Does History Really Repeat Itself? Understanding Change over Time

We’ve all heard it before. “History repeats itself!” It’s a common phrase used by people from elementary students to retirees. We love to look at our present, compare it to the past, and then focus on all of the similarities to say “we’ve seen this before.” If you’ve ever talked with a historian, though, you’re bound to hear a challenge. Historians love nuance. As we navigate the past through the evidence at hand, its complexities surface and the old-time saying begins to lose its authority. Sure, there are patterns and similarities that span time, but if we want to wrestle with the complexity of the past, we should challenge simple notions of repetition. 

The study of history is the study of change over time. When we look at the causes of events, the ascension of power, or the economic dynamics of society, we are acknowledging change. Without change, there is nothing to study. In fact, the reason we seek out similarities is because so much of the past can often feel foreign. Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t continuities throughout history. To challenge the adage “History repeats itself,” does not mean we cannot acknowledge continuities across time periods, geographic locations, or groups of people. In fact, at Thinking Nation, our historical thinking curriculum stresses the importance of recognizing these patterns in order to help us better read our own current moment so that we can be informed citizens who are equipped to strengthen our democracy.

A prime example of understanding how both change and continuity are at play when we study the past can be seen in presidential elections. As we approach the election, we are inundated with advertisements that try to point out negative qualities of each of the two main candidates. These ads can lead to further polarization and cement partisan viewpoints. This polarization can become very unhealthy in a democracy, where people refuse to work across party lines and therefore stagnate any real change from occurring. But while some people can overlook the hindrance this causes for our government to function, others can be overly alarmist in their fears that all is lost. When we look at the past, however, we can land in the middle, recognizing the ways that we have seen this polarization before.

In 1800, President John Adams ran for a second term against his friend and fellow founder, Thomas Jefferson. Yale historian, Joanne B. Freeman describes the election this way: “Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective. Dire predictions of warfare and national collapse. Innovative new forms of politicking capitalizing on a growing technology.” Of course, this sounds like current ad campaigns, but as it turns out, these strategies embodied the election of 220 years ago. The media at the time, newspapers, aligned with either the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) or the Federalists (Adams) and sought to tear the character of the opponent apart. Fears of losing all religious and moral virtue were spread if Jefferson were to win, while autocracy and loss of democracy was feared if Adams reigned victorious. Jefferson ended up winning (after tying with fellow Republican, Aaron Burr, resulting in a deadlock in the House of Representatives). Jefferson became the first non-Federalist to become President, which meant that his transition into the White House marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties. 

This story should bring us a sense of comfort. Its similarities to our current moment, fraught with “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and kindling] the animosity of one part against another” (As George Washington warned in 1796) were overcome through Constitutional means. Our Constitutional framework held up against unpredictability and bitter partisanship. We can take comfort that it will do it again next month.

Of course, there are myriad differences between our current political moment and that of 1800. We cannot simply assume that history will repeat itself and that there will not be real damage if polarization only grows. Thus, if we think historically, we can acknowledge the similarities of the past and resist shock-value scares by the media. Simultaneously, we can recognize important changes and as citizens, continue to fight for the preservation of democracy. Next week, we will dive further into what it means to recognize both continuities between past and present and change over time, but for now, let us continue to push ourselves to be a [historically] thinking nation.