The roots of American disunity


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In contentious times like ours, some Americans seek solace in the works of the Founding Fathers, hoping that if we returned to their ideals, if we understood and followed their intent, we could find our misplaced sense of common purpose, restore our civic strength, and return the Union to unity.

This effort is frustrated by the simple fact that the men who came together to confront a common enemy in 1775 and to craft an enduring alliance in 1789 were not our country’s founders, but rather the founders’ great- or great-great, or great-great-great-great grandchildren.

The real founders -- early 17th century Puritans and Dutch West India Company officials, mid-17th century English aristocrats, late 17th century West Indian slave lords and English Quakers, early 18th century frontiersmen from Ulster and the lowlands of Scotland and so on – didn’t create an America, they created several Americas.

Some of these American societies championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity.

When their descendants gathered at the First Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention, they didn’t come with a common intent, but rather several intents, one for each of their countries, as they themselves referred to the bits of geography they represented. The federated entity they created – the United States – has to this day been riven by internal contradictions and disagreements over the meaning of American identity and experience, of words like freedom and liberty, and of the implications of the founding documents themselves.

We’ve never been a nation-state like Japan, Spain, or Sweden. We’re an awkward alliance of disparate nations, some of which have less in common with one another than any two states of the European Union.

Recognizing the presence and fundamental characteristics of these rival regional cultures – these stateless nations – makes our history a lot easier to understand. It illustrates why New Englanders and Virginians fought on opposite sides of the English Civil War or why certain sections of the colonies remained Loyalist in the Revolution -- or tried to remain neutral – and often had different interpretations of what the struggle was actually about.

It offers a much clearer explanation for the geographical alignments on the eve of the attack on Fort Sumter, when only one part of the future Confederacy had seceded and only one slice of the Union was willing to take up arms to stop them, and everyone expected the federation to break into three or four parts. The fault lines appear on the county-level maps of most closely contested presidential elections in our history, and in recent Congressional debates over health care reform, financial industry regulation, and the debt ceiling.

Our Balkanized federation has survived and, yes, thrived not because of shared fealty to a single American creed or a set of common principles held by our peoples as they confronted the challenges of 1776, but because or leaders have brokered – and sometimes enforced -- compromises between our disparate creeds and principles. If we’re to succeed going forward, our representatives in the federal capital will need to re-learn this dying art.

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Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston

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