Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Strange and Profound Moment

Oddly enough, the quarter I used in the vending machine the other day contained spoilers for the book I'm reading right now.

Okay, I'll explain that one. I'm in the middle of reading 'Team of Rivals', by Doris Kearns Goodwin (which should make my sister very happy if she reads this, because she gave the book to me last Christmas and has been patiently waiting for me to get to it.) It really is every bit as good as my sister told me it would be, a compelling and electric story that seems more relevant than ever right now, and I've been devouring it as fast as one really can devour an 800+ page book at work.

And it's really good stuff. Goodwin makes you feel like this is recent history, not just something out of a dusty old book. It's a chronicle of turbulent, violent times in our nation's history, when you could feel the stormclouds gathering on the horizon every day and the idea of the United States of America seemed to actually be in danger. Just the thought of America collapsing seems alien and terrifying now, but a hundred fifty years ago, it was a real and tangible possibility, and Goodwin explains it in clear and intelligent terms to the reader.

I had gotten up to about 1856 in the book, when Lincoln was running for Senate against Stephen Douglas (when the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates happened.) The pivotal event in all this was the adoption of the so-called "LeCompton Constitution", where a bunch of pro-slavery Kansans got together and drafted a Kansas state constitution that was (surprise, surprise) pro-slavery, and shot it off to the President for ratification without really checking to see with the rest of the state as to whether or not this was actually a good idea. President Buchanan said it sounded like a great idea, because President Buchanan was pretty much willing to say and do anything to keep the South happy at that point, but even guys like Stephen Douglas called shenanigans on the LeCompton Constitution, vowing to fight it and not let it get through Congress.

And that was when I set the book down to go grab a soda. And when I reached into my wallet and pulled out a quarter, it was a Kansas state quarter. Just below the name of the state was the year it entered the Union, 1861. Which meant that the Lecompton Constitution couldn't have been ratified, meaning that Kansas must have entered the Union as a free state. (It would have been nice to get a spoiler warning on my spare change...)

And it just hit me that history really is everywhere around us. We are steeped in the past, so thoroughly that we frequently fail to notice it, but the stories of our lives are intertwined inextricably with those of the people who came before us. The tiny little details we barely notice some days are the stories of triumph and tragedy, of heroism and villainy and blood and sorrow and joy and wonder, the stories of our parents and their parents and their parents before them. The quarter that I spent in a vending machine contained the tale of men and women who moved halfway across the country to fight and die for their beliefs about freedom, if anyone took the time to listen to it. It was almost a little scary to think that everything would be like that if you looked at it from the right perspective.

I think that's part of why I enjoy learning new things so much. It makes the everyday world a lot more interesting.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this piece.

I was also thinking of history today - only in relation to comic books. Having recently read some wonderful European graphic novels - Largo Winch, Lady S, and IR$ - which all dealt with how the history of the characters shaped their lives, I was thinking how the Big Two have taken that away from its characters/readers. When you reboot and reimagine every few years the past comes to mean nothing. It's simply not there, so readers never really get to see the characters grow and change. And while I realize you can't use a comic book trend as a generalization for a country, there does seem to be a strong "out with old, in with the new, I'm always young and I don't have to grow old" mentality in the US. I wonder if it's a permanent trait or merely a phase in a (relatively) young country's growth.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Mr. Seavey. Up here in Canada, most of us are woefully ignorant about our history, and the problem is only compounded by the fact that our population is so widely spread and so fragmented.

Tne end result is that every part of the population has its own legitimate set of beefs and viewpoints, but when we don't know where the other side is coming from, we misunderstand each other, and the animosity just gets worse from there.

Whether it's the images on a coin, coin, the names on our maps, the statues we see standing in town squares, the buildings, dining halls or theaters named in memory of people who've contributed to the community, history affects us all one way or another.

Above all else, history continues to affect who we are as people, and to shape our societies. A century and a half ago, Barack Obama would probably have been enslaved; fifty years ago, he would have been required by law to ride on the back of a city bus; now, in 2009, he's going to become the leader of the most powerful country on Earth.

Obama's rise would be impressive for anyone, regardless of their background, but when you consider the historical context, it becomes that much more powerful.

Anonymous said...

"Just the thought of America collapsing seems alien and terrifying now, but a hundred fifty years ago, it was a real and tangible possibility"

No, it seems quite likely now in 2014.

One is surprised the Tea Party hasn't tried to resurrect the LeComte Constitution as a template for replacing the United States Constitution.

The Southern Strategy has proven that the Civil War didn't end in 1865, it only went underground as a Cold War of subversion and subterfuge, slowly taking over state governments and then using the power to disenfranchise any and all voters who might oppose them.

And this time, the South intends to triumph at breaking up the U.S.