Could 2021 Prove a Turning Point?

Yes, 2020 was terrible. But the United States has seen worse.

Such particularly challenging years as 1862 and 1941 have given way to turning point years, SMU historian Alexis McCrossen said.

Maybe 2021 will prove a turning point too.

“A look backward at other New Years in troubled times turns up examples of how Americans optimistically looked to the future when even the worst of years drew to an end,” said McCrossen, whose forthcoming book is Time’s Touchstone: The New Year in American Life. “They were not Pollyannas or fools, but instead of looking backward, they looked forward.”

“What has happened in previous years cannot be undone or forgotten, but it can be made to matter.”

Alexis McCrossen

1862: Bloodshed and Disunion

In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln warned the Confederate states that slaves would be freed if they did not return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863. Few expected the threat would be effective, and in the last three weeks of the year, McCrossen said, seven devastating battles left more than 37,000 men dead.

On Jan. 1, 1863, after hosting thousands of well-wishers for three straight hours at the annual New Year’s Day White House reception, Lincoln retired to his office. There, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, boldly freeing from slavery four million people and their descendants.

“Rather than mourn the past, abolitionists and freed people celebrated the future,” McCrossen said. “New Year’s Day was redemptive.”

1941: Mobilizing for an Uncertain Future

Throughout 1941, Americans followed World War II as it played out in Europe, McCrossen said. Then, on Dec. 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into war after a decade of economic hardship and social distress stemming from the Great Depression.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington D.C. on New Year’s Day, 1942. Optimism prevailed, she said. Roosevelt, Churchill, and diplomats from several countries, including China and the Soviet Union, signed a pact pledging “to defend life, liberty, independence, and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice.”

“Their action was audacious, bold, and worthy of the dawn of a New Year and of a new age, “McCrossen said.

Terrible years like 1862 and 1941 demonstrate how the changing of the calendar provides opportunities to look forward, McCrossen said. “What has happened in previous years cannot be undone or forgotten, but it can be made to matter.”

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