Is It Really That Bad?
History is boring and completely useless. That’s an opinion I’ve heard many of my peers express, and it’s one I hope will slowly change. There are many highlights of history that can be shown to have a direct impact on our lives today, but one that sticks out to me is the American Civil War. When hearing about that, people usually just think, “Oh, yeah, that was about ending slavery in the United States, blah blah blah,” but there’s a lot more to it than that. Much of the politics and ideas that are integral to our society today were strongly present in the Civil War era, and the war has been strongly embedded into the US’s culture.
The Civil War has left a remarkable political legacy. If you look at the electoral maps from the years 1860 and 2012, you will see that, excluding the territories, the states have voted almost exactly the same way, with Democrats and Republicans having switched states. This process is pretty complicated, but basically both parties had conflicting progressive and conservative branches in the 1800’s. Over time, as politicians claimed to be of a certain party and took certain actions, other politicians switched parties depending on whether or not they liked those actions. Through this manner, ideas have been shuffling around between the different parties and will no doubt continue to do so for quite some time. A pattern that is noticed frequently by professional historians and amateurs alike is the question of how far the government may go in dictating people’s lives.
Back when the Constitution was written, anti-Federalists were concerned that the government would restrict us too much and take away all of our freedoms. To prevent this, they created the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Skip ahead to the 1860’s. The Civil War was fought because the Confederates disliked the government’s attempts to control whether or not they used slaves. This was also a question of states vs.
federal rights. Similar conflicts are apparent today in topics such as health care, reproductive rights, and gay marriage. As stated by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, “All knew that [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war.” In this quote, he recognized the fact that slavery was the root of the war and that continuing it was the Confederacy’s main motive. Although slavery was accepted by many at the time, it has grown (or perhaps shrunk) into a foreign evil. So why do so many people continue to support the Confederates’ actions? One major argument is that they were simply creating a new government that better protected their rights.
This argument is similar to the one that the founding fathers used in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men … are endowed …
with certain … rights, that among these [is] …
liberty … that whenever ..
. [the] government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” This is basically saying that if the government doesn’t do a good job of protecting people’s freedoms, they have the right to create a new government, which is what the Confederates were trying to do. Another legacy of the Civil War is that it spurred new inventions and ways to do things. In fact, the Civil War is sometimes referred to as the first “modern” war. There were many firsts in the war, including the first iron-clad warships, the first use of military aircraft (balloons), the first machine guns in battle, and last but certainly not least, the first Coca-Cola! That’s right; one of the most popular soft drinks in the world today came from the Civil War.
So how did this happen? According to Mark Weaver, author of War Stories: The American Civil War, Remembered By Those Who Were There, John Stith Pemberton was a pharmacist and physician in Columbus, Georgia. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Third Georgia Cavalry Battalion during the Civil War and acquired a painful wound fighting in the Battle of Columbus in April 1865. His injury led to a morphine addiction. As an attempt to cure the addiction, he created “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”. It was based on a French formula called Vin Mariani.
When Atlanta, Georgia introduced prohibition in 1886, Pemberton decided to make a wine-free version of the drink. He removed the wine reference in the name, substituted sugary syrup for wine, and dubbed his new creation “Coca-Cola”. In addition to a very well-known beverage, the Civil War has also influenced many key parts of American society, including books and movies. Lincoln is a movie that came out in 2012 and is about his life a few months before the war ended till that fateful night in Ford’s Theater. The movie has some mild inaccuracies (most prominent during the scene where they vote on the amendment), but overall is a good investment of time. The book Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, written by James L.
Swanson, is a very fast-paced novel focusing on the actor John Wilkes Booth and his scheme to assassinate the president. Swanson has written many other Civil War-based novels both for teens and adults. I hope now we can agree that the Civil War is quite fascinating if you dig deeper than school textbooks. But now comes the real question – this may be interesting and all, but what’s the point in learning about all these dead people? Believe it or not, many of the same things are still happening today. There are still countries that are ruled by a monarchy.
There is still slavery in many parts of the world. People continue to try to convert others to their religion, sometimes in brutal ways. If we study the past, we can use what we’ve learned to predict and prepare for the future, as well as solve problems in the world today. Some people find primary or even secondary sources tedious and dull, but you can often empathize and feel a connection with the people you read about. Once, while researching the Trail of Tears, I came across an article about Rebecca Tickaneesky Neugin, a Cherokee who took her pet duck on the journey and accidentally killed it by squeezing it too hard. That really stuck in my head because I felt sorry for both her and the duck (but mostly the duck).
Fiction is a wonderful field of writing that lets your imagination run wild with the ideas that authors come up with. It can be something like realistic fiction, which allows you to invent within the boundaries of real life. It can be fantasy, where anything is possible. But the beauty of history is that everything you read about once actually happened. They aren’t just storybook characters made up to amuse you, though their feats can be viewed with the same (or even more) wonder.
They are real people who did real things and faced real hardships in their lives. And we can all learn a thing or two from studying them. Another important detail to keep in mind is that history keeps changing and evolving over time. The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce once said, “All history is contemporary history.” What exactly does that mean? Each generation of historians asks new questions about history. Issues going on in the present influence historians to research a particular topic and discover something that previous historians haven’t.
This adds to the database of knowledge available to everybody else and allows people to broaden their knowledge of a specific topic. For example, the study of women’s history increased during the women’s rights movement. This is because women were gaining a lot of public attention during the time. To figure out what was causing their seemingly sudden rebellion, people turned to the past and saw how women were treated, many realizing that it was long overdue. As people are faced with new situations, they think about different things in the past. Doing this, they are able to discover and contribute more to what is known of history, changing and shaping it with each generation.
History helps us discover much about other subject areas. For example, it helps us watch how technology has advanced over time. How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson is a book about the history of technology. It illustrates the evolution of technology in areas such as sound, light, and sanitation. History has also helped with science.
Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is a chronological study of science and how each branch progressed thanks to a few geniuses. Math also has a big role in history. If it weren’t for our historical records of brilliant mathematicians such as Pythagoras, Newton, Euler, or Euclid (among others), mathematics would not be the field it is today. All of these people have contributed so much to our world and history ensures that their work is remembered. And last but not least, literature.
One of the oldest examples of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumer in Mesopotamia, predating 2000 BCE. Since then, there have been many historic and influential works including the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, Pride and Prejudice, one of Jane Austen’s many novels, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and many more. So you see, history is a lot more than the dry textbooks in school – it alters and affects our world in ways we could scarcely imagine. Can you imagine a world without the Civil War? A world without Coke? Well luckily, you won’t have to. The cause and effect of history can be quite complex but if you still won’t buy it, do some digging yourself and you’ll be surprised by what you find.
It won’t hurt to try!