The Aurelian Column "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."

The American Way of Compromise

The late historian Shelby Foote had a great understanding of the American Civil War and the role it played in formulating our national identity. He once pointed out that before the conflict, “the United States are” was a proper way of referring to our country in the spoken and written form. But after the war, the proper way to refer to the U.S. was “the United States is.” Thus, the War Between the States made “us” an “is.”
Shelby Foote is one of my favorite historical authors. His three-volume
The Civil War: A Narrative is a masterpiece that will probably never be matched or exceeded. Foote knew his material. Every battle, every general, every player on the stage. But he was also an expert on why the Civil War happened in the first place.

In the classic Ken Burns documentary about that conflict, Foote explained that the main reason the entire tragic affair happened was because of the unwillingness of Americans to compromise. He pointed out that our system of government was built on the principle of compromise. Of give and take. Of being willing to live and work with people you don’t necessarily agree with, or even like. The ability to put aside differences to come up with a workable, peaceful solution all parties can live with.

The key term here is “live with.” Not a solution that is loved, or even liked. But one that can be lived with. Tolerated. Put up with. Why? Because the alternative to compromise is conflict. And the Civil War was a conflict that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and left a bitterness that still lingers to this day.

The city of Alexandria, Virginia, which I currently call home, is a semi-sleepy sort of place. Even though these days it’s mostly a bedroom community for people who work for the Federal Government, it has a long and rich history. When George Washington walked its streets, it was one of the busiest port cities in this part of the world. And in keeping with the tradition of its namesake in Egypt, Alexandria has always had a relatively cosmopolitan community. The city has also been home to many famous people. Among them Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun — who is buried in a local cemetery.

When you live in a company town, you tend to see lots of company people. Many members of Congress, their staffers, cabinet secretaries, generals, and both famous and anonymous people who work for Uncle Sam can be seen at a local supermarket, clothing store, car wash, theater, or sidewalk cafe in Alexandria’s quaint Old Town area. It is fun to see someone who was arguing passionately on CSPAN one day doing a crossword puzzle in Starbucks the next.

Just like all other Americans, those at the head of our affairs have to deal with the "normal" part of life. And, when they can, find a bit of enjoyment while keeping fit so as to better deal with the abundant stress most of Alexandria’s residents have to deal with at their day job. Be it exercising in a club, hitting golf balls, riding a bike, or playing on an amateur baseball team.

That little bit of badly needed, healthy, everyday distraction in an environment of relative safety is now gone. And I doubt it’s going to be coming back anytime soon. A little bit of pleasurable innocence that helped keep those who are at the head of affairs in touch with Main Street America was ripped away by a fanatic who decided that a group of duly elected officials, taking time out of their already crazy schedules to play in a charity baseball game, deserved to die on account of their political affiliation.

That sick, little man didn’t show up in the early morning hours at a baseball field to heckle or curse. He didn’t show up to debate or argue. No. He came to murder, en mass, members of the legislative branch of our government because he disagreed with them.

Now think about that for a moment. Really think about it. If you have any reasonable command of current world events or world history, you’ll know that once the path of political violence is started down it never goes to a beautiful place. In fact, it almost never returns to a civilized place without first passing through a large-scale, horrifying conflict that takes more than a few lives. Killing those whom you disagree with politically always leads into an abyss that will take years or decades for a country to recover from, if ever. It’s the reason most of our world today is a hellish mess.

The hateful political rhetoric that has built up over the past few years in this country is coming to a head, and it’s not pretty. The American tradition — the American way — of compromise is quickly disappearing. And when it’s gone, well, the first American Civil War might give you an idea of what could be in store. Only single shot muskets, cannons, and men on horseback with swords will probably not play a significant role. The weaponry of today that can be picked up at a store nearly everywhere with a credit card and driver’s license exceeds anything our ancestors could have imagined, either in their dreams or, more likely, nightmares.

So before you send out another Tweet; write a comment on Facebook; or post an opinion to an online forum about the need for someone’s ruin, destruction, dismemberment, or death, from the comfort of your air conditioned home or Cappuccino-serving coffee shop, I have a suggestion: Take some time out and visit your local military cemetery — preferably one where Civil War soldiers were laid to rest.

Count the graves. Look at the ages of the occupants when they died. Then think about all the years all those hundreds of thousands of kids didn’t get a chance to live, love, and experience the all-too-fleeting gift of existence that we call “life.” Think of all the families that never gathered for a holiday; the children who were never born; the dreams that were never realized.

Those endless rows of tombstones are not just abstract statistics from history books. They were real people. And they suffered, and they died, because Americans were collectively unable to live peacefully with each other and come up with a compromise to the problems of their time. A pretty steep price to pay for a difference of opinion, wouldn’t you say?

So before you go back to your online hate-rants, or head off to a street protest with the intention of bashing someone’s head in, use that self-perceived superior intellect of yours to think about what you are doing, and where you are going. If we Americans abandon the very traditions that helped bring us into existence, then we are lost. And, this time around, we may not find our way back home again.

We have had our Civil War. We are already an “is.” And the revolution will not be serving Cappuccino.

© 2017 Thomas Michael Caldwell. All Rights Reserved. This written work is not to be copied or reproduced without the permission of the author. Links to this page from other websites is permitted and encouraged.