On the evening of July 27, 2004, during a steaming hot summer in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, the junior senator from Illinois took the stage at the Democratic Party’s national convention and delivered one of the most important speeches in modern political history. Though the convention’s focus was to anoint the hapless John Kerry as the party’s standard-bearer for what became a futile effort to boot President George W. Bush from the White House, the convention’s keynote speaker focused less on an uncertain present and more on a hopeful future.
That keynote speaker — future President Barack Obama — delivered an address squarely aimed at undermining the toxic national divisiveness that defined America during the Bush years. In perhaps the defining moment of his political career, Obama insisted that, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” Twelve years later, in the twilight of President Obama’s second term in the White House, some think that America is more divided than ever.
In the wake of the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota — both of whom were black — the U.S. erupted in a summer of division wracked by protests against racially motivated police brutality and the barbaric murder of five cops by a deranged sniper in Dallas, Texas. All of this has happened, of course, amidst another traditionally partisan election season in which the swirly haired, orange-glow hurricane known as Donald Trump — a decidedly untraditional Republican Party nominee — has stoked the fires of white resentment and ethnic nationalism by bellowing across the land like some unholy, lab-spawned mutant amalgamation of Archie Bunker, Scrooge McDuck, and Benito Mussolini.
With all of the chaos of gun violence, racial strife, and seemingly unprecedented partisan rancor, pundits and the public alike are grappling with the notion that the threads that once united America are unravelling like an old white person at a Beyoncé concert. For example, bespectacled New York Times WASP David Brooks, in a column titled, “Are we on a Path to National Ruin?” laments that Americans have become “mired in their resentments, spiraling deeper into the addiction of their own victimology.” Along similar lines, CNN’s Stephen Collinson worries that our current crop of political leaders lack the gonads to “knit a mournful nation together and freshen the stale national debate on race and violence.”
Meanwhile, President Obama, who at this point in his lame duck-ness ought to be kicking back with a fat, home-rolled doob as far away from the national nightmare as possible, instead found himself in Poland — of all places — where he said that, “I firmly believe that America is not as divided as some have suggested.” As always, Obama provided some calm in the storm even as everyone else was busy looting liquor stores.
It’s tempting to look at the U.S. in 2016 and conclude that the country has never been this divided; that the social fabric is fraying, and that our treasured American unity is forever compromised. But the thing is, the idea that America was ever a unified nation, where, despite our obvious political disagreements, we all shared a set of common dreams and values, is one of our most stubborn national myths. The fact is, the U.S. is a country made up of different interest groups, each holding distinct ideological preferences, and our political divisions are very, painfully, real.
Some Americans, for example, believe that the free-floating access to military-grade firearms impedes their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by enabling a proliferation of mass killings. Others belief that guns themselves are a direct means to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some Americans want all of their fellow citizens to have access to universal health care, but some Americans view universal health care in-and-of-itself as a barrier to their own personal freedoms. Some Americans want to reduce income inequality, while others believe that income inequality is the natural — and therefore just — result of capitalism’s inherent, organic order. Some Americans want the U.S. to be an open, pluralistic society in which different faith traditions can coexist, if not agree, but other Americans believe that the only viable faith is the (very select) Christian one, and that other beliefs simply have no place within the American public sphere.
These divisions are real and profound, and they’ve always existed. Throughout the course of U.S. history, many Americans’ conception of freedom have rested on the subjugation — whether economically, racially, culturally, or gendered — of someone else.
Few events in U.S. history are as mythologized today as the formation of the Constitution. A common refrain insists that all of our problems would be solved if we just “followed the Constitution,” as if it were some pristine, unalterable holy text brought down from on high by a bunch of powdered-wig-sporting, 18th-century Moses clones. Of course, the divisions at the 1787 Constitutional Convention were deep and, at times, vicious.
The divide between Federalists — a nationalist-minded bunch who wanted to strengthen the power of the central government — and the Anti-Federalists — who prioritized the rights and influence of the individual states — defined the Constitutional Convention from the start. The Federalists were a more unified group than the often disheveled Anti-Federalists, but their differences were so intense that our now-cherished Bill of Rights was originally a sop thrown into the Constitution to appease Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry, who thought that ratifying the Constitution gave the national government too much power and ignored individual rights.
So rancorous were debates at the Constitutional Convention that delegates like Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts wrote that, “I am exceedingly distressed at the proceedings of the Convention, being apprehensive and almost sure they will — if not altered materially — lay the foundation of a civil War.” Ouch. Even Benjamin Franklin, ever the optimist, couldn’t hide his occasional doubts as to the success of the constitutional proceedings. “You will see the Constitution we have propos’d in the Papers,” he wrote to his sister following ratification, “the Forming of it so as to accommodate all the different Interests and Views was a difficult Task…We have, however, done our best and it must take its chance.”
