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United We Stand? . . Take It With A Large Grain of Salt

When I hear someone, usually a politician, talk about unifying the American people, about how he or she is the one who can unite us, I take it with a large grain of salt.
     Only once, perhaps, in our history, and then for only a very brief time, has the United States ever been a “united” country. From our very beginnings, we have been a divided, fractious collection of mutually suspicious groups with conflicting values and goals.
     The original Natives feared, hated, enslaved, and murdered one another. They welcomed intruders from the Old World, who also for centuries had feared, hated, enslaved, and murdered one another, as allies against their traditional enemies.
     Those intruders included highly intolerant Puritans, highly intolerant elitist aristocrats, and highly intolerant border warriors from England; highly intolerant Spanish adventurers; and from these and other European countries, fortune hunters who valued financial gain and wealth above all else, and were willing to destroy anyone and anything in their way to get it.
     From our beginnings, we were split along racial lines among Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans. We were split between commercial and agrarian values. We were split in our political loyalties. It has been estimated that during the American Revolutionary War, only about one-third of the colonists favored independence, with another third wishing to remain a part of the British Empire, and the remainder just wanting to be left alone.
     Divisions followed immediately upon independence, with the Founding Fathers unable to agree on such issues as the relative powers of the federal government and the states; the position African slaves in the new polity; the government of territories; the extent of taxation powers; and the roles of the branches of government in relation to each other.
     These issues were not resolved in our Constitution as it was adopted; rather, these questions were in effect kicked down the road to be determined at some indefinite future time in some undefined ways.
     Rival political parties developed almost immediately. The presidential election of 1800 was among the nastiest in our history. Regional differences sprang up concerning tariffs, slavery, westward expansion, and internal infrastructure investment. During the War of 1812, New England threatened to secede from the Union. In the 1830s, South Carolina made a similar threat. In the 1860s, war was fought between the North and the South over those unresolved differences.
     Historically, white Americans have almost unanimously considered themselves separate from and superior to those of other races. In the middle 19th century, English speaking citizens were hostile, often violently so, to Irish and German-speaking immigrants. Later in the century, immigration laws targeted Asians; in the early 20th, Eastern and Southern Europeans (Italians, Russians, Hungarians, et al.) and Jews.
     All these groups tended to be hostile to one another, struggling for a place in the social hierarchy, with Native Americans and Africans almost always at the bottom, and higher stratifications determined generally by the shade of one’s skin; the lighter, the higher in standing.
Americans have traditionally been divided along sexual and economic lines. Women fought for the right to vote for generations, and still strive for such things as equal pay for equal work and for control over their bodies. Labor unions and capitalists fought bitter and deadly battles for well over a hundred years over safety laws, the right to organize, child labor, fair pay, and working hours. With increasing wealth inequality, those battles continue to be fought today.
     In nearly all the country’s wars, there was intense division over whether to engage in them, from the War of 1812 through the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East.
     The sole exception seems to have been World War II. Then, for a short time, the country seems to have been almost unified: African, European, Native, and Asian Americans (even the Japanese interned in camps, the Natives confined to reservations, and the Africans living under Jim Crow laws) seem to have come together to act as one united nation.
     Almost immediately in the aftermath of that war, however, the old splits resurfaced– race versus race, labor versus capital, women versus male domination, disagreement over the proper distribution of wealth and of the role of the federal government versus the states – almost all the traditional issues that had always divided the country. They continue to divide us now.
     That we are not now, and virtually never have been, a united nation does not mean that we never can or will be one, but it’s a monumental task, and one I believe we are many generations away from accomplishing. So don’t put a whole lot of faith in politicians’ promises to unite us. It’s just talk.
     For a better understanding of the origins of American disunity, see Colin Woodard’s “American Nations” and David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed”. Both are apolitical, non-judgmental, factual descriptive accounts of our origins.
Mike Metzger
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