Bastardizing History

By Gabriel Levesque

History is too often called upon to support presentist ideological and political themes. Politicians and radio personalities use historical figures to suggest their ideas are correct and in accordance with some great historical figure. Polarizing images and comparisons with Lincoln, for example, dominated Obama’s campaign and the first year of his presidency. Obama’s political adversaries countered by comparing his policies with Soviet Russia and Joseph Stalin. This is a practice that is unfair and all too common. Historical figures are products of their particular era and of their own particular circumstances and life trajectory. Conjecture only bastardizes the historical process and creates falsities that damage the pursuit of truth.

A recent example of historical bastardization came in the way of January’s Supreme Court decision that blocked the ban on the corporate funding of political candidates. Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian logic were cited as precedents to support the court’s 5-4 decision. The First Amendment was granted to companies as a whole, thus allowing free speech in the form of monetary support. This is a shady deal that extends the probability that large corporations will continue to dominate U.S. policy making for some time. However, a detailed look at the morality of this decision is beyond the scope of this limited narrative. What is pertinent, however, is the fact that “Jeffersonian logic was upheld.” First of all, what is Jeffersonian logic? Jefferson has had his personality and thoughts twisted in every direction to meet almost every political scenario’s needs. From pro-slavery laws, to pro-abortion rulings and now to First Amendment monetary rights for large companies – Jefferson has been the raison d’étre. This is unfair on so many grounds. I will address two.

For starters, Jefferson has been dead for two centuries. Projecting what he might say now, or what he might have said about recent events is pure conjecture. Every event is a product of recent dealings and experiences. Jefferson would have little understanding of what corporate campaign spending is and what it means to the masses of America (in an aside note, Jefferson was initially against the formation of political parties as he saw them as dangerous). Jefferson was a product of the mid eighteenth century; his values, thinking, and reasoning are not our own. We live in a much different time. We live in an era of globality and complex integration where each person is interconnected in ways which are not always clear. Uranium miners in Uganda indirectly affect the relationship between Iran and the United States; local banks in Ireland fuel Portuguese shipping ventures. Jefferson lived in a pre-industrial agrarian society. The needs of the United States in early nineteenth century were very different from our twenty-first century needs.

Finally, the decisions we make should be about the benefit of the people who are living today. Using the dead as reasoning for current laws is a poor way to govern the masses. Precedents are only helpful when they aid the generation who stands today. History is important for understanding the human experience and trajectory. History can allow the current generation to examine relationships of the past and understand our moment in time. Applying past reasoning as justification for current situations and solutions is dangerous. Each situation is unique – every solution must be unique. Jefferson already served his sentence; let him rest.

Gabe is currently a graduate student at the University of Maine and can be contacted at Gabriel.Levesque@umit.maine.edu.