The Advantages of Defeat, September 1861


| September 19, 2001


The Advantages of Defeat, September 1861

In these times of mourning and reflection, Americans can look to their history to see many of the same thoughts and concerns raised today. Scholar and reformer Charles Eliot Norton wrote a critique of the North's loss of Bull Run which offers insight that can just as easily apply to last Tuesday's tragedy, though it was written 140 years ago.

On The Atlantic Online Web site, Norton writes: 'It is now plain that our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; that we not only deserved it, but needed it; that its ultimate consequences are better than those of a victory would have been.'

Throughout the coverage of the terrorist attacks, Academic scholars and spiritual leaders have been quoted saying that this most recent disaster was a necessary wake up call to America, that it presents the country with an opportunity otherwise unavailable. For some, the tragedy presents a chance for Americans to challenge worldwide terrorism, for others it's the prime moment to be the harbinger of peace.

In September 1861, Norton's writing addressed the need for consideration, consideration many need today: 'In this moment of pause and compelled reflection, it is for us to examine closely the spirit and motives with which we have engaged in war, and to determine the true end for which the war must be carried on,' he writes. 'It is no time for indulging in fallacies of the fancy or in feebleness of counsel.'

Then, as Norton launches into his treatise on the need for the North's triumph, an American today can easily imagine President Bush saying similar words, 'God has given us work to do not only for ourselves, but for coming generations of men... We are fairly engaged in a war which cannot be a short one.... It is for the establishment of liberty and justice, of freedom of conscience and liberty of thought, of equal law and of personal rights.... We are not making war to reestablish an old order of things, but to set up a new one.'
--Sara V. Buckwitz

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