Did you know that until 1865, people in America used the verb “are” after “the United States” rather than “is?” For instance, in 1819—thirty years after the Constitution was ratified—folks might have referred to the purchase of Florida by saying, “The United States are making a treaty with Spain.” That sounds odd to us today, since we would automatically say, “The United States is making a treaty with Spain.” Ironically, it took a civil war, a war between the states, to bring them together into a single entity that called for a single verb.
When the Framers drafted our Constitution in 1787, they hoped the separate states would realize they were joining forces to become one country. Before that, the states operated under a set of agreements called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The problem with the Articles was that they did not form a genuine union. There was no overarching government, no president who had the authority to do anything (even though there were eight of them before George Washington!), and no ability to collect taxes. States even charged each other tariffs on imported goods as if they were foreign countries. Alexander Hamilton went so far as to call the Articles an “imbecility.” Residents thought of themselves as citizens of the state they lived in, not of the country. It was because the government under the Articles was so weak and because citizens refused to think of themselves as Americans that the Framers created a new kind of government.
The issue of whether the states or the national government would have more power pervaded almost all of the Framers’ debates. And more than 230 years later, these issues remain. Since at least the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt developed New Deal programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression, the national government has taken the lead in resolving problems that affect the entire country. Under President Donald J. Trump, this arrangement is teetering—or, maybe, teeter-tottering.
The biggest problems we’re all facing these days relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some presidents might encourage Congress to pass laws that would be consistent across America. Examples would be uniform requirements for closing schools or sheltering in place. President Trump, however, has left such decisions up to governors. As a result, there are as many approaches to trying to save lives, protect hospital staff, and restart businesses as there are states and territories.
Rhode Island, Florida, and Texas have gone so far as to set up checkpoints and roadblocks at their borders to halt nonresidents who might be infected, as if they were foreigners. Troopers in Florida and Texas make drivers sign a form promising that they will quarantine themselves for fourteen days before going outside and breathing on the locals. The state police warn that they might track them down to be sure they do so.
Furthermore, only people who can prove that they live in the Outer Banks of North Carolina are allowed to enter. Residents of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina who own houses and live on those islands part-time have sued. It’s unconstitutional, they say, to close the border because that discriminates against out-of-state citizens. “Just because you have a state of emergency does not mean that the government can suspend all your constitutional rights,” one lawyer complained. Nevertheless, state police in Delaware and Florida are keeping outsiders from getting to beaches there, too.
On top of these varied measures, states are also competing against one another to buy protective gear for hospital workers and medical devices, such as ventilators, for patients. As a result of the competition, prices for these badly needed goods rise higher and higher. People who agreed with Hamilton about the Articles of Confederation might feel right at home today! A national-level strategy organized by the White House or Congress to buy these items could help keep the costs consistent and manageable from state to state.
Thanks to the Framers, we have a federal government with the balance of power tipping back and forth between the states and Washington, DC. The Great Seal of the United States declares that we are e pluribus unum: from many, one. Are we? Should we be?