Recently in Government class we briefly discussed Francis Fukuyama’s famous/infamous The End of History and the Last Man, a book often cited but perhaps much less read these days.
I have not read it myself.
The occasion for this discussion came from a student question. Might monarchy return to western civilization? Even 30 years ago such a question would be absurd. But, Plato, Machiavelli, and other thinkers tacitly assume a cycle of governments that repeat themselves over time. Fukuyama, as best as I understand, challenges this assumption by stating that democracy has proven itself and will now always remain in the conversation. It will always be “in play” in the world and some type of democracy would become the dominant form of government from here on out. The cycle of “History” has ended. Now all that we have left are “events.”
When we discussed this question in class I remained skeptical about monarchy’s return. But a colleague pointed out that of course it could happen. The cycle of monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy (in all but name) played out in Rome. Rome began as a monarchy, but expanded as a Republic. If the Republic stood against anything, it was monarchy. Yet, while monarchs did not return to Rome, Emperors made an appearance for nearly 500 years, a revision to monarchy in all but name. Furthermore, after Rome’s fall monarchies appeared even in areas formerly controlled by Rome.
Perhaps, then, monarchies could return even to the West, given several generations. We tend to believe that history progresses or declines, more or less in a continuous line. Maybe we should give more credence to a more cyclically influenced theory of events.
I thought of this conversation reading Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization. He wrote just after W.W. II and foresaw our modern family crisis. But because he roots his observations in historical observation over many centuries, the book has a timeless quality. Fundamentally, Zimmerman argues that we should abandon linear evolutionary concepts of the family, not just because he may not agree with evolutionary scientific theory, but primarily because the history of western civilization shows a circle rather than a straight line.
Zimmerman identifies three different basic family models throughout history:
- The ‘Trustee Family’ resembles something akin to our idea of Scottish clans. Trustee families are so called because each family member acts as a mere caretaker of the bloodline, property, customs, and traditions of the extended family. Powerful families are a law unto themselves–a kind of miniature state–and stand in active solidarity with other family members in terms of rewards and punishments.
- The “Domestic Family” has more of a nuclear composition and mentality. The father heads the family, but they can own property outright. The domestic family shares corporate blame for minor offenses, but the trend leans toward individual responsibility. Neither the clan nor the state makes a domestic family or governs it, but the Church (or other religious affiliation).
- The “Atomistic Family” describes our own age. In the absence of the state, the Trustee Family assumes significant control over “horizontal” relationships. The Domestic Family has a sacramental sacredness ordered primarily though religion. The Atomistic Family is based on the idea of functionality and convenience. It’s horizontal nature extends only to individual members. It has no horizontal sacred dimension. Personal choice determines the shape of individual families.
Few disagree with Zimmerman’s descriptions, but most modern sociologists assume an evolutionary line of change that will eventually dissolve the family as we know it. Zimmerman shows that each type existed before in Greece and Rome, and that after Rome’s fall, the cycle began again. He traces all three models this way:
Trustee Family Era’s
- Homeric Greece–ca. 800 B.C.
- Early Roman tribal era–12 Tables of Law (ca. 450 B.C.)
- The post-Roman barbarian Age (ca. 500 A.D.-12th Century)
Domestic Family Era’s
- 8th-5th century Greece, from Hesiod-Pericles
- 12 Tables of Roman Law–Dissolution of the Republic
- 13th Century-18th Century (Aquinas-Enlightenment)
- Sophists-End of classical Greece ca. 150 B.C.
- Augustus-Barbarian Age of Europe
- Enlightenment Rationalism-Present Day
The main part of the book concerns itself with showing the family transitions from the fall of Rome until today.
The church stood against much of accepted family mores in Rome’s decline. From an early point the Church declared marriage a sacrament, and worked against the atomistic view of marriage and family in late Rome. This makes sense. After Rome’s fall, we they had two polar opposite views of the family to contend with, as the atomistic model lingered alongside of the trustee model brought by barbarian tribes.
The church found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. They abhorred the individualism of the atomistic Roman family, but the trustee model led to uncontrolled violence and lack of individual moral responsibility. Caught between these two, the Church leaned towards working with the trustee model. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that the collapse of the Roman state made the trustee model almost inevitable. It also shows, I think, that the values of the early Church do not match our own. Needing to choose, they preferred unchecked violence to rampant individualism.*
However, the Church quickly worked to transform ideas of the family in small but concrete ways. They allowed for marriages even in the absence of familial consent. They insisted that, as marriage was a sacrament, the Church and not the family made a marriage. Under most barbarian trusteeships, the groom had to provide a financial gift to his father-in-law, as he “took” someone from his family. The Church transformed this practice into the groom giving a gift of property/cash to his wife. The practice of writing wills also allowed for a widow to inherit property independent of her husband’s family.
