Are These the Worst of Times?

Our times have seen a deadly pandemic, bipartisan rancor, wars in Ukraine and Gaza, economic uncertainty, and the assault on the US Capitol, to name just a few dread events. I shall not attempt to convince you that the era in which we are living is cheery and buoyant.  But the answer to the question, Are These the Worst of Times? is no. 

To see why I say this, let us travel back through some 250 years of American history and revisit several occasions that I contend were worse – indeed, far worse – than anything we face today. More to the point, the United States emerged from those times and those challenges a better and stronger country.

In truth, Americans have been divided since the colonial era. They were first of all divided by geography, with New England, the Middle Atlantic colonies, and the South quite different from each other. It took days to travel among Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston. Overlay on top of this physical fact the many differences in religion, such as the Anglicans of the South who had bishops and the Congregationalists of New England who rejected them. In between were Catholics in Maryland, Lutherans in Pennsylvania, and Jews in New York. As the United States grew in territory, more differences were brought on by distance, culture, and economics.

The first American political cartoon labeled “Join or Die” showing a snake divided into many pieces. Each piece was marked with the name of a colony. It was drawn by Benjamin Franklin in 1754 – 21 years before the American Revolution.

After the Revolution and the establishment of a federal government under the Constitution, there arose in 1794 a threat to that government called the Whiskey Rebellion. It was an uprising in southwestern Pennsylvania by farmers angry at a tax on whisky. President George Washington reacted fiercely, sending virtually the entire US Army, some 15,000 troops, to quash the rebellion. They were led by Alexander Hamilton, whose day job was being secretary of the Treasury. 

Under Washington’s successor, John Adams, Congress passed and Adams signed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts  of 1798. These laws criminalized, with jail sentences and heavy fines, anyone who spoke out against the president, Congress, or the federal government “with intent to defame them”.

And who were the aliens? They were not British and certainly no one from south of the border. They were French, refugees from the Revolution of 1789 and its Terror. They were deemed a danger because they were Roman Catholic, a fear and a prejudice to which I shall return.

In 1800, when Adams sought a second term, he was opposed by Thomas Jefferson. Writing two centuries later, the late historian David McCullough called it “a contest of personal vilification surpassing any presidential election in American history.” 

Just as today, when people tend to get their news from a single source, if you were a Federalist in 1800 you subscribed to a Federalist newspaper that supported Adams and considered Jefferson (in McCullough’s words) “a hopeless visionary, a weakling, an intriguer intoxicated with French philosophy, more a Frenchman than an American”. And if you were a Jeffersonian, you took a Jeffersonian newspaper that “excoriated [Adams] as a monarchist, more British than American, old, addled, and toothless.” The election went to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson was elected.

Of course the central blight upon the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, causing the most intense passions on both sides, was slavery. Picking out only two instances of such passions in the pre-Civil War period, both in the year 1856, there was first of all “Bleeding Kansas”. Abolitionist forces under John Brown (called Jayhawkers) and pro-slavery forces (called Border Ruffians) flooded into the territory to swing the vote on whether the new state of Kansas would be slave or free. The abolitionists won, but only after a great number of murders, maiming, and destruction of homes and farms that was a veritable dress-rehearsal for the great national conflict shortly to come. 

Also in 1856, there was the brutal, near-fatal assault by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina upon Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate chamber.

The Civil War was the greatest tragedy in our history, followed closely by the assassination of President Lincoln and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia, to suppress the newly-freed African-American population in the South,  particularly their right to vote.

Then there came the presidential election of 1876 between the Republican, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, and the Democrat, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York.

In short, Tilden won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, but Republican election officials in Louisiana and Florida switched their states’ votes to Hayes. The result was a one-vote “victory” in the Electoral College for Hayes. The best that can be said of this awful mess was that American political democracy survived.

The late 19th century witnessed violent labor strife, such as the strike on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1877, in which 69 strikers and soldiers were killed; the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886 that killed eight policemen; and the Pullman strike in 1893, in which 12 died.

In addition to Lincoln, two other presidents, James Garfield and William McKinley, were assassinated in this period. McKinley was shot by an anarchist, a man who opposed any and all governments. Anarchism was a plague in both Europe and the United States in that era, taking the lives of several monarchs and democratically-elected leaders. The climax of anarchist terror in our country was the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which killed 38.

