What is the point of history, the purpose of studying the past? Aren’t we taking away from our here and now, having to learn what happened back when to who knows who, usually nobody we’re even vaguely related to?
When I taught history as part of helping students understand world and American literature, that question came up regularly. Indeed, how many, many people have pointed out—“history’s boring” or as Henry Ford said, “History is more or less bunk*. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn* is the history that we make today.” Chicago Tribune 1916
As a historian of sorts, I will grant that often the presentation of history is boring, and tragically/comically (how’s that for a contradiction?) history so often is “nonsense.”
But, of course, in the latter case—history being nonsense—is the very reason it so behooves us to study history with intense focus, so that we may learn its lessons in order not to repeat past actions now and in the near future. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.” George Santayana
We need to know the past, because as a human being, the historical past is OUR past whether we recognize it or not, and whether we like it or not. We are defined, often controlled and shaped, by our species’ countless past actions. Think how much of your life now is based in and affected by your own past actions and the actions of your parents. To not know that is to have a form of amnesia—to literally not know who you are or why you act as you do while others act so contrarily to how you act.
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree…Just think about it, the past has always been more important than the present. The present is like a coral island that sticks above the water, but is built upon millions of dead corals under the surface, that no one sees. In the same way, our everyday world is built upon millions and millions of events and decisions that occurred in the past.”― Michael Crichton
So what is this huge many millions of years old Tree of Life? Hundreds of thousands of years old Tree of Human History? And based on all the past, how does one make good ethical decisions now? Evangelical Christians often assert, “History is God’s story, HIS-story,” but this is a very problematic tragic, even horrific, idea. For most of recorded history is obscenely contrary to all that is good, true, and right, certainly not God’s story unless the latter is a moral monster.
That is my first historical judgment. And judgments are dangerous to make, but each of us must make them daily, hourly, minute by minute, moment by moment—for that is how we humans live, how we become.
So let’s take a look at a few historical past actions (the ghost of history past;-) and seek to discover what ethical lessons we can learn from back there and then.
The American Civil War
(More accurately The War Between the States, because essentially the war wasn't a fight over who would rule a country, but a refusal by the U.S. government to let States secede from the Union even though they had voted to do so.)
Lincoln claimed the Southern States didn't have a right to secede:
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861- “I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual....It follows....that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances. I, therefore, consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken.”
“We find the proposition that, in legal contemplation, the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776…
But Thomas Jefferson in that very Declaration of Independence argued completely the opposite:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”
Thus Jefferson seems to argue persuasively—many would even say, “case closed.” But strangely Abraham Lincoln and millions of Americans have disagreed with the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s reasoning, instead claiming that the Union of the United States is “perpetual” and cannot be separated.
And the moral of the historical story for us now is?
To be continued
In the Light,