“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Lincoln first brought up the danger of “a house divided” when he announced it “cannot stand” in the 1858 Senate debate in Illinois. Although he was referring to slavery, the analogy is timeless and universal and has been proven accurate in countless situations, from families to governments to societies. In drawing attention to division, Lincoln also noted that the divide would eventually end with “all one thing or another.” While Lincoln, like many other Americans at the time, did not predict civil war, he still understood that the current situation was intolerable. War was a chance he was willing to take.
The end of anything, social or not, is both highly contentious and subjective, but necessary for reflection at a time when the self-same metaphor (“end”) is universally applied to politics, particularly the “Trump” variety. Nary a day goes by that some commentator predicts an “end” to democracy under Trump’s supervision, that he has resurrected Hitler, or that he will convert the country into his personal estate. Since he won in 2016, the Washington Post has published “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on the top of page one, every issue, day after day.
Yet the President, whoever he/she may be, is scarcely the source of this analogy. Hitler himself can be used, if appropriate, since he, practically alone, raised the Weimar Republic from a defeated and depressed society to history’s greatest and most dangerous belligerent. But a single man, however powerful, cannot be responsible for whole societies. Just as Trump was fairly and freely elected, so, too, did Hitler come from a society that at least tolerated his rule or embraced it. To understand Hitler, one needs to start with German history, especially World War I. To understand Trump (or his enemies), one needs to start with something prior to him or deeply embedded within society itself.
Like America in 1858, today’s divisions have roots that, in retrospect, have to be inherent.
It may also be asserted that the warning is overblown, or that, while divided today, American society has suffered before and survived and will do so again. Examples of the first revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and a sustained inequality between levels of society can be, and have been, asserted to demonstrate the stability of the society. Fair enough, and as in all “medicine,” it depends on the diagnosis. But to err on the safe side has the disadvantage of being fatal by neglect. To err on the critical side has, at least, the advantage of being, rather, “safe than sorry.”
There has been, from the very beginning, a potentially fatal flaw within American society that stems both from the highly “liberal” and, thus, open nature of the society combined with the mass of the geopolitical expanse. President John F. Kennedy’s great book, A Nation of Immigrants (1958) has explained this quality in brilliant prose. But his story emphasized the positive side of the narrative, while the very size and the societal freedom could well become the country’s fatal “Achilles heel.” The country’s population has tripled since 1940, to 330 million. What if this repeats, with nearly a billion by 2100? Would discontent rise or decline? (Guess.)
Division, in all aspects, has dogged American society from the beginning. At the creation, 1776, barely one-fifth of colonial subjects wanted separation from Britain. The vast majority either were neutral or loyal (“Loyalists” or “Tories”) and lived comfortably within the British socio/political system. The internal war between “Patriots” (rebels) and Loyalists forecast the bitter and lasting separation that would grow to plague all Americans through civil war, anti-immigration riots, economic disparities, and social/geopolitical identities. A Chaplain, observing this phenomenon in the revolution, was moved to write
“These Americans, so soft, pacific and benevolent by nature, are here transformed into monsters, implacable, bloody and ravenous; party rage has kindled the spirit of hatred between them, they attack and rob each other by turns, destroying dwelling houses, or establish themselves therein by driving out those who had before dispossessed others.”
In his classic Farewell Address (1796), George Washington described the tensions and hatreds that political parties, even then, had grown to divide society:
“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Still, Washington felt, “This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature.”
“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
Political parties, as Washington noted, are not the cause of division; they only reflect division. Parties did not cause most of the subsequent divides that wrenched the country from generation to generation. Factors stemming from different sociological, economic, geopolitical, racial, and other differences continued to separate Americans from each other. In some form, this has always been the case, from the revolution through the Civil War to the current climate that finds the White House surrounded by a protest movement, with street letters ordered there by none other than the Mayor of the Capital.
It could be argued that the single moment of true American unity was December 8, 1941, after a foreign country bombed Hawaii and forced millions of Americans together to fight an unwanted war. As the saying goes, it’s been “downhill since.”
Paul Revere is famous for warning the Minutemen that the “British are coming.” Apparently, he faced the same dilemma that plagues almost all Americans in assessing the divisions of our times. Perhaps he should have added this from his galloping horse, “They’ve also been here for two hundred years.”
In assessing division, it is very possible that it is overdone. But recalling Lincoln, he was right, but no one in the country had the slightest idea of the cost. But neither Lincoln nor Robert E. Lee was responsible for the Civil War; the cause was there before their birth.
To discover the cause of today’s divisions, don’t look at the present, look in the past. To prepare for the future, remember the past, don’t erase or re-invent it.