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brianmelendez
12-28-2006, 06:12 PM
I have frequently heard the expression that the American Civil War was "the war fought over a verb" because antebellum treaties typically referred to the United States in the plural ("the United States are"), but treaties made after the war referred to the United States in the singular ("the United States is"). I canít recall where I first heard this "expression," but it was many years ago, probably in some Reader's Digest filler that I read in childhood.

I have since tried verifying the expression, but its pedigree is elusive. I have seen it attributed to Lincoln's biographers Carl Sandburg (Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926); Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939)) and David Herbert Donald (Liberty and Union (1978); Lincoln Reconsidered (1981); Lincoln (1996)), but have scoured their works without finding it or any reference leading to it. I checked a collection of treaties from the early Republic, which generally refer to the "Government of the United States" rather than the "United States" itself (or themselves). I have found some modern speakers who remember it from their own childhoods, but none who mentioned a reference that I can check.

The earliest verifiable reference that I can find is in an unlikely, but venerable, source:It was a point of grammatical concord that was at the bottom of the Civil War ó 'United States are,' said one, 'United States is,' said another . . . .Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia or the Vitality of Greek Studies in America 16 (1909).

Is there a more common source for the expression that the Civil War was "the war fought over a verb"?

David Simmons
12-28-2006, 11:35 PM
I have frequently heard the expression that the American Civil War was "the war fought over a verb" because antebellum treaties typically referred to the United States in the plural ("the United States are"), but treaties made after the war referred to the United States in the singular ("the United States is"). I canít recall where I first heard this "expression," but it was many years ago, probably in some Reader's Digest filler that I read in childhood.

I have since tried verifying the expression, but its pedigree is elusive. I have seen it attributed to Lincoln's biographers Carl Sandburg (Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926); Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939)) and David Herbert Donald (Liberty and Union (1978); Lincoln Reconsidered (1981); Lincoln (1996)), but have scoured their works without finding it or any reference leading to it. I checked a collection of treaties from the early Republic, which generally refer to the "Government of the United States" rather than the "United States" itself (or themselves). I have found some modern speakers who remember it from their own childhoods, but none who mentioned a reference that I can check.

The earliest verifiable reference that I can find is in an unlikely, but venerable, source:Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia or the Vitality of Greek Studies in America 16 (1909).

Is there a more common source for the expression that the Civil War was "the war fought over a verb"?It's "The United States is ..." Going to trust me on that or do you want to take it outside? ;)

t-bonham@scc.net
12-29-2006, 02:38 AM
In their official declarations of the causes of seceding (http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html) this is never mentioned at all.

The reasons they give seem to be entirely based on preserving slavery, extending slavery into the territories, and complaints that people in the free states prevent their agents from capturing and returning escaped slaves. They even point out with horror that the free states advocate:
- "the equality of the black and white races" (Georgia)
- "negro equality, socially and politically" (Mississippi)
- "proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color" (Texas)

But it's clear that the free states felt that the USA was one nation, while the slave states felt that it was several individual, soverign states just working together. So free states felt that the "United States" was singular, so they said "the United States is...". The slave states felt that "United States" was plural, so they said "the United States are...". Saying that it was 'a war fought over a verb' is a rather cutsey term, and seems to minimize the serious differences at the heart of this conflict.

And technically, it's not a verb, but subject-verb tense agreement.

Derleth
12-29-2006, 02:43 AM
And technically, it's not a verb, but subject-verb tense agreement.Pistols at dawn, chimpy! ;)

This is probably going to turn into another interminable "What caused the Civil War" thread. Nearly a century and a half and we still can't come to complete agreement.

Monty
12-29-2006, 07:33 AM
And technically, it's not a verb, but subject-verb tense agreement.

Actually it's an issue of subject-verb number agreement.

Polycarp
12-29-2006, 08:17 AM
Actually, it is a touch of irony applied to conceptualization in political philosophy.

Since the Civil War, there has been general consensus agreement that the United States is a nation headed by a Congress, President, and Supreme Court, with capital in Washington DC, structured on the federal principle.

But in 1784, the united states of America were thirteen newly-independent small nations along the Atlantic coast of North America who had recently banded together under the Articles of Confederation.

The idea that the USA was a voluntary union of independent states, rather than an indissoluble national entity, died hard. Right down to Gen. Lee feeling that his primary patriotism was to his state, not to the federal union, on the eve of the Civil War.

And that's the point. The United States is a nation comprised of 50 states. As opposed to the idea that The United States are 50 sovereign states in a voluntary union.

Johnny L.A.
12-29-2006, 08:29 AM
An historian on The History Channel said that 'are' became 'is' as a result of the Civil War. I've never heard anyone claim that the war was fought over a word.

Monty
12-29-2006, 08:34 AM
We're all neglecting that Britishism in which a collective noun takes the plural form of the verb. Maybe it's merely a difference in dialect of the time.

David Simmons
12-29-2006, 09:59 AM
We're all neglecting that Britishism in which a collective noun takes the plural form of the verb.A;ctually, that's what the Revolution was all about.

