d r a f t

More quotes for my Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden project —

Two disturbing historical parallels in print this week, both suggesting that America faces a more difficult crisis — more accurately a series of cascading crises — now than it did in the runup to the Civil War. It’s hard to know which is the more troubling of the two.

The first is an article on the History News Network website, a project of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, by James D.R. Phillips, a lawyer and author of Two Revolutions and the Constitution: How the English and American Revolutions Produced the American Constitution. He suggests the tone of moral absolutism in our current debate over abortion is more strident than the debate over slavery during the 1850s. In a Sept. 18 article, he says in so many words the Constitution was designed to accommodate stark political and cultural differences within a framework of federalism. Chief among them was slavery:

When founding the nation, American political leaders had to both leverage Americans’ shared political culture and beliefs, and allow for Americans’ differing moral beliefs and values.

In some ways, differing beliefs about the issue of abortion are even more politically difficult than about slavery. Defenders of slavery claimed that it was economically, not morally, necessary. Anti-slavery advocates believed that there was a moral imperative to abolish slavery.

With abortion, pro-lifers believe that abortion is immoral in many circumstances, while pro-choicers believe that it is immoral to prohibit abortion in many circumstances. The difference in perception of the moral issues intensifies the political division.

The possibility of the Supreme Court being activist in constitutional issues would have surprised the founding generation, who knew that differences in values across the 13 original States were a political reality, with slavery being the most obvious example.

When you’ve said we face more difficult moral issues now than we did in the 1850s, you’ve said a mouthful.

The second is a an interview with Ken Burns, centering on his currrent PBS series on the Holocaust in America, by David Smith, the Guardian’s Washington bureau chief. [Verbatim excerpts follow, with links in the original].

“After three previous great crises, I think we’re in the fourth and perhaps the most difficult crisis in the history of America. The three being the civil war, the great depression and the second world war, the institutions were not under assault as they are today and that makes the fragility of Benjamin Franklin’s statement, ‘A republic, if you can keep it,’ all the more relevant.

“But I am also talking about Britain. I am also talking about the rise of the right in France. I’m talking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and a tendency.”

Burns adds: “The story of the Holocaust reminds us of the fragility of democracies but how, as frustrating as they can be, there is nothing more important than maintaining those democracies – constitutional, parliamentary, whatever they might be – in the world because we see from human history that the authoritarian regimes have killed by a multitude of 100 more of their own citizens than democracies have. Not that democracies haven’t done bad things and will continue to do bad things, but they don’t do them on the scale of autocracies.”


But a generation later there is talk of that remote sepia world bursting into full colour. Earlier this year the New York Times asked, “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” and the New Yorker magazine pondered, “Is a Civil War ahead?” Last month a survey found that more than two in five Americans believe civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years. What does Burns make of it?

Certainly, lots of the smoke that preceded the American civil war is proceeding now: the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric, the isolated, sporadic incidences of violence. That’s true also of Nazi Germany. I’m not saying that it necessarily could go that way but it could go that way so I think, borrowing gratefully from our beloved Deborah Lipstadt [a historian interviewed in The US and the Holocaust], the time to save a democracy is before it’s lost.”

Indeed, The US and the Holocaust was originally supposed to be released in 2023 but Burns accelerated production by several months, “much to the consternation of my colleagues, just because I felt the urgency that we needed to be part of a conversation”.


Burns, who is fond of a quotation often attributed to Mark Twain – “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” – reflects: “As we worked on the film, it became increasingly clear with a great deal of anxiety and urgency just how much nearly every sentence was rhyming. The conservatives that installed Adolf Hitler were certain they could control him; in a few months they were either dead or completely marginalised. It is a telling story: he wished to make Germany great again.

[President Franklin] Roosevelt had to combat an isolationist America First committee. We meet characters like Breckinridge Long, this implacable antisemite and assistant secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration’s state department who does everything he can to obscure or bury news about the coming Holocaust and make it increasingly more difficult for refugees who are fulfilling the requirements.

“He’s always changing the requirements, raising the bar, moving the goalposts. He reminds me a little bit of Stephen Miller [a senior adviser to Trump] in the previous administration.

Six million Jews were killed. America, proudly a nation of immigrants, symbolised by the Statue of Liberty and welcome mat for “huddled masses”, fell short of its ideals. “Although the United States let in 225,000 people, more than any other sovereign nation, we could just by fulfilling the quotas – the meagre quotas, the pernicious quotas – have let in five times that much and still been, in my opinion, a failure.

“That’s not entirely on Franklin Roosevelt, that’s on the Congress and the people of the United States who consistently voted against it, even when the horrors were revealed. When the concentration camps were liberated and the footage came back, only 5% of the American public were willing to let more people in.” [Links and brackets in the original.]


Ken Burns, “We’re in perhaps the most difficult crisis in the history of America,” interview by David Smith, The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/sep/19/ken-burns-interview-holocaust-docuseries.

James D.R. Philips, “How the Constitution Can Accommodate Divergent Values,” History News Network, Sept. 18, 2022 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183962.

__________, Two Revolutions and the Constitution (cite to publisher’s page in his article).

[Uplinked Sept. 23, 2022]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s