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.

Alexander Hamilton sat for this portrait by John Trumbull in 1792.

Alexander Hamilton sat for this portrait by John Trumbull in 1792.

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.


  1. Oops…didn’t mean Brownlow was using the term “Lincolnite”, but that the secessionists use the term and aimed it at Unionists.

  2. Maybe it’s because of the crisis at the time and the narrow focus on just one community in general, but some of the charges being leveled by Parson Brownlow at other folks in your book “Lincolnites and Rebels” are similar to where we are today…”liars, scoundrels”, etc. Even the term “Lincolnite” was a pejorative.

    I also found it interesting to hear the claim made back then that if someone wasn’t going to vote such-and-such, then that’s like a vote for Lincoln – just like some Republican supporters of Trump claim that anybody who won’t support him if he wins the nomination is essentially “casting a vote of Hillary”.

    I also found it interesting that Secessionists viewed Unionist support in East TN as something that occurred because the population was ignorant and uneducated. (and maybe the other way around, also)

    I’m only about 100 pages into “Lincolnites and Rebels”, but some of the parallels are fascinating.

    • Hi, Ed: First of all, bless your heart (as my mother used to say) for actually reading Lincolnites and Rebels. You have become a member in a small but hearty band. Yes, there are quite a few interesting parallels between the politics of the 1850s and today. Brownlow was quite a character. His default mode was to attack the character of anyone who disagreed with him.

      • I’ve got a few loose connections to the subject matter in your book. I’m a native Tennessean and have lived all my life in the Memphis area with the exception of a couple of years at UT-Knoxville from 82-84, so I’ve got some ties (mainly football) to Knoxville. I’ve got some family history of folks living in West TN near Shiloh with one ancestor who was in a cavalry unit from late 1862 to late 1864 and another one who emigrated from west TN to Illinois at some point during the war. From what census data I have attained, neither relative or family members owned slaves and appear to have been more of the laboring/poor farmer types, although the one who migrated north apparently ended up a doctor or was one when he left. I’ve always wondered about his reasons for migrating. Draft avoidance? “Unionists” sentiments? Something else?

        So many of the stories during the conflict revolve around the battlefields or soldiers, I am greatly enjoying your book about a sliver of life on the “home front”. I enjoyed the movie “Copperheads” for the same reason.

  3. Jack Be Nimble

    The key, it seems to me, is whether the politician has a REASONABLE audience for his/her pronouncements. The less reasonable the audience, the more the politician is tempted to over-promise and stray from the truth. There seems to be agreement that a great many Americans are angry and even bitter over the state of the nation as they perceive it. In these circumstances reason takes a back seat and demagogues rise to the fore with their easy promises and their divisive language. We are seeing the art of the insult practiced with a certain effectiveness; these insults strike home and spark similar responses and divide the electorate.
    Keep sending us these quotations; they spark much thought.

  4. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was – The Pietist Schoolman

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