An Exceptional America: We’re Divided Yet United
Everything's politicized today — but a brief trot through key events in our great nation's history should put every skeptic's worry to rest
We can’t turn on the television, radio or computer today without seeing the divisions in America. These divisions cut across political and cultural lines — and the platforms of the Republicans and the Democrats have only grown further apart. Decades ago, the principal difference between the parties seemed to be mainly economic matters. Now these matters include abortion, global warming, gun rights, federal rights, state rights, Russia, Iraq, veterans, protests, Antifa, the president’s use of Twitter, gay marriage, religion, energy, immigration, illegal immigration, crime, jobs, health care, historical statues — even free speech.
And football! Even football is politicized today.
Comedians have to make statements about government affairs. Actors have to make statements. NFL players have to make statements and gestures during their games. This divides the audience. And whether you support the actions or not, it’s hard to argue that ostracizing one’s fans does anyone any good. But it’s exactly what we have dealt with the entire time across years and years of our country’s history …
Consider: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” From the very first line of our Constitution, to its very name, the United States of America has pitched itself as the land of unity. The United States is nearing its third century of existence, and for these 200-plus years, it seems we have done a pretty measly job of keeping it together. Except — for being the United States — we surely have had nary a time to be so unified.
From its very inception, the United States has hardly been unified for a cause, despite the prattling of a few teleprompter readers. It’s more likely than not that we’ve been divided, sometimes rather passionately, against each other.
From wars to domestic policies to even cultural preferences, the people of this nation just cannot and will not get together.
The American War for Independence. The American Revolution was the war that established the United States and led to a domino effect, which eventually led to the fall of the British Empire. It was the battleground that established the Constitution, which we still abide by to this day — but even that is subject to arguments. Our revolution also inspired the French Revolution and countless other freedom-fighting movements through the centuries.
But this eight-year fight was not simply “us versus them.” “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1777. It was a fight for sovereignty against the British crown an ocean away, and, according to recent studies, approximately 20 percent of the inhabitants of the colonies did not support that cause. And at the nascent stages, that figure was probably much higher.
Dubbed the loyalists, these men and women came from all walks of life, just like the patriots. According to one historian, “At the appearance of open resistance loyalist associations were formed in nearly every colony [and] were used extensively” during the early parts of the war (a move that some historians believe led to the British defeat, as it overrelied on an unreliable force). From the traitorous Benedict Arnold to, allegedly, the mother of George Washington, each loyalist had a different reason for being faithful to the crown.
Samuel Seabury of New York, the leading bishop of the Episcopal Church, believed that to be “American” required keeping European contact and European culture. To split with Europe was, in his mind, a damnation of Europe. “What then is the American, this new man?” he wrote in the 1770s. “He is either [a] European, or the descendant of [a] European, hence that strange mixture of blood which you will find in no other country … He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great alma mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”
The King’s Royal Regiment of New York was among the first armies to be raised purely from loyalists to fight against the rebellious and traitorous colonists. Led by John Johnson of New York, it participated in the siege of Fort Stanwix, New York, in the summer of 1777 and the Battle of Klock’s Field in 1780 — and many campaigns in between. It was a formidable force in its own right — these weren’t just rabble-rousers.
After the war, loyalists were severely persecuted and humiliated, and many were forced to flee to British Canada for safety. Not much unity there, either.
The 1800 presidential election. The first presidential election of the 19th century and the fourth presidential election of the United States became one of the most contentious of all in American history. The incumbent president, John Adams, part of the Federalist Party, was challenged by Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. The previous election, in 1796, similarly pitted Adams against Jefferson.
Among the issues for the 1800 election was how the Federalist Party and Federalist Administration — not even two decades after the forming of the nation — started to trample on the rights of Americans. Among acts of legislations, passed by the Federalist-dominated Congress, was the controversial Sedition Act of 1798. This act allowed the arrest and imprisonment of any journalist or American citizen who criticized the federal government or the president.
The act was vague enough that anyone who wished “unlawfully to combine or conspire together to oppose any measure of the government of the United States” or anyone who wished “to write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the president” could include actual treasonous or seditious actions. It sounds pretty bad now, and it sounded really bad then — hundreds of newspapers were shut down. Hundreds of citizens were imprisoned.
One such man, a Revolutionary War veteran from Massachusetts named David Brown, was given the harsh penalty for leading a group of protesters and setting up a liberty pole in Dedham with the words, “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the president; Long Live the vice president.” The court demanded an outrageous bail of $4,000 — which Brown could not afford. He was soon tried and convicted to 18 months in Salem.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire on Dec. 7, 1941, that all changed. Those who were isolationists immediately changed sides. It was no longer a European war.
