By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narrated by: Professor Mark A. Stoler
As Mark Twain notes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. Professor Stoler reinforces Twain’s clever observation by explaining history shows patterns of human behavior that repeat themselves but history never predicts the future. Stoler notes history not only fails to repeat, it is often re-interpreted to fit modern circumstances. Stoler’s point is that humans remember the past while often ignoring the truth of history. Many choose to use inaccuracies to reinforce prejudices of the present. Several examples are given by Stoler.
1)Religious toleration is not a founding principal of the original colonies. 2)Most citizens in the colonies did not want to leave the protection of Great Britain. 3)Slavery is not the principle, or even tertiary, cause of the civil war. 4)Laissez-Faire has never been a principal of the American government. 5)America is not the primary hero, or savior in WWII.
Histories revisionists have praised as well as pilloried past American leaders based on current political circumstances. Some of the most competent leaders in America are diminished by myths of history. Two noted under-appreciated leaders are John Quincy Adams and George Marshal. Both served America in ways that remind one of George Washington by doing great things without the hubris often exhibited by lesser leaders of accomplishment.
Stoler suggests the original colonists did not leave their home countries because of religious intolerance. By the same token, they did not come to America with the intent of being tolerant of other religions. The Pilgrims who founded Plymouth in 1620 came to America because they feared religious changes in their home countries. They feared other religions would corrupt their children.
The idea that most colonists desired independence from Great Britain is inaccurate. Even John Adams notes that only a third of the colonists desired independence. Stoler explains that Great Britain is the principal reason for the colonists defeat of the French in the French and Indian war. Most colonists were thankful for Great Britain’s military aid during that war. However, that aid came at great cost to Great Britain–some form of compensation is needed to replenish the English Treasury. Great Britain is fighting the Dutch and Spanish at the same time they are waging war on the French. Of course, the chosen form of replenishment is taxation.
The rallying cry for the American revolutionists becomes “No taxation, without representation”; not because they necessarily oppose their former country but because they have no seat at the table where decisions are being made.
As reprehensible and damaging as the institution of slavery is in America, it was not the cause of the civil war. The institution of slavery goes back centuries before the American Civil War.
Even the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln said “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that…” The cause of the American Civil War is the battle of States rights versus Federal rights, a battle that recurs throughout America’s history. It began with the Articles of Confederation and continues through conflicts occurring today between President Trump, Congress, and the Judiciary.
Stoler clearly shows America has never practiced the principle of Laissez-Faire which purports to let things take their own course. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is a myth. When a country decides to have a centralized form of government, whether it is controlled through separation of power or totalitarian fiat, winners and losers are abetted or damaged by government policies and actions.
History examines and re-examines past leaders in the context of present affairs. Stoler implies American Presidents are measured against Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Each made historic and flawed contributions to the success of America. However, these three have been leaders during the greatest crises of America and are recognized as pillars of democratic government.
Each is vilified during their terms of office with revisions by every new generation. Washington is a flawed general but a hero of the revolution. Lincoln is a flawed moralist but a hero of the civil war and unionization. Roosevelt is a flawed politician who lies to many of his closest advisers while being a hero of WWII and savior during the Great Depression. It is not that Washington did not win battles, or Lincoln–revile slavery, or Roosevelt competently manage a world war and a depression, but that each gathered Americans together when needed most, and when national crises occurred.
Is Trump like Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt? One led us into despair; the other led us into prosperity. Can Trump bring a divided nation together as an astute politician or side with a business community that believes the myth of the invisible hand? Only history will tell but only as a rhyme not as a repeat.