Ignorance Is Disaster: Why It Pays To Know History

“Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” – variation of a quote by George Santayana

Those ignorant of this quote are doomed to hear it repeated also. I’ve heard history professionals praise and condemn this concept. Those who praise it (I am one) revel in its quality of just comeuppance. They like to think that their superior knowledge will avail them in the future when others are forced to replay some rather nasty bits of history. This is the ego in human nature, but that doesn’t make the quote untrue.

Those that condemn this idea of ignorance breeding repetition are either fans of experiential history where each generation must make its way on its own instincts, or they simply don’t want to face the fact that this particular quote is true, painfully true. Ignorance is only bliss for a while.

The truth is that the ones who are ignorant of history usually trump the ones that have studied it in that so many people are ignorant of history in general – the odds are in their favor. Bad ideas have a greater chance of being replayed because of this. Each succeeding generation, ignorant of the pain and suffering an idea or course of action caused those who came before, get a flash of brilliance and think, hey, this might work after all – let’s try it again.

Socialist hiccups

Communism is like this. Even among historically educated people, often in academic circles, is a day-dream like coma to the realities of applied Communism in history, past and present. Life in the Soviet union was terrible, especially if you got on the wrong side of the firing squad. Life in communist Cambodia was horrible, especially if you lived long enough. Castro’s Communist Cuba is not a land of a thousand delights. Communism and it’s relatives, Socialism, dictatorship, and Fascism have led to the most wholesale genocide in virtually the entirety of history. It is insanity to think it will work again (and yet, people want to try)!

A connoisseur of irony, my favorite response from academic types trying to make excuses for violent Communist excess was, “Well, it wasn’t Communism that was the problem, it was the Russians/Slavs/Cambodians/Cubans/Vietnamese/Koreans/Chinese, etc… that messed it up. Now, if we would try it, it would be different!” If you keep trying the same thing and expect a different result each time, is that not the definition of insanity?

My plea to you – pick up a book and learn about history – the true kind. Don’t be one of the many who are fooled into thinking that a bad idea (any bad idea not just Communism) the first time, might become a good idea if we simply try it again!

– Amanda Stiver

And I quote… Paine, A. Adams, and Longfellow

A web-log on history has many avenues available to the author and as I explore them I find that sometimes the thoughtful exploration of a quote* from an historical document can give enlightenment to history as a whole. A few lines of prose or poetry, short and succinct, allows time for analysis when hundreds of pages of reading is too demanding.

Ideas are carried in words and none more so than those of Revolutionary era America. I find myself, during times of upheaval, turning to the words of the men and women who influenced the founding of the  United States or later recorded their stories. Ironically, those individuals saw the dangers that faced the generations to come after them. Over two hundred years later, we are witnesses to the dangers they foresaw.



These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, 1776


I will take praise to myself. I feel that it is my due, for having sacrificed so large a portion of my peace and happiness to promote the welfare of my country which I hope for many years to come will reap the benifit, tho it is more than probable unmindfull of the hand that blessed them.

– Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 17, 1782

Watchfulness and Courage

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm –
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore.
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” last stanza

* All quotes from Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches edited by William J. Bennett

The Paul Bunyans and Me

Sometimes you get the chance to draw near to your family history and often in the most unexpected ways. Yesterday I watched a tree trimming crew dispatch some overgrown pine trees from a neighbor’s yard.

A piece of large-scale logging equipment on display near Snowshoe, WV.

As the cutter scaled the approximately 40-foot tree and removed limbs as he went, I was reminded that my grandfather and uncles did this very type of work during their years as men of the forest. By trade they were loggers, harvesters of tree growth, but to say they were just lumberjacks who chopped down trees doesn’t even begin to do them justice.

The tree trimmer reached the top of the tree, supporting himself with a band around the trunk and sharp spiked boots, and secured with rope the very top of the tree, branches still intact. Still perched precariously he zipped through the trunk above him and his ground crew kept well back as the top fell to the earth with a crash. He descended and finally the bare trunk was ready to come down.

Making the connection…

I was never able to watch my grandfather or uncles at work, so my image of a logger’s work came in books, movies, family stories, and the occasional tree removal in the yard. Seeing this type of scaling firsthand helped to flesh out the stories of danger and hazard that they dealt with every day.

It also brought to mind their other accomplishments. Knowing forests are full of very tall plants and, considering that we farm by planting plants and harvesting them, you can begin to understand that logging is another form of farming. My grandfather knew more about forest life and tree ecology than I will ever hope to know. You can’t work in that environment for such a length of time without developing a clear understanding of your surroundings. Your life depends on it!

