Acknowledging the risk of repeating this year’s most common cliché, 2020 hasn’t been the greatest for most people. From COVID-19 killing thousands of old, sick and weakened people to the riots to the shutdowns, we’ve had better years. However, it’s important to keep things in perspective, and the reality is that the United States has endured greater challenges in the past. In an effort to help provide some perspective, here’s years that were even harder on America than 2020.
The bloodiest year of the Civil War. There’s no doubt our nation is polarized politically. It’s gotten so bad I have heard people refer to the Civil War as the first civil war. However, anybody who thinks our current division could hold a candle to what happened here in the 1860s needs a refresher in U.S. history. The Civil War ripped this country down the middle, pitting family members and friends against each other and killing hundreds of thousands of young Americans.
1863 saw the Battle of Gettysburg, which killed almost 8,000, the Battle of Chickamauga, which killed 4,000, the Battle of Chancellorsville, which killed over 3,000, the Battle of Stone’s River, which killed almost 3,000, the Vicksburg campaign (a siege), which killed 1,000 and resulted in 30,000 confederates captured, the Battle of Chattanooga, which saw 14,000 casualties (unclear how many dead) and the siege of Knoxville, which killed about 1,000.
In addition, 1863 saw the creation of the first conscription act, which made all men ages 20-45 eligible to be drafted into service. The law allowed avoidance by paying a fee or producing someone to go in your stead. This in turn favored the rich and caused working-class riots in New York City. In actuality, any one of the years during the Civil War could have made this lis. America saw 620,000 of its sons die of wounds or disease on its own soil during the conflict. To put that into perspective, the U.S. eclipsed 620,000 total dead in every other military conflict during the Vietnam War.
The Spanish flu of the early 20th century makes the Chinese virus of the early 21st look like child’s play. An estimated 675,000 were killed in the U.S. and about 50 million worldwide, mostly in 1918 and 1919. The disease came to pass at exactly the wrong time; it was able to piggyback off the chaos resulting from World War I—including the concentration of wounded in hospitals and the mass migration of troops back home once the conflict was over. Aside from the Spanish flu, 1919 saw the beginning of Prohibition, which caused a cascade of negative consequences, including widespread organized crime. 1919 also saw the death of Theodore Roosevelt along with Woodrow Wilson’s stroke.
In addition, there were numerous terrorist bombings by anarchist groups, bloody race riots in cities around the country. This earned the summer of 1919 the moniker “the red summer, and massive labor strikes in major labor groups, such as coal miners, steelworkers, longshoremen, telephone operators, etc. To cap it all off, 1919 was a peak year for America’s communist party. The parallels between 1919 and 2020 are almost too obvious to point out. From civil unrest to a pandemic and anarchist violence, history in many ways does repeat itself. The saving grace is, however, that in almost every way 2020 is bad, 1919 was worse.
The worst year of the Great Depression. The Great Depression was the deepest and longest recession in American history. A combination of factors, including a massive drought in the central U.S., the stock market crash of 1929 and banking panics when huge numbers of people tried to simultaneously withdraw funds. This all led to historically high levels of unemployment and homelessness. In fact, GDP shrank by 30%, and in 1933 unemployment reached a whopping 25.2%. To put that in perspective, the Great Recession of 2008 shrank GDP by about 4.5%, and unemployment peaked at less than 10%.
The Great Depression left an entire generation traumatized and changed economic policy markedly. In fact, the cultural waves of the Great Depression can still be felt radiating through our culture. The Grapes of Wrath and thousands of other novels and films remind us of the incident. Every economic downturn, including 2008 and the COVID shutdown recession of 2020, is instantly compared to the Great Depression. When you consider the accelerant panic can be for a recession, it’s important for us to take actual account of how good things really are currently.
2020 may have been a rough year when you consider the racial and political strife and violence we’ve witnessed. The economic ruin caused by small business closures, and the disease which continues killing people. Let’s remember America has endured far worse in the past and has risen from the ashes of many disasters markedly stronger than before.