Short on History: Context and the Electoral Process

The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.

This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.

For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any oneĀ  side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.

And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.

So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.

Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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Tomorrow’s History: Politics and the Seasons – The Sanity Our Rural Past Brings to Election Nonsense

As I write this a U.S. Presidential election is upon us, tomorrow. I cannot, at this point, following on months of listening to campaigns, lies (let’s be real), and observing endless posturing endure any more analyses of politics, so I shall diverge.

Looking around us now, and by looking around I will be taken to mean, looking around the Internet because that’s where we are these days. We stare at screens, big ones (if we’re well funded), medium ones, and little ones. Ubiquitous rectangles of blue light distorting our ability to sleep and, for that matter, telling us what to think. They’ve only been around on this scale for the last 10 years, a mere blip in the historical timeline, but we seem to be unable to imagine life without them.

And that’s just what I want to do. Imagine life without them. What on earth would we be doing, in say, 1886?

Well, the vast majority of us would be farming.

And no, I don’t mean hobby farming with a flock of rare heritage goats that we pay someone to keep so they can make handmade cheese for us that we can sell with our own cleverly designed label that connotes rural overtones in a setting of glamorous urban prosperity. Sigh.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

I mean the real deal, dad, mom and kids working the land, eating what they grow and raise. Planting, tending, harvesting, and preserving. With real dirt and real injuries and real dependency on the land. That’s the kind of rural reality that most Americans faced in 1886.

If you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and cannot even think of a single recent television series you’ve binged on Netflix to draw on for reference (sigh), then tackle a book. One I highly recommend, and have probably done before and will again, is The Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane. Sloane was one of the foremost meteorological painters of the 20th century and he also put his artistic skills to work preserving images of the rural, agricultural norm that was the American way of life, and of which we are now completely and most tragically bereft.

These sketches, of which the book is full, will put a shape to the past. When we think of tablets, smartphones, and laptops, we can in some, rather inadequate, way attempt to compare to the scythes, plows, apple presses, and wagons of the past. These were the tools of their existence. People were fluent with these items in the same way that we are fluent (or reasonably so) with our technology. They are the implements of our lives.

The other facet of The Seasons of America Past that I relish is the step by step progress through each month of the year that gives us a sample of what agricultural tasks would have been on the schedule for that season.

Let’s take November for instance. Sloane relates that by this time cattle had been or were being driven to market in a parade of moving herds that marked the season for many (or to the railyard and transported by train in 1886). Crop harvests had been taken in and at this time there was abundance and time to preserve and enjoy. Meat was butchered, preserved, and products like the yearly supply of soap made from the rendered fat. Candles were made of the same animal by-products, though some plant sourced fats, such as bayberry, were used for their pleasant aroma. Nuts were harvested from trees, particularly chestnuts, though, tragically, a blight that began from an international exhibition in New York in 1904 destroyed much of the American chestnut tree population.

Daily chores were done, animals were fed, tools were repaired and sharpened, fields dressed for winter. The changing of the seasons was so deep and abiding and intertwined in daily life that people didn’t have to wait for the trees to turn colors and drop their leaves to know what was coming. They saw it coming from August on in every small detail that connotes a slight shift in the seasons from summer to fall. The seasons came to you, you didn’t have to go out in search of them. They still can.

It is a remarkable heritage that we possess, this rural connection. Don’t lose it, even if you don’t live in it, and I confess, I do not, though I should like to. My grandparents did and probably so did yours. Take the time to reflect on the genuine triviality that all politics descends into. For no matter how vaunted a potential leader, he or she cannot make the weather. He or she cannot bring in the harvest and put food on tables. He or she cannot change the seasons. They are inexorable, and remain as their Maker dictates.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver