The Continental Congress approved it on July 4, but it was July 6 before the Declaration of Independence was printed in a newspaper, namely the Pennsylvania Evening Post (“price two coppers”). So if our forbearers celebrated the nation’s founding over several days, I can stretch the holiday, too—marking it not at home but in Europe, among friends of America who are mystified by what is happening in the United States.
Many do not understand why the world’s most powerful man acts on childish impulses and tweets ugly messages aimed at critics. Nor can they fathom why the world’s oldest political party has twisted itself into mindless opposition—“resistance,” as it’s styled by the extremists who now call the tune for Democrats.
This picture is not reassuring for a world that counts on American leadership. Our anxiety at home is mirrored in the anxiousness of our foreign friends. Still, we’ve been here before. America has appeared broken in the past yet recovered its vigor, creativity, prosperity and leadership.
While researching for my book on the 1896 election, I was taken aback at the quarter-century dysfunctionality of Gilded Age politics. In the five presidential elections before 1896, every winner received less than 50% of the vote. In two contests, the new president took an Electoral College majority but came in second in the popular vote. In a third race, the president came in first in the Electoral College and popular vote, but only by 9,467 ballots nationwide, a 0.02% margin.
There were two years with a Republican president, House and Senate; two years with a Democratic president, House and Senate; and 20 years of divided government in which little was accomplished because the two parties not only had deeply conflicting ideas about policy but were still fighting the Civil War.
After Republicans narrowly captured the House in 1888, Democrats responded by refusing to answer roll calls, thereby denying a quorum to conduct business. This went on for months until, after another fruitless vote, Speaker Thomas Reed directed the clerk to show as present every Democrat on the floor who refused to answer the roll call. All hell broke loose as Democrats attempted to bolt, but Reed had ordered the doors barricaded. Only one member—a Texan—escaped, pummeling a sergeant-at-arms and kicking out door panels to make good his escape.
When the House later debated Reed’s action, another Texas congressman rose and asked fellow Democrats to “order me to remove this dictator” from the podium by force. The speaker ruled him out of order and moved on. The offended Democrat was so angry that during the rest of the debate he sat in front of the podium, methodically sharpening his Bowie knife on his boot heel for hours in an attempt to menace Reed.
Yet along came a new president, elected in 1896, William McKinley. He broke the gridlock, restored the country’s confidence, and ushered in an America Century. Many of us have seen this in our lifetime as Ronald Reagan restored the nation’s spirit when he reversed the decline of the 1970s.
I’m now doing research for a book on presidential decision-making, and I have come across many other moments when America seemed to be coming apart—not just in those desperate years before 1860 or the tumult of riots in cities and on campuses a century later. We also had nullification, an agrarian revolt and the Great Depression, among other periods of disruption.
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It is amazing how close our country came to shredding itself as Federalists and Democratic-Republicans came to blows—sometimes literally—over foreign policy and defense in the 18th century’s waning years.
Maybe this time is different. Maybe America is really fading like the Roman Empire. Maybe social media is so corrosive that the damage it does cannot be repaired. Maybe democracy is dying. Maybe the U.S. government is crippled by the “deep state” and fake news. And maybe the lack of trust in Washington, Congress and the presidency cannot be reversed.
But don’t bet on it. America specializes in comebacks. Just as we’ve screwed up in the past and then found our footing, the practical common sense of Americans will assert itself, especially if we recommit ourselves to the enduring truths of the Declaration—to “revere” it, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, and harmonize our “practices and policies” with it. So as our national celebration ends, the responsibilities of ordinary citizens are just beginning. Happy birthday, America!