As we usher 2021 out the door like an unwelcome house guest who showed up uninvited and stayed way too long, I wonder how many other times in American history have we endured two such miserable years back-to-back. It turns out that there have been several, and at least two that rival or perhaps even eclipse the pain suffered in 2020 and 2021.
Assessing misery can be a very subjective task. If you were heavily invested in the stock market during 2020-2021, you are no doubt feeling far less miserable than someone who owned a wedding venue that had to shutter its doors for most of 2020 and then found itself short staffed when business began to slowly return in 2021. Or less troubled than the unfortunate healthcare worker who had to watch someone who refused to get vaccinated die a totally unnecessary death. So, with that in mind, when I began looking at other two-year periods of pain and suffering, I tried to focus on those times when the largest cross-section of the entire American populace struggled to remain employed, healthy, and happy. Like today, some fared better than others, but nearly everyone suffered some degree of misery.
Discounting the fact that every year during the American Revolution would have qualified as being miserable, the first back-to-back years that were truly awful for nearly everyone were likely 1836 and 1837.
Andrew Jackson may have been a wildly popular president amongst the American voters, but his social and economic policies turned out to have disastrous consequences for just about every human being who lived in America during that era. Unfortunately for his successor, Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s policies had sown the seeds for the greatest depression and the largest disruption in family life that the young nation had yet experienced.
Unlike George Washington’s failed plans to assimilate Native Americans into the general population through education, property ownership, and religious conversion, Jackson simply saw Native Americans as an obstacle to economic expansion, particularly in the southern states where the owners of cotton plantations were eager to expand. The 1830 Indian Removal Act gave the federal government the power to exchange lands held by Native Americans east of the Mississippi for lands farther west in the Oklahoma Territory. Jackson argued that harsh measures such as this were needed to allow white settlers to occupy the millions of acres inhabited by Native Americans.
While an 1832 Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia held that states could not impose their laws against the sovereign nations of the Native Americans, Jackson had no interest in enforcing that decision and allowed the forced removal of native peoples to continue unabated. Jackson said of Native Americans, “It seems now to be an established fact they cannot live in contact with a civilized community and prosper.”
In 1836, 3,500 of the 15,000 Creeks expelled from their lands who set out for Oklahoma never survived the journey. Forced migration over the next two years would be even worse when thousands of Cherokees were removed from Georgia and then escorted by U.S. soldiers along the 1,200-mile journey to the Indian Territories in Oklahoma. It is estimated that as many as 5,000 men, women, and children perished during that march. Whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera, and starvation were all epidemic along the way.
Andrew Jackson was not a proponent of a strong central banking system. When congress easily passed the bill rechartering the Bank of the United States in 1832, Jackson promptly vetoed it. In 1835, through massive sales of land confiscated from Native Americans, Jackson paid off the national debt. The following year, congress passed the Deposit Act of 1936. That legislation provided for the distribution of U.S. Treasury surplus from tariff proceeds and public land sales to state banks on the basis of each state’s representation in Congress. That year, $25 million from record government land sales was diverted to state banks. In addition, a federal devaluation of U.S. currency in 1834 had attracted massive amounts of gold and silver deposits from European investors. Banks printed more paper money when precious metals accumulated in their vaults, which in turn allowed them to make to riskier loans with higher rates of return. As a result, the money supply in the United States expanded at an average annual rate of 30 percent between 1834 and 1836, more than a ten-fold growth rate from the previous three-year period.
State banks in the South printed many times more money than their deposits of precious metals could support. They were flush with cash when plantation owners were buying up lands taken from the native population in record amounts. More tillable land also meant the need for more slaves to work it. Cotton growers borrowed heavily to finance both their additional land and slave acquisitions.
But between expanded cotton production in the United States and a record offering the same commodity by growers in Egypt and India, 1837 saw the world cotton market crash. Growers defaulted on their loans and banks failed. Excess slaves were sold at auction, many to farmers looking to move west where Jackson’s policies would allow slave ownership to flourish despite a growing national movement for abolition. Little or no regard was given to keeping slave families together when they were sold at auction, many African American men, women, and children were torn from their families and sold. Many more slaves were forced to accompany their nearly bankrupt owners to the independent Republic of Texas where debtors could not be extradited to face their creditors in the United States.
Poor harvests that year led to food shortages. Food riots in some starving neighborhoods of Baltimore, Albany, Boston, and New York City ensued. Bank stocks fell by nearly a third and railroad stocks suffered over a sixty-percent loss in value over the next five years.
