It’s a difficult Thanksgiving season. The nation is deeply divided, facing serious threats abroad and an uncertain economy at home. An unpopular war drags on, and the controversial incumbent president, after a bitter and divisive campaign, has just won re-election with barely 50 percent of the popular vote.
Welcome to November 1812. The war against the British is going badly. President James Madison, after winning a landslide victory in 1808, almost lost this time around. The citizens of a worried nation, in between the name-calling and rancor, nervously ask one another what exactly there is to be thankful for. Is it possible that the solutions of their fraught age could hold lessons for ours?
To find out, let us poke our heads inside the Congregational Church in Dunbarton, N.H., where the longtime pastor, a Dartmouth graduate named Walter Harris, is delivering his annual Thanksgiving message. Harris, nicknamed “the sledgehammer,” is a noted contrarian who opposes, for example, the town tax that pays his salary. His remarkable sermon for Thanksgiving 1812 could have been delivered today.
Harris begins by announcing to his flock that although it is Thanksgiving, he plans to “enumerate some of the national evils under which we labor” — evils that, two hundred years later, echo with eerie familiarity.
First, he says, the nation is at war. And indeed, the War of 1812 has been anything but a success for the American side. Everyone assumes that when the British finally dispense with Napoleon, they will turn their attention to the upstart United States and prove once and for all who should have triumphed in that late unpleasantness that began in 1776.
Here, however, Harris offers a trenchant observation. The war has gone well, he says, when we defend our shores and badly when we take the battle to the enemy’s provinces. Whatever one thinks of this claim as a matter of strategy, Harris’s larger point is about the home front: “A very great proportion of the pious people of this land, so much doubt the necessity or lawfulness of this war that they do not, yea, dare not, pray for its success.” But without the good wishes and prayers of the populace, he explains, the war cannot be won.
The second of the evils Harris enumerates is what nowadays goes under the name incivility — and, again, his lament will sound familiar: “We must notice, with sorrow, the violent political dissensions in our land.” How bad is it? This bad: “Men of the same neighborhood have become the most virulent enemies to one another; they cannot speak peaceably to one another,” he says. “These divisions forebode approaching ruin.”
Closely related is the problem we have come to call partisan gridlock: “The parties in our country, which are pulling in different directions, are so nearly balanced, that our real strength, to accomplish any important end, has become very small.”
Third is the unfavorable weather, which has brought about famine and drought: “We have reason to fear that the scarcity will be very sensibly felt by many.”
Fourth: “The general stagnation of business, and decrease of property, through the country.” Much of the nation, Harris tells his flock, is “actually growing poorer.”
Fifth, and perhaps worst of all, is the impossibility of serious discourse on these subjects. Nobody wants to listen: “It appears that a fatal delusion has fallen upon them.” As a result, he says, “reason, and argument, and light, and truth, have no weight with them.”
On top of all this, the pastor warns, drinking and swearing are out of control, crime is up and parents are “neglecting to restrain their children.” The nation, he contends, is awash in “covetousness and the deepest ingratitude.”
Happily, Harris offers his listeners a series of practical solutions to the problems besetting the nation. Some of these, of course, are distinctive to the believing Christian. But several are more general and, like his analysis of his own troubled times, entirely applicable today.
As might be expected of a pastor, he first exhorts his congregation to count up the reasons to be thankful. He helpfully lists a few: “for all our national privileges that still remain; for all our family blessings yet conferred; and for all the individual happiness we are permitted to enjoy.”
Beyond that, he urges that Americans try to heal their “alarming divisions” in part by putting an end to “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking, and malice.”
Yet these nasty and divisive debates, Harris insists, are only a symptom. The greater problem is partisanship itself: “Let all the wise and good unitedly disapprove and condemn the bitter and provoking language of rash party-men.” The solution is obvious: “This party-business must be done away with, or the nation must be ruined.”
That’s basically where Harris ends. The greatest evil confronting the country turns out to be the political parties, which were then mere decades old, if that.
Harris, of course, is too quick to dismiss the parties, which help remedy collective-action problems among voters and, to a limited extent, provide a signaling function that helps guide electoral choices. But he is entirely correct in asserting that the partisanship that parties generate, if unchecked by the cooler heads of the “wise and good,” does indeed lead to bitterness and wrath and malice and all the rest.
Can we reject “the bitter and provoking language” of the worst partisans without giving up on the idea of political parties or a vigorous debate — or democracy itself? That was the challenge in Harris’ era, and 200 Novembers later, remains the challenge in ours. His America survived its divisions and fears and went on to thrive — a reason that we today should face our worrisome world in optimism. And as we chew over our problems, let’s also spend the holiday season following Harris’ suggestion that we take the time, no matter what we may be suffering, to count our blessings.