Paul Greenberg

A real crisis was looming, not the kind that today's headline-writers regularly invoke, and so devalue. ("Red Sox Face Pitching Crisis") No, this was a real crisis -- the Crisis of the House Divided, when the Union was about to be riven by the one issue that the country had failed to confront squarely year after year, decade after decade, compromise after unsatisfying compromise. At its heart lay the long accepted, deeply ingrained evil some Americans referred to as The Peculiar Institution rather than call by its right name: human slavery.

The year was 1858, and all sensed that disunion threatened, with civil war in its train. A candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois that year began his campaign with these words:

"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." --A. Lincoln, June 16, 1858, Springfield, Ill.

Where are we now? What is the state of the Union as the year 2013 draws to a close? And whither are we tending?

There are those who assume that the future will be only a projection of present trends. Even sophisticated scholars have been known to make that mistake.

Consider an eloquent essay published in 1950. It was written by that exemplary teacher and critic of American literature, Lionel Trilling of Columbia University. He began his fine study of "The Liberal Imagination" that year by noting how liberalism had come to dominate American thought. Conservatism, he saw, had dwindled and almost disappeared among the country's intellectuals. And since ideas have consequences, he anticipated a future dominated by the liberal impulse. And clearly welcomed it.

Professor Trilling's conclusion was completely in accord with the tendency of American politics and culture at the time. Harry Truman had just upset all the oddsmakers by winning a presidential election the pollsters had all but conceded to his Republican opponent. Thomas E. Dewey was supposed to have been a shoo-in in 1948, but if there's one thing you can count on in American politics, it's that you can't count on anything,

One can understand why the professor felt the liberal tide was not only running strong, but would prove irreversible. Franklin D. Roosevelt's two decades and four terms in the presidency had ushered in a liberal political era that was sure to be extended as his New Deal was continued and then extended by Harry Truman's Fair Deal. It was a time when progress was thought of as just more of the same thing. As for conservative thought, to quote the professor's memorable phrase, it had been reduced to only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.