The Uses of History, 1 – From Hannibal to the US Constitution

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.

Alexis de Tocqueville

(Photo credit – Wikipedia)

Early in the 1830s, following one of France’s many revolutions (the most recent one at the time had taken place in 1830), a wealthy French legislator and student of history, politics, and society crossed the Atlantic to study the new phenomenon in the world which the United States still was in those days. De Tocqueville recorded some of the most brilliant observations of a living society ever made. In 1835 he published Democracy in America, which is now considered an historical, political science, and sociological classic.

For anyone wishing to study and observe how a nation establishes an identity and develop its distinctive traditions and culture, Tocqueville’s two volumes of Democracy in America are a masterpiece. As a liberal aristocrat (he was a Count), and as the title implies, he was fascinated by the bourgeoning phenomenon of democracy, and especially its American permutation. What had emerged in the United States was democracy in a completely new form, not confined to a city-state such as Athens in ancient times, or to a very limited sort of enfranchisement such as existed in Great Britain or France in the 1830’s, but a democracy on a truly popular and national scale. Even though the franchise in America in 1830 applied only to white adult males, this was still revolutionary in its own right at that time.

The Roman Republic (510-27 BCE) had come closest to this in the ancient world. But the Roman republican system had left much of the power in the hands of the wealthy elite who sat in the unelected Senate. The writers of the American Constitution of 1787 had minutely studied the Roman example, and debates between the more radical reformers such as James Madison and the Conservatives, personified by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers demonstrated the underlying fear of the commercial, financial, and Southern planters of giving control to the “uneducated mob”. The solution to preserving control for the “better” and “more enlightened” elements of the population was to have a second assembly called the Senate, like the Romans. But unlike the Romans, the popular franchise (which was extended to include almost all adult white males by progressively lowering the property qualification over time) was direct and individual, except in the election of the President. The election of the President was diverted from a direct popular vote to a “College” of electors from each State who were mandated to apply their votes to the candidate who had won the majority of votes in their respective states. This is the system still in place today for the Presidential election, despite many calls to abolish it as undemocratic over the last century. Otherwise, American voters directly choose their local representatives to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The point of this is not to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the American Constitution, but to observe that History (capitalized to indicate the discipline of studying the human past) has actually proven useful in determining important courses of action. The now famous and oft-repeated dictum that ignoring history condemns us to repeat its errors is still true, but the other side of it is that paying attention to it and drawing useful lessons from it can provide guidance and help avoid pitfalls.

Nevertheless, there is always a wild-card in play – the unpredictability of human behaviour and natural events. As Robbie Burns put it, “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft agley.” But we also find that well-made plans based on astute observation and preparation, including past experiences, often succeed. Some plan is almost always better than none. “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”

An example from military history can be found in the great Carthaginian General Hannibal’s Cannae strategy (216 BCE) of double-envelopment. Many subsequent commanders over the centuries have attempted it, for Hannibal’s success was perhaps the greatest ever example of a battle of annihilation. The first exemplar of an emulator was actually Hannibal’s Roman nemesis, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. In 202 BCE at Zama, Scipio used Hannibal’s own strategy of double-envelopment to crush Carthage’s last defense and win the Second Punic War. The commanding Carthaginian general was Hannibal himself. his opponent’s turning the tables on him must have been a very bitter irony to swallow. What’s worse is that Hannibal intuitively knew what was about to happen and could not prevent it. While the two were deadly enemies, Scipio recognized that his opponent was the greatest battlefield master since Alexander the Great. Imitation, etc. Thus, he was not too proud to learn the lesson Hannibal had taught the Romans fourteen years before in administering the most crushing defeat of a Roman army ever seen.

Santayana’s famous adage about ignoring and repeating the lessons of history has been quoted so often that we now even ignore the current truth that we have forgotten history itself and are therefore, by default, doomed to keep on returning to the vomit of the worst mistakes of our past over and over. Our leaders seem to live by the classic definition of insanity as we keep on doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result.

The genius of the American experiment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was to recognize that simply rebelling against the tyranny of the British King and Parliament (which was, after all, very soft as tyrannies go) to set up another monarchical system, as Hamilton advocated in a velvet glove form, however adumbrated by provisos and limitations on executive power, would only, in the long run, lead back to the point of departure. The first experiment, under the Articles of Confederation, proved so loose that within ten years it was on the verge of complete disintegration. In fact, the British were licking their chops at the prospect. Poised to the north in Canada, and with a naval stranglehold on the oceans of the world, they would reap the greatest benefits without having to engage in a massive campaign of reconquest.

The Federalist solution of creating national unity among the thirteen autonomous states jealously guarding their rights and identities was a masterful performance in jurisprudence and political compromise which has, by and large, stood the test of time. Its incipient weaknesses are now well-known, and many of them were noted early by astute observers, such as Abigail Adams and Tocqueville. Its greatest flaws were in its failure to live up to its own lofty proclamations that “all men are created equal” and that “men” includes women, as well as African- and Indigenous-Americans.

Imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery. The US Constitution and the American implementation of democratic government and personal responsibility has been admired and emulated with both good and poor success by many others. The American Founders believed they had found a universal model for national and even international social and political progress and security.

The American sense of being somehow Providentially chosen to lead the world by example has produced some unfortunate results as it morphed into a belief in their “mission” to take their form of democratic gospel into the world at large. There is a resulting sort of blindness to the identities, traditions, histories, and cultures of other peoples which, over the last two hundred years, has created as many problems as it has attempted to alleviate. The idea that many other peoples hold to and believe in their own traditions and national identity as firmly as they do to theirs has often baffled Americans at the failure of “foreigners” to grasp the superiority of the “American way”.

The United States and the American people are not alone in their sense of historical “chosenness” and Providential selection for a great mission. The American faith in their “Manifest Destiny” to rule over the Americas (hence their hubris in designating themselves as the “true” Americans, or just the “the Americans” over and above all the other inhabitants of the two American continents) is derived from their faith in Christianity, the religion of the colonists, as having supplanted Judaism as the only true way to worship God and follow His will.

Many other peoples have held to similar views since antiquity. The Romans firmly believed that they were the chosen of the gods to rule in perpetuity – “Eternal Rome”. To them, history proved it by their march not only to “world” dominion, but in the endurance of their rule for longer than any other “world-state” before or since. Russia has suffered from a Messiah complex since it emerged from the steppes forest fastnesses of Eastern Europe. China still holds to its own concept of being the land of the King of Heaven, although now it is the land that Mao made.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Since Rome, many others have seen themselves as ordained to step into the gigantic shoes of Rome. None has been able to do so for more than a comparative moment in history – cf. Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. In the last fifteen hundred years, the closest approximation to a “world-state” thusfar has been the British Empire which arose after the American Revolution. Its great dominion lasted about two centuries.

Next installment: The French Revolution, 1789-99

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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