WINCHESTER, Va. – Strolling along the well-preserved downtown promenade of this Shenandoah Valley city, a visitor (or even an ill-informed local) might be surprised to learn that it was at the bloody center of America’s Civil War a century ago.
Both armies so valued Winchester as a military firewall and as an agriculture breadbasket that it changed hands more than 70 times. On just one day, battles and skirmishes saw it switch 13 times between Union and Confederate control.
From the beginning, our country’s history has been one of divisional strife, particularly in our politics. The only thing that seems to change is what the argument is about.
Washington’s media class spends much of its energy inciting political divisions or writing about them, dedicating great gobs of print, airtime and social media to chopping up Americans by race, political party, culture or religion.
For the media, it sells. But for Americans beyond Washington’s Beltway, it leaves them fatigued and wondering if this is the worst time ever.
If any ghosts of the soldiers who fought on Winchester’s Loudon Street could talk, they would tell you this certainly isn’t the worst of times.
Ask historians which political era was our most bitterly divisive, and you might be surprised by how many would pick the election of 1800, according to Curt Nichols, an American history professor at Baylor University in Texas.
That election pitted Federalists against Jeffersonians, North against South, metropolitan and financial interests against agrarians, supporters of Britain against those of France, advocates of a more powerful Federal government against states-righters – making today’s squabbles seem pedestrian.
"In the end, Vice President Thomas Jefferson narrowly beat the sitting president, John Adams, in the electoral college, 73 votes to 65, with Pennsylvania splitting its electoral vote 8-7 in favor of Jefferson," said Nichols.
For some, the bitterness of that loss lasted the rest of their lives. Shortly after it, Federalist Alexander Hamilton famously challenged Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president, to a duel; Hamilton was shot and killed.
Yet our Founders designed our system of government to be fragmented and decentralized, explains Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer. By "giving three branches of government – including a bicameral legislature – separate powers with checks and balances, and further dividing power between the national government and the state governments," that system is designed to "basically ensure constant conflict," he said.
Today’s politics reflect that. The teams have changed, they have new captains and different priorities to pursue, yet the game remains the same.
If you want to win elections and govern, you must build a bigger coalition than the other guy. In a big, diverse, country like America, that means cobbling together support from many different groups, groups that often don’t agree.
Political unity comes from reminding your squabbling side how bad it will be if the other team wins and then rewarding them for being loyal team-players, rather than simply pursuing the interests of whatever small group they represent.
Much of the rest of politics involves dividing and conquering your opponent.
It isn’t pretty – but the only option is to force everyone to have the same opinions and desires and to agree that there isn’t anything to fight about.
Brauer believes that vigorous debate on important issues results in better public policy and avoids drastic changes. "The absence of such debate could result in devastating, long-term policy mistakes," he said.
Today, Winchester’s shady brick streets – where only one block once separated the headquarters of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and Union general Philip Sheridan – are lined with delightful shops catering to everyone from college students to long-time blue-bloods. Café-style restaurants and centuries-old architecture greet a stream of young, old, affluent, immigrants and working classes.
Town resident and Union sympathizer Julia Chase wrote in her diary in July 1861 that "it is thought by many that Winchester will be laid in ashes … I hope our fears are not realized."
Winchester never did burn, and the country went on to heal from its horrific Civil War.
If America never faced any strife, our system would be subject to all the perils of a dictatorship – which is exactly what the Founding Fathers fervently sought to prevent.