What is a U.S. “state”?

It’s right in the name — the U.S. is a union of “states.” But what is a state in this sense? What makes a state a meaningful political unit? What’s more, what makes a state meaningfully sovereign, such that the powers granted to the national government have to be specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution?

In the Articles of Confederation, the United States is very much a federation of states, a term designating the political units known as the thirteen colonies. While the union is declared to be “permanent,” the federal government is conceived as a meta-structure over the states, with no direct appeal to the popular sovereignty of the people of the U.S. as a whole. One can clearly point to practical reasons for why one would make use of the pre-existing state structures — they were in fact operational and had a certain degree of power they were unlikely to want to give up — but I think there are deeper theoretical reasons. The thirteen states were regarded as independent sovereign units that had previously voluntarily affiliated with the King of England and were now choosing to dissolve that bond and affiliate with one another in a structure of their own choosing. And the basis of their sovereignty was colonial conquest, conceived as an originary appropriation of land that, while populated, had laid dormant and was therefore in a relevant sense “unclaimed.” The founding of these colonies were as close to the idealized “social contract” as one was likely to find in the modern world, and it was that claim to an original sovereignty that legitimized the revolution in the eyes of the Founders themselves.

The Constitution that superceded the Articles wanted to claim greater sovereign powers than the Articles did, and hence needed to appeal to something like the population of the United States as a whole — but that population was one that was formed out of the populations formerly grouped into the thirteen states by the original social contract forged through colonial conquest. The thirteen states, according to most modern political theory, could not legitimately give up their sovereignty to a higher unit without somehow getting the direct approval of the people, and so instead of passing the Constitution through state legislatures, they set up parallel, ad hoc structures that purported to express the will of the people directly — but again, only the people insofar as they were members of those pre-existing political bodies that were to be transformed and limited through the formation of the union.

There was no “direct” claim of legitimacy from the whole people to create a whole nation. The pre-existing political units had to be respected in their sovereign integrity, even if the goal was to constrain that sovereignty. Indeed, it was only after the Civil War that the federal government claimed power over above the individual states to determine who was a citizen or not — and even today, the individual states have a very important role in providing documentation of citizenship (your proof of citizenship comes from the state of your birth unless and until you decide to seek permission to travel abroad) and in regulating people’s access to voting rights, etc.

The new nation envisioned itself as expanding, and indeed it already controlled territory that was not recognized as part of the thirteen states. In order for that territory to be fully articulated into the United States, then, it had to be first formed as a state — and on the model of the original thirteen states, this was conceived through an act of colonization, claiming supposedly “dormant” land that was purportedly free for the taking. Once a given territory had reached a certain level of population and organization, it could apply to be recognized as a “state” and admitted to the Union, at which point its citizens enjoyed the full rights of representation in Congress, etc. In other words, it wasn’t simply enough for the United States federal government to possess and control a territory for it to be considered part of the United States — that territory first had to be thoroughly colonized.

It is worth pausing here and reflecting. We often view the retention of the individual states and their empowerment through the Senate as a result of compromises involving slavery, and that’s true as far as the details of the arrangement go (equal representation in the Senate, the 3/5 rule, the Electoral College) — but the deep theoretical basis for the retention of the states lies in colonial self-legitimation. Indeed, the United States is a nation that was not only founded through colonialism, but actively incited its citizens to colonize itself. Indefinitely maintaining the territories in a condition of federal administration was viewed as illegitimate or at least insufficient: the United States wanted to envision itself as a nation formed by the iron wills of plucky homesteaders who cleared and claimed the wilderness. Colonial ideology is absolutely inextricable from the U.S. Constitution’s self-legitimization.

