As the Fourth of July dawned 166 years ago, there was a real question whether the United States would stay united.
The bloodiest battle of the Civil War had just been fought outside a little market town in southern Pennsylvania named Gettysburg.
The battered yet still dangerous Army of Northern Virginia sat glowering across the battlefield from its opponent, the Army of the Potomac.
The Union army had won a victory—but it had come at a grievous cost.
A little later that morning, the Union would win another victory with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi—gaining control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy in two.
In hindsight, Gettysburg and Vicksburg together would be seen as the turning point of the war.
But at the time, there were no guarantees. Despite Gettysburg, despite Vicksburg, despite all the death and sacrifice accumulated in the war, a year later President Abraham Lincoln was looking at the very real possibility that he would not be reelected, and that the Union would agree to the survival of the Confederacy as a separate nation.
Then Atlanta fell to Union troops. With the electorate buoyed by the news, President Lincoln won reelection. By the second anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was over, and the United States was one.
Now, as the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the United States again is riven by discord—not to the point of actual secession, but perhaps not so terribly far from it.
In one sense, the nearest parallel is the 1960s, when major American cities exploded in fiery riots and the Vietnam War fueled tumult throughout the nation’s colleges and universities.
But in another sense, the United States these days seems in even deeper trouble.
In the 1960s, the nation was feeling its way along an increasingly nightmarish path.
Now there is a sense that all the issues are known, and that the battle lines already are drawn up. Compromise is achingly absent.
A situation, one could say, not all that different from the run-up to the Civil War.
Donald Trump may be a terrible president: a man with a genius for making things worse.
Voting him out of office, or removing him through impeachment, likely would bring relief to many Americans. But we should be under no illusion that such an outcome will bestow a lasting nirvana on the United States.
Our divisions remain serious and deep. Two large chunks of the electorate view national and world issues in very different ways. Antagonism is rife.
The United States might well be drifting not toward political division, but toward a long period of paralysis and decline, where we can’t agree to do anything, values no longer are shared, and other nations capitalize on our weakness.
Still, the nation has rallied before—during the Civil War, in the midst of the Great Depression, after the 1960s and 1970s—and can do so again.
How to start? Individual Americans can talk to other individual Americans—even if, or especially if, they disagree.
If our common ground has been rent asunder, we can start mending that ground. We can bring America back. We will see, as President Lincoln asked in his Gettysburg Address, whether the United States “can long endure.”
But remember: there are no guarantees.