The United States are ‘Them,’ Not ‘It’

Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states the following: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” According to this—the governing document of our country—treason against the United States consists not only in warring against the country, but also in aiding and abetting enemies of the United States.

But notice closely the wording of the sentence above: “in levying War against them.” Them who? Is this some sort of 18th century weirdo wording or what? No, it is not. It’s a conscious effort on the part of the writers of the Constitution to keep plural what politicians ever since have tried (and succeeded) to make singular. Who are the “them”? Quite obviously it is the States of the Union. The full legal name of this country is The United States of America. States, as in plural. The States willingly united with one another to make a “more perfect union” (Constitution preamble), which consisted of “free and independent states” (Declaration of Independence). In fact, the Declaration put the individual States of the Union (not the Union itself) on an equal footing with Great Britain. Notice the wording:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

In other words, the Declaration recognized Virginia to be a State in the same sense that Great Britain was a State; likewise the other 12 states, née colonies. When the Constitution refers to the United States, it is not referring to Washington D.C. It is literally referring to the individual component States that make up the political idea of States united together. This is why the Constitution refers to the United States as “them,” rather than “her” or “it.”

In the intervening two hundred plus years since the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, this understanding has flip-flopped. Modern Americans consider themselves to be United States citizens first, and citizens of their state second. Historians have long pondered over Robert E. Lee’s refusal to be Lincoln’s Commander of the Union Army (he also refused a similar position in the CSA Army), while at the same time refusing to support Virginian secession. He was a lover of the Union, but he was a greater lover of his homeland. Lee said: “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” This statement is greatly at odds with the modern understanding of the United States, but it makes perfect sense when considered in the light of a late 18th century understanding.

It makes me wonder what Lee would think about the Obama administration’s federal assault on the States. And while we may not know what Lee would be thinking, we do know what he would be doing: Readying his musket.