By Bob Holladay
It is arguable that the entire history of the United States is the history of the growth of government. Virtually every political dispute since 1787 has had as its basis the question of the role of government in our lives, and in particular the role of the federal government and what it is empowered to do. The federal government has never grown smaller, nor, I think, do we truly expect it to, despite the often overheated rhetoric of the political branches.
That becomes most obvious in the case of national emergencies, like the one we are in now. What other institution do we have that can possibly cope with the devastation of a national pandemic? So in times like this, political and economic power is going to devolve up, and that means in Washington. When this is over, we will, I am certain, be inundated with both scholarly and not-so-scholarly books explaining how all of this increased our national debt multiple times, etc., but also increased the power out of Washington in dealing with the myriad of problems sure to result from this experience. But why wait for the books that have not yet been written? I’d like to suggest two books, one classic and one new, that can give us an idea of the transformative effect of emergencies on our political and cultural life.
The classic is Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington, 1861-65, about the transformation of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Up until now, at least, the two events in our nation’s history that most increased the reach and power of the federal government were the Civil War, and the years 1932-1945 that encompassed the New Deal response to the Great Depression and then World War II. Leech’s book came out in 1941, as the United States entered World War II and was surely written as an object lesson in how history was in the process of repeating itself.
Leech, (1893-1974), was in some respects an odd person to write about how the Civil War transformed Washington, D.C. She had written three novels, was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable, and was sort of a social butterfly. Yet those credentials were exactly what was needed to write about how the war changed the cultural life of Washington and thus changed the political life, not only for the capital, but for the whole nation. You won’t find detailed discussions of Lincoln’s cabinet meetings or long drawn out expositions of military strategy in Reveille in Washington, but you will find out about how divided the city was in its sympathies during the war. The same city that dealt with the cultural competition between Mary Todd Lincoln, and Kate Chase, the daughter of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, also had room for Rose Greenhow, another social leader who happened to be a spy for the Confederacy. Most of all, Reveille in Washington is about how a small, dirty, diseased and incompletely constructed backwater became by the end of the war, the national capital of a rising world power. It would take the United States to the end of the 19th century, and perhaps early into the 20th, to reach that position, but the Civil War had a consolidating effect that, given the sheer breadth of the country’s landmass plus the latent energy to expand, made it inevitable. Reveille in Washington was highly praised when it came out; Leech became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for History, something she repeated 18 years later, in her biography In The Days of McKinley, about William McKinley and the Spanish-American War, the conflict that finally put the U.S. onto the world stage as a major power.
The new book is Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln (Atlantic Monthly Press, $28). Achorn, editorial page editor of the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, has previously written about the intersection of baseball and culture, so he would seem to be an odd choice to write an almost day-by-day account leading up to Lincoln’s March 4, 1865, second inaugural speech (the shortest in U.S. History) and its aftermath. But he demonstrates—just as Leech did—that political history is cultural history and vice versa. Yes, in March of 1865, Washington, D.C., was still dirty, and diseased; the water was bad; people still died of typhoid; the streets were unpaved; prostitutes were everywhere because of the war. But it was also the Washington, D.C., that had finally finished rebuilding the capitol dome.
Archon’s Washington at the end of the war is full of fascinating characters: Samuel Chase, whom Lincoln had named Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and who still wanted be president; his daughter Kate, probably the most glamorous woman in town, and object of both jealousy from other women and delight from their husbands. It is also the Washington of Benjamin Brown French, former clerk of the House of Representatives, whose multi-volume diary would form the basis for one of 2019’s best history books, Fields of Blood, about the violence in Congress between the 1830s and the war. It is also a city of dark secrets and conspiracy as the repeated appearance of John Wilkes Booth and his interaction with social Washington, makes clear. Booth was a glamorous and handsome actor, and everybody was fascinated with him.
And then there was Lincoln. Archon depicts a Lincoln, who on March 4, was a little more than a month away from winning the war, but who had become already its most prominent casualty, prematurely aged (he had just turned 56), devastated by the bloodshed (750,000 dead) he helped unleash, there was nothing triumphant in either his manner, or as it turned out in his brief inaugural speech where he laid the blame for the war on both sides. And, of course, in six weeks he was dead, a knowledge that hangs over Archon’s narrative from the beginning.
What lessons can we draw from the changes derived from disaster? We can never go back of course, though we like to think we can recapture the past. Events like the Civil War, the New Deal and World War II, and probably now the nationwide coronavirus epidemic, change us as individuals, change our surroundings, change everything. Without the conflict of the cooperating opposites of light and dark, good and bad, life as we know it, could not be. What the heroes of our present situation—and there are heroes—give us is the image of their devotion and selflessness and the knowledge that they can save us from the powers of darkness—for a time.