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December 27, 2011 9:11 am

The Amend Corner: Nothing New

Written by Don Amend

In just a few days, it will be January, the beginning of a new 12-month period that we  will call 2012.

One of the odd things about our tracking of time is that, while we name our years based on calculations made by a Christian monk back about a millenium and a half ago, we name our months after the gods and emperors of the pagan Roman Empire. Consequently, we call next month January, after the Roman god Janus.

Being polytheists, the Romans had a god for just about everything, and Janus was in charge of gates and doors, so he was recognized during periods of transition, including stuff like being born, reaching adulthood and getting married. So it’s rather appropriate, I suppose, that he would be the god in charge of the first month of the year.

Anyway, the thing about Janus is that he had two faces, which were aimed in opposite directions,  giving him the ability to look backward and forward at the same time, which is kind of what we’re doing this week — remembering  last year and looking forward to next.

Well, as we look forward, there’s a lot of apprehension about what 2012 will bring. We are, after all, still trying to find our way back to economic prosperity, and while our war in Iraq has ended (we hope), the one in Afghanistan is still on. If that’s not enough, there’s always the prospect of new enemies popping up and Mother Nature’s tendency to drop hurricanes, drought, earthquakes and floods into the mix of things to worry about.

And, of course, 2012 will be an election year, so politicians on all sides will spend most of the year warning us of the horrors that will happen if the other side wins the election in November.

I wasn’t given the gift of prophecy, so I’m not one to try to predict the future.

The past, though, is a different story, and I’ve been looking backward a little over two centuries in recent days while trying to finish reading an excellent—and rather lengthy—biography of George Washington. Doing so has refreshed my memory of the events surrounding the beginning of America as we know it, and, as always, I’m fascinated by how familiar some of the situations back then seem today.

All was not peaceful during the eight years Washington served as president. Just as today, the country was divided, often bitterly. Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton both supported a strong central government based on their experiences as military leaders trying to fight a war for a weak central government. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and U.S. Representative James Madison, neither of whom had served in the military during the war, were opposed. Consequently, the two sides clashed over the national debt, the power of banks, taxation, the value of money and the size of the bureaucracy, all the same issues that are driving our current political debate.

They also clashed over foreign policy, most particularly over our relationships with England and France. Washington wanted good relations with England and was troubled by the excesses of the French Revolution, while Jefferson was suspicious of England and supported the French revolution.

It was a nasty rivalry, and despite the esteem Washington had earned with his life, some members of the press attacked him viciously. Jefferson gave one Philip Freneau a token position in the State Department, but his real job was trashing Hamilton’s policies in a newspaper. Another, Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Ben Franklin, actually questioned the patriotism of Washington, suggesting that he had really not wanted America to defeat England and had not tried very hard to win the war.

These people commonly believed that Washington was really a monarchist who wanted to be king, a ridiculous accusation given that Washington really didn’t want to be president and considered retiring even before his first term was complete.

Today, of course, we tend to look back on those men with reverence, believing that somehow they were above such behavior, unlike our political leadership. But that’s not a realistic view. Washington, Jefferson, et. al. were politicians, and they were forming political parties even as they publicly decried the formation of parties. And the Freneaus and Baches of the world were every bit as nasty as today’s cable news commentators.

So as we approach the new year, it’s worth remembering this bit of Old Testament wisdom, which I’ll quote in the King James Version because this year was the 400th birthday of that translation:

“Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.”

As we enter the new year, it’s natural that we look ahead, and just as natural that we will be a bit uneasy about what lies ahead. But we also should look backward — not at the mythology of the past, or the past as we wish it had been, but on the reality of the way things were. Doing so will remind us that we have fought the same battles before and we have survived, and we can draw on the memory of those battles to survive again.

Happy New Year.

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