2021年8月28日 星期六

The past is a foreign country

What we can, and cannot, learn from our history.

For Times Subscribers

View in browsernytimes.com
New York Times logo
Jamelle Bouie

August 28, 2021

Newsletter Notice

Beginning in September, the Jamelle Bouie newsletter will be available only to Times subscribers. Subscribe to The Times to continue receiving it.

A selection of our newsletters will soon be reserved for Times subscribers. Subscribe now for $1/week for access to Times journalism and all of our newsletters — to follow your interests and discover new ones.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
Author Headshot

By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

As regular readers know, I am a little (OK, more than a little) obsessed with the Early Republic period of American history and spend a lot of my time reading about the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Philadelphia constitutional convention, and the Washington and Adams administrations. One of my takeaways from all of this reading is that for all of our modern-day worship of the founding fathers, we lack of a sense of how foreign their world was as compared to ours.

I was reminded of this by Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown's Government Affairs Institute, who made a similar point on Twitter, apropos of a political advertisement in which the candidate, a conservative Republican, extols the founders for "getting it right the first time."

Here's Glassman:

People really don't get how many (understandable) errors the Founders made, even on their own terms and, more importantly, how different the early Republic was from the antebellum mass republic most people (mis)associate with the Founding.

There are the obvious differences. The United States of 1790 — the year of the first census — was a predominantly rural country with an extensive system of slave labor. Its largest city, New York, was home to 33,131 people. To a visitor from Paris (population: 524,186), the busiest metropolis of the young Republic would have looked like a provincial capital. The borders of the new nation were in flux and under threat from foreign powers and domestic adversaries, from the British in Canada and the Spanish in Florida to those Native Americans in western territories who fought to keep settlers and speculators off their land.

The politics were vastly different too. It's not just that there weren't parties, but that there was no concept of the loyal opposition. When, in 1791, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson began to inch their way into conflict with Alexander Hamilton over the latter's financial policies and broad influence within the Washington administration, they had to more or less develop a theory of partisan opposition. And even then, as the historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick note in "The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800:"

The key fact may well be that at this indistinct stage of party formation there were as yet no rules at all, and no sense of limits within which suspicion and even hate were to be graded and controlled. Parties could not yet be conceived as other than alliances for warfare in which the stakes were no less than survival or extinction — and certainly not as alternating associative structures through which to manage the affairs of government.

For the most part, in the present, Americans of different perspectives and beliefs see each other as legitimate political actors. Or at least, they know they are supposed to view each other that way. But this is not a natural idea. It had to be developed. And in the meantime, political conflict between Americans could take on existential stakes.

You see this in the election of 1800 when Americans faced, for the first time, the prospect of an opposition party winning power over the national government, in this case Jefferson and the Republicans against John Adams and the Federalists. Here's the historian Susan Dunn in "Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism":

Fear and frenzy were reaching their zenith. The Salem Federalist predicted that when the "Philosopher" (Jefferson) gets into the presidential chair, he will "declare himself permanent!" Would there be violence, too? One Federalist was quoted proposing that "every democrat should be put to death in order to secure the government in the former hands." There were reports in mid-December and again in early January that threats had been made on Jefferson's life.

There was no sense, from either Federalists or Republicans, that the nation could be politically divided and yet united under a common identity. Whether it was a nation of order and hierarchy (the Federalist vision) or of equality and agrarian simplicity (the Republican vision), the country would be either all of one thing or all of the other. The political and social life we take for granted — of mass politics and boisterous opposition — would not take shape until the age of Andrew Jackson, years after most of the founding fathers had passed from the scene.

It is not that there's nothing to learn from our past, but that we can't transplant our circumstances to theirs, or theirs to ours. They are fundamentally different people living in a fundamentally different time, who understood themselves and their world in ways that would be alien to most of us. And the Republic they built is not the one we live in — it's not even the one their immediate successors lived in.

In fact, if there is anything we should take from the founders of American history, it's that their world was not set in stone, and neither is ours.

What I Wrote

My Monday column was on the infrastructure fight in Congress and how moderate Democrats are fooling themselves if they think they can outrun the laws of politics by undermining Biden's priorities.

The upshot is that if you are a member of Congress in the majority — and you share a party with the president — the die has been cast. Your party will most likely lose seats in the next elections. You might lose your seat. With that in mind, you can fret and tinker and try to save yourself, or you can do as much as possible with the time you have in power. Voters may not reward productivity, but they almost always punish failure.

