The Interpretation of History - I - RR144S34
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We have been dealing with the cultural and political history of the United States from 1776 to 1860, these past few weeks. Tonight instead of dealing directly with history as we have, we shall deal more specifically with the interpretation of history. Much that I have said these past two weeks would be foolish or meaningless to a humanistic historian. He would feel that my emphasis was highly irrelevant or erroneous. This would be because his view of history is determined by an anti Christian premise. Facts are determined by faith. Our pre theoretical presuppositions govern what believe to be and what constitutes for us, a fact.
Before we can determine what a fact is and what is relevant, we must first have a basic concept in terms of which we look at history. Thus it is if we were to go back and read some of the church fathers as they dealt with history, we would find that their approach would differ radically, than say from the approach of a Schlesinger. In terms of their approach, history being determined basically and essentially by God, they would see the events of history in terms of the on going purpose of God and how they related to that. Schlesinger would see history primarily in terms of a humanistic function, and in terms of the progressive liberation of man from the chains of superstition and the past. As a result, what two men with two such diametrically opposite positions will call a fact, the events they will select, the things they will see as significant and relevant will differ very markedly. [00:02:34]
I suspect that, in another hundred years, when a history...
I suspect that, in another hundred years, when a history of the United States is written many of the events that we have now considered as basic to history will not even be mentioned. Because there will undoubtedly for better or worse, be a totally different perspective. Now one of the aspects wherein we saw this within the past week was with respect to the Monroe doctrine and the Polk doctrine. The Polk Doctrine is never mentioned today in any textbook. Why? Well, you recall it was the declaration that the United States would not tolerate the British or the European, because it was used by all nations but at the moment it was the British use they were concerned with, any use of the balance of power politics with regard to the Americas, so that no nation could be involved in the balance of power structure which was the perpetual disturber of the peace, in continental Europe. Now, since we entered into the balance of power gained in Europe, in particular with Theodore Roosevelt’s interference as you recall in the Russo Japanese War, and then got in militarily in World War 1, World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam. We have totally abandoned the Polk doctrine, we do not even mention it in our textbooks, and Polk has become a very much abused president. It is significant to recall that the first president to make a very powerful violation of the Polk doctrine was Woodrow Wilson, and in his history of the United States that professor, college or University president, and historian, attacked Polk rather savagely.
This is not surprising, his basic perspective called for such a violation of the Polk doctrine. Moreover, the Monroe Doctrine which was once a basic element of our foreign policy is now rapidly disappearing from the American perspective, so that if our country continues as at present, there will be no mention probably of the Monroe Doctrine in another generation. Just as today Patrick Henry is disappearing, and in some instances is given only a sentence in the new textbooks. The reason is, of course, facts are determined by our interpretation. And if our basic interpretation renders something irrelevant, unimportant, we do not find it worth considering. Three theoretical presuppositions govern an historians idea and any man’s idea of what constitutes a fact. Thus, the idea of economic determinism is a faith, this kind of faith has governed a great deal of historical writing, it in particular governs Marxist and a great deal of leftist and Liberal historiography. [00:06:26]
For example, Charles Beard who has influenced the writing...
For example, Charles Beard who has influenced the writing of history perhaps as much as any man in this country in this century, wrote an account, the thesis of which was the economic determination for the constitution. According to his theory although which now exploded, still appears in college and high school textbooks, the Declaration of Independence was a Liberal document, but the constitution was a reactionary, a conservative document in that men of wealth controlled the constitutional conventions and wrote into it their anti democratic sentiments. Of course, this theory was exploded by McDonald and Brown, McDonald in particular made an analysis of the financial status of every member of the constitutional convention. He found no correlation such as Beard had posited.
But this has not shaken the common economic determinists. It is a faith, and therefore, they are insistent on seeing economic determinism as basic to American history, and thus the view still prevails. Now let me read to you a passage.
This passage is an interesting one because it tells you how history can be interpreted in various ways. This is the statement by Francis J. Grund, an immigrant who described American social conditions in 1836. He wrote: “Business is the very soul of an American. He pursues it not as a means of procuring for himself and his family the necessary comforts of life, but as the fountain of all human felicity. It is as if all America were but one gigantic workshop. Over the entrance of which there is a blazing inscription: “No admission here except on business.”” Now you can see how this quotation can be used to demonstrate the capitalistic character of America, the materialistic impetus, and be used by one economic determinist after another, it’s the classic statement of their case. It fits in, you see. It is a fact, but what this fact means depends upon your presupposition. How will we view that statement? Very differently. To us what it spells is very clearly that the Puritan faith, which regarded any waste of time as a sin, was determinative in America. The Puritans believed in work, waste of time, waste of materials, a lack of willingness to work was to them a sin. There was something wrong with someone who didn’t enjoy working. You will recall that De Tocqueville said that: “The emphasis in America as a kind of religious faith on work, was so great that if anyone were very wealthy and didn’t want to work any longer, he had to leave the country. [00:10:25]
The idle rich were despised to such a degree here,...
