An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: About the Defiant Power of the American Spirit

Mar 25, 2020 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Dr. Elder, throughout history, there have always been times of adversity. I remember in High School learning about the “Black Plague”. What was it and how long did it last?

What we commonly refer to as the Black Plague most likely started somewhere in East or Central Asia in the 1300s. Most experts believe that a bacterium named Yersinius pestis caused the first plague epidemic in European history when it spread to that continent in the 1340s. Evidence suggests that fleas carrying the bacterium rode on the bodies of rats, and that the travels of those rodents spread the disease as widely as it did. The disease could take one of two forms: bubonic, indicated by the formation of nodules known as buboes, and pneumonic, characterized by an inflammation of the lungs.

The buboes gave the disease its name, as the growths often turned black and burst open as the affected person neared death. Both types of the plague entail high mortality rates. Indeed, bubonic plague killed 80% of the people who developed it, while 90% of those afflicted perished from pneumonic plague.

Because of this, an appreciable portion of the population of Europe died in a very short period of time. Estimates of the total number of deaths range from 75 to 200 million, and it would take two centuries for the population of Europe to reach pre-Black Plague levels.

  1. Americans came together to fight for freedom from the oppressive British Empire. We all know a bit about Valley Forge, but during those long years of the American Revolution, what held Washington’s troops together?

While few individuals served continuously in the American Army from the start of the Revolutionary War to its end in 1783, many of the soldiers did serve a number of one-year terms in the service of their fledgling nation. At the points in time when the course of the war seemed to favor the Patriot cause, the decision to enlist or reenlist may have come more easily to Americans, but at other moments when the prospect of independence seemed bleak many American males undoubtedly had to carefully weigh the risks that military service entailed.

Clearly, the winters when the American Army encamped at Valley Forge in 1777-78 and Morristown in 1780-81 fall into that latter category.

Moreover, it seems incredible in hindsight that any American soldiers stayed with the army as it retreated through New Jersey into Pennsylvania in the fall of 1776. But in each instance, a core of American soldiers chose not to desert or leave when their enlistments ended, opting to remain in the military in spite of harsh conditions and an uncertain future. This speaks volumes for the loyalty that these individuals felt towards George Washington, and to the concept of liberty.

  1. During the War of 1812, the White House was burned to the ground, yet the people bounced back. What was the glue that kept those Americans fighting?

While Americans did not greatly suffer during the first two years of the War of 1812, 1814 brought the full consequences of the conflict home to the American people. That stemmed from the fact that while the British Navy harassed the American coastline, two large military forces invaded the United States. Fortunately, an American naval force won a battle on Lake Champlain that ended the first invasion, but the second British operation succeeded in capturing the nation’s capital in September of 1814.

Once they had secured the city, the British burned most of it—including the White House—to the ground.

While some Americans suggested that we should make peace with the British, most of the citizenry chose to continue to resist the enemy. This resolve led a week later to the American military repulsing the British force as it attempted to capture Baltimore.

Recognizing that the events of the fall had not weakened the American determination to keep fighting, the British decided to offer a peace that accepted a status quo antebellum. Some Americans had wavered in their devotion to the cause, but enough had stayed the course for the nation to avoid outright disaster.

  1. After the Civil War pitted North against South, often brother against brother, we were able to come together and recover. What were some of the factors that helped in the re-building process?

The period after the American Civil War (known as Reconstruction) saw thousands of individuals in the South who remained defiant of federal authority, and thousands of Northerners who wanted to treat the former Confederate states harshly because of their attempts to destroy the Union, but most Americans living in both parts of the country sought to put aside the sectional enmities. Partially, this stemmed from a simple desire on the part of Americans to put the past behind them and get on with their lives, but most historians believe that the national reconciliation had another explanation.

These historians believe that, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently said in his first inaugural address, “the mystic chords of memory” connected Americans in a visceral manner that a civil war could never fully sever. A common history and ties of language and religion provided crucial in the eventual reunification.

Americans should never forget that the price of reconciliation involved Northerners abandoning the cause of supporting the political and civil rights given to African-Americans in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, but the compromise reached between Republicans and Democrats to end Reconstruction in 1877 did allow white Americans to put the Civil War behind them.

  1. Obviously, the Great Depression of 1929 impacted millions, yet under the guidance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reminder that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” helped us recover and rebuild. Your thoughts?

If the Great Depression proves anything, it demonstrated the importance of leadership. The United States faced an unmitigated disaster during the first few years of that economic downturn, and when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president the nation stood on the precipice of a total collapse.

Herbert Hoover, the outgoing president, had seemed incapable of taking decisive action to stem the tide; by contrast, Roosevelt projected an air of optimistic competence that calmed the American people. We would not truly emerge from the economic crater until years later, but the American people would never despair again as they had during the Hoover presidency.

  1. Fast forward to World War II, which was an unprecedented war effort that involved women more than ever (perhaps embodied by the Rosie the Riveter posters of the time). What factors brought Americans together against Nazism?

Although today we recognize the evil that Adolf Hitler represented, even after the Second World War had raged for two years large numbers of Americans felt that his aggression had nothing to do with the United States. Indeed, many historians wonder whether the United States would have ever declared war on Germany or not.

The point became moot on December 10, 1941, however, when Hitler declared war on the United States.

Because the United States had declared war on Japan two days earlier, this meant that we would have to fight a war on a truly global scale. In spite of the daunting task facing the nation, Americans responded magnificently, coming together to help power the Allies to victory. The military, which numbered close to 14,000,000, fought in far-flung locales ranging from the Aleutian Islands to North Africa, but civilians (symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter”) proved equally important to the eventual triumph.

  1. You and I will probably never forget waking up on 9/11 and seeing the planes fly into the World Trade Center, and yet we bounced back. It seems that indomitable human spirit is still with us “after all these years”.

Although nearly two decades have passed since that tragic day, those of us who lived through 9/11 can close our eyes and picture exactly where we were when we saw that event unfold. Fortunately, leaders like George Bush and Rudy Giuliani showed a decisive resolve that helped galvanize Americans to the cause of triumphing over adversity.

While we can never replace those who died or help those who had their lives shattered fully recover, we as a nation found the will power to seek justice against the forces that had masterminded the attacks, and to rebuild the symbol of our economic prosperity.

  1. We have had some major skirmishes with anthrax, and other bacteria and viral agents. I am sure that “we are all in this together” and “we will survive” but what is it about America and Americans that enables us to bounce back against adversity?

When I was a junior in high school, my Advanced Placement US History textbook concluded by reminding the reader that the last four letters of the word “American” spell out the phrase “I can.” While it may seem trite, this statement does illustrate an important point about our national experience.

From the darkest days of the American Revolution to the epidemiological distress wrought by the influenza attack in 1918-19, American have proven that they are nothing if not resolute. Determined people and competent leadership have seen us through difficult days, and will undoubtedly allow us to survive the current troubles that have beset our nation.

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