Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Important Question

We've written several times about contingency in history and the human inability to predict the course of events or the consequences of actions (see, for example Churchill & Tolkien).  We need to constantly remind ourselves when looking at the actions of historical figures that while we know how things turned out, they did not know when they made their decisions.

I was reminded of this recently watching Professor Joanne Freeman of Harvard on C-Span,  Professor Freeman is a scholar of Alexander Hamilton and a lively and thoughtful speaker.  She closed her talk on Hamilton by reading an excerpt from Federalist 1, noting that Alexander was a pessimist about the ability of the United States to survive in a hostile world but felt the proposed Constitution gave us the best possible chance.  Hamilton writes:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force

If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
Hamilton, Madison, Washington and the others did not know how it would turn out.  It was a gamble; one worth taking in their view, but still a gamble.   Some would say the outcome of that gamble is still to be determined.

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