Studying history is a unique experience. While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.
You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.
Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath. Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam. Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it. That’s what being an historian is like some days.
As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the Civil War. Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World. Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen. The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves. Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it. Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”
As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex. Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South. Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways. As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.
Nothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together. Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century. The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story. It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.
As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs. May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story. In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.