An interesting political issue at some point in history?
April 23, 2010 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Please tell me about a time/place in history that had some interesting political issue that was very divisive at the time.

I'm toying with the idea of writing a historical short story and I'm trying to find a good time and place to start researching for the setting. There are so many cultures throughout history to choose from, though! One thing in particular that I would like to find is some time and place where there was a divisive political issue going on, but something that would not be considered debatable today.

There are many obvious examples of this. Today (at least where I live), it's not considered debatable whether women should have the right to work and vote, whether slavery is okay, whether children should be used as labour, whether people born working class should be permitted to hold high status positions, and so forth. I would really like a less obvious example, perhaps something that most people wouldn't even realize was ever a debate.

Does anybody have an interesting insights into a time and place anywhere in the world, at any time in history where there was an interesting political issue which was divisive and caused a great deal of conflict?
posted by giggleknickers to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, what a great question. I'm going to be thinking of these all weekend, but if I recall correctly there was one Catholic council where a debate between transubstantiation and consubstantiation was the centerpiece - essentially, "when you take the eucharist, are you actually, really, literally eating Jesus?" I can't remember which one it was, but you might be able to find it on Wikipedia somewhere.
posted by borkingchikapa at 4:13 AM on April 23, 2010

There was the Protestant Reformation in England in the 1530s. It's one of my favorite time-periods to study because there was so much going on with so many interesting characters. The big question were whether an earthly prince could take on the spiritual authority of Rome; whether he could give himself permission to divorce and remarry (then execute and remarry...and so on). Ann Boleyn, I think, is a study on the role and place of women in early modern society -- she was educated, opinionated, sexy and successful until her husband had her murdered on trumped-up charges of incest, treason and witchcraft.

Also, if you want to learn about something with clear, ongoing ramifications, look at European expansion into the American continents and the early debates about how to treat the inhabitants. The relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans is still a hugely divisive topic among people who care (which is way too small a number) and the issues still unresolved today (federalism, sovereignty and so on) are directly traceable to the crap job earlier European & U.s. governments did to recognize and respect Native Americans as peers.
posted by motsque at 4:14 AM on April 23, 2010

There was the whole debate in the United States about Bimetallism.
posted by Atreides at 4:33 AM on April 23, 2010

Short of Civil War, things rarely get as divisive as the Dreyfus affair.

In ancient Constantinople, horse racing was so divisive that it frequently led to revolts, the most famous being the Nika riots.

And since I'm talking about Byzantium, few things were as divisive as Iconoclasm. And then there's the whole filioque business which lead to the Great Schism, which still divides Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.
posted by Kattullus at 4:57 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Great Roman Civil War was a conflict between conservatives and radical progressives, dictatorship and a republic-- only, unlike most modern national conflicts, in this case the conservatives were pro-republic and the radicals were pro-dictatorship. The radicals won, the course of ancient Rome changed toward massive imperialism, and real Western democracy disappeared for a millennium and a half.

(if you want to read some literature about the devastating effects of the war written about a hundred years afterward, Lucan's Pharsalia is amazing and available in translation.)
posted by oinopaponton at 5:43 AM on April 23, 2010

You may be interested in the American Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, in which mob action (generally under the influence of upper-middle-class citizens) forced colonial officials to resign or pledge their noncompliance with an unpopular law. The idea that taxation without representation is untenable still lives with us today, but one really interesting thing about this period is that most of the officials involved were also opposed to the law.

For example, Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, who had his house pulled apart, brick by brick, one night in 1765, was actively opposed to the Stamp Act, but his sense of duty kept him from telling the people that. If anyone's asking for a short story treatment, it's that guy. But you could also take the side of people like Andrew Oliver and Jared Ingersoll, who were actually forced to resign as stamp collectors.

There are also worthy "culture shock" reasons to write about 18th-century Boston. For one, these mobs were genuinely terrifying because there was no police force (that would have been a standing army!) For another, the fascinating tradition of "Pope's Night," an annual city-wide brawl between street gangs on the North and South Ends of Boston, feeds directly into the new tradition of repealing Parliamentary law by intimidation.

Here are the sources to start with:
Edmund S. and Helen Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis
Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson; also his sketch of Hutchinson in Faces of Revolution
Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution
J.L. Bell, 5th of November in Boston

I understand it's unwise to link to yourself here, so I'll just mention there's also an essay about this on my website that you might like.
posted by Sam Ryan at 7:42 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

A concerned citizen tells me it's okay to self-link in this context: “Wound Up by Any Hand:” Samuel Adams, Peter Oliver, and the Problem of Stamp Act Violence.
posted by Sam Ryan at 8:37 AM on April 23, 2010

In the US, upstate NY in particular, 1834-1840s, the first 'third party' was founded. It started off as the Anti-Mason Party. Totally controversial at the time, strongly decreased the number and presence of lodges in the US for about fifty years, and kind of silly now. They did branch into more reputable issues at the end, but it started kind of knee-jerky.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:46 AM on April 23, 2010

A lot of these aren't necessarily issues which have been obviously resolved - religious issues are still divisive, and while the church made a choice about its crackers, it did choose the crazy answer...

I might go for something in the "free speech" arena - while the idea of free speech is still something which needs to be defended, and is still an issue to a degree, I think we often take for granted how much freedom we now have. (For instance, a case of libel was brought for a man being depicted with ass's ears in the late 1700s.) Or you could look into blue laws more generally - the idea that private activities can be legislated...
posted by mdn at 9:05 AM on April 23, 2010

In the second half of the 19th century, the regions that now make up Italy were divided (between the north and the south particularly) over whether to unite and become Italy (unification).
posted by ellieBOA at 9:37 AM on April 23, 2010

Free Silver meets your criteria, and a pro-inflationary stance is hard to support today, which makes it hard for us to understand. It also resulted in political realignments and some strange bedfellows (or at least they would seem so to us; labor unions and southern planters for example.)
posted by Some1 at 10:30 AM on April 23, 2010

"Midway through the reign of the Ch’ien-lung emperor, Hungli, in the most prosperous period of China’s last imperial dynasty, mass hysteria broke out among the common people. It was feared that sorcerers were roaming the land, clipping off the ends of men’s queues (the braids worn by royal decree), and chanting magical incantations over them in order to steal the souls of their owners...
...Kuhn shows how the campaign against sorcery provides insight into the period’s social structure and ethnic tensions, the relationship between monarch and bureaucrat, and the inner workings of the state. Whatever its intended purposes, the author argues, the campaign offered Hungli a splendid chance to force his provincial chiefs to crack down on local officials, to reinforce his personal supremacy over top bureaucrats, and to restate the norms of official behavior. "
Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768
posted by Abiezer at 12:38 PM on April 23, 2010

On the "free speech" topic, Socrates was tried and executed for, as Wikipedia puts it:" More specifically, Socrates’ accusers cited two ‘impious’ acts: ‘failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges’ and ‘introducing new deities.’"

Somewhat similarly, there's the case of Galileo, who was forced to recant his views on heliocentrism by the Catholic Church.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:47 PM on April 23, 2010

Pretty much everything people believe is set in stone about Christianity was thrashed out, often with significant bloodshed, over hundreds of years. There were people who didn't even believe in the physical incarnation Christ, for example.
posted by rodgerd at 2:16 AM on April 24, 2010

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