At its best, historian David Harlan tells us, history can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” The bad news is that most of us live our lives “stranded in the present,” to quote historian Margaret Bendroth. What is worse, we like it that way.
I’ve been thinking of this a lot as our already interminable presidential campaign season proceeds. A lot of politically active Americans claim to venerate our nation’s past, but I see almost no evidence that anyone’s listening to our ancestors.
At the end of an impassioned speech against the expansion of slavery, former president John Quincy Adams punctuated his appeal to the nation’s conscience with a fervent cry:
“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”
I love Adams’s exhortation on multiple levels. It exposes our relentless present-mindedness and individualism and calls us to a new kind of connectedness that transcends generations as well as geography. Adams reminds us that we live in the flow of time, part of a larger story that began before we were born and will continue long after we die.
Adams’s exhortation is also a call to humility. There is an arrogance to present-mindedness that C. S. Lewis rightly labeled “chronological snobbery.” By challenging us to recognize an obligation to our forefathers as well as our posterity, Adams is telling us (among other things) to open our eyes and get over ourselves. Stop patting the past on the head and be open to the possibility that we need to learn from it instead.
Finally, I find that Adams’s words perfectly capture my understanding of the value of history: we study the past to live more wisely in the future. And this means that we cannot begin to honor our obligation to our descendants until we learn to listen more closely to our ancestors.
In the spirit of Adams’s plea, from time to time between now and election day, I think I’ll share quotes from our past worth chewing on during this contentious political season. My goal is not to be overtly partisan, and you can make of them what you will.
Let’s start with a quote from the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays penned primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787 and 1788 to rally support for the newly proposed Constitution. The Federalist Papers are not an infallible source of wisdom, but they’re one of the best windows that we have into the values of the original framers of our Constitutional system.
The quote below appeared in the very first number of the Federalist. Knowing that the supporters of the Constitution faced an uphill battle, Alexander Hamilton hit the ground running. He dashed off Federalist no. 1 within a couple of weeks of the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. The debate would be fierce, Hamilton knew, and the stakes would be high. The future–even the very existence–of the infant United States hung in the balance. And precisely because the stakes were high, Hamilton knew full well that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.” Hear then, how he cautioned his audience:
We, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.
In sum, Hamilton was conceding at the outset that there would be intelligent and honorable individuals on both sides of the coming debate. And what is more, some on the “right side” would have dishonorable motives. This is a far cry from business as usual in 2016, isn’t it, where presidential candidates denounce one another as “liars” and “con artists” and train their followers to see the opposition as either malevolent or stupid.
Hamilton went on to predict that partisan firebrands would strive to prove “the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” Sound familiar to anyone?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Over the next seven months, Hamilton and Madison wrote some 175,000 words about the proposed Constitution. Together, they crafted a reasoned argument aimed at a reasonable audience about how to perpetuate liberty and justice under a representative form of government. In concluding the opening essay, Hamilton laid out the approach that the authors would follow throughout:
My arguments will be open to all and may be judged of by all. They shall at least be offered in a spirit which will not disgrace the cause of truth.
Sounds like an approach worth recapturing.