On History: How we are doomed to learn from it…

Thanks to writer Salena Zito and Mayor Bill Peduto for some thought-provoking historicizing this week.

This need for change was not what many of America’s Founders believed, especially those who worked the land and tended to view history as cyclical, according to Curt Nichols, political scientist at the University of Missouri.

He explained their philosophy: “Things tend to go from good to bad to worse before they get better again. And things only got better if a virtuous citizenry worked hard and was willing to sacrifice to make things better.”

Timing was everything for these “country” thinkers. They believed, as Shakespeare’s Brutus did, that “there is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” (Trib, Salena Zito)

The “country” people who worked the land and made sacrifices were slaves. This point takes nothing away from Zito or Nichols on our agrarian Founders chill zen relaxedness over their annual statements of revenues and expenditures, or about their disinclination towards government intrusion — it strengthens both.

By the time of the Revolution, the tending, harvesting and preparation of America’s cash crops of cotton, indigo, rice and tobacco was, to put it gently, no longer work white people were willing to do. Plantation owners were already fleeing their isolated, factory-like works and barracks for the relative security and comfort of town life. So if disinterest in social change typifies an historical archetype type here, it is at least as much “wealthy suburbanite” as it is “country farmer.”

Which brings us to this:

Mayor Bill Peduto kicked off the p4 Conference last Thursday with a story of the four chapters of Pittsburgh.

Chapter one is rich with tales of George Washington and tells of Pittsburgh’s birth as a frontier town. Chapter two is our time as an industrial giant while chapter three is the story of our Renaissance and subsequent collapse. As for chapter four? (NEXTPgh, Lauri Grotstein)

The next chapter is unwritten, but I would argue that after the messy quarrels over Downtown forts which culminated in Pontiac’s Rebellion, the American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion, the next great chapter in any thumbnail Pittsburgh history is the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

Owing once again to our river traffic, and I suppose to our neighborly nature as a global frontier crossroads, Pittsburgh became a significant nexus and network of railroad “conductors”, fugitive slaves being hastened north, and abolitionist activism. We could do worse than pause to take inspiration from such.

Plus, supplying the Union war effort broadened Pittsburgh’s industrial base.

Once Frick and company really got things going in Chapter three, the impact of Pittsburgh’s mega-industrialization can then be informed by August Wilson’s perspectives on blacks migrating from the Deep South during and after Reconstruction. Our “Renaissance,” highways and urban renewal are then better recognized as reactions, and the “subsequent collapse” perhaps better explained.

4 thoughts on “On History: How we are doomed to learn from it…

  1. Brian Tucker-Hill

    I like to divide up Pittsburgh’s economic history in terms of the dominant transportation mode at the time. So there was the river/canal era, then the train era, then the car/truck era. We did great in the first two eras, and screwed up the third.

    Which nicely frames the question of the upcoming Fourth Chapter. Is this the walking/biking era? Self-driving car era? Urban aerial gondola era? I don’t know, but there are certain common implications of all the likely possibilities we should probably be incorporating into our long-range planning.

  2. Brian Tucker-Hill

    By the way, certainly Pittsburgh in particular pretty much always benefited whenever in the earlier eras of American political history, it was the more “progressive”/”modernizing” Federalists, Whigs, Lincolnian Republicans, and so forth making policy. That is because Pittsburgh is the sort of place that provided boats and bottles for those heading Out West, or steel for railroads and skyscrapers, or education for scientists and engineers.

    Of course the Industrial Revolution doomed the specifically-agrarian visions of the Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and other pre-FDR Democrats anyway. But the broader lesson probably still applies. Pittsburgh is a city that tends to thrive whenever the nation as a whole is investing its capital in “progress” (aka new productive assets). In reactionary periods where rent-seeking is the dominant economic theme, Pittsburgh is likely to relatively suffer. Of course there is widespread disagreement about what policies actually lead to higher invesment in new assets and less rent-seeking, but the actual historical facts on that subject are not so unclear. It is just that history tends to gets ignored when the lessons it teaches are inconvenient for a preferred ideology (and it doesn’t hurt the cause when the rent-seekers in question buy up media outlets and such, in addition to the customary buying of politicians).

    1. bramr101 Post author

      That’s what is tempting about the P4 vision. If they were to come out and say, “America and the world needs to industrialize sustainable tech. And not only do we require a variety of workers; we need a laboratory city with many needs to provide an initial American market”, then I think there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh would reply, “Great!” It’s the kind of thing we’ve always done: build what is needed. But during that same transformation we’d press for sustainable economics (which in part entails livable wages and a sustainable tax base) and always wise, efficient infrastructure investments while they’re experimenting… in addition to the education piece.

      If we can swing that, and continue making progress on the policing matter, then let’s go!


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