Re: These United States

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Donna Richoux

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Sep 29, 2004, 3:19:00 PM9/29/04
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Tim McDaniel <tm...@panix.com> wrote:

[re the much-repeated idea "In the early days, 'United States' was
plural; after the Civil War, 'United States' was singular"]

> Donna Richoux <tr...@euronet.nl> wrote:

> >As John Dean's post demonstrated, this idea about the plural/singular
> >has been made by historians since at least 1909 (Gildersleeve). It
> >was not based on technological number crunching. What else could have
> >prompted the remarks except personal observations of a large quantity
> >of documents?
>
> The AFU Motto Contest is *way* over.
>
> I've made dogmatic statements about a field I'm somewhat expert in
> (Western European heraldry) and then been gobsmacked when flipping
> thru sources later and realizing that I was full of it. Contrarywise,
> when I do gather data and come to a conclusion, I mention my sources
> and quantify my conclusions.

It's certainly true that we all make mistakes. I wasn't claiming
infallibility on the part of professional historians; it was more about
motive -- what besides personal experience would prompt anyone to
publish such an observation in the first place.

And I did mean first -- I certainly didn't mean that everyone who
*repeated* the idea, knew it to be true from personal experience. Yet,
even if a thousand people have merely repeated and embellished it,
someone had to have said it first. (Barring unusual cases like Boaz and
the four words for snow.)

Anyway, you got me looking for more about the first of those citations
-- who was the author, how knowledgeable was he, was he in a position to
originate the idea or merely to pass on someone else's...

I found a couple of things.

Here's the oldest quote that we in a.u.e (I'm cross-posting this, in
part to keep the records together) found on this topic:

It was a point of grammatical concord which was at the bottom of
the Civil War -- "United States are," said one, "United States
is," said another.

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve
Hellas and Hesperia ; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America;
three lectures
(Holt: New York, 1909)

It turns out that Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve is a most eminent figure,
with enough credentials to choke a horse. Lengthy biographical profiles
are at numerous sites. To summarize as briefly as possible: Born 1831 in
Charleston SC. Child prodigy. Degree at Princeton by age 18. Studied in
Europe, doctorate by 22. Became professor of Greek at U. of Virginia age
25. Captain in the Civil War (South) age 30, leg wound Shenandoah 1864.
Became professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins, 1875. In 1880, founded
the American Journal of Philology, which he edited until age 89.
(Philology is something like entomology, but with more love. And
stamps.) Tributes to his stature as a scholar abound. The Latin textbook
he wrote (1867) is still in print today (with revisions I'm sure).

So, that's one thing. If such a man were to say that he'd noticed an odd
shift or significant conflict in the country's use of language, I think
I'd listen respectfully. We don't know yet what he said, really -- the
book quoted is not on line and doesn't look readily available. There's a
recent biography about him, though, "Soldier and Scholar" (U Press Va).

The other thing is that I turned up one site that says Gildersleeve
*was* the one to "put forth" the idea in question.

http://www.etymonline.com/cw/apologia.htm

But if the Civil War wasn't about slavery, what was
it about? My favorite (historical) Latin professor,
Basil L. Gildersleeve, put forth the proposition
that the Civil War was fought over a question of
grammar -- whether "the United States" is a singular
or plural noun.[2]

2. The quote sometimes is misattributed to Mark
Twain.

That article is by Douglas Harper, who writes books on local history for
the Chester County Historical Society, Pennsylvania. I don't know if he
got the exact angle right -- I suspect Gildersleeve meant the grammar
*illustrated* something about fundamental beliefs, not that it was a
literal *cause* -- but at least, Harper thinks Gildersleeve was the
first to bring it up.

So a possible next step would be to find out what Gildersleeve said in
fuller context -- what he said, what he meant, what he based it on. I
wonder if D. Harper owns that book...
--
Donna "dear Rosencrantz and gentle Gildersleeve" Richoux

Tim McDaniel

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Oct 4, 2004, 3:15:26 PM10/4/04
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In article <1gkvthh.293tbh14rcbsdN%tr...@euronet.nl>,

Donna Richoux <tr...@euronet.nl> wrote:
>It's certainly true that we all make mistakes. I wasn't claiming
>infallibility on the part of professional historians; it was more
>about motive -- what besides personal experience would prompt anyone
>to publish such an observation in the first place.
>
>And I did mean first -- I certainly didn't mean that everyone who
>*repeated* the idea, knew it to be true from personal experience.

