By Julia Wolf
Ok. Fine. Our political scene right now is divisive. Some have said the 2016 election was the most divisive one yet. While it is tempting to agree with that statement, I think 2016 has some pretty steep competition.
Today ten of us visited Ford’s Theatre, the theatre where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The actual theatre was closed for the day, which was a little disappointing. It redeemed itself though. I was not expecting the museum to be as interesting or as large as it was.
Walking through the museum reminded me of one of the most divisive parts of American history. We were literally separated ourselves into two nations and fought a bloody war against each other.
The divisions were everywhere. It was not unusual to find families fighting for opposite sides. In the museum, two families whose allegiances were divided really stood out. The first was Mary Lincoln, Abraham’s wife. Her brother and half-brothers fought in the Confederate army. The Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, would serve in the Union’s Army.
The second was the family of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln that fateful night. Booth was a Confederate sympathizer, and the museum noted that he never attempted to hide that fact, even acting slightly threatening toward the Lincoln’s during previous performances. However, his brother, Edwin, was a strong supporter of the Union. The exhibit explained that Edwin Booth had voted for Abraham Lincoln.
The Civil War was not the only other truly divisive time in America. While in the Library of Congress, we walked through an exhibit on the Civil Rights movement. It is not hard to think of the iconic photos where protesters clashed with police.
While I did not spend as much time in the Civil Rights exhibit as I probably should have, I spent enough time there for some of the basic facts to come to mind. Not only was the country racially divided, but the African Americans were divided between themselves on the best way to go about dealing with the issue. Martin Luther King Jr. called for peaceful resistance. The Black Panthers called for immediate and strong action to right the wrongs, even if it meant using violence. When we had speakers come to talk about the role of race in politics a few days ago, one of them said that both methods were important to the outcome of the Civil Rights movement.
More surprising is that the ugliness of the campaign cycle is not new. I had the pleasure of coming across this video that looks at the words candidates in the election of 1800 used to describe each other. Let’s just say civilized was not the first word that popped into my mind to describe the election after watching it.
So while our holiday political discussions may be rough, it is not the first time the United States has faced divisions. We have overcome them before.