I’ve been working — on an ongoing basis — on a general history of the US. Although it’s a survey of our past, it is by necessity about growth and advancement. With our history there are some requisites: you have to deal with the “discovery” and founding of the country; the national expansion across a continental land mass must be described; and the evolution of a confederacy into a superpower begs explanation. Invariably, when telling a story about how this country got to where it is today, you are talking about building — about coming together and progress (even at the expense of the first inhabitants). This is the story of migrants and colonists becoming citizens.
It is my job as a historian — with this project and with all my classes — to explain how things came to be. We observe where we are now, and our histories describe the way here. Constructing tales of this construction is the essence of my historical work. It is, then, too, my habit.
But, I was watching the news the other day, and it struck me that our society seems as if it is unraveling. I have a sense that we’ve become so enamored of natural law that we are headed to a brutish natural state. I look at the political divisions in our country, and I wonder if they can be mended. We have had these fights so many times it seems. Even at the political founding of our nation, the Federalists and anti-Federalists fought against one another. We are constantly disagreeing, and I wonder just how long we can last with this as our state in the States. We must lack the knack for diplomacy because dispute has already led us to civil war. We tried to reconstruct but it didn’t really take, and eventually we returned to our corners. Just as we became a superpower, we seemed again to erupt in civil strife. The culture wars began, and there hasn’t seemed to be any domestic peace since.
And, I remembered: things fall apart. In the back of my mind, I know nothing lasts forever. History is about change, and political unions are as temporal as the people who make them. Sometimes, nations are reborn. Sometimes, they are swallowed up by others. Sometimes, they are glued together with other loose bits at the bidding of men around conference tables. They do not stay the same though, and mostly, they have endings.
I know this — really, we all know this. We don’t always actively use that awareness in our everyday thinking or analysis though. We go on as if, because we would have no reason to bother if we only thought about the end. Life must be lived; there is no skipping forward.
As I was thinking these things, I suddenly became very sad. I was sick-at-heart sad. Of course the first part of our history is how it comes together, and, by necessity, the later part is how it ends. It occurred to me that quite literally, I could be living in the coming apart period (although, really, we might ultimately describe the unraveling as beginning even while the weaving occurred). It could be that in a couple of generations I could be explaining the previous republic to students. Or The Republic, should we move on to something else. (Hello, techmocracy.) In the future, I might likely be explaining, then, how we came not to be.
It seems likely to me that it won’t be one nation, indivisible much longer, and that we might become three or four or five nations for whom the Union is like the empires of old. We might be better neighbors than we are family, but it saddens me just the same. I like being a Stater, and the notion of choosing to which fragment I would go depresses. I think probably I am not the first citizen to foresee this outcome, and it might be some time coming still. It no longer seems to me, however, that the Union is something to which we commit our lives, fortunes, and sacred honors. My historical perspective on this has, very sadly, shifted.