The Declaration of Independence declared the United Colonies to be "free and independent states," with the following context:

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare, That 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 do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.1

This was then retained in the Articles of Confederation:

To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

I. The Stile of this Confederacy shall be "The United States of America".

II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.2

And this was eventually ceded by Great Britain in 1783 by right of revolution, via the Treaty of Paris:

Article 1: His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.3

However the federal government later claimed, that the states were not individually independent; but only that they were collectively independent as dependent states of a singular national union, which (allegedly) was the only state that won independence from Great Britain.

Accordingly, the federal government claims that the phrase "free, sovereign and independent states" does not mean what it seems: i.e. separate nation-states.

So what does it mean, according to the federal government? Lincoln claimed that:

"Therein the "United Colonies" were declared to be "free and independent States;" but even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwards abundantly show.

This implies some declared dependence by the states upon each other and/or "the Union;" however the precise details are not given. The "mutual pledge," as shown above, was strictly personal among the representatives themselves; via with the words "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled". They were not pledging on behalf of the united states themselves; not would this imply national dependence on any such "union."

Lincoln's continued list of claims, is likewise fraught with inaccuracy:

The express plighting of faith by each and all of the original thirteen in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual is most conclusive. Having never been States, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of "State rights," asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the "sovereignty" of the States, but the word even is not in the National Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a "sovereignty" in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it "a political community without a political superior"? Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty; and even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union, by which act she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution to be for her the supreme law of the land. The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence and liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally some dependent colonies made the Union, and in turn the Union threw off their old dependence for them and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution independent of the Union. Of course it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions before they entered the Union, nevertheless dependent upon and preparatory to coming into the Union.

And of course the responses are plain: each state retained its freedom sovereignty and independence, their Union was purely international; the word "sovereignty" was expressly used in the Articles of Confederation and the Treaty of Paris; and each state was indeed "out of the Union" upon ratifying the Constitution to form a new, separate and more perfect union; which thus demonstrated that each state was indeed a sovereignty prior to doing so. Meanwhile Texas did not accede to the Union as a state, but strictly as US Territories, a portion o which were later awarded statehood, while the remaining territories contributed to the newer states.

So what could be the meaning of the phrase "free, sovereign and independent states;" if not separate nations; if this was described as having "the full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do."? And how?

  • I hope you're not seriously alleging that even if the states were separate sovereign nations, that SCOTUS had the power to CHANGE that status? Beause such power does not exist. – Tom Evans May 18 '20 at 16:37
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    I note that you don't cite the constitution. The states were severable in the Articles, but under the constitution they were joined into a union. – Mark C. Wallace May 18 '20 at 16:42
  • And the Articles DIDN'T? I didn't mention the Constitution, because it doesn't say anything about any state's sovereignty, freedom or independence; which means that it doesn't change them. What do you think happens when an international compact says nothing about that? Do you think that it just joins them as a single sovereign nation? No; the Articles of Confederation expressly retained the sovereignty, freedom and independence of every state, because they were signed in 1781, when these things weren't officially WON yet. That happened in 1783, while the Constitution was in 1787. – Tom Evans May 18 '20 at 17:05
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    Constitution begins, "We the People of the United States, " - the states are not signatories. Part of the controversy over the ratification of the constitution was that it was not submitted to the states, but to the people. Pauline Maier's Ratification is a good source. I am being terse; hope I don't come across as argumentative or confrontational. – Mark C. Wallace May 18 '20 at 17:40

Short Answer:

The words in the documents quoted can be interpreted in two different ways, and the correct interpretation is probably different from the one in the question. Also, what could be called the "Second American Revolution" happened after those documents and before the Civil War, and revolutionized the governmental structure of the USA.

Long Answer:

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress selected a committee to write a Declaration of Independence.

One June 12, 1776, the Continental Congress decided to appoint a committee to write a constitution for a union of the states.

So one might argue that the US leadership only intended for each former colony to be an independent nation for a day before they decided that there had to be a united government of all the former colonies.