My Friday column was a riff on a new biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, looking at one episode at the end of his career as an demonstration of his best qualities.

Through Lafayette's adventures and misadventures — including a five-year stint in an Austrian prison — Duncan shows readers a Lafayette who, whatever else you might say about him, never fails to show the courage of his convictions and never flinches from a fight when his ideals are on the line. And to the extent that Americans still hold Lafayette in esteem, it is those qualities that deserve our attention and should, perhaps, serve as an example.

Now Reading

Michael Hobbes on the problem with punditry, at his personal website.

Angelica Jade Bastién on Nia Dacosta's reimagining of the "Candyman" horror franchise in New York magazine.

Osita Nwanevu on the incoherence of American history in The New Republic.

Liza Batkin on "originalism" and the Supreme Court in The New York Review of Books.

Nicolas Guilhot on conspiracy theories in Boston Review.

Linda K. Kerber on the status of refugees in Dissent magazine.

Reminder: This newsletter will soon be reserved for Times subscribers.

Your access to the Jamelle Bouie newsletter ends in September. Subscribe now to keep receiving it and to enjoy all the benefits of being a Times subscriber.

Feedback If you're enjoying what you're reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week's newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at jamelle-newsletter@nytimes.com. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.

Photo of the Week

When I was writing the discussion at the top of this edition of the newsletter, I remembered a photo I took in January 2020 at a massive rally in defense of gun rights at the Virginia state capitol in Richmond. The photo is of a young man in "patriot" garb, marching with others through the crowd. It's a personal favorite, and I thought I would share it.

Now Eating: Vegetable Biryani with Cauliflower, Carrots and Peas

This vegetable biryani from Madhur Jaffrey's "Vegetarian India" is a little involved but absolutely worth the effort. It could be a meal in its own right (with a yogurt relish and a salad) or it could be part of a larger meal, with a dal or something similarly substantive. As for the cookbook itself? It's one of my favorites and if you have any interest in Indian food at all, I highly recommend it.


For the rice

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 2 tablespoons olive or peanut oil or ghee
  • a 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 4-5 cloves
  • 4-5 cardamom pods
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 12 cashews, split in half lengthwise
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • ½ medium onion, peeled and cut into fine half rings
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt

For the vegetables

  • 2 tablespoons olive or peanut oil or ghee
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • ½ medium onion, peeled and cut into fine half rings
  • 2 teaspoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
  • 2 cups small cauliflower florets, about a ½-inch wide and 1-inch long
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ¼-½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup defrosted frozen peas
  • 3 fresh hot green chiles, seeded and finely chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice


Wash the rice in several changes of water. Place the rice in a bowl, cover generously with water, and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Drain.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Put the oil or ghee for the rice in a heavy ovenproof pan with a well-fitting lid and set over medium heat. When hot, add cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom pods, and the cumin seeds. Stir for a few seconds, then add the cashews. As soon as they are golden, add the raisins. They will plump up immediately. Quickly add the onions and fry until reddish. Add the drained rice, 2¾ cups water and the salt. Stir and bring to a boil, then cover tightly with foil and a lid. Place in the oven for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the vegetables. Put the oil into a medium, preferably nonstick frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds and let them sizzle for a few seconds. Add the onions, ginger, cauliflower, carrots, turmeric and chili powder. Stir gently for about 3-4 minutes, still over medium-high heat, until the onions and cauliflower are lightly browned.

Reduce the heat to medium low and add the peas, green chiles, salt, black pepper, garam masala and lime juice. Stir gently and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are just done.

Take the rice out of the oven when it is ready and let it sit for 10 minutes. After that, empty it into a warmed bowl and break up any lumps without breaking the grains. Add all the ingredients from the frying pan and mix gently but thoroughly. Serve immediately.

Enjoy this newsletter? Subscribe to keep receiving it.

We've reserved a selection of newsletters, including this one, for Times subscribers. Subscriber support ensures that we have the resources to deliver original, quality journalism in every form — including our newsletters.

Your access to this newsletter ends in September. Become a Times subscriber to enjoy our journalism and to continue to read this newsletter and any others you find interesting.

Need help? Review our newsletter help page or contact us for assistance.

You received this email because you signed up for Jamelle Bouie from The New York Times.

To stop receiving these emails, unsubscribe or manage your email preferences.

Subscribe to The Times

Connect with us on:


Change Your EmailPrivacy PolicyContact UsCalifornia Notices

The New York Times Company. 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018