By Jacob Ross ’15
Amid the increased use of political campaign attack ads, congressional gridlock, and far-right calls to impeach the president, it seems that divisive conflict is the only adjective that can describe the United States in 2015. A recent nationwide poll conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research reveals that a majority of Americans tend to agree with this assessment of the political climate; 61% feel that we are a more divided nation than ever before, and things are only getting worse. But have we reached rock bottom? Is it true that the U.S. faces unprecedented division, never before known to Uncle Sam? Civil War historians would agree that the answer is a firm ‘no.’
April 9, 2015 will mark the 150th Anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant at the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. This event is hailed as the de facto end to a four-year Civil War that claimed more than 700,000 American lives (more than all other American war casualties combined), freed 4 million people from bondage, and left half of the country with little more than military provost guards as the only form of local government. But the 3.2 million men who were mobilized against each other were not the only ones to adopt violence as a solution to political division over slavery. Disagreements in Congress took on a dangerous flavor in 1854 when Representative William Churchwell (TN) attempted to pull a gun on Representative William Cullom (TN) in the U.S. House. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) was struck more than thirty times on the Senate floor with a metal-headed cane by Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) after he gave a heated anti-slavery speech. During Sumner’s four year recovery, Brooks was immediately reelected and was sent canes from across the South with messages telling him to “hit him again!” All order seemed to disappear in 1858 when thirty Representatives began to brawl on the House floor over a debate about whether or not slavery would be legal when Kansas became a state. And of course, there were a handful of duels. Senator David Broderick (CA) became the only U.S. Senator killed in a duel when he was challenged by California Chief Justice David Terry in 1859. And disaster was averted when D.C. Police arrested Representatives Galusha Grow (PA) and Lawrence Branch (NC) moments before their duel, which was fueled by a heated floor debate.
It may be easy for Americans to forget about the past when we are confronted with the problems of the present, but they must remember how mellow our political atmosphere has become over the past 150 years. Although congressmen routinely disagree on policy issues, entire delegations from eleven states are not walking out of the Capitol to establish their own government because they cannot get their way. Even though Americans may not see eye to eye, they settle their differences with ballots, not bullets. And even through race equality still has a long path to perfection, Americans now regard the black 13% of the American population as full citizens, instead of property.
Civil War Trust. “Civil War Facts.” 2014.
United States Census Bureau. “USA QuickFacts.” 3 December 2014.
United States House of Representatives Office of the Historian. “The Most Infamous Floor Brawl in the History of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
United States House of Representatives Office of the Historian. “The Near Duel Between Representatives Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania and Lawrence Branch of North Carolina.”
United States House of Representatives Office of the Historian. “A Near Gun Fight on the House Floor.”
United States Senate Historical Office. “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner.”
United States Senate Historical Office. “Senator Killed in Duel.” Senate History: 1851-1877.
Zito, Salena. “Trib Poll Finds United States Going in the Wrong Direction.” Pittsburgh Tribune. TribLIVE. 9 February 2015.