Oral History Center Director’s Column — March 2017

Director’s Column March 2017: “History as a Retreat”

The year 2017 is certainly off to a tumultuous start with the words uncertainty, acrimony, and conflict in regular circulation throughout the body politic. As such, there is good reason that so many of us are glued to our news feeds, anxiously awaiting what sensation story might come next. But there is also good reason, I think, to step back from the flurry of ‘the now’ and retreat a bit into the past. I’ve never been one to accept the notion that by studying history we can inoculate ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past. I think that the present is not only a different time, but also a different place, so we would be asking too much of history to play such a preventative role. Still, as a historian, I am convinced that knowledge of the past can help us better understand the present and perhaps suggest a range of options for how we might respond (or not) to the contemporary scene. I recently finished reading Chernow’s tour-de-force biography of Alexander Hamilton. If there is one point to glean from this remarkable book it is that “uncertainty, acrimony, and conflict” have been hallmarks of our nation’s political life from its inception, resulting even in that infamous duel in which a Vice President mowed down a Treasury Secretary in a bloody duel! Yet, the union persisted, lived another day to provide a home for men and women to attempt to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

In recent months, I have found myself engrossed in many of the excellent interviews conducted by the Oral History Center over the past 63 years in an effort to gain insight into the challenges of the past and how people — often people whose names would have been forgotten if not included in our collection — responded to and rose above those challenges. See, for example, the post in this newsletter about our “Slaying the Dragon of Debt” oral history project, which provides great insight into federal budget battles of decades past, including an account of how the two parties managed to compromise and thus bring about budget surpluses by the end of the 1990s. This compromise, please recall, happened amidst bitter political fighting and a salacious presidential sex scandal. Also check out our recent podcast season, produced and written by OHC historians Todd Holmes, Shanna Farrell, and Cristina Kim, that traced the evolution of women’s participation in politics from the battle for suffrage to the “Year of the Woman” in 1992. This series puts our most recent election into necessary context and, perhaps, provides some ideas for how to move forward and guarantee full political equality for women. And, finally, in the coming days (on April 10th to be precise), keep your eyes peeled for the release of our brand new project documenting the movement that won the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in the United States. The 100 hours of interviews of this project basically propose a blueprint for social change in this era in which extremes win and positions seem ever more calcified. I think you’ll be surprised to learn all that happened behind the scenes and just how a quick and profound change in public opinion took place.

History, then, can be a place of retreat. Not retreat as in “escape” or “surrender” but in the sense of a place to go to rest and to be nourished and to prepare oneself for the challenges — and opportunities — that surely will rise before us.

Martin Meeker
Charles B. Faulhaber Director
Oral History Center