America Is Often a Nation Divided

August 25, 2023

America is deeply divided. Our politics is broken, marked by anger, contempt and distrust. We must acknowledge that reality but not lose historical perspective. It’s bad now, but it’s been worse before—and not only during the Civil War. 

Let’s look backward and start with the mid-1960s to early ’70s. The nation was bitterly divided over civil rights, the “sexual revolution” and an increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia. 

The just and peaceful civil-rights protests of the 1950s and early ’60s were often met with state-sanctioned violence. Then Harlem exploded in 1964, followed by a riot in Philadelphia. Watts went up in flames in 1965; Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco the next year. A total of 163 cities—including Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark, N.J., New York and Portland, Ore.—suffered widespread violence in the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Riots broke out in more than 130 American cities, with 47 killed in the ensuing violence. Two months later Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. 

That same year the nation’s most prominent segregationist, George Wallace, running for president as an independent, won five states in the Deep South. In 1972 he came in third for the Democratic nomination, 1.8 points behind the winner in total primary vote.

Beginning in 1965, the country was rocked by demonstrations over the Vietnam War, many of them student-led. In some instances, governors sent in the National Guard to restore order. After guardsmen killed four students in 1970 at Ohio’s Kent State, protests broke out on 350 campuses, involving an estimated two million people. Thirty-five thousand antiwar protesters assaulted the Pentagon in October 1967. An estimated 10,000 tried shutting down the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Four years later, thousands tried the same at the GOP convention in Miami Beach. The U.S. experienced more than 2,500 domestic bombings in 18 months in 1971-72.

Two presidents were driven from office during this period. Lyndon B. Johnsonopted against seeking re-election in 1968 because of the war. Richard Nixon, facing impeachment over Watergate, resigned in 1974.

In the early 1930s, 1 in 4 Americans was unemployed. Populism emerged on both ends of the spectrum. On the left, Huey Long, proclaimed “every man a king,” threatened confiscation of wealth, and preached class hatred until he was assassinated in 1935. On the right, Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest,” blamed the Depression on bankers and Jews in nationwide broadcasts from Detroit. Journalist Eric Sevareid recalled that in 1933 “every day the headlines spoke of riots, of millions thrown out of work, of mass migrations by the desperate.” Historian Wendy L. Wall describes the late 1930s as “marked by sit-down strikes, violent repression of workers, and attacks by vigilante groups on Jews, Catholics, racial minorities, and leftists.” 

The Gilded Age is often overlooked as a time of division, but Republicans and Democrats hated each other. They were still fighting the Civil War by political means. President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 re-election was followed by five consecutive presidential contests in which no winner received a popular-vote majority. Less than 1 percentage point separated the two candidates in three elections. In two of the five races, the winning candidate failed to earn a plurality of popular vote because the black Republican vote was suppressed by violence hard for modern minds to grasp. 

The most notorious of these Gilded Age elections was 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden led Republican Rutherford Hayes by 252,666 votes nationwide, but disputes about the Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina results were settled on March 2, 1877, by a special commission that awarded their electoral votes to Hayes. He was inaugurated two days later and, in return for a meaningless pledge by the South to protect black rights, he withdrew the remaining federal troops from the region. The Electoral College count was 185-184. 

From 1873 until 1897, Republicans held the White House and the Senate and House for four years; Democrats for two years. That left 18 years of divided government. When Democrats flipped 92 seats to win the House in 1874 for the first time in 18 years, it was part of what historian Michael Perman calls “The Return of the Bourbons” as 56 former Confederates, including the former vice president of the Confederacy, were elected to Congress from Southern and border states.

In the Gilded Age, it was routine for the House majority of either party to phony up a challenge to a member of the opposition who’d won by a few votes and toss him out, no matter how flimsy the evidence. This happened 62 times between 1874 and 1904. After winning re-election in 1882 by eight votes, Rep. William McKinley of Ohio was expelled by the Democratic majority.

This constant abuse of the House minority by the majority helped lead each party to take extreme measures. In 1888 Republicans won the White House with Benjamin Harrison and held the Senate by one seat and the House by four, 164-160 with one vacancy. If more than four Republican representatives were absent during a floor vote, House Democrats would demand a roll call and refuse to answer when their names were called. The measure would fail for lack of a quorum. The Democrats’ “disappearing quorum” kept the House from acting for months.

