In our age of clickbait and hyperbole, people call things “unprecedented” that are not unprecedented at all. Public officials shamelessly brag that the nation’s recent economic growth is unequaled. (It’s not.) Broadcasters breathlessly report that today’s anxiety over the stock market is unheard of. (Actually the number of suicides after the Crash of 1929 was higher.)
Rarely does something happen that is truly unprecedented. Is our government’s response to COVID-19 one of them? We shall explore the question in a moment.
But first, let’s get a feel for what qualifies as unprecedented by reviewing a time or two in U.S. history when something truly without precedent happened.
The American founding surely qualifies. It is hard nowadays to be shocked by our founders’ resumes, but take a minute to recall what they endured to accomplish what they did. Militarily it was reckless to take on Britain, the superpower of the day. About one-third of the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies were Loyalists hostile to American independence, so there was a fifth columnist ready to undermine the Patriot cause from within.
Moreover, at the start of the War for Independence there was no U.S. Navy. The underdog of underdogs, the Thirteen Colonies were a subset of 42 colonies in Britain’s Atlantic theater, many with the capacity to provision warships that could harass American ships and ports with relative impunity. Indeed, the entire American coast should have been effectively blockaded yet, mirabile dictu, Britain’s Royal Navy would lose the Revolutionary War.
Without a dominating Navy or an Army that could decisively defeat the Continental Army, King George III was powerless to stop America’s founders from winning their independence and launching political, social, economic, and religious revolutions. The Patriots were rebelling not just against Britain, but also against a thousand years of historical habit. Talk about unprecedented. Breaking violently from the mother country, the founders deliberated and then decided to establish a republic in a world of hostile monarchs; the resulting Constitution is an enduring masterpiece of republican statecraft. Having the audacity to abolish birthright aristocracy in a world of nobility, the founders proclaimed that all men are created equal in their possession of natural rights; the idea and reality of unlimited upward mobility would mark America off from the rest of the world, as generations of immigrants could attest. Spurning the top-down mercantilist policies of the colonial era, the founders boldly established an operationally flexible, free-market economy; within a mere one hundred years after the Constitution was ratified, America built the most powerful economy in world history.
Also note, given that the founding occurred in the shadow of terrible wars of religion across Christendom, that the Washington administration was bold enough to proclaim, in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” American spiritual energies were on a leash long enough to move throughout society, but short enough to stay on the perimeter of the state. Protestants initially dominated but would soon have to make room for a succession of other denominations and faiths. Aside from the brief Mormon War (1838), the U.S. would never undertake a war of religion, and that is unusual in world history. Taken together, all these interlaced factors—political, social, economic, and religious—make the United States an unprecedented historical entity, breathtaking in its implications for humankind.
Not all unprecedented events are so grand in the popular imagination as the founding of a nation. Fast forward more than a century later, to the 1890s and 1900s. These decades were not as flashy as the 1770s and 1780s, but they were just as momentous for the nation’s future. For the first time in American history, a President and Congress sought to establish an empire beyond our continental boundaries. The frontier had been declared closed by the Census of 1890, but Americans’ restless spirit would not be contained. Looking around, President McKinley and leaders in Congress found in Spain a decadent empire from which the U.S. could cherry pick as much territory as it wanted. By means of “a splendid little war”—it did not even last four months—we grabbed Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. We insured that Cuba gained its independence from Spain, though in reality it became a client state of the U.S., which stationed soldiers and sailors on the island and intervened at will in Cuba’s internal affairs. In the same burst of expansion we annexed Hawaii and, soon afterward, American Samoa (which, incidentally, was one of the most successfully quarantined islands in the world during the devastating 1918 Spanish flu pandemic). As a result of acquiring these far-flung territories in the 1890s, the United States became for the first time in its history a transoceanic empire—truly one of history’s greatest powers.
