ABOARD THE ELECTION EXPRESS
MARTINSBURG, West Virginia (CNN)– “The most divided this country has ever been.”
You hear that phrase tossed around almost casually from time to time during this presidential campaign. Usually it is used to point out the ugliness into which the campaign sometimes has descended.
And, indeed, with the occasional campaign-season talk of what and what does not constitute the “real America,” and of which candidate is the most loyal to the values of the United States, the rhetoric by supporters of both candidates does tend to get more than a little unpleasant, even inflammatory.
But the most divided the country has ever been?
One of the most heartening features of traveling the campaign not six miles in the air aboard a candidate’s jet, but at ground level as this television-studio-inside-a-bus moves block by block, town by town across the nation, is seeing certain things you would never get the chance to notice above the clouds.
And there have been moments that have served as a sobering reminder that, as far as the concept of residing in a divided United States goes, we who live here today are not even close.
During several different weeks we have passed across the Mason-Dixon Line.
It’s still there, at least in theory; there are signs near the road that tell you you’re crossing over.
The Mason-Dixon Line, in American history, was the symbolic boundary between the states where slavery was a way of life, and the states where it was not.
It was a real line; it was established in the 1760s by surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to resolve a border dispute between colonies controlled by the British. The Mason-Dixon Line, as originally drawn, formed parts of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and what is now known as West Virginia, but was then the western part of Virginia.
It later gained its notoriety as the great dividing line between the North and the South; some people believe that the word “Dixie” was derived from Jeremiah Dixon’s name.
So to cross the Mason-Dixon Line today is to understand that, no matter how heated the political discourse may become in the waning weeks of a campaign, the divide that we as Americans face in 2008 is, in perspective, nothing.
And. . . one day on the bus, there was this:
We were in Franklin County, Pennsylvania (we had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line to get there). In the center of the town of Chambersburg, near the county courthouse, was a memorial fountain, and, standing next to it, a statue of a Union soldier, facing south.
Chambersburg, a stop on the Underground Railroad, was, on July 30, 1864, burned to the ground by soldiers of the Confederate Army under the command of Brigadier General John McCausland. Chambersburg was said to be the only Northern city to be destroyed– turned to ashes– by Confederate forces.
After the town was burned, and then eventually rebuilt, the statue of the Union soldier, gazing in the direction of the Mason-Dixon Line, was erected to symbolically guard the citizens against a repeat attack.
All of this, in the United States of America. And you don’t have to go back to Civil War days to be reminded of how far the country has come; on this journey toward Election Day we have passed through states in which, during the lifetimes of some of us riding the bus, drinking fountains and restrooms were routinely labeled “White” and “Colored.”
This country is partisan, and sometimes all of us can get a little stupid in how we treat those who don’t agree with our particular points of view. But next time you’re tempted to use hyperbole in talking about how much we’re always at each others’ throats, figuratively, pause for a few moments.
Divided? This nation was once split in two. There are signs by the side of the road, and a motionless soldier on a small-town square, to remind us of where we’ve been, on the way to where we’re all still going.