If you’re like me, you’re still thinking “Thank God that freaking 2020 is over!” For all of us that lived through COVID-19, the economic devastation, the loss of normal family, sports and public events, the rioting and destruction of so many cities and the tumultuous elections, 2020 was certainly a year to forget.
But it wasn’t the worst year in American history. Far from it.
If you’ve read this newsletter for a while, you know that I’m kind of a history geek, and while I don’t know if historians actually keep lists of really awful years, personally I wouldn’t rank 2020 in even the top five worst years in American history.
Here’s my list of exceptionally wretched years:
AD 542 – Technically not American history but still deplorable. The Justinian plague reached its peak in AD 542 and killed 25% of the world’s population, 50 million people. An equivalent epidemic today would kill 1.5 billion people!
1520 – This is the year smallpox came to what would be called America, killing between 60-90% of the native population. Spanish monk Motolinia wrote: “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and it was impossible to bury the great number of dead.”
1777 – A year of true despair. George Washington’s Continental Army lost at Brandywine and then at Germantown. The Continental Congress was chased from its capital in Philadelphia. What remains of its diseased, starved and bitterly cold troops took refuge at Valley Forge. More than one of our revolutionary heroes were contemplating how quickly they might be swinging from the end of a rope since it appeared the British would win the war.
1919 – Political chaos, social unrest, economic devastation, race riots, labor strikes, and a health crisis. The League of Nations treaty was defeated. President Wilson suffered a massive stroke. Inflation skyrocketed to 20 percent and an influenza epidemic began that would go on to kill more than 500,000 Americans (and millions worldwide).
1968 – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Urban insurrections raged across America. A bloody and deadly Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And on the world stage, Russians tanks lead the Warsaw pack into Czechoslovakia to squash freedom and democratic reforms.
It’s true that none of us have lived through a year like the last one. It’s been devastating to many of us personally and professionally. It’s been devastating to many; healthcare workers, restaurant staff, and many others. Even the babysitter market has collapsed. For those of us less afflicted by the pandemic, we’re still missing each other, sick to death of Zoom and still trying to make a decent sourdough bread.
What’s important to remember, though, is that despite all these devastating plagues, epidemics and wars in history, Americans have not only survived, we’ve always thrived. We’ll pick up the pieces, get to work, rebuild and move forward – just like we’ve always done.
I’m certain of that.