The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Providence, R.I., has these words inscribed on its side: “Speak to the Past, and It Shall Teach Thee.”
This quote is a trite truism – one of many about the value of history. Mark Twain has his “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes,” and William Faulkner famously asserted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But these quotes suffer so many variations from prolific writers and thinkers because the sentiment is perpetually prescient: The value of learning from history cannot be overstated.
Absolving accused witches
Connecticut lawmakers recently acknowledged this value by absolving 12 women and men convicted of witchcraft during colonial-era witch trials. The measure to do so passed 33-1, with the sole no vote coming from state Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Southington). Proponents of the measure cited the value of acknowledging history and moving together toward a brighter future with historical lessons in hand, but Sampson mocked the measure, saying that he didn’t want to see bills like this because they paint America as a bad place. He also stated that it’s wrong and childlike to dictate what was right and wrong about periods of the past.
There is some truth in Sampson’s statement about dictating the morality of the past: We have the aid of hindsight and all the benefits conferred by time. It is only with these gifts that we are able to reflect upon and judge the past. But Sampson is wrong in his approach and reasoning. Society progresses because we commune with the past and acknowledge the successes, mistakes and failures of those who preceded us. Perhaps over 370 years ago in Connecticut, executing 11 suspected witches was believed to be a moral, good decision. But by any modern standard, it is barbaric. It is wrong. And it ought to be condemned with the full force of the law.
Sampson’s quote is not just nearsighted; it also applies a standard of ignorance and apathy that would bar any nation from recognizing its wrongdoings. Should America not recognize our egregious wrongdoing in the Trail of Tears? Should we ignore the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? Should we forget America’s history of racial oppression, ignore slavery and Jim Crow? The obvious and correct answer is no. By acknowledging the past we become more aware of not only our history, but the ways in which that history shapes the present. We become aware of the systemic injustices that the past has wrought upon us now. And we can start the complicated process of becoming better.
Misuses of history
The senator’s remarks bring to mind conservative Christian appeals to the myth of America’s Christian origin. The effort to reinvent America as such is only aided by comments like those made by Sampson; by obfuscating the past, discarding unpleasant facts and only accepting positive interpretations of events, we allow Christian Nationalists to falsely hail America as a “Christian nation.” We also lose the lessons of what happens governments decide to enforce religion as the basis for a society’s moral and legal codes.
Whether it is the old literal witch hunts in Salem and Connecticut or the current metaphorical ones against the trans community, we can see the history of persecution rhyming. It is our job to take the lessons about what happens when church and state become one and use that knowledge to protect America, and our marginalized communities, from suffering that fate.
Photo: An old print depicting a witch trial