These remarks were delivered at Brigham Young University, January 23, as part of BYU’s on-going “Faith, Family and Society” lecture series.
“Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “History is bunk.” That’s not quite accurate. What he actually told the Chicago Tribune in 1916 is this: “I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that’s worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
It’s hard to imagine a better statement of the American spirit, or at least a certain strain in our national character. The Founders clearly understood the value of the past. Most were Christians. Nearly all were religious believers. They revered the memory of Roman law, architecture, and republican process. But they also very consciously intended to create a novus ordo seclorum—a “new order of the ages.”
And they succeeded. Tocqueville describes the difference between democracy and all the forms of political and social life that came before it as a gulf between “two distinct humanities.” Democratic man is very different from his ancestors—or so we’re led to believe. So it’s no surprise that Americans tend to be poor students of history. We enjoy nostalgia because it’s a kind of entertainment. But the real events of the real past come with annoying baggage. We can’t reinvent ourselves in the present if we’re dragging around a history of inconvenient duties and facts. The good news is that this is part of our genius. We innovate because we’re not crushed by the weight of our memories. The bad news is that it leads to forgetting things we need to remember. And amnesia is dangerous both for individuals and for nations.”
Read more: via The Great Charter at 800 | Charles J. Chaput | First Things.