All of these things helped bring about the Domestic Family, though the slow and steady rise of the state also aided in this as well.
Zimmerman sees the Domestic model as the ideal. Marriage has a sacramental purpose and reality, but the family is not absolute, as many Scriptures attest. Because the Church creates a new family, the family has a degree of independence from the state. Civilizations were healthier with these kinds of families. Greece experienced its explosion of cultural and political growth largely under the Domestic Family. In Rome the Republic never had healthier days than during the prevalence of the Domestic Family. In Europe we see the 12th century golden age that experienced innovations in architecture, philosophy, music, etc. etc.
Several things happened over two centuries that eroded the domestic family.
- Erasmus (Zimmerman calls him a “sophistic playboy” and other Renaissance humanists began to enamored with classical culture and its attendant individualism.
- Building on this, the Reformation 1) Removed marriage as a sacrament, giving the Church less power over marriage and giving more to the state, and 2) Marriage had a higher place than celibacy, which lessened marriage’s spiritually symbolic purpose and paved the way for the “contract view of marriage.**
- Social contract theory put the emphasis of marriage on fulfilling mutual needs of each “party,” and opened the door to different kinds of marriages–all legitimate in theory provided only that both parties freely consented.
Many in the west today see the rise of the atomistic model concomitant with the rise of political and social freedom. This view has some merit. The Reformation and Enlightenment democracies broke down nearly all traditions, which led to a focus on the individual. The individual rights we enjoy likely would not have come without a breakdown in the “Domestic Family.”
But Zimmerman has an apt word of caution–society cannot exist without some method of organization and accountability. The family has long served as the repository for moral training, education, preparation for life, and so on. If the family can no longer perform these functions, the state will have to step in, making the state itself our de-facto family. This happened in Rome. When social order decayed, the state had to take up the mantle, and they proved in their laws and actions much more stern than the typical pater-familias. The history of the west, at least, shows us no more than three mechanisms of control: the clan, religion, and the state. We must choose. But the state, due to the variable nature of law, and with no particular method or goal, has shown itself the most unpredictable of the three.
We should not assume that the family has disappeared. It may have gone underground for now but remains the key element of society. It will return.^ Zimmermann is not a historical determinist or a pessimist. In his reflections on the history of the family Zimmermann believes that had a few things happened here and there at the top of each society, the history of the family could have gone much differently and better. He believes that societal elites have been largely responsible for inculcating anti-family policies into society. If they can be converted we might turn the tide.
I wish it would be so simple. Today it seems that much of the flow of modern life in its labor, technology, habits, etc. exert great pressure on the family. Our recent election suggests that our cultural elites have less influence than ever before. Then again, I believe in the witness of history, and believe that no one period of time is so starkly different from another. This era then, might have more in common with Imperial Rome than otherwise. That might sound like bad news, but from the perspective of the family, it isn’t. It would mean that turning the heads of a few elites could dramatically improve our situation. This would be vastly easier than a total societal breakdown that occurred during the last major family crisis.
*We see this in other areas as well. The medievals viewed Saturn (which makes melancholy isolationists) as the Infortuna Major, while Mars, (which brought war–but war at least brings some groups together) as the Infortuna Minor.
**In an interesting aside, Zimmerman points out how the influence of the primacy of the text over tradition in the Reformation helped aid this transition. Nothing in the history of the Church supported this shift to de-sacralize marriage, but a) Reformers had a hard time finding a text in the NT saying exactly that marriage was a sacrament (although Ephesians 5 certainly fits–what text is supposed to say exactly that anything is a sacrament? The undue influence of the bare text quickly gave Protestant denominations doctrinal confusion with the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other areas–and b) They found a couple of OT texts that they used to support this lessened view of marriage.
However, Zimmerman also argues that most of the Reformers were strongly traditional pro-family in many other ways. It was not so much the Protestant preacher in the pulpit that eroded the family, but instead the humanist scholars who influenced the Reformation. The influence of the Reformation on the family, then, is mixed.
^Zimmerman sees the rise of divorce, homosexuality, youth crime, etc. as the symptom of family breakdown, not its cause.
