The History Behind Polarized America

For most of its history, the United States had a ruling majority. But during the late 20th Century, that White caste divided into two groups, which I’ll call Metropolitan Whites and Heartland Whites. They have different interests, so they no longer cooperate, which means each is effectively a large minority. Both benefit from the economic and political advantages of White skin, but the Metropolitan Whites rely on White privilege less because they’re wealthier and more plugged-in to the new economy. That frees them to ally with non-Whites.

the different white visions - why we're polarized
Each group has its own visions

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Disobedient Confederate Generals Helped End the Civil War

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models, including the American guerrillas of the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to fight a similar war after they’d lost on the battlefield. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve ended. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.)

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrenders
Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

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History Tells Us Congress CAN Impeach the President After His Term

The Constitution says nothing specific about whether Congress can impeach an official after his or her term. That didn’t stop the House of Representatives from impeaching the Secretary of War in 1876, after he left office — or the Senate from trying him. And history tells us Congress got it right that year, just as they apparently will again in 2021. The Framers based the impeachment process on the English Parliament’s power to impeach. And English impeachments could start after the official left office. In fact, Parliament impeached an official named Warren Hastings in 1787 and tried him between 1788 and 1795 — though he left office in 1784. The Hastings impeachment battle raged while the Framers wrote the Constitution, and it played a central role in their thinking.

The House of Commons, where they impeached Hastings
The House of Commons, Late 1700s

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History Tells Us the President Cannot “Self-Pardon”

The Framers of the Constitution based the presidential pardon on the English monarch’s power to grant pardons. And the monarch could not pardon himself — could not use executive power to escape the judgement of the courts. Parliament established that principle during the century before the Constitutional Convention, when it tried and executed King Charles I. To the Framers, then, “pardon” meant legal forgiveness granted to another. The authority they gave the President does not include a “self-pardon.”

even with 3 positions, Charles I could not self-pardon
Charles I, triple portrait by Anthony van Dyck

The Constitution does not address a “self-pardon,” and caselaw offers little guidance on whether the President has such a power. But the history of the Seventeenth Century does.
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America Has No Guarantee of Freedom

In a second term, the ballot box would no longer restrict Trump. So we can expect:

  • Expanded use of the Department of Justice (DoJ) against the President’s opponents, including members of Congress.
  • More use of force against protesters.
  • Federal tolerance of crime against the President’s opponents (e.g., Michigan’s governor).
  • Refusal of federal disaster funds and other resources for blue states.
  • Further suppression of information on Covid-19’s nationwide impact.
  • Prompt firing of senior officials and federal prosecutors who try to restrain the President.
  • White House orders blocking DoJ prosecution of the President’s allies.
  • More separation of children from immigrant parents.
  • Withdrawal of federal resources aimed at curbing White supremacists.
  • Federal support for attacks on the voting process, particularly in swing states, probably leading to “disqualification” of large numbers of ballots and voters in 2022 and 2024.

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Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies — and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

police history: a constable or beadle
An English constable (technically, a beadle)

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This Week in History: the Ashmolean Museum

This week in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in Oxford. It was the world’s first university museum and was named after Elias Ashmole, who in 1677 had given Oxford University what became the museum’s first collection. Construction also began in 1677. The current museum building was finished in 1845.

Ashmolean Museum

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This week in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Beecher Stowe was a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut. She originally published her most famous work as a 40-week serial in “The National Era,” an abolitionist periodical. Publisher John Jewett saw potential and proposed that Stowe turn the serial story into a book. He had good reason. The story was so popular that, if the magazine ever published without a new chapter, it received multiple protest letters. So Beecher Stowe published. She sold 3,000 copies the first day, and UNCLE TOM’S CABINE soon sold out of its first print-run. The novel ultimately became the second best selling book in the United States for the entire of the 19th Century, just behind the Bible. Continue reading “This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

This week in history: Louisiana Purchase

This week in 1804, the Louisiana Territory transferred from French to U.S. sovereignty, with the change marked by a ceremony in St. Louis. The territory had actually changed hands before, from France to Spain and then, as late as 1800, back to France. France’s First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte (later emperor), had planned to reestablish a French colony in North America, but he found himself short of resources, thanks to troubles at home and war with Britain (and ultimately just about everyone else). Hard up for cash, Napoleon had sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.’s President Thomas Jefferson. The two republican leaders’ original plan just involved the purchase of New Orleans. But in 1803, French Treasury Minister Francois Barbe-Marbois had offered the whole, vast Louisiana Territory to the American negotiators, James Monroe (later President) and Robert Livingston. They jumped at it. In fact, President Jefferson exceeded his authority by committing to the purchase without Congress’ consent, but he could not pass up the chance to double America’s possessions. Continue reading “This week in history: Louisiana Purchase”