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Almost united we stand

Scott Finley

The month of February is rich in commemorative days: Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, Darwin Day, and today President’s Day, the big one, when we celebrate the 47 men (and no women yet) who have taken on the impossible job of being President of the United States. One word in that grand title is beginning to sound a little off key, the word “United.”

In the late 1700s, when the United States was just coming into being, one of the biggest questions confronting the Founding Fathers was: could this vast land mass actually become one nation under one president? This apparently unanswerable question has echoed down the centuries, through the Civil War and all the way to our present culture wars, which might easily become civil wars all over again.

Marx observed that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. We may have arrived at the second repetition of the turbulent 1770s, but it doesn’t look very funny.

History is the key here, as always. For more than a hundred years before 1776, colonists had been pouring in: English Puritans, Royalists, Quakers, and subsistence farmers from Ireland and Scotland settled in different parts of the continent and brought their own cultures. Close behind came millions of Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Dutch, and many more.

This uniquely diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual population was further complicated by Native Americans who were here before anyone else, and by slavery. This unique history seems to explain so much, including why the president’s job is so impossible, and why the south, the west, the Midwest, and the Northeast seem like separate worlds. They have roots in different worlds entirely. *

It’s not too fanciful to suggest, as many historians have, that our current culture wars are a shadowy reflection of those original cultures and settlement patterns coming to the surface again. The past is never quite past, and the varied populations who eventually made up the union never gave quite being up being who they were.

Without the revolution and the Civil War the colonies might have evolved into several independent nations, each with its own government, its own laws (if any) and its own culture. Instead they were corralled by Federalist visionaries into the “United” States, and it is obvious right now that some of them, without quite daring to say so, would prefer not to be united at all, but to go their own way with their own Constitutions (without giving up federal benefits of course).

Some serious articles in the mainstream press recently have argued that division is America’s natural state, and that a breakup is inevitable. Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea. Think of it as an amicable divorce on grounds of incompatibility and think of the ideal result as a federation loosely united by language, trade, sentiment, and history, rather like the early American Commonwealth.

It might work because these new nations would still be bigger and richer than most existing nations in the world. Once everything had settled down everybody would living where they wanted to be, surrounded by people exactly like themselves, rather like a cruise ship that never touches at an alien port where wicked foreigners and bad ideas might come aboard. Washington D.C. of course would become a separate nation of its own, entirely inhabited by squabbling politicians and lawyers. The president would be welcome to preside over that one.

*Note: David Hackett Fischer’s book Albion’s Seed (1989) gives a dense and detailed picture of immigration from the British Isles in the 1600s, and the long lasting influence of the folk cultures that the immigrants brought with them.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.