The Amend Corner

Our parallels with the past

Posted 4/30/20

It has been easy for me to deal with the current quarantining of America.

I had already been spending most of my time at home, with only occasional forays to the coffee shop or the sidewalks …

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The Amend Corner

Our parallels with the past

Posted

It has been easy for me to deal with the current quarantining of America.

I had already been spending most of my time at home, with only occasional forays to the coffee shop or the sidewalks around my home. I haven’t had much trouble eliminating those activities, which, after all, occupied less than 5% of my time. I have had no trouble filling that 5%; I’ve just read more, watched more and listened more.

Given my interests, which border on an addiction to the story of humanity, that translates into more history, from the distant past — like before the dinosaurs — to the present, and even some dabbling in what may happen in the future.

History, of course, is a pretty broad subject, especially if you include historical events that happened before anybody was writing history, and even before there were humans. Even after there were historians to write things down, cities and even whole civilizations developed and disappeared, leaving only the remains of temples, homes, sewer systems and other markers of those civilizations for archeologists to dig up and analyze.

There is no rhyme nor reason in the way I approach history. Since this quarantine thing began, my reading and watching has touched on the three wars in American history, the pagan religions of the Roman Empire, how Christianity replaced paganism and became the religion of Europe. I’ve learned about the Spanish settlement of Florida, thereby beating the English settlers by half a century. In addition, I learned about the conflicts within early Christianity, some music history, and how English and all those other languages came to be. Given our current situation, it’s probably appropriate that I’m learning about the Black Death, plagues that devastated Medieval Europe almost 7,000 years ago.

One of the things I like about history is that I often find parallels to life today. That’s what I found in “Hymns of the Republic,” by S.C. Gwynne, which narrates events in the last year of the Civil War. The election of 1864 was approaching and everybody, including Abraham Lincoln himself, thought he would lose the election in November to George McClellan, the popular general who had clashed with Lincoln until the president removed him from command. People in the North were tired of the war and the obscene numbers of casualties both armies sustained in fighting it. They were ready to make peace with the South even if it meant allowing slavery.

But things changed in early September when Gen. William Sherman forced the Confederate general, John Bell Hood, to abandon the city of Atlanta, probably the South’s most important city. Sherman’s troops entered the city without firing a shot. This victory brought new optimism to the North, especially after Sherman began a march to the coast and was moving into position to help Gen. Ulysses Grant capture Richmond, the CSA capital city. That prospect forced Lee to abandon Richmond and begin a march that would end up at Appomattox. That optimism turned the election for Lincoln, effectively killing southern hopes for victory.

A big surprise in the election was how the soldiers voted. McClellan was counting on the votes of most soldiers, who had adored him when he was in command and no doubt wanted peace more than anybody. In the end, though, Lincoln won the votes of most of the soldiers, and that helped Lincoln win.

Reading this story reminded me how quickly an election can turn on one event, as it did when a televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was thought to have tilted that election. Years later George H.W. Bush had a high approval rating after he forced Iraq to abandon the annexation of Kuwait, but when he agreed to a tax increase, it cost him votes and Bill Clinton became president.

I also thought back to last year, when I wrote a column decrying name-calling by candidates and their supporters. Back in 1864, though, Lincoln was “the most hated man in America,” and he was the target of much ridicule. According to Gwynne’s book, the largest paper in the country called Lincoln “a joke incarnate.” Gwynne also offers what he says is a short list of names the northern press pinned on Lincoln: “a tyrant, fiend, buffoon, braggart, perjurer, robber, swindler, ignoramus, monster, usurper, dictator, ape, coward, scoundrel, ghoul, imbecile, n*****-lover, weakling, traitor, butcher, fanatic, fool, gorilla, trampler of civil liberties, scourge of the Constitution, etc.”

Well, there has been a lot of name-calling in politics since the election of 1992, but I don’t think any of our presidents or their opponents have had to endure as much as Lincoln did.

And now he is counted as one of our best presidents, maybe even the best of them all.

It’s all in the history books.

The Amend Corner

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