This and many other actions as a result of the Sedition Act were the backdrop of the 1800 election; it was clearly an overreach of the federal government. Thomas Jefferson won the election, taking advantage of a divided Federalist Party, but that didn’t stop the controversy. The 3/5th Clause, counting each slave as three-fifths of a vote, directly benefited Jefferson’s win. Without the 3/5th Clause, the number of winning electoral votes would have gone to Adams. As one newspaper reported, Jefferson had ridden “into the temple of liberty on the shoulders of slaves.”
The American Civil War. Thousands upon thousands of barrels of ink have been spilled writing about the Civil War, the most poignant example of the disunity of the United States. It was a conglomeration of states’ rights versus federal rights, slave owners versus abolitionists, the Confederate States and the United States, and decades of tension between the culture of the South and the culture of the North. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 did nothing to ameliorate the festering problem.
The Civil War ended up killing over 600,000 American men, about 2 percent of the male population, and ironically, in the long run, the ramifications further divided the North and South. Southern Democrats took control at the end of the Reconstruction Era 14 years later, which led to the disenfranchisement of newly freed blacks. These same Democrats were responsible for the Jim Crow laws, which further amplified racism well into the ’60s, leading to the civil rights movement. These Democrats also formed the KKK as a means of terrorizing African-Americans.
The problems of the Civil War did not disappear on May 9, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson declared the end of the war. It was a division that hit the soul of Americans, about freedom, justice, and individuality. Now, even the idea of Confederate statues makes headlines and creates tension. In some ways, the Civil War has never ended.
The League of Nations. Fast-forward to World War I, 1917. The U.S. had just jumped in, reluctantly, into the European war. It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars due to its unseen brutality and death toll. Peace, after four hard years in Europe, was on the horizon. President Woodrow Wilson proposed the League of Nations — a sort of precursor to the United Nations — which would guarantee peace and security throughout the world by governing and overseeing international affairs.
Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, who became the first Senate majority leader, strongly objected to both the Treaty of Versailles and by extension the League of Nations. As he stated to the Senate in August 1919, they would “sacrifice our sovereignty in important respects, to invoke ourselves almost without limit in the affairs of other nations and to yield up policies and rights which we have maintained throughout our history.”
He noted that criticism to the league does not mean criticism of peace, or intervention in conflicts; it is simply that a supranational organization should not tell them what to do when conflict emerges: “Our first ideal is our country, and we see her in the future, as in the past, giving service to all her people and to the world. Our ideal of the future is that she should continue to render that service of her own free will.”
In the end, within a year, the Senate refused to pass the treaty, and the United States never joined the league, an embarrassing defeat for Wilson. So embarrassing, in fact, that when Wilson died in 1924, his wife rejected Lodge’s request to attend the funeral: “Realizing that your presence would be embarrassing to you and unwelcome to me, I write to request that you do not attend,” she wrote acidly.
Division, even in death.
The Second World War. Among the list of events where the United States was divided, there are only two where we were united. The first was the Second World War. However, we did not get there easily, as the brutality of the First World War hardened the attitude of America. When fighting broke out in Europe in 1939, most of the U.S. was against intervening. Why should we jump in to another European war? The first killed and injured millions of our men; why should we get tangled in another? A phrase about the Great War going around the United States was, “All we got was debt and death and George M. Cohan.”
These isolationists had a variety of reasons to stay out of the fight, from cost to ideology. The “America Firsters” were across aisles: Charles Lindbergh and Al Smith and Joseph Kennedy all believed in isolationism, for one reason or another.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire on Dec. 7, 1941, that all changed. Those who were isolationists immediately changed sides. It was no longer a European war. It was another world war. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the night after, said over a national radio broadcast that “We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America,” and even harsh opponents of President Franklin Roosevelt joined the cause. Congress agreed to go to war with Japan, with only one member of Congress vetoing. Rep. Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the sole “no” vote, which destroyed her longtime political career.
Back to the present day. There are many, many more periods of American history that can be covered here, but the point is still clear: The supposed United States of America has almost always been divided, and not just around wars. We’ve only been united twice and then only briefly. We were unified the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, and then for a period of time, but the 1942 off-year election centered on dissatisfaction with the progress of World War II. Similarly, the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were also a unifying moment in U.S. history, though the ineffective wars in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly did away with any of that. These were the only two times, in the three centuries of American history, that we as a nation have truly and unquestionably been united.
And that is what makes the United States exceptional. We have always been divided — yet we survive into the third century. American exceptionalism is truly a paradoxical concept: We, as Americans, have been unified by being divided.
Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and author of four bestsellers on Ronald Reagan, most recently “Reagan Rising.” His latest political biography on Newt Gingrich, “Citizen Newt,” is now available on Amazon. Scott Mauer is Craig Shirley’s researcher.