American Epochs

I’m just noodling over an idea, perhaps not even an original one, but I’ve been acquiring and reading a number of books this last few years on American history, and given the tenor of this past year of national politics, I’ve been toying with the idea of “periods” of American history.  That is, definable epochs fundamentally different from that which went before.

What triggered this particular thread is on the desk in front of my now. Kevin Phillips’ new book, 1775: A Good Year For Revolution, recently published by Viking.

In his preface, Why 1775, he writes:

Seventeen Seventy-Five…stands for the somewhat forgotten and widely misunderstood first year of the American Revolution.  If 1775 hadn’t been a year of successful nation building, 1776 might have been a year of lost opportunity, quiet disappointment, and continued colonial status.

Basically, the book is about all the pesky networking, infrastructure, planning, and groundwork that preceded the Declaration of Independence and without which the actual rebellion, not to mention, the Revolution, would have been stillborn.

We tend not to think this way.  Not just Americans, but we exemplify it through an ongoing process of semi-deification of Significant Men.  We like to believe that without “these people” and their character, all these wonderful things would not have happened, and while there is certainly some truth to that—it’s hard to argue with the fact that if George Washington had been a different kind of person then the outcome would have been very different—it is by no means either the whole story or even sufficient to explain how things transpired.  But it’s easier to put a face on a period and blithely assume that it was all because of That One.

We don’t like the idea that without thoroughly, clever, and industrial stagecraft, the performance might never go on.

(Consider war.  While it might be somewhat true that battles are won by generals, at least in some instances, wars are won by logistics.  The people and, more importantly, the system responsible for getting the bullets to the front are more important to the overall effort than the guys with the guns, who after all can do nothing without those bullets.)

But this component of history is not sexy, so we tend to focus on heroes and gestures and sometimes even credit divine intervention rather than take note of all the nameless, faceless people who did the hard day-in day-out labor of building the systems that allowed for success.

That said, we still have the results to consider, and it occurred to me to toss a dime into the debate by suggesting that American history is demarcated into three epochs that are clearly definable.  By this I mean periods begun by events that fundamentally changed who we were as a nation.  Things which caused shifts in the common apprehension of our identity significantly different from what went before and led to long periods of more or less stable assumptions of what it meant to be an American.

The first of these is of course the Revolutionary period, which I contend spans the period from 1763 to 1801.  The end of the French and Indian War (in many ways the first world war) set colonial thinkers inexorably on the path to independence.  Without the treaties and the subsequent actions in the aftermath of that war, the components of the Revolution would not have coalesced.  American colonists during this period reconceived their identity away from British subjects to Americans.  The entire period is capped by the election of Thomas Jefferson where we see the political and cultural landscape “set” for the next 50 years, an end to revolutionary evolution and a settling into adjustment to a new order.

The second epoch, obviously, is the Civil War period, which I suggest lasted from 1850 till the end of Reconstruction, 1876, at which point again we see a stabilizing of the landscape, which endured in its major features until the Great Depression.

Which leads to the third epoch, the Depression/World War period, lasting from 1929 until the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we once more see a broad “settling in” and acceptance of the new vision of who and what we are that persists to this day.

In each instance, the significant consequence is that, as a nation, we changed our view of who we are and conducted ourselves as Americans differently than we did before.

I have no idea what the fulcrum of the next epoch will be, or whether it has already happened.  These things take time to recognize.  (It’s possible that 9/11 represents such an event, but in too many ways it resulted in essentially a continuation of Cold War thinking.  The mindset of the average American today might not be that different from what it was in 1957, at least in regards to our global relationship.  I don’t know.)

It might be argued that the civil rights movement represents a significant sign of a new epoch, but I don’t think so.  Much as I might feel ill at ease over this, I see that as a consequences of the third period rather than as its own event.  The massive social “leveling” of the Great Depression combined with the revelations of abuses in Nazi Germany eroded long-held attitudes about race and opened the door to the successful campaigns of the various equality movements that have still not ended.  Even so, “civil rights” claims and assertions have never been absent from our political landscape and seem to have been immune, as ideas, from the specifics of massive epochal change.

Anyway, I thought this might be interesting to ponder, so I’m putting it out there.  As I say, nothing perhaps new, but certainly unresolved.  Thinking about it this way, we might want to consider more constructively just what it is we want to be next.

Published by Mark Tiedemann