On this date in 1776, the Continental Congress changed the name of the union of sovereign states it represented the United States, changing the name from United Colonies. They made an interesting choice.
First, it seems logical to change the name from anything involving “colonies”. By 1776, the Congress had declared independence from Britain. The idea of reconciling with England and remaining colonies in the British empire was gone. If they were no longer part of the empire, how could they rightly be called colonies? After all, a colony is not independent but rather under the rule of another country.
Second, what seems less self-evident is why these colonies would call themselves “states”. After all, a state is what we think of today when people talk about “nations”. The Continental Congress represented thirteen distinct new nations. These individual, independent, discrete political entities called themselves the United States because that’s exactly what they were – states, not provinces.
In 1788, the requisite nine states ratified the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation that had governed the union of the states prior to that time. The last four states (Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island) would ratify the Constitution over the next two years. This brings up an interesting point about the voluntary nature of the Constitution. Because only nine states were required to ratify the Constitution before it came into force, that meant that conceivably four states could have rejected ratification (which nearly happened in New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia). If they had opted to reject ratification, they would have remained distinct and independent states to themselves – not part of the United States and not part of the British empire. In fact, because North Carolina and Rhode Island didn’t ratify the Constitution until late 1789 and mid-1790, respectively, they did not cast votes for president in 1789. In other words, only 11 states elected George Washington to his first term (the original thirteen colonies, less North Carolina and Rhode Island).
One of the requirements for ratification for states like New York and Virginia was a Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution, all ratified by 1791). The tenth of these amendments enshrined the idea that the states are indeed sovereign states and not merely provinces of the United States federal government:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
When “We the People” agreed to the Constitution, it was via representation of the people at the state level. The states were executing the will of the people. According to the Declaration of Independence (based largely on the political thinking of the day), “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Should the people, via their states, wish to exit the union created by the Constitution, nothing should have compelled them to stay. Or, put another way:
Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable,– most sacred right–a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. —Abraham Lincoln
The tenth amendment was effectively nullified by the passage of the hastily and sloppily written fourteenth amendment ratified in 1868. Since that time (at least), the United States has not been a federal (i.e. league) government but an imperial government with fifty provinces, numerous insular possessions, and, of course, an extended hegemony exercised through an immense military presence throughout the known world (the Romans would be proud).