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Americans reflect on a divided nation: "This doesn't feel like America"

What history says about America's divide
Visiting America's birthplace to understand how divisions today compare to tensions in history 05:32

Time doesn't move any differently at Independence Hall, the birthplace of America. It's the building where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed in colonial Philadelphia. If you travel there, you can learn something about America today.

"America is in turmoil right now," Billy White told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil.

Most people who journeyed to Independence Hall from all across the country had similar viewpoints.

"This doesn't feel like America. The America I was raised to love and believe in," Victoria Johnson said.

President-elect Joe Biden will face a daunting task after Wednesday's inauguration -- reuniting Americans after a bitter election.

"I'm not exactly sure that we're in the place that the Founding Fathers would have wanted us to be in," Laura Wilson said.

A CBS News poll found that 54% of Americans today say the biggest threat to our way of life isn't economic collapse, natural disasters or foreign invasions — but our own fellow Americans.

"It should be America under one nation under God, indivisible. But I don't see it that way in my eyes right now," White said.

The national mood, not to mention the 220-year-old American tradition of peaceful transfers of power, took a blow in January after rioters overran the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. But Jessica Roney, professor of early American history at Temple University in Philadelphia, says America has had some turbulent times before.

"We've never been a unified country. We've always had these huge fractures. If anything, what we have now is a recognition of them. And in some ways, that's hard and painful and scary. And in some ways, it's the only way forward," she said.

Roney agreed that divisiveness is American history, not the exception to American history. With that in mind, she said the goal of the Constitution was to somehow prevent the country from collapsing.

"They thought it would decay inevitably?" Dokoupil asked.

"This is a world that believes in corruption. Like, right now, we think about our conspiracy theories as a 21st-century thing. It's not. The 18th century was all about conspiracy theories," Roney said. "It was all about this idea of tyranny and the usurpation of liberty...and the same kind of heated rhetoric that we're used to today, there's a lot of that in the 1780s and '90s where people are really concerned about the imminent demise of the Republic right now, tomorrow, if the other guy is elected."

CBS News asked people to put today's America in context with America's past and people responded with answers some might have feared.

"Is there any moment from American history that comes to mind as a point of comparison with today?" Dokoupil asked.

"Maybe the American revolution? ... Or the Civil War. There's a fracture that I don't think-- we've seen in over a century," Wilson replied.

Another person agreed and said it feels like America is back in a Civil War.

"I guess the Civil War when it was, like, the North versus the South. That's what it feels like again. It's just, it's not a matter of locations fighting each other. It's people fighting against people over a president," Nia King said.

But Roney says there's actually a lesser-known moment in American history that may give us hope: "What I'm proud of in American history, what's a moment that I look to, I always said, 'The election of 1800.' I think it's just a phenomenal moment."

That election, which marked the exit of John Adams and the entrance of Thomas Jefferson, was the first peaceful transfer of power between opposing sides in American history.

In his inaugural address, Jefferson made a now-famous appeal for unity among the parties of the time uttering the lines "We are all republicans, we are all federalists."

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to hit a very similar note in his inaugural address, not every American is ready to believe him.

"How is he unifying America when he was supporting everyone who started the riots back over the summer? I don't see that as unifying at all," Johnson said.

Others are hopeful about what Mr. Biden's election will mean for the state of the country but they have their doubts.

"Are you hopeful that he will be president for all Americans, not just the people who voted for him?" Dokoupil asked.

"I hope so. I hope so," White said. When Dokoupil followed up and asked if White believed it was likely or if he expected it would happen, he replied back no.

But in front of Independence Hall stood Susan Sandler. She was optimistic in part because of the decisions made long ago inside the building.

"I personally was not a Trump supporter, I supported the right of other people to believe in him and to give him a chance. I personally don't like how that worked out. So what did we do? We voted. That's what we do in the United States, right?" Sandler said. "And then we respect that vote. And then we move forward. And if we don't like it, we vote again. That's what we do in the United States. So there we are. Back to our basics."

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