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America: Our Defining Hours

America: Our Defining Hours

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How Lincoln and Grant's Partnership Won the Civil War

President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. In his ...read more

How FDR's 'Fireside Chats' Helped Calm a Nation in Crisis

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, the United States was entering the fourth year of the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history. The stock market had fallen a staggering 75 percent from 1929 levels, and one in every four ...read more

11 Little-Known Facts About George Washington

1. Washington had only a grade-school education. The first president’s formal schooling ended when he was 11 years old, after his father died. That event cut young George off from the opportunity to be educated abroad in England, a privilege that had been afforded to his older ...read more

7 Little-Known Legacies of Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, is an outsized figure in American politics. He became president in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, and the brash and independent Roosevelt quickly remade the presidency in his own image. More than a ...read more

Emancipation Proclamation

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” ...read more

10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

There was a time when traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast meant riding for months in a horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach, or sailing southward to Panama and then crossing the Isthmus to board another ship for a journey up the other coast. But that all changed on May 10, ...read more

Did New Deal Programs Help End the Great Depression?

Since the late 1930s, conventional wisdom has held that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” helped bring about the end of the Great Depression. The series of social and government spending programs did get millions of Americans back to work on hundreds of public ...read more

Why Frederick Douglass Matters

Frederick Douglass sits in the pantheon of Black history figures: Born into slavery, he made a daring escape north, wrote best-selling autobiographies and went on to become one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage. He stands as the most influential civil and ...read more

7 Things You Might Not Know About the Hoover Dam

1. The dam’s name was a source of controversy.Surveyors originally recommended the dam be constructed at Boulder Canyon, leading the initiative to be called the Boulder Canyon Dam Project. Even when Black Canyon later was deemed a better location for the new structure, it ...read more

8 Things You Might Not Know About Daniel Boone

1. His family came to America to escape religious persecution. In 1713, Daniel Boone’s father, a weaver and blacksmith, journeyed from his hometown of Bradninch, England, to the colony of Pennsylvania, established by William Penn in 1681 as a haven for religious tolerance. Like ...read more

6 Things You May Not Know About Tecumseh

1. Tecumseh lost three close family members to frontier violence. Born in 1768 in present-day Ohio, Tecumseh lived during an era of near-constant conflict between his Shawnee tribe and white frontiersmen. At age 6, Lord Dunmore’s War broke out after a series of violent incidents, ...read more

10 Things You May Not Know About Paul Revere

1. He was of French extraction.Paul Revere’s father, Apollos Rivoire, was a French Huguenot who immigrated to Boston at age 13 and Anglicized his family name before marrying a local girl named Deborah Hitchbourn. Born around 1734 and one of 11 or 12 children, Paul never learned ...read more

10 Things You May Not Know About the Boston Tea Party

1. The “tea partiers” were not protesting a tax hike, but a corporate tax break.The protestors who caffeinated Boston Harbor were railing against the Tea Act, which the British government enacted in the spring of 1773. Rather than inflicting new levies, however, the legislation ...read more

5 Facts About Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona

1. Twenty-three sets of brothers died aboard USS Arizona.There were 37 confirmed pairs or trios of brothers assigned to USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. Of these 77 men, 62 were killed, and 23 sets of brothers died. Only one full set of brothers, Kenneth and Russell Warriner, ...read more

The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered remarks, which later became known as the Gettysburg Address, at the official dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, on the site of one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of ...read more

George Waring

After a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, Tennessee in 1878, the newly created National Board of Health sent engineer and Civil War veteran George A. Waring Jr. to design and implement a better sewage drainage system for the city. His success there made Waring’s ...read more

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The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions

Failure Is a Contagion

America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare

Eventually, the country will need a sane and healthy Republican Party. But for any kind of national renewal to take place, the Republicans must first suffer a crushing defeat in November. A Democratic administration and Congress must quickly pass bold legislation for economic relief, job creation, social protections, and voting rights. But a new era won’t arrive like a pendulum that swings according to the laws of physics. It will take more than the triumph of a candidate, a party, or even a sweeping agenda. The obstacles are greater than just politics, and so is the opportunity. Our collapse is so complete that the field lies open—the philosophical questions brought on by despair allow us to reimagine what kind of country we can be. The familiar narratives are used up the dried-out words stick in our mouths. For change to endure, for national shame to become pride, we need a radical agenda with a patriotic spirit. We have to revive the one thing that has ever held together this sprawling, multiplicitous country: democratic faith.

The presidential primaries that opened the year gave an impression of bitter disagreement among the Democratic candidates. Hours of televised debate time were consumed with the merits of Medicare for All versus Medicare for All Who Want It, the difference between treating undocumented immigrants humanely and decriminalizing southern-border crossings, the intricacies of Biden’s position on busing in the 1970s.

Today those arguments seem like an irrelevant scholastic exercise. One notable effect of this year’s crises has been to forge broad Democratic support for the most ambitious domestic policy agenda since the Great Society, with Biden as its unlikely standard-bearer.

The coronavirus arrived just as Biden was wrapping up the Democratic nomination in March. By mid-April, 30,000 Americans had died and 22 million were newly out of work. A group of advisers had begun speaking to the candidate by phone and videoconference about his priorities for fighting both catastrophes. The advisers then turned for ideas to people outside the campaign, in labor unions, universities, think tanks, and small businesses.

In early May, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote an essay called “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century.” She sent a draft to the Biden campaign, which received it favorably. Her argument came directly from the experience of the pandemic: “Our response to this virus … is only as strong as our weakest link. It binds our fates together, more so than any economic or natural disaster.” Tanden proposed revising the deal among citizens, corporations, and the state in ways that address the weaknesses exposed by COVID‑19. A “new social contract” would give more protections to individuals in the form of universal benefits—paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, health care with the option of joining Medicare. It would demand more responsibility from corporations, obliging them to revise their charters and take into account the interests of workers and local communities as much as those of shareholders (who bear economic risk only until a financial crisis or pandemic necessitates a taxpayer bailout). And it would require enormous amounts of government spending to end mass unemployment by creating millions of jobs in manufacturing, caregiving, education, and clean energy. Tanden framed her policy ideas as an updating of the New Deal, the original social contract that significantly strengthened the role of government in order to shift the burden of economic risk from the individual to the collective.

