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

By Brian Gilmore
(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.