Divided we stand: Our disagreements are a source of strength. It's our weakened institutions we should fear.
Far from worrying about and cursing the divided state of today's electorate and its leadership, we should embrace it as a sign of involvement and energy on behalf of ourselves and our nation. Indeed, it has been thus from before the beginning of our national identity. It has made us strong while providing a safety valve, the absence of which would have defeated us from within.
The American colonists before 1776 and even throughout the American Revolution were certainly not of one mind. Fully 30 percent of Americans during that period were and remained Loyalists, fighting against the revolutionaries and suffering severe personal consequences afterwards. Thus the "American Revolution" could be alternatively called our first civil war.
The Declaration of Independence supported states' rights, slavery and the right of individual states to secede from the "Union." That "Union" was very soon a subject of severe - temporarily political and personal - conflict between the likes of Hamilton and Washington vs. Jefferson and Madison on the question of a strong central government vs. an amalgamation of independent states. Before and during the War of 1812, several New England states took actual steps to secede in order to protect their business interests. Thus, it can be argued that the Founding Fathers created the "United States," but it took later action to create "America."
That action came in the form and in the laser-like determination of Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln did not embrace a (second?) Civil War to free the slaves. Nor was he interested in acknowledging the right of individual states to secede. His one goal was to "preserve the Union," or rather to establish once and for all such an actual "Union: The United States of America."
In the face of determined, often violent and ultimately personally lethal objection, Lincoln did whatever was necessary to achieve that end. Some describe his actions as despotic and dictatorial. Presumably, he considered that a continued loose alliance of sovereign states would ultimately devolve into the chronically sick model of the European states. With such an analysis I entirely agree. (Please see the following book, surely iconoclastic for many: "The Real Lincoln," by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002 - 2003.)
Then came Reconstruction, the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Robber Barons, America's forays into imperialism, our ambivalence toward both World War I and a decade of clear warning signs leading up to World War II. During all of these times Americans were divided. But their divisions were channeled in the court of public opinion and in political activity. This avoided a third civil war.
The danger today is not in our divisions. In fact, poll figures provided in an opinion piece by Charles M. Blow titled "The Frustration Doctrine" suggest that we may be more united ("us vs. them") now than in a long time (New York Times Op-Ed, June 23).
The danger is in our losing the traditional organs of public opinion - the Free Press - as the media prostitute themselves to one side or another in the disputes. The danger is in our losing the responsiveness of our elected leaders as they seem guided only by their perceived requirements for re-election (i.e., massive amounts of money, regardless of the quid pro quo always involved), and by their commitment to becoming rich in the process.
In the face of these institutional risks, international dangers - although great - pale by comparison. The real danger is from within - frustration that could lead to a third civil war.
So what is the message on this Independence Day weekend? "Vive la difference!" But with this cautionary note. We must correct and maintain the institutional safety valves that have served us in the past.
Dr. Sprecace lives in New London.
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