Thank you for inviting me to be with you on this auspicious occasion. I have long been aware of the invaluable public service rendered to South Carolina by the University South Caroliniana Society. You carry on a great public trust, and you render a priceless service to the future of South Carolina, America, and the world.
I speak to you today on matters historical, the concept of history, and the value of the study of history—if any. As the President of the College of Charleston for almost a decade, I lived and worked at all times immersed in history.
The College was founded 235 years ago by the same men who helped found the United States of America: Rutledge, Heyward, Middleton, Rutledge, Pinckney, and Pinckney—three men who signed the Declaration of Independence and three other men who were authors of the Constitu¬tion.
I lived in the house in which John Rutledge last lived. As every South Carolinian knows, he was Chief Justice of the United States when George Washington was President. John Rutledge died in the President’s House at the College of Charleston.
The tourists came through the President’s House every Saturday morning, and sometimes my bed wasn’t made up. We told them, “That’s the bed John Rutledge died in. We leave it like that in his memory.” Yankees will believe anything. They present us with the grand opportunity, in the words of Lincoln, to “fool some of the people all of the time.”
The story of my family in South Carolina begins in the early 1700s. The opening of eighteenth-century England was marked by a rebirth of missionary zeal in the Church of England, one result of which was the organization in 1701 of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The influence of the Society would eventually extend throughout the world.
At the time, the Rev. Samuel Thomas lived in the town of Bury St. Edmund, in England, with his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children. He offered himself as the first missionary to the Carolina Colony. His application was accepted, and he set sail on October 1, 1702, arriving in Charles Towne two months, three weeks, and four days later, on Christmas Day, 1702.
He became a missionary to the Yemassee Indians and thereafter to the newly-arriving Africans, for whom he developed a special affection. Ironically, his son, Charles Edward, would later fight the Yemassees in the War of 1715. The Rev. Samuel Thomas became the first member of my family to arrive in America. His son, the Indian fighter, was the second.
Thirty-five years ago, Zoe and I traveled to Bury St. Edmund, the town in England where the Rev. Samuel Thomas lived before coming to America. Before we left, my uncle, retired Syracuse University professor Charles Edward Thomas, the family historian and namesake of the Yemassee Indian fighter, gave me some advice. My uncle lived in Greenville, South Carolina, at the time.
“You will find the town unchanged since the Rev. Samuel Thomas departed,” he said. “The streets are still paved with cobblestones, and the roofs are still thatched,” he said. “Go first to the Cathedral, and find the graves of our ancestors,” he said. “Make rubbings of their tombstones,” he said. “And be sure you arrive on a Saturday,” he said. “On Saturdays they have a street fair. Farmers and merchants from the surrounding area bring their wares to town,” he said. “Buy a steak and kidney pie,” he said. “It will have been cooked in an oven that hasn’t been cool since the sixteenth century.”
We went to Bury St. Edmund. Just as my uncle said, the streets were still paved with cobblestones, and the roofs were still thatched. We went first to the Cathedral, and we found the graves of my ancestors. We made rubbings of their tombstones. We arrived on Saturday. The street fair was in full swing. We bought a steak and kidney pie, and I asked the vendor, “Tell me, kind sir, might it be at all possible for me to see your oven?” His eyes lit up. “Oh,” he said. “You most certainly may, kind sir. In all of Bury St. Edmund, our oven is our most prized possession.”
He led me by the hand down a winding lane, paved with cobblestones, and into a small stone cottage with a thatched roof. There it was, the much exalted oven that my uncle said had not been cooled since the sixteenth century. It was made of tempered glass and aluminum, and it had a nameplate on it saying, “Barbecue King, Greenville, South Carolina.” My uncle was a fine historian, but sometimes he exaggerated.
A woman came to see me recently. She was writing a book about how the Civil War is still a pervasive influence and a great burden in the South. She was from the North. I told her she was in the wrong place. She needed to go to Hilton Head. We’re doing pretty well in Charleston. Hilton Head, on the other hand, is what 250,000 Confederates died to prevent. That’s the real “lost cause.” I don’t even entirely believe that. It’s just that I can’t stand condescending Yankees.
