More than 155 years ago, Abraham Lincoln spoke to the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois, and proclaimed:
“We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
We know that within three years of Lincoln’s speech the Union was dissolved over the issue of slavery and that “the house” was not united until the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. We also know that the war did not put an end to divisions within the country, many of which persist to the present day.
I believe widespread division of opinion on the great issues of the day has always been a part of our nation and probably always will be. We often view the Revolutionary War as a battle between England and the Colonies, but it was also a civil war among neighbors and families. Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, was the last colonial governor of New Jersey and remained a staunch loyalist throughout the war. Other issues that have divided us throughout our history include taxation, slavery, foreign policy, military drafts, immigration, race, women’s suffrage, social programs, alcohol, and abortion to name a few. I still find it amazing that my college-educated grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was over 30 years old, while my grandfather who had an elementary school education could vote as soon as he reached the then-legal voting age of 21.
Much as we might wish for unity, I think we need to acknowledge that division of opinion can be both healthy and necessary for countries or other relationships among people. How differences are resolved does more to determine whether a house or a nation will fall, in my opinion, than the differences themselves. Attitudes, knowledge, understanding, and processes that promote peaceful resolution of disputes are the infrastructure of a civil society that constructively uses its differences as tools for progress.
As Albany celebrates 150 years of incorporation this year, we are probably about as divided on many issues as residents were in 1864. There is a legend that a hedge was planted somewhere in what is now the Hackleman neighborhood to divide northern from the southern sympathizers. I don’t know if that story is true, but I do know we will soon be displaying a cannon in City Hall that was supposedly purchased by one side or the other in Albany’s Civil War era, then allegedly stolen by one side or the other and dumped in the river. The cannon was recently purchased and generously donated to the City by the Tripp family and will eventually be on display at the Monteith House. I’m glad that this symbol of division in Albany’s early days is now an artifact that can serve to remind us of how fortunate we are to have found better ways to settle our differences.