4 Times The United States Was More Divided Than It Is Right Now

By | November 24, 2020

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(Boston Athenæum/Wikimedia Commons)

If it seems like the United States has always been divided, that's likely no accident. The purposeful separation of Church and State. The freedom of the press. The inalienable right to protest peacefully. If a government wanted unfettered stability, it likely would have been built without allowing these features. World history may very well come to recognize 2020 as a seminal chapter in history, where the United States was mired in a schism without precedent, but it's likely just a sign that the United States is functioning as it's largely supposed to. For proof, here are four of the most divisive moments in U.S. history.

The Caning Of Charles Sumner

Five years prior to the secession of the Southern states and subsequently the U.S. Civil War, then-Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. Why? Sumner gave a passionate, anti-slavery speech vilifying South Carolina and its senator, Andrew Butler: "He cannot surely have forgotten [South Carolina's] shameful imbecility from slavery, confessed throughout the Revolution, followed by its more shameful assumptions for slavery since," Sumner said of Butler. "He cannot have forgotten its wretched persistence in the slave trade as the very apple of its eye and the condition of its participation in the Union."

Brooks took umbrage to the remarks. Waiting until Sumner was alone on the Senate floor, he caned him almost him to death. Sumner was left nearly blind due to the beating, leaving Representative Ansom Burlingame, also of Massachusetts, to come to his aid. Burlingame challenged Brooks to a duel—the shooting kind—and Brooks backed down when he heard Burlingame was a good shot. (Burlingame went on to become one of the most prominent diplomats to broker relations between the U.S. and China.) Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300 but elected to another term months after the caning. The beating—and the public's ambivalent reaction to it—was more than enough proof that a civil war was imminent.

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(White House/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1800 President Election

Every four years, Americans are told the coming election will be the most important election in the history of the country. Arguable as that always is, that distinction will likely almost always go to the presidential election of 1800, when Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson faced off against the incumbent, Federalist John Adams. Following President Washington's final term in office, Jefferson had narrowly lost the election to Adams, but four years later, it was Jefferson who had come out ahead—barely—of President Adams. With the election of 1800, though, the issue wasn't Adams. It was Aaron Burr.

In 1800, the U.S. presidency was chosen through a body of electors. Each of these electors was given two votes, whichever candidate received the most votes became president, and the "runner-up" became vice president. Jefferson—a controversial figure at the time for his alleged atheist beliefs and anti-federalist stance—tied Burr with 73 votes, while John Adams received 65. The choice over who would become president was turned over to the House of Representatives, where both Burr and Jefferson found ways to game the election for themselves.

Meanwhile, state militias from Maryland gathered in the newly minted U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., which was primarily farmland at the time. They were fully prepared to overthrow the government if their choice of president wasn't elected. "Talk was rife about militias arming, a possible civil war, and the breakup of the union. There were even reports that Jefferson would be assassinated," wrote historian James Roger Sharp. "Adding to the anxiety about violence were lingering fears from the Virginia slave conspiracy in the summer of 1800 and the outbreak of two mysterious fires in Washington. The building that housed the War Department burned November 8, while portions of the Treasury Department were damaged by flames on January 20."

After balloting over 35 times and coming up with the same, deadlocked result of 73–73 each go-around, a compromise was made to prevent the country from tearing itself apart. James Bayard, the sole elector whose vote represented the entire state of Delaware, cast a blank ballot, taking a state away from Burr and thus offering Jefferson the majority nine states needed to win the U.S. presidency. While the election of 1800 certainly had its bumps in the road, it ended up being something of a success. For the first time in its new history, the U.S. oversaw a peaceful transition of power between separate political parties.