Friday, September 3, 2010

Comfort from the past

Historians of the postmodern variety (actually historians, humorously, are always about a decade or two behind fashionable academic trends, so they're all pretty much still excited over postmodernism) are  given to making pronouncements about the pitfalls of "presentism." But they have a point, and one of the occasional comforts I find in the study of history is the reassurance that things were just as messed up in the old days as they are now.

One frequent lament of modern American politics is that it has all become such a cesspit that no decent person will enter public life. But that's exactly what people said 200 years ago. In researching my forthcoming book on the War of 1812 (Perilous Fight, being rushed to a bookstore near you this coming January), I was fascinated by the letters of William Jones, America's secretary of the navy and a thoroughly remarkable and "modern" man in many ways.

Jones took the job with the greatest reluctance and only after a friend wrote him, “The Nation and the Navy point to you as the fittest man we have; & what is to become of us if the fittest man will not come forward in a moment of public danger.” Still, Jones had no illusions about what he was letting himself in for. He wrote his wife shortly after taking office that she must be prepared for the "lashing" and "calumny" that inevitably befall every man in a prominent political position. And indeed he was beset by idiots of all sizes and shapes throughout his tenure, including one who publicly denounced him as a "coward" and challenged him to a duel when Jones gave an appointment to the man's enemy.

Speaking of idiots and public life, Ambrose Bierce, as always, offers some reliable plus-├ža-change comfort on this score in his Devil's Dictionary; to wit,
Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but 'pervades and regulates the whole.' He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions of opinion and taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.