I’m concerned. A lot of people are concerned, really. It seems like our political system in the United States is spiraling out of control, and it’s not clear what can be done to stop it. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is not completely reassuring, but it does help to put our current state into a broader historical context.
The War of Northern Aggression
As I write this, I’m sitting in a state that seceded from the United States as a part of the Confederacy. In this border state, one can still find Confederate flags and other reminders of a time long since past. Here, they wouldn’t speak of the Civil War. They’d speak of the “War of Northern Aggression.” If you’ve not heard that term before, you’ve not engaged in enough conversations while in the South. Like the conversations that we have today, where facts are warped to support feelings, the Southerners convicted by the conflict will insist that the war was one of Northern aggression.
The issue surrounds Fort Sumter, which sits in Charleston, SC’s harbor. South Carolina seceded from the United States, but the fort wasn’t relinquished from federal control, so the Confederacy attacked it. While the Confederacy may not have felt the United States was within its rights to hold the fort, the simple fact of the matter is that the first shot was fired by the Confederacy on the United States Fort Sumter.
I start with this story not because it’s contained within the pages of the book but rather because I see it as a real and practical example about how we don’t always listen to facts when we’re choosing our positions.
Certainly, any historian would point to the Civil War and the resulting disruption to slavery as a contentious time in our nation’s history. Lincoln was clear that freeing the slaves wasn’t his point. His goal was to maintain the integrity of the Union, and if slaves were freed as a part of that process, that would be fine. History paints Lincoln in brighter colors, but his motives weren’t as altruistic as we’d like to believe.
It would be decades of Jim Crow laws and discrimination before Harry Truman would push forward a civil rights program that included anti-lynching legislation. It’s frightening to me that we had to enact such laws. It was Eisenhower who Invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807, deployed the 101st Airborne division, and federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard to ensure that nine Black students could go to school.
It would be another six years before Martin Luther King Jr. would stand at the Lincoln Memorial and share his “I Have a Dream” speech. Kennedy’s assassination spurred Johnson toward completing the civil rights work that Kennedy had started. Johnson stated that he was willing to lose a chance at reelection if he could get the civil rights bill passed. Of course, this didn’t eliminate discrimination, but it codified that it was illegal and allowed for legal pressure to resolve the issues that were once an accepted part of life for Black Americans.
This is a window into the constant turmoil that we have faced as a nation for over 100 years – if we start at the Emancipation Proclamation. While we think of the 1960s as an era of civil rights, few realize that the work began with Truman and Eisenhower.
It’s important to state that slavery in general and the length of time it took to get to our current state is a black spot in the history of the United States. Too few people are aware of just how long the struggle took.
It starts with fear. Communism came to be widely feared throughout the United States. We didn’t fear an invasion or attack from the communists. We feared that they’d infiltrate us from within and destroy the American ideal. We feared that our friends and neighbors might silently be sympathetic to communism. We particularly feared that people in our own government were moles for communism.
Senator McCarthy played on these fears with endless theatrics that claimed to find evidence of people’s involvement only to have these baseless claims evaporate in the light of the day. Still, few were willing to lock horns with him, because they feared the fallout if he turned his gaze towards them. While some stood up against McCarthy, it wasn’t as many as those who should have. While his reign of terror has since ended, it was allowed to continue for far too long.
What’s striking about McCarthyism is that we’re seeing it play out again. Trump knowingly promulgated false information to the public about COVID-19. He played on the fears of people losing their jobs to illegal immigrants “pouring” over the United States-Mexican border. His hyperbole regarding the wall and the misinformation regarding COVID-19 cannot help but be seen in the context of McCarthy and the adeptness that he shifted from one issue to the next to prevent the American public from catching on to his shell game.
No one – including Trump – are all good or all bad. Both McCarthy and Trump have been adept at reading the politics of a situation and adapting. However, that’s not the thing that we need most.
Slow, Stumbling Steps
We make and have made many mistakes. We fail to act quickly enough. We fall prey to fear and divisiveness, and we always have. The fact that even today there are divisions around the Civil War (over 150 years ago) is evidence that we don’t always make progress quickly. Enlightenment exists within our boundaries, but it’s too narrowly dispersed.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While we cannot expect that today or even tomorrow we’ll be the country we desire to be, the expectation is that, in time, we’ll be better than we are today. Maybe we’ll even find The Soul of America.