The ideas in Tanden’s essay are not new. Most of them have been circulating for years in policy papers put out by liberal think tanks and in the stillborn bills of congressional Democrats. Their philosophical basis goes back at least a century. Political transformations don’t happen when a blindingly original insight flashes across the sky. The New Deal itself, for all of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s openness to experimentation, mainly brought to fruition seeds that had been planted by Populists and Progressives over the previous four decades. The Reagan revolution realized conservative ideas that had originated in the period after World War II. In the face of institutional inertia, politics requires a long game—something that the modern American right has understood better than the left. Milton Friedman, an intellectual force behind Reaganism, once wrote:

While Biden’s campaign was still formulating its domestic policies, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, and the country erupted in protests against racial injustice. “The vice president looked at all that and said, ‘How I respond in the face of these will be presidency-defining,’ ” Jake Sullivan, a senior adviser, told me. “ ‘I want a response that meets the moment and is true to who I have been in the campaign and over my career.’ ”

In the primaries, Biden had presented himself as the candidate of the Obama years. But the historical clock never rewinds, and the status quo ante is unequal to the desperate now. In response to the pandemic and the protests, Biden’s lines changed.

Over the summer, as the virus surged, the recession deepened, and the streets filled, Biden gave a series of speeches in which he laid out the heart of his economic plan, under the rubric “Build Back Better.” For decades, political leaders have grasped for a programmatic brand name as memorable as “New Deal” or “Great Society”—but who remembers Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant,” George W. Bush’s “Ownership Society,” or Barack Obama’s “New Foundation”? They soon vanished, because they never came to life in transformative legislation. Slogans stick when they’re attached to programs that change the country. There will never be such a thing as Bidenism—because Biden himself has no ideology, no politics distinctly his own—but his policies deserve a more memorable name. Quoting a Depression-era poem by Langston Hughes, and sticking it to the incumbent, Biden could call his agenda “Make America Again.” The words don’t order us back, like Trump’s, to a glorious age that never was. They speak to an idea that has to be continuously renewed: “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”

The scale of Biden’s agenda is breathtaking. At its center is a huge jobs program. A Biden administration would invest $2 trillion in infrastructure and clean energy. He proposes creating 3 million jobs in early education, child care, and elderly care—sectors usually regarded as “soft” and neglected by presidential candidates—while raising their pay and status. “This economic crisis has hit women the hardest,” Sullivan said. “These care jobs are primarily jobs filled by women—and disproportionately women of color and immigrant women—but they don’t pay a fair wage, and the opportunities to advance aren’t there. This is a big, ambitious, bold proposal—not an afterthought, but at the core.” Another $700 billion would go to stimulating demand and innovation in domestic manufacturing for a range of essential industries such as medical supplies, microelectronics, and artificial intelligence. Some $30 billion would go to minority-owned businesses as part of a larger effort to reduce the racial wealth gap.

Biden is proposing industrial policy—massive, targeted investment to restructure production for national goals—something that no president has openly embraced since the 1940s. His agenda would also give workers more power, with paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, a public option for health care, and an easier path to organizing and joining unions. It would more than double the federal minimum wage, to $15 an hour—a bitter point of dispute between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, now uncontroversial among Democrats. Free trade is hard to find on the agenda. For all Biden’s history as a centrist, his economic program would put an end to decades of Democratic incrementalism.

Americans are more broadly liberal on economic issues than on social and cultural ones. On the latter, Biden has stayed to the right of his party’s activists: reform and demilitarize police, but don’t defund them remove Confederate statues from public places, but leave presidential monuments regulate fracking, but don’t ban it rule reparations neither in nor out. For now, opposition to Trump has blurred the party’s fracture lines. Democrats are united behind proposals that would go further in reducing inequality and remaking the social contract than any administration in modern memory has even attempted.

After teams made up of Biden and Sanders advisers and allies hammered out a 110-page policy platform, Sanders said, “I think the compromise that they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR.” At one point Biden sidled up to the comparison. “I do think we’ve reached a point, a real inflection in American history. And I don’t believe it’s unlike what Roosevelt was met with,” he said in July. “I think we have an opportunity to make some really systemic change … Something’s happening here. It really is. The American people are going, ‘Whoa, come on, we’ve got to do something.’ ” This is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him. “I think he’s come to the realization that he can be a very consequential president,” Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio, told me.

After alluding to the New Deal, Biden dropped the reference. His campaign seems wary of ideological framings that might alarm suburban mall shoppers in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Jake Sullivan offered a different, less partisan Roosevelt analogy: the mobilization for public investment during World War II. “The vice president’s metric really is: How do we build momentum behind far-reaching, ambitious programs that actually are matched to the moment,” Sullivan said, “without having them take on a particular ideological stripe?”

Biden has no particular ideological stripe. He’s always been comfortable at the center of his party. The party moved left, the facts moved left, and Biden moved with them. Barack Obama ran as a visionary and governed as a technocrat—a change that ultimately disillusioned younger and more progressive Americans. Biden might make the same journey in reverse.

I asked Ted Kaufman—who has advised Biden since his first Senate race, in 1972 briefly filled his Senate seat when Biden became vice president and now runs the campaign’s transition planning—whether his boss is undergoing a late-in-life ideological conversion. “I don’t think so at all,” Kaufman said. “What he’s always done, if you go back and look at every single position he took—what Joe Biden talks about are things that can happen. He will not get up and promise something and not believe that he’s going to get it done. I don’t care if we got the Senate back, if we got 59 senators, 60 senators—you could not pass Medicare for All. His positions in the primary were left of center at the minimum. The big difference between him and everybody else running? He’s not going to promise something he can’t deliver.”

