Days of Uncertainty: Remember Truth

John C. Breckinridge

Last night I watched the news reports. The uncertainty of these times gripped me, making me wonder and question. I finally closed the apps on my phone, turned it off, and set it aside. Glancing up, the title on a book’s spine caught my eye: Breckinridge.

John C. Breckinridge. The Confederate general I’d studied while writing Call Out The Cadets. But I didn’t think about his military role. I thought about his life in the weeks leading into the Civil War. Like all Americans in the ending days of 1860 and the opening days of 1861, he faced uncertainty and choices.

He worked for compromise as Southern states announced secession. He campaigned for neutrality after he took his seat in the Senate, representing Kentucky after finishing his term as vice president. Eventually, circumstance and a last-resort decision would bring him to the Confederacy, but his primary sources and earlier actions suggest this was not his goal or his hope as 1861 began.

I re-read the chapter about his final weeks as vice president, presiding over a Senate that was trying to crumble as southerners left. About his months as a senator, disliked by both sides as he attempted to keep his state neutral and out of the war.

I found again his quote from one of his political speeches during the 1860 presidential campaign, speaking in context of union and disunion. Today, the news and circumstances are different than that conflicts and troubles of that era, but perhaps his words offer a type of hope that is still there and still needed:

“The truth will prevail. You may smother it for a time beneath the passions and prejudices of men, but those passions and prejudices will subside; and the truth will reappear as the rock reappears above the receding tide. I believe this country will yet walk by the light of these principles. Bright and fixed, as the rock-built lighthouse in the stormy sea, they will abide, a perpetual beacon, to attract the political mariner to the harbor of the Constitution.”

Uncertainty may run crazy. Questions abound. But we can still choose to have hope and faith. And we can believe in the certainty of truth in the end.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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7 Responses to Days of Uncertainty: Remember Truth

  1. David Corbett says:

    Thanks for the interesting article- I enjoy Gen. Jubal Early’s admonishment of Breckinridge as they were losing a battle: “What do you think now of States Rights in the Territories, Breckinridge?”

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    I agree with you Sarah, let the truth ring free… I just can’t tell if Breckinridge is speaking from the heart here. He was a politico after all. Sometimes there is great worth in their words, but more often than not it just worthlessness, even the seemingly well meaning statements.

  3. Donald Smith says:

    “a Senate that was trying to crumble as southerners left.” What do you mean with the word “trying?” Do you think the Senators were more focused on fighting each other, and were willing to tear the Senate apart? I’ve never studied the matter closely, but I was wondering how hard the members of Congress tried to hold the country together in the months immediately after Lincoln’s election. Did most Congressmen really try to avert crisis, or did most simply start to fight with each other?

    As for concerns about the uncertain times we live in—I wouldn’t be that concerned. Most Americans don’t follow the news and politics closely; they have other, more important things to do.

    With the Civil War, our differences had a real regional flavor to them. Shelby Foote said the Civil War was really a war between two different societies—a growing industrial North and a stagnant agrarian South. There really were two geographically separate and distinct cultures.

    Nowadays, our differences are more cultural. And, the “opposing camps” are intermingled with each other. Our differences are with our neighbors and family members, not some unknown people hundreds of miles away. You have to coexist with your neighbors, so that naturally makes you shy away from confrontation. I’m confident that the vast majority of Americans will keep their disagreements, and their passions, to themselves.

    • Donald Smith says:

      I’ll share this antecdote. During the 2000 Florida recount kerfluffle, a South Asian journalist looked at how America handled the whole messy matter, and remarked “No guns, no troops in the streets.” That reminded me of a comment by the Saudi Ambassador to Washington during Nixon’s second administration. The day after Nixon resigned, the ambassador woke up and expected to see troops in the street. Instead he saw people going about their business.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      There is book that was published, by a professor of mine, several years ago that covers exactly this time period, and what Congress was trying to do to keep it all together after Lincoln was elected.

      “We Have the War Upon Us” by William Cooper.

      Look it up on Amazon. It’s a good read and explains the political events from November 1860 to April 1861. Jefferson Davis actually worked to keep the Union together with some fellow Senators led by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden and his Crittenden Compromise. It was a last ditch effort to keep the Union together. Davis, if I remember correctly, was one of the last deep south Senators to leave Congress.

      Also… watch out for Shelby Foote’s quotes. He’s usually off the mark with what actually happened. Foote likes to simplify things. It wasn’t agrarian versus industrial, it was slave society versus a non-slavery society. Slavery was the singular issue and reason for the war. The north was also overwhelmingly agrarian, especially the western states (Free Soil!). And the South was actually more industrialized than people think it was and it was definitely not economically stagnant, the planter class was as successful as ever and nascent mechanical industries were taking off as well.

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