The Declaration of Independence was made in July, 1776, while the rules for a union of the states were still being worked out. Therefore, it was more or less technically correct to described the former colonies as (desiring and striving to be) independent and sovereign states in July 1776 - subject to the outcome of the war, of course.

Note that the Declaration of Independence does not refere to the "States of America" but to the United States of America". Thus it says that the various colonies/states are in some way, manner, or form, united. It might refer to them as 13 totally separate and independent governments united by a common goal, t seek their separate independence from Great Britain. Or it might refer to them as members of a sort of a league, such as the Dutch Republic, or the decaying Hanseatic League, or the Old Swiss Confederacy, organizations composed of several member groups that were treated as more or less single states for the purpose of diplomacy.

The final draft of the articles of Confederation was completed in November, 1777, and was submitted to the colonies/states for their ratification.

The Articles of Confederation was submitted to the states for ratification in late November 1777. The first state to ratify was Virginia on December 16, 1777; 12 states had ratified the Articles by February 1779, 14 months into the process.[11] The lone holdout, Maryland, refused to go along until the landed states, especially Virginia, had indicated they were prepared to cede their claims west of the Ohio River to the Union.[12] It would be two years before the Maryland General Assembly became satisfied that the various states would follow through, and voted to ratify. During this time, Congress observed the Articles as its de facto frame of government. Maryland finally ratified the Articles on February 2, 1781. Congress was informed of Maryland's assent on March 1, and officially proclaimed the Articles of Confederation to be the law of the land.[11][13][14]


And once the various former colonies began acting under the Article of Confederation, they were no longer totally separate, independent, an d sovereign states, not matter what the wording of the Articles said. The United States of America was now a functioning confederation or federation that was vaguely similar in various ways to the Dutch Republic or the Old Swiss Confederacy in Europe, or to the Iroquois League in America, or to the Western Confederacy that formed in 1783 to resist American expansion in the Ohio Country.

And note that the union formed by the Articles of Confederation is said to be perpetual. This implies that the sovereignty of the states is limited and they are unable to legally withdraw from that union.A

Meanwhile the war had been dragging on for five or six long years and both sides were at the end of their ropes, almost at the breaking point. On October 19, 1781, the army of Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Even though the British still had a powerful army in the colonies, the news broke the British will to continue fighting. The prime minister Lord North said "It's all over." when he heard about Yorktown.

Negotiations began soon, and the treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, ratified by the USA on January 14, 1784, and by Britain on April 9, 1784, and the ratified copies were exchanged on May 12, 1784.


And all the European diplomats considered the United States of America to be a functioning government composed of other, subordinate, governments vaguely like the Dutch Republic or the Old Swiss Confederacy or the Holy Roman Empire. Foreign diplomats considered the United States of America to be one independent state that contained 13 very autonomous dependent states within it.

So the wording of the Treaty of Paris listed all the states to make sure everyone knew that each and every single one of them was included in the terms of the treaty. And maybe another reason the British agreed to suggested that wording in the treaty was to sort of insult the rather weak and feeble central government of the USA which had defeated them by implying there wasn't any central government in the USA at all and that each state was totally sovereign and independent.

But in any case, the meaning of the words in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and The treaty of Paris must be less than each state being totally free, totally sovereign,and totally independent, because the leaders of the 13 colonies were already working on a plan for a form of confederation that would make each of the colonies less than totally fee, less than totally sovereign, and less than totally independent, when the Declaration of Independence was approved, so it was always their intention to make the USA a single country, although one with a lot of autonomy for the various states, vaguely similar to the Dutch Republic or the Old Swiss Confederacy.

The meaning of those words must have been that the United States of America was a group of 13 states that was totally free, sovereign, and independent of Great Britain, not thirteen separate states that were totally free, sovereign, and independent of each other.

And then something major happened after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and before the Civil War in 1861-1865.

What could be the called the Second American Revolution happened. It is not called a revolution because there were no laws broken, and no bloodshed. But, like a number of other and later revolutions in the USA that are not usually recognized as revolutions, its results were just as revolutionary as the American Revolution with its thousands of deaths. This revolution completely changed the structure of the American government.

