By Sonny Scott
Here we are again in the early months of the quadrennial dwarf-tossing known as election year. “The noise of democracy” some call it. I think of it more as the republic’s bowel movement. It’s uncomfortable, at times painful. It’s always smelly, and it’s no fun to watch.
Recently the editor of this paper published a commentary on the importance of awareness of history in understanding and appreciating our heritage. I concur – with the added recommendation that knowledge of our history can help keep us hopeful during election season.
You want recrimination and selfish behavior? Look to the election of 1800. With the future of the republic at stake, the major players couldn’t find it in themselves to act in a statesman-like manner, but we survived.
You think the internet forums show us to be crass and intolerant? Read the Aurora, the opposition newspaper of the Federalist Era if you have the stomach for world-class invective. People are much the same from generation to generation.
You want conflict between the responsible, educated elite and the working-class “rabble”? I offer the elections of 1824 and 1828. This is encouraging. If the republic survived the well-meaning but ignorant blundering of the Hero of New Orleans, maybe it can survive that of the Hero of Chicago Ward Politics.
Elections provoking a constitutional crisis? The elections of 1860, 1824, 1876, and 1932 seemed to portend disaster, and yet we muddled through.
Clueless military hero made president? Zachary Taylor didn’t live long enough to be the failure expected, but Grant’s administration was a shipwreck from the get-go. Somehow, we kept going.
Stolen election? I offer Tilden-Hayes in 1876 and Kennedy-Nixon tilt in 1960. Both of these make the election of 2000 seem like a classic according to Hoyle. The losers were statesmen enough to put the needs of the nation above the urge to litigate, and the nation survived.
Corrupt politician thrust into high office? Look no further than Chester A. Arthur, a corrupt functionary who ascended to the presidency upon the assassination of James Garfield. To the surprise of everyone, the office elevated the man, and Arthur disappointed his friends and astounded his enemies. Likewise, Harry Truman, a product of the Pendergast machine, proved incorruptible. It’s still too close to the events of the day to determine if the current president can rise above the corruption of Chicago, but history gives us hope.
The office of the presidency has institutional inertia. Few men are able to actually shape it to their personal style in the manner of Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. Most of them continue the policies (and wars) of the preceding administration, reflecting the fundamental conservatism of American society. Those familiar with the horror of radical regimes consuming their own are comforted in that.
Like it or not, we inherited world leadership as a result of the World Wars of the 20th Century. All the longing of Jeffersonian agrarians like yours truly will not change that fact. The march toward Empire began with the Louisiana Purchase and was permanently double-timed by the War Between the States. In all epochs, there have been Great Powers to bring order and set the tenor of the age. It seemed our destiny to be that power for a season.
Overreaching by the Neo-Cons in the post-Soviet Era has stretched our resources to the point where global power realignments are inevitable. There will be social and political upheavals, but Armageddon need not be nigh. Just as Rome continued to bless the world after it ceased as a political entity, the America’s legacy will be our bequest to our grandchildren. They may make something wonderful of it.
I believe that the study and teaching of history can serve as a stabilizing force and help cool passions while inevitable changes are wrought. Problem is we no longer have history in most schools. We have “social studies,” designed to acculturate the young. There are some very good historians at work, and many of them are gifted in the art of the narrative. Unfortunately for us all, our attention span is too short, our social sensitivities too raw, and our curiosity too anemic for us to invest the time and thought to explore the great storehouse of wisdom and knowledge that historians have unlocked. The loss is ours.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.