There have been moments throughout American history where people thought the future looked bleak for some and bright for others.
Despite our many differences and apparent political contradictions as a nation, we have been served well when we argue and bicker over our freedoms and rights.
In this article, I want to show you a few, but not by any means exhaustive, pivotal moments in American history where American’s were faced with adversity. I want you to see that our times are not so unique and in fact our future is very bright and hopeful, even if you don’t sense that right now.
Join me on a quick journey through American history and discover how those who came before us helped make our world the amazing world it is and how we are doing so for future generations.I hope you’ll see that we don’t have to stress about the future. Our Constitution is always in good hands when “We the People…” overcome our fears and stress.
Hopelessness and Triumph in the Revolutionary War
Could you imagine during the Revolutionary War what it must have felt like to have the full brunt and force of a superior Army and Navy occupying you, living in your home, taking your food as they desired, and taxing you at will to provide for their needs over your own?
In September 1777, a depleted army under the command of General Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine, which forced the surrender of Philadelphia to the British. It was the worst defeat of Washington’s career.
It looked bleak as many in the Continental Congress began to question Washington. They were on the run, broke and hungry.
That winter, Washington set-up camp 20 miles outside of Philadelphia in Valley Forge. It was a bad time for a brutal winter. Sickness, pain and hunger was throughout the camp. Many chose to not re-enlist that winter and continue the fight.
All hope looked lost.
However, by June of 1778, they re-took Philadelphia and the trajectory of the war changed.
On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrounded on land and sea by Americans and French and surrenders at Yorktown, VA.
This would be the first test of the young nation but not the last. It had taken its toll politically as independent States usurped their power over a federal government.
Ratification of the United States Constitution
By the time of the writing of the Constitution, it looked dire again as Federalists and Anti-Federalists fought over the ratification of the new governmental document. The Articles of Confederation had failed in the absence of a Federal government empowered by the States to represent them in foreign affairs, border control (by borders I mean State borders), and national commerce.
As I shared in an article a few weeks ago on Gridlock, the Constitution was drafted in secret by the Federalists in order to get a new government up in a timely fashion.
The Federalists Papers were drafted in order to make the case of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists began drafting their rebuttals.
It became contentious and personal at times. Nothing had been proposed like it before with its separation of powers and checks and balances.
That sowed seeds of discourse and hurt trust among some of the States. States rights advocates were deeply opposed.
So much so that Georgia and Connecticut don’t ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939… and Massachusetts, while ratifying, doesn’t send their paperwork to Congress until 1939.
The Civil War
If ever a time where a cause of stress, it was leading up to and during the civil war. President James Buchanan (consequently from my hometown of Lancaster, PA) was a significant contributor to getting the nation into civil war.
Buchanan was a pacifist and by all accounts, he did not offer strong Presidential leadership. By refusing to take a firm stand on either side of the slavery issue, Buchanan failed to resolve the question, leaving his nation’s gravest crisis to his successor.
By the time Abraham Lincoln became our 16th President, the foundation for the civil war was in place and it was inevitable.
In was not uncommon during this era for a southerner to consider his State his home and more important than the country.
For example, Abraham Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee the command of the Federal forces in April 1861 to suppress the southern rebellion. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he could not fight against his own people. Instead, he accepted a general’s commission in the newly formed Confederate Army.
Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore, both of whom fought for the Union.
Can you imagine fighting and killing your own family?
Can you imagine the cost of freedom for a black slave?
This period was perhaps the darkest hours in our political history as politician’s fought, argued, called each other every name in the book, and some members of Congress even physically attacked one another.
Out of darkness came light. While slaves were freed there still much to be done.
Equality and the Fight for Equal Rights for African Americans, Women and Workers
Let’s take a quick journey and look at how the injustices of the past created continue to create the future of tomorrow.
Equality for African Americans
Nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still inhabited a starkly unequal world of disenfranchisement, segregation and various forms of oppression, including race-inspired violence.
African Americans would have to wait until the 1960’s to finally secure their rights. But it wouldn’t be without a fight.
Racism was alive and well, in the midst of supposed “freedom.”
What is freedom if you don’t have access to education, a great job, and the ability to live where you want and do what you want?
And as important if not more important… to be equal as a human being.
This is the ultimate context of Martin Luther King Jr. when he concluded his “I have a Dream” speech:
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a great victory for all of America, it did little to change the hearts of racists.
Over time, America has started to overcome the injustices of the past, while I also recognize there is a long way to go in the fight for equality not in the law, but in the hearts and minds of all people.
Women’s Rights and Equality
While African Americans were fighting to secure their rights, so were women.
Under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony in 1878, she fought for the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment.
Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote. Prior to the 19th Amendment, women did not share in the same rights as men.
Over the last forty years, women’s rights have been at the very heart of politics. Women have fought for their rights to equal work, equal pay, and freedom from sexual discrimination and harassment, and the ability to serve in any role in the military.
Another issue that arose with the rise of the industrial revolution was workers rights.
In manufacturing plants of all kinds, worker conditions through the 1920’s were brutal. Many workers were forced to work in highly dangerous conditions for long hours, six or seven days per week, for little pay.
It was a difficult time as the transition from agriculture to employment meant men were not present at home as they always had been throughout history to help around the house and in raising children.
Companies and the wealthy sought to take advantage of workers not only to help them grow their businesses but also their wealth… all at the expense of the worker.
Again, there were attempts at making wrongs right through the political process and government had its role to play.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 created rights for most employees to organize a labor union, without any detriment through unfair labor practices.
In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act which required a minimum federal wage.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 required employees has a safe system of work.
Other actions by the Federal government included the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
If you had told workers in 1907 what had been accomplished since then, there would be a lot of joyful tears and some pretty big time celebrations!
There are many things I could continue write about where times of stress and fear dominated the country and for some, or even many, the future seemed bleak.
There is always a cause to be fought and each one has its own level of stress.
Perhaps your ancestor came from Ireland or Scotland and experienced discrimination at its worst?
Perhaps you’ve had your own experiences?
Or, perhaps you believe in a modern cause that you find is just and worth fighting for?
But wait, maybe you’re just a person who feels caught in the middle and you’re observing all that is going on today and it is stressing you out. It’s everywhere and it feels there is no escape…
Regardless, I have some great news.
While the challenges of the day go on around us our future is bright.
If you don’t watch any other video today, watch and listen to the wise and hopeful words of John F. Kennedy: