The deep divisions in America’s current political culture undoubtedly pose serious and difficult problems for the long-term health of the nation, but they need to be set in some context.
The truth is that the United States of America has never been united except on the most basic of principles (equal justice, free speech, etc.). Americans hold strong and heartfelt opinions on just about every topic imaginable. That tradition of division dates back to before the American Revolution.
I was reminded of that recently as I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick‘s Valient Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution.
Philbrick writes that as the American colonies barreled toward revolution and independence from Great Britain, both population and politicians were deeply divided on whether or not independence was a good thing. Those divisions led to boycotts, harassment, and even violence on both sides of the question. The divisions from neighbor to neighbor were often deep and bitter.
The American Revolution had two fronts: the war against Great Britain and a civil war so widespread and destructive that an entire continent was seeded with the dark inevitability of even more devastating cataclysms to come. (p. xvi)
This civil war that Philbrick refers to continued and got steadily worse as the war with Great Britain stretched over several years. It led to the treasonous conduct of one of America’s best generals, Benedict Arnold — which is the focus of this excellent and highly readable book.
What any reading of American political and social history indicates is that the conflict and divisions within America present at the Revolution have never ceased — and they continue to this day. The issues of today no longer include independence from Great Britain, of course, but there are issues that have been around since the formation of the Republic: how do we administer equal justice; the responsibilities of government to its citizens and vice versa; the right to vote; immigration; etc.
We tolerate conflict. We tolerate division. We are not always polite and respectful. More often than not, our feelings and rhetoric are overheated and extreme — as it is today. But that is who we are. That, I believe, is one of our great strengths.