It Will Be Because We Destroyed Ourselves

“A house [nation] divided against itself cannot stand.” Those are some of the most famous words in American history. Even though both Sam Houston* and Abraham Lincoln were talking about slavery, they were basically predicting American politics in 2018.

The current administration didn’t come to power because the US political structure was organised and in sync. It came to power because 2016 showed just how fractured and chaotic US politics had actually become, and it’s only gotten worse. American politics has always been severely polarised, which is the specific result of a two party system, but the trend through most of American history has been toward the middle, with moderates controlling the various branches of the US government. There have been times, however, when one issue was so polarising that ideologues controlled various branches (the 1860s, 1930s, 1960s). The problem with the current political polarisation is that it’s not a ideological issue, it’s straight up divisiveness.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln (then a member of the Illinois State House of Representatives) gave a speech in Springfield arguing that the only threat to the United States was from within. Lincoln’s argument was that leadership roles inside the US government attracted men of ambition, and one day ambitious men wouldn’t be content with being part of a whole, and would want all the power for themselves, and the only thing that would stand between an authoritarian and the end of the US would be a united citizenry. Lincoln was actually talking about slavery, but his point still stands. Political divisiveness will only lead to crisis.

In 1850*, Senator Sam Houston from Texas stood on the floor of the US Senate, arguing in favour of the Compromise of 1850, and declared “a nation divided against itself, cannot stand.” Again, Houston was talking about slavery, but he argued that that slavery had become such a polarising issue that the two halves could never be a whole unless they found compromise. Although the Compromise of 1850 eventually passed, it did little to stem the increasingly polarising of the politics of slavery.

In 1858, eight years after Sam Houston said literally the same thing, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous ‘house divided’ speech. “A house divided against itself. cannot stand.” Lincoln argued that the only way the nation could survive was for it to become all one thing, all slave or all free. Such strong political divisiveness could only end when the entire nation was united. In the end, Houston and Lincoln were right, and the US endured four years of war before it would be re-united.

Both Houston and Lincoln made prophetic statements that, considering they were made almost 170 years ago, shouldn’t have a place in US politics in 2018. Unfortunately, political divisiveness has come to the point that both men would see deja vu.

The 2016 election proved that political divisiveness in the US was so strong that a man with literally no political experience was elected to the highest position in the land. And, much like Lincoln’s election in 1860, the divisiveness has only increased. American politics is now so polarised that in truth, regardless of your political ideologies, all citizens are either for the resistance or for the President, there is no in between. Although physical war will probably not be the result of the 21st century ‘nation divided.’ there are other types of war.

The political institution that is the US government has resisted outside pressure for over 240 years, and survived a civil war. The strength of the political institution, however, isn’t its ability to survive outside pressure, but to survive itself. Sam Houston was right; a nation divided against itself cannot stand. The only threat to the American political institution is American politics. When the American system of government collapses, it won’t be because of outside forces, it will be because America destroyed itself.

*[Sam Houston is a controversial figure in US history for no other reason than the Mexican War and admittance of Texas is a massively controversial subject in US History. If you’re interested in Houston, or the history of how Texas became part of the US, read The Raven by Marquis James. It was originally published in 1929, and you’ll probably only find it through Abe Books, but it’s worth the search.]

*[The Compromise of 1850 was introduced by Henry Clay, a friend of Sam Houston’s, and it was intended to relieve pressure on the growing crisis over slavery in the US. It, amongst other things, removed New Mexico from Texas, admitted California as a free state, strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, and banned the slave trade in Washington, DC. Honestly, Houston’s ‘nation divided’ speech on the floor of the US Senate is far more powerful than Lincoln’s (who literally stole the entire idea from one of Houston’s pamphlets with quotes from his speech), but no one ever references it because it’s Sam Houston, and he’s from Texas, and see above. Texas has always gotten a bad rap.]


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