The United States Has Seen Much Worse

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Even though Americans are disgusted with the partisan gamesmanship in Washington and the congressional job approval average for 2011 "is on track to be the lowest annual rating of Congress in Gallup's history," this past year was far from the U.S. government's worst.

That year arguably came 150 years before.

[Check out 2011: The Year in Cartoons]

During January and February of 1861, six states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union. On April 12, South Carolinian troops began firing upon Fort Sumter. Thirty-four hours later, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort; federal troops evacuated on April 14. By the month's end, President Abraham Lincoln had declared a state of insurrection and ordered a blockade of all Confederate ports. Over the next 30 days, four more states (Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) seceded from the Union and Richmond was made the capital of the Confederacy. Less than a year after the 1860 election, the United States of America had divided in two and become locked in conflict. The Civil War, which would eventually claim more than 620,000 lives and cost about $6.2 billion, was our worst crisis.

But 1861 wasn't the federal government's only bad year.

Twenty years earlier, "on Saturday, September 11, 1841 … [President John] Tyler's entire cabinet—with the exception of Secretary of State [Daniel] Webster—resigned in a protest designed by [Senator Henry] Clay to force Tyler's own resignation."

[See 10 Words We Learned in 2011]

And less than 30 years before that, on August 24, 1814, most of Washington, D.C., including the White House, burned down as a result of fires set by British troops. But for the negotiating savvy of Henry Clay and the military bravado of Andrew Jackson, the U.S. government may not have escaped from the War of 1812 with the status quo ante bellum.

More recently, Americans have witnessed a president, John F. Kennedy, fall by an assassin's bullet in 1963, and another, Richard M. Nixon, resign from the Oval Office in 1974. And despite the fact that the economy was booming in 1998, the federal government was consumed with the muckraking politics that led to President William J. Clinton's impeachment.

And this account doesn't even include the challenges presented by the Teapot Dome scandal, the Great Depression, either of the World Wars, Vietnam, or the energy crises of the 1970s.

So while it may seem like things in Washington are spinning out of control, it's not that bad. This country has seen worse and prevailed over greater odds. American government is resilient and Americans are tenacious. Let's now turn to the opportunities of a new year.

Lara Brown

About Lara Brown Professor at Villanova University

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government
Congress
politics

Other Arguments

#1
47 Pts
2011 Not the Very Worst, But Definitely in the Bottom 10

Yes – 2011 Not the Very Worst, But Definitely in the Bottom 10

William A. Galston Former Policy Adviser to President Clinton

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