The Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, famously observed that after the Civil War our country, The United States of America, which used to referred to in the plural in all texts and documents, suddenly began to be referred to in the singular. Thus, today, we say “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not “The United States are going to Hell in handbags.” McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “The Union forces won the war.” In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times and to the Nation not once. Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once. Lincoln is now talking about a new birth of freedom, of ONE NATION, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]
What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it. It is not just some flowery prose. It had a specific political message to convey to the North as well as the South. This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be. Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those texts that needs to be remembered.
Well, while I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right. While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon and, as I have spent several years researching and writing about, a veteran of the Civil War, someone who fought and bled for that “new birth of freedom.”
As anyone who has tried to delve into his life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines spanning a period of over forty years. While the situation is now getting better thanks to messrs Joshi and Schultz and a handful of others, traditionally most people only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via sever anthologies published during his lifetime or through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life. All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes. In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilms archives of old newspapers, going back and looking at the original articles and essays. While much in these old journalistic pieces are only of passing historical interest on persons and events of the day, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.
For example, when the Spanish American War broke out, it stirred the old war dog in Bierce and in between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, it also motivated Bierce to ruminate about his own experience of war. While Jingoism grated against his last nerve, Bierce too was reluctantly caught up in the war fever of the day. Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time. More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce also weighs in on the “is” vs “are” issue. Since “Almighty God” Bierce is by far a better writer than I, it is to let him make his point in his own words:
“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii]
For more about Lincoln, read The Paranormal Presidency, while for Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career I will have to, for now, refer you to a book that has yet to be published: Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife (University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming).
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (NY: Oxford U. Press, 1988), 859,
[ii] S.F. Examiner, May 8, 1898.