Adventures in counterfactuals: A United States of America without the states

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. Francis says:

    Not a possible counterfactual given the existence of slavery.Report

  2. North says:

    I can’t stretch my brain around it E.D. Sorry. The self contained borders of the founding 13 states were such a sine qua non of the union that I am having trouble imagining them giving them up. I mean what, we’re talking about one country from sea to shining sea with a Federal Government and then a vast expanse of counties? My personal guess, the union wouldn’t have survived. Too much regional disparity. The central government would have just been too removed from too much of the country. We forget sometimes how much technology shrank North America. We wouldn’t have one USA, we’d have a dozen mini USA’s.Report

  3. ThatPirateGuy says:

    Weren’t other countries managing multi-continent wide empires at the time though?

    Can you expand on the unmanagability?

    I wonder if the civil war would have happened? Or if it would be civil wars?Report

    • North in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

      Hey good question. Now I’m noodling it and (keep in mind this is just speculative) I would opine that the answer is: No.

      In terms of Europeans I would say definitely not. The biggest land empire would be Russia but in the case of Russia you have a comparatively impoverished and resource poor hinterland controlled loosely by a resource rich western heartland. North America was both far more clement and far richer than that.

      In sheer geographic size we have the British Empire but we’re talking there about an empire that spanned the globe but never strayed immensely far from the water. North America is mostly land locked.

      Outside of Europe we have only China. China is kind of unique geographically. It’s very contiguous with very few internal mountain barriers and it has two rich highly navigatable river basin regions pretty much in the middle of it. North America has two mountain ranges and only one “river superhighway” (well one that didn’t belong to the British)

      Without individual states I don’t think the Federal Government in D.C. could have held the country together long enough to get to railroads. Now maybe when the era of rail arrived the countries would be united but again I doubt it. Too much ingrained nationalism.

      So in my mind I am seeing a series of separate countries; think one stretching out east of the Appalachians along the Atlantic coast. I’m imagining another one on the interior up and down the Mississippi. Then I’m seeing a third one up and down the Pacific coast. So that’s three major ones then I’m thinking you’d have smaller countries maybe rolling around the Great Lakes area and probably some weird sortof no-mans lands in the plains and the deserts.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to North says:

        @North, Spain seems like a better contemporary comparison you may have overlooked, though I’m not convinced it’s that good, either. Probably the more interesting comparison would be the Maria Theresia-Josef II Habsburg/Austrian Empire, although that would have been geographically slightly smaller than even the original 13 colonies.Report

        • North in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          @Mark Thompson, Mark, Spain is a good one but again the scale is wrong, continental US is much larger and much richer again. Also Spain has a lot of mountains and very dry regions and, if you consider spanish history, the country spent most of the American revolution on the verge of coming apart at the seams. Still it’s just a thought exercise for me so it’s a good point as is Austria.Report

  4. Lyle says:

    The obvious geographic issue with the upper midwest (old northwest) was did it trade thru New Orleans, or did one build the Erie Canal and bring the great lakes states to the side of the Northwest. Recall that New York state built the Erie canal, but that the federal government refused to finanace it. Likley as a result New Orleans would be the capital of the nation of Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio, combining the La purchase with all the land in the original US that drained to the Mississippi. The West coast might be mexican, with the upper coast being canada in this scenario.Report

  5. North says:

    Yes Lyle, I agree. Alaska; stays a Russian posession? Becomes its own nation? Becomes a British/Canadian posession?
    The plains; pretectorate territories of the Mississippi nation or maybe roaming semi-autonamous Indian statelets?Report

  6. Very, very hard to get one’s head around. Obviously regional differences would still exist but they would be different. The South, for example, would probably end somewhere in southern Indiana but not really extend up into Northern Kentucky like it technically does now.

    I was tempted to say it would be like our county or parrish systems now but even they have pretty defined governments, borders, etc. Neighborhoods? That’s just a crazy notion.Report

  7. Jacob W says:

    Since the idea of a unitary republic was most popular with Hamilton-type Federalists, it probably would have come with (and only worked with) a very top-heavy central government with a President for Life and life-senators like they proposed. Such a system would have led to more expansionist wars against Canada and Mexico and would have degenerated into a junta or presidentialist autocracy by the mid-19th century. The absence of local protections from the central government would have, I think, encourage more and earlier civil wars and rebellions. For a country our size, Russian-style autocracy is the only workable alternative to federalism.Report

  8. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    Well, Texans might have less of an influence on nationally-used textbooks. Seriously, though, this is a hard question to consider because our national structure frames our political and even self-understanding. Our very political thought would be different, but how exactly is difficult to say.Report

  9. Tim Ellis says:

    The difficulty lies in how they would get to such a state of affairs. The only way I can see the Founding Fathers reaching such a conclusion would be an even lower degree of concentration of power; certainly a higher concentration of power would not have been acceptable to this anti-monarchists (think of how hot the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists ran). You’d be looking at a United City-States of America, or United Districts of America. I feel this structure would have paralyzed American progress as regional differences began to assert themselves and regional alliances would quickly build up unresolvable differences, leading to an even more rapid crisis of secession, potentially several of them. Two or three competing powers racing across the continent could have spawned an extremely bloody 19th century for North America.Report

  10. Rufus F. says:

    It’s hard for me to imagine this without thinking the outcome wouldn’t eventually be Balkanization- maybe four or five countries in the same space as the continental US.Report

  11. greginak says:

    Eric- I’m not really sure what to say about this scenario. But how about i suggest another hypothetical.

    John Wesley Powell suggested that states in the west be set up based on river systems since water was so scarce, not arbitrary lines. So for example the Colorado basin would be one state, etc. Certainly the way we have done things has led to states fighting over water with some being haves and have nots.

    What say ye?Report