The great divide

When I was living in America, I often had the feeling that they were still fighting the civil war.

After the war, Lincoln understood how divided the country had become, and determined that he needed to unite the country[1]Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. He had already started to implement his plans to reconcile the people, who were divided long before the civil war broke out. Then he was assassinated.

His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, became America’s worst president, trying to roll back the changes the Lincoln had enacted[2]Grant.

That legacy lives on in the febrile politics that roil the United States.

The conflict that gave rise to the civil war was slavery.

That division was already a heatedly debated topic during the arguments that gave ride to the American constitution[3]The Genius of the People. Washington owned slaves, and the only slaves that Jefferson released on his death were those who were his children by one of his slaves, Sarah Hemings((Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power)).

While Jefferson was America’s ambassador to France, Sarah Hemings became his concubine. In Paris, under French law she had the option to be choose freedom, She was already pregnant by Jefferson when she told him that she was invoking that right. To get her to return to America with him, Jefferson granted her extraordinary privileges, and the freedom of her children when they turned twenty-one((Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power pg 218)). 

In Switzerland, it often feels as though there is a similar divide. The divide here is linguistic, the West is French and the East is German.

The Canton of Valais is one of the few that is both German and French, which gives the impression that the linguistic divide has been bridged. It has not.

The history of the Canton is dominated by a civil war in the 15th century, that drew in some of the surrounding cantons to the point that the Swiss confederation was on the brink of civil war. 

The source of the conflict was a power struggle between the church and nobility – between the poor and the rich.

In the peace treaty that followed, mediated in Zug, the Baron of Raron’s castles and lands were restored to him, and he was paid 10.000 florins in restitution. But with his castles burned, and a sullen workforce, the Baron eventually abandoned Valais and died in Rome in 1431[4]Raron affair.

The wealth divide in Valais lives on. The rich live in the exclusive ski resorts. The poor live in the valleys. 

The linguistic divide is also obvious. In the Canton’s capital I have greater success speaking to people in English than in German. 

Great leaders unite. The others divide and rule.