The Least Pivotal Time in American History

A strong case can be made that we've been living through itamerica fullness.jpg

In the promotional material for America: The Last Best Hope, Volume III, the political history textbook by William J. Bennett, there is this assertion: "The two decades from 1988 to 2008 have proved to be some of the most pivotal in America's history." I'm happy to forgive the pr department a little hyperbole in service of book sales (Bennett almost certainly didn't write that blurb himself), but the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that 1988 to 2008 is arguably the least pivotal 20 year period in all of American history (as far as we now know, anyway).

Scanning the daily headlines, it may seem as if we've been cursed recently to "live in interesting times." But actually, there's a good case to be made that all our American ancestors have us beat.

Most of them rather handily, too.

See if you agree:

1968 to 1988 -- The end of the Vietnam War, MLK and RFK assassinated, the moon landing, Woodstock, DARPA creates the Internet, Nixon goes to China, Watergate, the personal computer, the Reagan Revolution, and (although we didn't quite know it at the time) the Soviet Union lost the Cold War.

1948 to 1968 -- The post-war economic boom, the Baby Boom, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights movement, the Korean War, the beginning of the Vietnam War.

1928 to 1948 -- The Great Depression, The New Deal and World War II. Enough said.

1908 to 1928 -- The Model T, World War I, a flu pandemic, the assembly line, the birth of flight, the first radio stations, women's suffrage, Prohibition, the Immigration Act of 1924.

1888 to 1908 -- Multiple states added to the union. The land rush. Massive immigration. Violent labor strikes. Urbanization. Congress passes the first graduated income tax. Native Americans massacred. The Panic of 1893. The Spanish American War. The first movie is played.

1868 to 1888 -- Massive immigration. Reconstruction. Jim Crow. The Transcontinental Railroad is completed. The telephone is invented. So is the electric light bulb.

1848 to 1868 -- The Civil War alone makes this among the most pivotal periods in American history.

1828 to 1848 -- Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act. The Trail of Tears. Nat Turner leads slave uprising. Texas becomes part of the United States. Pioneers cross America on the Oregon Trail. Westward migration. The U.S. annexes California, where gold is discovered.

1808 to 1828 -- The War of 1812. The Missouri Compromise. The Monroe Doctrine. The Erie Canal is finished.

1788 to 1808 -- Constitution written, ratified. George Washington's presidency. The Louisiana Purchase.

1768 to 1788 -- The Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War.

So there you have it: if you start in 2008 and work backward in 20 year increments, there's a good case to be made that 1998 to 2008 is the single least pivotal in all of American history - it's true that the Cold War officially ended, and the Soviet Union broke apart, but by 1988 we'd already pursued every policy that would impact those events, and were already the world's superpower. The September 11 terrorist attacks were pivotal, but so far, they don't compare to the most significant events in each of the intervals above. The rise of the Internet is noteworthy too, but for all it has changed, there have been many technological advancements that mattered more.

Is the comparative calm of our era comforting or discomfiting? I'd say the former. Our geography is stable. There's no risk of foreign invasion or Civil War. The official oppression of minority groups is mostly a bygone phenomenon. The economy is bad, but our material standards of living are much higher than they were for much of American history. May the rest of our lifetimes be as boring.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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