On Chronology in History
November 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a review of what looks a fascinating book, Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. The review, however, is plagued by an inability to keep a historical chronology. I always remind my students that chronology matters, especially in a history class. And when grading exams and essays, I find myself over and over again writing “Chronology?” in the margins.
The review, by Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, is plagued by such problems. For example, he recounts Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 ‘Report on the Subject of Manufactures,’ wherein he argued that the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend on internal infrastructure. But then, in the next sentence: “Hamilton’s view was rejected by President James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, who both vetoed major infrastructure legislation passed by Congress” for constitutional reasons. Problem is, in 1791, George Washington was President. Madison was elected president in 1809, 18 years after Hamilton’s ‘Report,’ and 5 years after Hamilton was murdered in a duel by Aaron Burr.
On the next page, Klein recounts the creation of the interstate highway system in the US. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the key here, as almost anyone knows (you know, those signs on the interstates that note they are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The key legislation here came in 1956. Klein writes:
Eisenhower’s highways were part of a series of great infrastructure projects that helped usher in unprecedented prosperity. Government investment and private entrepreneurship laid railroads across the continent; built huge power plants, such as the Hoover Dam; and provided universal phone coverage. Those projects generated economic growth and united the nation.
Factually, this is true. Infrastructure did aid in national growth and unity. But. The railroads were built in the late 19th century. The Hoover Dam was built from 1931-33. In other words, looooong before the interstate system. And while Klein is making a larger point about the need for government investment in the US’s ailing infrastructure, his inability to maintain a chronological reality here undercuts his argument about the importance of the Eisenhower system, given it was the last of these infrastructural developments and nearly a generation after the other examples he provides.
In short, kids, chronology matters.