The future simply borrows from the past

“History is always unfinished in the sense that the future always uses the past in new ways.”

This quote from Peter Gay’s 1974 book, “Style in History,” makes the point that we often understand the present by studying the past.

Joseph J. Ellis shares his insights about Gay’s quote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us,” by providing examples that prove Gay’s assertion.

Ellis’ first example of this theme occurred in 1776 when John Adams wrote to friends who lived in Boston and asked them to scour the Harvard library for books on the Peloponnesian and Punic wars. He had just become a sort of early Secretary of War for the revolutionary government. He had absolutely no background managing an army, so he decided to give himself a crash course in previous wars.

Armed with this information dating back to between the second and fifth centuries B.C., Adams bombarded Gen. George Washington and his staff with strategies to beat the British. The most valuable advice he gave was to fight a defensive war against the British army. Washington’s goal should be to engage the British only when they had the advantage either in numbers or in terrain. Washington reluctantly took Adams’ advice against his more aggressive instincts. It took eight years, but Adams’ strategy eventually defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781 and won the American Revolution.

Ellis’ second and third examples occurred when Abraham Lincoln began a research project using the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He did so in reaction to the landmark Supreme Court case, “Dred Scott vs. Sandford,” in 1857.

In this court case, Chief Justice Roger Taney and the majority of justices (many of whom favored states’ rights and slavery) asserted that the framers of the Constitution had viewed slaves as property and not people. Therefore, in their ruling, they stated that slave owners could not be deprived of their property without their consent. This meant it was unconstitutional to prohibit slavery in the western territories. This decision helped light the spark that set off the Civil War four years later.

Lincoln’s research came to a drastically different interpretation. He discovered that many of the framers had tried to limit the expansion of slavery. He found that 29 of 39 signers of the Constitution were on the record for banning or restricting slavery in the West. Those included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson along with 16 other signers who had voted to ban slavery north of the Ohio River in 1787. Jefferson had voted to ban slavery in ALL the western lands.

President Lincoln used this “originalist” argument to justify the end of slavery during the Civil War. Note that both Lincoln and Taney used their versions of the past to justify their views on the slavery issue. They went looking into the past to find what they already believed.

Recently, the Republican Senate appointed two conservative judges who favor an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. That means they prefer to make decisions just as Taney and Lincoln did – to research what the framers of the Constitution were thinking at the time they created the Constitution.

Then, as today, this approach is fraught with difficulties. There were 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution. Each had their own perspectives and biases. Which opinion and perspective should the justices choose? The answer often depends on searching for and finding what already confirms their deeply held biases. We are all subject to confirmation bias. The nine Supreme Court justices are no different than Adams, Taney, or Lincoln – or us.

The study of history is very useful in understanding our present. We must be on guard, though, to search for understanding using history with an open mind, letting its lessons guide us as Adams did in his advice to Washington. We must be on guard to avoid the trap that Taney and the majority of the Supreme Court came to in Dred Scott vs. Sandford in 1857. This biased perspective led to the disastrous and bloody Civil War.

Peter Gay was right: “History is always unfinished in the sense that the future always uses the past in new ways.”

More in Opinion

Our current ‘Gilded Age’ benefits only the super wealthy

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is… Continue reading

Is Inslee prepping for a presidential run?

Can a little known thoroughbred from the Pacific Northwest capture the 2020… Continue reading

The future simply borrows from the past

“History is always unfinished in the sense that the future always uses… Continue reading

Five stars, best books and King County Libraries’ commitment to intellectual freedom

Library Journal recently announced its 2018 Star Libraries as rated by the… Continue reading

‘Logical fallacies’ help each of us defend our arguments

What are logical fallacies? Ross Weisman’s article, “Is Your Reasoning Sound? A… Continue reading

Trump helped erase voter complacency

The Nov. 6 midterms set a record number for voters: An estimated… Continue reading

Midterm winners and losers

A surge in voter interest, a swell in the ranks of Democratic… Continue reading

‘We the people’ set our national direction Nov. 6

By the time you read this, you will either be in celebration… Continue reading

Thank you for another successful book sale

The Maple Valley Library Guild wishes to thank the community for its… Continue reading

Today’s autocrats blaming the West for their woes

As a youth in my late teens, I joined a strict religious… Continue reading

KCLS aids citizen engagement during elections, year-round

The first Tuesday in November is Election Day—a consequential day for our… Continue reading

I’m voting for Bill Ramos this election

I have been following the race for the 5th Legislative District since… Continue reading