I was hoping someone else would have better luck explaining the
concept of "origin of urban legends" to you, but nobody else has
stepped up to the plate.

It's easy to see patterns that aren't there. Some people think that a
good story is more important than the truth, even when their being
found out hurts their own cause and both the original claim and the
debunking hurt the truth. (Fry in purgatory, Farley Mowat and Paul
Harvey.) Some people are interested in selling books (or whatever),
and a pithy factoid-like thingy can help spark interest and sales
(heck, I have books containing nothing but pithy facts). Some people
like to sound and feel authoritative just for its own sake. I'm sure
there are other reasons that I'm blanking on right now.

>Here's the oldest quote that we in a.u.e (I'm cross-posting this, in
>part to keep the records together) found on this topic:
>

...


> Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve
> Hellas and Hesperia ; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America;
> three lectures
> (Holt: New York, 1909)
>

>Tributes to his stature as a scholar abound.

My reaction is, "If he was such a great scholar, where's his citations
for that statement?" Given the subtitle of "The vitality of Greek
studies in America" and the US Civil War had nothing to do with Greek
studies, I'd say it could easily have been a throwaway line for humor
or general interest, and since it wasn't at all on his topic, he might
not have cared about documenting it.

--
Tim McDaniel; Reply-To: tm...@panix.com

Donna Richoux

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Oct 5, 2004, 7:31:27 AM10/5/04
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Tim McDaniel <tm...@panix.com> wrote:

> In article <1gkvthh.293tbh14rcbsdN%tr...@euronet.nl>,
> Donna Richoux <tr...@euronet.nl> wrote:
> >It's certainly true that we all make mistakes. I wasn't claiming
> >infallibility on the part of professional historians; it was more
> >about motive -- what besides personal experience would prompt anyone
> >to publish such an observation in the first place.
> >
> >And I did mean first -- I certainly didn't mean that everyone who
> >*repeated* the idea, knew it to be true from personal experience.
>
> I was hoping someone else would have better luck explaining the
> concept of "origin of urban legends" to you, but nobody else has
> stepped up to the plate.
>
> It's easy to see patterns that aren't there.

By this you mean, it would easy for Mr. Gildersleeve to have wrongly
imagined that "United States" was treated as a plural by some and as a
singular by others? OK, it's possible (doesn't feel likely to me,
though, given what I've seen about plurals of collective nouns). Or that
he wrongly imagined that this made the slightest bit of difference to
anyone? That's a lot more possible. But we haven't seen the full context
of the line, so we don't truly know what he said or why.

>Some people think that a
> good story

You know, I have to say this doesn't make a terribly good story. But as
a factoid that has lately caught the attention of Civil War buffs, OK.

>is more important than the truth, even when their being
> found out hurts their own cause and both the original claim and the
> debunking hurt the truth. (Fry in purgatory, Farley Mowat and Paul
> Harvey.) Some people are interested in selling books (or whatever),
> and a pithy factoid-like thingy can help spark interest and sales
> (heck, I have books containing nothing but pithy facts). Some people
> like to sound and feel authoritative just for its own sake. I'm sure
> there are other reasons that I'm blanking on right now.

Sure, all kinds of things can motivate people to say stuff. That's
actually what I was getting at when I said, "What else could have
prompted the remarks..."

But rather than speculate endlessly about what might be, I prefer to
focus on what can be found out.

The way I see it, there are several questions that can be pursued, here
and now:

l) Follow the source quote: Who was the first to make some point in
print about this United States singular/plural, what did they say, did
they explain how they knew, could that have been correct, did they have
experience, could they have had an ulterior motive, etc.

2) Follow the claim content: Is it really true that the usage did change
from plural to singular; if so, when did it happen, how did this compare
to other singular/plurals, etc., and can anything be said about why it
happened and what significance it had. Could computerized collections of
old documents, like Making of America, help us here...