RickJay
12-29-2006, 10:50 AM
An historian on The History Channel said that 'are' became 'is' as a result of the Civil War. I've never heard anyone claim that the war was fought over a word.
But did it actually happen? Was the United States referred to in the plural prior to 1860? That is, can you commonly find references like "the United States are"? I've heard it asserted that the Civil War turned the "are" into "is" but I've never seen this assertion supported.

brianmelendez
12-29-2006, 11:20 AM
But did it actually happen? Was the United States referred to in the plural prior to 1860? That is, can you commonly find references like "the United States are"? I've heard it asserted that the Civil War turned the "are" into "is" but I've never seen this assertion supported.Yes. You can find frequent references to the United States in the plural before the Civil War -- even in the Constitution itself, as recently as the 13th amendment (proposed January 1865, ratified December 1865):Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.(Emphasis added.) A leading grammarian offers another example from The Federalist Papers (and corroborates Monty's hypothesis):A century ago, in AmE, this proper noun ["United States"] had "ceased to have any suggestion of plurality about it." Harry T. Peck, What Is Good English? 3, 16 (1899). That represented a change, though, from just 50 years before, when states'-rights particularism was rampant. Thus, much earlier even than 1850, it was usual to say the United States have, as Alexander Hamilton did in The Federalist No. 15, at 108 (Clinton Rossiter ed., 1961).

Today, however, it's unidiomatic to suggest plurality in referring to the United States. But some BrE writers use the phrase in this way -- e.g.: "It has been shown that under the law of some of the United States [read some states or some American states] there is a legal advantage." Glanville Williams, The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law 183-84 (1957; repr. 1972).Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage 806 (2003).

Freddy the Pig
12-29-2006, 11:21 AM
But did it actually happen? Was the United States referred to in the plural prior to 1860? That is, can you commonly find references like "the United States are"? I've heard it asserted that the Civil War turned the "are" into "is" but I've never seen this assertion supported.Nor have I. Three issues here:

1. Was the United States often referred to in the plural prior to 1860?
2. What is the origin of the assertion that the decline in this usage was one of the results of the war?
3. What is the origin of the assertion that controversy over this usage was one of the causes of the war?

The latter is the OP's question, but I can shed no light on it. I never encounered this assertion until now. I think perhaps it is not as common as the OP may believe.

Regarding #2, I first encountered the assertion in James B. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Shelby Foote spoke the same assertion in the Burns Civil War mini-series. I don't know if Foote also wrote it in his Civil War books because I haven't read them. I doubt that the assertion was original with either McPherson or Foote.

McPherson unfortunately didn't provide any sourcing or documentation, although he does document the parallel change in usage from "Union" to "nation". It's hard to google or search for "United States is" or "are" because you get too many false hits, as in "the economy of the United States is improving".

Searching Tocqueville's Democracy in America (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch08.htm), I find examples both ways:

"The United States form not only a republic but a confederation . . ."
". . . the United States is a nation without neighbors."

Make of that what you will.

brianmelendez
12-29-2006, 11:40 AM
Regarding #2, I first encountered the assertion in James B. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Shelby Foote spoke the same assertion in the Burns Civil War mini-series. I don't know if Foote also wrote it in his Civil War books because I haven't read them.Here is what Ken Burns had to say in an interview (http://www.pbs.org/civilwar/filmmakers/qa.html) about his miniseries:QUESTION: Iíve heard you say many times when someone has pressed you about the impact of The Civil War, you have defined it in the differences between two verbs, "are" and "is." Can you explain?

BURNS: Well, this is something that we began to see creeping into the language of Americans during the course of the war, and it was reinforced by historians like Shelby Foote, who reminded us that if all the complicated causes and all the complex effects of the war are too difficult to ultimately comprehend, we can see The Civil War in very simple terms.

Before the war, in speaking about our country, we said, "The United States are" ó plural. We saw ourselves as a union, a stitched-together collection of states, a "many" thing. After the war ó though we ended slavery, we didnít really end the question of race that has bedeviled and ennobled our struggle ó we then began to talk about America as a "one" thing, as a nation. And we began to say something that is still to this day ungrammatical; we say, "The United States is." And that is ungrammatical. It would be like saying, "These shoes is."

And we say it without thinking about it because something happened in those four years between 1861 and 1865 that, for whatever reasons and for whatever consequences issued from it, formed this country in a way that not even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did. And so, in the end, the story of The Civil War is the story of the change of a simple verb from a plural to a singular.
I doubt that the assertion was original with either McPherson or Foote.It can't possibly have been, since my OP quotes a source from 1909. McPherson was born in 1936, Foote in 1916. (By the way, I think that Freddy meant James M. McPherson, the historian, who wrote Battle Cry of Freedom. James B. McPherson was a Civil War general who died in 1864.)

Freddy the Pig
12-29-2006, 12:45 PM
It can't possibly have been, since my OP quotes a source from 1909. McPherson was born in 1936, Foote in 1916.But your source makes a slightly different, and indeed a somewhat inconsistent claim: that the two sides disagreed over which verb form to use before the Civil War, and that this disagreement was a reflection of the underlying differences over the nature of the Union. McPherson and Burns (maybe I'm wrong in remembering Foote from the miniseries; maybe it was Burns himself speaking) assert that the plural usage was common in both sections, and only changed as a result of the war.

Yes, those McPhersons . . . always get them confused.

Trunk
12-29-2006, 01:17 PM
"Just say, 'slavery'".