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America is a house divided against itself

The Civil War isn’t over. We keep refighting it. At least we still have Lincoln to help us bumble through.

A faded black and white photograph of president-elect Abraham Lincoln, taken in November 1860.
On Nov. 25, 1860, president-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped by the Chicago studio of photographer Samuel Alschuler to have his portrait taken. It is the first photograph of Lincoln sporting his new whiskers.
Library of Congress

A columnist must be careful what he confesses. The idea is to echo common wisdom, not let slip some weird, damning personal detail.

Fortune favors the bold, so here goes: I have trouble remembering that Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of Chicago. I mean, I know, intellectually, he was here. He was a lawyer. He argued cases in court here. But I sometimes forget, and occasionally marvel anew at Lincoln’s presence. Judge me harshly if you must.

For instance: On July 10, 1858, Lincoln gave a speech from the balcony at the Tremont House, at Lake and Dearborn. His opponent in the senatorial race, Stephen Douglas, had attacked Lincoln from the same perch, and Lincoln, in town on legal business, promised to reply.

Douglas had criticized Lincoln for his radical “House Divided” speech. In accepting the Republican nomination in Springfield the month before, Lincoln had quoted Scripture.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln had said. “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.”

Lincoln was wrong in two ways. First, the house did fall. The Union did dissolve. The South preferred secession to abandoning slavery. Though this wasn’t what Douglas and Lincoln were arguing over, not in 1858. Slavery was a given in the South. They were debating whether slavery should extend to new states. Douglas argued: If you ban slavery in Kansas, you’ll end up forced to treat Black people as equals. It’s a fear candidates have run on successfully — Douglas won, remember — for 160 years.

The Civil War is in mind lately because my liberal pals bemoan the current national divide, suggesting we are at some historic low. I remind them that the nation did, in fact, break apart in a war that killed 620,000 Americans. That was worse. Just because it happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

We need to remember Lincoln. If Joe Biden had blown out Donald Trump Tuesday, I might have been tempted to dismiss the anguished cries of his fans by feeding back their 2016 sneer, “You lost; deal with it.” But now, facing our fraught common future, I’m more inclined to trot out a line from Lincoln’s first inaugural: “We are not enemies, but friends.”

Though I’m compelled to observe: It didn’t work. A month later the union split.

It got back together, sort of. The second way Lincoln was wrong is that a house divided against itself can stand. Look around. Look at this past election. The way Black Lives Matter became just another bogeyman for Republican fear junkies, conjuring up Antifa to haunt their own nightmares. The South is long risen, and insists on identifying a slave class to be better than. Trump’s most coherent platform was battling immigrants and Muslims, early on, but only stand-ins for African Americans, despised through surrogates: cities like Chicago, riots, crime and government programs.

Our nation sure wobbles, doesn’t it? A house divided, etc etc. Not only is institutional racism real, it’s the underlying factor in many mysteries of American life. Why does every industrial nation have national health care except the United States? Because of Republican terror that it’ll benefit Black people. Just as those who damn “illegal immigrants” aren’t against illegality, but immigrants, so those crying “voter fraud” aren’t upset by fraud — just look at their president — but certain voters.

If you don’t think the Civil War is relevant, here’s some election news you missed. On Tuesday, nearly two dozen counties downstate voted to secede from Chicago — or more accurately, to eject the city from them — and form a 51st state. Shelby, Jefferson, Wayne, White ... there’s no point in listing all of them.

This map appeared on the Illinois Separation group’s Facebook page.

Why do a quarter of the 101 other Illinois counties want to break away from Cook County? It isn’t because they get $2.81 back in taxes for every dollar put in. It’s because racism makes people stupid, and do things contrary to their best interests. It’s what caused Brexit. It also inspired the poor, depressed, stagnant part of Illinois to want to reject the prosperous, dynamic, growing part.

It’s sad, or funny, or both. Chicago didn’t even notice.