History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.
The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.
History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:
- Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
- What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
- We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
- We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
- People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.
Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:
- Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
- Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
- Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
- Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
- Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.
- Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
- Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans. (pg. 261)
- Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
- Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
- Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
- Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
- Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
- There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
- Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
- Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
- Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
- Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
- Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
- John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
- Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
- Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)
What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?
-  Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled. ↩
-  Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264) ↩