Sunday, July 7, 2013


"Historians debate whether history is made by individuals or by structural forces."- -- Carl Bogus; historian, author.

This is another one of those all too many issues in which the human brain simply refuses to deal with a question in a  sensible manner. Instead, we insist on creating a strained and rigid polarity which does not exist in reality. It seems impossible to me that anyone could seriously deny that a single "great man" can have a massive influence on history. On the other hand, it is also clear that there are forces existing in any given society which push that society in a particular direction.

Consider the United States of America prior to the Civil War. Since the founding of the nation, it was clear that there would always be a terrible stress between slaveholders and abolitionists.  If the slaveholders could not have their way, who could doubt that they would not willingly submit to the will of the majority? Similarly, abolitionists insisted that slavery was a vile and intolerable evil which must be expunged from the face of the earth.  There was no stable compromise possible for these two belief systems.   Abolitionists were at least flexible, being willing to make the moral surrender of rewarding slaveholders by purchasing the freedom of their "property".  Slaveholders were far more rigid.  They came from a violent society and obviously would violently resist any diminution of their lifestyle. Slaveholding to them was a way of life. Being called "master" was essential to their very sense of manhood.

The extant social forces inevitably brought things to a point of bloody conflict. The Civil War could conceivably have been prevented:  Jackson managed to avoid it several decades earlier and Buchanan was practically eager to to let the South go, while men like McClellan were almost desperate to appease the South and thus "save" the Union.  If Lincoln had not been elected, the South would not have panicked; if he had not done as good a job of running the country as he did, the Condeferates might well have successfully seceded.  Clearly, our actual history was a combination of the great man and the impetus of the sociological forces acting together at that time.

What causes history, great men or social forces? The question makes as much sense as asking what makes a plant thrive, sunlight or water?

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