Thoughts Informed by History

A Commentary on History and Current Affairs

Month: July, 2014

Oliver Cromwell’s Head

Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War that the real war would not get into books. In fact, many past events either don’t get into history books at all or are inserted without the necessary context to understand past events.

I just finished reading a short essay about Oliver Cromwell’s head. (See “Severance Package” by Frances Larson in the current Harper’s Magazine.) His head was separated from his embalmed body in 1661 after the monarchy regained control of the government of England. It was then stuck on a pike and put on display at Westminster for a number of years. It then came into the possession of various individuals who exhibited it in museums, shops, and their private residences. After three centuries, in 1960, the head was buried on the grounds of Sussex College in Cambridge, England. For more information, google “Oliver Cromwell’s Head”.

In the twenty-first century, how do we comprehend this treatment of a human head? Charles II may have been taking revenge on the body of the man responsible for the execution of Charles I. The government may have been threatening future rebels against its authority. As the events of the English Civil War receded into the more remote past, why continue to display the head? The head had become a mere curiosity, not a symbol of a historical individual.

This progression from human being to symbol to object is one we must continually guard against.  We mourn the people killed in the crash of Malaysian Flight 17 and sympathize with children who flee poverty and violence to seek a better life in the United States.   All too quickly, these individuals become symbols of a war in Ukraine, conflict between Obama and Putin, our immigration crisis, or conflict between Obama and a Republican Congress.  They are no longer persons with hopes and dreams and families that love them.  In months, if not weeks, they will merely be the catalysts that caused important conflicts and changes.  Or worse, their deaths and the circumstances of their lives will make no difference to anyone else.  Obama and Putin are in our headlines and our history books, but only family members will know the names of the people who died in Ukraine or crossed the Rio Grande.


Jame MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist and historian, died last Tuesday, July 15, 2014, at the age of ninety five.  He was the author of numerous books, but the one I remember is the two volume biography of FDR:  Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1956) and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1970).  He won a Pulitzer Prize for the latter work.  He admired Roosevelt but was also critical of him.  (At the time of his death, his two dogs were named Roosevelt and Jefferson.)

His nuanced view of FDR is made clear by the subtitle of the first volume and the fact that excerpts from The Prince by Machiavelli (1469-1527) are quoted at the beginning of both books.  In the Lion and the Fox, Burns quotes the following from chapter XVIII of The Prince, “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith”.

“A prince … must imitate the fox and lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.  One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.   Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.  Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist.  If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.”

I suppose that if we committed that passage to memory, news stories and world and national events would neither surprise nor shock us, although we might be more prone to being depressed.

Lambert Castle

After much effort, I added the above photo of Lambert Castle, located on Garret Mountain in Paterson, New Jersey.  It was built in the 1890s by a wealthy silk industrialist.  Today it houses a museum and the New Jersey Historical Society.


I commented on someone else’s blog and took the opportunity to set up  blog of my own, something I had thought about for a while.

I intend to comment on how the knowledge of history will provide insight into current events.  Your responses on my thoughts are welcome, and I trust there will follow polite, thoughtful discussions about the issues and complexities of the contemporary world.