BBC Radio 4 has been running a fascinating series entitled “America, Empire of Liberty“, presented by historian David Reynolds, which I’ve been listening to over the last weeks. The actual history, leading up to, through and just after the War of Independence and the actual establishment of a country out of a disparate groups of revolutionaries and often competing and arguing states is interesting enough, but the series has also done what any good history should do – present the links between the Then and the Now. History is not a static, dry study but something dynamic, events from decades and centuries before constantly bleeding into the present the the future yet to be born, which makes it a shame so many people tend to ignore it (and that escalates to tragedy when we see what our so called leaders do in ignorance of historical precedent).
Take for example on of last week’s episodes – some parts of the series have touched on US history I was familiar with, but this part I didn’t know: the Aliens and Seditions Act, passed by Alexaner Hamilton’s Federalist Party in the 1790s as debate raged over the newly independent US’s stance on the growing global conflict between France and the British Empire. This largely forgotten act delivered unheard of powers to central government (and at a time when US central government was very weak, by design, most power designed by Jefferson et al to be held more locally at state and county levels, not like today where the executive has steadily accumulated powers to itself). Basically a 1790s War on Terror (WOT?) it allowed the president to deport aliens without right of appeal and to silence criticism in the interests of the country. The parallels between the 18th century and the draconian changes to civil liberties in the laws of the US, UK and other countries in the post 9-11 world are disturbingly familiar.
Likewise debates over a newly minted land of so-called liberty happily ignoring the rights of women (even when President Adams wife implored him to remember that a land of democratic liberty which ignored one entire gender was pure hypocricy. She was, of course, ignored by the male leaders, many of whom, truth be told, for all their fine rhetoric, were not overly mad on giving all men the vote, let alone women, unless they were the right kind of men (well bred, well off, basically the New World’s aristocracy), thus again repeating old mistakes even back then. And then there was the odious issue of slavery, not to mention the way the native American Indians would be treated…
Meanwhile on the TV the BBC has just started a new series by Simon Schama, “The American Future: a History“. The first episode also linked the Then and Now, exploring the seemingly insatiable consumerism of the US and its almost unshakable belief that it can endlessly exploit natural resources throughout its history, noting how this belief is slowly (and perhaps a little too late) being shaken as drought in the West means constantly shriking water for more and more people, to say nothing of the over-dependence on oil driven not only by car culture but an over-sized (and extremely inefficent) car culture.
Schama brings us right up to date with both Obama and McCain’s campaign comments on climate change and resource management and comparing to a century or so before with one man telling the good and great of Westward Expansion that there simply was not enough water in the land for all the cities and the farms they planned (he was booed of stage, but he was right) and in more recent history replaying what Jimmy Carter told America during his presidency (but more Americans preferred to listen to a B movie actor at that election than a man who had been a farmer and actually knew what he was talking about in terms of managing the land).