Opinion: Turning points in American history

David Shribman

Wells, Maine — With almost no attention, and surely no grand commemoration, Maine this summer marked an important American anniversary that provided a vital (though not well-known) turning point in the nation’s history.

It was 200 years ago this summer that, by a margin of 9,959 votes, residents of this windswept state agreed to end its status as a far-flung province of Massachusetts and seek its own statehood. That vote set in motion a struggle in Washington that brought the issue of slavery to its most prominent point yet in the four-decade-old life of the young republic.

Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. The border city, jolted by a weekend massacre at a Walmart, absorbed more grief Monday as the death toll climbed and prepared for a visit from President Donald Trump over anger from El Paso residents and local Democratic leaders who say he isn't welcome and should stay away.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers paired the Maine's petition, which would ban slavery, with the Missouri’s, which would permit slavery -- what became known as the Missouri Compromise. Thus Maine’s vote on July 26,1819, can be considered a landmark turning point.

Last weekend’s double mass murder prompted questions over whether lawmakers might comprise a turning point in the nation’s long debate about gun control. Already one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, announced he had had a change of heart, explaining that the shootings in his congressional district were a ‘’catalyst for a broader national conversation about what we can do to stop these mass shootings.’’

There have been several important turning points in American history, many of them, like the Maine referendum, traceable to a specific date. Here's a list:

• Aug. 20, 1619. Although the date is in some dispute, many experts believe this marks the arrival of the first slaves in what would become the United States. From the framing of the Constitution in 1787 to the 19th century debates over slavery to the civil rights movement to contemporary debates about race, this event would shape American history, providing it with the country’s ‘’original sin.’’

• Sept. 17, 1787. The signing of the Constitution, the founding document of the country,  established the great American political experiment.

This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the United States Constitution with Articles V-VII. For the past two centuries, constitutional amendments have originated in Congress, where they need the support of two-thirds of both houses, and then the approval of at least three-quarters of the states. But under a never-used second prong of Article V, amendments can originate in the states.

• Nov 6, 1860. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency is without question one of the hinge events in our history. The first avowed, unapologetic anti-slavery president, his ascension to the White House set in motion the Civil War that had been looming for decades. ‘’This,’’ Gettysburg College Civil War historian Allen Guelzo said in an interview the other day, ‘’is where the door is firmly slammed on slave-owning presidents or dough-faces who would do the bidding of the slave south.’’ Within a half decade, slavery would be abolished.

• July 9, 1868. The passage of the 14th Amendment provided for ‘’equal protection’’ under the law and established rules for citizenship that granted full rights to all Americans. In a new book on the Reconstruction amendments to be published next month, the distinguished historian Eric Foner argues that the measures constitute a ‘’Second Founding’’ for the United States and contends that the 14th amendment is ‘’a powerful force for assimilation of the children of immigrants, and a repudiation of a long history of racism.’

• Nov. 8, 1932. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt amid the Great Depression ended a dozen years of Republican rule, gave form to a new electoral coalition that would be one of the principal characteristics of American politics for nearly a half-century, prompted massive federal intervention in the economy, and established a new paradigm for the role and conduct of an American president.

• Aug. 6, 1945. Last week marked the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of wartime Hiroshima, inaugurating a frightful era of nuclear weaponry and establishing the United States as a superpower, a status it has held from the end of World War II to today.

• Nov. 4, 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan, a onetime FDR supporter, signaled the demise of the New Deal coalition, began the age of tax cuts, and ended the Roosevelt-era notion that government was the answer to the nation’s economic, social and cultural ills.

• Nov. 8, 2016. Already it is clear that the election of Donald Trump was a major turning point in U.S. history, an indication that the disruption that had caused upheaval in the economy and culture of the country had come to the politics of the nation, endangering decades-old nostrums about trade, national security and presidential comportment.

•Aug. 3-4, 2019. Though tragic episodes in Colorado, Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida numbed the nation to mass murders, the twin shootings last weekend has the potential of being a turning point.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.