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An Historical Singularity


We just received in the office The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy by the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Thomas K. McCraw. (Thank you, Harvard!) As I began to read the introduction, however, something stopped me short. Referencing the terrible postwar debt of the 1780s, McCraw writes:

There seemed to be no way out—the more so because “these United Colonies,” as the Declaration of Independence called them, were now “Free and Independent States.” From Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania in the North to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia in the South, the thirteen states differed in many of their basic economic interests and some of their core ideas. Not until the late 1860s, after the Civil War, did people speak of the nation in the singular: “the United States is” rather than “the United States are.

Except that this isn’t true, this business about is versus are. Or at least it’s not strictly true. Allow me two quick examples: first, from the journal Niles’ Weekly Register, published in 1815. The writer, reflecting on the end of the War of 1812, “find[s] all united in the opinion, that the United States is able to contend single handed, and with success, against the power of Great Britain.” Now, I’ll grant you: this writer is “a gentleman in London.” So maybe he doesn’t understand that proper American grammar speaks only of these United States!
Except that here’s an example from 1835: A government textbook—The Political Class Book; Intended to Instruct the Higher Classes in Schools in the Origin, Nature, and Use of Political Poweralso uses the singular … as in blah blah blah “in which the United States is a party.”


And of course if people sometimes referred to the United States in the singular before the Civil War, the reverse is true, as well. For instance, the novelist Carl Van Vechten (an Iowa native!) was using the plural in 1918, and so was Harry Truman in 1950.
So why does a Pulitzer Prize–winner say otherwise? One, because this idea of is–then war–then are describes a very general and tentative truth: that very gradually, over time, and perhaps more quickly after the Civil War, the usage changed from plural to singular. And two, this idea that the Civil War, as if by its sheer mythic intensity, transformed the language in that way—well, it’s enormously appealing. (Just as seeing the war through the lens of tragedy is appealing.)
On October 21, 1923, a short article appeared in the New York Times titled “St. Basil of Baltimore.” It was about Basil L. Gildersleeve, a longtime professor of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew first here at the University of Virginia and then at Johns Hopkins.
Professor Gildersleeve makes a brief appearance in the encyclopedia in our entry on Charlottesville during the Civil War. There we find him speaking out against miscegenation in an essay published in 1864, writing that it was only by preventing a mixture of the races “that we owe the supremacy of the white man on the continent, and that we look down so proudly on the mixed population of Mexico and the twenty-two cross-breeds of Lima.”
Anyway, so maybe he wasn’t a saint exactly. But he was charmingly eccentric, as the Times took care to note:

A Confederate soldier and officer during the Civil War, which he used to say was fought to settle a question of grammar (that is, the question as to whether “the United States” was singular or plural), [Gildersleeve] carried his pocket Homer till the day that he lost not only it but his pistol and his horse and all but his life. He has gone limping from his wound all his days since then …

So there you have it: for Professor Gildersleeve, language—at once fussily pedantic, like his Latin grammar, and sharply personal—has become a tool of reconciliation. And, while we’re at it, the Civil War needs no longer be about something so awkward as miscegenation or white supremacy. I mean, honestly. We’re plural now … wait, I mean singular!
FOR MORE: The definitive word on this issue comes from the folks at Language Log.
IMAGES: Poster for the band These United States, from Lexington, Kentucky; clippings from Niles’ Weekly Register, The Political Class Book, and The Merry-Go-Roundself-portrait by Carl Van Vechten, April 3, 1934 (Library of Congress); Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, 1915 (Library of Congress)

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