Biden sees his first task as stabilizing the country, not creating more upheaval. “The main thing is to get back to normal,” Kaufman said. “It’s the old addition by subtraction—having someone get up in the morning who says, ‘Let’s try to get the country back together. That’s the best way to deal with COVID‑19.’ ” Every day in the Biden White House would be a struggle between his instinct to reach for familiar policies or personnel and the imperative to think and act anew.

The conventional metaphor for new presidents is financial: Victory gives them a certain amount of political capital, and they have to decide how to spend it. It gradually dwindles—the sum is finite, and usually largest at the start. But there’s a different way to think about a Biden presidency. His first task would not be to husband his limited capital wisely, but to take a long-stalled vehicle, get it into motion, and quickly pick up speed. He has to show that government can do big things before corporate money organizes to co-opt him and habitual public cynicism buries him.

If Republicans lose the Senate, they will rediscover their mislaid principles as deficit hawks and use the filibuster to obstruct Biden’s agenda. Then the Democrats would have to pack a great deal of policy into a “reconciliation” bill, which allows for the passage of budget-related legislation via a simple majority vote. Or Senate Democrats could vote to end the filibuster. Many of them seem open to killing it. “We’ve got to eliminate the filibuster,” Brown told me. “I don’t know if it has unanimity, but I’ve not talked to anybody that says ‘I don’t want to do it.’ ” Democrats might even arrange an execution by bringing up a popular and historically charged bill, such as one that addresses voting rights or police accountability, and daring Republicans to align themselves with the Dixiecrats who filibustered civil rights.

Michael Bennet has spent his decade in the Senate watching “the world’s greatest deliberative body” achieve next to nothing. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “has basically destroyed the Senate—he’s turned it into nothing more than an employment agency,” Bennet said. “If people continue for their own political reasons to make it impossible for the majority to exercise its will, filibuster reform may have to be on the table.” Even Biden, an inveterate institutionalist, has suggested that filibuster reform might be necessary.

Bennet, a center-left Democrat from a purple state, envisions “a more progressive agenda than any modern president has pursued, and it would also be wildly popular with the American people.” He believes that Congress should “build political momentum” by passing key legislation early on, with each breakthrough making the next one more, not less, thinkable: enact paid family and medical leave, double the federal minimum wage, reverse the Trump tax cuts for the rich and corporations while giving the middle class a tax cut, hold police accountable, increase teacher pay, fund universal preschool, move to universal health care through a public option. At the start of the previous congressional session, the House introduced H.R. 1, a bill that would have strengthened democracy by, among other things, enacting same-day voter registration and tightening ethics rules for members of Congress. H.R. 1 died in the Senate before it could be vetoed by Trump. Both Bennet and Tanden said they hope that the next Congress will immediately take it up again, which would signal a commitment to political reform. Tanden argued that H.R. 1, with its voting-rights provisions, would begin to loosen Republicans’ undemocratic hold on power—which is based on a strategy of making it ever harder for citizens, especially poor, Black, and Latino Americans, to vote—before the party had time to reorganize for a counterattack.

“Everything on that list—any Democrat running for the House of Representatives could support it,” Bennet said. “Therefore it’s something that could probably ultimately get passed. Moderate Democratic senators could support it. It would make a massive difference in the lives of working Americans and poor Americans. What I’m talking about is an agenda that’s more ambitious than any time since Lyndon Johnson was president.”

There were three eras of reform in the United States in the 20th century. Our historical moment has elements of each of them. A new period of reform would need to bring together the best values of all three.

The Progressive era at the beginning of the century was the least ideologically distinct of them. With no obvious leader, faction, or defining issue, currents of Progressivism ran through both of the major parties, while absorbing ideas from the Populists and Socialists, and through every region of the country, in local, decentralized bursts of reform. Progressivism was more an impulse than a program, a moral awakening among mostly middle-class Americans to the sense that the country had drifted from its democratic moorings. Their chief concerns were corporate power, corruption at every level of government, and the “shame of the cities” (as the muckraker Lincoln Steffens had it)—urban bosses, slums, and sweatshops. The new conditions of modern life—industrialization, technological change, mass immigration—galvanized them to act, but they were hardly revolutionaries. Their main answer to social ills was to create better citizens.

“We are unsettled to the very roots of our being,” Walter Lippmann wrote in 1914 in his Progressive manifesto Drift and Mastery. “There isn’t a human relation, whether of parent and child, husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn’t move in a strange situation.” Lippmann proposed bringing the destabilizing new freedom of modern life under the purposeful control of science—experts, managers, forward-thinking leaders. But in his brilliant survey of American life, Black Americans are scarcely mentioned. Most Progressives, even muckraking journalists, were blind to racial injustice, and some—Woodrow Wilson is the best known—were outright racists and eugenicists. Rather than build on the achievements of Reconstruction—that earlier, ill-fated reform era—Progressivism set out to reinvigorate a democracy of white Americans.

The New Deal, propelled by the greatest economic crisis in American history, turned many Progressive ideas into national realities, including unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and collective bargaining rights. The labor movement and the Communist Party created interracial alliances, but Roosevelt’s national programs were enacted by a Congress that left Jim Crow in place while limiting protections for Black and other disenfranchised Americans—domestic workers, farmworkers, the intermittently employed. Workers continue to fall through these holes in the safety net to this day, in our latest version of the Depression.

The civil-rights movement in the early to mid-1960s produced a burst of creativity in Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Johnson was a creature of the Senate, an institutional figure in every good and bad way, and a failed presidential candidate whose career seemed to have come to an end in the purgatory of the vice presidency. When he succeeded John F. Kennedy—another president in the technocrat-as-visionary mold—Johnson was scorned by eastern liberals as a crude, big-eared Texan, a party hack, and a bigot. But he took Kennedy’s stalled agenda on civil rights and poverty and realized it in the most vigorous set of laws and actions for social justice in America since the 1930s. Johnson had two advantages over Kennedy: unparalleled knowledge of Congress and an atmosphere of crisis amid mobilization in the streets. He also benefited from an electoral mandate in 1964. The analogies to Biden are not hard to see.