The idle rich were despised to such a degree here, it was impossible for anyone to be the idle rich in America. They left for Europe, they settled in England. It was easy to be an idle rich person there because there the gentlemen and the lords felt that they were above work, and therefore if you were above work it gave you status in England. But if you were above work in America you were the scum of the earth.
Now, here’s the same data, but it is a different fact, depending on your basic faith. Let us look at another incident, one dealing with the War of 1812. I’m going to go into this incident in a little detail, its more than an incident it’s a series on incidents. And historians have interpreted it in various ways. It is very commonly used now a days by scholars to tell us how stupid, how useless, how futile the War of 1812 was. In fact it is used to tell us that James Madison and President of the United States made a total fool of himself, and was sucked in to European affairs by his naïve inability to look ahead. There might be a shadow of truth to that, but basically the whole point is missed.
Now, let’s examine the series of events preceding the War of 1812. In Berlin, November 21, 1806. As the British had waged war against France because of their balance of power thesis, Napoleon had been compelled to attack one after another of the British allies, and thus was master of all of Western Europe. He was unable to do anything as far as Britain was concerned because his Navy was not up to attacking the British navy and was bottled up. [00:13:00]
So on that date Napoleon issued the Berlin decree...
So on that date Napoleon issued the Berlin decree. He closed every European port to ships from great Britain. This meant then that all trade by Britain, a merchant nation, with many of its basic markets, was shut off. The British ministry immediately met. On January the 7th 1807 in London the Order in Council was issued. Europe was subjected to a total naval blockage in all its Napoleonic areas. All neutral shipping had to trade through Great Britain. One of the British ministers, Spencer Percival said: “Our order says to the enemy, if you will not have our trade, as far as we can help it you shall have none.” Now immediately this had far reaching effects. The two best customers that the United States had were France and Britain, so we were in trouble. This meant of course, we could not trade with France, because of the blockade, and it meant that if we traded with Britain, France would immediately be hostile to us. And we felt very friendly to France. After all, hadn’t Napoleon made by his own statement the United States into a Great Empire? He had given us the Louisiana Territory for a nominal sum, simply because he would rather give it to the United States and make an empire of the United States then to see Britain seize it, as he knew they would. So, on December the 7th, 1807 in Washington D.C., we had Jefferson embargo on all exports of U.S. goods by sea or land. Since both France and Britain heavily depended on the United States, Jefferson felt, “This will make them change their mind.”
Actually it hurt the United States far more than it did either France or Britain. In fact it helped Canada because now Britain was able to develop its resources in Canada and rely on Canada more. The Canadians loved it, and in the United States business men were going bankrupt, there were actually soup kitchens for the poor who were thrown out of work, it was a desperate situation. It was a classic blunder. And so Jefferson reluctantly had to repeal the embargo. [00:16:24]
Meanwhile, the situation continued...
Meanwhile, the situation continued. Then in Madison’s administration, the Macon bill was passed. And the Macon bill was an attempt to bicker with Europe. And it declared: “If either nation repealed its decrees, the United States would resume non-intercourse with the other.” In other words, if Britain repealed its decrees we would deal with Britain, if France repealed its decrees we would deal with France. Of course our likelihood of dealing with France was not too good, it meant running through the British blockade, and we were already having a great deal of trouble with our ships being seized as they attempted to go through the blockade.
Again, this bill was a diplomatic attempt to try and exert pressure on the two nations. But you know when you try to exert pressure on people you had better be bigger and tougher than they are, or else you are going find that the pressure is going to flatten you rather than them.
Now Napoleon quickly saw his opportunity. On August 5th 1810, Napoleon repealed the Berlin and Mallon Decrees, and then he called on Madison to keep his part of the bargain. Madison did, and the result, Britain immediately took reprisals. It was already doing it, on the United States, but now more of an open warfare type of thing. And finally in 1812 we reluctantly had to declare war. [00:18:18]
Now, let’s view the series of events that I have just...
