(Guest post! David Fitzpatrick is back, with more words of wisdom)
I am a military historian by training though my graduate coursework at the University of Michigan included a heavy dose of American history. Because I teach at a community college, however, my teaching load is heavy on the “bread and butter” U.S. history surveys while, occasionally, I teach a military history course.
As almost all military historians know, it can be VERY tempting to see parallels and from them to draw prescriptive conclusions from military history (e.g., the generals in the First World War ought to have learned from the American Civil War that frontal assaults were doomed to failure). Such conclusions are, almost always, fatally flawed due to the simplicity of their analysis and for finding parallels when the contexts of those “parallel” events were wildly different.
In my experience I see far fewer efforts, whether by historians or by the public, to find parallels and to draw prescriptive conclusions from American history (e.g., because Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet on and around-the-world cruise, Ronald Reagan ought to have done it, too, to hasten the collapse of Communism). I don’t know why that is. I just know that it is.
But, last week, in the middle of teaching class, I found just such a parallel and came to just such a conclusion.
The subject of the morning’s class was the election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis. Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860 had won the election having run on a platform of preventing the extension of slavery into the western territories. In response to this election, led by South Carolina, seven Deep South states had seceded. In an effort to entice them back into the Union, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden offered what has ever since been known as the Crittenden Compromise. To simplify the story substantially, the Crittenden Compromise would have mandated that slavery be permitted certain of the western territories. Congressional Republicans were considering seriously supporting that compromise until Lincoln intervened. Still in Springfield, Illinois, President-elect Lincoln wrote,
“Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. . . . We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten. . . . If we surrender, it is the end of us. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”
And with this the Crittenden Compromise died.
I could not help but wonder if, last month, Obama had finally channeled his inner Lincoln.