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, said: “Those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.” I have always thought that anyone who ever heard that quote is condemned to repeat it. Napoleon said, “History is but a fable agreed upon.” Time is the enemy of truth. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford. A man named Ambrose Bierce, in his book The Devil’s Dictionary, defined history as “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are bought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “In every half-century, at the longest, a family should be merged into the great abstract mass of humanity and forget about its ancestors.”
Looking to history for a scaling of values always confronts the problem of differentiating history from historians, or in the words of Yeats, the dancers from the dance, or in those of Santayana, looking over a crowd to find your friends. History is hard to pin down because history vanishes the instant it happens, and all history is a negotiation between the familiar and the strange. Still, history will always have its moments of high drama and its lessons for today. All history is biography, said Emerson.
Thomas Babington Macaulay put it best when he defined history as divided between reason and imagination: “a compound of poetry and philosophy,” he said. He lamented that the best stories were being told to the biggest audiences not by historians but by the novelists of the day. None was more accomplished than Sir Walter Scott. Macaulay compared him to the apprentice of a medieval master of stained-glass windows, who collected shards and fragments discarded as worthless by the master and assembled them into a window of unparalleled splendor in Lincoln Cathedral. The modern equivalent of Sir Walter Scott is Steven Spielberg, and an example of his great creative genius is his recent motion picture “Amistad.”
In 1839, the Spanish slave-ship La Amistad was captured and taken to America, with fifty black Africans crammed in the ship’s hole. Spain’s eleven-year-old queen was furious over the loss of her ship and its cargo; the putative slave owners demanded the return of their property; the officers of the ship that intercepted the Amistad claimed salvage rights; and even the New England abolitionists were not so sure their cause wouldn’t be better served if the Africans were martyred. Litigation ensued as to their status and ownership. The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court.
The issue presented was whether the Africans were merely the ship’s cargo or human beings. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, long since retired from public life, was called upon to argue the case for the Africans. Like his father, John Adams, John Quincy Adams was an exceptional lawyer, a much better lawyer than he had been a President. He was seventy-two years old at the time.
The movie is historically quite accurate. I have read the transcripts of the court proceedings. One of the ways in which the movie is inaccurate is itself quite interesting. Steven Spielberg concocts the fantasy that the leader of the Africans met with John Quincy Adams and told his lawyer that they will not go to court alone. “No, no, we will have right on our side,” John Quincy Adams says. “No,” the African replies. “I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past and beg them to come. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.” What a thought. I’m glad Steven Spielberg improved history with that wonderful idea: “I am the whole reason [my ancestors] have existed at all.”
Against that spectacular backdrop, John Quincy Adams argued the case by invoking the memory of the Founding Fathers—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and his own father, John Adams. Their marble statues surrounded him in the courtroom.
Although the movie doesn’t show it, according to the transcript, he reminded the Justices of the United States Supreme Court that an even more supreme court awaited them. “I can only [enter] a fervent petition to Heaven,” he said, “that every member of [this Court] may go to his final account with as little earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead.” He concludes with these stirring words: “We have come to understand,” he said, “that who we are is who we were.” “Who we are is who we were,” he said.
You really must hear his argument yourself. Modern technology makes that miracle possible. Ladies and gentlemen, John Quincy Adams argues before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the cargo of the Spanish slave-ship La Amistad: [film clip].
As South Carolinians, we have a rich heritage. We are the sum total of generations of growing, yearning, of planning and failing, of building and destroying and building again. Whether we like it or not, within each of us, it we look back far enough, is the entire history of America. We contain the potential, the energy, the dreams of all who have gone before us; and if we are to discover our own unique role on earth we must look back at those dreams and try to understand why they failed and how they succeeded, so that we may dream more clearly and act more nobly in our own lives. That is our great responsibility to our history and to our future.
We must think of those who have gone before with the kind of piety Confucius thought should be accorded to ancestors. Our obligation is not merely to pass on the South Carolina they have given us. Anybody who thinks that has never read the parable of the talents. Once again, the words of George Santayana: “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past, and we must respect the past, remembering it was once all that was humanly possible.” We must never forget our debt to our ancestors. We must remember that, at this very moment, we are “the whole reason they have existed at all.” We must never forget “who we are is who we were.”