3) Follow the legend: in what ways have people repeated this fact or
story; how has it changed; did someone actually do their own research
subsequently; what was the point of repeating it, what claims have been
made, etc.

I myself have chosen to focus on the first, because it seems do-able,
people want to know where it came from, and once we know what was said
first, it's possible to compare what was said later. Unlike a lot of
a.f.u topics, this one has a lower limit, time-wise (the formation of
the U.S.A.), and hence possibly an identifiable starting point.

I've looked at your first post (of twelve days ago) several times and I
can't quite identify which of these things is *your* question -- are you
more concerned with #2, whether the language truly did change as
described?

>
> >Here's the oldest quote that we in a.u.e (I'm cross-posting this, in
> >part to keep the records together) found on this topic:
> >
> ...
> > Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve
> > Hellas and Hesperia ; or, The vitality of Greek studies in America;
> > three lectures
> > (Holt: New York, 1909)
> >
> >Tributes to his stature as a scholar abound.
>
> My reaction is, "If he was such a great scholar, where's his citations
> for that statement?"

Yeah, yeah, give 'em an inch and they want a kilometer. We found the
line, I found that he was considered a great scholar, and naturally you
want to know more. That's okay by me, I'm glad you're interested and
curious, but do you have to sound, well, churlish? "If he's such a great
scholar, where's his citations?" Well, have you looked for them? It
sounds to me like you're leaping to the assumption, not merely that he
might have made an unfounded remark, but that he *must* have.

We don't know at this moment what Gildersleeve said, beyond that quote.
There are a few mentions on the Web for that "Hellas and Hesperia" book,
which could be pursued. Perhaps one would turn up more of an
explanation. The book has got to be in some big scholarly libraries, if
anyone wants to pay a visit, and I think I did see that one copy is for
sale somewhere. Or, that Civil War historian I mentioned (the one who
said it was Gildersleeve's idea) might own it; I could email him. OK, I
will.


>Given the subtitle of "The vitality of Greek
> studies in America" and the US Civil War had nothing to do with Greek
> studies, I'd say it could easily have been a throwaway line for humor
> or general interest, and since it wasn't at all on his topic, he might
> not have cared about documenting it.

True, that's possible. It's also possible that it could be quite
relevent, if seen in full. The guy was a professor of classics -- and
therefore knew all about ancient wars. He was the age to watch the Civil
War coming (as a grown man), to fight in himself, and to watch the long
aftermath. Like I say, if he *did* make an observation, even if not
backed up by computer-based tallies, I think people would have respected
it.

I hope you're not talking about shifting expectations, which is another
thing I tried to say several posts ago. There's no way a professor
writing in 1909 is going to say "I conducted a full-scale literature
search on 5,540 samples of writing and found, with a normal distribution
chi-square test on a random sampling of..."

--
Donna "United States are us" Richoux

Lee Rudolph

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Oct 5, 2004, 7:50:12 AM10/5/04
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>Donna "United States are us" Richoux

You know, this whole controversy could be nicely avoided if we'd all
agree to say "The United States be [insert your complement of choice]".

Lee "under the aspect of eternity" Rudolph

Jamie Hart

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Oct 5, 2004, 8:02:31 AM10/5/04
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Better if everyone went back to calling them "These United States"

Jamie "Or 'them there United States' for us on the outside" Hart

Tim McDaniel

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Oct 5, 2004, 2:01:22 PM10/5/04
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In article <1gl5kbg.174recby7fdxhN%tr...@euronet.nl>,
Donna Richoux <tr...@euronet.nl> wrote:

>Tim McDaniel <tm...@panix.com> wrote:
>I've looked at your first post (of twelve days ago) several times and I
>can't quite identify which of these things is *your* question -- are you
>more concerned with #2, whether the language truly did change as
>described?

But what I don't see is *evidence* in the form of quotations, and
I don't have good sources to hand (I don't recall seeing it in the
book I cited at the top). This naturally makes me wonder whether
this is real or just the result of copying, ...

So what I was getting at, unclearly, was wondering whether the fact
was a true fact or a false fact, and what evidence there was.