Just as the New Deal nationalized local Progressive ideas, the Great Society tried to consummate the New Deal for all Americans. But it soon disintegrated amid urban riots, big Republican gains in the 1966 midterm elections, and the catastrophe in Vietnam. The coalition for reform—civil-rights groups, unions, peace marchers, academic experts, liberal politicians—collapsed as the country exploded, and the left splintered into fragments that grew more and more extreme.

Like the Progressive era, our age is marked by monopolistic corporate power that has created immense inequality and threatens democracy itself. Like the 1930s, our decade has begun with mass unemployment and vivid demonstrations of the vulnerability of American workers. Like the 1960s, our moment is animated by a dynamic young generation passionately inflamed by ongoing racial injustice.

Most American reform movements carry a strain of puritanism, a zeal for personal self-correction so powerful that it can sometimes replace the effort to make concrete changes to material conditions. These movements begin with protest from below—by impoverished farmers, striking workers, disenfranchised Black southerners—and rise up into the middle class, which adopts the cause with what the historian Richard Hofstadter, writing of the Progressives, called “a rather strenuous moral purgation.” A personal sense of guilt produces a quasi-religious fervor directed toward social and political ills and a longing for redemption in solidarity with the downtrodden. Progressive crusaders ventured into the slums to expose the squalid conditions of immigrant life in the ’30s, bourgeois Communists and fellow travelers exalted the proletariat and sacrificed intellectual independence to the iron will of the party in the ’60s, white college students joined the struggle for Black freedom in the South and then decided that they required their own liberation, too, by means of taking over campuses and curricula.

In the past few years, we’ve seen fitful bursts of a new moral awakening: Occupy Wall Street in 2011, a utopian flicker the Black Lives Matter protests of the late Obama presidency the Sanders campaigns, a political outlet for the anti-capitalist grievances of young people. Trump’s election accelerated and intensified this awakening: the Women’s March following his inauguration the rise of anti-Trump “resistance” groups, largely composed of middle-class, middle-aged women new to activism the #MeToo movement, a phenomenon centered on private interactions more than public policy demonstrations on behalf of immigrants at airports and along the southern border the return of racial justice as an overriding issue prompting nationwide protests.

The new progressivism is in the streets, in classrooms, on social media—everywhere but the places with the power to solve problems. It has drawn a sharp, clear line from historical crimes to contemporary inequalities. It has dramatically changed the way Americans think, talk, and act, but not the conditions in which they live. It has no central theme or agenda, no charismatic leader to give it direction and coherence. It reflects the fracturing distrust that defines our culture: Something is deeply wrong our society is unjust our institutions are corrupt. The protests are the death throes of a declining capitalist empire, or the birth pangs of the world’s first truly multiethnic democracy, or something else altogether. “All those other eras, you have one big issue,” the historian Michael Kazin, who has written many books about the American left, told me. “I’m not sure what that is now. I’d like to think it’s a combination of anti-monopoly and helping working people have a better life.” The internet, Kazin said, makes clarity and unity more difficult. “I’m old-fashioned enough to think that matters.”

A decade of social mobilizations with no tangible achievements. Each new phase builds more pressure for radical change. If, in November, Trump is consigned to a late life of social-media whining and legal jeopardy, the pressure won’t subside. Under a Biden administration, the streets are likely to keep roiling, maybe more tumultuously than ever, as raised hopes lead to greater demands and disappointments. Most younger Americans have seen no viable kind of politics other than protest. Kazin, a veteran of the ’60s who watched the New Left doom itself with its own illusions, said, “I fear the left will expect too much or be too damning too quickly with a Biden administration. That can always happen.” As the party moves in a progressive direction, Biden will have a harder time ignoring pressure from his left than Obama did. But unlike Sanders or Hillary Clinton, he isn’t a polarizing figure, and the very vagueness of his views might allow political crosswinds to blow around him without bringing down the edifice of reform.

The philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Achieving Our Country, distinguished between two kinds of American left: reformist and cultural. The first pursues justice through existing democratic institutions the second seeks it in a revolution of consciousness. The reformist left wants to make police more accountable the cultural left wants to confront America with its racist essence. When Rorty wrote his book, in the ’90s, the cultural left was confined to university departments. Today its ideas reflect the prevailing worldview of well-educated, middle-class progressives, especially those under 40. Its vocabulary—white fragility, intersectionality, decolonize, BIPOC—confounds the uninitiated and antagonizes the skeptical. The cultural left dominates media, the arts, and philanthropy as well as academia it influences elementary-school classrooms and corporate boardrooms and it’s beginning to reach into national politics. Its radical critique of American institutions has thrived during an era when reform has stalled and the current ruling party embraces an inflammatory white identity politics. At the same time, the distinction between Rorty’s two lefts has eroded—a figure like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez combines aspects of both.

Under Democratic governance, the left would have to move from critique to coalition-building. It would be pulled between its own impulses toward institutional reform and cultural transformation. President Biden would immediately face an overwhelming crisis in employment and health if the left pushes him hard on divisive cultural issues such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings, eliminating standardized testing, and defunding the police, it will weaken his hand for a political and economic transformation on the scale of the New Deal. The identity politics that more and more defines the left has a built-in political flaw. It divides into groups rather than uniting across groups it offers a cogent attack on the injustices and lies of the past and present, rather than an inspiring vision of an America that will be.

Maurice Mitchell, of the Working Families Party, has roots in union organizing and Black Lives Matter. His party endorsed Elizabeth Warren in the primaries. He imagines a broad, multiracial coalition of progressives, either inside or outside the Democratic Party. “It is our job to make the Democrats uncomfortable and frustrate the hell out of them every single day,” he said. “But right now we are fragmented. We need to challenge sectarianism and cynicism as two of our greatest enemies. We need to have the same ambition as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, niche voices in the right-wing wilderness that made it all the way to the White House. Lastly, we need a multiracial solidarity that can challenge the solidarity of whiteness: large majorities of people of color, mainstream liberals, and 15 percent of working-class whites. Then we could break the power of the Republican Party.” Mitchell added: “I don’t believe that Joe Biden is a comrade. What I believe is that he’s adaptable and he can evolve based on where the political times are. Any government in 2021 will have to figure out how tens of millions of Americans quickly get work. Putting ideology aside, that is a call for government playing a very active role in people’s lives that is a call for government doing big, structural things.”

