That I’m choosing to (mostly) not talk about our current political situation online doesn’t mean I’m not interested or paying attention. I am, and in various ways it impacts me, but I’m doing what I feel I can offline to affect change rather than getting into arguments online about. I’ve talked about some of that here.
Another thing I’ve been doing is diving into history to try to get a better understanding of how we got to this place in time. That’s led to some interesting insights, so I thought I would offer up some reading if you are curious as well, and offer some thoughts on how the past is helping me better understand the present.
Books Mentioned in this Article
- Hamilton by Ron Chernow
- The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan
- The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson
- The Vietnam War: A Concise International History by Mark Atwood Lawrence
- Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow
- The Korean War by Max Hastings
The Beginnings of Today
One thing that’s usually glossed over in American history taught in schools is how the United States became United. You have the Declaration of Independence in 1776, you have the war of independence happens, then the Constitution is ratified and we’re this one big happy family of a country.
Except that’s not exactly the reality of the time. Forgotten in most teachings is that this all took place over more than a decade, with the Revolutionary war going on from 1777-1783, and then the Constitutional Congress drafting the constitution in early 1787, ratification wasn’t concluded until late 1788, elections scheduled for late 1788 and early 1789, and our first government under the election not being seated until March of 1789. The last state to formally ratify the constitution was Rhode Island, and it didn’t until 1790.
Also generally not taught is that only ten states signed the Constitution, and it was passed by a bare minimum of states for ratification, with the rest only coming on after ratification was approved because they didn’t see being independent as a viable option. The site Constitution Daily has a nice summary of the time.
The big fight was between the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison), who were in favor of a strong central government, and the anti-federalists, or states rights groups, led by, among others, Patrick Henry and James Monroe (later the fifth president) and George Clinton, governor of New York and later Vice President. It was about where the power of the government should reside, in a central group or at the State level. That fight was tied to many other issues, of course, especially taxation — and slavery. Most of the anti-federalist supporters came from states with strong support of slavery.
Hamilton by Ron Chernow
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Alexander Hamilton was one of the key people in this fight, one of the authors (with Madison) of the Federalist Papers, and a major force in the design of what became our constitution as well as how the federal government handled money and financed itself. For a long time he was somewhat neglected in the teachings of history but Ron Chernow wrote the biography Hamilton and that brought him back into the spotlight where his contributions were again being recognized. It becoming a successful Broadway play didn’t hurt either.
The Hamilton book goes into much detail about this time period and the conflicts, and it shows just what a close call it was for the Constitution to be implemented. Even in the early days of its formations, the United States was anything but, with huge differences in attitudes, economics and opinions. It was a near thing that the United States as we understand it today ever happened.
And if you read Chernow’s Hamilton, you see the seeds of today’s conflicts and understand that much of the disagreements we’re seeing today have roots going back to the very founding of the country and which have been unresolved the entire time. If nothing else, this should teach us that there are no simple answers to these conflicts.
The American Civil War
The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters
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The American Civil War: A Military History
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The next major nexus point to look at is the American Civil War. It broke out in 1861 and went on for four years, with the split primarily being between the North (more industrialized, urban and liberal, and increasingly anti-slavery) and the South (more agricultural, rural and conservative and economically dependent on slavery). It was again about more than slavery, but in many ways, it was the fight between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists hitting another point in time where both sides had hit that point where discussion and compromise were failing and it escalated into arms and war.
I’m fairly new to studying the Civil War; it wasn’t really a time of interest to me until recently, so I’m just starting to dig into it. I can strongly recommend a couple of books if you want to dig into it: The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters by James McPherson and The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan.
Of interest and something I need to read about more is the time after the Civil War. Lincoln was a strong Federalist and during and after the end of the Civil War was pushing for the Reconstruction of the South and further freedoms (including right to vote and own land) for the freed slaves. After he was assassinated, the Presidency shifted to Andrew Johnson, a strong states-rights advocate, who pushed back on many of Lincoln’s ideas and denied the thought that the Federal Government had power over the governing of the states. Under Johnson, the states were required to abolish slavery, pay off their war debts and swear loyalty to the union, but beyond that they had basically free reign in their states.
Out of this came the anti-black legislations that have become known as the Jim Crow laws, effectively legislating in slavery in all but name via segregation and repression, and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.
In 1875 the Democrats (pro-slavery, states rights party) used a strong campaign of violence and intimidation to win control of the state house of representatives for the first time since the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant refused to send in troops to stop the violence, effectively ending the federal government’s willingness to fight against the racists and the Klan. Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 worked out a deal with the democrats in Congress to certify his election and in return recognize the democratic control of the southern states. This ended any idea of reconstruction and pushing out the anti-black attitudes and laws. There’s a nice overview of the Reconstruction era on History.com.