It’s perhaps fitting that at least one delegate likened the Constitutional debates to civil war, because one of the most divisive issues at the Conventional Convention was slavery. Delegates from the southern states refused to vote for ratification unless the Constitution guaranteed federal protection for slavery. That’s how we ended up with the three-fifths compromise that eventually gave southern representatives outsized proportional representation in Congress. The enshrining of slavery in the Constitution ultimately provided the issue over which Americans became increasingly more divided in the ensuing decades.
If there was a time when America was more divided than ever, it was during the Antebellum era, when debates over slavery grew hostile to the point where they finally exploded into war in 1861.
For one thing, being an abolitionist in 19th-century America was dangerous to your health. Abolitionists were the extreme liberal radicals of the age who spoke out against slavery. One such abolitionist, journalist and Presbyterian minister Elijah Lovejoy, paid the ultimate price for daring to criticize the peculiar institution.
Lovejoy was born in Maine in 1802 but eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri — a slave state — in 1827, where he ran a school and edited the St. Louis Observer, a fervent abolitionist newspaper. Lovejoy’s antics, however, ran afoul of St. Louis’ pro-slavery denizens, who broke into his building, ransacked his printing press, and threatened mob violence. As a result, in 1837 Lovejoy fled across the state line to Alton, Illinois, where he again set up his abolitionist press. He hid his press in a warehouse, but a pro-slavery mob eventually surrounded the warehouse and laid siege, firing shots and launching torches to set the building ablaze. Lovejoy shot back, but five shotgun slugs killed him immediately. Afterwards, the mob tossed Lovejoy’s printing press into the river.
Lovejoy’s murder at the hands of a pro-slavery mob happened in the free state of Illinois, but in a town settled by pro-slavery sympathizers. Lovejoy’s slaying embodied how divided America was in the antebellum era over the singular issue of slavery. Heck, America was so divided that it ended up slaughtering 600,000 of its soldiers and countless more civilians during a Civil War that ended the peculiar institution, but failed to address the racial inequalities and hostilities that underlie it.
The continued legacy of this racial strife is on full display in 2016 with the continued shooting of black men by police officers, with the rise of Herr Trump on a tide of reactionary white hostility, and with an ensuing national paralysis that has left many Americans wringing their hands over a country that seems to be splitting apart at the seems like a pair of 1970s polyester bowling slacks. Admittedly, it would be hard for the United States to top the intensity of division it experienced during the Civil War, but divisions have continued to the present day for the simple reason that while all Americans might, in theory, express a shared desire for “freedom,” how they actually achieve and live out that freedom has been — and will always be — a source of intense debate.
Eminent historian Eric Foner reminds us that, absent the intense debates that define and promote its practical application, such a nebulous concept as “freedom” has little meaning beyond bumper-sticker platitudes. Throughout U.S. history, competing notions of what freedom actually entails in the lives of different groups of people have constantly reshaped the meaning of the concept itself. Foner notes that, “definitions of freedom relegated to the margins in one era have become dominant in the next, and long-abandoned understandings have been resurrected when circumstances changed.”*
In the antebellum era, for example, slavery and freedom were symbiotic concepts for half of the country; one facilitated the other because black slavery enabled white mastery. Nowadays, of course (a few Trump supporters notwithstanding) slavery is one of the few things that Americans of all political stripes can agree is a bad thing. But in 1860, slavery was still at the heart of American debate over the very contours of freedom.
Thus, abolitionism — an idea once “relegated to the margins” — eventually became dominant in a different era. Yet the nature of history is such that new developments such as globalization and ethnic and racial demographic shifts can resurrect long-abandoned understandings, such as the notion that freedom can’t be separated from a society organized around the dominance of one group over others. It’s not especially surprising, then, that the white resentment that delivered the GOP nomination to Donald Trump “is mingled with patriotism, pride, fear and a sense that an America without them [whites] at its center is not really America anymore.”
American divisiveness will never end; rather, its contours will continually shift and realign to accommodate — and resist — the racial, economic, and cultural anxieties of any given historical era. The uncertainty of change has never been an easy thing for Americans to digest. It’s why we once argued vehemently over the creation of our Constitution. It’s why we fought a brutal Civil War over slavery in a land where all men were theoretically created equal. When Barack Obama proclaimed in 2004 that, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America,” he was echoing a long-standing national shibboleth that has always been rooted more in the myth of America than in the lived experience of most Americans, for whom freedom has always been contested, redefined, and fought over.
The perpetuity of American divisiveness may be cold comfort for some, but if nothing else, it should inspire us to keep trying to make that notoriously stiff arch of the moral universe bend just a little more towards justice.
* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xv.