After decades of futility, the left has a new habit of overestimating its own strength (as evinced by the shock at Sanders’s defeat in the spring) and an old habit of driving away potential supporters by presenting popular ideas in alienating terms. “On the left there’s long been a cult of focusing on the most marginal rhetoric and demands instead of building a working-class program that’s broadly popular,” Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, told me. His strategy differs from Mitchell’s in putting the emphasis much more heavily on class. “Politics at some point has to be about telling people they’re welcome. White males are a third of the electorate. We can’t let anti-racism just be a vague and indescribable thing. It has to be connected to material redress.” He means policies, such as universal health care and child care and the Green New Deal, that would benefit all working people, but especially the most disadvantaged. The new woke capitalism leaves him skeptical. “We’re not going to accept at face value corporate statements in favor of diversity and anti-racism, because they’ll use this emphasis as a cudgel against workers of all races if we let them. Being part of a working-class movement means defending the labor rights of racists and bigots. But we have to find a way to engage with them and increase the level of class consciousness.”

Biden’s agenda is a working-class program without a working-class coalition. Non-college-educated whites remain Trump’s base. Many progressives regard them with horror and contempt, as a sea of irredeemable racists. Despite how desperate life has become this year for working-class Americans of every background, it’s hard to imagine a transracial coalition. That would require a perception of common interests, a level of trust, and a shared belief in the American idea that don’t now exist. But it’s also hard to imagine an era of enduring reform without something like such a coalition. It will come about only if Americans start to see their government working on their behalf, making their lives less burdensome, giving them a voice, freeing them to master their own fate.

We don’t lack for political agendas, policy ideas, or protest movements. What we lack is the ability to come together as free and equal citizens of a democracy. We lack a sense of national identity and civic faith that could energize renewal.

This fall, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam is publishing a book called The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Using statistical data, Putnam graphs the years since 1890 as four lines that travel steeply upward for seven decades and then plunge just as steeply downward. The lines represent economic equality, political cooperation, social cohesion, and a culture of solidarity. They all begin at the bottom, in the squalid swamp of the Gilded Age, and then they rise together through the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the civil-rights movement, to an apex of egalitarianism, compromise, cohesion, and altruism around 1965—the year of the Selma march, the Voting Rights Act, and the enactment of Medicare—before descending for another half century to the present, to our second Gilded Age of Twitter wars and refrigerated trucks filled with the COVID dead.

Putnam calls this highly schematic arc “I-we-I.” He wants to get to “we” again, and for inspiration he looks back to the start of the previous upswing, around 1900. The Progressive era, Putnam writes, was “the result of countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change—a genuine shift from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ ” Putnam’s historical analysis is illuminating, but the book is short on details for how a new upswing might begin.

We can never again be as innocent as the Progressives about America’s past, or its future. In 1914 Walter Lippmann called for “mastery” of the new forces and freedoms unleashed by the modern world. We’re beset with something else—a sense of disintegration and decline. Radical legislative reforms are a necessary condition of a national upswing. What are the democratic dreams of a nonunion Amazon warehouse associate putting in mandatory overtime with a fever and leaving her remote-schooled kids in the care of her elderly mother? “You can’t expect civic virtue from a disfranchised class,” Lippmann wrote.

Today the disenfranchised include some supporters of Trump. If the president loses reelection, they would be embittered by defeat and unlikely to be argued out of their views. A hard core might turn from the diverting carnival of MAGA to armed violence.

The experience of a competent, active government bringing opportunity and justice to Americans left behind by globalization would inject an antivenom into the country’s bloodstream. The body would continue to convulse, but the level of toxicity would be reduced enough to allow for an interval of healing. No one would abandon their most cherished, most irrational beliefs, but the national temperature would go down a bit. We would have a chance to repair the social contract rather than tear it into ever smaller pieces.

But an ambitious legislative agenda isn’t enough, because the problem extends far beyond Washington, deep into the republic. Americans have lost faith in institutions, in one another, in democracy itself. Everything conspires against our role as citizens—big money, indifferent officials, byzantine election rules, mutual hatred, mutual ignorance, the Constitution itself. There is no remedy except the exercise of muscles that have atrophied. Not just by voting, but by imagining what kind of country we can live in together. We have to act like citizens again.

Last year, a commission created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences spent months talking to a variety of groups around the country. Disaffection with the state of American democracy was nearly universal, but so was a longing for connection to a unifying American identity. In June the commission released a report called “Our Common Purpose,” which put forth 31 proposals, some quite bold. They include political reforms that would make institutions more representative: enlarge the House of Representatives adopt ranked-choice voting end gerrymandering by having independent groups of citizens draw district lines amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United appoint Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, with one new nomination in each term of Congress.

Other recommendations are designed to change the political culture: make voting easier but also mandatory, connect voters with their representatives, train community leaders around the country, rebuild social media as a more constructive public space, shape an active citizenry through civic education and universal national service. The aim is not to realize any partisan cause, but to set Americans into motion as civic actors, not passive subjects. “Democracy works only if enough people believe democracy works,” Eric Liu, a co-chair of the commission that produced the report, told me.

Ideas like these, some new, others lying around for decades, come to the fore in hinge years. They are signs of a plastic hour.

I began writing this essay in a mood of despair. The mood had grown so familiar, really almost comfortable, that it made me sick of myself and my country. But because I can’t give up on either—suicide is too final, and expatriation is no longer possible—I tried to think about the future and the past. And this is what I’ve come to believe: We have one more chance—in Lincoln’s words, a “last best hope”—to bring our democracy back from the dead. It will be like a complex medical rescue that requires just the right interventions, in just the right sequence, at just the right speed: amputation, transfusion, multiple-organ transplant, stabilization, rehabilitation. Each step will be very hard, and we can’t afford to get any wrong or wait another hour. Yet I’ve written myself into a state of mind that I recognize as hope. We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.