Mostly forgotten today was the so-called Philippine Insurrection, in which the United States suppressed a war for independence among Filipinos who saw no difference between rule by Madrid and rule by Washington, which had acquired the islands after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Over 4000 American lives were lost – as many as would die in Iraq a century later but when the US population was only one-fourth as large.

The 1920s, popularly thought of as a time of frivolity, saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Unlike during Reconstruction, the modern Klan was not secretive, operating at night. It was considered in certain places – the Midwest in addition to the South – as a civic organization, membership in which might advance one’s career in business or politics. The Klan was open and bold enough to stage a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Lynchings of black American during this time went unprosecuted, and efforts to make this evil a federal crime were repeatedly killed by the segregationist southerners who controlled the US Senate.

Then there came the Great Depression of the 1930s, with its mass unemployment; the loss of homes, farms, and businesses; more labor strife; and the rise of foreign tyrannies, leading to a second world war.

Finally, closer to our times, there were the many upheavals of the year 1968, most memorably the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and of Robert Kennedy, cities aflame, and rioting at the Democratic National Convention in August. The decade of the 1970s was no less peaceful, with bombings of government buildings and office towers by violent extremists.

To get a better and fuller account of all that I have mentioned here, I recommend you read The Soul of America, published in 2020 by the historian Jon Meacham. His point is that the genius and blessing of America is that we are capable of recognizing the need for change and then changing. For example, gone from our national life are:

  • Slavery 
  • Jim Crow segregation
  • No rights for women
  • No rights for labor
  • Abject rural poverty 
  • Child labor
  • Endemic diseases

To this list let me add a great canker on the American soul that lasted till deep in the 20th century: Anti-Catholicism. I have already mentioned that the early republic recoiled at the arrival on these shores of French Catholics. The conviction that no Catholic could possibly be a patriotic American, because he or she owed allegiance to the pope in Rome, was heightened when Irish Catholics landed here by the hundreds of thousands in the 1840s and 1850s, fleeing the great potato famine on their island. In later decades more Catholics came from Italy, Poland, and elsewhere. 

When Governor Al Smith of New York was nominated by the Democratic Party for president in 1928, the anti-Catholic sentiment reached a peak, with dire warnings of a papal takeover of the United States. Smith lost, and the same cries were raised against John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. Kennedy won but only very narrowly.

Today, we have the second Catholic president in our history, and Catholics hold 2/3 of the seats on the US Supreme Court, including that of chief justice. Yet how many people know this – or, more importantly, care? We have purged ourselves of a prejudice that poisoned the country for a century and a half.

The aim of this talk has not been to minimize or dismiss problems facing us today – they are serious and troubling. But we are not living in the worst of times. They are merely our times.

Our times are dominated by a host of Chicken Littles. The original Chicken Little, you will recall, was hit on the head by an acorn, after which he ran around the barnyard yelling that the sky was falling.  If you want attention today, you also have to insist that the sky is falling. You won’t see a headline saying, “Speaker assures audience that the sky is in place”. 

I have some specific suggestions how all of us can make our times better:

  • View with skepticism the peeps of all the Chicken Littles who claim that our very resilient nation is in decline or that democracy is in its death throes. 
  • Be a smart consumer of news. Back in the 18th century, when it traveled at the speed of a horse, Voltaire said: “When we hear news, we should await the sacrament of confirmation.” Truly, even with something as mundane as a house fire, the first reports are usually wrong. We therefore shouldn’t automatically and instantly resend to our contacts some reported outrage. Then we become Chicken Littles. It is better to “await the sacrament of confirmation” before we resend anything, if at all.
  • When you hear elected officials blame all the nation’s ills on the other party, I suggest you ask them, “What are you personally doing to reach across the aisle to solve these problems and not just talk about them?” 
  • My final suggestion is to read more history, the better to weigh our times against those that people have lived through, endured, and survived in the past. Every period has its problems and challenges. There never was a golden age, though nostalgia for a particular decade or year may lead us to remember its good aspects and forget the bad ones.

I hope this talk has served to put our times into historical perspective. As President Harry Truman liked to say, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

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