Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

Southern_Chivalry

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes what about how history helps put our “divided nation” into perspective. –JF

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.