This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “Make America Again.”

A New Beginning

A close look at how adversity shaped America from the very beginning. Learn how our forebears survived the "starving time" of the first colonies battled their mother country for independence headed out to the frontier and west into the unknown and sparked a resistance to slavery that brings the United States to the brink of civil war.

New Birth of Freedom

In the mid-1800s, America faces its darkest hour yet. Abraham Lincoln is elected President of a United States on the brink of Civil War the nation that emerges now creates great wealth -- but not for everyone Teddy Roosevelt steps forward, bringing fierce leadership on behalf of the working man -- his aim: to hold the nation together.

America: Our Defining Hours: A New Beginning (S1EP1 History Sun 5 Jul 2020)

A New Beginning: Surviving the "starving time" of the first colonies battling their mother country for independence heading out to the frontier and west into the unknown sparking a resistance to slavery that brings the United States to the brink of civil war.

Airdate: Sun 5 Jul 2020 at 9.00pm on History

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America: Our Defining Hours

Americans have faced adversity before, overcoming it is baked into the nation’s DNA.
Across this six-hour event series, America: Our Greatest Hours draws upon 300 years of US history, from the Mayflower to 9-11, to explore our nation’s biggest triumphs over adversity. It was produced remotely at speed in order to turn inspirational stories into epic self-help guides for troubled modern times.

During Covid-19 lockdown halo provided Remote Editing Services and Full Picture and Sound Finishing Post Production.
This landmark series combines docudrama with premium documentary elements: archive film, photos, paintings, newspaper headlines and aerial footage of key locations.

Johanna Woolford Gibbon Co-Executive Producer said “Post-production on a fast-turnaround series is a tough enough proposition, but to achieve it through the Covid-19 lockdown, without compromising on any aspect of quality seemed to be asking for a miracle. We immediately knew where we had to come for this miracle – Halo. Supremely helpful and accommodating of our brutal and evolving schedule, the entire Halo team went the extra mile to give us the premium look and feel we’d hoped for. Quite simply, they aced it!

Colourists: Ross Baker / Paul Koren

Ross said “Because of the restrictions of social distancing, it was vital we set the look of the series at an early stage so that I had a clear vision of the brief. That way on grade days I knew the style and could focus on achieving the high end finish we have come to expect from Nutopia.

A New Beginning

A close look at how adversity shaped America from the very beginning. Learn how our forebears survived the "starving time" of the first colonies battled their mother country for independence headed out to the frontier and west into the unknown and sparked a resistance to slavery that brings the United States to the brink of civil war.

New Birth of Freedom

In the mid-1800s, America faces its darkest hour yet. Abraham Lincoln is elected President of a United States on the brink of Civil War the nation that emerges now creates great wealth -- but not for everyone Teddy Roosevelt steps forward, bringing fierce leadership on behalf of the working man -- his aim: to hold the nation together.

'America: Our Defining Hours': How the Erie Canal changed the course for modern American civilization

Erie Canal painting (Getty Images)

When it comes to the foundations of the United States of America, it would seem many fortuitous moments came together to help make the country what it is today. Now, History Channel's latest three-part miniseries, 'America: Our Defining Hours', draws upon 300+ years of US history — from the Mayflower, the American Civil War to September 11 — to tell a relevant, emotional tale of how the US seized moments of crisis to create a better tomorrow.

As explored in 'America: Our Defining Hours', one of the key events in the history of the country was the establishment of the Erie Canal, which at one point was called "Clinton's Folly", named after DeWitt Clinton who served as the Governor of New York from 1817 to 1822. It was DeWitt who helped make the canal a reality. Before the Erie Canal, the country had two great water transportation systems: the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio River System and the Great Lakes System.

It was a man named Jess Hawley who initially wrote a plan to connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie while he was in debtors' prison during 1807-08. His plans were influential enough to come to the attention of Clinton, who was then the mayor of New York City. In 1808, the New York State Legislature appropriated funds for a survey of possible routes for such a canal.

Initially, the project was decried by many. Thomas Jefferson himself disparaged the project as sheer madness. Many thought the project was impracticable and opponents mocked it as "Clinton's Folly" and "DeWitt's Ditch". It was only in 1817, after years of opposition, that Clinton was able to get the legislature to appropriate $7M dollars for construction.

The town of Lockport on the Erie Canal, New York (Getty Images)

The canal was finished in 1825, with Clinton opening it by traveling in the packet boat Seneca Chief along the canal into Buffalo. After riding from the mouth of Lake Erie to New York City, he emptied two casks of water from Lake Erie into New York Harbor, celebrating the first connection of waters from East to West. The canal was an immense success, carrying huge amounts of passenger and freight traffic. The cost of freight between Buffalo and Albany fell from $100 to $10 per ton, and the state was able to quickly recoup the funds it spent on the project through tolls along the canal. The completion of the canal brought about a significant shift in public opinion on Clinton, who was now hailed for completing the canal.

The Erie Canal had a massive role to play in the early years of the country and impacted much of how the country is today. For instance, the canal opened at a time when the divide between the North and the South was growing over slavery. Before the opening of the Erie Canal, New Orleans had been the only port city with an all-water route to the interior of the US. With the Erie Canal, that trend changed as new settlers from New England, New York and Europe brought their abolitionist views with them to the newly established Midwest states, while helping reduce the dependence of the industrial North on the agriculturally dominant South.

The Erie Canal in present-day (Getty Images)

Moreover, you can thank the canal for New York City's greatness today. The Erie Canal gave New York City access to a large area of the Midwest, helping establish it as a premier port in the country. New York City then became the country's commercial capital and the primary port of entry for European immigrants. The city's population quadrupled between 1820 and 1850 and the financing of the canal’s construction also allowed New York to surpass Philadelphia as the country's pre-eminent banking center.

