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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Political divides ran deep as the United States was founded

Commissioned in 1817, John Trumbull’s painting depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  (Library of Congress)
By Luke Blue and Roberta Simonson The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What war did the Americans fight to win independence from Britain?

As the Founding Fathers contemplated whether to split from Great Britain, Americans were deeply divided.

“They were bitterly opposed to each other,” said historian H.W. Brands, who has written dozens of biographies on American leaders. “Each side considered the others traitors.”

Brands noted that the divide tore apart families, “sometimes right down the middle,” even among some Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin and his son William had a political falling out from which their relationship never recovered. Benjamin Franklin was a leader in declaring independence from Britain, while his son opposed efforts to leave the crown.

On July 4, 1776, the United States declared independence from Britain. The Revolutionary War, which began in 1775 and lasted until 1783, arose due to Colonial-British conflicts that had been brewing for years. These tensions stemmed from what colonists considered unfair policies, such as a lack of representation in the British Parliament and increased taxes after the French and Indian War.

While this story is familiar to many Americans, what isn’t as well-known is that 20% to 30% of colonists remained loyal to the British crown. The division between these two groups split the American population along party lines: Patriots were often Whigs, a British political party, and Loyalists were synonymous with Tories. The conflict between these two parties is sometimes referred to as America’s First Civil War.

Polarization in modern America has grown in recent years. A Pew Research report that measured political polarization from 1994 to 2014 found that “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994.”

According to a more recent University of Chicago poll, “About three-quarters (73 percent) of voters who identify themselves as Republican agree that ‘Democrats are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree,’ an almost identical percentage of Democrats (74 percent) express that view of Republicans.”

Polarization between loyalists and patriots was both different and similar to polarization today. Common practices then, such as tar-and-feathering and burning down houses of the enemy, would seem barbaric now, while other practices, such as threats of violence over ideology, are also present today.

But Brands warns against making too many comparisons to the Revolutionary War era.

“Parallels to today are not very instructive,” Brands said in an email . “No one yet is trying to create a new country.”

Still, Washington Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, who has made polarization a top issue during his career, said today’s political climate is “nowhere near as good as we would all like it to be.”

Heck believes this partisanship is worse now and is evident in Washington.

“I entered the Legislature in 1977, and Eastern Washington had plenty of Democrats and Central Puget Sound had plenty of Republicans; it is absolutely not the case anymore” said Heck, a Democrat.

Yet to Heck, Washington is doing a little better on this issue than other states.

“Our operating budget, which historically is the most partisan document, was passed with 37 out of 49 votes, including the minority leader.”

Still, Heck said, “I’d say we’re at risk of heading in the wrong direction because these national forces are so powerful… . We are not immune to the same forces that are degrading our national civic culture.”

When asked what those forces may be, Heck cited social media and redistricting, “both due for reform and regulation.”

“Social media platforms should operate differently than they do,” Heck said, adding that “the social media hype environment, it really enables us to demonize anyone with whom we don’t agree.”

Washington has 49 legislative districts, which each elects two state representatives and one senator. Voters in all but two of those districts selected only legislators from the same party.

“We desperately need wholesale redistricting reform, and to take it out of the hands of politicians,” Heck continued.

Heck helped organize a series of round tables throughout Washington where participants discussed America’s civic culture.

“One of the strongest themes we heard was we neither have enough opportunities, nor do we engage enough in those we have, to talk with one another and truly listen to others who may have different views of the world,” he said.

Despite the political climate that can be discouraging to Americans, “what I see, what I hear and what I experience every single day is that people have a yearning for more kindness and decency,” Heck said.

“What unites us is more important than what divides us, and nothing says that more strongly than July 4th.”

Luke Blue and Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.