From Pluribus to Unum: Statebuilding and the Imagined Community in 19th Century America

25.05.2021 - 15:30 to 17:00
Location : 
Online via Zoom
Type of Event : 
AB A-Kolloquium
Dr. Nan Zhang
Lecturer affiliation: 
MPI for Collective Goods, Bonn

The Zoom link can be requested at colloquia-a [at]

The centralization of authority is one of most of important aspects of political development. Sovereign authority exists when those that state purports to govern actually think of the state as sovereign. Although the state- and nation-building literature has argued that modernization and war explain this transformation, these theories cannot easily be tested due to a lack of data on national sentiment.

We surmount this problem through an innovative analysis of the United States. Over the course of the 19th century, Americans stopped thinking of the United States as comprised of multiple sovereign states and started thinking of it as a single sovereign entity. This transformation in the popular imagination of sovereignty is evident in the well-documented grammatical change in which the phrase “United States” shifted from a plural noun to a singular noun.
We use this shift to test theories of modernization and war. We analyze two sources of textual data: newspapers between 1800-1899 and all Congressional speeches between 1851-1914. We link plural/singular usage to the characteristics of localities and, in the case, of Congressional speech, specific individuals and their birthplaces. Our results provide strong support for the centralizing effect of the Civil War, but for the winning side only. In contrast, we find little evidence to support the modernization arguments, a finding that challenges an influential argument on the development of sovereignty and the state.

Melissa M. Lee (Princeton University)
Nan Zhang (Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods)
Tilmann Herchenröder (Princeton University)