How sour is the public mood? An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found about half the people believe 2008 was one of the worst years in American history. At times, Abraham Lincoln‘s lament has seemed apt, “We live in the midst of alarms; anxiety beclouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read.”
But some perspective, please. Even a steep recession doesn’t compare with the events that have made for America’s worst years:
— 1798. France sought - and failed - to sway the election of 1796 and punished us by attacking our shipping. The conflict exacerbated a poisonous partisan environment, fraught with suggestions of treason. The Federalists saw the pro-French Republicans as would-be Jacobins, and the Republicans saw the pro-English Federalists as would-be monarchists. The Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a rank violation of civil liberties. In response, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions stipulating such unconstitutional acts could be nullified by the states, a dangerous concept (for its poisoned fruit, see 1862).
— 1837: In a real-estate bubble, people borrowed paper money to speculate in Western land. According to John Steele Gordon‘s book “An Empire of Wealth,” land sales by the federal government were $2.5 million in 1832 and $25 million by 1836. President Andrew Jackson determined to prick the bubble by accepting only gold or silver as payment and succeeded all too well. Banks failed, Wall Street crashed, the price of cotton fell by half and 90 percent of the country’s factories closed. “The country suffered,” Mr. Gordon writes, “the longest economic depression in the nation’s history. It didn’t reach bottom until February 1843, fully 72 months after it began.”
— 1862: Any year of the Civil War qualifies as one of the country’s worst, but in June 1862, Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate army defending Richmond, Va., and pushed back the Union army. At Fredericksburg at the end of the year, Gen. Ambrose Burnside hurled his Union troops at Marye’s Heights, although warned that doing so would constitute “murder, not warfare.” The Union lost more than 12,000 men. England seemed close to recognizing the Confederacy, and state and congressional elections went poorly for Lincoln’s Republicans. “If there is a worse place than hell,” President Lincoln said, “I am in it.”
— 1940: The economy was still limping, with unemployment at 14.6 percent (it had hit 19 percent in 1938 during “the depression within the depression”). Adolf Hitler marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France, overrunning them in weeks. The American public was divided about how to respond, and the country’s defenses were unprepared. The army had fewer soldiers than Yugoslavia, and troops often had to train using broomsticks. Western democracy seemed on the verge of eclipse.
— 1968: Assassinations, urban riots, a losing war in Vietnam - it was the year of the great American nervous break-down.
Of course, the country persevered:
— Taking office after an acrimonious electoral deadlock in 1800, Jefferson said in his first Inaugural, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists,” striking a grace note that came to define the American transfer of power.
— The economy recovered from the depression of 1837, and six decades after the adoption of the Constitution, Mr. Gordon notes, had “expanded by a factor of 18 or more.”
— In U.S. Grant, Lincoln finally found his general to match Lee.
— We rearmed and defeated the Axis, as the economy shook free of the Great Depression for good.
— The aftershocks of 1968 reverberate still, but in the 1980s the country entered a long period of prosperity and defeated the Soviet Union.
“We have overcome some grim, frightful times,” says best-selling presidential historian Jay Winik. “With inspired leadership, with the American spirit and ingenuity, and with an open political system that resolves conflicts through debate rather than violence, we’ve always been able to restore the country to dynamism and health.” And surely will again, as 2008 fades into the past.
Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.