Political palaver these days cannot proceed without someone tossing out the word “polarization.” We’ve come to accept the idea of a “Great Divide” across society that cannot be bridged. On one side are the President’s supporters and defenders who cheer his tweets, back his policies and believe that Fox News gets it exactly right. Trump’s “base” remains in place, firm in its conviction that their man speaks their mind and skewers those that they oppose. Across the gulf is arrayed tens of millions who look on with disbelief, completely mystified that a man they believe so patently ignorant, compromised, and corrupt, perhaps unhinged, has control of the engines of national power. They fear for the future of the nation, wonder whether the “wreckage” they perceive is beyond repair. No one on either side has the slightest idea of how it will all end. Accordingly, it may be of some interest and possibly even useful to look back over the years and document some of the great divides that once split our nation.
• Active support of the Revolution never involved more than a minority of the white population. A majority either stayed neutral, took oaths of loyalty only when patriot forces were in the area, joined loyalist armed forces or were vocal in opposing the revolution. Large numbers of Tories left America at the conclusion of the war.
• The debate over the Constitution divided the nation. Anti-Federalists were extremely suspicious of the motives of pro-Constitution forces. The existing Articles of Confederation Government was just fine, they believed. In many states the vote to approve the Constitution was exceptionally close.
• In the 1790’s the Federalists and the Democratic and Republican parties had little use for one another. Both saw conspiracies everywhere. Because the Federalists supported England, our former enemy, the Republicans backed France: The nation seemed about to come apart. Great relief followed when Federalists chose to abide by the election results of 1800, and albeit reluctantly, yielded the government to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican party.
• With slavery locked into the South and the North increasingly committed to free labor, the gulf between North and South widened. What made it worse was that Southern planters and their allies portrayed slavery as a positive good, while Northerners became increasingly receptive to the arguments of the growing number of Abolitionists who feared an aggressive “Slave Power” was preparing to expand slavery far and wide. “A house divided against itself would not stand,” Lincoln warned.
• The South panicked in the aftermath of Lincoln’s election (1860). He would, they feared, work to undermine the institution of slavery. The secession from the Union by one Southern state after another eventually plunged the United States into Civil War, the most serious rift ever endured by the nation. Before it ended, 750,000 were dead, including President Lincoln, assassinated by a Southern sympathizer.
• The rise of big business in the late 19th Century in turn led to an effort by the laboring classes to organize. Strikes were frequent and often violent, especially when strikebreakers were recruited and state militias dispatched to the scene. Many Americans feared that opposing forces were irreconcilable and that a momentous clash between capital and labor was unavoidable.
• In the 1920’s the U.S. seemed headed in opposite directions. Many women were exhibiting a new sense of independence, jazz was finding a wide audience, new technologies were settling in (radio, automobiles, movies, airplanes, etc.), cities were expanding, widespread prosperity appeared achievable. On the other hand, fears over immigrants brought new restrictive laws (1921, 1924) along with Prohibition, Eugenics legislation, rapid growth of the KKK, the spread of Evangelical Christianity and efforts to restrict the teaching of evolution in the schools. Two mutually hostile world views were fully on display.
• In the sixties, America once again fractured. Young people (“hippies”) led the assault on what they derided as the “establishment.” In their dress, in their drugs, in their music and in their communes, their message for Americans was to “drop out,” reorder their lives and their priorities. Adding to their challenge was the simultaneous emergence of the Civil rights movement, the Woman’s Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War protests and the movement to scale back massive nuclear weapons stockpiles and delivery systems. Such widespread assaults against the “system”, coupled with certain radical outcropping (the Weathermen, Black Panthers, etc.) brought on a predictable backlash, produced a divide the country has not to this day resolved.
Clearly, then, the U. S. has been fractured many times before and has survived in each instance. It will likely happen again. Perhaps we can find encouragement in certain facts in the life of America’s great hero Ulysses Grant. His wife Julia came from a defiantly proud slaveholding family, while Grant’s father and mother were Abolitionists. (They did not attend their son’s wedding.) Nonetheless, in their old age, both Grant’s father and father-in-law lived together in the White House during Grant’s presidency. Some measure of reconciliation surely occurred. There is hope.

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