Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

History for a Democracy

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

History for a Democracy

Article excerpt

Americans are said to be notoriously indifferent to the past. they are thought to be forward looking, practical, innovative, and results oriented, a people passionately committed to new beginnings and second (and third) chances. They are optimists and dreamers, whom the green light of personal betterment and social transformation always beckons, and whose attitude toward history was conclusively (if crudely) summarized in the dismissive aphorisms of Henry Ford, the most famous perhaps being this: "History is more or less bunk."

Maybe those propensities were inevitable features of the American way of life. The United States has been a remarkably energetic and prosperous mass democracy, shaped by the dynamic forces of economic growth, individual liberty, material acquisitiveness, technological innovation, social mobility, and ethnic multiplicity. In so constantly shifting a setting, a place where (in Henry David Thoreau's words) "the old have no very important advice to give the young," what point is there in hashing over a past that is so easily and profitably left behind? "Old deeds for old people," sneered Thoreau, "and new deeds for new." That could almost be the national motto.

Even on the rare occasions when tradition enjoys its moment in the spotlight, the nation's love affair with possibility manages to slip on stage and steal the show. Consider, for example, the standard fare in an outdoor concert for the Fourth of July. Along with Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, one can expect to hear Copland's stately Lincoln Portrait, with an inspirational narrative that draws on the 16th president's own words. But in addition to familiar phrases from the Gettysburg Address, Copland includes the following: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present....As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

Disenthrall is a rather strong word to use against the past on a day of national piety. Yet Lincoln's words seem merely to echo Thoreau's sentiments--or, for that matter, those of Thomas Paine, who urged his contemporaries to discard useless precedents and think "as if we were the first men that thought." Such statements limn a familiar American paradox: We are to honor our past on Independence Day precisely because it teaches us that we should become independent of our past.

What, indeed, could be more American than to treat the past as a snare, something to which we are always potentially in thrall? Yet by that standard, it would be hard to account for a notable phenomenon of the American summer of 2001. I refer to the re-emergence of John Adams--revolutionary leader, Founding Father, second president of the United States, sparring partner of Jefferson, nonadmirer of Paine--as an icon of our public life. Who can have failed to notice Adams's round and rosy countenance peering at us with 18th-century seriousness and stolidity from the cover of David McCullough's new biography--the publishing sensation of the summer, a 751-page tome stacked high in nearly every bookstore in every mall and airport terminal in the land?

Adams hardly seems the stuff of which modern bestsellers are made. Despite his boundless energy and ambition, and his many accomplishments, he cannot be judged an especially skillful politician or a notably successful president. (It was not for nothing that he was our first one-term president, and his son John Quincy our second.) A man of high integrity, he was free of the lower Jeffersonian or Clintonian vices that stir the interest of tabloid-minded readers. Nor was he a figure cast in the classic heroic mold, being small and rotund, with a vain and prickly personality and a self-confessed tendency to fits of pettiness and pique. His sober and distrustful view of human nature, including his own, would earn him a thumbs-down from the positive thinkers in the Oprah Book Club. …

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