During my elementary grade school years I remember loathing history class. I had zero interest in history. Why did we need to know or worry about what already happened? We couldn’t change anything, so why waste precious time in the present revisiting events that happened, and people who lived, already?
Over the years I’ve come to see the error of my ways. That came to the forefront just this week as I absorbed a highly disturbing article in the Nov. 23, 2020, New Yorker magazine. Written by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, a frequent contributor to the publication, her article, “The Trump Papers” (subtitle: “What Will Happen to the President’s Records When He Leaves the White House?”) delves deeply into the history (there’s that word) of documents, memos, meeting notes, tapes, and other such records as they pertain to the President of the United States.
In essence, there are laws that require all documentation pertaining to the President to be preserved; however, those laws are not so easily enforced. The concern over Presidential papers goes all the way back to President #1. George Washington, when he left office in 1797, took his papers with him to Mount Vernon, but graciously loaned most of them out where they were not cared for. Rather they were “extensively mutilated by rats and otherwise injured by damp.” Eventually, what was retrievable ended up in the possession of historian Jared Sparks who basically mutilated them in his own way, tossing out what he didn’t like and, beginning in 1837, publishing the rest as “The Writings of George Washington.” It appears that “spin” isn’t such a new concept.
The article goes on to describe in painful detail how literally countless – countless – pages of presidential documents have been lost, either through neglect or intentionally (some Presidents did not want any extant records of events or decisions that might embarrass them or possibly bring legal action against them once they left office. Think Richard Nixon and those infamous White House tapes). To know that so much information – regardless of its personal, political, or legal impact – has been lost makes me ill. Suddenly, I realize how very much I do, in fact, appreciate history. I’ll not go into the specifics that Ms. Lepore writes about our current President, but you can probably guess that she can almost guarantee that Mr. Trump will oversee the mass destruction hundreds of thousands of pages that could prove harmful to him, his reputation, his businesses, or his image.
My point here is to reinforce my belief that history is vitally important (are you thinking now, as I am, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it”?). I also have come to understand why I gush over old “things.” When my sons and grandsons agree to accompany me to the annual Auto Show in Philadelphia, they accommodate me when I want to spend time in the antique cars display. It’s hard to describe, but when I see a Stanley Steamer or a Hudson or a Model T Ford, I silently thank the person(s) who saw the value in preserving these amazing machines from our past and am grateful for the chance to see first-hand such marvels. It’s as though they are allowing me to travel back in time for a moment and experience what it must have been like to drive or ride around in those beautiful machines so many years ago.
Another example of my urge to preserve: I’ll be driving down a back road and see a deserted old house, perhaps two or three stories high, with one of those magnificent wrap-around porches (what ever happened to porches, by the way? I should write on that sometime, as I have some theories about the disappearance of porches and how that has affected society in general). This house might have a “widow’s watch” or other tower-like structure. You can tell that there must be 10 or 12 rooms in the house. But, it’s deserted. Empty. Rotting away. And I wish I were independently wealthy and could restore such a grand old structure. I picture in my imagination how stunning that old house would be, and what a special home it would make for whoever lived there. I guess I just like bringing things from the past into the present.
This could also account for my attachment to memorabilia – why I think it’s important to hold on to meaningful (to me, anyway) items from my past. I shared with some folks that I had spent a good deal of time at the beginning of this year going through boxes of personal belongings that had come to our retirement home after having made stopovers in several of the churches I served over the years. As I was going through those boxes and seeing once again the photos; letters; notes from high school, college, and graduate school; cartoons I drew; gifts I accumulated from family and friends; reminders of people in those churches – the list goes on ad nauseum – I was taken back in time, reliving those wonderful memories, smiling, and enjoying the “warm fuzzy” feeling inside. It’s all history. And, to me, it’s important.
As I was writing this just now, I remembered a story that Dr. Manning, my seminary professor of Christian history told us. He said that a student had approached him with the request not to take his class. Asked why, the student said he didn’t see any value in it, adding, “And if you have a minute, I’ll tell you about my past experiences with it.” As I recall, no one in the class reacted to Dr. Manning’s story, which prompted him to say, “Well, maybe that was a bit too subtle for you.”
So, after reading the New Yorker story and feeling my stomach tightening; after coming to terms with my personal appreciation of things archaic and antique (such as automobiles); and after being honest about the value of history in all its purity, I have to admit that I value preservation over destruction. As a wise person once said, “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
And once this blog is finished, it’s finished.