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Historian James Kratsas: These are the best (and worst) of times

My fervent hope is to provide some historical perspective of the past year and the last three months.

The title I came up with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Maybe it should have been “These are the times that try men’s souls”

BEST OF TIMES

But there is evidence that these are the best of times—whereas vaccines typically take between 3 and 15 years, we have a vaccine in less than one year. A remarkable achievement, AND ITS FREE. Can you imagine what this would go for on the open market?

Best of times—yes, there is a sizable group who fail to acknowledge the existence and danger of COVID but the majority of us are wearing our masks, washing our hands, practicing social distancing—not only to protect ourselves but also our loved ones and the public at large.

WORST OF TIMES

But this has been the worst of times. Politics have deeply divided us, racial tension has increased, mistrust is rampant, people have been devastated economically, and we have faced not only external threats to our cyberspace and interests but also domestic threats to the very thing that binds us as a nation. —the Constitution.

Could anyone have imagined a pandemic that wound up killing 600,000 Americans, when peaceful protestors in Washington were jailed while 50,000 white supremacists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue unopposed by police, when immigration restrictions were Draconian, where there was a fear of subversives ruining our way of life, when a president brought on a political divisiveness not seen since the Civil War and a president who was unwilling to compromise with his opponents and openly expressed his racist ideas? No, not 2020—1918-1919. 

Yes, things were just as bad a 100 years ago but we survived and flourished as a nation.  Let’s look at a few more times when our country was divided:

A COUNTRY DIVIDED

  1. As early as the Washington administration we saw the forming of political parties—federalists vs. anti-federalists (those who believed the federal government should remain small and weak and were aligned with the French after the French Revolution). Federalists aligned with Britain because they were opposed to the bloodshed from the French Revolution but also they saw the economic benefits of trade with Great Britain. Remember this divide occurred during our infancy as a nation when the world and Americans wondered this government would last. By the end of Washington’s 8 years, the nation was divided politically and economically setting up the—
  2. Election of 1800 of John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson. Each side purchased and financially assisted their own newspapers beginning the first true media clash in politics. And that clash became very ugly—Jefferson fathering slave children, Adams desire to become king, each side accusing the other of wanting to start a war. It got bad enough that Adams got the Alien/Sedition acts passed. These allowed the government to jail anyone who criticized the government or Adams. These resulted in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which Adams’ Vice President, Jefferson, helped draft along with James Madison. They would allow states to make null and void any federal legislation they did not agree with…basically to cause the federal government to dissolve into the smaller fiefdoms or the states.
  3. War of 1812—America was deeply divided of the declaration of this war. New England states threatened succession over the war because of the harm the war was doing to New England’s trade with Britain.
  4. Adams-Jackson 1824 and 1828 elections…billed as the elitist vs the man of the people. The 1824 election resulted in Jackson receiving the most popular votes but none of the four candidates received the necessary electoral votes. The election went to the House to decide, where the outcome was uncertain…then Henry Clay who received the third most votes threw his elector votes to Adams in exchange for being named the Secretary of State. Jackson called it the corrupt bargain—a stolen election. He proceeded to attack JQ Adams for the next 4 years. Jackson won in 1828 during a bitter campaign—he was the people’s choice.
  5. The biggest divide in our nation’s history was unquestionably the Civil War. Yes, it was over slavery when the nation was pretty much equal slave and free but it was also over the economics where the North’s economy was beginning to dwarf that of the South. Those southern states also felt threatened politically, socially with their very way of life in jeopardy. But make no mistake this was a constitutional crisis—our republic was at the center of a struggle to see whether our great experiment would survive. Americans fought Americans, savagely and ruthlessly, when the president suspended habeas corpus, jailed Senators and Congressmen and condoned and urged his generals to inflict massive casualties on the enemy. To the South he was the embodiment of the antichrist. Yet this was the same man who drafted the most unifying of all inaugural addresses “With malice toward none with charity to all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
  6. The 20th century saw its share of trying times
  7. WWI/The Great Influenza—it was a time when German Americans were assaulted on the streets, when people Anglicized their German names, when towns were renamed such as Marne, MI after the battle in France—what was it called? Berlin, hence Berlin raceway. Woodrow Wilson downplayed the influenza because it might hamper the war effort, people refused to wear masks—that flu is still with us—its variant forms are what we get the annual flu shot for.
  8. The aftermath of WWI saw a wave of racism, nativism and anti-immigration. The Red Scare saw thousands deported for suspected communist leanings, immigration restricted to Draconian levels—when we allowed anyone from Great Britain, Canada and Northern Europe yet denied anyone from East Asia---and that didn’t change until the 1960s.
  9. The Great Depression was possibly the greatest threat to our way of life since the Civil War. The economic impact saw soup kitchens, hungry children and despair—unemployment was as high as 30%. There were plenty of demagogues who played up on the people’s fears. No coincidence that people such as Huey Long gained popularity among those who were hardest hit. A contemporary of that time wrote “the great masses of the people will more easily fall victim to the big lie than to a small one.” And “All propaganda has to be popularized, has to adapt…to the least intelligent.” It was a time of polar opposites---isolationists vs. internationalists as a result of WWI. Disillusioned with the war and the world—it helped give rise to totalitarian states such as Italy, Germany, Japan and Russia.
  10. Pearl Harbor changed all that and ended the great depression. For four years we were as united as it ever. But the aftermath brought back some familiar beliefs—foreigners and leftists were undermining our nation as the Cold War ramped up to a fever pitch in the 1950s. Senator Joe McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 known communists in the State department—a list not seen by anyone. He leveled suspicion on anyone including George Marshall who was the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during WWII and the Sect. of State. Suspicion was cast freely—Thomas Paine stated “Suspicion is the companion of mean souls and the bane of all good society.” Now add the Civil Rights movement on top of an already volatile climate and it was easy for one to think our way of life was being threatened.
  11. We all know about the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement in full throttle, protests against the war in Vietnam, the Supreme Court rulings against racism, the women’s movement, rise of the Black Panthers, the generation gap, the on-going Cold war—mainstream America felt under siege. When Nixon appealed to the Silent Majority he spoke to this segment. And the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. I assure you it was not a great time to grow up with all of the above and the war in Vietnam played out every night on tv, pollution, the growing generation gap and so much more.