While 1836-1837 were arguably the worst years in history for the abuse of our Native American population, the entire population suffered greatly, making it into the top three in terms of misery in my estimation.
Which brings us to the next candidate: 1918 and 1919.
The United States was only directly involved in the fighting of WWI for about sixteen months between the late spring of 1917 and November 11, 1918. During that time, the country lost approximately 117,000 soldiers and sailors, but over half that number (63,000) died from disease and accidents, not from wounds suffered in combat. An additional 320,000 were sidelined during the war from either disease or wounds. The Spanish Flu was a large contributor to the later losses from disease, but there were also outbreaks of malaria and typhoid.
It’s been said that America won the First World War but that it lost the peace. The United States was suddenly a country that feared immigrants. Beginning in 1917 with the enactment of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the United States banned all immigrants from both Asia and Africa. It further required immigrants seeking Naturalization to speak English and pass a literacy test. An even more draconian immigration policy followed in 1918 with the passage of the Dillingham-Hardwick Act. That legislation made it easier to deny entry, as well as to expedite the deportation, of any alien who espoused views that advocated anarchism. The terms and definitions were so broad that two of the government agencies sponsoring the bill held meetings to develop a strategy for handling the disposition of pending cases of alien anarchists, including members of the Industrial Workers of the World, while the Senate was still debating the bill’s merits.
Shortly after the official end to the hostilities of WWI, a war weary world wanted lasting peace and a way to achieve it through diplomacy and not armed conflict. Within a few weeks after the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, attendees reached a unanimous agreement on the text of the charter of the League of Nations.
But in the United States, an isolationist Senate refused to ratify the internationally agreed upon charter for the League. While stumping the country to drum up grass-roots support for the newly formed organization, President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. He would spend his remaining two years in office completely incapacitated. Meanwhile, as the government wound down its wartime spending and eliminated the restrictive regulations that had been in place during the war, inflation became rampant, and unemployment skyrocketed to upwards of twenty percent.
In the early twentieth century, a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan renewed its campaign of terror in the south. Between 1918 and 1919, they lynched at least 147 African Americans – but with many small-town sheriffs in the ranks of the Klan, many more such atrocities could have easily gone unreported. In the north, racial tensions overflowed as African American men returning from military duty became frustrated when they had trouble finding employment and a decent place to live. The summer of 1919 became known as Red Summer after several hundred African Americans were killed in multiple attacks by Whites in cities including Chicago and Elaine, Arkansas. The race riots in Chicago were among the worst of the twenty-five conflicts reported across the nation that summer.
Racial tensions on Chicago’s South Side were at least partially fueled by the need for adequate housing. As African Americans had moved north to the industrial Midwest seeking jobs, their population increased from less than 45,000 in 1910 to nearly 110,000 by the summer of 1919. The death of Eugene Williams, an African American youth on July 27, 1919, sparked a riot that would last for thirteen days. While swimming in Lake Michigan, Williams had crossed over into an area tacitly reserved for Whites only. He was subsequently stoned, causing him to lose consciousness and drown. When police refused to arrest the white man, whom observers identified as the one who had initiated the incident, the indignant African American crowd on the beach took to the streets. After nearly two full weeks of violent confrontations between Blacks and Whites, 38 people had died – 23 African Americans and 15 Whites. 537 more were reported as injured, and a thousand African American families were reportedly left homeless.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas’ website: The Elaine Massacre in Phillips County was by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history. While its deepest roots lay in the state’s commitment to white supremacy, the events in Elaine stemmed from tense race relations and growing concerns about labor unions. A shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union escalated into mob violence on the part of the white people in Elaine and surrounding areas. Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds; five white people lost their lives.
The conflict began on the night of September 30, 1919, when approximately 100 African Americans, mostly sharecroppers on the plantations of white landowners, attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America at a church in Hoop Spur (Phillips County), three miles north of Elaine. The purpose of the meeting, one of several by black sharecroppers in the Elaine area during the previous months, was to obtain better payments for their cotton crops from the white plantation owners who dominated the area during the Jim Crow era.
Leaders of the Hoop Spur union had placed armed guards around the church to prevent disruption of their meeting and intelligence gathering by white opponents. Though accounts of who fired the first shots are in sharp conflict, a shootout in front of the church on the night of September 30, 1919, between the armed black guards around the church and three individuals whose vehicle was parked in front of the church resulted in the death of W. A. Adkins, a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, and the wounding of Charles Pratt, Phillips County’s white deputy sheriff.
