There was a time when the American people really knew their United States. Now they hardly understand the meaning of the term, or the answer to the question…
How many United States are there?
The constitutional compromise between keeping totally independent States or consolidating them into one mere Nation had produced an American system of government having “no technical terms or phrases appropriate to it,” according to James Madison. The Wizard of Oz called ours “the land of E Pluribus Unum,” which basically gets it right. Poet Walt Whitman wrote about “not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.” He had it figured out, too.
At last count there are fifty United States, though they act abroad as one nation vis–à–vis other nations.
So are there fifty? Or is there just one?
In a way there are two different United States, one federal and one national, a plural “union of States” here at home and a singular “nation of people” abroad. But because “the Constitution of the United States as such does not extend beyond the limits of the States which are united by and under it,” the full force of its protection does not extend to the national state or its constituents. C.C. Langdell, The Status of Our New Territories, 12 Harv. L. Rev. 365, 371 (1899). As our States go, so goes our freedom.
“No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the states, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.” McCulloch v. State, 17 U.S. 316, 403 (1819).
Unfortunately, even courts succumb to the vague notion that “things change,” so it makes sense to reinforce our States by constructive amendment rather than devolve into “one common mass” of rightless supplicants, dependent on grants of privilege and favor from, and otherwise under the boot of, a partisan national government.
Let’s face it, there are crackpots who imagine the United States were somehow coalesced into one comprehensive nation overall by the 14th amendment, by the power of money, or by the influence of technology and the march of time.
…but poetry and law agree: the United States are “not merely a nation.”