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America: Irrepressible Conflict – Then and Now

PERSPECTIVE - Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln; not as many recall William Seward - certainly, participants in Jay Leno’s Jaywalking shtick would not.

Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State; he later served Andrew Johnson in the same capacity.  A former rival of our sixteenth President for the right to run as the Republican candidate for the White House in 1860, Seward is probably best known for negotiating the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

You could argue that Seward set the stage for Sarah Palin; maybe that’s why the deal was referred to as Seward’s Folly.

Lost in the events of that turbulent era was a speech Seward made in 1858 where he predicted “irrepressible conflict” between the irreconcilable, ideological proponents of slavery and free labor:

“Hitherto, the two systems have existed in different States, but side by side within the American Union. This has happened because the Union is a confederation of States. But in another aspect the United States constitute only one nation. Increase of population, which is filling the States out to their very borders, together with a new and extended network of railroads and other avenues, and an internal commerce which daily becomes more intimate, is rapidly bringing the States into a higher and more perfect social unity or consolidation. Thus, these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact, and collision results … It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces …”

It appears that the United States of today is on a path to irrepressible conflict.

The issues are different, but the polarization is not. What’s more, then, as now, the technology of communication and commerce is playing a role in fanning the flames.

Whereas the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century facilitated public discourse and brought divergent markets into closer contact, modern-day electronic social media, internet news outlets, talk radio and cable news have produced instant analysis and raging debate among partisan elements.

That’s not news to any of you, but it should be a concern.

Why?  After all, access to information is good. Generally, that is true.

It is just that we do not have time to digest the overload of data and too often rely on the pundits and media hosts to shape our opinions.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the voices that dominate the airwaves do not broadcast news – just opinion laced with histrionics, and they attempt to pass it off as news. Unfortunately, too many people are buying into it, otherwise sensible people, too.

Just stop and take a day or two and ignore the rants you hear on MSNBC and Fox, perhaps the two biggest purveyors of ideological babble, and examine other sources – preferably the written word that has had the benefit of editorial review.  Regardless of whether a publication leans to the left or right, for example, the Washington Post versus the Washington Times, reading allows one to absorb a message at a pace better suited for critical analysis. You can hit your personal pause button at any time and ask if an assertion makes sense.
You’ll feel better, too.  Instead of reacting to  the emotional spin a Hannity or Maddow cast on an issue, you will have the satisfaction that comes with conscientious deliberation from your own heart and mind.

Conflict is inevitable and can be healthy. But irrepressible conflict, as the term implies, is uncontrollable; therefore, it will likely lead to chaos and bad decisions.

It is dangerous that strategies to resolve the economic crisis in our nation are being framed by single issues such as the continuation of the payroll tax cut or the Keystone XL pipeline. Both are important issues, but neither will determine the long-term fate of the economy. But they represent the bloody shirts being waved by prognosticators of divisiveness who use them as tools to impose their extreme ideology on the general public.

There is only one ending when we allow that to occur – failure.

The future is in our hands if we make the effort to become informed, independent citizens instead of falling for partisan propaganda or simplistic slogans.

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as Treasurer for the Neighborhood Council Valley Village.  He blogs at Village to Village, contributes to CityWatch and can be reached at:

Tags: Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Andrew Johnson, White House, politics, nation divided, nation polarized, Hannity, Maddow, Paul Hatfield

Vol 10 Issue 1
Pub: Jan 3, 2011