The harvesting of trees is only half of a lumberjack’s job. To harvest again in the future you have to replant and I believe the ratio is 7 trees planted for every 1 tree cut. To know how to fall a tree you must have knowledge of branch growth which can interfere with the fall and cause undue damage to you or other trees. Even then the forest is full of surprises and the best of men have lost their lives in this line of work.

Clear cutting an area is only one of many methods of harvesting; however, it is the most drastic with the most visual impact. That’s why it made the news so much in the late 1990’s when the politically correct trend was to be a tree worshipping environmentalist. Selective cutting is what you do if you want to continue to make an income from your stand of trees. A few trees, cut specifically, improve the health of the remaining trees.

By the way, woodland animals live in meadows and at the edge of the forest, not in deep, dark, densely packed old-growth stands. They need vitamin-D, too – just to knock another myth in the head while I’m on the subject.

Hat’s off…

History is like that. Sometimes you unexpectedly come across a connection to the past. You begin to better understand what happened during an important historical event or your own family history.

I’m glad I got the chance to see the kind of work my grandfather did. Thanks grandpa (and to all the other Paul Bunyans out there) for surviving all the injuries and near-death crisis inherent in your work. I wish I could have said it while you were still present to hear it.

– Amanda Stiver

Back to John Adams – Marriage

A few posts back I reviewed a biography of John Adams and so to return to that illustrious personage here is a piece of correspondence from John to his wife Abigail. I think it exemplifies the loving relationship they maintained despite the long years of separation in service to the new nation.

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me – after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month or two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my Justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles of my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect Candour.

Believe me, now & ever yr. faithful

Lysander [a pseudonym used by Adams when writing to his wife]

– Taken from Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches edited by William J. Bennett.

Mummies, Pyramids, and Science!

– Egypt and Radiocarbon Dating –

I love it when a story like this comes up in the news, “BGU Scientist Sheds Light On Ancient Egypt,” (Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, The Jerusalem Post, Jun. 21, 2010).

Using all available resources to answer archeological questions is fascinating, even if we still don’t end up with a solid conclusion. Putting science to use within the confines of its capabilities is positive, rather than toying with genetic material we don’t completely understand, we can try to better understand the history we already know.

Ever since The Mummy (the 1999 Brendan Fraser version), I’ve had a soft spot for Egyptian history. Actually it dates back further than that. Long ago, my parents went to a display of King Tutankhamen’s funerary objects and bought a souvenir booklet. I remember pouring over the images as a child, alongside, oddly enough, a coffee table book on African animals and another with images of Great Britain.

“Wonderful things”

I once discussed this fascination with a friend who was likewise enamored with ancient Egypt. We came to the conclusion that along with an interest in Biblical events of the Exodus, we thought Egypt had some of the prettiest ruins of all the ancient civilizations. The latter was not a serious, academic conclusion, but people have gone on to study a subject for worse reasons than that.

Egyptian paintings, carvings, and buildings are very beautiful. They have a stylistic element; static, yet fluid and graceful that stands apart from the realism of later Greece and Rome and the frightening, super-detailed elements of Assyrian creations. I think Egypt strikes us as at once other worldly (and the ancient Egyptians certainly thought they were, hence mummies) and cosmopolitan.

“If you build it, they will come”

And yes, those Pyramids – that’s the real cause of much interest. Who would go to all that trouble? What cultural influence and ideologies pushed a man (albeit a Pharaoh who thought he was a god) to spend all that wealth, manpower, and time constructing such a memorial when he would have been off conquering half the known world as did the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans at later dates?

I guess we’ll have to wait a while for an answer to that. In the meantime, keep your historical curiosity alive and maybe someday you’ll be the one to tell us why!

– Amanda Stiver

Making Your Own Keeps You in Stitches

– Sewing as an Historical Exercise –

When you think of a sewing machine do you imagine the hum of an electrical unit or the rhythmic thum-thum-thum of a treadle machine that is powered by foot and coordination? No, I don’t suppose most people often think of sewing machines.

I do, occasionally, mostly when I recall visits to my grandmother, who used the antique treadle version. She was a talented seamstress and would make little outfits for me when I would visit from half a continent away each summer. Full skirts that would spin when I twirled were generally the demands of a six-year-old girl.

Likewise would my aunt, also skilled with a needle and thread, make me lovely dresses. I recollect these memories here because I want to talk about the continuum of history.

What goes around, stays around

The history continuum sounds like something out of Star Trek, but as I see it, it is simply the importance of recognizing that there are some methods of daily living that have been around for thousands of years and ought to be preserved and rehearsed so as not to be lost. Actively live in the past to preserve skills that might otherwise be forgotten because of dis-use.

