You’ve been lied to. America is not “one nation.”
I know this feels shocking. You’ve proclaimed the United States of America is “one nation, under God, indivisible” your entire life. But you’ve been parroting a myth.
Over time, the one-nation myth became gospel. Historians, politicians and nationalists of every stripe wove the myth into the psyche of the American people. But if we start pulling at the treads, the myth unravels.
It is true that the U.S. system of government possesses some national characteristics. The United States face the world as a unified nation. They have a national defense and engage in trade with other countries as a nation. But at its core, the U.S. is something fundamentally different. That’s because the United States operate under a federal government, not a national government.
This may seem like semantics, but the two systems differ in important ways. Most significantly, national governments wield much more power than their federal counterparts.
Black’s Law Dictionary clarifies the legal distinction between a national and a federal system.
“A national government is a government of the people of a single state or nation, united as a community by what is termed the ‘social compact,’ and possessing complete and perfect supremacy over persons and things, so far as they can be made the lawful objects of civil government. A federal government is distinguished from a national government by its being the government of a community of independent and sovereign states, united by compact.”
In a nutshell, a nation operates as a single, unified political society. A federation is made up of multiple independent political societies united for specific purposes.
In a national system, the central government maintains complete control. While cities, counties, parishes, or other subdivisions may exist within a nation, their governments have no autonomy. They remain totally subservient to the central authority.
In a federal system, each member state maintains its sovereignty (ultimate authority). While it delegates some power to the general government, and in so doing voluntarily relinquishes control over certain objects, it never gives up its sovereignty. The central government can only exercise specifically delegated powers and cannot generally interfere with the internal policies of each member state unless it is in pursuance of those powers.
Although Alexander Hamilton held strong nationalist convictions, even he conceded the United States were not “one nation” in Federalist #32.
“An entire consolidation of the States into one complete national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts; and whatever powers might remain in them, would be altogether dependent on the general will. But the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States.” [Emphasis added]
We see this in the ratification of the Constitution. The people ratified the Constitution through the existing sovereign political societies – the states. The Constitution itself makes this distinction in Article 7.
“The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”
It wasn’t the mass of Americans ratifying the Constitution as “one nation.” It was the people of each individual state adopting the Constitution. Their independent actions created a political union between those states choosing to ratify. James Madison and other founders referred to this as a “compact.” It was entirely possible for nine states to form the union with four remaining independent, sovereign nations. In other words, the ratification by those nine states would not have bound the people in the other four.
In fact, Rhode Island was the last of the original colonies to approve the Constitution, and it did not send representatives to Congress until after ratification. Clearly, by that point, a vast majority of the American population was represented by ratifying states, yet that fact did not bind the people of Rhode Island to the Union. The state didn’t join the union until the people of the state gave the go-ahead.
James Madison reiterated the distinction between a federal and national government in Federalist #39.
“It appears, on one hand, that the Constitution is to be founded on the assent and ratification of the people of America, given by deputies elected for the special purpose; but, on the other, that this assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived from the supreme authority in each State, the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution, will not be a national, but a federal act.
“Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal, and not a national constitution.” [Emphasis added]
In Federalist #39, Madison alludes to a very important fundamental principle — sovereignty is in the people.
Mercy Otis Warren summed it up in the simplest way possible.
“The origin of all power is in the people.”
The British had a different idea. As Massachusetts royal governor Sir Francis Bernard explained, they believed in the “supreme superintendency of the government,” and that “in this plentitude of power, it is absolute, uncontrollable, and accountable to none; and therefore in a political sense, can do no wrong.”
The American revolutionaries fought a long bloody war to free themselves from this system and replace it with a system in which, as James Wilson described it, “the supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power REMAINS in the people.”
So, when we talk about “state sovereignty,” it doesn’t imply that the state government is sovereign. We don’t mean the geographical area possesses some kind of mystical power. We are really talking about the sovereignty of the people organized into their most fundamental political societies – the states.
James Madison explained this distinction in the Virginia Report of 1800.
The Report served as an in-depth defense of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. In the resolutions, Madison asserted that “in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact [Constitution], the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.”
In his Report of 1800, Madison explained exactly what the term “states” means in relation to sovereignty in the American system.
“The other position involved in this branch of the resolution, namely, ‘that the states are parties to the Constitution or compact,’ is in the judgment of the committee, equally free from objection. It is indeed true that the term ‘States,’ is sometimes used in a vague sense, and sometimes in different senses, according to the subject to which it is applied. Thus it sometimes means the separate sections of territory occupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments, established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. Although it might be wished that the perfection of language admitted less diversity in the signification of the same words, yet little inconveniency is produced by it, where the true sense can be collected with certainty from the different applications. In the present instance whatever different constructions of the term ‘States,’ in the resolution may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last mentioned; because in that sense, the Constitution was submitted to the “States”: In that sense the ‘States’ ratified it; and in that sense of the term ‘States,’ they are consequently parties to the compact from which the powers of the Federal Government result.” [Emphasis added]
The people of the states are the fundamental building block of the American political system. The United States are not one nation made up of “one American people.” They are a union of sovereign political societies with the final authority residing in the people themselves.
We can see from this discussion that the “one nation” myth isn’t just harmless semantics. If we embrace this myth, we end up with a general government that is much more powerful than intended. It creates a centralized system. The founding generation called this “consolidation,” and they viewed it as detrimental to liberty. In fact, during the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry said, “Dangers are to be apprehended in whatever manner we proceed; but those of a consolidation are the most destructive,” and he warned that it would “end in the destruction of our liberties.”
Thomas Jefferson also warned us about consolidation, saying that a centralized, consolidated government would lead to “corruptiuon, plunder and waste.”
He was right. That’s exactly the legacy of the “one nation” myth.
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