The President’s House by George Munger, 1814-1815 (public domain - The White House Historical Association)
“The past is always tense, and the future, perfect.” — Zadie Smith, 2000
Did you know that the War of 1812 technically should never have taken place?
In the decades that followed the American Revolution, the United States was still an upstart. An experiment. World powers looked on with something of wonder, amusement, and skepticism.
When the British and French continued their centuries-long conflict, America was neutral.
However, in 1805, the British determined that they weren’t going to allow American ships through to France. Similarly, Napoleon ordered that neutral vessels sailing into British ports were subject to confiscation.
By 1812, President James Madison determined that America needed to be shown the respect it had earned. And on June 18, 1812, Congress officially declared war on Great Britain — for the second time in three decades.
But just two days before — on June 16 — a motion was entered before the British council that the interference with American vessels was to cease. And the motion passed.
In those days, transatlantic communication was glacial. It could take up to a month for important missives to pass between the continents.
It’s difficult to imagine that now, when not only can we reach each other simultaneously in multiple modes of communication, but we can even get things delivered to our doorstep within an hour of ordering them online.
We’d like to think that we wouldn’t fall victim to having our lines crossed in the 21st century. After all, we’d know things at the speed of light.
That’s mostly true.
But we’re also victims of constantly focusing on whatever captures our attention at the moment, as we’re distracted by notifications and more content online than we can read in 100 lifetimes.
It robs us of a more balanced perspective of the past, of calm and considered thought, or even of time to reflect on our mistakes or successes of that day.
In The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, David McCullough captured our fixation with the here and now:
“I have decided that the digital watch is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only the time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know.”
Yes, we need to be attuned to what is happening at the moment. But more than ever, today’s leaders need time — time to focus, time to reflect, time to consider what past events can teach them about present challenges.
Doing so may stave off a catastrophic future event.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Two more things
While we’re talking about the present and future, here are two previous entries you should consider; if you don’t have time to read them now, bookmark them for later.
Present Tense: Why we all ought to be more interested in history.
Future Perfect: The future was already here – it just wasn't evenly read.
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