Is America more sharply divided than ever before? If so, is that a bad thing?
I have heard it said on occasion (and especially after the shooting in Arizona) that America is more sharply divided than ever before–with the obvious exception being the Civil War–but is that really the truth or is it just more rhetoric? And even if we are sharply divided, is that necessary even a bad thing? Those are the two questions I will now attempt to answer.
Americans have always been engaged in a fight (literally and figuratively) for the future direction of the country and this began before America was even a country. Even when war broke out between the colonies and the Crown there were differing opinions–not only about whether we should even be fighting against the motherland, but also about what we were actually fighting for. While the war waged on there were many who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown–after all, they still felt that Britain offered them more freedom than any other nation on earth and they found it treasonous to engage in a battle against her.
And then there was the reason for the fighting: At the beginning of the war we were not fighting for independence, but rather to restore our rights as natural born British citizens, but as the war waged on with England a war also waged on in the minds of our revolutionary leaders. Should we be fighting to restore our rights as British citizens, or should we break from England altogether? We know how that turned out–but at the time it wasn’t certain that the Continental Congress would be able to garner the votes needed in order to declare independence–and certainly after independence was declared there was a large portion of the populace who sided with the British and left for protection behind enemy lines.
But even after independence was won, the bickering and infighting did not stop there and in fact there was quite a contentious battle leading up to the ratification of the constitution. Again, not all people were in favor of replacing the Articles of Confederation, and those that did want to start over could not agree on many principles within the constitution–from slavery, to representation, to how powerful the federal government should be. There was even the prospect of having an “Executive Council” of sorts instead of a single president. These were extremely contentious times and the nation was once again sharply divided.
The two main authors of the “Federalist Papers”–written in defense of the constitution before ratification–Alexander Hamilton and James Madison eventually feuded over the powers of the federal government after the constitution was ratified.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s feuds over the national treasury, federal power and Revolutionary War debt are legendary and many times these two nearly came to blows. Even the location of the federal government became a divisive issue because of the power the region would gain if it were the capital.
While he was Vice-President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson spent four years actively trying to undercut the President, John Adams–who once were great friends, but turned on each other over how powerful the federal government should be–and render him useless and ineffectual as president.
And who can possibly forget that while he was Vice-President, Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel? It certainly doesn’t get much more contentious or divided than that.
From Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner with a cain until he laid unconscious on the Senate floor in 1856, right up until the Civil War Americans remained divided on many issues. Even after the Civil War–from woman’s suffrage in the early 1900s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s (it doesn’t get much more violent than that)–Americans have never been able to see eye to eye on many controversial issues, but we are allowed to voice our differences and debate the merits of our position. That is a right that is afforded to us in the constitution and while the rhetoric may get heated at times, that is to be expected that during a debate in a free society when so many people have so many differing opinions.
So, I as again: Is America really more divided now than ever before? The answer to me is simple, NO. There have always been debates that have shaped the future of the nation and there have always been people who vehemently opposed the direction the country has taken–and in some cases it got violent. But looking back on the heated rhetoric of the past I think I am safe in saying that in the long run America has become a better country because of it.
Now we are engaged once again in bitter partisan battles, fighting for the direction of our country and while the rhetoric might be soaring it is hard to believe anyone thinks this is something new that has occurred in the last two years. And when the very direction of our country is at stake, everyone should have a say in the process and an opinion on the direction and it should be voiced. If that makes for a loud and at times contentious battle–so be it.
The future direction of the country should be too impassioned of a debate to sit idly by and watch from afar. To sit idly by and passively submit to the will of our leaders will, over time, result in a soft tyranny over the people. In a free society we have the chance to form the future of the country and while we may be divided and while we may get angry with one another once in awhile, that is a product of that free society. And it sure as hell beats the alternative.
So, is it a bad thing that Americans are sometimes sharply divided? Again, I think that answer is NO. Great good can come from dissent and debate and we, as Americans, owe it to our children to fight to create the best America we can for their future. We may differ over what the definition of a better country is, but that is part of the beauty of living in a free country and I would have it no other way.