WHERE ARE WE AS A NATION?

Before I give my observations let me state I am very conservative on certain things but just as liberal on other matters. One could think I’m wishy washy or I am one who would not be very well liked by either side of the political spectrum. In fact, I have worked for both a Democratic and Republican president.

  1. First, a few observations. We live in an age where politics are entertainment—possibly surpassing the popularity of sports. We have rabid fans of either party. I can’t remember a time when people wore their candidates’ hats and tee shirts as though it were New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys. There are more yard signs in yards and friends who refuse to speak to one another because of how they voted. Maybe election day will be our new Super Bowl. There are multiple TV networks, on-line news sources, twitter, Instagram and so many more. What I find sad is that liberals don’t watch FOX and conservatives don’t tune in to MSNBC—they appear afraid that their heads would implode. To be truly informed you have to listen, and I don’t mean acting as though you are while composing your response while the other is talking. Our republic is based on a citizenry that is well read and informed, not a knee jerk populace. Why are headlines speaking louder than facts?
  2. Second, we have become deaf to anyone who does not adhere to our way of thinking. When has a diverse opinion become grounds to label someone a Nazi or a communist?
  3. Third, we need to open our arms not clench our fists. We can achieve more together than apart. Leaders lead best when they don’t cater to extremists—leaders tamp down those fringe elements. Fear should not be the motivation—consensus is the goal. Don’t enough countries around the world hate us? Let’s not allow them to relish in our divisions.

LOOKING AT OUR MOST RECENT PAST

The storming of the Capitol was the equivalent of a lynch mob. They were not there to right a wrong—they were there to overturn a result they didn’t like. They were no different than any other lawless group bent on destruction. They allowed their anger to be played out on others. Lincoln said “There is no grievance that is fit object of redress by mob law.” We smirk when we see such violence occur in less developed countries.

There are those who are weaponizing patriotism. Patriots don’t commit acts of sedition and violence, attacking the very symbol of our republic—that shining structure on a hill. They exact change through peaceful, legal avenues. 

What they were trying to do is overturn the election. Every four years I hear the outcry from the left and the right to eliminate the electoral college. January 6 was a fire bell in the night for us to ensure its existence. There are many reasons to retain it but the prevention of mob rule was what Hamilton and Madison had in mind when it was put into the Constitution.

The idea that the election was stolen has been completely debunked by the courts, unanimously by the Supreme Court, and election officials of both parties. The idea of the election being stolen is a classic big lie.

And several of those who stormed the Capitol were in the military or veterans—They broke their solemn oath they took when they were inducted—“to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

HISTORY GIVES HOPE

But I am not worried for the future of this nation. Those extremists are hardly America but they certainly got their 15 minutes of fame. They are not new and they will never go away completely. They feel threatened by change and there were those who spoke to their fear and their angst.

Right now we all have angst—the times of COVID and of uncertainty don’t help. Many feel that it’s a hoax or a conspiracy. We lead the world in deaths from COVID by more than twice the amount of the second highest…yet we have 4-5% of the world’s population. Our current death rate from COVID is one every 20 seconds—the same rate as the troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D Day.

Is our nation stressed? Heck, yeah—we should all be talking to a mental health professional. Wearing masks, compulsive hand sanitizing, remaining at home, being denied the real pleasure of being with our loved ones and friends, working from home, losing your job and healthcare would put a strain on anyone. But it won’t go away unless we try and contain it, and even then we will probably need a new vaccine every year. After all, our flu shots are for the variants from the 1918 flu.

Yet we have skeptics—we also have flat earth proponents. Thomas Paine said “Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.”

Will we get through all of this? I believe we will and we will flourish as we always have. But we have to work at it—by voting, working hard, making money, becoming an active member of our country and realize we are the most blessed nation in history. Will we tear down each other or will we tolerate those of different viewpoints—And will we strive to be informed, because only an informed populace can preserve the United States.

I’ll end on this little anecdote:

As the constitutional convention came to an end, ending after four months of strict secrecy, Ben Franklin was asked by a group “Well, Mr. Franklin what have all of you come up with.” His reply, “A republic, if you can keep it.”


Historian James Kratsas was formerly the deputy director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, and successfully worked for both a Democratic and Republican president. Kratsas spoke to WMU-Cooley Law School faculty, staff, and students during a virtual presentation on Feb. 9, 2021 about why he feels confident our country will be preserved as the United States of America.

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