So a “state” in the U.S. constitutional sense is a colony that has petitioned to join a community of colonies, ceding some of its rights and maintaining others. Further: it is necessarily a non-indigenous political unit. The indigenous are those who have left the land dormant, letting it go to waste. Their negligence is not simply economic — by omitting to claim the land in a way recognizable by the white settlers, they have demonstrably failed to form a social contract and thus the white settlers do not confront them as another, equally legitimate political unit. They can be dealt with on a completely de facto, opportunistic basis. Treaties with such groups are not binding. Their territorial claims are meaningless. The United States ultimately ceded certain territory and rights to them, but only for practical reasons — and given that they (constitutively) have no interest in cultivating land, the territory reserved for them is mostly useless in any case.

Naturally, it is also a white political unit. The fact that black citizenship was seen as negotiable is enough to demonstrate this, even leaving aside the precise details of the compromise that ultimately emerged. This is also clear from the fact that the United States has held relatively few direct overseas possessions, even during the peak of Western imperialism — and the territories that it has continued to hold in the limbo state of federal administration have tended to be those that have no realistic prospect of ever being a majority-white settler colony (viz., Puerto Rico). Even during the Liberia experiment, there seems to have been no serious thought given to the possibility that the newly-formed colony might ultimately join the United States.

Hence I conclude that the states are not the result of white supremacy in a merely contingent way, reflecting the concessions demanded by the slave states at the time of the Founding. White supremacist ideology in the form of colonialism is deeply integrated into the conceptual structure of their self-legitimation, and that deep structure of white supremacy has played out consistently throughout U.S. history.

It is possible that the model will be transformed as demographic shifts undercut the white population’s demographic dominance. Yet it is more likely that the existing constitutional structure will be increasingly instrumentalized to reinforce white dominance even after the U.S. becomes “majority-minority” — inequality of Senate representation will become more pronounced, Electoral College arrangements will distort the outcome of presidential races, and many states will continue their efforts to make sure that only the “right” people wind up actually voting. In that case, the U.S. would likely either revert to the overt apartheid model that prevailed, in different forms, under slavery and Jim Crow or else collapse into a civil war that results in a fresh constitutional settlement on new and different grounds.

4 thoughts on “What is a U.S. “state”?

  1. An excellent piece

    The states are really imaginary artificial nations, created as sovereign entities prior to incorporation into the Union, in order to separate the state citizens from other state citizens.

    The point, and it was the original point, was radically undemocratic, to create an impermeable barrier between the mystified “state” and its power, sovereignty and legitimacy, and the people, politics, and policy.

    It is not at all unique to America, and white supremacy. Currently reading Andrew Barshay on the point and purpose of the Divine Emperor system in Japan. One could also look at “dysfunctional” Europe.

    “As Maruyama Masao has pointed out in a classic essay on Japanese political science, the
    enshrinement of the emperor made examination of the mechanics of state power a virtual
    taboo. The sovereign and the state over which he “ruled” (tochi [*] ) stood enveloped in mist,
    untouchable, for example, by the mere scholars who populated the Kokka Gakkai (Association
    for State Science). State and politics were regarded as separate realms. The former was to be
    approached via the “general system” of laws deduced from the abstract idea of a state “in
    repose.” Its operation in political reality—the application of its power, through law, to society—
    was not to be studied, except as a problem of administration. “Politics,” to the extent that it
    existed, was conceived of in terms of the manipulation of law by neutral experts in the interest
    of maintaining the integrity of the state structure.[82]”

  2. I wonder if it’s helpful here to employ Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s description of the US as “informal empire” in contrast to the formal colonial rule of the British empire (from The Makings of Global Capitalism). Therein they discuss the uniqueness of the US’s choice to passively administer western lands filled with homesteading squatters as territories/states through a process initiated by the homesteaders themselves rather than actively administering that land as a colonial outpost supplying resources for empire back east.

    This was largely the US response to Hawaii’s annexation too–let missionaries and merchants go first, establish themselves, and then listen to requests for annexation after they’d done their own Godfearing groundwork. Tocqueville and Marx both talked about this essentially American tendency to decentralize and vest experimental power in homsteaders > territories > states. Even now, I’ve discovered a weird group that seems to be influenced by Marx that proposes “Capital Homesteading” as a way to fix poverty.

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