Just two lifetimes ago, December 15, 1860, the United States of America stood at the brink of a crisis that threatened the existence of the country and led to the deaths of more than a million of its citizens. The Civil War that ensued was a battle for the soul of a nation, as well as a conflict over concrete economic, social, and governmental issues.
The New York Times is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by publishing daily articles from its 1860-65 editions. Modern readers have the opportunity to read what our great-grandparents were seeing during one of the most difficult periods in the history of our country. By simply going to www.nytimes.com, anyone can see history come alive just as it does on the pages of our newspapers today. There are fascinating parallels.
The chronicles of 1860 include a discussion of the Crittenden Compromise, a proposal that would have allowed slavery to continue in most places into the indefinite future. President-elect Lincoln privately opposed the compromise even though he was publicly not in favor of immediate abolition of slavery. Modern day commentators suggest Lincoln was disingenuous, just as President Obama is now subject to similar criticism for compromising with Republican legislators on extending tax cuts for even the wealthiest taxpayers. I believe both cases are examples of leaders having to make pragmatic judgments about what they believed to be best for the nation as a whole, recognizing the specific circumstances of a given time. We often form opinions about the motives and actions of leaders without knowing what they know and with the benefit of perfect hindsight.
I believe we can gain great insight into modern problems by following the events of the past and learning the lessons to be found there. We are not likely to solve intractable issues with knowledge of the past; but we can apply our understanding of important events to our times in ways that help prevent and resolve, at least temporarily, many of history’s persistent problems. The debate over the scope and power of the federal government is as timely, if not as violent, today as it was 150 years ago.
I can almost imagine Christmas in the home of my great-grandfather Adam Hare, who was about five years old during the holiday season of 1860. We believe he lived somewhere near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his father, mother, and older brother. I doubt there were many presents or even much to celebrate in what seems to have been a very poor household. There is some evidence that Adam’s father, William, served in the Union army and died shortly after the Civil War. I know of many relatives from different branches of my family that served on both sides during the conflict.
My family history was profoundly influenced by a civil war that, in the end, was caused by an inherent weakness built into the country that was to become the United States. The failure to address that weakness created a debt comprised of misery and misfortune that we continue to pay today. Confronting our collective problems and resolving them before they lead to violent conflict should be one of the great lessons of the Civil War. I hope that as we celebrate the season of peace in 2010, we will remember the events of 150 years past with understanding and a commitment to do better.