Perhaps nothing destroys a political system more quickly and efficiently than paranoia. The situation can be grave enough when one party to a quarrel believes the worst of the other, when it pictures its opponents as conspirators. But when both sides see the other as ruthless, treacherous, and unwilling to abide by the rules, then all room for compromise disappears.
These words were written by author T. J. Stiles, but not about today’s America. They appear in Stiles’ award-winning, 2002 biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
Stiles’ theme is that one cannot know Jesse James without having a thorough understanding of the immediate time and place in which he lived, which in Jesse’s case, means not just in Missouri, but in Clay County, Missouri, a jurisdiction almost bordering Kansas. When his older brother, Frank, rode off to fight alongside other secessionist Missourians in the spring of 1861, Jesse was 13 years old, and Clay Countians had already been fighting Kansas Jayhawkers on and off for seven years. The social dynamics of Missouri were complex to say the least with cosmopolitan St. Louis in the east and “Little Dixie” running along the Missouri River which bisects the state. It wasn’t just a matter of slave-holders versus abolitionists; indeed, more than a few slave owners believed that it was the Union who would best preserve slavery.
This post is not meant to be a book review, but at least a thimble full of the above background is helpful, because our social dynamic is also quite complex, and the quoted lead paragraph does apply to the United States today.
Have we arrived today where Missourians arrived in 1861? Has all room for compromise disappeared? If so, what are you going to do about it?
One final thought: Stiles points out that as 1862 dawned, there was no middle ground. Those who tried to stand that ground were consumed by both sides.
Food for thought that is hard to digest.