Skills are like tools: you don’t need them all the time, but you’re sorry when you don’t have the right one when you need it!

Sewing fits this continuum. It was a skill used frequently in the past but has fallen into dis-use among the general public because of the large-scale factory production of clothing and textiles. It is, in theory, more affordable to buy ready-made clothes at the store than to go to the trouble of making them yourself.

I agree, and I buy most of my clothes at the store, but sewing has a place. If you can sew on a button, stitch up a seam, or repair a rip, you are ahead of most people and you won’t have to toss out as many clothes that are only slightly maimed.

Stitch, not pitch

I recall family stories in which most items of clothes were made at home and, if they fell into disrepair, then they were simply “re-purposed.” Or, as it was back then, you “made-do” with what you had.

I’m sure this came of the Great Depression, but it reaches much further back. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries caused a spike in manufacturing. Thus, everyday items produced in vast numbers fairly cheaply would cost much less than before.

People could afford lots of “stuff,” however, not nearly as much as we have now. Therefore, they still didn’t waste what they weren’t sure they could replace. Overabundance didn’t really hit until the last third of the 20th century.

On a visit to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum in that state, I remember observing a linen-making display (I highly recommend visiting the museum, by the way, great exhibits). The flax was harvested, soaked to soften, fibers separated from the stem, combed, and then spun into thread. Finally it was ready to be woven into fabric from which a seamstress or tailor would cut and sew a final garment. Imagine if you had to do all that just to have a new shirt – you wouldn’t throw it out in a hurry – that’s for sure.

The moral of my post – if you get the chance, learn your way around a needle and thread and a sewing machine. Not only will you save some money, but you will be participating in a thread of experience woven through the tapestry of human history!

– Amanda Stiver

Old Things

There are two kinds of people in this world – pack rats and scrupulous cleaners. I am related to both. Honestly though, I have been known to show pack rat tendencies. I like to think that I am fulfilling an archeologist’s dream when sometime in the future he stumbles upon my “cache.” Therefore I like old things, known more eloquently as “antiques.”

Some people collect old things like furniture, carpentry tools (had an orthodontist who did that – impressive collection and he even used them!), cars and appliances. I find those interesting and probably if I had a place or a budget for them, I, too, would acquire.

However, my interest in old things tends toward books, lots and lots of books, and sometimes china and textiles. Old handkerchiefs and tablecloths are fun to collect and cheap, too.

Objects to me are a solid way to connect to the past. Using the dishes that Great-grandmother Ethel set each Thanksgiving keeps the flow of history going. Sopping up your brow with a dainty hanky embroidered by Aunt Gertrude fifty years ago keeps the continuum of history on its course. Some things change, but the basics stay the same.

Waste not, want not

Things were better made in the past. The last fifteen years have seen shoddiness in foreign manufactured goods seep onto the market. Items that are purposely made to last about two weeks with no use and then fall apart right at the crucial moment. It’s a sad testament to consumer expectations and manufacturing standards; sad also that in an uncertain economy we can’t even afford to bypass the trash and buy quality.

Rummage through a garage sale sometime and you begin to see the things that have stood the test of time. They may be dirty, but after some cleaning they are still serviceable.

My Depression era grandparents would have shuddered at the wastefulness of the present day. “Making do” was the catchphrase well into World War II. If something broke, you could fix it. Admittedly this is more difficult with the digital technology around us. One must have a degree or a lot of time on one’s hands to try to fix a broken iPod.

Old things remind us of where we’ve been. They also show us that our standards are slipping and that we need to tighten up. Learn what a well-made product is and when you can afford it, buy quality. Buy just what you need.

As one of my favorite movies quotes goes, “More isn’t always better Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.” (Sabrina)

– Amanda Stiver

Tocqueville’s America

As the theory goes, travel is an education, which can help the individual better understand the wider world. This idea has merit, but I’d like to put a twist on it – the written journey of a past traveler can help the nation better understand itself now.

In 1831 a young Frenchman embarked on a journey to the young American republic and he documented his observations in a book called Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville was the son of aristocrats who had managed (just) to keep their heads during the Terror of the French Revolution. He toured the United States and interviewed all those he could.

What he observed:

On American sovereignty,

“The nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice by the agents of the executive government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate.”

On patriotism,

“For in the United States it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfillment of a duty or the exercise of a right, and a constant though gentle motion is thus kept up in society which animates without disturbing it.”

On the land,

“Everything is extraordinary in America, the social condition of the inhabitants, as well as the laws; but the soil upon which these institutions are founded is more extraordinary than all the rest… That continent still presents, as it did in the primeval time, rivers which rise from never-failing sources, green and moist solitudes, and fields which the ploughshare of the husbandman had never turned.”

