For some months, I’ve been chewing on what and whether to write, regarding the state of our nation. My decision was to take a short walk through history. In the interest of space, I’ll offer few citations here, though glad to provide them.
What we now know as America started with 13 colonies who, by challenging the British, established themselves as a country. At the dawn of the 19th century, they were little more than a collection of states, with Hamilton urging a cohesive national unity and identity, and Madison and Jefferson preferring a more agrarian federation of states. Early in the 19th century, during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, we fought and defeated the pirates of the Barbary Coast and reminded Britain that we were a free country. There was much acrimony, name-calling, several duels, and literally one Congressman caning another in the House Chamber. And yet America moved forward.
As the U.S. moved into the 19th century, and expanded west, the tension around the question of a strong federal government versus strong states and a weaker federal government continued. Andrew Jackson favored a strong federal government, John Calhoun favored strong states, and Henry Clay did his best to mediate. This tension generally expressed itself around the issue of slavery and came to a head with what is referred to as the Civil War.
Opinions were strong, words were fierce, and there were fistfights and duels among elected officials and the general populace. As the Civil War started, many of the northern states sent local and state-wide militia dressed in state-specific uniforms. At the end of the war, the northern Army was a unified unit and for the first time, America, and in particular the north, stood as a unified country. Sixty to seventy years into our life as a nation, we resolved our first identity crisis and thankfully, decided that we wanted no part of human slavery. America moved forward.
Immigration Discrimination Participation
Three overarching themes for the period from the 1870’s through the early 20th century were immigration, capital/labor, and America’s participation in the larger world. People from around the world came to America and many of them faced racism and discrimination from citizens and politicians alike. There were calls to limit immigration and send immigrants back. Chief among those who faced such discrimination were the Irish and the Chinese. While many former slaves and their families had nominal freedom, lack of intentionality, the sharecropping system, and the “separate but equal” philosophy kept many descendants of slaves in a state of servitude.
During this time many of the wealthy faced intense hatred and antagonism from the population, fueled often by journalists and politicians, both of whom had a platform. Socialism, communism and workers unions made great progress in America during this period. Eugene Debs, one of the leaders of the Socialists/Communists, gathered 6% of the popular vote in the 1912 presidential election. Any number of workers’ strikes during this period led to armed combat and the death of participants.
America also had the opportunity to involve themselves in the Philippines, Mexico, and Cuba. Again, all very controversial decisions, both at home and abroad. Then the U.S. entered WWI, again with much conflict and disagreement at home, though ultimately to protect American merchant ships. At the end of the war, two million GI’s returned home, flooding the labor market, and bringing what was called the Spanish Flu.
Unemployment surged, wages and the prices of beef and other commodities dropped, and almost everyone had family members who died from the flu. In addition, there was a roughly 18-month recession in 1920-21.
From these experiences, America began to embrace its identity as the emerging world leader, employers began improving working conditions for employees, and immigration continued. America moved forward.
Flower Power and Vietnam
And so, 40 to 50 years later, more social unrest. The military action in Vietnam was enormously unpopular, a surging economy post-WWII had created a level of economic prosperity unknown in world history, and again, America faced questions about its handling of the race question, and its place in the world. What a few of us remember are riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, as well as the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy that same year. We also remember the trial of William Calley over what was known as the My Lai Massacre, the killing of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, and the Patty Hearst kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Along with all this, there was a growing peace movement, fueled by music, left-handed cigarettes and other recreational drugs. And there were also riots. One of the early ones was the Watts riots or Watts Uprising in the Watts section of LA in August 1965. These riots spread throughout the country over the next several years, with almost every major city experiencing what were often deemed race-related riots. And I’ve completely ignored Tricky Dick and Watergate.
Once again, America was in crisis, working to clarify its identity. And again, America moved forward.
More social unrest, another virus, spiking unemployment, political tension, the rise of socialism and communism…This isn’t new.
These stories are as old as our country and honestly, as old as recorded history. There has always been sickness and death. It’s the journey of life, regardless of how many safety features and guarantees we attempt to build in. There will always be misunderstanding and suspicion across people groups, though I urge each of us to opt out of this approach in favor or building relationships with others. There will always be political tension and crooked politicians.
What Do We Do?
We have choices. Will we choose to move forward?
I’ll wrap up with a quote, and a phrase from a song.
“I am perfectly willing to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Corrie ten Boom
“God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above.”