Letter to the Editor

American History Repeating Itself

As I was researching for a soon-to-be published book about Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, I ran into this excerpt from a speech given 158 years ago at a “Peace Conference” convened on the morning of February 4, 1861 at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. More than 130,  mostly elderly statesmen, convened to try and stem the tide of a potential Civil War.  Seven Southern states had already declared for secession and several more, including Virginia, were leaning in that direction.  The delegates were called to order as the elderly president-elect of the conference, ex-U.S. President John Tyler, rose to speak, with a huge full-length portrait of George Washington looming in the background. President Tyler, though feeble in health addressed the Convention saying in closing: “Gentlemen, the eyes of the whole country are turned to this assembly in expectation and hope.  I trust that you may prove yourselves worthy of the great occasion.  Our ancestors probably committed a blunder in not having fixed upon every fifth decade for a call of a general convention to amend and reform the Constitution.  On the contrary, they have made the difficulties next to insurmountable to accomplish amendments to an instrument which was perfect for 5 millions of people, but not wholly so as to 30 millions.  Your patriotism will surmount the difficulties, however great, if you will but accomplish one triumph in advance, and that is, a triumph over party.  And what is party when compared to the task of rescuing one’s country from danger?  Do that, and one long, loud shout of joy and gladness will resound throughout the land.”

  The “Peace Conference” was a failure.

  No, history does not repeat itself, but people do.  We are hopefully not facing the cataclysm that Americans endured from 1861 to 1865—the bloodiest war in American history, but I believe Tyler’s words echo today:  we must understand that the Constitution that was written more than two hundred years ago for a country that was mostly rural, and inhabited by less people then the population of most major American cities, needs to be periodically examined.  And, most important, our leaders must be prepared to put the good of the entire country over partisan politics.

Gary Parker Schoales

[email protected]

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