I am working through the last chapters of Fred Kaplan’s masterful biography of our sixth president: “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary.”
It’s a fine piece of work. And one of the remarkable points it drives home, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is the stark similarity between the America of Adams’ day and the one that prevails today: a nation deeply divided regionally.
Indeed, the book prompted me to reflect again on what I’ve begun to regard as the American pink elephant in the room: regionalism. Almost a quarter of a millennium ago, the Founders drafted a Constitution, some with only the faint hope that it would bridge the deep regional divisions within a pitifully weak confederation that scarcely more than a decade earlier was a congeries of 13 different political entities answering separately to the British Crown.
Reading this book, I even developed a deeper sympathy for the plight of early 19th century New England, especially those New England families, such as the Adamses, who consistently put the needs of the Union ahead of their regional loyalties.
Our Southern forebears really had stacked the deck against the New Englanders: The three-fifths provision in the U.S. Constitution kept them in power for decades. On top of that, the Southern upper crust possessed an almost irrational hatred of the Britain and an equally irrational affection for revolutionary France, much to the befuddlement of the New Englanders, who, as a maritime and incipient region, were deeply tied to the British economy.
Predictably, the Southern elite’s irrational hatred for perfidious Albion was among the factors that contributed to the United States becoming embroiled in war with Britain in what is remembered as the War of 1812, a conflict that seriously threatened to erode our national sovereignty.
Despite all of this, John Quincy Adams, a son of New England and a product of its elite schooling, remained a loyal unionist, firmly opposed to the Essex Junto, many of whom actually advocated secession from the Union in the face of the economic suffering the conflict inflicted on the region.
But I digress. Back to my original premise: Yes, I really mean what I say about regionalism being America’s pink elephant in the room. Except for a hiatus that lasted from the end of the Civil War to the post-war era, this nation has struggled with the same wrenching regional divisions that challenged the United States in the beginning. Almost a quarter of a millennium since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, Americans are still operating off the same 250-year-old script. We are multiple nations rather than one, more pluribus than unum, in a manner of speaking. And while readily conceding that I’m in a distinct minority, I’m convinced that constitutional reform is arguably every bit as essential to the survival of this nation today as it was in 1787 when the specter of disunion brought a group of men to Philadelphia to broker a new modus vivendi.