1. How would you describe what happened to the political system in the U.S. in 1858 – 1861?
Hundreds of books have been written about America in the lead-up to the Civil War. There are a number of ways to describe it. Here are a few. The two party-system fractured. Many people in the South had decided that slavery was more important to them than the American union. Many people in the North had come to realize that slavery could not be tolerated. The U.S. was the first, the oldest, the largest, and the most well-established representative government in the world. There was also a sense that if the American democratic experiment failed, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, would perish from this earth.
One way to describe the situation is that the American people could not resolve their differences through the electoral process. Another way is that they decided that the differences between them were too great to remain associated in one country. Yet another way to describe 1858 – 1861 is that Americans abandoned the constitutional system based on democratic elections as a way for society to make decisions about the issues confronting it.
Ask the class, do any of those descriptions fit present-day American society? If so, what can we do about it?
2. Describe American society in 1968?
1968 began with the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on American and South Vietnamese forces in more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. Young Americans were disaffected particularly by the war. On April 4, Dr. King was assassinated on April , triggering riots in many cities. Robert Kennedy, who had captured the imagination of the moderate left, was assassinated on June 4. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of massive protests that were brutally suppressed by police who clubbed protesters to the ground in what was described as a “police riot.” In November, George Wallace, whose Presidential campaign supported racial segregation, received 13.5% of the vote winning five Southern states.
3. Describe some differences and similarities between the U.S. of 1858 and the U.S. of the present time that might reflect the divisions in society and how we deal with them?
The list below is only a start. Students and teachers should feel free to add to them.
- American society was bitterly divided.
- Both periods had media reporting very divergent versions of the truth. Doris Kearns Goodwin provided the following example from the late 1850s: “They had a partisan press, just as we do, now. If you are listening to one of the debates between Steven Douglas and Abraham Lincoln or you’re reading the Republican newspaper, it’s going to say he was triumphant; he was carried out in the arms of his followers. You read the Democratic newspapers and they say he fell on the floor and you have to carry him out that way. “
- Americans of both eras accept the ideals underlying the Declaration of Independence.
- An entire class of people believed that their way of life was being challenged.
- We have instantaneous communication, television, and the 24-hours news cycle.
- We have the Internet and social media.
- Before the Civil War, the slave power held sway in Southern states. Now, there is no clear geographic split.
- The country is economically integrated.
- The resistance to the government while stronger in the South and parts of the West, is not as concentrated in one section of the country as it was during the period before the Civil War.
- In 1858 the country was predominantly rural and agricultural, whereas in 1968 and in the present, more people live in the cities and very few earn their living as farmers.
- The armaments of the U.S. Army are more powerful than in 1858.
- The world is facing a global warming crisis.
- We have the experience of having lived through the aftermath of the failures of 1858 – 1861, a bloody civil war.
4. Will the future of the United States be more like the years after 1858 or the years after 1968?
There is no one correct response. A good response will consider most of the similarities and differences discussed in the Suggested Response to the preceding question.
5. Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “I think we have to learn from the 1850s. If you don’t start figuring out how to deal with [the] deepening divisions, you’re going to end up with something like [the] Civil War.” How can we deal with the deepening divisions in current-day America?
The first step is to stand back from your anger and respectfully listen. Remember that we only have one country and we are all in this together. Then seek common ground and be willing to compromise. This is more easily said than done. and how we can respond to that fact. Another way to put it is that, the goal is to have discussions in which differences are brought out and explained in a respectful way so that we can agree where possible, disagree respectfully where we cannot, and come to a compromise when action is needed. In that process, the divisions in society will begin to heal.
6. Jon Meacham said,
[D]emocracy is really counterintuitive. . . It’s not the natural state of things. The natural state is find a strong guy, ally yourself with him so he will beat off the predators so you can get more food. Right? I mean, that’s it. This notion that we’re neighbors and we’re going to concede a little bit in the morning because we might need something in the afternoon, you know, the give and take [that’s not the natural state]. Do you agree or disagree? Justify your position. Give some examples.
There is no one correct response. Many will disagree with Mr. Meacham. As Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out, on many occasions people have acted on the instructions of the better angels of their nature. Every single day in all parts of the country and all over the world people put themselves at risk or simply volunteer to help others and to further the greater good. Students should be encouraged to come up with examples of people acting altruistically.
7. Doris Kearns Goodwin said,
“We have to remember all the difficult things that happened and how we were never at the ideal that we wanted to be. But we have to remember that great things happened as well. And great things happened in that crazy decade [of the 1960s.]” Name some ways in which current American society is not at the ideal we want it to be and how we can respond to that fact.
Examples of defects will differ and each person will have his or her unique views about what constitutes a defect or weakness and what constitutes something positive or a strength. The goal is to have discussions in which differences are brought out and explained in a respectful way so that we can agree where possible, disagree respectfully where we cannot, and come to a compromise when action is needed. In that process, the divisions in society will begin to heal.
8. Why is the right to vote “the fundamental right on which all other rights depend?”
Eventually, all officials with any power trace their selection to the people or to public officials appointed by the people. The preferences of the people are expressed through the ballot box.
9. Doris Kearns Goodwin points to the youth of the country as being the hope for the future. If an elder says to you that it is the youth that needs to organize and campaign for your beliefs and to protect the vote, what would you, as a young person say to that elder?
There is no one correct response, but a good response is, “Let’s do it together! There is strength in numbers. We all need to work together! Just because you are old, doesn’t let you give up and stand on the sidelines.”
10. What should you do if you don’t trust your government?
Get involved and become the government yourself or elect the people who are like-minded. File lawsuits to force the government to do the right thing. Then you can trust the government.