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Commentary: The more things change

By John Diers Jan 2, 2019

There’s an old curse that says, “May you live in interesting times,” and we do.

Consider government shutdowns, political rancor, protests and corruption. Some say America has lost its way and is divided because it has strayed from its core principles. Like most kids in grade school, I was taught that there was once a Golden Age and that our Constitution was inspired and crafted by statesmen and brought down on tablets by legions of angels. It’s an idyllic view that’s still held by some, but not so by my grandfather.

He was a reader of history and a skeptic of all things political and politicians, an advocate for what’s termed “realpolitik.” He thought of politics and political institutions much as he thought of organized religion, and he relished this quote fro m Edward Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”:

“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

Much of that has rubbed off on me, and I was reminded of Grandfather as I read Colin Woodard’s “American Nations.” Woodard is a writer-historian and journalist. He’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, and The Washington Post. My wife, Marcia, found the book and recommended it. I wasn’t disappointed, and I would recommend it to others interested in a different, if controversial, perspective on American political and economic history that explains why our politics are what they are today.

America was united reluctantly in Woodard’s telling, almost in spite of itself, and while we are one country in form, we are actually 11 separate nations that reflect our colonial settlement patterns. Recall the American colonies were populated by people from distinct regions of the British Isles, France, the Netherlands and Spain, each with their own political, religious, economic and cultural values.

Some promoted individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose , others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity.

Woodard argues that 200 years of immigration and diversity has enriched these cultures as they spread across the continent but has done little to alter their dominant values. Rather, the children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilated the norms of the regional cultures in which they found themselves and went on to embed these values in regional differences and values in the two dominant political parties and the coalitions that form, and reform, within them.

The original colonies coexisted, but they also competed with each other for land, capital and settlers. Occasionally they became enemies, as happened during the English Civil War when royalist Virginia stood against Puritan Massachusetts and New England. It was only when the colonies felt threatened that they came together.

Even so, the Revolutionary War was an insurgency mainly in New England; meanwhile, the area around Ne w York City and New Jersey became a refuge for loyalists. Pacifist-minded Quaker Pennsylvanians laid low while the Southern planters worried over how best to preserve, if not expand, their slave-based economy. Frontiersmen debated whom they hated more — the British or the coastal elites.

The Articles of Confederation at the First Continental Congress took four years to ratify and were, at best, a tenuous bargain that fell apart soon after Washington vanquished Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.

The Constitution had serious problems, and the Whiskey Rebellion nearly pulled it down when secessionists tried to create a separate state.

Two years after the War of 1812, some New Englanders, alarmed by a shift in political power to tidewater interests, were demanding a constitutional convention.

Then came the Civil War inspired by Northern abolitionists but only joined by the rest of the country when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter. That war preserved the union but exacerbated divisions that persist to this day.

With the New Year holidays, I take comfort in all this. We’ve had chaos and disarray from the beginning. It’s in our nature and more the norm than the exception. Recall the corruption of the Tweed ring when politicians were bought and sold with cash on the floor of Congress. Recall the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner. As for corruption in the White House, remember Warren G. Harding and Teapot Dome and, of course, Richard Nixon.

The more things change the more they stay the same, and there are no new things under the sun. We’ve survived all this and will survive still more. Let’s welcome 2019 and the start of another adventure. Happy New Year.

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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.