The Eighty-Year Cycle of Existential National Crisis: How Will This One End?
tags: political history,National Crisis
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
America has faced many crises in its 245-year history as a republic (that has, over time, evolved toward a democracy). History informs us that at 80 year intervals, in 1780, 1860, 1940, and 2020, the nation faced massive challenges, but overcame them within five or more years three times. Hopefully, in the next few years, the same will happen to the threat to our nation provoked by Donald Trump.
In 1780, America was in the midst of the Revolutionary War, and a crisis arose that could have ended the American Revolution entirely. Esteemed General Benedict Arnold, who had the full backing and confidence of General George Washington, committed treason, attempting to hand over the military garrison at West Point, New York to the British. If the treason had succeeded, about 10,000 American soldiers would have come under British control. The loss of West Point to the enemy would have been, in the minds of many military historians, a fatal psychological blow to the Continental Army, and likely, would have changed the course of the war.
Fortunately, British Major John Andre was captured in September 1780, and the negotiations to turn over West Point were revealed, with Arnold escaping to British lines and participating in later military engagements against the Americans in 1781. Fortunately, military success was accomplished by US military forces at the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia in 1781, and the British gave up the struggle to retain the colonies. Negotiations for peace commenced, with the final Treaty of Paris agreements signed in September 1783.
The new nation had further complications in dealing with the British, who undermined the economic recovery of the nation in the 1780s. Conflict over the efficacy of the Articles of Confederation led to a decision to hold a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, which led to political and economic stability with the final adoption of the Constitution in 1789. This marked the end of a difficult decade, but one that would never have happened if Benedict Arnold had succeeded in his betrayal in 1780.
Eighty years after Benedict Arnold’s attempted treason, the United States faced the challenge of a nation bitterly split over the institution of slavery, and the growing sectionalism between North and South. In a four-way race for the Presidency in 1860, Abraham Lincoln won all Northern “free” states except New Jersey, winning the Electoral College with just under 40 percent of the national popular vote. Attempts at negotiation to keep the nation together failed in the early months of 1861, and the undeclared Civil War began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.
This challenge to the survival of the Union went on intensely for four years, with no certainty of Union victory over the Confederacy for much of the war, as the South had more of the outstanding military leaders, including, most specifically, General Robert E. Lee of Virginia. The challenges to President Lincoln to preserve the Union was overwhelming, with many crises and threats, including on a personal level, and with an extremely high loss of life that tormented him and both Union and Confederate supporters. The concept of a nation promoting the expansion of democracy, freedom and equality seemed unachievable.
Through all of the ups and downs of the military efforts of the Union, including the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in September 1862, the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1863, and the long arduous later military engagements which seemed endless, Lincoln overcame political, economic, and diplomatic challenges. He put the Emancipation Proclamation in effect in January 1863, and delivered the inspiring Gettysburg Address in November 1863. More significantly, Lincoln prodded Congress to pass the 13th Amendment ending slavery and send it on to the states for ratification, even as the war came to an end, and Lincoln faced the final threat, which led to his assassination in April 1865.
Lincoln’s death personified, however, the commitment to freedom and democracy, and the preservation of the Union. During the next five years, the nation would adopt not only the 13th Amendment ending slavery, but also the 14th Amendment promoting due process, equal protection and African American citizenship, as well as the 15th Amendment promoting the right of African American men to voting. Also, civil rights legislation was enacted, so the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, as tumultuous as it was, led to the advancement of the goals Lincoln had set.
Eighty years after the election of Lincoln, the United States faced its greatest challenge ever from foreign enemies, with World War II raging in Europe and Asia, and Fascist dictators attacking nations on both continents in alliance against the forces of democracy. But in America, many political leaders were collaborating with or supportive of these dangerous authoritarians, particularly Nazi Germany, seeing either no danger or a positive inspiration for what should happen in America. We had such demagogues as Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and many prominent public figures in Congress and the business world think Hitler and other Fascists were no threat to America, even if Europe and Asia were conquered. Their isolationist beliefs made them believe the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans separating the US from Europe and Asia would keep America safe, or in some cases, thought a Hitler Nazi type government should replace American democracy.
Fortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after two terms as President, having taken us through the Great Depression, was eligible to run for a third term, as there was no constitutional limitation at that time on terms of office. Others who were seeking the Presidency in 1940 were seen as inexperienced (Wendell Willkie), or isolationist (Robert Taft, Arthur Vandenberg, and Thomas E. Dewey). FDR ran against Willkie, who was at least responsible enough to oppose isolationism, and when Roosevelt won his third term, he shepherded the nation through the oncoming war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. And he won a fourth term over the inexperienced Thomas E. Dewey in 1944.
While there remain controversies over FDR’s military, diplomatic, and political decision making during the years of the war, most historians and political scientists share the belief that FDR was indispensable in the crisis atmosphere that was present in 1940 and the next half decade. The movement toward formation of an international organization (the United Nations) as a way to prevent a third world war was also in process as FDR neared the end of his life in the closing months of World War II.
Eighty years later, in the year 2020, America again faced a crisis that is still in process. President Donald Trump, arguably elected by Russian collusion in 2016, pursued a demagogic and fascist authoritarian agenda, and attacked the news media, the Foreign Service, the intelligence agencies, the federal bureaucracy and other government agencies, policies, and traditions. He also promoted nativism, racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and consistently attacked his critics in both political parties in a vicious, dangerous manner, and presided over massive corruption and incompetence. He also asserted that white supremacists who expressed antisemitism and racism at Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 were “good’ people. Alarmingly, the vast majority of his Republican Party continued to back him, and ignore the abuses of power and danger to American democracy that many saw present in his four years in office.
But the election of 2020 became even more of a nightmare than the four years leading up to it, as Donald Trump refused to concede when Joe Biden was declared the victor. He continues, eight months later, to claim that he won the election, and despite being impeached (with some Republican support for his impeachment and conviction) for his role in inciting the January 6 US Capitol Insurrection, the threat of further violence and a possible coup remains real as America enters the summer of 2021.
Joe Biden has taken on the massive challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic decline that resulted, and the many other challenges the nation faces after the tragedy of the Trump years. Hopefully, success will prevent Trump coming back to power in 2024. But the “Big Lie” that Trump won the election still pervades the Republican party, with many believing Trump will be restored to power soon.
The challenges for Joe Biden include restoring our position of world leadership in an environment of authoritarianism spreading around the globe, and meeting the evolving threat of white supremacists and racists working to undermine American democracy. The willing support of a political party that has sold its soul to Donald Trump, with Republican leaders competing to mollify him in hopes of being his successor if he is unable or chooses not to run in 2024, is a threat to the traditions and longevity of American democracy. The propaganda promoted by right wing media and social media also threatens the stability of American democracy.
The survival of the United States as a functioning democracy is clearly at stake, including the ability of Americans to insure the facts and truth of science and history are taught in schools and promoted in journalism and public knowledge, rather than right wing propaganda that denies the importance of facts and truth.
Joe Biden has the potential, if he is successful in overcoming the authoritarian challenge of Donald Trump and his supporters, to be seen in the long run of history as influential on the level of George Washington against Benedict Arnold; Abraham Lincoln against the Southern defense of slavery; and Franklin D. Roosevelt against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. As in those three times in our history, the success of promoting the survival of American democracy will take at least the years until 2025, when the next presidential inauguration takes place.
The role of historians, political scientists, and journalists in this struggle to maintain and promote democracy, equality, and freedom is a major one as America looks to its future, and as we near the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026!
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