The Constitutional Convention met in 1787 and designed the Constitution of the United States of America, "a new and ore perfect union", which a much stronger central government.

One by one the 13 states ratified the new Constitution. Delaware ratified it on December 7, 1787. New Hampshire ratified the constitution in June 21, 1788. Since it was the ninth state to do so, and that was the agreed upon number, the ratification by New Hampshire guaranteed that the new constitution would come into effect among those states which had already ratified it and any states with later did so. Virginia ratified on June 25 and New York on July 21, 1788.

On September 1788, the Congress of the Confederation decreed that the Constitution had been ratified and set the date for the new federal government to start operations. The first presidential election was held in December 1788 to January 1789. The presidential electors met to cast their votes on February 4, 1789. The United States Congress met for the first time on March 4, 1789. George Washington began his first time as President on April 30, 1789. On November 21, 1789, North Caroline ratified the Constitution.

The Supreme Court of the USA met for the first time on February 2, 1790. Rhode Island became the last of the 13 original colonies and states to ratify the US constitution on May 29, 1790.


None of the other 37 states in the USA had anything to do as a state with creating the USA.

West Virginia was created out of the state of Virginia with the agreement of the loyalist government of Virginia. Two other other states were created when separate and independent countries, The Vermont Republic, and the Republic of Texas, applied to join the USA and were admitted.

The other thirty four states of the USA were created by the Federal government out of lands owned by the federal government, lands which the federal government acquired by various methods from foreign governments such as Great Britain, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, The French Empire, Spain, Mexico, the Russian Empire, and the Republic of Hawaii.

Those other thirty four states of the USA were not among the 13 free and independent states mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, And they did not have their "sovereignty, freedom, and independence" mentioned in the Articles of Confederation, nor were they mentioned by name as "free sovereign and independent states" in the Treaty of Paris.

So the wording in those documents has no application to the status of those thirty four states of the United States during the period of history after they were admitted as States in the United States. And since all states in the union are of equal status, the words in those documents can not apply to any of the thirteen original states after they ratified the constitution and became states in the new federal constitution of the USA. Even if those worlds should be interpreted as meaning that the states were totally free, totally sovereign, and totally independent, which seems unlikely anyway.

  • National sovereignty can’t transfer by inference, and it can only attribute to one independent nation-state at a time. On July 4, 1776, the representatives of the 13 colonies, declared 13 separate sovereign nations; with each state’s representatives signing for their own state only in Revolution, expressly spelled out as such. They never declared any mutual dependence on each other as forming a new unified independent state, so Great Britain was all they ever had in the way of dependence. (continued) – Tom Evans May 18 '20 at 21:17
  • And the wording of the Articles of Confederation was plain English, requiring no explanation: i.e. all powers, jurisdictions and rights of the United States were simply those expressly delegated to it by the free, sovereign and independent *states* in Congress assembled: which is the very definition of an international union; and was therefore “perpetual” in that context: i.e. referring to chronicity rather than sovereignty. (continued) – Tom Evans May 18 '20 at 21:18
  • Particularly since the Union was unilaterally abrogated by each state via the will of its respective people in order to ratify, the Constitution— irrespective of the wishes of the other 12, thus demonstrating an exercise of national sovereignty by each state, in strict defiance of the express stipulations of the AoC. Meanwhile the wording of the Treaty of Paris, likewise said “free, sovereign and independent states,” and so that’s the legal effect, since the terms are written by the victors not the vanquished. (continued) – Tom Evans May 18 '20 at 21:19
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    You've clearly made up your own mind what "free and independent states" means, in which case, why are you even asking us? You're not here to ask a genuine good-faith question, you're here to push your personal opinions, and I'm sorry, but that's not what this site is for. – F1Krazy May 18 '20 at 21:53
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    I repeat: if you believe you already know the answer to a question, then either post it as an answer along with the question, or just don't post the question. – F1Krazy May 19 '20 at 11:06

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