October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote that in 1905, minting an aphorism now grown shopworn in the service of beleaguered history teachers and editors of history magazines. History never repeats itself exactly, of course, as the builders of the Maginot Line learned. But what it does do is show us how men and women not so different from ourselves faced their own trials and managed to endure. With this issue we begin a new column, “Now and Then,” in which, from time to time, guest writers will examine the links between present and past. In the first of these occasional essays, Charles L. Mee, Jr., the diplomatic historian, points up some alarming similarities—and what he sees as one enormous difference—between today and the eve of the First World War.
Still, history remains a tricky prognosticator. As this is written, the press is full of worry over the awful things that supposedly are sure to follow if no candidate running in this year’s presidential race wins a majority in the electoral college and the contest has to be resolved in the House of Representatives.
The last time Congress picked our President was in 1825. The choosing proved swift, expedient—and near calamitous. Andrew Jackson, the front runner, lacked a majority over John Quincy Adams and two other rivals, and when the contest went before the house in January of 1825, the back-room politicking was fierce and intricate. Finally it all came down to one congressman, General Stephen Van Rensselaer. The last uncommitted member of the crucial New York delegation, he would cast the deciding vote. But it seemed the agreeable old wheelhorse had solemnly pledged his last-ditch support to all four candidates. Wracked with anxiety, he put his head down on his desk to pray—and spotted an Adams ballot on the floor. He took it as a sign from God. Adams became President.
Despite this noble piece of statecraft, Adams’ barely won Presidency—hamstrung as it was by Jackson’s followers in Congress—turned out to be a four-year exercise in impotence.
A discouraging historical precedent, to say the least. But look back another quarter century to 1800 and the only other time the House chose a Chief Executive: then, it had the good sense to select Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr. It took thirty-six nervous ballots to do the job, but once done it showed the nation that the power of the central government could pass peacefully from one party to another.
On the record, then, the House bats no worse than .500.
But, however good a forecaster history can be and whichever way the presidential vote goes might not seem to matter very much. We live in an angry, overcrowded, and increasingly complicated world, one which can burn itself to a cinder in forty minutes. So it sometimes seems ludicrous to fret about which man wins an office whose powers were, after all, defined by a handful of eighteenth-century landowners.
History, however, proves these men knew what they were about, even as it proves that one man can make a difference. America has been through bad patches before, some so bad that it seemed the republic could not survive. Yet, here we still are; worried, certainly, but you have to be alive to worry, and as the lecturer Joseph Cook put it a century ago, “Democracy is a raft. You cannot easily overturn it. It is a wet place, but it is a pretty safe one.”