COLUMN: A More Perfect Union
Wealthy coastal cities versus the agrarian countryside. Supporters of big central government versus advocates of a limited government. Big states versus small states. Manufacturers versus traders. Debt hawks versus doves. Sound familiar? If you guessed that these conflicts refer to the contemporary United States, you might be surprised they were actually areas of fierce disagreement among Americans in the late 18th Century.
While we may seem divided today, we have risen above more severe divisions in the past. One of the major sticking points on adoption of our Constitution was how to balance the interests and representation of the large and small states. The agreement of the Constitutional Convention resulted in the Great Compromise of equal representation of states in the Senate and proportional representation based on population in the House of Representatives. Even after the adoption of the Constitution, in 1794, the very existence of our country was threatened by an uprising. President George Washington faced a revolt from farmers in rural Pennsylvania in an episode called the Whiskey Rebellion. The rebels committed acts of violence, and the stability of our young country was in doubt. Washington found it necessary to lead federal troops into western Pennsylvania to show the strength of the brand new central government’s authority. Order was restored, and our country continued.
The domestic debates from the War of Independence in 1776 and the 1790s demonstrate that our national story has not been one of automatic unity and easy agreement. Our history has instead been a series of conflicts, compromises, and even periodic breakdowns in compromise. The stakes have always been high. The United States and our common purpose as a nation have been forged from what seem to be the least likely circumstances: a successful uprising against the most powerful empire at the time, Great Britain. Yet at many of the most critical times in our history, men and women of goodwill have come together in common cause.
In his famous farewell address, Washington exhorted Americans to remember that our freedom depends on our unity:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize….Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.
This Independence Day, as we celebrate our freedoms, we are reminded that throughout our history—from 13 original colonies to fifty states—we have had many differences. The success of our experiment of self-government has always hinged on our ability to unify despite our disagreements.