An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Lessons from History’

Please History: Repeat Yourself!

History gives me hope for the present—maybe even for the future. Reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples recently, I learned that after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Europe enjoyed a lengthy peace.

Unfortunately, England squandered this opportunity to surge ahead in trade and manufacturing—and to promote the well-being of the working class. The Tory government was controlled by landed aristocrats whose aim was to protect the status quo—land and property rights. Government officials had little knowledge of industry and technology and no understanding of the poverty and squalor in which ill-paid factory workers and their families lived.

Britain’s economy was in deep trouble. The nation carried huge debt from their years of war. This was not helped when manufacturers succeeded in getting the income tax repealed—depriving the government of a large portion of  its revenue.

High food prices were caused by laws forbidding the import of foreign grains. Landowners benefitted from high food prices, but the middle class suffered and children of the working class often starved.

Whigs, the opposition party, had no plans for moving the country forward. Both parties feared uprisings driven by radicals who agitated for government reforms and better conditions for workers. Middle class voters supported a government which did not benefit them out of fear of radicals.

Except for the names and places, these problems sound familiar. The encouraging news is that Britain did not go down the tube 200 years ago. The ship of state managed to right itself politically and economically. Popular writers like Dickens and Thackeray stirred up public indignation over government corruption and the desperate squalor of the working class. Policies changed. Peaceful reforms were implemented. The country prospered and workers received a share.

With any luck, our country will overcome the current gridlock of polarization, and we will move forward for another century or two. Still, it would be comforting to have Charles Dickens around to point out the real issues.

Balm of History

Reading history has a ring of familiarity. Much of Will and Ariel Durant’s Rousseau and Revolution which chronicles 18th century Europe sounds eerily like the evening news: England bogs down in an effort to squelch a nationalist uprising in her American colonies. British enemies, France and Spain, abet the colonies, not because they expect or want  the colonists to win, but because a prolonged war drains British resources while her rivals build up their own military and naval strength.

France’s internal problems include huge debt exacerbated by lavish spending by the royals, monetary aid to the American Revolution, and the refusal of the nobles and clergy to be taxed. France’s finance minister borrows heavily and prepares a favorable fiscal report for the public which excludes military spending and the national debt.

Catherine the Great attempts to emancipate Russian serfs and extend education to the masses, but is blocked by nobles and clergy who object to changes in a social order which benefits themselves. Even an absolute monarch must consider the effecst of opposition from an armed, wealthy nobility.

The modest reforms Catherine achieved failed to propel Russia into the modern world and left it ripe for Communist reformers a century later. France survived the Revolution of 1789 but endured a period of bloody anarchy, the dictatorship and wars of Napoleon, and other revolutions before finally becoming a stable republic many decades after the first revolution.

The madness of King George III caused serious problems for England—including the loss of their American colonies—but the country outlived the king and Britain built an empire upon which the sun never set for a century and a half.

Objective history provides the comfort of learning that modern people are no more given to vices than our ancestors of 200 to 300 years ago. What history can’t tell us is how to deal with scientific knowledge which has outpaced human social development and given us weapons of mass destruction without the moral and ethical restraints to avoid using them. Religion doesn’t have a great track record for that, either.

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