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."
But soon the pendulum would begin to swing back. Washington would be caught unawares when war broke out on the Korean peninsula and, not for the first time, the country would find itself unprepared. American confidence in general would be shaken by what seemed the inexorable spread of Communism across the globe -- from the European heartland to the Far East. And the American economy, struggling to find its footing after the war years, would be paralyzed by successive national strikes. An era of bad feelings was about to dawn.
As the decade ebbed, an obscure ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers exposed a Communist spy ring that included Alger Hiss, a model of Ivy League respectability. Alger Hiss' record of public service first as a New Deal lawyer and then State Department official seemed impeccable. Who would have believed he was a Red spy? If he couldn't be trusted, who could be?
Whittaker Chambers would write a book detailing and expanding his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It wasn't just a book but a deeply personal confession, a work of art that sounded an alarm about the existential crisis that America faced as what would be a long, long Cold War began. Called "Witness," his book would alert and galvanize a rising generation of Americans, who began to realize they were conservatives.
Liberals reacted to Whittaker Chambers' revelations with a mixture of disbelief and disdain, outrage and contempt. The Hiss-Chambers Affair threatened to become our own Dreyfus Affair, dividing not just a generation of Americans, but generations. A new Crisis of the House Divided was upon us.
In the next presidential election, America turned to a respected old general with a beaming countenance but no panaceas to offer. He promised to end a stalemated war, bring us together again, stand by our allies and commitments around the world, and restore American confidence at home and abroad. He did. He would also preside over a decade that would see a rebirth of American conservative thought
Russell Kirk would publish his "The Conservative Mind" in 1953, a time when many an American intellectual had no idea there was such a thing. There was, and is. Russell Kirk's book would trace the development of the conservative tradition back to the writings of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville and make the case for its continuance.
On another intellectual front, that of the little magazines that used to be such a big influence, William F. Buckley's upstart National Review would begin publication in 1955, defending conservatism not only from the fashionable left but from right-wing caricatures of it like Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society.
American conservatism began to stir back to life in the Fifties. It seems Lionel Trilling's report of its death had been premature.
American politics and American thought in general have gone through many another revolution since then -- if by revolution we use the word in its original sense: a complete turn of the wheel as it comes back to its original position. Today it is liberalism that begins to seem devoid of ideas, or at least new ones. And of energy. If there is a single word to sum up liberalism's condition today, it is entropy.
The misadventures of Obamacare day after day would seem to exemplify a political philosophy that is fast losing traction. By now it would be a mercy if the whole, misconceived scheme would wear out all at once and disappear in a puff of smoke, like Oliver Wendell Holmes' wonderful one-hoss shay. Instead, it's collapsing part by part, day after day. It's painful to watch.
As it grows weaker, liberalism resorts to shows of strength. A president who's supposed to be a liberal resorts to changing laws by executive fiat instead of seeking the consent of the governed. The liberal majority in the U.S. Senate decides to emasculate the filibuster rather than respect the minority's traditional right to extended debate.
Like any other failing ideology, liberalism turns to authoritarian measures as it loses its power to persuade. Conservatives carp and criticize, but have yet to rejuvenate the great ideas that would offer a convincing alternative to the country's sense of drift.
That is where we are now, conservatives and liberals, and whither we are tending.