All of history is like a tangled mess of threads. You read about battles like Balaclava, or about the various intrigues of this or that king’s court, and it all feels rather pointless. It’s a mess of yarn a cat played with. I know all this sound nihilistic and fatalist, but it is often true about history. Sometimes, however, when reading a biography, or an original text or even sometimes a novel, a momentary glimmer appears of order in the chaos, of, perhaps, a plan in the mess: even a Divine plan. It is on those moments when history is transformed in the mind from ‘one damn thing after another’ to something with purpose, a beginning with an end, something whose order is so complex and huge that the mind cannot grasp it. It’s produces historical vertigo, and whenever it happens it is almost too bright for the mind.
Well I will get back to that thought, but about a week ago, our local library had its biannual book sale (last time I got ‘The End of the Affair’) and I bought this time a hardcover of The Postman by David Brin.
I had read it before a long while ago, and remembered really enjoying the story. This time, however, I was deeply impressed by the American-ness of the story. And there was one moment, with a brief excursion to Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and the nefarious Aaron Burr. The whole book explores really two themes, taking responsibility, and a sort of three way battle between the very strong who wish to dominate, the weak, and the strong who wish to live their lives for little things, like their farm and their friends, and yet go forth when called to fight for big things like Liberty and Justice. In Archetypes it would be a battle between Julius Caesar, the Roman general/farmer Cincinnatus, and common folk.
While the discussions of feminism, flaws with American culture, and the exploration of what would cause a society to tear itself apart are complex (as they should be) and interesting, there was one section that struck me with historical vertigo, a sudden, and temporary feeling of seeing more in the history than is generally seen. The moment is when the hero, the Postman, is being held captive by the Holnists (followers of the fictitious Nathan Holn) who were basically worshipers of the strong. Rule was by the strong, for the strong, and the only rule for advancement in their fledgling barbarism was that your strength determined your status. The specific passage was ‘by’ Nathan Holn. He discusses about Aaron Burr’s attempt to seize the territory to the west of the 13 colonies and create an empire of the strong. He also talks about how Burr was thwarted by Hamilton, and Franklin and an idea.
The idea was the Order of Cincinnatus and while I dont know how much influence that had, something very different did indeed happen just after America’s revolution. And so, all of a sudden in my mind came how every so often in America the drive of powerful people towards Empire has been a core fight, perhaps the core fight of the American experiment. How, as he says in the book, Aaron Burr and those like him did not envision new states, they wanted little empires of territory to the west. How the Democrats from the antebellum south desperately wanted Cuba to be annexed to be added to their constellation of slave states. How it is entirely possible that the Mexican War was started for just this purpose, that, in the mind of these almost Holnists, the whole western hemisphere south of the Potomac would be a slave empire, and the world north could do as it wished. And again, in my mind came the fact that despite this, the American people, who as yet still have nearly unprecedented power over their leaders, have, through recurring times of quiet courage, incessantly refused empire. If you consider all the territory America could have held and ruled if she had had any stomach for empire: Cuba, all of Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and who knows but half of Europe too… We may joke that some of these places would be better off if we still ran them, but America would have ceased to be what it is, a Giant among giant countries, with almost no appetite for conquest, so little in fact, that when some actual conquest might be necessary we frequently balk.
All this brings me around to something that I think about rather often, just one little observation: the American Revolution is one of the few that really worked. Compare and contrast the American Revolution and the French one just a few years later. Americans are now 236 years into our experiment. The French went through a massive, bloody purge during the Reign of Terror (thank you French Enlightenment) which was part of the 1st Republic, then they had an Empire (Napoléon) , then more Kings (last of the Bourbons), the 2nd Republic, another Napoléon/Empire, the 3rd Republic, a puppet state Vichy France, and I think they are in the 5th Republic… Not a successful revolution. And I think the difference was that Washington, Franklin, Hamilton won out against the Aaron Burr types. It makes me wonder, if Rome had the same struggles to keep from becoming and Empire, and if we can continue having the Cincinnatus/ Washington /George Powhatan (from The Postman) types beat the Holnists who are ever present in our midst emerging as they do from basic human nature. As Ronald Reagan said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” I think this is what he was referring to.
To return at the end to The Postman, it is a fun book, sometimes a deep book, and the author clearly loves America, yet sees it ‘warts and all’.