Monday, November 30, 2009

Are there still lessons for us today from 1859?

With the sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of the Civil War coming upon us (the war started in 1861), there are a lot of organizations that are looking back on this crucial period in our country’s history. This is especially true in Virginia since so much of fighting took place in our great Commonwealth – including the first major land engagement of the war (First Manassas). It therefore shouldn’t be too surprising that Virginia will play host to several of the programs looking back at the war.

Among the many events taking place in Virginia are seven annual conferences to discuss different aspects of the war. One of those conferences was held earlier this year and focused on some of the important issues in the years running up to the war. After some of the prominent historians presented to the crowd they were interviewed by students from the University of Richmond. One of the questions asked of the historians was “Are there still lessons for us today from 1859?”

I bring this up because the answer Dr. Gregg D. Kimball provided really struck me as relevant to the current state of political affairs. You can watch his answer on the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s website, but I have also transcribed his answer to make it easier to see his argument.
I think that there are. What I find when I read the letters and diaries of people from this period is a cynicism about our time, about politics, about the possibilities of changing the society that they’re in. And I think that’s a really unhealthy thing. When you lose civil dialogue as a means of change, you’re in trouble. And I think that’s one of the things that’s happening. There’s a disbelief that politics can solve these issues and that any of the current politicians are up to that task. I think that would probably be the primary problem I see.

One other I’ll mention. Again, to start, I think we need to get outside of our comfort zone about what our world really looks like. We talked about how even people from the North who came into the South just looked the other way despite the fact that the affects of slavery were all around them. They didn’t do anything about it, they just assumed that’s the way the world was. Despite the fact that it personally, sometimes deeply, offended them.

I think that America is at its best when it’s up to those challenges and questioning why it is, things are the way they are. And I think that there were too few people willing to do that.
Now there are several things I think this answer gets at that I’d encourage people to discuss in the comment section of this post. 1)Do you agree with the overall sentiment that people need to be willing to question why things are the way they are? 2)Do you think he’s correct in describing the atmosphere in America during the years running up to the Civil War? 3)Do you see the similarities between his description of politics in the 19th Century and the current political climate?


  1. Interesting that you would post this today, because I was just talking about this sort of thing last night with my husband.

    I'm a big reader of social history (love it!) and am currently making my way through THE WAY WE NEVER WERE by Stephanie Koontz. It was originally published in 1992, and is already signficantly dated (despite a new prologue) but many of the comparisons she makes between the Gilded Age of the 1800's and the late 1900's is interesting and thoughtprovoking.

    But she also talks about cynacism, and it's corrosive role in American life. And on the surface, good liberally minded person that I am, that seems an obvious good. But as Bryan asks, is it?

    One thing that struck me about Koontz's book, is that it never addresses the period of the Civil War. It talks a lot about the early republican era following the Revolution, and then jumps into the period following the Civil War, skipping over the years that perhaps Kimball is alluding to.

    Because while he talks about cynacism, many historians talk about the huge wealth of idealism, especially in the New England/Northeastern states that leads up to the Civil War. (If you doubt that idealism, drive around Maine and you'll notice that they have as many Civil War memorials and cannons on display as Virginia!)

    Can it be true, I ask, that idealism itself can cause tremendous uprisings like the Civil War? While I don't think that's a simple answer, I do think that idealism and a "revolutionary" spirit can indeed cause such turmoil (and, in the spirit of our founding fathers, I will go so far as to say that it occasionally should.) But then, one has to ask, is there also a role for cynicism? And is one person's cynicism another person's realism? Is it cynical or realistic to ask if we can democratize places like Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance?

    Anyway, sorry for the long and rambling comment. Just that this really jumped out at me given some ideas that happened to be in my own head.

    (And my short answer to the immediate question -- are there lessons to be learned from 1859 is Yes. Absolutely Yes. It's what that lesson should be that is harder to answer!)

  2. (And why, WHY can't I spell cynicism?)