Besides this outward-looking transformation, there was an inward-looking transformation taking place about the same time. It was sparked by the Panic of 1893 whose effects on ordinary men and women were arguably worse than those of the Great Depression four decades later. In response, Populists on their farms and laborers in their cities called for government action to provide work and relieve suffering. Thus Progressive ideas gained a purchase on the American imagination, and they would undermine old-fashioned “Americanism,” the economic and political program that had enjoyed a large public consensus for most of the nineteenth century. Americanism is often associated with the governing policies of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Grover Cleveland. It was not so much a rigid ideology as a muscular ethos. It favored a relatively strict construction of the Constitution, mostly free markets (railroad subsidies and tariffs being notable exceptions), and restraint by the national government so as not to expand Washington’s power at the expense of the states.
Over time the ideological teeth of twentieth-century Progressivism would shred the muscular ethos of nineteenth-century Americanism. The new -ism was championed by philosophers like John Dewey, pamphleteers like Herbert Croly, and politicians like Robert LaFollette. Progressive ideas and policies made sense to many people in an America that was no longer like the America of the founders, but was industrializing, urbanizing, and modernizing. The Progressive response to modernization helped elect Republicans and Democrats from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Progressives in both parties would spearhead unprecedented changes, bringing about a revolution by evolution. It went by different names: the New Nationalism, New Freedom, New Deal, Great Society. But the goal was unmistakable: to supplant the founders’ republic with the progressives’ democracy.
Take the establishment of the administrative state. Its agencies became so numerous as to be “submerged in a bowl of alphabet soup.” The new bureaucracies became America’s unelected, de fact legislature that issued literally thousands of rulings governing how Americans lived. The rulings by scientifically trained experts would as often as not bypass the will of the people expressed in elections.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the presidency itself would transform from a rather Whiggish institution that often deferred to Congress to a bully pulpit for energetic presidents. Bypassing Congress, the presidents of both parties issued executive orders that impacted governance at home and abroad.
It also was a time when modernity gave rise to a new mood. This new mood combined an unprecedented polarity in the popular imagination: faith in material progress on the one hand, and fascination with cultural decadence on the other. The new mood was captured in a neologism of the 1890s, fin-de-siecle, as I’ve written previously.
Adding up all these changes, we see that twentieth-century America was rapidly becoming something the founders would not have recognized.
Both the founders’ revolution and the progressives’ revolution by evolution were unprecedented in U.S. history. They changed the operating system of our nation. In both cases, the relationship between the people and their government was dramatically altered. Is it possible that we are watching something unprecedented unfold as national, state, and local governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis?
To answer the question, let’s review some of the happenings of the past two months. On January 31, 2020, President Donald Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services declared a nationwide public health emergency due to the spread of COVID-19. On February 24, the President asked Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funds to fight the plague. On March 13, the President issued a proclamation declaring the COVID-19 crisis a national emergency. At the national level, travel restrictions were put in place and some federal workers were quarantined. Then on March 16 the President, backed by the Centers for Disease Control, told the nation to avoid gathering in groups of more than ten people and also to maintain at least six-feet of social distance from others for the next 15 days.
That last message triggered strong responses. Entire sectors of our public life closed down rapidly as state governors and school superintendents began issuing social distancing and stay-in-place orders. College and university campuses closed. School districts shut down. Churches locked their doors. All these government actions had the effect, in turn, of shuttering 30-40 percent of the American economy and putting the nation on a collision course with a major recession. These days cruise ships aren’t sailing. Passenger jets aren’t flying. Dine-in restaurants aren’t serving. Business offices aren’t opening. NBA teams aren’t playing. And the almost apocalyptic scenes from New York City, ground zero of the American locus of the pandemic, show eerily quiet streets juxtaposed to overwhelmed emergency rooms desperate to save lives. ER workers in Elmhurst Hospital, Queens, say the day-to-day tragedy is worse than what they experienced on 9/11. Especially striking are the anarchic forces that have been unloosed by the government. Prisoners are being released. Police are delaying arrests for drug, theft, and prostitution crimes. We’ve seen nothing like it in living memory.
Friday, March 27, the time of this writing, was particularly newsworthy. The Rhode Island governor ordered the National Guard to begin going house-to-house to hunt down New Yorkers seeking refuge. Our commander-in-chief invoked the Defense Production Act to force GM to make ventilators. And President Trump signed the largest emergency spending measure in U.S. history: a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that the Senate passed. Unanimously.
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The featured image is “The South Sea Bubble” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.