With the first presidential debate of the election year set for tonight, perspective is important. One of the things that I hear often is, “We have never been so divided as a nation.”
Brilliant historian Gordon Wood reviews a new biography on Abraham Lincoln here. In the review, he provides some much needed perspective:
Lincoln, like Whitman and Brown, was a product of his times; and those times were wild. Whatever we might think about the divisiveness, partisanship and violence of our own era, it is nothing compared to antebellum America. Government in the first half of the 19th century was weak and unstructured, and established institutions were few and far between. The economy was diffuse and unmanageable: Thousands of different kinds of paper-money notes flew about, and risk-taking and bankruptcies were everywhere; even some states went bankrupt. This was a rough-and-tumble world, and duels, rioting and mobbing were commonplace. Alcohol flowed freely, and Americans were drinking more per capita than nearly all other nations, which provoked desperate temperance movements. Fistfights, knifings and other explosions of violence seemed to be ordinary affairs, taking place even in state legislatures and the Congress. Public rhetoric was abrasive and harsh, and zany humor and sensationalism flourished in the popular press; people were especially eager to read lurid reports of suicides. The nervous nation was coming apart, torn by sectional conflict and the struggle over slavery.