December 26, 2010


Myth and Memory in the American Identity (Wilfred M. McClay, October 12, 2005, The Lehrman Lectures - The Heritage Foundation)

Republicanism means self-government, and so republican liberty does not mean living without restraint, but rather living in accordance with a law that you have dictated to yourself. Hence the especially strong need of republics to recur to their founding principles and their founding narratives, in a never-ending process of self-adjustment. There should be a constant interplay between founding ideals and current realities, a tennis match bouncing back and forth between the two.

And for that to happen, there need to be two things in place. First, founding principles that are sufficiently fixed to give us genuine guidance, to actually teach us something. That such ideals should be open to amendment is, perhaps, the least important or valuable thing about them -- which is precisely why a living Constitution is not really a Constitution at all. This is why I compare a founding to a promise or a vow, which means nothing if its chief glory is its adaptability. The analogy of a successful marriage, which is also, in a sense, a res publica that must periodically recur to first principles, and learn to distinguish first principles from passing circumstances, is actually a fairly good guide to these things.

Second, there needs to be a ready sense of connection to the past, a reflex for looking backward. And that is no easy matter. Cultivating it ought to be one of the chief uses of the formal study of history. Or so one would think. But the fostering of a vital sense of connection to the past is, alas, not one of the goals of historical study as it's now taught and practiced in this country. Nietzsche saw a certain kind of abuse of history, along these lines, coming long before it was even a germ of a possibility on these shores. But it has reached a kind of full flower in the present day. This has been particularly true of the study of the American founding, as it has been for a century now, since the early sallies against the Founders by Charles Beard; but it is more generally true of the entire profession of history.

This is a highly ironic development. The meticulous contextualization of past events and ideas, arising out of a sophisticated understanding of the past's particularities and discontinuities with the present, is one of the great achievements of modern historiography. But that achievement comes at a very high cost, when it emphasizes the pastness of the past so much as to make the past completely unavailable to us, separated from us by a impassable chasm of contextual difference.

-Review of David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing (BrothersJudd)

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2010 7:39 AM
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