Protesters gathered at Monument Park in Houlton on Aug. 31. 2021 against the vaccine mandate for Maine health care Workers, set to take effect at the start of October. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

As the U.S. marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the pundits came out in full force.

Many lamented that the sense of national unity in 2001 had been so quickly replaced by deep divisiveness.

The al-Qaeda attacks gave all Americans, regardless of their political views, a common enemy. The country immediately united, and Congress granted the federal government unusually strong powers to fight terrorism. A token of that common commitment was the Patriot Act, giving the government the power to violate privacy.

At two earlier major turning points in American history, people had also displayed national unity. At those times, most Americans understood they faced a common adversary. Yet, beneath that unity, a deep split existed.

The first event was the war against Britain to win American independence. The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 is mostly a long list of bitter complaints against the British king for failing to give the colonists, most having British origins, the same rights as their fellow Brits. Instead, he treated them as second-class underlings.

The opposition to arbitrary British rule was strong enough to yield independence even among people who could not agree on treating their African underlings as they wanted to be treated by the British. On slavery, Americans were deeply divided.

Southern colonies threatened not to join in declaring their independence if the northern colonies insisted on condemning slavery in line with the theory that “all men are created equal.” For them, slavery might be more important than independence.

The North wanted independence above all and dropped a reference to slavery from the draft Declaration. That decision, papering over a deep split, may be the basis of the centuries of divisiveness that have followed.

Another wave of national unity came after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 that brought the United States into World War II. Divided just the day before, the country unified to fight the Nazis and Japan. Once again, deep differences, this time over the huge economic and social changes brought by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, were set aside.

In these two cases and the reaction to 9/11, Americans showed they would unite against a common foe. But divisiveness, so much deplored today, was always present. Unity in favor of a common goal, other than winning a war, has always been elusive.

The common theme of divisiveness goes back to the Revolution and continues uninterrupted today. The conflict over race could have been settled by the Civil War, but it wasn’t. The North won its cause of preserving the Union. But the South won its cause of preserving racism.

Just as the colonies had rebelled against Britain, the Confederacy rebelled against the United States. The American flag became a worldwide symbol against tyrannical rule, and the rebel flag became a national symbol of resistance to government limits on a person’s rights.

The Confederacy’s Stars-and-Bars came to represent the assertion of individual rights against government. That sentiment extended to opposition to official authority on many issues, and the Confederate flag could be seen all across the country.

In recent decades, it was finally recognized as a symbol of racism, which became increasingly difficult to profess publicly. Only with the arrival on the national scene of Donald Trump was the stigma of harboring racial prejudice somewhat relieved through attacks on “political correctness.”

Trump flags fly as Confederate banners once did. Like the Confederate flag, they may mean less about Trump as a political figure than serving as an expression of personal defiance of governments, seen as limiting personal rights.

Today, a conflict exists between governments that require vaccinations and wearing masks to control COVID-19 and opponents who believe that such demands violate their personal rights. At its core, this conflict is political and regional.

Eleven states in the South joined the Confederacy, trying to break away from the United States to preserve slavery. Now, nine of those states are among those with the worst vaccination records and nine, duplicates except for one, are among the states with the highest case rates. Only Virginia is absent from both lists.

Nine of the formerly Confederate states voted for Trump in 2020. Several are trying to change their voting rules to undermine expanded voting by African-Americans and Hispanics to ensure that traditionally conservative GOP control can continue.

While Americans may unite against a common threat, history shows more evidence of division that may have its roots in the compromise that brought 13 colonies together to declare their independence. It has deepened as the two sides reach almost equal political strength.

Divisiveness is American, and the battle between public health and individual rights amounts to another Civil War. The depth of division may, as before, threaten the American system of government.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.