Having just finished U.S. Grant's memoirs, I have a question. Would it be so bad if presidents nowadays followed the example of Lincoln, Grant and others, who willingly admitted that America has made mistakes and that sometimes we have to pay for our mistakes?
Americans don't have much of a sense of history. We like to think that we are not hobbled by history. We believe after all that The End of History came in 1776 when we broke away from Old Europe.
But in the 19th century presidents regularly subscribed in public to the view that events in the past actually have an effect on the present and the future. Lincoln in his Second Inaugural famously explained that it may be that the Civil War may not end "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." Grant in his memoirs, echoing Lincoln, and like him, borrowing heavily from the Christian theology of penance, argued that the Civil War in part was the price America paid for the unlawful Mexican-American War, in which the stronger power took advantage of the weaker one to obtain territory.
If we cannot own up to our history anymore I'd settle for just a little Christian penance. In a country now dominated by leaders who either profess to believe in Christianity or who lead a flock who do, a brief bow to history might not seem out of line. Or is Christianity today just about megachurches, building the base, running off gays, and ending abortions?
If that's it, then Lincoln would hardly recognize the religion.
If penance is important, then perhaps we could begin to come to terms with the legacy of American foreign policy. Iran, I see, is back on the front burner. Might we not want to accept that many of the events that have taken place in Iran over the last 30 years had their roots in what happened 50 years ago?
I say this not in the expectation or the hope that Americans will begin flagellating themselves like the Shiites of Iran. But remembering is important. For even if we don't remember other people do.
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HNN - 4/15/2005
Strange. I thought I remember President Reagan talking about America's special destiny. Hasn't President Bush said the same thing?
What is that special destiny?
It's our commitment to freedom, however defned. And when did we become free? In 1776 (or 1783 if you want to be more precise).
Throughout our history Americans have looked to 1776 as a point of departure. Read Jefferson. Read Adams. Read Washington. Each of them commented on the American experiment as a change in world history.
They did not believe that it was ordained that the rest of the world would follow the American example. But within a generation or two Americans generally were.
I am reminded of a wonderful observation made by a historian of the Vietnam War. He said that Americans were the only people on earth who expected others to want to be like us. (Others like to think they are are the best. Period.)
In other words, we think we hold the key to human happiness. And we want to export it.
We have figured oput how history works--and how successful societies are organized.
I don't think this is a controversial statement.
Owen Roberts - 4/14/2005
In my fifty some odd years, I've met a fair number of Americans, and I've never seen any evidence that any of them "believe[ed] after all that The End of History came in 1776 when we broke away from Old Europe." Most of them (except possibly some of the moonbat leftists) seemed to believe all individuals (especially themselves) make mistakes, seemed fairly willing to forgive honest mistakes, and seemed to realize that choices have consequences. So, where are these Americans of whom you so flippantly speak, and how do you know what they believe?