I have always been a history buff. It was my favorite subject in school, and in college I naturally gravitated toward it. And while my Ph.D. is technically in political science, my actual dissertation was about … you guessed it … American history.
I believe that understanding America’s history is the key to understanding America’s present. After all, there truly is nothing new under the sun. Take the extreme polarization between the political parties, and the nastiness of our public discourse. Unprecedented? Hardly. Allies of Thomas Jefferson said worse things about John Adams, who gave as good as he got. And those two had been friends and co-authors of the Declaration of Independence!
More important, America was founded not on a single racial, ethnic, religious or social identity — but on a set of ideas, which have evolved over time. If we want to understand why our country works (or doesn’t work) the way it does, we have to appreciate the history of this evolution.
This is why I am so troubled by the moral absolutism I see regarding our past. It seems like if some historical figure did anything objectionable, he must be cast into outer darkness. We have nothing to learn from such evil people, who should be forgotten.
I regularly encounter this attitude whenever I talk about the early leaders of the republic. The inevitable responses include, “They were slaveholders!” or “They were wealthy elitists!” Just last week, David Rothkopf — a Clinton administration official, now in charge of the Foreign Policy magazine group — tweeted that Donald Trump’s interest in Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 and America’s seventh president, is “code” that allows Mr. Trump to “celebrate a racist. Also, not incidentally, a lunatic.”
This is, to borrow a phrase, a lunatic view. And I am worried it is becoming endemic in American culture.
Yes — Jackson did many bad things. He was a slaveowner, and he removed the Native Americans to the West in a brutal fashion. There is plenty to detest. But not everything he did was bad. As historian H.W. Brands recently wrote, “The triumph of democracy was the dominant theme of American life in the first half of the 19th century,” and nobody did more for that than Jackson.
How can we possibly appreciate Jackson’s contribution to democracy — which, let’s face it, is pretty essential to our modern identity — if we are so quick to cast such sweeping aspersions? It seems to me as though Mr. Rothkopf, and others like him, have allowed their moral outrage to get the better of them, blinding them to lessons about today they could learn from the past.
The same is true of many of the Founding Fathers. George Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe — all owned slaves. But they were also the architects of American republicanism, the very foundation upon which our government rests. As citizens, we are obliged to disentangle their virtues from their vices. After all, how can we improve our republic, if we do not first understand it?
Conservatives make these kinds of errors, too. Ask your average Glenn Beck listener about Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Movement, then watch his face turn red with rage as he bemoans the destruction of the Constitution. Yet by painting Wilson as the great villain, conservatives overlook the rampant corruption of his era and the need for reform. Indeed, a lot of conservative rhetoric about fixing an unresponsive and broken system harks back to Wilson’s progressivism. But, so long as Wilson is cast as the enemy, such similarities are overlooked, and important lessons go unlearned.
It is easy for Americans to fall into these traps. We have always been an idealistic nation — and we are prone to castigate our forefathers as they fell short of the ideals they themselves trumpeted. But we do ourselves a disservice with such knee-jerk condemnations. History has a lot to teach us, but we have to listen first.
Jay Cost, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, lives in Butler County (JCost241@gmail.com, Twitter @JayCostTWS). His book on James Madison and Alexander Hamilton will be published by Basic Books in 2018.