As is often said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” (Actually, the original quote is probably from philosopher George Santayana and read “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.“). Nevertheless, the idea that we need to be cognizant of what came before in order not just to learn but to keep things in perspective is necessary. Each generation might wish to believe that its problems are unique but looking back to past generations can provide some guidance that we have in many ways been there and done that.
The difference today may lie in the fact that previous generations did not have either the benefit or some might say curse of having immediate news of or information on things that are going wrong. With immediacy comes reaction at lightning speed and often quicker polarization. If we really stop to analyze what is taking place and try to put things in perspective, would we be more likely to process and think? Would the road to common ground be paved a little smoother if we recognized that history has lessons to teach us?
The latest book by historian Jon Meacham suggests that while we may currently believe we are in our most polarized state, in fact, our nation has faced crisis and upheaval throughout its history and that we have come through to make progress. In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Meacham looks back to the very origins of the nation, debates over the function of the presidency, the Civil War and its aftermath, anti-immigration sentiment during periods such as the Gilded Age, and periods up to Civil Rights battles. He profiles presidents that have shaped our nation and how policies, some good some bad, were created by the push me-pull you of politics. He finds some presidents such as Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman who redeemed themselves by stepping beyond the political to guide the nation through some of its darkest hours.
In a recent interview, Meacham said that it is not about the party or that one side or the other has the better angels on their side. “Our best moments have come when voices far from power – reformers, protesters, those who have been on the margins – have forced the powerful to take notice… our finest hours have come when presidential power has intersected with voices of protest to lead us to higher ground. And that may sound homiletic or may sound a little bit like a Fourth of July remark, but it’s not. It’s simply a historic fact.”
It should be noted that Meacham does have some strong negative views about the current administration. The author is a former editor in chief of Newsweek, a Pulitzer prize winner for his book about Andrew Jackson, wrote books about Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush among others. What is worth gleaning from the book is not so much what he views about today’s President, but rather what he said the above interview: “As a southerner and as a biographer, my sense of things is where Faulkner was in “Requiem For A Nun,” when he said the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.