We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record. When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself. And yet, often these treaties fail. We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example. Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena. Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.
Some treaties do work. The Civil War will not restart anytime soon. Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany. But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general. The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:
1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole
Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens. World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end. Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started. As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started. But this is a mistake. A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle. If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.
I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action. Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet. For them, there remains more to the story.
I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle. Any analysis of the causes of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations. Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well. Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story. The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.
2. Failure to Look Ahead
Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict. Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made. This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily. We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.
Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects. The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible. We want to move on, relax, be happy. The victors feel this way, at least. But often the losers don’t want to move on. They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel. They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.
I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815. Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered. My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution, back in the box. They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water. Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise. Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.
3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages
Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided. As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in. The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent. We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children. Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.
Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene. Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality. The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.
Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance. The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this. Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict. The infamous Article 231 reads,
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires. Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace. So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc. Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.” Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French. We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.
Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany. Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines. The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.
4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down
This applies to Germany, but also Russia. The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles. They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland. Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities . But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance. In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.
Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.
1. The Automobile
- They made us more personally independent and mobile in general, although in time this became especially true for youth. Cars became the equivalent of what making a name for yourself in the western frontier might have meant for generation in the 19th century. Americans love cars, and not just for convenience sake, but because cars still feed our sense of identity and independence.
- The car freed people from geographical limitations. But this “freedom wasn’t free.” The increase of our geographical mobility lessened ties to our local communities and families. In an age less overtly Christian than previous ages, people would find their concept of community increasingly in the nation itself.
3. The Culture that Was the 1920’s
I remember an interview long ago that William Buckley did with journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge. The interview touched on the idea of happiness, and Muggeridge commented that the words, “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence had done terrible harm to America and the west in general. Whatever the original meaning and purpose of the phrase, Muggeridge believed that the Declaration teaches its readers that happiness can be effectively hunted down, caught, and then enjoyed. He stated,
There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.
The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.
I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.
In reality, Muggeridge argued the very act of pursuing happiness will in fact ensure that we will never achieve happiness at all. Instead, happiness comes unbidden. It is a gift. We immerse ourselves in particular person, thought, book, or what have you, and suddenly we realize, “I’m happy.” Adherence to the Declaration’s view of happiness would lead us down a path of restlessness, materialism, cynicism, or flight into fanciful and frightful utopia’s.
I could not find the original clip of this on Youtube. The clip below deals with an entirely different question, but it’s still worth watching. Whether your agree with Muggeridge or not (and he makes another controversial assertion), we must all agree that Muggeridge possessed the greatest English accent of all time.
I thought of Muggeridge on happiness when reading a brief post from David Derrick about individuals or nations that seek to “leave their mark upon history.” In it he quotes Toynbee, who mentions that since Austria and Bavaria parted company centuries ago, the two have pursued different paths. Austria looked to do “great things,” and they did achieve a kind of greatness with the city of Vienna. But they also involved themselves in numerous wars that they often lost. They got crushed by Napoleon in the 19th century, then by Russia and the allies in W.W. I. Toynbee’s thoughts in the post above date from 1934. In the few years that followed Austria continued to try and “leave its mark” by joining up with Nazi Germany, and of course that too ended very badly. I have some friends who visited Austria years ago, and they saw this same attitude of “we’re special” at work in those they met (though in the modern context it had the manifestation of strong hostility to foreigners and immigration). This approach has not helped them find their place in the world. It appears that pursuing a place in “History” might be as futile as pursuing happiness.
What of Bavaria? How did they do in the great trial of German history between 1933-45? I know nothing about the history of Bavaria, but after a little research (read: I looked on a Wikipedia page), I note the following;
- During the tumultuous period of the Weimar Republic, Bavaria avoided radicalism and voted for the mainstream conservative “Bavarian People’s Party.”
- Hitler was fond of Bavaria, and the Nazi’s held many of their rallies in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
- The White Rose, the heroic student resistance movement to Nazism, had its origins in Bavaria.
Before examining these points, we should note that no country, just as no person, should be judged only by their sins, no matter how bad those sins may be. Still, defenders of Bavaria’s relaxed approach to their own history need to examine this period. Points two and three stand out most sharply. As to Nuremberg, Hitler may have held rallies there simply because he was known to be fond of Bavaria. On the other hand, Bavaria may have been a stronghold of Nazi power. The White Rose may have originated in part due to a strong underground of resistance in Bavaria, or it may have arose for entirely other reasons. Without further knowledge (and I have none), we might say these two factors cancel each other out.
