“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This oft-quoted phrase, usually attributed to the philosopher George Santayana, was probably coined by Edmund Burke when he said “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” A more trenchant version of the phrase would read, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.”
It appears that many mistakes we make today are repetitions of earlier ones. If it were really possible to learn from the past, we would live in a largely mistake-free world—which we don’t. Nonetheless, in attempting to expose a contemporary mistake, it might be sobering to consider the consequences of that same mistake when it went unrectified in the past.
On January 21, 1861, a dramatic event took place on the floor of the United States Senate. Jefferson Davis, a Southern Democrat and West Point graduate, stood up in his place on the Senate floor and began to speak in a low tone of voice: “I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that . . . the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States.” Overcome by emotion, he paused to gather himself together before continuing to speak. Then, with increasing forcefulness, he reminded his colleagues of his long-held belief in state sovereignty, and reiterated his firm rejection of the assertion that “all men are created equal” applied to blacks as well as whites.
Before concluding his remarks, Davis offered his “apology for any pain which, in heat of discussion, I have inflicted,” and expressed his hope for peaceful relations between the North and South. He did not think the slavery issue need be divisive on a national level. He had his views; others had theirs. He believed there was a middle ground that could be achieved through compromise. America was, nonetheless, on the eve of the Great Civil War.
Another Southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who later became America’s 17th president, was openly hostile to Davis’ position. A few weeks after the Mississippi senator’s farewell speech, Johnson had this to say about him: “I cannot understand how he can be willing to hail another banner, and turn from that of his country . . . It seems to me that if I could not unsheathe my sword in vindication of the flag of my country . . . I would return the sword to its scabbard. I would never sheathe it in the bosom of my mother! Never! Never!”
Stephen Douglas, in his debates with Abraham Lincoln, argued that people should be “free to do as they please, to have slavery or not, as they choose.” His notion of “freedom” included the “freedom” to enslave. Compromise, very much like “compassion” today, was accorded a special reverence.
What great moral lessons were gleaned from the Civil War? Did America learn that “all men are created equal”? Not really. She learned that there could be no compromise between slavery and non-slavery. She has yet to learn there can be no compromise between being aborted and not being aborted.
The language that promoted slavery in the 19th century and led to the Civil War is strikingly similar to the language that has promoted abortion and led to the terrible divisiveness that currently exists. How far this divisiveness will go is difficult to say, but its intensity seems to be increasing on a daily basis. The governor of New York, for instance, has declared that there is no room in his state for people who are defenders of intrauterine life.
Words such as freedom, right, compassion, compromise, and liberty have many shades of meaning and application. In one era they can be recruited to support slavery; in our time they are enlisted to rationalize abortion. The same words that can inspire and set us on the right path can also betray us. They can educate; they can seduce. The devil knows well how to utilize the English language. History has not taught us the art of using words wisely. We may have learned something about the evil of slavery, but as a nation we have yet to learn about the evil of abortion.
Abraham Lincoln remarked in an 1864 speech that “The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one.” What followed that bracing claim then is well-worth quoting now:
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.
Today, words continue to mislead. We fail to learn from the mistakes of the past mostly because we are limited, finite creatures. But we also fail because we do not know how to speak respectfully to each other, that is, by using words honestly, properly—and wisely.