Now, let’s view the series of events that I have just described. Can we understand the war of 1812 as some historians would have us understand it now, as a colossal blunder on the part of the United States? And as a trick by Napoleon, taking advantage of our very unwise Macon Bill. Was the war useless? I suspect the overwhelming majority of contemporary historians would say that the war of 1812 was a stupid war. We blundered into it. And that Madison was colossally unwise to have signed that Bill, he should have vetoed it. And then having been trapped into signing the Bill he should have repudiated it, when Napoleon called upon him to keep his part of the bargain.
On the other hand, are we in taking such a perspective, guilty of looking at really minor things? Was World War 1 really caused by a shot being fired in the Balkans, killing an archduke, or was that just the match that lit the powder keg that was going to blow up sooner or later because they were lining up for it?
You see, there are little incidents that trigger something, but those little incidents are not necessarily to be seen as the basic cause. The traditional reasons for the War of 1812 were true. There was the British contempt for the United States, for its government and for its rights, from 1781 the end of the War of independence right up to the War of 1812, a refusal to abide by its terms. There was the issue of the freedom of the seas, the confiscation of American cargo’s and the interference with American trade. There was the steady impressment of American seamen illegally into the British Navy. There was the fact that Britain had been for some time arming the Indians on the Western front here, to ready them at any moment to move against the United States. There was a long series of accumulated events. And it is a matter of fact we would have to say, that the Americans leaned over backwards to avoid war, in fact very prominent business men, anxious to avoid war, afraid of war, actually got up and lied when there was investigation by Congress as to what was going on. [00:21:38]
One man who had lost cargo after cargo and who had...
One man who had lost cargo after cargo and who had had his seamen impressed, got up and said: “Well, we hadn’t one seamen impressed and there were extenuating circumstances, questions and so on.” They did not want war, they were trying to avoid it. But no matter how much you try, when these incidents accumulate, war will come. And the Macon bill, yes Monroe could’ve repudiated it, and Madison could’ve repudiated it. But the point is, by that time it had become a state of war by Britain against the United States.
So, you see it depends on our view of history. What is important? That will constitute for use the real facts of history. There are many who hold to what is really a contradiction in terms, an accidental determination of history. It is however basis to the faith of many. In the popular view you might say there are two views of history. Accidental determination and the Conspiracy view. Because people are relativists, because for them the world is a world of chance, they tend to see things in terms of an accidental determinism, ‘it just happened that way’. Or else again, lacking in a very thoroughly sound faith in God, if they see a determination by any force it is an evil force, and so it is a Conspiratorial determination. Both are Godless perspectives. An accidental determinism means that history is meaningless. A conspiratorial determinism says that ‘the meaning of history is totally evil, so why get worked up? It’s all going to hell anyway, so there is no cause for any great concern.’ [00:24:06]
But, when we look at history we must recognize a great...
But, when we look at history we must recognize a great deal of evil arises, not because of evil plotting, there is enough of that, but the supposedly righteous acting of men convinced that truth and justice are with them despite their faults. Look back at your own life at the various times in which you have had problems with people. They’ve been convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Most evil is done in the name of righteousness. The Communists are convinced of the justice, of the righteousness of their cause, of their attempt to redeem mankind of their efforts, to bring social justice to all who are of the world.
So whether they be Communists, Fascist, Nazis, Democracies, Monarchies, the various movements of history, including the most evil, have been convinced that despite their faults that they represent the truth. Sometimes their success is in proportion to their self righteousness.
Thus, any view which takes history seriously requires some form of determinism. Using that word in the loosest sense. We Christians would say, predestination. But Determinism by whom? Determinism can be by man in the humanistic view it is men who determine the course of events, and therefore everything depends on human activity, and the consequence is a variety of movements whereby man is determined to reshape history. The liberal perspective today, emphasizes humanistic determination, humanistic determinism.
As we saw when we analyzed Rousseau and his influence in this country, it assumes that the popular will is expressed in the form of the general will, of which an elite group are the voices. So in Liberal humanism it is all important to turn over the world and the nation to an elite group, so that history can be guided wisely and justly and scientifically to its predestined purpose, predestined by man.
Thus we have a very powerful predestinarian doctrine at work among us today, the liberal perspective. Of course the Marxist perspective is also humanistic, economic determinism. Again there ccan be a materialistic determinism, which says that man is simply a machine. This was a very popular view in the 18th century, and therefore history is not determined by man’s mind, but by various drives, various materialistic causes that go deep back into the very structure of matter. Mind in such a perspective is just one manifestation of matter, and not a too important one. [00:28:11]
Now, if we believe that history has meaning, we have...
