As the old saying goes, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s exactly what’s happening in U.S. politics right now. The high level of conflict we see on the news is not evidence of our country’s decline, however, but a symptom of its continued stagnation. In-fighting, back-biting politicians, frustrated citizens, callous opportunists, and media feeding frenzies that gleefully spread rumors, lies and propaganda, these features of modern democracy are actually as old as George Washington’s presidency. How do I know this? Why do I care? And perhaps more importantly, why should you care?
Remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity? “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Well, as it turns out, the U.S. has essentially been having the same intensely heated debate — using the same worn out, ineffective strategies — for the last 230 years. No wonder we all feel so crazy! The first step out of the asylum, however, involves actually recognizing that at a multi-generational level we’ve been doing all kinds of fruitless things over and over again, in the name of freedom, no less!
I was getting tired of hearing so many misconceptions about the history of democracy on talk radio and satellite TV. This puts me in a most unfamiliar position as I have never thought of myself as a history buff or a politically-minded person. But literally and metaphorically I’ve been following horses around for the last 20 years, writing books and developing workshops on what these amazing animals have to teach people.
In 2009, I was surprised to discover how dramatically these powerful, non-predatory creatures have influenced our most progressive human leaders over the last 3,000 years — and, in particular, at crucial turning points in our own country’s development. Quite unexpectedly, the horses trotted me down the winding road of U.S. history and dropped me off on George Washington’s doorstep for a good nine months of research. Then they herded me on over to Andrew Jackson’s era to watch the nineteenth century’s feistiest, backwoods leader fight a real, honest-to-goodness duel — over a horserace. That our seventh president won this deadly contest, against a much better marksman, not only reveals important features of Jackson’s character, the incident sheds considerable light on the admirable strengths and debilitating weaknesses of the modern American psyche.
As it turns out, these key moments in history provide significant perspective on our current social and political challenges. It is my hope that rather than being doomed to repeat history unconsciously, we can all become occasional history buffs to more fully understand where we’ve been, so that we, as concerned citizens and leaders of the future, can consciously alter our counterproductive behavior and move on to greener pastures.