Repeating History

RAY JENKINS

November 17, 1991|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

History repeats itself, goes the old saying, and those who ignore its lessons are doomed to repeat them, adds Santayana. But sayings notwithstanding, believers in predestined cycles of history are really more akin to astrologers than scholars, because there is always a small variant which changes everything. Still, there is a certain yin and yang which produces similarity in historical patterns, and the similarity between the 19th and 20th centuries in America are quite striking.

By the year 1850 most external threats to the young nation had been removed, just as the threat of the Nazis had been eliminated by 1950. Each decade was a time of optimism and expansion, but there were also cracks in the national consensus: In the 1850s the anti-slavery movement in the North gathered steam; in 1954 the anti-segregation movement began in earnest.

The Civil War in the 1860s was replicated by the civil rights revolution in the 1960s. Although for different reasons, presidents were assassinated in almost the same year of their respective centuries. In 1865 the Civil War ended with the defeat of the South; a century later the civil rights revolution achieved its highest goal with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In each century, a period of Reconstruction followed as the South and the nation adapted to a radical new order. But by 1877 the nation had wearied of the prolonged tensions brought about by vast change, and the post-Civil War Reconstruction came to an inconclusive end with the infamous Hayes-Tilden compromise. Many of the same elements which led to Rutherford B. Hayes' election in 1876 were present in Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. For proof that the new Reconstruction was over, one need only recall that Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. -- the site of a notorious lynching in the 1960s.

The 1880s saw the rise of the Robber Barons of capitalism while government watched benignly; the 1980s saw the rise of the junk-bond kings -- and again, government watched benignly.

Also in the 1880s blacks voted overwhelmingly for the party which had emancipated them in 1863; in the 1980s blacks voted overwhelmingly for the party that emancipated them in the 1960s. And in each century the '80s were decades of a growing racial backlash which was exploited in increasingly overt ways.

The profligacy of the 1880s led inexorably to the Panic of 1893, which produced the most severe depression the country had known up to that point. That in turn produced a bountiful crop of politicians known as "populists" who exploited the legitimate fears and anxieties that ran through the land, although they offered no credible programs, beyond railing against "Wall Street" and "international bankers," to alleviate the pervasive misery.

One of the most prominent of this crop was Georgia's Thomas E. Watson. An authentic intellectual, Watson at first sought to create a political coalition between the dirt-poor agrarian whites and the even worse-off blacks. But he soon concluded, in a tragic error of judgment, that he would have to choose between the two; he obviously chose the whites because he perceived, accurately to some extent, that the black vote was controlled by the conservative protectors of privilege. Watson turned into a virulent racist and anti-Semite.

So a deal was struck between the progressives and the conservatives that they stood to gain nothing if they kept beating one another over the heads with the race issue, so by the turn of the century, every state in the Old Confederacy (and some like Maryland that weren't even part of it) had established the Jim Crow system which effectively excluded the Negro from the social and political mainstream. The North, while not formally adopting Jim Crow, embraced the new order.

It is of course by no means the mandate of Providence that the 1990s will replicate the 1890s. But in the first two years of the present decade, we see already some ominous parallels. The bubble of illusory prosperity that characterized the 1980s has burst with a vengeance as economic distress grips the land. And just as the demagogue Tom Watson arose from the red hills of Georgia in the 1890s, so the menacing figure of David Duke has come up from the bayous of Louisiana. Unlike Watson, who was a renegade Democrat, David Duke is a Republican populist. But their stock-in-trade was the same: the politics of resentment.

A century ago the great African-American leader W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

"When you fasten crime upon this [black] race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was the arch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortion; that color and race are not crimes, and yet they . . . receive most unceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West."

Were he alive today, would Du Bois find it necessary to change a word of that statement?

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