David McCullough said studying history is “an antidote to a lot of unfortunate human trends like self-importance and self-pity.” Would you agree? Has your own love of history enabled a particular perspective you find helpful in this moment?
David is absolutely right. History is an antidote for either believing that we are bigger and better than we are, or the opposite of that—that we are in worse shape than we are. When I was writing my McKinley volume [The Triumph of William McKinley, 2015], I had to understand the Gilded Age. And the more I looked at the Gilded Age, the worse it looked. You have five presidential elections in a row in which nobody gets 50 percent of the vote! You have two years with a Republican president, House and Senate, two years with a Democratic president, House and Senate, and 20 years of divided government in which very little gets done.
Because not only do the two parties have deeply divergent views of what the future of the country ought to look like, but also any attempt at working together is hampered by the fact they’re still fighting the Civil War.
In fact, when the Democrats win control of the House in 1874 for the first time in 16 years, it’s called “the Victory of the Brigadiers,” because so many former Confederate officers are elected in the South by basically wiping out, through violence, the black Republican vote.
So when you look back, you realize there are these moments we’ve forgotten. That the election of 1800 ended in a tie in the electoral college, and who would be the president was not decided until 15 days before he was to be sworn in. We gloss over the angry American politics of the 1820s and 1830s. We look through the Great Depression and we see the economic suffering, but we forget the strains in our political system.
Often, we look at our politics today and say, “Washington is broken. It doesn’t work.” And we think this is the first time this has ever happened. It isn’t.
There’s a saying: “Nothing serves the good old days like poor memory.”
Is the answer as simple as people spending more time reading about history?
That helps us to accept it, but it takes leadership to change it. Leadership has changed the course of the country and the nature of our politics for the better; someone will come along and, once again, help turn the country in a positive direction.
We were all wringing our hands in the late 1970s, and along came this B-actor from Hollywood [Ronald Reagan] who gave us a sense of optimism and purpose. And similarly, in 1896 along came the mild-mannered, reform-minded governor of Ohio [William McKinley] and united the country with a campaign that featured extraordinary moments.
There’s a great moment on October 9, 1896, when 2,000 Confederate veterans of the same Shenandoah Valley campaign where McKinley fought, men who’d shot at him, came to pay their respects in Canton. And the country had never seen anything like it. Blue and gray mingled together.
And McKinley emerges on the porch and says, “Honor was not surrendered at Appomattox, only sectionalism. If we’re ever forced to fight again, and God forbid that we have to, we shall fight as brothers under a common flag.”
This was a moment of healing that the country needed, and it led to McKinley’s victory, which was the biggest since Grant’s reelection in 1872.