“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
—“The Life of Reason,” George Santayana
IT’S Independence Day, but many Americans are not in the mood to celebrate. Fueled by a toxic partisanship magnified by social media, patriotism is being replaced by anger and vitriol.
As the political rift between supporters of President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama, and between conservatives in red states and liberals in blue states grows wider, some are even claiming that Americans are more divided now than ever before.
Those versed in American history do not fall prey to such thinking. They know better.
It seems that Americans are screaming more than they are talking to one another. But the United States is still united under one flag. That was not the case during the Civil War, when Americans took up arms against their fellow countrymen.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought here between Dec. 11-15, 1862, Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside violently clashed with Confederate troops led by Gen. Robert E. Lee. When the bloodletting was over, there were 12,700 Union casualties, and 5,300 for the Confederates. And although Lee won the battle, he would go on to lose the war.
Although the Civil War was by far the most traumatic example of Americans being at each other’s throats, history is replete with them.
In fact, ever since the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783, when 400 soldiers in the Continental Army stormed the Pennsylvania State House demanding payment for their service during the Revolutionary War, there have been only a few decades in American history without episodes of rioting, civil unrest or other violent uprisings.
Conflict among humans with different philosophies and outlooks on life is inevitable. Keeping that conflict within socially acceptable bounds of civility and the law has always been a problem in this country. That doesn’t mean that the effort should be abandoned. Quite the contrary. During times of civil strife, such efforts should be intensified.
The Founding Fathers, who understood the human condition better than they are often given credit for, were well aware of the dangers of toxic partisanship.
After leading his ragtag troops to victory over the British and serving as the new nation’s first president, George Washington warned in his 1796 Farewell Address about what he called the “spirit of party”—which today is called partisanship.
“It unfortunately is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” Washington added.
Our first president was well aware that left unchecked, the “spirit of party” could become a dangerous force within the body politic, and urged citizens of the new republic to be just as vigilant against out-of-control partisanship as they were against abuses of power by the government.
“There being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume,” Washington said.
Excellent advice during this latest summer of our discontent from the man who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Washington added that in his retirement, he looked forward to “the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government.”
That’s a goal that every American can and should unite behind on this Fourth of July.