However, the canal transformed the lives of Native Americans in the state of New York. Its construction occurred during a period of intense “Indian removal” policies, and the canal itself ran through territory traditionally occupied by the Haudenosaunee (better known as the Iroquois Confederacy), forcing many of them to move. When Clinton was New York’s mayor, he claimed that “before the passing away of the present generation, not a single Iroquois will be seen in this state".

Unlike the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, another influential 19th-century waterway, the Erie Canal, is still used for commercial shipping but it is no longer profitable. However, people can still visit the canal and go through the routes that are marked as a transformative landmark in American history.

'America: Our Defining Hours' will air on History Channel on July 5 at 9/8c.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515

How History’s “America: Our Defining Hours” came to life during lockdown

Challenging times call for innovative approaches, and the non-fiction content production industry has applied that maxim repeatedly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, A+E’s History premiered the first episode of its three-part limited docuseries, America: Our Defining Hours — a series that was created, commissioned and produced by UK-headquartered Nutopia entirely during lockdown. Here, series producer Johanna Woolford Gibbon provides details of the process and the challenges involved in producing during a pandemic.


“Over the Easter weekend, when everyone in the UK was just going into lockdown, Mary Donahue at History approached [Nutopia's] Jane Root and Ben Goold, asking ‘What can you do fast?’ They had an idea for giving the audience ‘a toolkit for troubled times.’ And Ben and Jane realized that many of the stories they’d told in the Emmy-winning America: The Story of Us laid out inspirational lessons of leadership through adversity which were never more relevant than today. So Ben sat down over that Easter weekend and wrote a treatment based upon those stories, which reflected America being born from adversity of facing existential challenges and emerging stronger. And those became our themes for the three feature-length episodes in the miniseries.”


While the themes explored in the new series were inspired by those explored on Nutopia’s America: The Story of Us (also for History), more direct inspiration came in the form of dramatic recreations pulled from that series and other Nutopia productions, as both turnaround time and restrictions on shooting curtailed any thought of shooting new recreations.

“We used the premium drama footage from America: The Story of Us as our backbone, our ‘go-to’ resource for action, excitement and that immensely powerful cinematic feel,” says Woolford Gibbon. “But we also leaned into other premium sources: Nutopia shows, like Mankind and Promised Land, as well as some other material. Using these premium high production value sources was crucial to attaining visual depth, giving us the bedrock for the new interviews which are really the core of the show.”


“[History's] Eli [Lehrer] and Mary [Donahue] really wanted a glossy premium timeless look to our interviews, so immediately anything that said ‘We filmed this in lockdown’ – like iPhones or Skype/Zoom type solutions – were ruled out of our R&D process,” explains Woolford Gibbon. “We settled upon using drop-kits provided by U.S. company Hayden 5: pre-assembled trolleys containing professional camera, lens, sound kit, lighting and a laptop – all set up and deep cleansed prior to filming.”

With experts contributing interviews to the series from across the U.S., the team located technicians in assorted “safe hubs” who could get the kits to contributors “in a way which adhered to all national and local COVID-19 laws, regulations and recommendations.”

In delivering the kits to experts who would then be tasked with self-shooting their interviews, nothing was left to chance, according to Woolford Gibbon.

“The technician would assemble the kit on the driveway, deep-cleanse it while wearing PPE, wheel the trolley to the front door, ring the doorbell and retreat to their vehicle,” she says. “The contributor would then collect the trolley to wheel it over the threshold and into the pre-arranged position for interview. It meant even the simplest set up could be thrown off course by a set of steps up to the front door… all of a sudden we have an extra layer of logistics to think about.”

The experts then used Zoom conferencing with the director of photography, director and sound technician to conduct interviews remotely, while also troubleshooting bandwidth, lighting, set-dressing and anything else that would emerge during the self-shooting process.

“The only thing [the contributors] had to do was put on their microphone and pan or tilt the camera to get the perfect set-up,” says Woolford Gibbon. “When finished, our contributors would simply wheel their drop-kit trolley over their threshold, and our waiting technician would collect it for another deep clean and to wrangle the data for upload to our edits.”

But while the process was thorough, capturing the contributions from the experts still posed additional challenges.

“Very quickly it became apparent that we weren’t going to find a ‘one size fits all solution’ when we were filming across 10 states from Florida to Minnesota,” the producer recalls. “The drop kits were great but each had to be tailored to both the location and interviewee some interviewees had underlying health conditions we needed to consider with respect to the deep cleansing protocols each state – in fact each county – had slightly different COVID-19 regulations and the situation was changing hour by hour. So we needed to be supremely flexible. Because of our tight schedule, we sometimes needed to record interviews with different kits, on different coasts at the same time – so our teams, though based on London time, were working with troubleshooting on U.S. East and West Coast times. Those were some long days, redefining how powerful a substance adrenalin really is!

“We were about 70% of the way through our filming when we learned of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent curfews and civil unrest, and we had two interviews yet to film in key protest areas Minneapolis and Manhattan – but with patience and a lot of flexibility, we managed to develop a protocol that allowed us to film,” she adds.

“In order to deliver to such a fast-turnaround schedule, across the series we had 10 offline editors working with six edit producers – so from the start we knew we’d face two challenges: communication and technology,” she explains. “So we worked very closely with everyone at Nutopia and History to make sure everyone had the media they needed when they needed it.

“We reviewed cuts and sequences over Zoom, to get us working as close to ‘being in the room’ as we possibly could, given everyone was in a different location – not just within London, but across the entire UK, and in the U.S. The potential communication bump had a more human solution: we were lucky enough to tap into a team of people who had worked at Nutopia before, and had worked with each other on different projects in the past – so they already had the kind of friendly ‘shorthand’ that makes collaboration easy. Every single one of our edit producers had been a showrunner of their own series, so we had an incredibly high level and talented group to work with.

“Keeping the dialogue open constantly (multiple Zooms at the same time, phone calls late into the night) was the key to making sure we all developed the same coherent series style,” she adds.

