Abraham Lincoln famously stated that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln’s remarks would prove prescient given the great civil war to come. But, the sentiment was not Lincoln’s alone. Rather, it was one instance in a long and storied history of preserving and defending American unity.
While most assume that radicals are the driving force of change in politics, bipartisanship and compromise have been some of the most effective means in making a more perfect union. Indeed, the very founding of our nation was forged through compromise. With large states and small states at an impasse in regards to future representation in Congress, Roger Sherman proposed the “Connecticut Compromise” at the Constitutional Convention to establish our current bicameral legislative structure (i.e. a Senate with equal representation and a House of Representatives with proportionate representation). Our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were known for tempering the impulses and exchanges between the warring Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Washington famously appointed the respective party leaders, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, into his cabinet and it was said that “midway between” these two points “stands John Adams.”
Once in the Oval Office, Abraham Lincoln would follow his call for unity with action, assembling his proverbial “team of rivals” within his cabinet. Lincoln appointed three individuals who had run against him in the Republican primary, including Salmon Chase as Secretary of the Treasury from the radical wing of the Republican party and Edward Bates as Attorney General from the conservative wing. American unity would face its toughest test in the tumult of the Civil War but would survive the war and reconstruction.
At the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt, often typified as a Progressive activist, would champion the cause of unity as a measured and calculated reformer. He described his “Square Deal” as aiming to control big corporations without paralyzing the energies of business and allow wageworkers to better themselves while preventing the tyranny of labor unions. Roosevelt endeavored to work “in the spirit in which Abraham Lincoln worked” by refusing to swerve out of the path of cautious and moderate advance. Roosevelt denounced the violent revolutionary as the “worst friend of liberty” and the arrogant reactionary as the “worst friend of order.”
Few will forget that it was a wholly and completely united America that rose to meet the challenges of World War II. In American’s finest hour, lead by our greatest generation, we—as President Franklin Roosevelt stated in his D-Day Prayer—sent our sons, the pride of our nation, upon a mighty endeavor to set free a suffering humanity; not to fight for conquest but to end conquest; to liberate and to return to the haven of home. After the war, in the face of a new enemy, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, along with bipartisan support of Congress and the American people, established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and put a man on the moon just eleven years later, a landmark scientific achievement and strategic victory against the Soviet Union.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society reforms, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as education and healthcare reform, passed with bipartisan support in Congress. In the 1980s, the celebrated friendship between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill led to the passage of Social Security Reform, which preserved the solvency of Social Security, and the Tax Reform Act, the largest overhaul of the tax code in post-war America.
Given this rich history, it is not an exaggeration to say that bipartisanship has been one of the most effective tools in the formation, preservation, defense, and restoration of our United States of America. Yet despite standing the test of time, the “middle way” has become much maligned. In American politics today, compromise has become synonymous with defeat. Our elected leaders have forsaken policy and legislation for politics and instigation. Today’s unprecedented partisanship has resulted in extraordinary gridlock, preventing us from solving the very real problems facing our country: from immigration and healthcare reform to sustained economic growth and homeland security, from climate action and gun control to entitlement reform and chronic budget deficits. There is much work to do but not much getting done.
It is easy to point fingers. However, in the final analysis, the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. As Harry Truman said, if we do not do our duty as citizens, we get what we deserve: bad government. Thus, our Founding Fathers were wise to inscribe the opening of the Constitution with the phrase “We the People.” Let this always be a reminder to us. We the People have the power to form a more perfect Union. We the People have the power to demand change. To demand compromise. We the People have the power to restore of the great tradition of American bipartisanship.
It is because of this rich history of yesterday, the needs of today, and the possibility of tomorrow that we have changed our name to Divided We Fall. The name warns of the consequences of division. But is also a rallying cry to the majority of our fellow citizens who do not accept today’s divisions to rededicate ourselves to the task inscribed on our national seal: “E pluribus unum” or “Our of many, one.” It is a reminder to each and every one of us to ask ourselves if today, with this act or with these words, whether we are participating in the holy work of unity or the deeds of division.
We believe that divided we fall, but united we stand. What do you believe?
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Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.