Editorial: The U.S. was born out of a monumental divorce. We can’t let our arguments break us up again

(Fred Hunt / Associated Press)

The United States of America was born out of a monumental divorce. The colonies had been so geographically distant from England and many of their people so free for so long to run their own affairs and pursue their own courses in life that reconciliation was simply not possible. The bitter debates over liberty, taxes and sovereignty were over. It was time to leave. It was time to fight.

That’s the essence of breakups. Not the debate, but the end of it. Arguing sometimes seems as though it divides the parties, yet it is actually what brings them together. It focuses them on the values they dispute and those they have in common. It keeps them engaged with one another. If there comes a point at which either or both sides decide the discussion is no longer worth it, the end of the relationship may be near.

The art is to argue with enough passion to hold true to one’s values and win the day, yet with enough compassion (and openness to compromise, where appropriate) to not humiliate the partner, end the discussion and begin the breakup. The constructive argument is based on the belief of the rightness of one’s cause yet an understanding of the humanity, and perhaps even the grievances and resentments, of the opposition. The destructive argument is focused on the partner’s defeat.

Better to argue face to face, with both passion and compassion, than to end the discussion and pretend that we have broken up.


Over the last 242 years, we have argued a lot but broken up only once — temporarily, in the Confederate secession and the Civil War — and it was bitter, costly and deadly. Fittingly, the dispute was over something fundamental to the American people on both sides — the meaning of freedom. Could a nation conceived in liberty continue to deny it to 4 million people of African descent? The answer is obvious today, yet the Confederate states broke off the argument and broke away from the union because somehow they believed that it was their own freedom that was under assault. They lost respect for the institutions that wove the nation together — the presidency, the courts, the Constitution — and for a time they could no longer be bound within what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”

There is cause today to be nervous about our national debate, in part because the tactics have moved from merely attacking each other’s arguments, or even attacking each other, to attacking the legitimacy of the institutions and conventions that allow the debate to take place. President Trump has targeted the courts, the press, the law, even the presidency (at least when referring to his predecessors). In reaction, some Californians spoke of secession from the rest of the nation. It never got very serious; yet assumptions about our common destiny are under assault.

So are the values we presumably had absorbed from past arguments, such as equality and nonviolence. In Virginia, demonstrators chant racist slogans not heard in American discourse for decades. In Oregon, right-wing marchers are met not with the derision they have earned but with violence. Tactics that include compassion and civility are ridiculed as weak and naive.

Democracy is a contentious affair, and if it is to mean anything at all it must include the freedom to express anger and outrage. But democracy crumbles when the debate turns from words to blows.

On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln told the nation that it could not physically break up the same way the colonies broke away from distant England.

“We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them,” Lincoln said in his first inaugural address. “A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face.”

It’s as true today. Not just the different parts of the country, but the different people of different values and different perspectives — we will remain face to face. Better to argue face to face, with both passion and compassion, than to end the discussion and pretend that we have broken up.

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In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the colonies were confronted with the basic problem of the breakup: Where does it stop? If liberty was to be found in independence from England, should it not also be found in independence of the colonies from one another? Weren’t they all distinct, with different laws, customs and interests, and wouldn’t it be servitude for any given colony to sacrifice some independence to a nation made up of its neighbors?

Yet no single colony was strong enough to go it alone. They must, according to the slogans of the time, join or die.

The founders were often angry with each other, in part due to personal rivalry but in part because of profound differences over the best way to secure liberty. Consider Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, or Hamilton and Aaron Burr, or Jefferson and Patrick Henry, or Jefferson and John Adams. The North and the South. New York and New Jersey. The Federalists and the Anti-federalists.

“We must, indeed, all hang together,” Benjamin Franklin wrote before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

So the United States was born. It lived its infancy as a “firm league of friendship” among the states and later, through a series of rebirths, as a union of not just states but people — different, free, argumentative, but united. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Happy Fourth of July.

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