It may seem odd today, but the phrase “the United States of America are” was in common usage when referring to our nation. While seemingly nonsensical by today’s understanding of the United States, the use of the plural form reflected the general belief that the Constitution of the United States of America linked otherwise independent, sovereign states.
The belief that the American Union was a bonding not of individuals, but of independent states, was ultimently the legal basis for the succession of North Carolina in 1861, the purported formation of the Confederated States of America, and the resulting Civil War. After years of bloodshed and terror, this understanding of the Union was repudiated on the battlefields and in the courts, and with “United States are” became the United States is.”
No better place is the change reflected than in 1868 North Carolina State Constitution’s clear statement in Article I, Section Four that North Carolina shall always be a part of the Union and its citizens shall always be Americans. While this idea is taken for granted in modern times, recent rhetoric throughout the states, including our own, once again suggests that the United States of America may not be an everlasting union. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the framing of the 1868 North Carolina Constitution, we must appreciate the blood and treasure that has been lost to allow this simple idea of enduring national unity to stand today and in perpetuity.
The Historical Idea of Succession
While it may seem ludicrous today, prior to the Civil War, the right of a state to secede from the Union was seen by many scholars as a legitimate exercise of state sovereignty well precedented in our nation’s history and inherent in the Constitution of the United States of America. See James Spence, The American Union (3rd ed. 1862).
It was thought that prior to the Articles of Association in 1774, the thirteen original colonies held independent political identities, unified only by their common heritage and their political allegiance to the British monarchy. The bond that we know today is the result of a gradual process stemming from a “common origin, mutual sympathies, kindred principles, similar interests, and geographical relations,” Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700, 725 (1868). In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln succinctly explained the steady progression towards union, stating:
The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured ... by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”
Despite movements towards national unity, each of these documents largely treated each colony (and later state) as independent entities. The Articles of...