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History without tears . . .
Wouldn’t be very interesting
“Happy is the country which has no history,” wrote Thomas Carlyle. The British historian attributed the saying to the French philosopher Montesquieu without providing a citation. Carlyle might have made it up, or perhaps he adapted it from similar statements by Frederick the Great and Benjamin Franklin.
Carlyle’s point was that the remembered parts of history are the dramatic parts, and drama in history most often lies in war, revolution and other calamities. The country without such a past is a happy, if perhaps boring, country. Bad luck for the historians, but good for the inhabitants.
Another interpretation is slightly different. History has two meanings: the events of the past, and the recollection of those events. A country could have no history not because nothing happened but because what happened was forgotten or suppressed.
It is often said that history is written by the winners. This has sometimes been true, sometimes not. We have Caesar’s victorious interpretation of the Gallic wars and not the version of the Gauls. This is partly because Caesar was an adept publicist but also because the Gauls didn’t write history—or much of anything else.
The adage is definitely not true in some other cases. The standard interpretation of the American Civil War during the early twentieth century was that of the losers, the so-called Lost Cause explanation that the conflict was all about politics and had nothing to do with slavery.
Nor has it been true about much history written since the 1960s. In the academic world it became fashionable to identify with the downtrodden and marginalized—the losers of history, essentially—and the practice has persisted since.
One result is an admirable expansion of our knowledge of the past. Another is the impression, common among readers of works by academics, that history is a sordid tale of unrelieved oppression by the powerful—typically Western, white, male and straight—against everyone else. Because the writers of these histories tend to identify, if only vicariously, with the oppressed, the histories often point a stern finger of blame at history’s “winners.”
This would be fine if the blame were kept in perspective. The powerful indeed have much to answer for. But they often have much to be credited for, too. Caesar subdued the Gauls but the Romans brought peace and order to their world. English imperialists wreaked havoc on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but they also laid the foundation of the United States, where many of the critics live and thrive. The Declaration of Independence left slaves in bondage, but the same declaration made possible the first governments—those of the Northern states—in the world to emancipate slaves. The robber barons were grasping and ruthless, but the universities they endowed have advanced human knowledge, bettered human health—and provided cushy jobs for many of the robber barons’ critics.
History doesn’t happen without conflict. Change doesn’t come without a struggle. Change isn’t always for the better, but the world doesn’t get better without it.
In a different world, progress might be uniformly peaceful. The histories written there might all be happy. But not in our world. Our history comes through blood, sweat—and tears.