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A Country Divided

A Country Divided

by William H. Benson

November 17, 2016

     On Election Day, the country’s voters split evenly. Half voted for Hillary Clinton, and half voted for Donald Trump. After a contentious, bitter, and hard-fought campaign, we now have a winner.

     In his victory speech, Trump said, “Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division. We have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”

     The American people have experienced “wounds of division” in the past, far worst than this year, and most likely will again in the future. Raging fights are part of the political, as well as, the governing process in a free and democratic country. The Constitution permits contention and disagreement, but it also insists that the people accept the result of a vote and unite. Americans obey the majority.

     At the time of our inception as a new nation in 1776, the English colonists were split, not into two parts, but into three. A third remained loyal to King George III, and were called Tories or Loyalists. A second third rebelled against the king, but called themselves Patriots. The remaining third were ambivalent, not caring for either side, content to live and work.

     The Patriots scorned the Tories. They tarred and feathered them. They rode them out of town on fence rails. They tossed them into prisons. The worst offenders they executed by hanging. They confiscated their estates, divided the property into smaller parcels, and sold them.

     For example, Thomas Paine received a farm at New Rochelle, New York, that a Tory once owned.

     The division over the colonists’ rebellion cut through families. Benjamin Franklin wrote his illegitimate son, William, out of his will, because William had refused to join the Patriots but remained loyal to the king. Benjamin said, “The part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for me leaving him no more of an estate he endeavored to deprive me of.”

     An estimated 80,000 Loyalists packed up and moved north to live in Canada.

     Decades later the southern states argued with the northern states over their right to own slaves. The southern states called slavery a “peculiar institution,” and thereby justified its existence. The northern states denounced it as a moral outrage, and neither side would yield or compromise.

     In 1856, the Kansas territory was converted into a battle ground over whether it would enter the United States as a slave or a free state. Journalists began to call the territory “bleeding Kansas.” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts addressed his fellow senators on May 19 and 20, and insisted that Kansas should enter the union now as a free state.

     Two days later, Preston Brooks, a Congressional Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the Senate’s chamber in the Capitol, and with a cane, he beat Sumner about the head and shoulders. The cane broke into pieces, blood splattered across the Senate floor, and Sumner almost died from his wounds. Three and a half years would pass before Sumner returned to his Senate seat. 

     In the election of 1860, the Democrats split apart over the issue of slavery. The northern Democrats selected Stephen Douglas for their candidate for president, but the southern Democrats selected John C. Breckinridge. The new Republican party selected Abraham Lincoln, and the Whigs picked John Bell.

     When Lincoln won the electoral vote, the southern states, one by one, withdrew from the union, and formed their own country, the Confederate States of America. Six weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, a bloody civil war erupted that pitted north against south.

     A century later, the war in Vietnam sapped American willpower and resolve. For ten years college students staged protests and mass marches across college campuses. In order to avoid the draft into the military, an estimated 30,000 young American men fled the country to live in Canada, and there they resided, until President Jimmy Carter pardoned them in 1977. Like the Loyalists in the 1770’s, the draft dodgers in the 1960’s and 1970’s fled to Canada.

     The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War caused bitter and deep divisions in our country, and years would pass before the feelings of outrage and injustice would begin to subside. The rancor and hostility and threats we have witnessed this year, during this Presidential election, is much smaller, when compared to the “wounds of division,” that the citizens of our country felt decades and centuries ago, during the war years. No one has received a caning, and no states have seceeded.

     Yet, in recent days, I have heard that certain American are threatening to move to Canada. That prompts some questions. Will Canada permit them to stay? Will the Federal Government allow them to return if they choose to return? If we want to secure our borders, does that mean a wall along the northern border with Canada, as well as one along the southern border with Mexico? Difficult questions, but no easy answers.