>> My reaction is, "If he was such a great scholar, where's his
>> citations for that statement?"
>

>That's okay by me, I'm glad you're interested and curious, but do you
>have to sound, well, churlish?

Can I be the Churlish Chupacabra of Citations?

>"If he's such a great scholar, where's his citations?" Well, have
>you looked for them?

Well, um, you're the one who mentioned him, not me. In short, "You
get it -- you're closer -- er, I assume that you appear to be closer".

>I hope you're not talking about shifting expectations, which is
>another thing I tried to say several posts ago. There's no way a
>professor writing in 1909 is going to say "I conducted a full-scale
>literature search on 5,540 samples of writing and found, with a
>normal distribution chi-square test on a random sampling of..."

But there was still scholarship then and people did cite their sources
or their evidence, right? I'm not going to disbelieve him a priori,
but I'm not going to give him a free pass because he's a Distinguished
Scholar.

Tim "even Hatunen nods" McDaniel

Ben Zimmer

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Oct 5, 2004, 2:13:48 PM10/5/04
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Donna Richoux wrote:
>
> The way I see it, there are several questions that can be pursued, here
> and now:
>
> l) Follow the source quote: Who was the first to make some point in
> print about this United States singular/plural, what did they say, did
> they explain how they knew, could that have been correct, did they have
> experience, could they have had an ulterior motive, etc.

As for this first question, perhaps we can let Mr. Gildersleeve off the
hook, since I've found versions of the claim predating the 1909
publication of _Hellas and Hesperia_. This article appears on the
American Periodicals Series database (via Proquest):

The Making of a Nation, by G H Emerson.
The Universalist Quarterly and General Review.
January 1891. Vol. 28; p. 49

The many histories are careful to distinguish between the
Colonies and the States, but they have failed to impress
the distinction, the immense and radical distinction,
between the States and the _United_ States. Early in the
period of the Revolution there was, as just noted, a feeble
incipiency of a Union in the Articles of Confederation,
proposed in 1777 and ratified in March, 1781. For about a
decade the states, under the technical name, "The United
States of America," _were_ a Confederacy; but when the
Constitution was adopted the United States _was_. "They"
gave place to "it." And as Mr. Fiske in his latest book,
"Civil Government in the United States," has noted, the
change from the plural to the singular was vital, though
it has taken a War of Rebellion to make the difference
unmistakable. The sovereign States were consolidated into
a unit -- a unit indeed with important limitations -- when
the Federal Constitution was adopted. The United States
began not _their_ but _its_ history with the first
inauguration of Washington as Chief Magistrate.

Emerson's claim is that the United States became *notionally* singular
with the ratification of the Constitution and the inauguration of
Washington, though it took the Civil War to "make the difference
unmistakable". But this doesn't really tell us anything about usage --
indeed, the Constitution consistently uses the plural construal, e.g.:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in
levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies,
giving them Aid and Comfort.

Even the 13th Amendment, passed *after* the Civil War, uses the plural:

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.

So how "unmistakable" could the shift from plural to singular have been?
In any case, Emerson at least provides a source for the claim: _Civil
Government in the United States_ by John Fiske (1890). The text is
available on Project Gutenberg, but there's nothing specifically linking
the shift in usage to the Civil War:

http://www.gutenberg.net/dirs/1/1/2/7/11276/11276-8.txt

From 1776 to 1789 the United States _were_ a confederation;
after 1789 it was a federal nation. The passage from plural
to singular was accomplished, although it took some people a
good while to realize the fact. The German language has a
neat way of distinguishing between a loose confederation and
a federal union. It calls the former a _Staatenbund_ and the
latter a _Bundesstaat_. So in English, if we liked, we might
call the confederation a _Band-of-States_ and the federal
union a _Banded-State_. There are two points especially in
our Constitution which transformed our country from a
Band-of-States into a Banded-State. [etc.]

