“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Andrew Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, President of The Teagle Foundation, and author of many books including The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Professor Delbanco visited Waterford School on November 11 to speak about the essential characteristics of liberal arts teaching and his reflections on the relationship between teaching, research, writing, and the promotion of excellence in liberal arts education. Students and faculty had the opportunity to discuss his book and the liberal arts during discussion groups. Below is an assembly talk given by a Waterford Class X student, Lexi P., to her peers the following day about the experience of meeting with and discussing topics with Andrew Delbanco. 

Andrew Delbanco, Visiting Scholar

Good morning everyone! I’m excited to talk about my experience speaking with Professor Andrew Delbanco this past Monday. 

In assembly about a month and a half ago, Ms. O’Malley invited students to read Professor Delbanco’s book, The War Before the War, and then discuss it with him when he would come to Waterford. When I heard of this opportunity, there were many reasons I wanted to do so, a big one being I couldn’t resist an opportunity to get a free book! I’m an avid reader and I love talking about books, so I didn’t take any extra convincing to seize this opportunity.

This book was different from my usual choice of book. I usually read more fun, adventurous fiction, but regardless, I really enjoyed reading it. I loved diving deeper into the issue of slavery and going beyond what I had previously studied, and I also loved learning more about the effect fugitive slaves had on the state of our country in the 19th century.

I was scared when the day of Professor Delbanco’s visit came, because I still had about 60 pages left of the book. I was worried I’d be unprepared for the conversation with him and completely embarrass myself, but I soon realized I had no reason to worry. All of the students gathered in the conference room, I ate about 3 cookies, and then Delbanco began our meeting by asking our names, our ages, and our interests. After that, he asked if anyone in the room had actually managed to finish the book. If I remember correctly, nobody had finished it. Some people had only read the first few chapters. But despite the ending of the book being a mystery to all of us, we were still able to hold a conversation of the main themes, ideas, and questions we had about the book, and we were all disappointed when the bell rang, ending our conversation.

Upper School Students with Andrew Delbanco

This book’s purpose was to discuss the issues regarding the Fugitive Slave Act, which was a law that was passed 11 years before the Civil War began. It required any slave who escaped to a free state to be returned to their so called “owner.”  This law was passed, despite being against the moral conscience of many congressmen, and the book discusses why men would pass this immoral law and what the consequences of the law were. 

In our time with Professor Delbanco we discussed an idea presented in the introduction of the book: a quote likely said by Mark Twain which states, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” We discussed the “rhymes” of the issues presented in The War Before the War.  While history won’t ever repeat itself in America with the divisive issue of slavery, we can see the “rhymes” of this history in the injustices prevalent in our country today, where there are groups of people who have been and are being oppressed and denied rights, in the same rhyme as the slaves who were constitutionally denied rights. 

Despite anti-descrimination laws, how much discrimination still exists in our country? How much inequality exists? How many times is the court biased against a minority? Which must mean, how many times does a minority have to go to court to fight for what should already be their rights? The legal end to slavery wasn’t the end of discrimination in our country, only a step in the right direction, albeit a big and important step.  Other clear steps in the right direction in our country came about because of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but hateful rhymes of injustice are still present in our country today, which means there is still work to be done by people like you and me to further the goal of equality for all. 

There are many “rhymes” from our nation’s history of slavery prevalent in today’s America; inequality, divisions of morals, discrimination. Instead of rhyming with the history of the civil war, let’s work to create a rhyme akin to the emancipation of the slaves and a step towards equality. 

Overall, this was a great experience, not just because I got free book, but because I have learned so much from that book. I’ve come to think in a new way, and I believe I’m better than I was even last week. I do have more questions than when I started reading, but as Ms. O’ Malley pointed out when she was introducing Andrew Delbanco on Monday, that’s exactly the point of learning.

Andrew Delbanco Presentation