I think the first category may hold the most weight. In the Weimar years Germany swayed to a fro between extreme ideas and stark resistance to the Versailles Settlement. Both Nazi’s and Communists, for example, sought to “leave their mark” upon history. The fact that the German people went with the Nazi’s shows their general bent towards radicalism. The “Bavarian People’s Party” in contrast, wanted to bypass all of the immediate debates and return to traditional concepts of governance. They contemplated separation from the rest of Germany to achieve this, not unlike the “Bloodless Revolution” in England in 1688. Perhaps they understood the secret that Muggeridge knew, that seeking “History” can hold just as much danger as seeking happiness.
Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens. From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.
Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age. The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity. I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious. More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe. So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.
The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta. Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.
Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels. The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia. With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win. Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power. Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45. Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.
Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.
- Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
- A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.
In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:
- Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
- Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
- Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
- Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age. Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.
Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern. Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C. We shall have no slaying of dragons today.
But I am intrigued by #4.
Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.
After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style. But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange. Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*
Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline. St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome. Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War. Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages. The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks. The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**
We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?
Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs. This skill put them in demand throughout Europe. The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century. This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.
Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture. One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities. I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.
Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant. Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion. In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War. As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^ Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.
The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece. But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.
*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.
**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.
^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians. The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.
I have read very few books on the topic of American slavery, but Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is the best book I’ve read on the subject. It has gotten national attention, and deservedly so. Taylor reveals alternate angles and puts a human faces on a great national disaster. He avoids getting preachy, and he doesn’t need to be, for his writing, and the story he tells, does it for him.
As to why one should focus on Virginia. . . . Well, first, it’s his area of expertise. But Virginia arguably had more influence on the founding of this nation than any other state, and so the focus has justification in any sense. Virginia has more than slavery in its history of course, but slavery had an enormous impact on us as a whole, and so in some ways Virginia’s story is America’s as well.
Two things make this book a great success.
Taylor puts special focus on the lives of struggling plantation owners. Some of them believe, or at least almost believe, in the injustice of slavery. But they also felt trapped. Many had debts from living the required “Virginia Gentlemen” lifestyle that needed paid off. Many farms started failing due to bad weather and failing soil. Many also worried that freeing slaves might create a de facto army of those who would eagerly do them in. In their minds at least (Taylor’s book has copious original source footnotes) they had inherited tiger riding from their fathers and could not get off. Many at least wanted no more slaves in Virginia than they already had, for fear of tipping the ethnic balance against them even more. But again, they trapped themselves by their view of slaves as property. The whole practice of slavery built itself on a certain idea of property, and the liberty of property. Within this framework ownership of slaves could never be restricted. Countless idealistic 20 year olds become weary and defeated 40 year old inheritors of failing estates. The web of of sin ensnared just about everyone, including many who initially wanted nothing to do with it.
Of course this sense of feeling trapped had a way out, but it would involve not just tinkering with the existing social system, but destroying it root and branch. Most simply did not have either the vision or the courage to do this (as an aside — if we judge a man by his contemporaries George Washington shines brightly while Jefferson flows along with the mass. Washington not only freed his slaves but provided land for them and a fund for their medical care. This may have been easier for him because he had no children, but still, he who sought so much to be a Virginia gentlemen for much of his life willingly let that go at the end. Of course this does not excuse everything, but should be noted).
This web involved not only personal contradictions but political ones as well. Virginia state politics routinely pitted county vs. county, so certainly they had no love for the federal government. But when war with the British came many demanded federal troops to protect their plantations and prevent slaves from running away, and many demanded federal restitution for runaway slaves. At least in Taylor’s book, few if any saw the hypocrisy in this, a willful blindness that sin often creates.
Another fascinating plot in the book deals with the impact of the American Revolution on slavery in Virginia. Many founders believed that slavery would die out hopefully on its own within a generation of the American victory. Many perhaps followed Jefferson’s assertion (in his original draft of the Declaration) that slavery had a lot more to do with the British than the Americans, and once they left, the condition of slaves would inevitably improve.