So Fiske only said "it took some people a good while" to move from the
plural to singular construal, while Emerson explicitly pointed to the
Civil War as the watershed moment. Again, like the Gildersleeve quote,
none of this tells us anything about actual changes in usage. The
earliest piece I can find that tackles the usage question with actual
*research* is a 1901 New York Times column by John W. Foster, secretary
of state under Benjamin Harrison:

ARE OR IS?; Whether a Plural or a Singular Verb Goes
With the Words United States.
By the Hon. JOHN W. FOSTER. Formerly Secretary of State,
United States Minister to Russia, Spain, &c.
New York Times, May 4, 1901. p. BR7

Foster was reacting to a book review of _A Century of American
Diplomacy_ that took issue with the book's singular construal of "United
States" on the grounds that the Constitution treats it as plural.
Foster first notes that the Constitution also construes such nouns as
"House of Representatives", "Senate", and "Congress" as plural, a usage
later abandoned in American English. He then writes:

The fact that the plural use of the verb occurs in the
Constitution in connection with that phrase is not of itself
a controlling reason. It must have a deeper cause. Is it
found in the fact that this Nation is made up of a collection
of States, and that they cannot be ignored in the use of the
phrase? It is naturally suggested that an event occurred in
the sixties which relieved our language from that servitude.
I do not, however, think that event was the only, or the
controlling, reason why the use of the singular verb is
permissible, and even more proper. The oneness of our
Government was proclaimed long before the first shot was
fired at the flag over Sumter.

Foster seems to be disputing a claim that was already in circulation,
that the Civil War was entirely responsible for the change in usage. He
then examines the writings of various antebellum statesmen and finds
that figures such as Hamilton, Jefferson, Clay, and Webster did indeed
tend to use the plural form, but more often tried to avoid the problem
by using a singular substitute like "the Union", "the Republic", or "the
Government of the United States". Foster conjectures that earlier
writers were more concerned with euphony, while later writers focused on
"the true significance of the words". He also notes that nations like
Great Britain, France, and Germany have often been treated as feminine
singular entities, based on the Latin forms Britannia, Gallia, Germania,
etc. The feminine pronoun "she" was often used for the United States as
well, but he says that "of late years we have gradually drifted into the
custom of adopting the neuter 'it,' which makes necessary the use of the
singular verb."

After providing a long list of public figures who used the singular form
both before and after the Civil War, Foster concludes:

The result of my examination is that, while the earlier
practice in referring to the "United States" usually
followed the formula of the Constitution, our public
men of the highest authority gave their countenance, by
occasional use, to the singular verb and pronoun; that
since the civil war the tendency has been toward such
use; and that to-day among public and professional men
it has become the prevailing practice.

Foster's careful research on the *gradual* shift in usage does not seem
to have been much noted, since the more forceful version given by
Gildersleeve was the one that caught the public imagination. A 1923 New
York Times article about Gildersleeve restated his comment from 1909:

ST. BASIL OF BALTIMORE.
New York Times, Oct 21, 1923. p. E6
A Confederate soldier and officer during the Civil War,
which he used to say was fought to settle a question of
grammar (that is, the question as to whether "the United
States" was singular or plural), he carried his pocket
Homer till the day that he lost not only it but his
pistol and his horse and all but his life.

Still, even Gildersleeve's formulation seems to be little more than a
rhetorical device rather than an observation based on the study of
usage. It took Shelby Foote et al. to transmogrify this rhetoric into
the unsupportable claim that "the United States" was *always* construed
as plural before the Civil War and *always* as singular afterwards.

Tim McDaniel

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Oct 5, 2004, 2:41:59 PM10/5/04
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In article <4162E45C...@midway.uchicago.edu>,

Ben Zimmer <bgzi...@midway.uchicago.edu> wrote:
>As for this first question, perhaps we can let Mr. Gildersleeve off
>the hook, since I've found versions of the claim predating the 1909
>publication of _Hellas and Hesperia_.

Et cetera at length. Many thanks for the excellent research and the
time you took.

Burroughs Guy

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Oct 5, 2004, 6:04:06 PM10/5/04
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Ben Zimmer wrote:

> Even the 13th Amendment, passed *after* the Civil War, uses the plural:

<nit>
Ratified after (December 6, 1865). Passed during (January 31, 1865).
</nit>

Addressing the subject at hand: I think the USAn convention of
construing collectives as singular was introduced gradually. The
Constitution and the Civil War may have have pushed usage in that
direction for "United States" specifically and for other collectives
indirectly, but there were other factors. It certainly was not as
sudden a change as many are claiming.

