The conceit of our times
It’s not true that the nation has never before been so divided
If we were to believe the mainstream pundits, that the slander and calumny that passes for debate about politics and the slovenly popular culture is something new, we might think that nothing like this ever happened before. But the plain facts are that from its very origins the republic has than been rocked by political argument, some of it dangerously violent. The controversy over slavery, which among several other issues led to the Civil War, is the most significant example of a more troubled time. Nobody has yet fired on a military installation in California, though that may come if the hot heads there succeed in their secession scheme.
George Washington, the president that, but for a few Episcopalians in Virginia, everybody admires, famously refused to permit the House of Representatives to examine a treaty he proposed regulating commerce with Great Britain. He argued that only the Senate was assigned that role by the Constitution.
As early as 1807 President Thomas Jefferson warned Congress that Aaron Burr, who had killed Jefferson’s rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, was plotting from New Orleans to create a new country west of the Appalachian Mountains. Burr was put on trial for treason. Jefferson, invoking the new concept of “executive privilege,” refused to submit evidence supporting Burr. Burr emerged from the trial with his reputation further besmirched and with no further hope for the presidency he had long coveted.
Similarly, the cliche that the feud between President Trump and the media is something new in American politics is but a reprise of old stuff. Abraham Lincoln, though conducting a bitter war that would go to the brutal finish, permitted newspapers openly sympathetic to the South to publish opposition news and commentary, though derided as the work of snakes. The “Copperhead press,” as these newspapers were called, produced fiercer and more imaginative vitriol than anything on the Internet today. In riposte, a Massachusetts mob of Union soldiers tarred and feathered Ambrose Kimball, editor of the Essex County Democrat, for his pro-Confederate editorials.
Lincoln stopped short of withdrawing the press freedoms otherwise secured by the First Amendment. Zechariah Chafee Jr., a free speech scholar, observes that “undoubtedly [Lincoln] permitted a very large number of arbitrary arrests … ‘Must I shoot a simple soldier boy who deserts,’” Lincoln asked of his critics, “’while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?’ He was proceeding against men who were so far within the test of direct and dangerous interference with the war that they were actually causing desertions, and even then he acted to prevent and not to punish.”
A onetime congressman from Ohio, Clement L. Vallandigham, a Copperhead and defender of states’ rights who opposed slavery, argued that the national government could not constitutionally compel the states to abolish the “peculiar institution.” The war, he said, was waged by “King Lincoln … for the purpose of crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism.” He wanted to remove Lincoln from office. When his supporters burned the offices of a Republican newspaper, the Dayton Journal, Vallandigham was arrested and charged with speaking “disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress unlawful rebellion.” He was sentenced by a military tribunal to “close confinement” until the end of the war. Lincoln instead exiled him to the Confederacy.
Donald Trump might secretly like to banish Robert Mueller or the editor of The New York Times to Pyongyang or Havana, but he wouldn’t dare. The nation is not divided enough for that. Yet.