WOOD COLUMN: What Binds Us Today?

Published 8:59 am Friday, June 28, 2024

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By: Murphy Wood, a history teacher at the Springwood School


In Federalist Number 10, a series of articles written in 1787 in support of the new Constitution, James Madison warned Americans that creating “Factions” i.e. Political Parties would be the end of the new Union of States. He argued that the Representative Republic our new Constitution offered was a guard against factions as long as its Representatives saw themselves and acted as Americans first. With the exception of 1861 and possibly 1968, America has never been more divided, angry and jaded. When we look at our country today, can anyone argue that Madison was right?

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The most serious consequence of us claiming party loyalty above the shared interest of the nation is that now each party sees the other party as not only wrong but evil, and if it accomplishes its goals it will be the death of the America each faction supports. One side believes that America is bad, with a sorted history of racism, injustice and capitalistic excess. This faction would like to do away with the current America and create a more just, equitable and socialist America. The other faction believes that America was once a beacon of freedom that defeated fascism and stood as a bulwark against Soviet communism but lost its way during the trials of Vietnam, Watergate, Pentagon Papers, etc. during the 1960s and early 1970s. From this faction we hear slogans like Robert Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign’s claim to want to “build a bridge back to the past” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

I believe a trend that has accelerated this process comes from our teaching of this nation’s history to our youth. Historiography is the study of how the teaching of history changes through time and how you can gain insight into a society by how they choose to tell their history. It traces early Greek and Roman histories and works its way up to the current Post-Modern period.

In the mid-twentieth century, Daniel J. Boorstin’s theory of Consensus History held sway. Following World War II, historical writing began to reflect the common values that united Americans rather than the differences that divided them. Boorstin attempted to focus on the concepts of Liberty, Freedom and liberal Democracy that so sharply contrasted with the political ideology that produced Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union.

Starting in the mid-1960s, the telling of American history took a dramatic turn as New Left historians debunked Consensus history. They criticized its narrow focus and its neglect of “under-represented” groups of Americans. As the culture wars of the ’60s raged, American historians began producing works that sharply criticized all aspects of America’s failings politically, culturally and militarily. These historians expressed their moralistic rage as the Civil Rights movement churned on and bombs fell on Hanoi. By so effectively shredding our commonly held ideals about the innate goodness of America and its role in the world, this began our deep descent into the hardening of the factions of today and loss of a common set of values and beliefs that bind us together as a nation.

One measure of the resulting collective amnesia about our past is illustrated in a poll of 1000 Americans that showed that over 40% of Americans don’t know the reason we celebrate the 4th of July. (OnePoll, July 3 rd 2023.) Another way of measuring the lack of unity and cohesiveness as a nation is seen in our military recruitment. In 2023, the Army missed its recruitment goals by over 41,000 people, or 25% of its goal. This is not an anomaly but a dangerous downward continuous trend. If half of Americans believe that America is an oppressive, terrible place, why would you risk your life or allow yourself to be drafted to save it?

In World War II, when Consensus history was the standard, the United States drafted 10,110,104 people. 6,000,000 more volunteered. 24,000,000 men and women moved to work in defense industry factories. If America faced another war, would you believe these kinds of numbers could be generated? Would our enemies not sow discord among us repeating the same divisive themes from our own children’s modern history books?

In the English Civil War, (1642-51) when Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentary forces, was asked if he represented the English government he stated, “I represent the Army, and the Army is the heart and conscience of the people.” Could you find an American who would believe this today? Today, our wars take place on television or smartphones and have no bearing on our day-to-day lives. Unless you have a family member in the service, they cause us no sacrifice, no inconvenience.

The point here is that the Consensus historians may not have delivered a perfect inclusive narrative but they did try to focus on what unites us. If our modern factions, our Republicans and Democrats, cannot start helping lead Americans to identify and coalesce around certain truths and beliefs that we can hold dear and if necessary die for, we will follow other great countries that were not militarily defeated but succumbed to internal divisions. We will literally complete what Abraham Lincoln warned on January 27, 1838, as America moved closer to civil war, when he said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”