The Civil Rights era and Vietnams
The Vietnam War: A Concise International History
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Vietnam: A History
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This conflict continued forward, and the next major fight started in 1954 when the Supreme Court threw out the concept of “separate but equal” that the Southern states were using to enforce segregation. This is the era of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, the March on Selma, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. I’m just old enough to have been alive for most of this period but not really old enough to really have understood it at the time; I remember watching television showing the attacks on protestors outside of the Chicago convention in 1968 and various other fragments, but I see this on a very shallow level. Reading into this era is on my list.
It was also the era of the Vietnam War, and the two are strongly intertwined. I remember nightly body counts on the evening news during dinner, but I’m just starting to dig into this war as well. I can recommend a couple of books for those who want to learn more, one a nice and fairly high level introduction, the other more in depth: The Vietnam War: A Concise International History by Mark Atwood Lawrence and Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow.
It’s clear, though, that the conflicts that split the country from its very founding and through the Civil War boiled over again into overt conflict. The 60’s bred a generation that adopted activism to protest the war in Vietnam, and that activism also was used to support and push for civil rights and the removal of those Jim Crow laws and outright racism in the South.
One thing to learn about history is this: progress is never easy or linear: there are always conflicts, there are always delays and there are setbacks. What is necessary, however, is to not let the setbacks defeat you, but to keep working to move forward, limit how much the setback takes away, and try to push the momentum forward again as soon as you can.
If there’s a key lesson to the Civil War it’s that the progress made starting with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended too soon when Grant and Hayes gave up the fight and that fight was renewed in the 60s with the Civil Rights conflicts and led to the progress we see in society today: incomplete but far better than existed in the 50’s and the 80 years prior.
Looking at today’s political climate and conflicts through the lessons of the past, you can see the current fight as being an attempt to push back the gains won from the Civil Rights era by those that want to see them removed.
You can also see from the past that one thing we can’t afford to do is stop pushing for progress, because when that happened after the Civil War, most of the gains were rolled back and lost for the next century. It’s a fight that has to continue.
One reason we got to this point: President Obama. He was one of the strongest Federalist type presidents we’ve had, and used federal powers to drive forward many changes and programs. It’s not really a surprise to me that we’re seeing this push back against that and an attempt to roll his legacy back in the name of states rights.
It’s important we do what we can to maintain his legacies and limit the damage; to me this looks like the desperate moves of a losing side, willing to play scorched earth rather than compromise. If we can limit what gets burnt along the way, we’ll be in better shape to move forward again once they’re removed from power.
We also have to see some way to finally put this conflict to rest. My feeling is that the solution is to a degree generational; we need to break the cycle of teaching that bring children up to hold those attitudes. The removal of Confederate Statues and the display of the Confederate flag may seem petty or symbolic, but in reality most of those statues were erected to honor the Jim Crow era laws and celebrate the attitudes of racism that are underlying the states rights movements of the south.
History shows us this won’t be easy, but it’s something we have to continue to work towards.
One thing I want to make clear: while it should be clear that I’m tying the current problems to our historical roots and the unresolved conflicts surrounding racism, I don’t believe most people supporting trump or the current administration are racists. It’s much more complicated than that.
The pace of change the last decade has been immense. I long thought we wouldn’t see marriage equality in my lifetime, but it got momentum and it happened. There are a lot of people who’ve felt uncomfortable with the changes and the rate things are changing, and the GOP took advantage of that and played on it by pushing a move back to the good old days. They signed on.
This doesn’t make them racist, but those that are latched onto this and hijacked this group for their own goals. I personally feel like we didn’t do enough to help people get comfortable with the changes that have happened in the last ten to fifteen years, instead there was more an attitude of “it’s happening, deal with it”. They did: they voted for people promising to roll it back.
The question is how we can get things moving forward again. One answer I think ought to be explored is how to get that group that was looking to slow it down to move away from the more radical elements. Yelling “RACIST” at them isn’t the answer; they aren’t, and that simply makes them stop listening at all. It’s happened enough that engaging in dialog is now tough, and I don’t have a good answer, but it seems like part of the solution we need to search for.
The answers? I don’t have them. But from reading about how we got here, I feel like I’m starting to understand where to find them.
Coda: The Korean War
The Korean War
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Another time of conflict I’d never really studied until this year was the Korean War, which in all honesty I knew mostly from the TV show MASH. This kind of hit home a bit once it became clear that our current administration was starting to see North Korean conflict as a place where it could display it’s power.
If you want to read more about the Korean War, I can recommend The Korean War by Max Hastings. To put it mildly, the war was a complete disaster for the United States, which is why it’s not really taught much in American History (“it’s a police conflict. Next”).
One thing you can learn, though, is that thinking you can bluff or bluster your way to changing minds in Korea is a mistake, and thinking that putting troops down into this region again would be anything but a disaster. Hastings book is a good way to understand this under-discussed part of our history, especially now that it’s back on the front page.
And to be honest? I think any attempt at a second conflict in Korea would make us remember Vietnam fondly in comparison…