Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is not optimistic. The chronicler of American history from the Civil War to country music told an interviewer, as they reflected on America’s polarization and other problems, “It’s really serious. There are three great crises before this: the Civil War, the Depression, and World War II. This is equal to it.”
Now, first of all, I think that statement is ludicrous. We are not at war. We enjoy unprecedented prosperity and, even with an economic crash we’ll probably enj0y a standard of living far beyond that of the 1930s. And though Americans seem to be at each other’s throats politically and culturally, we are not going to have another civil war. I have heard both conservatives and liberals raise that prospect. But we have no military infrastructure for that, no state militias like they had in the 19th century. Paramilitary groups, such as Antifa and right wing militias, can carry out terrorism, which is bad enough, but not warfare.
But I bring up what Burns said because he included a tremendous quotation from Abraham Lincoln, from an 1838 speech in Springfield, Illinois, long before he became president and the Civil War seemed to make his prophecy come true:
From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide.
As an aside, don’t you wish we had politicians who could talk like this?
His point is that outside forces are not our real danger. The danger is that we will destroy our country from the inside.
He is surely wrong that our nation “will live forever.” No nation and no civilization has.
If our world lasts long enough and isn’t brought to an end by the apocalypse, America will some day go the way of every other historical power. But what would national “suicide” look like?
In our recent memory, the Soviet Union dissolved and reconstituted itself as the Russian Commonwealth. Despite having the same population and many continuities, the old nation died and became a new nation. That could happen here. Already, a significant and powerful part of our population is repudiating our history and is repelled by our system of government. Some are proposing starting all over with a brand new constitution.
The Roman republic was a model of checks and balances, rights and liberties, and it lasted 500 years. But eventually, the people “wanted to get things done” and turned to the charismatic strong man Julius Caesar, who–though assassinated by defenders of the republic–ushered in a new kind of nation, an empire ruled by an absolute divinized Emperor. The trappings of the Republic remained–the Senate, the consuls, voting–but the Empire was a globalized entity far different from the localized republic. I can see that happening here. Our chief executives are already far more powerful than they should be in a well-regulated republic, and the people seem to like it that way.
As for the Empire, the rise and fall of which unaccountably gets all of the attention–we need to draw lessons from the fall of the republic— that entity got too big and complicated to govern and eventually just lost its mojo, making it vulnerable to one barbarian tribe after another until finally Rome just stopped naming an Emperor and trying to enforce its laws, with its holdings devolving into dozens of local feudal fiefdoms. We could similarly just fade away.
Or, we as a nation could pull ourselves together and move forward. We are still a young nation by the standards of history. We could last much longer.
Suicides lose all hope and give in to despair. Some Americans I am hearing are sounding that way about their country But just as individuals at that point of desperation can get help and embrace their lives again, so can nations. Both personal and national renewal are possible. That’s sort of what happened after our Depression and World War II. Perhaps that can happen after our current travails.
Photo: Ruins of the Forum in Rome, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=174932