A cautionary tale of a Kentucky veep past

If you think today's political divisions are bitter and deep, imagine John C. Breckinridge's Kentucky of 150 years ago.

We're thinking of Breckinridge because he's one of two U.S. vice presidents educated at Centre College, which tonight will host its second vice presidential debate of this century.

The other Centre-educated veep was Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, progenitor of other famous Illinois political namesakes.

Breckinridge, part of a prominent Lexington family, served in the U.S. House and Senate and as James Buchanan's vice president and ran for president in 1860 before becoming a Confederate general and the South's war secretary.

Breckinridge was accused of being a traitor by both the U.S. Senate and a Fayette County grand jury and fled the country after the Civil War, but eventually received amnesty and returned to Lexington where he died and was buried in Lexington Cemetery in 1875.

You can look at the saga of John C. Breckinridge and think, well, heck, if our country could survive an internecine bloodbath like the Civil War, there's no way today's toxic politics can take us down.

And that's true. Americans have wonderfully forgiving short memories and don't hold grudges, unlike some cultures that are still fighting over 600-year-old perceived slights.

That's not to say there won't be a high price to pay for today's blood politics — the inability of Congress to accomplish anything; the refusal of Republicans, most prominently our own Sen. Mitch McConnell, to give a Democratic president anything resembling a win; the eagerness to demonize political adversaries, and the migration from the political middle to the extremes, with lots of special interest, and now anonymous, money stirring the mix.

You can make a case that our beautiful state still is struggling to overcome the effects of the deep divisions of 150 years ago, when the war here really did pit sibling against sibling and parent against child.

Both armies occupied and plundered Kentucky; with guerillas and opportunistic outlaws joining in the mayhem to complete the wreck of the economy.

Once a leader in commerce and culture, Kentucky began its long drift into the backwater. With the exception of a few periods of progress, the war sent Kentucky into a 100-year tailspin of vicious factional politics and economic and educational stagnation. You could argue that Kentucky suffered more than any state from the nation's failure to end slavery without a civil war.

The passage of time has given us the moral clarity to see slavery as the abomination it was. Remember, though, that 150 years ago many regarded slavery primarily as an economic and political issue, not unlike today's controversies over taxation, debt, government spending and energy policy, which also have moral dimensions.

One of McConnell's favorite scare tactics is to warn that the U.S. is on the same debt-ridden path as Greece. Looked at empirically, this is an absurd contention because of the vast differences in the U.S. and Greek economies.

However, unless our elected leaders can bridge the political divides and come together for some problem-solving, productive numbers-crunching and nation-building at home, the U.S. could find itself on the same path as post-Civil War Kentucky.