When We Were Great

“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

A few months ago, a notorious public figure answered an important question that’s been on the minds of many of us for the past two years: “When was America last ‘great’?” Recently, a lot of writers have focused in on just five words that he inserted parenthetically into his interesting answer: “…even though we had slavery…”

For the most part, these analyses have implied that America could not possibly have been great during that part of its history when slavery was legal because slavery was the opposite of great. This is a defensible argument, if social justice is used as the measure of a civilization’s greatness. But in pressing that point, the writers tend to overlook a bunch of other troubling issues with this answer.

Was there a time when American families were more united than they are now? Was there a time when the country possessed a “direction” that was more easy to define, more unanimously endorsed, than it is now? And was the last time those conditions existed prior to December 18, 1865?

“…the time when families were united…”

Child labor, coverture, immigration, economic inequality—all of these things placed great strain on all sorts of family bonds. But if you’re considering the extent of family unity before emancipation, the obvious place to look is at the families of enslaved people themselves.

By the time the Civil War began, slaves made up more than 12% of the United States population. Family members could be sold and traded, bred like livestock, and impregnated through rape. If an enslaved person gained freedom through escape, manumission or self-purchase, it might be at the cost of losing contact with the rest of the family. So much for family unity.

“…they cared for one another…”

Under this heading, the first idea that springs to mind is the so-called “right of chastisement”—a most peculiar component in “care of the family” as commonly defined in antebellum America. In that patriarchal time, this right belonged exclusively to the male head of the household, and it gave him the right to beat his wife and children in order to keep them in line.

It’s interesting that it was the Supreme Court of Alabama that, in 1871, finally rejected this “ancient privilege,” in the case of Fulgham v. The State of Alabama. No more were husbands free to thrash their wives providing the diameter of the switch was no greater than that of her wedding ring. “The privilege, ancient though it be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor, or to inflict upon her like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law.” In Alabama, at least. North Carolina and Mississippi were a different matter.

And they say nothing good came out of Reconstruction.

“…our families were strong…”

If they were so strong, how come so many people were obsessed with the worrisome possibility of incest?

The icky subject of incest has popped up in literature, law and religion for countless centuries, but it was a special fixation for nineteenth-century Americans. In his book Domestic Intimacies, historian Brian Connolly outlines some of the reasons why.

Increased mobility, as the rapid expansion of the country resulted in families busting up and moving in different directions, combined with slow and difficult communication to make losing touch with close family members a regular occurrence. As a result, people in great numbers began to fret about the possibility of accidental incest. After all, if long-lost siblings, parents, aunts and uncles can disappear from one’s life, swallowed up in the vast American country, then maybe they could also reappear in the most distressing and inconvenient manner.

‘…our country had a direction.”

This is the part of the answer that hurts the most. Because, obviously, the direction we were heading as a nation in mid-19th-century America was toward civil war.

The Civil War didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 1860, and it didn’t have one easy-to-blame cause. For decades, the country had been struggling to define itself, and finally it became apparent that the team could not pull together without busting up the rig.

At the Battle of Front Royal, on May 23, 1862, two regiments from the same state met each other in that village and did their best to kill each other. The Union 1st Maryland Infantry and the Confederate 1st Maryland Infantry faced each other, with Capt. William Goldsborough taking his brother Charles Goldsborough prisoner. The Union—and the union—were big losers.

Personally, I have no nostalgia whatsoever for that time of “direction” and “greatness.” I am astonished anyone does.

Confederate Major Gen. George Crittenden. From the Mt. Sterling Library Association Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky.
His brother, Union Gen. Thomas Crittenden. From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

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