We're in danger of losing our country
The Kansas City Star
In the aftermath of the election and the struggle of Congress to solve the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and now the sequester, we think that our legislators are more polarized than ever before.
However, there was another time in our history when parties were so polarized that they were willing to kill each other. That time was before and during the Civil War when Democrats were largely for slavery and Republicans were largely opposed to slavery.
One of the most vicious incidents was the result of a disagreement over the border war being waged in Kansas.
On May 19, 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, presented an address titled “Crime Against Kansas.” In the speech, he outlined all of the administration’s illegal actions in Kansas, the illegal voting of Missourians, and the premeditated violence perpetrated against free-staters in Kansas.
Sen. Sumner called southern sympathizers “…hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization — in the form of men.” Although Congress roared in protest, Sumner continued by addressing Sen. Andrew Pickens Butler, a states’ rights Democrat from South Carolina who had advocated the forced disarmament of free-state men: “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage.
“Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot slavery.”
Sen. Douglas replied that Sumner’s language might “provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog.” Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, a relative of Butler’s, attacked Sumner in the chamber two days later and struck him repeatedly with his gutta-percha cane until it broke, and Sumner fell bleeding and unconscious to the floor.
Brooks resigned from the Congress but was immediately re-elected by approving southerners who sanctioned his behavior and in a sign of approval, sent him dozens of gold-headed canes.
The violence in Congress was realized on a national level upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, as president of the United States. It was the final straw, and started the Civil War in which more than 620,000 men died.
A very high price to pay for polarization, or was it? The fact is that the war freed more than 3 million slaves and changed the divided Union into a strong nation that ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and would rise to become a leader in the world.
One could conclude that polarization is not always bad if a nation is polarized over a clear cut moral issue. Of course the difficulty, just as in the Civil War, is that we allow societal pressures to cloud our thinking.
The culture of the 1840s and ’50s said that slavery was OK. It had been around since the settling of the nation, and even though many states had rid themselves of it, the southern states’ culture was based upon slavery. It took the clear voice of President Abraham Lincoln to cut through the haze.
Today we are so used to a government that is in debt that we hardly notice. We live in a culture where credit cards are maxed out, bankruptcy is common and foreclosures seem routine.
We have lost our ability to see the dangers of a government that has a $16 trillion national debt that’s rising quickly. To the dim voices of persons who are trying to speak the truth, speak louder, because we are in danger of losing our nation and we need leadership even if it is seen as polarizing.
Carol Dark Ayres is a retired educator. She taught music and was an academic librarian, grant writer and director of the Leavenworth Schools Education Foundation. She is the author of “Lincoln and Kansas” (2001). She lives in Leavenworth. To reach her, send email to email@example.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.