President Hamilton?

Though the quote has appeared in several different forms over the years, philosopher George Santayana wrote this: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If I may, I would like to reword this famous statement and apply it to a current event: “Those who never learn the past are condemned to misstate it.”

What has prompted me to mess with the immortal words of Santayana? A monumental President’s Day blunder by online coupon provider Groupon, that’s what. According to a plethora of major news outlets Groupon issued a news release last week promoting $10 off of local deals over $40, complete with this explanation of the deal: “The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamilton — undeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country’s financial system.”

Now, in Groupon’s defense, Hamilton is generally credited with laying the foundations of the nation’s financial system, having served as the first Secretary of the Treasury the U.S. ever had. However, as with Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, Hamilton never served as president of the United States.

Compounding the problem, Fox News has reported that upon being informed of the blunder Erin Yeager, Groupon spokesperson, told, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Agree to disagree? Whether or not someone was ever president of the United States is not a matter of opinion; it is historical fact, easily checked and verified.

Groupon’s press release–which, believe it or not, is still available on its web site–refers to Hamilton as president three times and refers to him once as “our money-minded commander-in-chief.”

In the grand scheme of things this is pathetic but not that big a deal. However, it is evidence of a greater problem. That problem is a two-edged sword of ignorance of and disrespect for U.S. history. There is no excuse for having multiple professionals at a major corporation failing to recognize that Alexander Hamilton was never president of the United States. (Presumably more than one person has to approve press releases and ad campaigns). There is no excuse for a company spokesperson responding “we’ll have to agree to disagree” when the error was identified. The error was a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both), and the explanation once the error was identified is a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both, but most likely the latter).

Furthermore, the explanation is a prime example of the foolishness of relativism. Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth, that all beliefs and points of view are relative, subjective, and based on the preferences and viewpoints of those who adhere to them. “Agree to disagree” is a shorthand definition of “tolerance” and it works fine for things like which baseball team has a better starting rotation, which fast food chain has the best French fries or even which U.S. president was the best president. Those are topics subject to legitimate differences of opinion and conviction. There are different ways of defining “best” and legitimate, cogent, rational arguments could be made for multiple answers to those questions. Relativism has its place. I see it demonstrated almost daily at family meal times, for example–particularly when it comes to the vegetable of the meal and the opinions of my children as to how good–or not good–the vegetable may be!

Relativism has no place, however, when it comes to verifiable facts. There can be a difference of opinion as to which fast food chain has the best French fries, but whether or not a fast food chain even exists or even serves French fries is not open for discussion; the answer can be found and proven. Which U.S. president was the best will bring plenty of different answers, and you will probably find plenty of them today in particular, since it is Presidents Day. At a minimum I can guarantee you will find arguments for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. There is no definitive standard by which one can determine “best president” so that range of opinion is fine–healthy, even. But there is no question as to whether or not Alexander Hamilton was a U.S. president.

It is a sad day when a major company errs on what should be basic elementary school history. My favorite professor in college used to refer to some things by saying, “Every good schoolboy or schoolgirl should know this….” Sadly, the number of things every good schoolboy or schoolgirl knows is rapidly diminishing. That is due in no small part to an observation regularly made by my favorite graduate school professor: “Sometimes there is nothing common about common sense.”

The Gettysburg Address

Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that Lincoln was not the keynote speaker that day, that he did not speak very long, and that he did not seem to think that his words would have any lasting impact, his remarks that day are unquestionably among the most important speeches in American history. It is not by chance or happenstance that his words are still remembered and studied a century and a half later. The text is engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and memorizing the speech is still fairly common among schools and even colleges in the United States.

I had a unique experience with the Gettysburg Address while I was in college. I was taking an honors course entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg: Propositions of Equality. The course was taught by my favorite professor, Dr. Myron Marty, and we spent the entire semester studying first Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg and then the impact of those words in general and the attempts by other presidents after Lincoln to effect the equality Lincoln spoke so eloquently about. (I, for example, was assigned to look at the first President Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act). my unique experience, though, came when we were supposed to report to class one day with a question we had about the Gettysburg Address. I had forgotten to think of a question in advance and so, as Mr. Marty (as he preferred to be called) told us that he was going to distribute 3 x 5 cards and we were to write down our questions I quickly thought of this one: How, if at all, would Lincoln have changed his remarks if he could have known that they would still be studied more than a hundred years later? Mr. Marty then collected the questions and proceeded to read them aloud to the class, first telling us that we would have to select one of the questions to be the topic for a research paper we were going to write. For some reason only he will ever know, when Mr. Marty read my question he looked at me (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye) and said, “I am going to require you to write your paper on this question.”

In my mind I was thinking, “Thanks a lot! It is an interesting and thought-provoking question(if I do say so myself), but how in the world am I going to research what Lincoln might have done if he had known something he did not know?” Well, researching that paper turned out to be a fascinating experience for me, and I got an A on it. I think I still have it somewhere, but since I am not going to share it here right now I will go ahead and give you my conclusion: had he known his comments would be remembered and studied long after he spoke them Lincoln probably would have spent much more time crafting them and probably would have changed them, but he should not have changed them. In other words, they were practically perfect just as he delivered them.

Lincoln’s words have echoed through the decades because of what he accomplished in just a few minutes. He recalled the founding of the country, and the belief that all mean are created equal. The Constitution, of course, did not originally reflect that belief given that it did not grant women the right to vote and permitted slavery, but the belief was there in the hearts and minds of many and that belief was eventually recognized with the abolition of slavery and the granting of voting rights to women and non-whites. It has not been recognized yet in one very important way, though, and that is that unborn children are still legally murdered when their mothers decide for whatever reason not to allow them to live. This is a clear violation of the idea that all men are created equal. This idea is also being perverted by those who insist that homosexuals deserve the right to marry. I have explained numerous times why homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue, so I will not do so again. My point, though, is that the idea that all men are created equal has still not reached its complete fulfillment.

There is far more within the Gettysburg Address that is worthy of examination. If you cannot remember the words of the speech I encourage you to look them up and find them–it will not be hard! Take time to think about the message Lincoln shared that day one hundred and fifty years ago. Take time to reflect on the sacrifice paid by men and women in defense of this nation and the freedoms we hold dear…a sacrifice eventually paid by Lincoln himself. Take time to reflect on Lincoln’s conviction that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” and think about the danger being posed to that government by the actions of our current elected officials.

Lincoln’s speech was brief, but heartfelt. He spoke out of the convictions of his heart. There were no speech writers, no teleprompters…he wrote the words himself and he delivered them reverently and solemnly. They are still remembered because they are powerful and, if we let them, they still have much to say to us today.