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American Divisiveness

American Divisiveness

by William H. Benson

January 14, 2016

     Last month in Newsweek, a columnist named Kurt Eichenwald made a series of startling statements about the bitter divisiveness that separates Democrats and Republicans. He was incensed to learn that each political party tried to twist the blame upon the other for the San Bernardino shooting, when neither were responsible for the random act.

     Eichenwald declared that the terrorist act, “has exposed another terrible reality: the sickness that permeates our national id, a level of inhumanity and callousness that shows America is broken, perhaps irreparably.” “America,” he said, “has become so divided into ignorant tribes, that each party is focused on winning for its political teams.” “A genie of hatred has been let out of the bottle in America.” “We have become a nation of crazy people.”

     I find such statements discomforting. The glaring mistrust may appear bad today and may even get worse tomorrow, but my reading of American history tells me that political divisions were far worse in the past. I would advise Kurt Eichenwald to read more American history. I would ask him:

     Do we see thousands of students marching across college campuses, protesting and demanding an end to a foreign war that they do not want to fight? Do we see a tidal wave of eligible young men fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft into military service, as we did in the 1960’s?

     Do we see race riots on the scale that Tulsa, Oklahoma experienced in 1921? For two days, May 31 and June 1, white people ransacked Greenwood, the wealthiest African-American community in the United States, burning it to the ground.

     Some perpetrators jumped into airplanes and soared overhead to aim their rifles and shoot those fleeing their homes, or to drop firebombs upon their buildings. Dozens of African-Americans were killed. Most were left homeless. If ever “a genie of hatred was let out of the bottle in America,” it was then, not now. “We had become a nation of crazy people.” 

     Are any of the states threatening to leave the Union if voters elect a Republican for president? That was the threat Abraham Lincoln faced late in 1860, after he won the presidency. Eleven states did secede from the Union and did create a new and independent nation, the Confederate States of America. If ever America was “broken, perhaps irreparably,” it was then, not now.

     Has any Congressman in recent days walked onto the Senate floor and caned a Senator across the head and shoulders a dozen times, leaving him an invalid for the next three years? That is what Preston Brooks of South Carolina did to Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on May 22, 1856.

     Have any of the states in the United States “nullified” any of the laws passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President? To nullify, a state declares that it will not obey a federal law. In 1832, Congress had passed laws that imposed tariffs upon imported goods, but John C. Calhoun convinced South Carolina’s state government that it had the right to disobey. The state refused to collect the tariff.

     Except for a compromise that Senator Henry Clay steered through Congress, the nullification crisis may have broken America apart.

     Has Congress in recent days passed a Sedition Act, like it did in the summer of 1798, threatening stiff fines and jail sentences to anyone who published or even said any “false, scandalous and malicious” criticism of the government or its top officials?

     Jefferson and Madison declared the Sedition Act “a flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press,” which it was.

     What about the ugly political division in the colonies during the American Revolution? One third of the colonists, the Patriots, wanted independence. Another third refused to take sides. A final third, the Loyalists, remained committed to King George III and to Parliament. Families split over the issue.

     Patriots abused the Loyalists. They were tarred and feathered, forced to ride a fence rail, jailed, or hung. The Patriots so hounded the Loyalists that some 80,000 of them fled in a massive Loyalist exodus to Canada or back to England, and once gone, the Patriots confiscated their properties. Over the issue of independence, America broke apart.

     Self-rule in a republic is, by its very nature, messy, divisive, hostile, and at times vicious. All voices are heard in a free-for-all, and then a vote is taken, and the majority rules. To those who fail to appreciate this process, it appears contorted and unproductive, and yet it ensures the citizens their freedoms. Where tyrants rule, legislation is quick, clean, and efficient, and the people feel oppressed.

     America is not broken. We are not a nation of crazy people. We are not divided into ignorant tribes.

     Last week the editor at The Week said it best, “This is hardly the first time our country has been bitterly divided. The contentious issues that divide us will never be resolved with any finality. May the grand argument go on.”