With the election this week, I want to address an issue I have heard from both sides but which has been much more prominent with Joe Biden. Biden claims that if elected he can unite Americans whereas Trump is dividing us. What Biden and all politicians do not understand is that they can only unite their side. As much as Democrats hate Trump, Republicans disliked Obama and very much dislike Biden. Justified or not, the fear of a Biden presidency is as strong for the right as a second term for Trump is for the left. Historically speaking, there have been attempts to unite the nation politically, but even when presidents have claimed success, we were still divided.
A good attempt at national unity came from Jefferson. After twelve years of basically Federalist control and constant political bickering, Jefferson believed his victory would finally unify us. Fighting had gotten so bad under Washington, and even worse under Adams, that the nation had split into political parties, the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists. Even while claiming that parties were bad, people were saying it from their party meetings. What they really meant was your party is bad, ours is necessary to protect us.
Jefferson, believing he was a man of the people, thought that now the feuding could be over: right had prevailed. In his inaugural address he said, “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Possibly to his surprise, Jefferson found that political fighting had not passed. For the eight years of his presidency, he had to battle it out with his Federalist opponents. After the passage of the Embargo Act, where trade was cut off from all foreign ports, he especially had to deal with hatred from New Englanders who made much of their living from trade. So even the great Thomas Jefferson could not bring unity to the nation. Federalists hated Jefferson as much as he had hated Adams.
If there was a president who had what seemed a real chance to unite us, it was James Monroe. His very presidency fell during a time called the Era of Good Feelings. During the War of 1812, many Federalists in New England came out against the war and threatened to secede from the Union if certain changes were not made that favored the South; four of the five first presidents were from Virginia. Yet when the war was suddenly over and America could claim a second victory over England, the Federalists looked uncooperative at best, traitorous at worst. Suddenly the Federalist Party was a political liability and it disappeared into history. They did run a candidate against Monroe in 1816, but he ran unopposed in 1820. During his eight years in office, Monroe ran a nation with only one political party: the Republicans had won.
Monroe, like Biden if he wins, claimed national unity. The only problem was unity did not exist. In trying to appease both sides, Monroe even appointed some ex-Federalists into his cabinet. The most notable position was John Q. Adams as Secretary of State, the position held by the last three presidents before they ran for president. Monroe did a good job at traveling the nation trying to show support for all, but nothing mattered. As soon as he was in office, the infighting started. With Adams as Secretary of State, most of the fighting was over who would succeed Monroe. The true Republicans feared a Republican in sheep’s clothing (like Adams) might sneak in.
All the Era of Good Feelings accomplished was a false sense of unity. Men like Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson began pushing the idea that parties were necessary and good. With parties you could weed out those unlike you. Eventually the fighting got so strong that the Republican Party was fractured into Republicans v. Democrats and eventually Democrats v. Whigs. During the next couple of years, this also led to some of the most divisive and ugly elections in American history.
Unity is a worthy goal, but it has never really been accomplished. With a Trump win this week, the left will make their unhappiness known. I predict the worst violence this nation has seen since the election of Lincoln. However, don’t mistake the lack of rioting as a sign of unity if Biden wins. The right will react differently but will be no less angry. We have never had true national unity, no matter what the different presidents have said. Historically speaking, in our current climate of hate, both candidates need to understand that their win will bring massive disappointment and stop claiming their win can unite a divided nation.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.