It is 2021, some 129 years since the start of the American Civil War. And are we any less divided today than we were in 1860? And is one of the major divisions one of race and social position?
My wife and I watched all the episodes of “Lincoln: A Nation Divided” a few weeks ago and were confronted with some quite surprising revelations. Lincoln has always been believed to be the great healer of the divisiveness between the North and the South. He was the freer of the slaves. And he brought the nation back together.
It seems that what we learned of Lincoln in grade school and high school history was once again somewhat of an edited version of the truth.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the nation of slavery. In fact, the only people that the proclamation freed were those slaves being owned by residents of the southern states that had seceded from the Union. It did not free the slaves held in the border states such as Kentucky and Tennessee. All the slaves were not freed until the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted in 1865.
Another belief that we were supposed to accept was that Lincoln was opposed to slavery in total. Truly, he was more concerned — and campaigned on the proposition — that slavery would not be expanded to any new states admitted to the Union. In his defense, however, here was a president, wise beyond measure, who upon being elected, chose to push his agenda on slavery to such a point that his election was the very reason that the southern states broke away from the Union.
No doubt Lincoln was a great leader. His war efforts bested the South. His devotion to a united country ultimately kept us as one. But his assassination, much like that of John F. Kennedy, ended any plans prematurely without his reaching most of his intended goals.
Unlike Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner himself, and much to the surprise of his supporters, LBJ left his personal beliefs behind and carried out the dreams of JFK after his assassination. The follow-up by Lincoln’s Vice president, Andrew Johnson, only led to more turmoil following the surrender of the South, including his own impeachment. The South may have lost its rights to slave ownership, but equality of citizenship never followed. Jim Crow laws permeated the South until the 1950s with Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education where it was ruled that calling education “separate but equal” was anything but. It took armed soldiers to allow James Meredith to be permitted to attend the University of Mississippi in 1960 behind the direct efforts of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln believing that he would be heralded as a savior of the nation against the tyrant. Quite the opposite happened, and he was vilified by almost all. His assassination of Lincoln probably did more damage to the reconstruction of the South than any other single act.
As I watched this informative glimpse of the past, I could only think of our present struggles. We have a terribly divided country today, not North v South, but divided among ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and friends. Never before in my life have I seen such hatred of the other side of politics. The Trumpers along with White Supremists are alive and well. The liberal side is ready to tax the rich and help the poor, forgive student debt, pass out relief checks even to employed families earning over $100,000 a year. Border issues outweigh international struggles, military decisions, and a national pandemic. There is almost nothing the two sides agree on. The press is derided by online blogs with little information and few facts, be it about election results, the drinking of babies’ blood, vaccines merely being a way to put microchips in our bodies, or the rest of the conspiracy theories.
Where are we now? Are we ready to have two separate countries as was tried in 1860? If so, who gets New York or California, Florida or Minnesota, Alaska or Hawaii? Do we give Texas back to Mexico? Do we divide at the Mississippi with ultra conservatives on one side and the remainder on the other?
Do we have the minorities on one side and the whites on the other? I listen to people who may well believe that this is what they really want.
Lincoln had specific plans on freeing the slaves. He realized that the South would have lost its biggest asset in free labor, but there really wasn’t a follow-through of his thoughts and ideas by Andrew Johnson. The slaves became the impoverished rather than being owned. Even today, the Proud Boys and the Supremacists want to preserve the caste system over the minorities. Is it for fear? Is it that without this racial edge, they just might not win the competition for the better jobs, the nicer homes, and the better schools for their kids? Is it that they are scared of losing their power?
I have no cure other than hope that somehow citizens will realize how our nation has, and continues, to treat the minority citizens of our country as totally second class. Be it the police use of force when the target is black, unfair housing, employment, and education, or passing laws that clearly are meant to eliminate much of the minority vote, we have to achieve equality. We have to accept the belief that E Pluribus Unum is what our founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln saw as the way to have a United States of America.
Somewhere we have lost our identity, our pride, and our devotion to our most unique country. We train few engineers so our manufacturing is diverted to those countries that train engineers: India, China and South East Asia. We have fewer and fewer American doctors. We spend so much time on individuality and so little on community that our moral infrastructure disappears. Good men and women will not even consider running for elective office, and we gather rich egotists in our governmental bodies. We continue with racial inequality. E Pluribus Unum. From many — one. Our uniqueness, our multicultural background, and our multiple languages should blend into solidarity of purpose, not splinter groups. We need a healer at the top. We can only hope that our president and future presidents will be those healers.