraught with difficulties and marked by very extraordinary events the United States have flourished beyond example.

Situated within the temperate zone, and extending through many degrees of latitude along the Atlantic, the United States enjoy all the varieties of climate, and every production incident to that portion of the globe.

With such an organization of such a people the United States have nothing to dread from foreign invasion.

It is particularly gratifying to me to enter on the discharge of these duties at a time when the United States are blessed with peace.

Second Inaugural Address of James Monroe, MARCH 5, 1821

… the United States… will always have it in their power to adopt such measures … as their honor and interest may require.

the right claimed by the United States for their citizens to take and cure fish …

The great interests which the United States have in the Pacific…

The situation of the United States in regard to their resources, the extent of their revenue…

The United States now enjoy the complete and uninterrupted sovereignty over the whole territory…

President Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification, December 10, 1832

… the laws of the United States, its Constitution…

To say that… is to say that the United States are not a nation.

Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Navigation and Commerce Between the United States and Venezuela; May 31, 1836

… whatever… can be… lawfully imported into the United States in their own vessels…

Morocco – Treaty of Peace; September 16, 1836

If any of the citizens of the United States, or any persons under their protection…

Treaty with Hanover of Commerce and Navigation; June 10, 1846

… whatever… can be… lawfully imported into the United States in their own vessels…

… the growth, produce, and manufacture of the United States, and of their fisheries

The United States agree to extend…

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; February 2, 1848

… those invasions which the United States have solemnly obliged themselves to restrain.

The United States engage, moreover, to assume and pay to the claimants…

The United States do furthermore discharge the Mexican Republic…

The United States, exonerating Mexico from… the claims of their citizens… undertake to make satisfaction for the same…

Gadsden Purchase Treaty : December 30, 1853

The United States, by its agents, shall have the right…

… the effects of the United States government and its citizens…

… the United States may extend its protection as it shall judge wise to it when it may feel sanctioned…

Treaty concerning the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America …to the United States of America : June 20, 1867

In consideration of the cession aforesaid, the United States agree to pay…

Convention Concerning the Rights, Privileges, and Immunities of Consuls: December 5, 1868

Henry Shelton Sanford, a citizen of the United States, their Minister Resident near His Majesty the King of the Belgians

Trade-Mark Convention Between the United States and Austria-Hungary; November 25, 1871

The President of the United States of America, John Jay, their Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America to His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty…

Extradition Convention Between the United States and Argentina; September 26, 1896.

The President of the United States of America, William I. Buchanan, their Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, to the Argentine Republic…

First Inaugural Address of William McKinley, MARCH 4, 1897

The United States has progressed with marvelous rapidity…

Second Inaugural Address of William McKinley, MARCH 4, 1901

… the … policy of the United States in its relation to Cuba.

Inaugural Address of William Howard Taft, MARCH 4, 1909

… the mainland of the United States and in its dependencies.

… the United States can maintain her interests intact…

The policy of the United States in the Spanish war and since has given it a position of influence…

Inaugural Address of Herbert Hoover, MARCH 4, 1929

The United States fully accepts the profound truth…

The United States seeks by these reservations…

[Above is a guest post by Rich Rostrom.]


  1. Acilius said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    Particularly interesting is Andrew Jackson's "to say that… is to say that the United States are not a nation." It can be accepted that the United States form a nation, so readily accepted that Jackson believes he has reduced South Carolina's arguments to absurdity when he declares that they imply otherwise, even when the phrase is treated as a plural.

    Also interesting is that the presidents do not appear to use the construction "the United States and their citizens" any differently than they use constructions like "the United States in their treaties." Some argue that citizenship in the antebellum USA was primarily citizenship of a particular state, with citizenship in the overall federation a vague or secondary thing. If this were so, we might expect constructions like "the United States and their citizens" to be very prominent, in that the it would be the several states that had citizenries, not the overall federation. With "the United States in their treaties," there is no doubt that the treaties are proper to the federation. So, whether the expression "United States" is grammatically singular or plural, what it names can still be regarded as one nation, one citizenship, one actor in world affairs.

    (I tried to paraphrase "one nation, one citizenship, one actor in world affairs," since as soon as I'd written it I knew how it would translate into German, but I can't think of any equally clear way of stating the case.)

  2. Aaron Davies said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    @acilius: treaties were always considered to be "proper to the federation"–that's why they're approved by the senate, which represents the states, rather than the house, which represents the people.

  3. Kalynda said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    On a related note (which I won't attempt to quantify), "these United States" should be included in a quantitative study. I hear it occasionally, but "this United States" is undoubtedly unacceptable in my grammar. At any rate, "these" would clearly marke US as a plural, but could also be counted when US is not in subject position (as in the numerous casesmentioned by Rich where US is the object of a preposition or with auxiliaries and modals unmarked for number).

  4. Linda said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    For the slang term "the States," is that used as a plural noun or a singular noun? I tried checking sources, but it's difficult to find examples of it used as the subject. Oftentimes, it's used as the object of a preposition, such as "My brother just flew back from the States."

    Any ideas?

  5. Thomas said,

    December 1, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    To better understand the plural from the singular one must go to the Organic Laws within Tile 1, United States Code and make a study in detail as to what one is stupulating either the singular or plural.
    To be specific when addressing the Articles of Confederation which is know as "this Constitution" for the United States by ratification by every state when constituted, on the other hand the delegates made the choise of taking on the Northwest Ordinance until said area was established by a constitution for each and ratified the Articles of Confederation at which point neither the state so constituted nor the United States by vertue of the Northwest ordinance could no longer legislate within said borders established by ratification and established state borders, but only within ports, forts and needful buildings within and their employees/enclaves along with National Parks, as an example the only territory left within Ohio borders being Wayne National Forrest.
    Being that the United States took on the Northwest territory as its jurisdiction and limited to it, it is now limited to the District of Columbia, Quam, Porto Rico and a veiw other places.

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