Liberals and conservatives view history in starkly different terms.
One of Justin Trudeau’s first acts of premiership was to re-hang a modernist painting by Alfred Pellan, which had been on display in the Pearson Building for X years before Stephen Harper replaced it with a portrait of the Queen. The Harper government had been criticized, mostly by liberals, for itsrestoration of monarchical symbols, its focus on the traditional interpretation of Canada’s history (especially military), and its fiscal privileging of War of 1812 bicentenaries.
Upon turning 50, a man might have the realization that just four of his lifetimes, arranged end to end, spans two centuries. The longer he lives, the shorter history seems to become, and so too, the closer and the dearer. Contemplating those War of 1812 anniversaries, he might well ask himself, “Has it been only 200 years?” Or, “Is history, like youth, wasted on the young?”
Such is perhaps a fitting illustration of the affection for history typical of many conservatives (and not just older ones). For liberals, meanwhile, history is relevant, if thought of at all, only as herald to the present. Time, according to the liberal conceit, is a linear roadway pre-paved for societies, the decades and centuries servingas milestones of their inevitable progress. The past, then, having been left behind in that march of destiny, is the definition of inadequacy. Hence, Justin Trudeau’s fatuous shrugged reply—“It's 2015”—when questioned on the artificial sex-parity of his first Cabinet.
Exemplary of the liberal attitude to history is a curious anachronism found in many period dramas: the character who flatters the viewers’ present by his improbable awareness of his own past-ness, and who eagerly anticipates the arrival of their future with its improvements, technological and moral. The otherwise excellent Murdoch Mysteriesoften disappoints in this way.
Every era, though, sees itself on the temporal cutting edge. We are well accustomed today to Mach-2 fighter jets, but imagine how fantastically futuristic dog-fighting aircraftof the Great War must have seemed in the then-new 20thcentury.
Even the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812 and the Waterloo campaign among them, had their Congreve rockets, immortalized (the rocket’s red glare) in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inspired by the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.
The liberal, regardless, refuses to give the past any credit for having once been present. And how paltry and contemptible must 2015 seem now to Mr. Trudeau, another six years hence. Indeed, in the broader perspective, the liberal always considers his own time to have superseded history, and history to have ended, its crowning achievement his generation and him.
The conservative, by contrast, sees the present not as moving away from, overcoming or escaping the past, but as growing out of it, organically, like one and the same life-tree: changing to be sure, but continuing. The fertile field in which it grows is a timeless chaos of free-willed human thought and action. Both he and his present time, the conservative feels, are made of history and a part of it, meaningless if abstracted from it.
People instinctively recognize this. A charming old inn is the object of a feeling difficult to define, but which seems to be a species of nostalgia (from Greek: homesickness), projected trans-generationally, historically.
The historical significance of an event, then, is not its linear-chronological proximity to, or remoteness from, the present, but rather its mass and gravitational pull in the ever-present historical firmament, which is to say, the extent to which it aggregates, and manifests physically, multiple filaments of human thought-action. Just some of these, in the case of the Battle of Waterloo, for example, are: rationalism and revolution vs. empiricism and continuity; universalism and uniformity vs. patriotism and particularism; passion and willfulness vs. restraint and deference; charismatic dictatorship vs. constitutional monarchy; the Dionysian vs. the Apollonian; the French idea vs. the British; hubris vs. nemesis; the upstart climber (Napoleon) vs. the manor-born establishment aristocrat (Wellington).
For such a tectonic event—“that world-earthquake,” said Tennyson—the “Battle of” modifier seems confining or unnecessary, and for this reason it is frequently dispensed with. Waterloo’s plenary implications live on in manifold forms: memorials, bridges, stations, roads, cities, the expression “to meet [one’s] Waterloo,” and a popular song by a group (Abba) from a country (Sweden) not even among the several represented at the battle.
Four Ontario communities—Picton, Maitland, Colborne, and Kemptville—memorialize senior British officers serving under Wellington that day: Sir Thomas Picton (killed); Peregrine Maitland (later Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, then Nova Scotia); Sir John Colborne (later Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, founder of Upper Canada College), and Sir James Kempt (later Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia [hence too: Kemptville, NS], then Governor-in-Chief of British North America). For Arthur Wellesley, 1stDuke of Wellington, there is the village of Arthur (situated in Wellington-North Township within Wellington County, Ontario).
Biographies such as these are the historical thought-action field’s most accessible outgrowths or “flowers,” as well as its most efficient emblems. Biography, via the reader’s affinities for and curiosities about the historical figure, is both the initial point of attraction to history and the portal to richer, more authentic historical understanding.
These processes are facilitated if a biography can be depicted as genuine and real. Elizabeth Longford, in Wellington: The Years of the Sword, startles her readers by presenting the steely-countenanced “Iron Duke” of formal portraiture in a state of emotional exhaustion in the immediate aftermath of his most famous battle. Having dropped onto a camp bed very late without washing, and awakened at three in the morning by chief army surgeon Dr. John Hume, he
sat up … and stretched out his hand.... Hume took it and held it while he told [him] that [wounded Aide-de-camp] Alexander Gordon had just collapsed and died in his arms. Then he recited the long list of casualties which had come in since midnight. It was even more shocking than Wellington had suspected. Dr Hume felt tears dropping on his hand and looking up from the list he saw them chasing down the Duke’s face, making furrows in the sweat and grime. As Wellington brushed them away with his hand he said in a broken voice, "Well, thank God, I don’t know what it is to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends."
John Hare currently is completing a book manuscript on the history and philosophy of history, titled “Flowers for Clio: Carlyle, Biography, Poetry, and the Autonomy of History.”