The United States was created in the late 18th century as a government of, by, and for the people. Furthermore, the government stated that all those participants were created equal. The participatory nature of the government, and the promise of equality, was very quickly put to the test in the 19th century.
While the majority of inevitable differences were accommodated by the checks and balances at all levels of the new government, in two instances, profound irreconcilable differences resulted in deadly war. Factions within the European, Protestant, White establishment were split over whether to allow the enslavement of Black men, women and children to continue or expand. That same establishment was largely agreed, but not entirely, that Indigenous Peoples needed to be forcibly removed from their native lands.
Abraham Lincoln frequently spoke about the inevitable persistence of disagreement. He liked to tell the story of the shepherd who stopped a wolf from attacking a lamb. The same act, the act of the shepherd, is seen by the lamb as protecting his liberty, and is seen by the wolf as denying his liberty. But Lincoln also said that disagreements could be so big, and so profound, that they could not be resolved or tolerated.
In his 1858 campaign for the US Senate, Lincoln famously said that a country that was half slave and half free reflected a divided house that would not stand. He used the biblical reference to say that the country would become all slave or all free, but could not remain split on such a profound matter. While this does not sound radical today, at the time it had strong overtones of troublemaking, if not subversion. The pro-slavery argument was couched in casual terms of “live and let live.” If a State Like New York did not want slavery, it could choose not to have it. If Alabama chose to have it, let Alabama have it. After all, the great founders of the US accommodated slavery in the constitution, any other view is unpatriotic, troublemaking, and counter to US interests.
Two suggest that there were two camps, two points of view does a great disservice. Some, like Paulding of Hyde Park, wrote that enslavement was the appropriate condition of the African. His arguments which gained national attention when published in 1836, were based entirely on a theory of White supremacy, concluding that enslavement was the appropriate condition. Many, perhaps a majority, were fighting to prevent slavery from expanding into new territories, but they were not necessarily arguing for its complete abolition. Some argued for the complete, but gradual abolition of slavery. Some argued for the immediate complete abolition of slavery.
It was not until the complete adoption of the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments in 1870 (that emerged as a consequence of the Civil War) that equality, through equal protection under the law regardless of race, was built clearly into the US Constitution. But it was not until the Indian Citizen Act of 1924 that all Indigenous Peoples became citizens. Their right to vote was determined at a state level, with all 50 states not coming into line until 1957.
Beyond slavery and the treatment of Indigenous Peoples, the second tier of disagreements were wide ranging.
Faith. Not surprisingly, differences of faith were seen as major differences.
Intoxicating liquors. The voices involved in the availability of intoxicating liquors was strong and varied. Some argued for total prohibition. Some argued for temperance, allowing for slightly alcoholic beer or cider, but not “spirits.” Others saw no reason for limitations. Ultimately, a more extreme prohibition prevailed with the 1919 adoption of the 18th US Constitutional amendment, but was completely repealed with the 1933 adoption of the 21st amendment.
Perceived economic disparities prompted the organization of those who saw their work as the “producing class.” They were blacksmiths, shoemakers, house painters. They challenged those they saw as the unproductive class, specifically lawyers, doctors, “monopolists” and speculators. This resulted in the farmers and mechanics movement.
Race, ethnicity. Irish vs. Black.
Old European rivalries were stimulated here by competition for jobs. Connaught Fardowners. Protestant Cathoic.
In the period leading up to, and through the Civil War, millions of Black men, women and children became citizens, millions of Irish Catholics arrive to work on railroad construction, and millions of Indigenous Peoples be displaced from their lands. The White, European, Protestant, self-described “native born” had profound differences themselves, separated by attitudes toward slavery, or views on the prohibition of intoxicating spirits, or perceived economic value and social status.
Old fault lines suffered in Europe played out here. The Presbyterians with ties to Scotland the Church of Scotland had tensions with the British and the Church of England. Irish Catholics themselves found the competition for even low-paying jobs so intense it continued old rivalries practiced in Ireland.
When can differences be tolerated and facilited? When are differences so profound they can not be tolerated?
A short walk among a range of historic homes brings this matter into sharp relief when the emerging United States was being put to the test.