In this week's commemoration sweepstakes, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination swamped the attention given to the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. That's a lost opportunity.
The Kennedy reminiscing has mostly inspired reflections on how much America has changed since that day in Dallas. Though more distant, the Gettysburg anniversary feels more contemporary. Americans today are not shooting at each other, as when Lincoln spoke, nor threatening to secede (intermittent Texas bluster notwithstanding). But in every other way, our divisions are hardening to a point that threaten our ability to function as one society in anything but name, or to move collectively against common problems. Without the apocalyptic threat of disunion and civil war, we face our own version of Lincoln's question at Gettysburg: whether "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal "¦ can long endure."
Many historians would label the 1850s as the nadir for the American political system: the moment when the nation's leadership, through dismal decisions and myopic missteps, failed with greatest consequence to confront the challenges rising around it. After a final attempt at reconciliation with the Compromise of 1850, Washington produced a succession of political disasters led by the Kansas-Nebraska Act (arguably the most counterproductive law Congress ever passed), which repealed the Missouri Compromise, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision (near the low point for the high court as well). Long before they communicated through shot and shell, the North and South lost the ability to meaningfully negotiate.