Finally, on Jan. 29, 1890, Speaker Thomas Reed had enough. He brought up an election challenge to a West Virginia Democrat who’d been certified the victor. The Republican had led by three votes until the Democratic governor “interpreted” one precinct’s report of two Democratic votes as 12, making the Democrat the winner by seven.

After Republicans narrowly prevailed on the motion to take up the issue, Democrats demanded a roll call and then remained silent, not answering to their names. There were enough Republicans missing that the House lacked a quorum. Reed then declared: “The chair directs the clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote” and called out enough Democrats on the floor to establish a quorum. Democrats tried fleeing the chamber, but the doors were blocked.

An angry Democrat rose to complain, screaming, “I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me present” to which Reed calmly replied: “The chair is making a statement of the fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?”

The floor debate over Reed’s action raged on for two more days. The second day, Texas Rep. William “Howdy” Martin called on fellow Democrats to order him to remove Reed by force. The speaker ignored him. Martin, who’d fought in the Civil War with the Hood’s Brigade, then stood near the podium, heckling the speaker as Rep. William Bynum (D., Ind.) assailed Reed from the floor. The speaker kept ignoring Martin, causing him to retreat, muttering that Reed had “no fight in him.” The next day, Martin sat in front of the rostrum, pulled out his Bowie knife, and sharpened it on his boot sole to menace Reed. The speaker continued ignoring him, the controversy ebbed, and when Democrats took control of the House after that fall’s election, they reluctantly adopted Reed’s rule against the “disappearing quorum” rather than preside over a deadlocked House.

There were bitter divisions and acrimony in the 1850s. Remember the caning of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks in 1856? It was condemned in the North and cheered in the South. Historian Joanne Freeman writes in “Field of Blood” that this violent period in the Capitol began in the 1830s and lasted for decades. Senators and representatives routinely carried pistols, knives, clubs, brass knuckles and other weapons onto the floor. Political tensions ran high; insults and confrontations were routine and violence frequent. There was even death. In 1838, Whig Rep. William Graves of Kentucky shot and killed Democratic Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine in a duel over charges of corruption.

Ms. Freeman argues that “extreme polarization and the breakdown of debate” in Congress meant that the “structures of government and the bonds of Union were eroding in real time,” leading to “the collapse of our national civic structure to the point of crisis. The nation didn’t slip into disunion; it fought its way into it.” It sounds a bit like today, but are our present disagreements as large as those over the antebellum era’s central question—what shall be done about the enslavement of nearly four million human beings?

These decades of animus followed America’s first claim of a stolen presidential election. Andrew Jackson led in 1824’s four-way race with 41% of the popular vote and carried 11 states, but with 99 electoral votes came up 33 short of a majority. The contest went to the House, with each state’s delegation having one vote. On Feb. 9, 1825, the House seated John Quincy Adams—the runner-up with 84 electoral votes—with 13 states to seven for Jackson and four for Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Jackson and his supporters raged at Adams and Speaker Henry Clay, who led his followers into the Adams camp and was later made secretary of state. The “rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office,” Jackson wrote. He spent the next four years condemning the “corrupt bargain” that “operated to deprive the people of their right of free election” and defeated Adams in 1828.

The 1800 election, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, was among the most acrimonious in the nation’s history. Historian James Roger Sharp writes that “vicious personal attacks, portents of doom and disaster if one or another of the opponents were to be elected, and scurrilous rumors of betrayal and intrigue pervaded every aspect of the contest.” Each side believed the other’s election “would threaten the very existence of the republic.” This wasn’t fanciful partisan rhetoric: There was “real potential for violence and the possible disintegration of the union.”

The Electoral College vote was a 73-73 tie—not between Jefferson and incumbent Adams but between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. Before the 12th Amendment, each elector cast two votes and the runner-up became vice president. At least one elector was supposed to throw away his second vote so that Jefferson would finish ahead of Burr. None did.

The race went to the House, with nine states required for victory. Burr appeared on the verge of being elected president with backing of the Federalists, who dominated the lame-duck Congress. The House met Feb. 11 in a blinding snowstorm and failed repeatedly to reach a majority, despite voting 27 times before noon the next day. The House was deadlocked for five days. The stalemate was finally broken by the intervention of Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton. He’d earlier written Federalist Rep. James Bayard of Delaware that while he hated both men, at least Jefferson was concerned about “his own reputation” while Burr was a “man of extreme & irregular ambition.” If Federalists made Burr president, Hamilton wrote, they “must share in the blame and disgrace” of his failures that would surely follow.

Read More at the WSJ

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