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Not Alone in History: Dreading a National Crisis

Depicts a land battery, with fake cannons positioned in gun emplacements built from sand on a beach, a group of soldiers are encamped in a ditch behind the emplacement, amusing themselves, while a few other soldiers stand guard.

Some of my friends are sharing the popular meme about imagined apocalypse-wear of spiky rags versus the reality of pajamas. Others refer with tongue-in-cheek seriousness to TheBefore Times: namely last month when we could venture out in groups, eat in restaurants, or go to a job. It’s the Internet’s way of making jokes about this moment that feels like suspended animation—waiting to see if we recover, or if society falls apart. 

The more serious out there have begun to declare that things will never be the same again. The contributors to this Politico round-up don’t present any Mad Max scenarios, but they do offer some ideas about how Covid-19 may change everything. 

Society may recover or it may fall apart; but life after will be different, one way or another. 

It’s frightening, to be honest; made all the worse by our mandate to hunker down in our homes while millions of us lose our jobs and shiver at the idea that we may be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. I’m surprised that there aren’t more zombie metaphors. 

In our homes-turned-schools we are responding in different ways. I seek distraction in memes and binge-watching Netflix. Others spend time exploring the world via the web just to avoid boredom and anxiety, or to take the opportunity of down time to uplift ourselves. We’re crowding onto Zoom for meetings and meetups—any social connection works. Quite a few are working to alleviate the desperate needs of others: doctors and nurses, grocery store clerks, and food bank volunteers are the new front line soldiers. Still more mourn what we’ve already lost. And not a few—like the contractors that have been jackhammering the street in front of my house all week, or my neighbors crowding the liquor store two blocks over—go on as if nothing is going on. 

The uncertainty plagues us. 

But we are not alone in history. 

Our generation that has lived with relative peace, predictability, and security is so distant from the historical experience of much of humanity. In the past—and the recent past, too—plagues, wars, economic collapse, authoritarians, anarchy, and racism has meant that people wake up each morning uncertain of what life-changing disaster the day might bring. 

Can we learn from the past? Maybe. Can we take comfort from the fact that we’ve been here before? I hope so. 

Depicts a land battery, with fake cannons positioned in gun emplacements built from sand on a beach, a group of soldiers are encamped in a ditch behind the emplacement, amusing themselves, while a few other soldiers stand guard.
Quaker Battery by Conrad Wise Chapman, Depicting a land battery, with fake cannons positioned in gun emplacements built from sand on a beach, a group of soldiers are encamped in a ditch behind the emplacement, amusing themselves, while a few other soldiers stand guard.

Americans in the 1850s anticipated a conflagration over the sectional crisis (or at least the dissolution of what was known.) Some, like Virginia’s southern nationalist Edmund Ruffin, welcomed it; so much so that he contemplated suicide in 1859, despairing that the south would never leave the Union. Frederick Douglass looked forward to a positive transformation, seeing “in this war the end of slavery.” More dreaded the consequences of disunion. Conservatives on both sides, and many women, predicted nothing but a downward spiral of death and destruction. Some Cassandras agreed–prognosticating a nasty frontier bloodbath; class war; or racial extermination. 

While a few ardent secessionists and eager Republicans found it expedient to predict a quick and bloodless contest–a lark, really, an opportunity to humiliate an opponent and prove manhood–most dreaded the future, no matter the outcome. Despite our popular imagination, not many predicted a quick and bloodless contest.

As secession unfolded and moderate politicians pursued peace negotiations, people in the Upper South found their imaginations and their daily lives permeated by a gloomy anxiety. In Salem, North Carolina, Moravians attempting to conduct a routine festival found that few showed up, “it is said, by anxiety and apprehension on account of the present disturbed and distracted state of the country.” One southern Unionist considered the secession crisis a “gloom that has settled upon the nation, and [a] thick darkness that has pervaded our political horizon.” The could sense that society may recover or it may fall apart; but life after would be different one way or another. 

The America of the Civil War era was, of course, vastly different from our world today. We now live in a fully industrialized nation, held together with complex and sophisticated systems of education, welfare, entertainment, and government-mandated (if grudgingly applied) economic safety nets. If information in the Civil War era had been accelerated by the telegraph and the proliferation of literacy and the news, we have the hyper-speed of the Internet. I am diabetic and am kept alive by medicine and devices that are delivered by an expensive supply chain. I could not survive without it and at any other point in history I’d already be dead. How close are we to those systems and chains breaking down? I would say that modern science governmental safeguards have made the spread of disease a thing of the past, but, apparently, I would be wrong. 

Peace and Plenty by George Inness. Painted toward the end of the Civil War, this large composition was intended as a direct challenge to the grandiose, literal style of the Hudson River School painters. he title, the depiction of a bountiful harvest, and statements by the artist associated with this and other pictures made during the war suggest his faith in Union victory and prosperity. (The MET, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1894)

Perhaps we are closer to a traumatic life-changing event than we realize.

The biggest difference is that we know the transformative results of the national crisis of 1861. The bag is mixed: Union victory unleashed a remarkably creative and wildly productive monetary and industrial complex that enriched many, exploited others, and equipped the nation to destroy Native American civilization in a determined drive to conquer the continent and become a global power. Yet the single most important outcome of the Civil War was the emancipation of millions of Black men and women. Certainly worth the initial anxiety over disunion.   

How will our present moment transform us? Is the dire comparison to the onset of a Civil War warranted? Will we be back to “normal” by August, distracted by the next bingeworthy Netflix show? 

What do you think? 

Woman standing in a park alone with the sun setting in front of her.

Through it all, we are laughing, mourning, learning, and helping. How we do those things say much about ourselves–who we are, and who we might aspire to be–if not how this will turn out. One thing our coping mechanisms reveal is that we are not alone in history. Americans have been through uncertainty before. 

For more on how antebellum Americans imagined the coming conflict, see Jason Phillips, Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth Century Americans Imagined the Future(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Not Alone in History is a 5-part blog series that seeks to find insights in the ways that Americans faced another national crisis as we confront the present COVID-19 pandemic.