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‘Christmas Bells’: 1864 Poem Offers Hope Amid Fears Of Another Civil War

Heated political rhetoric — and growing concerns about political violence — have fueled warning after warning that the United States might be headed for another Civil War.

An August 2022 poll from The Economist/YouGov revealed that everyday Americans worry that the country is too divided to course-correct. According to that poll, 42% (half of Republicans and 39% of Democrats) believe a second civil war is at least “somewhat likely” within the next decade. A decisive majority — 68% — believes that political violence will increase, and 86% believe that political divides have only deepened since early 2021.

The Brookings Institute published a piece in September of 2021 that outlined some of the reasons another civil war might be inevitable. Not the least of these was the sincere belief — held by most Americans, regardless of their political persuasion — that the “other side” was not going to play fair. Competing accusations of “voter suppression” and “stolen elections” only serve to bolster those beliefs.

And there are some who believe a new civil war is already underway — albeit a “cold” civil war absent the body count of its “hot” counterpart. Claremont Review of Books editor Charles R. Kesler outlined just such a “cold” civil war, describing it as a battle between two constitutions.

“Underlying our cold civil war is the fact that America is torn increasingly between two rival constitutions, two cultures, two ways of life,” he said during a 2018 lecture at Hillsdale College.

One faction, he explained, accepted the U.S. Constitution as written and amended. The other argued that the Constitution must constantly be reimagined in order to ensure that it meets the needs of a changing culture. The “living Constitution” they advocate “implies that the original Constitution is dead — or at least on life support — and that in order to remain relevant to our national life, the original Constitution must be infused with new meaning and new ends and therefore with new duties, rights, and powers. To cite an important example, new administrative agencies must be created to circumvent the structural limitations that the original Constitution imposed on government.”

But the fundamental problem with a second civil war in the United States — particularly one that splits Americans along ideological lines — is that there is no east-to-west or north-to-south Mason-Dixon Line along which to divide the country. Rather, there are tiny, fragmented lines that will divide states, counties, and even individual households.

“We’re less a nation divided into 50 states than we are two nations that are both present in each of those states. Each is dominant in its own space and certain that it is the real America,” NPR’s Ron Elving wrote in January of 2022.

“The forces of disunity are disquieting, to say the least. But must it all come to blows? Can we still center ourselves and pull back from whatever brink we are approaching?” he asked — and ultimately left the question unanswered.

Time Magazine’s Peter Coleman offered hope in a piece published in October, saying that the only way to truly lower the temperature and find common ground was for Americans — whether they be politicians and pundits or simply neighbors — to stop talking past each other and start listening to each other. He explained that when he tried this himself with a neighbor who had differing political views, he was surprised to learn first that they actually agreed on more things than he had expected, and second, that his own faulty assumptions about what “the other side” believed had been a part of the problem.

Another ray of hope as Christmas approaches comes from the 1864 poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned as the nation around him was quite literally being torn to pieces: state versus state; brother versus brother.

The first stanzas of “Christmas Bells” reflect on the Biblical promise of the Christmas angels, who had come to earth to herald the birth of Jesus and deliver a message of “peace on earth, good will to men.” He explains that, after many hundreds of years of the church bells repeating that message, it should have resonated with all of humanity.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow turned back then to his present day and the war that threatened to consume a nation — and lamented the feeling that the Christmas message was being choked out by the hatred that drove the war to continue. His own personal connection to the war intensified when his son Charley ran away to join the Union Army in 1863 — he was later wounded during the Mine Run campaign.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But Longfellow held out hope, even in a nation that was already torn asunder — and concluded with the fact that the message of Christmas was still there: the church bells were still faithfully ringing their message, and the people had only to listen to it.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

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