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The History of the Future

Portrait of Jason Phillips

Written by JASON PHILLIPS
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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Writing about tomorrow may seem like a job for Hollywood screenwriters, stock analysts or even meteorologists, but this is my work, too, as a historian of the future. Throughout American history, visions of past tomorrows full of hope and anxiety framed peoples’ prospects, gave meaning to their lives, and shaped how they experienced unfolding events. My latest book focuses on how people envisioned the future before the Civil War.

According to popular myth and memory, no one expected the Civil War to happen, and when it did, everyone believed it would be a short, glorious affair. Diaries, letters, newspapers and a host of other sources from the decades before the war tell a different story. Americans forecasted a frontier war in the West, a class war in the North and a race war in the South. Americans even wrote “histories” of the Civil War before it happened. Looking to the future, prophets embraced a violent reckoning on the horizon, an Armageddon that would fulfill America’s destiny and usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. A host of factors, including evangelical religion, democracy, capitalism and technology convinced 19th- century Americans that they controlled the future and could harness the looming conflict to achieve their goals. 


John Brown believed the impending struggle would free millions of enslaved Americans. In October 1859, at Harpers Ferry, Va., he tried to spark a fire that would engulf the nation. Before his company of followers attacked the federal arsenal to gather weapons for a race war, they adopted a provisional constitution of the United States that would redesign the federal government after their victory. When Brown’s assault failed and he faced the gallows as a convicted traitor, he predicted “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”


John Brown’s prophecy inspired Edmund Ruffin, a Virginia secessionist and slaveholder, to strike the first blow for southern independence before other abolitionists replicated the Harpers Ferry raid. In 1860, Ruffin wrote a series of fictional newspaper reports set during the future Civil War. Pretending to be a British correspondent covering the war, Ruffin “reported” Abraham Lincoln’s election, southern secession and guerrilla warfare in western Virginia in the future. He envisioned a victorious Confederacy would annex every American region but New England. Ruffin’s friend, South Carolina secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett, printed this fake news in the Charleston Mercury , a popular paper that promoted southern nationalism during the secession crisis. When the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, as Ruffin had predicted, he was there to fire the first shot. When his Confederate dream died four years later, Ruffin shot himself.


Civil War Americans could have empathized with the futures we face in the 21st century. Recent inventions — telegraphs for them and smartphones for us — promised more intelligence than they delivered. Unreason and fear poisoned politics, and a cadre of wealthy Americans exploited the chaos to defend hidebound economic interests, then and now. Even the worst nightmares of our future — human extinction caused by nuclear war, climate change or pandemic — would have been relatable to Civil War Americans who expected Armageddon.


Fortunately for us, history doesn’t repeat itself. A sea of historical experience separates us from our Civil War ancestors and informs how we approach tomorrow’s challenges. After Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, military solutions don’t appeal to Americans as much as they did in 1861. Our temperament is darker, more sober than our ancestors’ zeal for the future. What seems possible to us — how we envision tomorrow — shapes our national goals and collective actions, just as it did for Civil War Americans. Our future will be different from theirs, because we imagine it differently.


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Jason Phillips is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies in the Department of History. He is the author of the book “Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future” (Oxford University Press, 2018).