On the elusiveness of freedom,

“When the bulk of the community is engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs. At such times it is not rare to see upon the great stage of the world, as we see at our theaters, a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd; they alone are in action whilst all are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws, and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country; and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall.”

When the people are content with building their own fortunes and uninterested in the affairs of state – a group of elites may step in to wrest their liberties from them.

How much we’ve changed? How much we’ve stayed the same?

– Amanda Stiver

Ice Cream, We Scream!

Ice cream is an American pastime ubiquitous to a hot, humid summer. And I do mean pastime – in the Midwest, in particular, ice cream stands and brands abound and elicit very strong opinions.

Whether you are a frozen custard or an ice cream purist will determine the store you patronize. National chains compete for attention with the homegrown article – and often lose! On this note, if you are ever in Ohio, visit Granville and try Whit’s – it’s excellent!

Then there are the mad scientists who like to concoct their own homemade varities. Even among this crowd is division. Are you an old-fashioned ice cream maker? Do you only use the rock salt and ice, hand cranked models? Or are you technologically advanced and prefer the self-freezing chamber versions that are electrified?

Frozen, in time

As with all my history quests, I want to know whether, and how, people made things in the past. So, what about ice cream – was it available in the days before electric refrigeration?

Well, if you’ve ever watched Meet Me in St. Louis you will discover that yes, it was, at least according to MGM’s version of the early 20th century. Ice cream was a special treat to be had in the summer, after all, who wants a freezing bowlful of cream in the dead of winter?

Likewise, ice cream and frozen custards were a specialty of the colonial era. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both aficionados of the tasty treat introduced to them by the French. Recipes from this era abound and their decadent sweetness was made possible by the construction of icehouses to store blocks of frozen ice through the summer (Alice Ross, “Ice Cream, a Colonial Delicacy,” Early American Life, June 2010).


Hauling ice to be stored was a going business until the dawn of electrical refrigeration. Each winter big blocks of ice had to be cut from frozen lakes, hauled to privately-owned icehouses or stored in a big, partially-subterranean barn. Packed in sawdust or straw, the ice would keep far into the summer.

Ice chips and rock salt were used to drop the temperature of the chamber in which cream, sugar, and fruit or an egg-based custard mixture would freeze. Hearty volunteers turned the handle keeping the ice cream moving in order to freeze evenly.

Finally, after all that work, was the finished product – smooth, homemade ice cream!

This is by far one of most rewarding historical re-enactments that you can pursue today – find a hand-cranked ice cream maker at a garage sale, marshal your ingredients, crank away, and slip into the past via a bowl of ice cream! Chipping the block of ice from a frozen lake and storing it all summer is up to you!

– Amanda Stiver

Praising John Adams

The U.S. had its fair share of kingmakers and quasi-aristocrats in its early years, but the venerable John Adams seems not to have been among them. That didn’t stop his opponents from labeling the force behind the Declaration of Independence a royalist!

From a farm in Braintree, Massachusetts and working as a lawyer in Boston and environs, Adams stood up for what was right and faced down those with whom he disagreed, most vociferously at times and sometimes to the annoyance of others – many others.

However, an aristocrat he was not and seemed not to have been riddled by the double standards that plagued Jefferson and others. He is fast becoming one of my favorite patriots of the revolutionary period.

I draw these conclusions from the masterful biography, John Adams, written by David McCullough. I know that it doesn’t do to rely only on one book to try to understand an historical figure, but I was struck by the fairness of McCullough’s approach to Adams, his friends, and his enemies.

The author treats his subjects as men with all their flaws, but doesn’t deny that they were extraordinary men in extraordinary times. Especially touching is the skillful way he weaves in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and that of their extended family. Their vast letter writing capacity despite years and years of separation proves that a happy marriage isn’t based solely on the physical, but requires a strong intellectual attraction as well.

I strongly recommend this book as a basic primer on Adams. McCullough’s very approachable style of writing turns a somewhat lengthy book into a compelling page-turner. If you are trying to sink your teeth into history, this is a good place to start. I will admit that it slows as the narrative follows Adams life to its close, but perhaps that is because the 1770’s in America were so packed with action that the 1820’s seem placid in comparison.

For the interested historian John Adams is a fabulous resource of excerpts from letters and written works by Adams and others. A good author knows how and when to use a source directly rather than a paraphrase and this book is proof of that. Hearing the subject in his own words helps us draw a better picture of the man, more so because Adams was a straightforward individual (agree with him or not) and free of rank political duplicity.

Great book, great man, great marriage – great history.

– Amanda Stiver