Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Reflecting on lessons from the Civil War in today’s political climate

Our democracy and society are always at stake

Josh/ Flickr

Josh/ Flickr

By Jacob Johnson, Collegian Contributor

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On this day, April 12, in 1861, the American Civil War began with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter. Over the next four years, 620,000 American deaths were tallied.

In the dramatic saga of modern politics, people have the tendency to exaggerate and inflate the doom and gloom of our future. Rhetoric of battle and drawing lines in the sand have propagated to even mainstream acceptability. If one were to listen to the most pessimistic of us, we would feel a tension in the air comparable to the Cold War, as if a bomb will fall tomorrow.

Otherwise serious people have casually, flippantly tossed out sentiments at least tolerant of a second violent confrontation between civil Americans. On the right, more absolutist and aggressive guns rights and anti-government advocates regularly articulate a desire for open warfare. On the left, there is a perception among some that heartland Americans are so backward as to be left in the dustbin of history.

Our democracy and society are always at stake in that we are always in danger of losing them. Though it couldn’t be said we are more divided today than we were two centuries ago, there is no guarantee against slipping back into disarray. Today’s political discourse could use a solemnity and seriousness usually lacking in the 24-hour punditry cycle.

It is worth remembering the real facts of real history—our history—which involves the indiscriminate slaughter of brother and brother, father and son. Our Civil War is one of those uniquely American moments in world history, balancing so many paradoxes and tragedies and hopes and dramas.

President Lincoln thought the Civil War was a scourge from God, punishment for a collective, national sin: slavery. The war did not spare the North or the South. Each were ravaged by the deaths of their youth, the inevitable result of war. But the truth is that the memory of this terrible period contains within it all the seeds of hope, change and a bright future.

It is strange to articulate this, but America is better off for having underwent its Civil War. We tore each other apart, this entire nation, yet what is forged in the fires returns resplendent, refined and greater: the abolishment of slavery and a slightly more perfect union. The universe rewards balance, and when reality itself separates in two, there is a tendency to return to that former balance.

To take another example from history, World War II could be described as hell on earth. It was the most momentous conflict in human history. No one could be said to have truly prospered from it. Yet, it would be true to say that humanity is better off for having known hell: Now we know what to avoid.

There is no need to undergo the same process twice. History serves as the guidebook for the future, to be studied and corrected. The future will always resemble the past if the present changes nothing.

Politics doesn’t necessarily need to be peaceful, but war, death and violence seem altogether a different mindset, one not of politics but of the void. A society is psychologically unwell that tolerates the sacrifice and self-murder of its own citizens engaged in the petty, increasingly violent arena of political discourse.

Rallies and marches should never become violent, lest we forget the victories of past rallies, past marches. The impulse to see your neighbor injured isn’t one that belongs to the American heart.

Instead, the true heroes of the political world will be beacons of conciliation, compassion and unity, not vengeful division. When the Civil War came to a close, and President Lincoln delivered his second and final inaugural address, he evoked Matthew: “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

As Americans, all the deeds and shames and heroisms of one citizen seem to reflect back on them and on all Americans. In the wake of several high-profile national debates, primarily the debates on gun control, it is important to contemplate the origins of life in this country and the hell that those lives inflicted on one another. They died, so we might not.

Jacob Johnson is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]


2 Responses to “Reflecting on lessons from the Civil War in today’s political climate”

  1. NITZAKHON on April 12th, 2018 12:11 pm

    We on the Right are not openly advocating, or desirous of, open warfare.

    We’re warning you – keep on the path you’re on and it will happen.

    Today is Yom Ha’Shoah. Six million Jews, and millions more, systematically murdered by a government gone mad. And then you wonder why people don’t want to give up guns.

    A Very Personal Opposition to Gun Control


  2. John Aimo on April 14th, 2018 3:06 pm

    Let’s examine the underlying context of this article “History serves as the guidebook for the future—to be studied and corrected.” This is a liberal/marxist interpretation. If you read Karl Marx you’ll see that part of the way he promoted socialism to gain followers was to tell them that they could change ‘history’, its a key part of the Marxist idealogy/belief system and this is why you will always see and hear liberals talk about ‘history’ and why they have this sort of megalomaniac belief that they are going to change history.

    This understanding of history is almost primitive, history is in the past, it’s gone, it is not a ‘guidebook for the future’. History obviously at least to an intelligent person cannot be ‘corrected’. It’s gone,dead. Liberals in their delusional belief have corrupted the teaching of history of school now, so now it’s basically an expansion of a people’s history of the united states by howard zinn taught in every history subject. I guess out of some belief that if students know the ‘real’ history and the ‘truth’ conveniently and very narrowly packaged within a social justice framework than they will ‘change the world’ the ‘arc of history will bend’ and become future Marxists.

    In this meandering column the columnist goes from the civil war to modern partisan politics to the news back to history to war world two then to an dogmatic assertion about history then to being concerned about ‘self-murder’ than to rallies then back to history, civil war and finally what appeared to be the real point of the column, to gun control.

    It is incredibly disorganized, unconvincing and incoherent argument and opinion piece. I may be the only person who comments on the story.

    Maybe if you want to ‘correct history’ and change the world , you should start working on your writing and argument skills.


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