Our Nation Was Not Founded in 1776
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence that established separation of the colonies from England. The Declaration did not establish new rights but simply re-affirmed the old rights that all Englishmen had under law. The rights of the colonials were already codified into English law. The Crown and Parliament were ignoring those rights and, through government force, were actually curtailing them. The Colonials were only fighting to keep their rights for themselves and their descendants.
In the Middle Ages, England was moving away from centralization of government toward limited government and more personal freedom. In 1100, the Charter of Liberties forced restrictions on the power of King Henry I of England, while the Magna Carta, one hundred years later, codified the principle that the king and his government were not above the law, with the barons being on an equal level with the king. Law was established as a power in itself.
Though more powerful English monarchs simply ignored the Magna Carta, several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, including the writ of habeas corpus. Our founders included this fundamental right in the Constitution in Article I, Section 9 to protect against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment.
When civil war erupted in England in the 1600s, the Parliament expelled the king and forced the new monarch, William of Orange, to sign the English Bill of Rights. It was essentially the English Bill of Rights, which Jefferson later incorporated into the Declaration. When Jefferson listed the various rights that King George III had violated, he was following this same English tradition implemented by the Parliament and adapting the abuses to American circumstances.
After establishing in the preamble the basis for the existence of government followed by the enumeration of the Crown's violation of these rights, the Declaration states, "These United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
The colonies would become "Free and Independent States," equal to the State of Great Britain, and free to form their own governments. They were not bound together as a nation, but "unified" solely for the purpose of defending themselves against invasion by the British. Jefferson used the term "united States," or the "States united" — always with a small "u." The united colonies became "FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES."
The Declaration of Independence simply established the secession of thirteen colonies from Great Britain, each of which would form its own "nation." The free and independent states ultimately formed a "union" under the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution. Neither the Articles of Confederation nor the U.S. Constitution of 1787 changed the relationship among the states as new states were admitted.
The Constitution, ratified in 1788, would delegate only specific enumerated powers, dealing primarily with defense, foreign commerce, and regulating trade among the several States. The insistence by the states that all other powers were to be "reserved to the States respectively" was acknowledged in the 10th Amendment of the Constitution — the Bill of Rights. The thirteen states created their own nations and went forward to become a plural "union," not a singular "nation" under the Constitution.
Prior to the defeat of the South, the people of the united States would refer to the union in the plural, as in "the united States were" or "the united States are" rather than "the United States is" or "the United States was."
With the South's defeat in 1865 the right of independent states as recognized in the Declaration of Independence to "alter," "abolish," or "throw off" a government — secession — was no longer recognized. The central government was now deemed all-powerful, no longer restricted to only the seventeen specific powers under Article I. The "parent" government has moved from London to Washington, D.C.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stated that "a new nation" had been conceived in liberty, an inference that the United States had been created as one centralized nation rather than a union of thirteen independent states as our Founders intended. Lincoln's statement that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom" signaled that America as founded, with limited government and states' rights, was now a powerful centralized government.