The following is the transcript from this week’s Better UTAH Beat. It aired on February 26, 2013.
We haven’t always been the United States of America. In fact, we used to be these United States of America. Did you catch the difference? It’s the difference between plural and singular usage: The first use relies on the singular “the” while the second use relies on the plural “these.” It’s only a slight change in language, but the impact of what it means to be an American today is enormous. But why did it change?
It took a national crisis to change the way Americans talk about their country. Most historians point to the Civil War as being the definitive moment for this change in how we talk about ourselves.
Before the Civil War we were still just a collection of states that weren’t quite aware of how they related to each other. The Declaration of Independence was penned only 90 years earlier, and it was only 75 years earlier that the Constitution was ratified by the 13 colonies. It is worth noting that our first attempt at a constitution, the Articles of Confederation, didn’t work out so well. It created a federation of states that was too loosely connected. There just wasn’t enough stability to ensure prosperous economies or to protect the young country from foreign invaders. The colonists soon realized that they needed a stronger central government if their grand experiment was going to be successful. They realized they needed to start thinking about themselves as Americans, not just Virginians or Carolinians.
But state’s rights are back on the agenda in a big way in Utah’s legislature. This year, Utah is asserting its supremacy over federal law by hearing a bill, titled Second Amendment Preservation Act, that would strike down federal gun laws in the state of Utah and empower Utah police to arrest federal officers if they enforce federal gun laws. The act would totally flout the constitution’s Supremacy Clause (and thus the constitution itself). But the bill is worrying for the way it participates in the same cultural forces that made possible the Civil War: Namely, it is willing to forgo the cooperative element of the United States for a go-it-alone Articles-of-Confederation style approach that didn’t work the first time around.
It might be guns this year, but Utah’s obsession with state supremacy extends to other issues as well. The unconstitutional and likely litigiously expensive decision to take control of federal lands in the Utah is just as nutty as the gun bill. The state believes that it should have control over all of the lands within our borders, ignoring that there is nothing about Canyonlands, Zions National Park, or Arches National Park that make it uniquely the property of Utahns. Indeed, the parks belong to all Americans as part of our national heritage.
As more and more emotionally charged issues occupy our political attention, it is important to remember that the identity that binds us is not our Utah-ness (there are many people who live here who weren’t born here) but our American-ness. We are Utahns and Americans. And, if this truly great experiment is going to continue to work, we must remember how those two identities are related.
We don’t always get things right the first time in America. Our history is one of compromise, evolution, trying things out, finding they don’t work, and then trying out other things. We are a nation of risk-takers, of entrepreneurs. We are a nation of Utahns and Texans and Californians. But we’re also a nation of Americans. The failed Articles of Confederation taught us that, but it took the Civil War to remind us. Let us remember our histories; we can’t afford to repeat them.