Now, if we believe that history has meaning, we have to say therefore that there is a determinable pattern of factuality. If we are thorough relativists, history has no meaning. Of course this is an extremely popular view. I think perhaps I referred to a professor of history at one major university, who began a course for a large lower division class, a required course in history, by declaring that there was no such thing as history. The idea of history presupposes a meaning, a pattern, a governing direction in history. And he said: “There is no such thing. Life is essentially meaningless, and history is meaningless. So that what is normally referred to has history in the schools is actually mythology. And everyone propounds a particular mythology.” But, he said, “The board of regents of this university is paying me to teach history, and paying me rather well. Therefore, let us begin our study of history.”
This kind of position is extremely common, in fact it is the implicit philosophy of history and education from the kindergarten on up in our state institutions. This is why the most intelligent of our students have in many cases turned out in the past decade, to be dropouts and hippies. This is because of the very intelligence they manifest. They have seen logically the meaning of all that they have been taught, namely that there is no meaning. And if there is no meaning, drop out. Find your satisfaction in doing your own thing. Doing your thing, you see.
Since there is no over all purpose to life, no over all pattern to history, then do your own thing. Because if you do anything but your own thing, you are involving yourself in a basic myth. And to live mythologically, to live in obedience to a myth is to be a fool. Drop out, do your own thing. This kind of perspective today governs our age. It is existentialism. The only meaning, the only purpose that life can have, is that which arises out of your own biology, out of your appetites, your desires, your lusts, out of that which arises out of your own being. But out of your own being, as unaffected, uncontrolled by any laws or ideas of education, of church, of parents, of religion, or of society. [00:31:49]
You do your own thing...
You do your own thing. And, you express your contempt for all of this by violating its rules. It is significant, and in view of all that was said, that LSD was dangerous, and all that had been said about the very serious menace of Marijuana, youth has deliberately under the influence of existentialism, gone out of its way to do these things.
Why? To show its contempt for the world of meaning. Now, in a hippy publication, I saw a statement a year or two ago which said, this was in an underground publication, that syphilis was a badge of honor. Now that is a startling statement. Why? Why should anyone in their right mind consider a venereal disease a mark of honor, a distinguishing characteristic? One of the problems we are told is, getting these youth in to take treatment. Well the answer is this: you regard venereal disease as a horrible thing, because you live in a world where good health, good morals, a good family life are important. But if life is meaningless, you are a fool to live that way. And therefore to show your contempt for any such mythological living, you regard it as a badge of honor. It does demonstrate that you are a liberated person.
Now this is a theory of history you see that is being acted out all around us, emphatically, a doctrine of history. Since history is made up of the actions of millions of people, and it is the sum total of what the people think and believe and do, you can see when you have this kind of perversity, what kind of threat it holds for the world. [00:34:17]
The kind of thing I’ve cited with regard to venereal...
The kind of thing I’ve cited with regard to venereal diseases, that mentality is not limited to our youth. You will find it throughout Europe, and there are those who say you will find in some cities like London and Amsterdam, far more extreme expressions of it than you can here. Moreover I think it has been quite well documented that behind the Iron Curtain it is extremely prevalent, that in the Soviet Union the highest badge of honor is to own and wear the faded patched jeans of western youth; because it identifies you immediately as one of these.
I have a doctor, an ear specialist in California whose son made a trip to Europe, and he decided to drive behind the Iron Curtain. With his BW he set out and it was, he quickly found something of a problem to drive into the Soviet Union. First of all, getting gas is very very difficult, and you get it at the right time, or you don’t get it at all. Moreover, there are no comfort stations anywhere along the line, on top of that, every so often there is a guard check point, and you stop and the guard checks you out, checks your license plate, and the time you entered, and phones ahead, so that you are expected to be at another point at a particular time, and never to stop along the way. One of the real problems of travelers who go in this route, is if for lack of a comfort station they stop in desperation along the way, go into the bushes, there may be a secret service man there who is sure they are guilty of some dastardly intention against the Soviet Union. So this young man finally decided to stop, and when he went over to the bushes he was petrified. He heard a “Pssst!” And he thought, “Oh, it’s the Secret Service.” He turned around, it was a young Russian. And he very quickly found out what he wanted. He was trying to dicker for his pants. At first he was a little shocked because the young man was trying to pull his jeans off him. Typical hippy type jeans. But then when the young man pulled out all kinds of Rubles, he got the point. And because he was in such a state of shock, thinking he was about to be arrested by the Secret Police and transported to some place in Siberia, it took him a little while to recuperate. And the young Russian, belonging to some powerful Russian family no doubt and loaded with Rubles, kept thinking he had to offer a higher price. So he kept slapping down more and more Rubles, until finally he took off the jeans and opened his suitcase and took out another pair of pants, the deal was consummated and he went on to Moscow. He had enough Rubles to finance his entire vacation there. [00:38:08]
Now, the point of that story is, the extent to which...