Final post was done in London at Halo, with efforts undertaken to ensure that as much of the grade and sound design could be signed off remotely, “only coming in person to a review suite for one final social distance-compliant PPE’d session.”

“Undoubtedly, we’ve learned lessons in producing this series in extremis which can be applied going forward,” Woolford Gibbon offers. “We feel as though we’ve been shaping ‘the new normal’ as it’s emerged. There’s probably much less reliance on a central office as the hub of a production – creative people gain much by being able to work remotely, to be more freely in charge of their time, perhaps to have a better work-life balance as a result. [But] far from wondering if people would work less, we’re having to make sure they’re not working too hard and too long.

“Editing can certainly be achieved remotely, yet that ‘extra 10%’ in terms of the magic that happens when editor and producer spark ideas face-to-face is something we’ll need to factor into specific parts of the edit schedule – it’d be a shame to miss that joy.

“The key to producing content in the future will be flexibility, and if this series has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing talented film-makers love more than an impossible challenge.”

America: Our Defining Hours continues on History with new episodes on July 12 and July 19.

'America: Our Defining Hours’: Donner Party, the Midwest pioneers who resorted to cannibalism to survive

Donner Party survivor Patty Reed (Getty Images)

Through the early years of the United States of America, many events transpired that helped make what the country is today. History Channel's latest miniseries, 'America: Our Defining Hours' draws upon 300+ years of US history, from the Mayflower, the American Civil War to September 11, to tell a relevant, emotional tale of how the US, as a nation, seized moments of crisis to create a better tomorrow. One of those events was the infamous Donner Party migration, when nine covered wagons left Springfield, Illinois, on the 2,500-mile journey to California in April 1846, in what would become one of the greatest tragedies in the history of westward migration.

Delayed by a series of mishaps, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating the bodies of those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness.

The organizer of the group was James Reed, an Irish native and a businessman who hoped to prosper in California. Reed also hoped that his wife, Margaret, who suffered from terrible headaches, might improve in the coastal climate. George Donner, a 60-year-old farmer was chosen as the wagon's train captain and the expedition took his name. According to Reed's daughter, Abraham Lincoln who would go on to become the president was a friend of Reed and briefly considered going on the expedition. Lincoln declined due to opposition from his wife.

Before leaving, Reed had read the book The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, by Landsford W Hastings, who advertised a new shortcut across the Great Basin. This new route enticed travelers by advertising that it would save the pioneers 350-400 miles on easy terrain. At Fort Bridger, the Donner Party decided to separate from the main body and travel on this new route. Unfortunately, the route, which had not been tested by Hastings himself, led to the doom of the party.

A map of the route followed by the Donner Party (Wikimedia Commons)

It was as the party reached the summit of the Sierra Mountains near what was then known as Truckee Lake -- having since been renamed as Donner Lake -- they found the pass clogged with newly fallen snow up to six feet deep as the Sierra snows had started a month earlier than usual. They retreated to the lake 12 miles below where the hapless pioneers were trapped, unable to move forward or back. Shortly before, the Donner family had suffered a broken axle on one of their wagons and fallen behind. Also trapped by the snow, they set up camp at Alder Creek six miles from the main group.

Each camp erected make-shift cabins and hoarded their limited supply of food. The snow continued to fall, reaching a depth of as much as 20 feet. Hunting and foraging were impossible and soon they slaughtered the oxen that had brought them from the East. By then, there was a lot of discord among the group, which had other families join them until then. When this meat was consumed, they relied on the animals' tough hides. But it was not enough as starvation began to take its toll. With no other remedy at hand, the survivors resorted to cannibalism.

In mid-December, a group of 15 since dubbed the "Forlorn Hope" donned makeshift snowshoes and trudged through blizzard conditions in an attempt to break through the pass and into California. Seven (five women and two men) survived to alert the community at Sutter's Fort of the Donner Party's plight. Included in the group were two Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador, who had been sent by early California pioneer John Sutter to help the trapped emigrants. The Miwoks brought badly needed supplies and helped provide important winter survival advice. This party was the first forced to resort to cannibalism of the dead when all their supplies were gone. Eventually, when even the (dead) human sources of food dwindled, it was decided to kill the Miwoks. Though they ran away, both men were shot when they were found lying in the snow close to death after going without food for nine days.

A view of the Donner Lake from Amtrak's California Zephyr (Getty Images)

Nearly four months after they were first trapped, a series of four rescue parties were launched with the first arriving at the Donner camp in late February. Between them, the rescuers were able to lead 48 of the original 87 members of the party to safety in California. Five had perished before reaching the Sierras, 35 died at the camps or attempting to cross the mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley at the foot of the western slope. Many of the survivors lost toes to frostbite and suffered chronic physical and psychological disorders. Only the Reed and Breen families remained intact. The children of George Donner and his brother, Jacob, were orphaned.

James Reed went on to make a fortune in California's Gold Rush. Hastings, whose untested route had led to the party's mishaps, wanted to wrest California from Mexico and establish the independent Republic of California, with himself holding high office. However, when the US annexed California during the Mexican–American War, Hastings' dream collapsed. Instead, when Hastings sided with the South during the Civil War, he planned to separate California from the Union and unite it with the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis promoted Hastings to the rank of Major in the Confederate States Army, and asked him to assemble a military unit in Arizona, with the aim of defending California. However, as the Civil War ended one year later in 1865, the so-called Hastings Plot did not come to fruition.

'America: Our Defining Hours' will air on History Channel on July 5 at 9/8c.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515

America: Our Defining Hours: New Birth of Freedom (S1EP2 History Sun 12 Jul 2020)

New Birth of Freedom: America is forged in the fires of adversity. These stories chart the challenges that helped shape a nation. In the mid-1800s, America faces its darkest hour yet. Abraham Lincoln is elected President of a United States on the brink of Civil War the nation that emerges now creates great wealth–but not for everyone Teddy Roosevelt steps forward, bringing fierce leadership on behalf of the working man–his aim: to hold the nation together.

Airdate: Sun 12 Jul 2020 at 9.00pm on History

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