Have We Abandoned the "Last Best Hope of Earth"?
This past Thursday evening Representative Bennie G. Thompson, who chairs the House January 6 Committee, opened the first of a series of public hearings with remarks that included a couple references to the Civil War.
The words of the current oath taken by all of us—that nearly every United States Government employee takes—have their roots in the Civil War.
Throughout our history, the United States has fought against foreign enemies to preserve our democracy, electoral system, and country. When the United States Capitol was stormed and burned in 1814, foreign enemies were responsible.
Afterward, in 1862, when American citizens had taken up arms against this country, Congress adopted a new oath to help make sure no person who had supported the rebellion could hold a position of public trust. Therefore, Congresspersons and federal government employees were required for the first time to swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies—foreign and domestic….
Thinking back again to the Civil War, in the summer of 1864, the President of the United States believed he would be a doomed bid for reelection. He believed his opponent, General George McClellan, would wave the white flag when it came to preserving the Union. But even with that grim fate hanging in the balance, President Lincoln was ready to accept the will of the voters, come what may.
Thompson focused on the oaths that elected officials took during the Civil War, including Lincoln, to highlight the solemn pledge to defend the Constitution of the United States. As Thompson correctly pointed out, every president, regardless of political affiliation, has carried out that pledge to the best of their ability until Donald Trump incited and directed an insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Roughly 19 million Americans watched this first hearing, which is a positive sign, but I remain skeptical that viewership will match this in the coming weeks or that the hearings will make much of a difference. At times I wonder which is worse. The insurrection itself or that so many of us appear to be sleepwalking through it all.
As I was listening to Representative Thompson’s opening remarks I couldn’t help but think about another aspect of our Civil War that seems relevant right now.
Over 2 million men served in the United States Army between 1861 and 1865. The vast majority were volunteers that entered service during the first year of the war. Many of these men came from states that were never under direct military threat from Confederate armies. Many chose to reenlist in 1864 after years of bloody fighting and no guarantee that their cause would eventually triumph. Beginning in 1863 roughly 180,000 African Americans volunteered to fight for a nation that had compromised on slavery for decades and in which legalized racism and discrimination was rampant.
That initial wave of volunteers has always presented a challenge for students of history. Why did so many rush into the army? What exactly was at stake? Why did so many choose to remain in the ranks?
The volunteers were clear about the importance of defending the Union, the Constitution, and destroying the slaveocracy once and for all, but I’ve always thought that Lincoln summed it up best in his annual address to Congress in December 1862:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
There is little of that sense of urgency in the wake of an attempted insurrection that has done irreparable harm to our democracy and that will continue to eat away at our institutions until we come together first to acknowledge what happened and hold those people accountable who were responsible for it.
I don’t mean to sound overly nostalgic for an event that left so much destruction and death in its wake. As a historian I am acutely aware of the extent to which Americans were divided throughout the nation during the war, but however deep these divisions were, an embrace of nationalism/patriotism and sense of purpose held firm in the army and on the home front.
Today, with very few exceptions, one of the two major political parties can’t even acknowledge that an attempted insurrection took place last year. The man who incited it may very well be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. On Friday I tweeted the following.
While I acknowledge their courage and the price they’ve paid for serving on this committee, I worry about the consequences for our country if our expectations of public service shift in such a way. Where is the Republican equivalent of “War Democrats” today?
Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic, but the fact that a public prime-time hearing was needed at all to focus the nation on just how close we came to undermining democracy is disheartening.
Time will tell as to whether, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
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