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The Importance of History for Freedom

Like so many of my posts — I think this is why I sometimes have difficulty settling on what to write — this one is the culmination of an inchoate irritation that’s been growing in me for a long time. But, again like so many of my posts, it is finally birthed because of something specific that causes me to think my thoughts are finally falling into place well enough to begin writing.

Let’s see if that helps me give form to my thoughts in a way that you, dear readers, might begin to develop a similar, hopefully less-inchoate, irritation on the issue. Perhaps we can even arrive at a place at least more solid and substantial than President Obama’s backbone.

Americans these days have amazingly short memories. It wasn’t always so. In fact, had it been so, the original United States of America would never have come into being.

The Founders of the original United States of America, not this bastardized version that has supplanted it and in which I now find myself stuck living, had a rock-solid historical ground from which they drew the greatest ideas to use as building blocks for the federal republic they constituted.

Nearly every one of them appears to have been well-read in the ancient political and philosophical treatises of Greece and Rome, as well as much else of what we might today call “The Great Books of Western Civilization.” They didn’t just know of them, as one might if one paid very, very close attention in an American university these days; they had digested them.

In addition to this “book-learning,” they had a ready grasp on the historical failures of nation-states that opposed freedom, including particularly the one against whom they had fought for their — for our — independence. The history of the country from which they had broken included both positive and negative lessons, from Magna Carta to the Star Chamber.

When you “listen in” on their own discussions, by reading the letters they were always writing one another, you clearly see how the best ideas and the worst mistakes combined to bring about something new, something that became known as The Great American Experiment.

As the Experiment was being announced, Alexander Hamilton, writing the first of many Federalist Papers, noted:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

In all the history of the world before then, there had been much discussion, much learning from mistakes, but no one had ever before come up with a plan calculated to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to [a People] and [its] Posterity” by establishing a limited government which was, nevertheless, “democratic.”

The Constitution of the original United States of America, the Great American Experiment, was the first.

I’m fond of pointing out that Nazi Germany did not spring fully-armored from the brow of Hitler. A counterpoint is true regarding the United States Constitution: it did not spring fully-formed from the minds of the Founders.

It had a history. Experiments in democracy — though not quite like ours — had existed before. Athenian democracy was known at least 2500 years ago. Maybe longer. It was probably about the closest thing to a “true” democracy that there ever was. As far as the Founders of the United States were concerned, it was most instructive for demonstrating how unlimited, unchecked power was harmful even when exercised by the People, instead of oligarchic leaders.

There are many other examples in the history of democracy.

Before their government formed an Empire, the Romans made an attempt at something similar to a democratic form of government. Ironically, in many ways it more closely resembles what the United States has become today: a show, with all the appearance of a democracy, where the true power lay in the hands of a few wealthy elite.

But while I’m here to talk about the importance of history in helping us all remain free — while I’m writing about the importance of history, or, more properly, the importance of our knowledge of history — I’m not really here to give a history lesson. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave that as a highly-recommended exercise for the reader.

My point is not to teach history, but to make an argument for its importance. If we wish to remain free People.

That history I wish you all knew was debated in the constitutional convention and hammered into the original United States Constitution which finally emerged therefrom — still not fully-formed. Like a child, both the original United States and the Constitution itself had what we might call “formative years.” The ideals it laid down, however tightly-woven they were, still needed to be shaped to direct the flow of a growing democracy and keep it pointed in the right direction.

And for much of the early history of the early pre-bastardized United States of America, leader who were equally well-educated lovers of freedom assisted in its formative years.

Then along came the first in what was to be a line of dictators beholden to big business: Abraham Lincoln, the railroad lawyer.

Oops! Did I catch you by surprise? (To be honest, I caught myself by surprise a little bit: when I started writing this blog post, I didn’t expect to talk about Good Ol’ Dishonest Abe.)

And while what I just said is very much true, I’m going to skip over all the supporting history — again, consider it an exercise for the reader — to end with this: the reason that a bastardized version of the United States, one which does not deserve to survive, has taken the place of the real United States of America, is that you — all of you — have forgotten history.

In particular, you’ve no clue about the history our Founders knew. The Star Chamber. The Magna Carta. The Romans. The Greeks. For all but about one percent of you (and that’s no coinkydink), those are just so many words.

There’s a reason for that. Believe it or not, it goes back to Dishonest Abe’s bosses, before he became President. I’ll let George Carlin explain, but I hope you’ll think about what he and I have to say, and do something about it.