Cosmopolitan Nation

The search for and, when it cannot be found, the construction of a usable past remains the overriding task of our official historians, who believe that we are forever on the cusp of a new age.  The opposite could be said of Thucydides, who sought “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble it.”  Daniel Walker Howe titles the Prologue to his grand synthesis of American history between the second English and first Mexican War “The Defeat of the Past.”  The idea that the past can be defeated, overcome, or transcended is an Enlightenment conceit that found receptive soil in North America; it has since grown into one of our most powerful and persistent myths.

For Howe, the past is but the prelude to the present; its persons and parties are neatly divided between those who are hastening its glorious and godlike consummation and those who persist in hindering it.  In Howe’s telling, history is emptied of all tragedy and contingency.  He would deny the charge, but his tragedy consists in merely not doing sooner what eventually will be done, and contingency is a mere detour on the road to our providential destination.  When he anoints the Whig Party of Henry Clay “the party of America’s future” who “deserve to be remembered,” what is he saying but that everyone else deserves to be forgotten?


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