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Unity in America

On our first day of practice, the football coach uttered these memorable words to his new team: “Remember men, there’s no ‘I’ in team.”

Such an admonition has remained a mainstay of human activity, sports included, since the dawn of time. The realization that human progress depends upon “teamwork” instead of “the individual” has descended through the ages as a first principle of the success and prosperity of the “species” (men and women together).

Division in American history

Despite this essential truism, the spectrum of American history has been dominated by division, interspersed by rare occasions of authentic unity. This is true even today. The divisions between parties, genders, races, religions, languages, sections, and sects is summarized by the colors “red” and “blue.” Beneath this vague description lies deep and historical differences that have defined the American “experiment” from the beginning but have not, as yet, been able to break the “bonds that unite.”

Time will tell, but division was dominant from the start.

As early as 1765, ten years before the first shot of the revolution, there were scarcely more than a handful of colonists who wanted to break from England. Samuel Adams, his cousin John, James Otis, Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and several others led the origins of the rebellion. They formed the political squad “Sons of Liberty,” formed the “Committees of Correspondence,” and instigated the “Boston Massacre” largely on their own initiative. The Declaration of Independence was signed by only 52 co-conspirators, while the actual fighting itself was supported by less than one-third of the population. The remaining two-thirds were either neutral or “Loyalists,” who favored the British.

The revolution was as much an internal war as against the Redcoats, where Loyalist and “Patriot” civilians waged a “civil” struggle more ferocious than the regular battles. A British Chaplin noted this hatred in his dairy:

“These Americans so soft, pacific and benevolent by nature, are here transformed into monsters, implacably bloody and ravenous; party rage has kindled the spirit of hatred within them, they attack and rob each other by turns, destroy dwelling houses, or establish themselves therein by driving out those who had before dispossessed others.”

The divisions that separated the sides within the American Revolution left an indelible impression upon the political culture, one whose “aftershocks” can still be felt today. Professor Bernard Bailyn has summarized the nature of both sides of the American “cause” from the beginning:

“Committed to the moral as well as the political integrity of the Anglo-American system as it existed, the Loyalists were insensitive to the moral basis of the protests that arose against it … They did not sense the constriction of the existing order, often because they lived so deeply within it … They could find only persistent irrationality in the arguments of the discontented and hence wrote off all of their efforts as politically pathological.”

A similar dysfunction was to plague the nation in the second consecutive British war. At the end of the War of 1812, the economic and political divisions between the South and New England provoked the most audacious wartime protest in U.S. history. The conduct of the war had devastated New England shipping with Europe, and the full area refused conscription, finances, and other support for “Mr. Madison’s War.”

The country was essentially divided into two, and talk of New England secession was rampant. A delegation of leading “dissidents” met in Hartford, Connecticut in December 1814 and sent a list of “demands” to Congress that amounted to a New England sectional veto over future declarations of war and other aspects of political and economic policies (such as restrictions on trade embargos and conduct of presidential elections).

The crisis quickly subsided after news of the U.S. victory at New Orleans and the conclusion of the war by the Treaty of Ghent (December 1814). But the repercussions of New England’s divisive behavior only foreshadowed the deeper American sectional crisis that began when southern cannon batteries shelled the U.S. Fort Sumter outside Charleston, South Carolina (12 April 1861).

War between Americans

The Civil War represents the epitome of division that precluded any form of unification that the original revolution pretended. Whereas it is true that all societies have, in one form or another, divided themselves in half, the extent of the divisions in the aftermath of Appomattox will find few equals on the political earth.

The estimated death toll of the years 1861-1865 is now around 720,000, all male, almost all white, north and south. All this within a population of around 32 million. The psychological, political, and economic toll cannot ever be listed by any empirical standard. Suffice it to say that Vicksburg, Mississippi refused to honor July 4th until 1932.

The unity that eluded American society was finally closed, temporarily, on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese did what no domestic factor was able to do, namely, give Americans a singular cause. By and large, that semblance carried through both world wars and the Cold War (1991).


American unity is now under still another challenge, as “separatism” has taken on a number of forms, most ending with an “ism” and conducted under the banner “diversity.” President Trump’s impeachment trial may be the opening “shot” in this process, but “perspective” might offer some solace.

Imagine another “civil” struggle similar to the first. That war took the lives of about 2.5% of the population. Today, that would be around seven million, all white males (“dead”). How did the country conduct itself back then?

For one thing, it started with an impeachment trial. That failed, and, from that point until World War I, America expanded both on the continent and overseas. Republicans governed the country, and all presidents until 1900 were former Union Army officers (except Grover Cleveland), and the military, especially the Navy, became a global powerhouse. The Civil War had national repercussions that affected the entire world.

How would the present generation conduct itself if seven million American soldiers had been killed in war since 2016? Is a comparison possible?

Would the president ask NATO to increase spending by 2 %? How would “Black Lives” fit in, “Me Too,” Harvey Weinstein, reparations, LGBTQ? What would the issues be? How would we approach the idea of “health care for all”? Would we “have a plan” for the body bags?

Would there even be a country left at all? To us, it is an imaginary world. To them, it was a daily reality.

Have we come a “long way”?

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