This is the fifth of six installments on ‘History as a National Security Issue.’ This post considers how our current challenges echo those of the early-twentieth-century America.
Reflecting on our history, we can see three foundings:
—The first founding had two parts. Our nationhood was acknowledged and asserted in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We began construction of our nation-state with the drafting and ratification of the Constitution of 1787.
—Our second founding, in the words of the nineteenth-century statesman Carl Schurz, was Lincoln’s. Through the redemptive charnel house of our Civil War, we established that the Declaration bears our fundamental national ideal. The Union was confirmed; the states were not at-will members of a confederation. Slavery was eradicated. We continued to include ever larger groups of Americans into full participation in national life. The second founding was not a revolution—it resulted from the defeat of the revolution unleashed by the Confederacy. It was a renovation of the first founding.
—The contours of the third founding can be discerned amid the contending visions of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It would fall to their joint heir, Franklin Roosevelt, to refine and complete it. The New Deal political settlement produced our industrial age social welfare state. Its milestones include the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) of 1935, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the GI Bill of 1944. Internationally, the third founding resulted in the establishment of the liberal international order in the aftermath of the Second World War.
FDR’s political settlement was elaborated by succeeding presidents. Perhaps its most significant revision was led by one of the greatest political leaders in our history—who never held public office—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Demographer Neil Howe argues that the United States is entering what he calls a Fourth Turning, a time of social and political upheaval and renewal amid generational change.
The Fourth Turning may coincide with a fourth founding, yielding a new national identity, expressed through a new political settlement at home and in the world.
History Can Illuminate the Path Ahead
History can be a vital part of our navigation of the changes ahead:
—Our national identity is built around our shared understanding of our history. As our identity as Americans continues to become more inclusive, elements from our past are seen in a new light. This is exemplified by the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. They prompted historical exploration of previously neglected parts of the American experience.
This includes confronting lapses and evils that are recognized and reconsidered as our nation continues its struggle to advance toward our ideals. In the words of James Baldwin, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has said about it.”
—Our national narrative can be comprehended as a palimpsest. Each generation adds brush strokes to the canvas. Some may deemphasize or obscure previous elements; others might express new facets or a change in perspective. The result is deeper, richer, more enduring.
Theodore Roosevelt regarded “fellow-feeling [to be] the most important factor in producing a healthy political social life.” He sought “the growth in the sense of solidarity throughout the country, in the feeling of patriotic pride of each American in the deeds of all other Americans—of pride in the past history and present and future greatness of the whole country.”
—We must strive to avoid the self-referential, self-regarding snares of presentism. George Orwell’s admonition rings true: “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
—History may suggest a clarifying perspective amid the tumult of the moment. From our remove, we recognize that the rivalry of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reflects recurring, contending elements of the American experience. So, too, with John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, along with others up to and including the present day.
—History can be of practical assistance as we learn from prior generations in maintaining and reforming our nation and its governing institutions. As Goethe said, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”
—Applying history can help us avert the isolation that lays wait at the intersection of the unprecedented array of identities an individual might adopt in the United States today.
—History can spur us to persevere when our own moment appears disappointing. We can seek solace and inspiration in the examples of prior generations, who confronted comparable challenges.
Image Credit: Theodore Roosevelt, American Press Association, October 25, 1910. Public Domain via Wikipedia.