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Tom Goldsmith: Remembering the last time America was on the eve of a civil war

Recall the words of Walt Whitman and hear America singing together.

(Matt Rourke | AP photo) Joseph Becton, a member of the 3rd Regiment Infantry United States Colored Troops Civil War Re-enactors, carries a U.S. flag into a shadow after a ceremony marking Walt Whitman's 200th Birthday at the poet's former home in Camden N.J., May 31, 2019.

In 1860, on the eve of our nation’s Civil War, Walt Whitman wrote his celebrated poem, “I Hear America Singing.” My interpretation is that the poem spoke to an underlying harmony among all Americans despite the inevitably tragic bloodshed about to be spilled.

Whitman cites hearing “varied carols” sung by laborers and professionals, urban and rural Americans, all who ultimately share pride in their respective vocations as Americans. The poem lifts a spirit of unity, as though America were a huge choral group ideally composed of disparate personalities singing the same song.

But the heartbreak of war developed nonetheless, as different ideas of what America meant were vehemently expressed with no regard for the costs to the greater whole. Different opinions, steeped in self-interest, evolved into catastrophic quarrels. Guns invariably emerge as viable options to settle disputes.

In 1926, the African American poet, Langston Hughes, responded to Whitman’s “I hear America Singing” by writing, “I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother.” Hughes responds to a racist nation which “sends him to the kitchen when company comes.” He urges us to recognize America’s diversity, and that inclusion into the choir is paramount for America’s success. America’s song must be sung by a multitude of voices. Hughes closes his poem by saying, “I, too, am America.”

In 2022, news pundits place our nation on the eve of civil war once again. Like most people, I am in denial. Although the tensions that splinter us into various factions of aggression are self-evident, I believe most Americans still carry a little of Whitman’s metaphor in their hearts. Many of us still hear the faint din of America singing. Below the infamous divide, a diverse people share an unshakeable harmony.

From its inception, our nation’s song sought distinct yet separate voices to fill the choir. From the Declaration of Independence to our Constitution, our forefathers envisioned a chorus of multitudinous voices. Equality served as the ideal measure of national harmony.

During the course of history, however, our nation has notoriously excluded people of color and women from the original blueprint presented by another group of idealists – our Founding Fathers. Even Whitman would agree that choral harmony does not come easy.

The issue that arose 160 years ago triggering unthinkable carnage, remains the same threat today: Can America’s choir be inclusive? People of color and immigrants and LGBTQ echo Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.” Are we willing to draw blood because we have different ideas about who has the right to sing?

By all historic accounts of the War between the States, the tally of armies battling armies composed of kinsmen never wrought the hoped-for outcomes. Instead, devastation escalated to unbearable proportions. No minds were changed as to whom to include in the choir. But of course, guns never change minds. Must we learn this ancient lesson again?

It was a simpler life in 1860, when Whitman could romanticize the work ethic common to all occupations. But he heard America’s song, “sung with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” And yet he was probably as terrified then as we are now.

We find ourselves today moving mindlessly towards greater violence. Extremists impose their myopic vision of a small chorus. They prefer to bend the nation to their will by the might of armaments. Too many of us have drifted easily into adopting the extremist mindset. Have we not learned from the mistakes of yesteryear?

As we ponder the predictions that point to a tragic repeat of the past, we might well turn to Whitman once again. We won’t hear the same chorus that his idealism perceived, but we can be reminded that fundamentally, we have more in common with our neighbor than what divides us.

Tom Goldsmith Senior Minister First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

Rev. Tom Goldsmith is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

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