The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson

Containing His Articles, Observations, Thoughts, Meanderings,
and some would say Wisdom (and some would say not).

Condemned to Repeat It

“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”
  - Edmund Burke

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
  - George Santayana

There are literally hundreds of quotes dealing with the importance of knowing history. By knowing history, you can learn from both the good and bad of what has happened, and hopefully make a wiser, better decision for the present or future. It is impossible for one person to know all of history, or even one period of history, or one historical personage. But a general knowledge of history is possible. You need to keep several things in mind when you examine a historic event or personage in order to discover the essential features or meaning of that historic event or personage.

History is often written by the victors, by the apologists, by personal perspectives, by persons who may have incomplete knowledge, and by persons who have their own ax to grind. If you are going to examine history you should seek out different perspectives to achieve a balanced view of what had occurred, and how to interpret the events. One or two books or documentaries are insufficient to gain a fuller perspective on these historical events. You may need to consult dozens of different sources to gain a more balanced perspective. This, of course, means that you will have to devote considerable time and effort to achieve this goal. I can assure you that the time and effort will be well worthwhile if you are interested in a historical subject or personage. Being a Franklinphile (a person interested in Benjamin Franklin's life and times) I have read dozens of books, articles, documentaries, and other sources to gain knowledge and insight into Benjamin Franklin's life and times. In each source, I have obtained new knowledge and perspectives on Benjamin Franklin, which has given me a better understanding and perspective of him.

Realize that history is a chain of interlocking events and that you may be unaware of previous events, or unknowledgeable about the previous event. A previous event often leads to the event that you are examining and directly or indirectly influences the event that you are examining. A historical event separated by time and distance could, and often does, have an impact on other historical events. An excellent example of this is an older PBS series "Connections" by James Burke that demonstrates this by examining technological advances throughout history, and how seemingly one advancement triggered another over time and distance. This effect is not limited to technology, but to all human activities throughout history.

Historical context is the political, social, cultural, and economic setting for a particular idea or event. To better understand something in history, you must look at its context--those things which surround it in time and place, and which give it its meaning. In this way, you can gain, among other things, a sense of how unique or ordinary an event or idea seems to be in comparison to other events and ideas.

Do not use our current morality and ethics as a basis of the judgment of what happened in a historical period or location, but only use it as a guidepost. Get to know what the moral and ethics of that period or location, so that you can judge the actions and events of the people of that period or location. You can then utilize our current morals and ethics for comparison to their morals and ethics, to reach a fuller understanding of the people or events that occurred. You will often discover hidden truths about history if you utilize this technique. A perfect example of this is the infamous counting of slaves in the census that the Founding Fathers specified in the U.S. Constitution. The issue was how the count slaves in a census that would be utilized in the distribution of Congressional representation. The infamous 3/5 rule was adopted not because they believed that a black person was only equal to 3/5 of a white person. Indeed, the Abolitionists did not want to count slaves at all to reduce the Anti-Abolitionists representation in Congress in the hopes of ending slavery. Whereas the Anti-Abolitionists wanted to count slaves as a whole person in order to gain more representation in Congress to preserve slavery. The infamous 3/5 rule was adopted as a compromise in order to establish a union, which was everybody's main concern. As can be seen in this example knowing the morals and ethics of the people involved in this decision give you a better insight into why they did what they did. This is also a good example of not knowing the morals and ethics of the people involved could lead you to the (incorrect) conclusion that the people of that time regard blacks as only 3/5 human, which was certainly not the case.

Never believe it when someone cites a historical person to justify a current event or policy. Circumstances are always different from the historical person’s time, and advancements in morality, ethics, law, philosophy, and the arts and sciences could, and possibly would, alter the opinion of a historical person if they were alive today. The words and deeds of a historical person should simply be utilized as a guidepost as to what they may have thought about today’s events. It is fine to utilize a historical person’s words and deeds as a starting point, but you should also apply your own knowledge and experience to reach a conclusion. This approach is very important when referencing the Founding Fathers, or Founding Brothers, as those historical personages were a very diverse and discordant group of individuals. They often disagreed with each other, and sometimes contradicted themselves (this was most true when you are discussing Thomas Jefferson). If your knowledge of the historical personage is nonexistent, scant, or limited, you will often reach the wrong conclusion as to the meaning of what they said or did. Do not accept anyone’s interpretation of a historical person’s opinion at face value. After all, the person presenting the historical person’s opinion may have their own personal perspectives, be a person who may have incomplete knowledge, and be a person that has their own ax to grind.

A good example of this is Winston Churchill in 1903 saying:

 “I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory (i.e. Conservative) Party, their men, their words and their methods.”

As a Liberal, Winston Churchill held high government office and, along with David Lloyd George, was regarded as one of the driving forces of Herbert Henry Asquith’s reforming administration. Was Liberalism his true political ideology? Or should we judge his position from his re-ratting in 1924, and his long association and later leadership of the Conservatives? To understand Churchill's true opinions, you need to understand the times in which he lived, the meaning of Liberal vs. Tory, vs. Conservative in his time, and the circumstances that shaped, molded, and changed his opinions throughout his life. Without this understanding, you will reach the wrong conclusion as to Churchill's ideology, and as to the meaning of the previous quote.

Given the above observations it is still important to examine the history, so that you may learn from both the good and bad, and hopefully make a wiser decision for the present or future, then that what was said or done in the past. Remember to utilize history as a guidepost, not as a determinative. Let us also remember the following wisdom:

“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” 
- Winston Churchill