Usage is still far form consistant. The word "pea" is a backformation
from "pease" which was construed as plural. Similarly, "dice" is
plural and the singular is now "die". Yet "rice" remains singular.
Many argue that "media" and "data" are plural, but popular American
usage is against them. Even the most grammar conscious Brit never
says "these spaghetti are cold".
--
Burroughs "insert tree reference here" Guy
Vaguer memories available upon request


Donna Richoux

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Oct 5, 2004, 6:16:03 PM10/5/04
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Tim McDaniel <tm...@panix.com> wrote:

> In article <1gl5kbg.174recby7fdxhN%tr...@euronet.nl>,
> Donna Richoux <tr...@euronet.nl> wrote:

> >"If he's such a great scholar, where's his citations?" Well, have
> >you looked for them?
>
> Well, um, you're the one who mentioned him, not me.

Oh, I think I see. You thought I was claiming to have some sort of
complete answer while handing you an incomplete package. I, on the other
hand, thought I was reporting on a work in progress, what had been found
over the course of several years. I see these discussions as inching
toward a goal, collectively -- a question here, some facts there, some
ideas, a new line of inquiry.

>In short, "You
> get it -- you're closer -- er, I assume that you appear to be closer".

I must be awfully dim today, I can't figure out who "you" is in that
sentence.

>
> >I hope you're not talking about shifting expectations, which is
> >another thing I tried to say several posts ago. There's no way a
> >professor writing in 1909 is going to say "I conducted a full-scale
> >literature search on 5,540 samples of writing and found, with a
> >normal distribution chi-square test on a random sampling of..."
>
> But there was still scholarship then and people did cite their sources
> or their evidence, right? I'm not going to disbelieve him a priori,
> but I'm not going to give him a free pass because he's a Distinguished
> Scholar.

Right, exactly. No free pass, but no a priori disbelief.

But as Ben has come through with some earlier material, we can shift
focus.

--
Donna "Zimmer frames of reference" Richoux

Richard Maurer

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Oct 5, 2004, 9:53:31 PM10/5/04
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Ben Zimmer wrote:
Foster's careful research on the *gradual* shift in usage
does not seem to have been much noted, since the more
forceful version given by Gildersleeve was the one that
caught the public imagination. A 1923 New York Times article
about Gildersleeve restated his comment from 1909:

ST. BASIL OF BALTIMORE.
New York Times, Oct 21, 1923. p. E6
A Confederate soldier and officer during the Civil War,
which he used to say was fought to settle a question of
grammar (that is, the question as to whether "the United
States" was singular or plural), he carried his pocket
Homer till the day that he lost not only it but his
pistol and his horse and all but his life.

I looked into this to a small degree.
My conclusion was that the Lincoln administration was a factor
but they did not insist on the actual result. Clearly, Lincoln
wanted people to think of the country as a single entity,
rather than a collection of independent states.
His fight was to preserve "The Union". However, the good grammar
of the time would not accept "The United States is expected".
So he got around it by always inserting a unifying singular noun
in front, for example "The government of the United States is expected".

The thing I would want to check is whether all of the official
writings of the administration followed this practice.
(I thought of checking, but there are thousands of Civil War buffs
who are much more familiar with the material.)
The Confederacy deliberately used the other practice:
"The Confederate States are".

So although Lincoln and his cohorts had grown up hearing plenty of
"The United States are", there had now been a four year period
where everything from the Lincoln administration used
"the United States is" (preceded by unifying noun), so people got
used to an "is" following. Part Two of the linguistic process
was that later generations than Lincoln's simply continued
the "is" without requiring a unifying noun.

Maybe they will eventually find a paper record of an official order
to do it this way, or maybe it was something said forcefully in a
Cabinet Meeting.

Someone who reads Lincoln Administration documents regularly
could report on how often this was followed or not.

-- ---------------------------------------------
Richard Maurer To reply, remove half
Sunnyvale, California of a homonym of a synonym for also.
----------------------------------------------------------------------

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