The laws of primogeniture seek to keep estates intact by preventing them from suffering division among multiple heirs. As long as slaves counted as part of an estates’ property, freeing them brought many difficulties under primogeniture law and custom. In abolishing primogeniture laws, many may have thought that their absence would indirectly help slavery disappear. But in increasing social and political freedom, they increased their economic freedom as well. In a cruel twist of unintended consequence, slave owners now found many more ways to profit from their slaves, including selling and even renting them at much greater rates. And this meant, first, that slave families got broken up much more frequently than before. Secondly, it meant that the possibility of some cordiality and respect for slaves by masters (Taylor shows how this did happen on occasion) due to familiarity and stability eroded quickly. In other words slaves became much more like disposable assets rather than valuable family heirlooms. Finally, the extra profits from slavery made a political solution to the problem much more difficult. Too many hands got dirty.
Matters complicated themselves further during the War of 1812, when invading British armies sought to liberate slaves whenever possible. Many slaves “switched sides” and served with British regiments as scouts and guides in what was unfamiliar territory for the British. Who does one root for in these circumstances?
Today we cannot safely distance ourselves from this and claim it has nothing to do with us. Maybe your entire family grew up in Maine. But Virginia’s story is part of all Americans, and the state certainly played an unusually significant rol in the founding of the United States. We have to face this, and should not spare anyone in any era. Marginal Revolution recently posted the following blurb on George Washington (full article can be found here)
During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.
The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.
Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”
Kenneth Clark made the astute observation in his Civilisation series that a society really depends on confidence — confidence in institutions, in laws, in “what we’re about,” and in each other. Without this belief, civilization will collapse quickly, for the foundation upon which our laws, economy, etc. stand will cease to exist. With it, a society can withstand even great disasters (i.e. Rome in the 2nd Punic War). And this raises the problem of how we teach our past. What will happen to us if we can have no “confidence” in the sense Clark meant it?
Someone recently asked me the great question, “Is it the duty of a Christian teacher to promote patriotism, love of country, and devotion to the American way of life?”
To me this question should receive a strong and resounding “No,” in the main, but with a smaller, qualifying, parenthetical “Sort of,” attached to the epilogue of the “No.”
As C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity Christians easily fall into the trap of what he called “Christianity and. . . ” We should apply our Christianity to all areas of life certainly, but “Christianity and Pacifism,” or “Christianity and Low Taxes,” easily morphs into “Pacifism and Christianity,” which then leaves you with just “Pacifism.” The Truth stands above all civilizations and must remain so in order that civilizations might learn, repent, and change. Whenever the Truth gets co-opted into an agenda for creating citizens, Truth is the first casualty, but down the line the civilization gets harmed by the collateral damage. The City of God must never get confused with the City of Man, for the good of both.
But. . . Christians are also called to love particular places, and invest in those around them. We don’t live disembodied lives, we live as unique people in unique contexts. To hate and denounce the history of one’s country, or merely to live apart from it in a disembodied state to me seems akin to hating one’s own body. I have no stomach for the whitewasher of our country’s sins, but his fault is almost always childlike, like the 8 year old who believes that the team he roots for always wears the white hat. I have much less stomach for the cynical debunker of everything, of the professor who only seeks to get the student not to believe in anything, in order that the poor student might believe only in the professor.
A third type exists, seen in what I suspect may be the trend in high school history textbooks today. This path seeks to uncritically praise other cultures (especially non-western cultures) while giving hefty criticism to one’s own (I have seen this with my oldest son’s textbook). This has the appearance of humility, i.e. “think of others as better than yourselves.” But I think it falls short of that, for it’s not rooted in an actual love of one’s own place. The “virtue” comes at far too cheap a price. This approach reminds me of the teenager who thinks that his parents are hopelessly stupid — if only we could be like this family, or that family, or any other family but their own. In other words, this view falls fails as an intellectually mature perspective.
Christian teachers do not have a duty to “see the best side of everything,” but they should encourage a healthy sense of appreciating where they are, for it is where God has placed them. We must “come to terms” with our country just as we must “come to terms” with ourselves. But hating oneself is not Christian. St. Francis used the term “Brother Ass” for his body/himself. Chesterton made the great point that, like a donkey, our bodies can be stubborn, stupid, foolish, and even willfully spiteful at times. But how could one really hate a donkey? Just look at that face!
The term, and the attitude seem appropriate to have towards one’s country. “No one hates his own body” (Eph. 5:29). I am guessing that just about every nation could qualify for the moniker, “Brother Ass.” I confess I don’t know exactly what this means in light of our past with slavery, Native Americans, and so on. I also couldn’t say how African-Americans, for example, might react to my proposed metaphor. But for now . . . it will serve as a place to start.