Now, the point of that story is, the extent to which the Soviet youth want the marks of this existentialism. Because they know precisely what it means. Some underground literature has been smuggled out. I read one underground novel of this existentialist youth. It’s somewhat pornographic, but even more pornographic what stands out is the total contempt of everything the Soviet Union means. The total contempt of all meaning. It caricatures on one hand the Soviet Regime, with such savagery that it is staggering. And it obviously comes judging by the people who are in it, it is thinly disguised from the circle of the young intellectuals. But equally savage and contemptuous is its caricature of religion, of Christianity. Because it too represents some kind of meaning, and the perspective is totally existentialist.
And so, anything to show their contempt of meaning; to show their contempt of purpose, their contempt of everything. And this is the dominant theme of this underground novel, and of much other Soviet Literature. These youths live suicidally, many of them have a very short lifespan, life means nothing to them. They are existentialist to the point where, there is for them no good or evil, which means that there is no difference between living or dying. The extent to which it is progressively having an impact on our view of ourselves, in our historiography is very great. It leads to a radical cynicism about our history. Why? Well because we have taken our history as having some great meaning. Some great meaning in terms of Christianity, in terms of a post millennial faith; or some great meaning in terms of a liberal belief in progress, or in the triumph of humanistic man. Meaning, in some form and all of this is despised by the new existentialist temper.
Before we continue we will have some questions now, and then a brief break. Any questions? Yes. The question is my views on the Vietnam War. It’s hard to say something very briefly but first of all, the Vietnam involved one disastrous blunder after another in our foreign policy. One of the first things we did in Vietnam doomed that country. We worked throughout the fifties to overthrow the one unifying force in Vietnam, the emperor. We did this because we were interested in Democracy. But for those people with their Buddhist faith, the Emperor was a kind of living God. He was the one person who had legitimate authority in their eyes, and therefore could command the people, and could command quite a following in the North. As a result, we have left South Vietnam without any legitimate principle of authority.
You see for us a person has authority if he is elected, if his election is legitimate and in terms of the constitution. But for them, counting noses doesn’t confer authority. It’s a totally meaningless idea for them. For them authority comes in terms of their religious presuppositions, and the Emperor was the principle of authority. So we destroyed the very idea of authority in Vietnam, by imposing our liberal ideas upon them. Then because the armies that came together were essentially governed by some kind of idea in terms of the old regime, and the major army was in terms of a particular religious cult there. [00:43:44]
We proceeded to destroy those armies because they were...
We proceeded to destroy those armies because they were not Democratic in principle, they were governed in terms of a basic faith. So, we disarmed Vietnam totally. We sent our troops in. And then, after a while we began to demand that they create a democratic army in terms of our kind of faith, and a democratic government supposedly had meanwhile been set up. Now what we have done, you see. Is to destroy the very principle in terms of which the country was based. Now the communists knew better. The Vietcong continued the basic faith of the country, they used the Buddhism to foster their own, communist, ideas. Instead of the Emperor as the representative, as the kind of living God on earth, it was the dictatorship of the Proletariat, as personified in their leader, both (Kemen?) and his successor. So their idea was closely tied with the old faith of the country.
Now, there’s no question that many of the emperors that the Vietnamese have had over the years have been bad emperors, but they have been obeyed by people because their religious faith makes them obey a man who is their living God as it were. So it is in north Vietnam, there is no doubt that large numbers of the people were unhappy with what they have. But what they have is more closely tied to their religion, than what South Vietnam has. It is rootless. It is rootless. So we have done a great deal of damage there.
There is no question that there is more freedom and there is more opportunity in South Vietnam, but the country religiously has been broken, and this has made it very, very weak. Lets put it this way: we as Americans over the last 50 years have put up with one bad president after another. But we have obeyed them. We haven’t regarded it as an occasion to say: We will start gorilla activity, we will create a revolution, no. We have felt that our government has been bad but it has been a legitimate government. If tomorrow however someone were to come in and put a dictator in the White House, he would have to be near perfect for us to tolerate him. If he began to do half of what our presidents have done, you see, we would be ready to do anything to overthrow him. Because the injustices of a man who does not have legitimate authority (are more galling than worse injustices from one who does have legitimate authority.) [00:46:57]