When I was a youngster during the Centennial, much of Kantor’s vision eluded me, but given the sense of nationalism that pervaded in the Centennial era, I recall being somewhat conflicted about his conclusion about a peaceful postwar disunion. I just couldn’t imagine the North and the South being two separate nations. As one nation, we had saved the world—twice. We were united by a new highway system that made nationwide travel accessible and appealing. Television was making us all laugh and cry and applaud the same things from Maine to southern California. We were about to conquer space. America ruled the universe and everyone knew it.
Fifty years later I find myself utterly amazed that the cohesiveness and national pride of that era is gone. A half century of assaults, both within and without, by those seeking a bigger slice of the pie for themselves or someone they believed deserved it has brought us to our knees.
Unlike the schism of 1860, today’s isn’t a geographic separation but wholly ideological ones. America today seems as divided as it was in 1860—or worse. At least in 1860, Americans were united by a common sense of national pride, an adherence to traditional values, and a common moral compass. We were separated primarily by politics and the economies of different geographic areas. Today, it seems we have less in common than we did 150 years ago. Sure, we’re still separated by politics and economics, but were are also splintered into scores of factions of self-descriptions and self-interest: poor, rich, young, old, gay, straight, pretty, ugly, smart, stupid, fat, anorexic, believers in God, athiests, and those who simply hate everyone.
I guess it’s understandable in this time of apparent political and cultural division to imagine a time in the recent and/or distant past that was defined by a consensus of shared values. Unfortunately, that time never existed. Are we really any more divided today than in the 1790s or 1850s?
What I find truly bizarre, however, is the assertion that we may be more divided as a nation today than in the 1860. The divide in 1860 led to a bloody civil war that left much of this country devastated. This writer seems completely oblivious to the fact that the political and economic differences rested on a regional divide between slaveholding and non-slaveholding.
Do we “have less in common than we did 150 years ago”? How’s this for starters. Americans today no longer believe that other people ought to be treated as property. That’s something we now have in common that Americans in 1860 did not.