The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. Although the posse encountered minimal resistance from the black residents of the area around Elaine, the fear of African Americans, who outnumbered whites in this area of Phillips County by a ratio of ten to one, led an estimated five hundred to one-thousand armed white people—mostly from the surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi—to travel to Elaine to put down what was characterized by them as an “insurrection.”
Within days of the initial shoot-out, 285 African Americans were taken from the temporary stockades to the jail in Helena, the county seat, although the jail had space for only forty-eight. Two white members of the Phillips County posse, T. K. Jones and H. F. Smiddy, stated in sworn affidavits in 1921 that they committed acts of torture at the Phillips County jail and named others who had also participated in the torture. On October 31, 1919, the Phillips County grand jury charged 122 African Americans with crimes stemming from the racial disturbances. The charges ranged from murder to nightriding, a charge akin to terroristic threatening (as defined by Act 112 of 1909). The trials began the next week, with John Elvis Miller leading the prosecution. White attorneys from Helena were appointed by Circuit Judge J. M. Jackson to represent the first twelve black men to go to trial. Attorney Jacob Fink, who was appointed to represent Frank Hicks, admitted to the jury that he had not interviewed any witnesses. He made no motion for a change of venue, nor did he challenge a single prospective juror, taking the first twelve called. By November 5, 1919, the first twelve black men given trials had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. As a result, sixty-five others quickly entered plea-bargains and accepted sentences of up to twenty-one years for second-degree murder.
Subsequent litigation that led all the way to the Supreme Court granted the twelve men sentenced to die a new hearing, but their attorney opted instead to negotiate a deal with the state. To be released, the men would have to plead guilty to second-degree murder and serve a sentence of five years from the date they were first incarcerated in the Arkansas State Penitentiary. On January 24, 1925, all twelve men were finally released from custody.
Other events that occurred in 1919 included the ratification of the 18th Amendment that introduced prohibition and resulted in a decade of lawlessness not seen in America since the days of the wild west. The autumn of 1919 saw several massive labor strikes, including work stoppages by 350,000 steelworkers in Indiana, 425,000 coal miners in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and most of the rank-and-file police force in the city of Boston. To many Americans, these strikes signaled that America was ripe for a Bolshevik style revolution. In November of 1919, U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched the first Red Scare, a massive series of arrest raids against suspected radicals, anarchists, and communists resulting in what most historians consider the biggest violation of civil liberties in a half-century.
Also in the fall, a third wave of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that had already killed millions worldwide, struck causing thousands of additional Americans to die within only a few days of contracting the disease. By the time it finally abated, the flu had left over 675,000 Americans dead and had reduced the nation’s life expectancy by a staggering twelve years!
All told, 1918 and 1919 consisted of two full years of political chaos, social unrest, economic disasters, a pandemic, bloody race riots, massive labor strikes, and brutal government overreach.
Over-all, I’d rate 1918-1919 as the worst two-year time period in American history. But not by a lot. 2020 and 2021 come in a close second.
2022 has its foot in the door. Do we welcome it, or do we fear it may bring more pain and misery? The Omicron variant is keeping Covid-19 at the forefront of the news and continues to disrupt our lives with no end in sight. The mid-term elections will no doubt be dominated by the likes of crazies such as Margorie Taylor Green and Matt Gaetz, sweeping aside any chance of reasonable political debate by those who actually wish to serve the best interests of all Americans. The “Big Lie” will likely be repeated ad infinitum by those who failed to topple democracy on January 6th, while congress continues to investigate the past rather than look to solve the problems of the present. Social media will continue to spew out misinformation and lies that divide us much more than they could ever unite us. The rich will likely get richer, the poor will likely remain just as poor. Climate change is apt to continue unabated while the leaders of world governments and major industries continue to put off tackling the problem while they debate who should pay the enormous costs of solving it. The list goes on…
In other words, it looks like more of the same old, same old. But we can always hope. Americans have always been hopeful. Even in 1836-1837 and 1918-1919 when things appeared every bit as dire as they do today. If the events of today somehow mirror the events of our past (and they certainly do), then history should teach us that we can survive and endure in spite of ourselves and our foibles.
So, Happy New Year, America, and good riddance to 2021! And may 2022 be so fine that I won’t need to seek out the three worst back-to-back-to-back years in U.S. History twelve months from now.