Monday, April 28, 2008

A Bit of Historical Perspective

Without a good understanding of history, it is very difficult to understand the context of today's events. Those who don't study the past are doomed to repeat it. We have all seen or read statements like the last two. Bill Bennett is fond of pointing out how short the history of the United States is. Many of the events we think of as "history" were witnessed by our own relatives who weren't too distantly removed from us.

I truly enjoy studying history. On one level, I see history as a story with characters that really lived. On another level, history can help frame debates and ideas in today's world. There are many, many lessons to be learned from the wise people who lived on this planet before us.

I just finished Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. The book was very enjoyable, and I will probably write a book review on this site for anyone interested in it. However, one passage I came across deserved its own space. Looking at the political climate of today, it is easy to believe that we are at a low point. There is an unpopular President in Office, the Iraq war is unpopular, none of the current Presidential candidates are that appealing, the U.S. Congress seems happy to do absolutely nothing, and there are those who believe we are destroying the planet simply because man exists. However, put in it's perspective, things could always be worse:

[John] Adams inherited a supercharged political atmosphere every bit as ominous and intractable as the tangle on the international scene. It was a truly unprecedented situation in several senses: His vice president was in fact the leader of the opposition party; his cabinet was loyal to the memory of [out-going President] Washington… political parties were congealing into doctrinaire ideological camps, but neither side possessed the verbal or mental capacity to regard the other as anything but treasonable; and finally, the core conviction of the entire experiment in republican government – namely, that all domestic and foreign policies derived their authority from public opinion – conferred a novel level of influence to the press, which had yet to develop any established rules of conduct or standards for distinguishing rumors from reliable reporting. It was a recipe for political chaos that even the indomitable Washington would have been hard pressed to control. No one else, including Adams, stood much of a chance at all.

To recap, John Adams took office with a vice president who was in charge of the other party, Adams followed the most popular president in history, the two party system was just developing and considered the other party their sworn enemy, and the press had no standards at all. During his Presidency, Adams would have to avoid war with a major European power with all of the rest of this going on.

Things have changed (except for the press), and I would argue mostly for the better. I don't believe we should ignore the events of the day, but I do believe we should keep history in mind when discussing issues like "the housing crisis" or "the credit crisis". Things may seem bad, but they could always be worse…

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