Speaking at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library last month, President Obama said more than he meant to. In fact, he didn't even notice what he said when he said it, and neither did the press. His was no gaffe, it was a Freudian slip -- something unintentional, damning and yet true.
Instead of asking God to bless the United States at the end of his speech, as Obama commonly does, he asked God to bless "these United States."
Catch the mistake?
The significance lies in the difference between "the" and "these," between referring to the United States as a singular entity or in the plural -- a difference with a long history, and one with huge implications. The language we use to talk about ourselves as a country, after all, provides one of the clearest windows into how we see ourselves as a nation and as a people. It was the Articles of Confederation that first gave rise to the United States, but it is the article that precedes "United States" that tells our story -- and ultimately, that provides insight into Obama's presidency and the increasing polarization of Americans today.
But first, some history. During its first hundred years, the nation was divided on multiple levels. There was the agrarian-versus-urban divide, the myriad differences between the North and the South, and the fight over slavery. The way Americans settled these differences was, by and large, by admitting that there was more than one "America." There were separate states, separate identities, and even separate loyalties -- there were "these" United States.