If you were a relic hunter, you wouldn’t be too
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The first lesson of history is the good of evil. Good is a good doctor, but Bad is sometimes a better.” He drew this idea from nature. He saw that a frost that kills one harvest, can save a century of harvests from weevils and locusts. So he set out to judge history the same way – by results not intentions. He decided that wars, fires and plagues can all be good for: “without war, no soldier; without enemies, no hero.” He turned his attention to people, deciding it was often the bad, selfish men who serve mankind the best, though by accident and not by design! Here are some of his many examples:
#1 Forest Laws: The people’s loss is the people’s gain
After the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror forced notorious and savage ‘forest laws’ onto his subjects. Only his chosen nobles could enter the forest and the population was banned. There were crushing punishments which forced the peasants into poverty and criminality to survive. But, as Emerson saw it, it led them to later rise up and demand the Magna Carta, the first charter of public protection.
#2 Edward I: Money-grabbing leads to democracy
King Edward I needed money, armies, and castles, and he needed them fast. To make it happen he set up the House of Commons and laid the foundation of many laws and institutions. Emerson saw Edward’s decree that: “no tax should be levied without consent of Lords and Commons” as the basis of the English Constitution.
#3 Henry VIII: The sex reformation
Henry was driven by his lust for Anne Boleyn and demanded the Pope let him divorce and marry her. When the Pope refused Henry was so enraged that he made himself head of the Church of England. So, as Emerson saw it Henry’s despotic personality, unreasonable demands and personal arrogance actually paved the way for the future of the Reformation.
#4 The Railroads: Greed links the oceans and standardizes time
Emerson saw the cabal that built the railroads as: “greedy capitalists” who acted entirely out of: “selfishness, fraud and conspiracy.” But he concedes they did more for America and her citizens than any single do-gooder ever could. They crossed the country, linked the oceans and opened up trade and travel to all. (Another benefit was that the introduction of the railroads also standardized time-zones, heralding a new age of coordinated business).
#5 1849 Gold Rush: Greedy adventurers settle the west
Emerson called the 1849 gold prospectors the worst kind of men: “a rush and a scramble of needy adventurers, a jail-delivery of all the rowdies of the rivers.” But he admitted that it was only through these hardy risk-taking types who would brave such hardships that laid the foundations of new societies.
Following Emerson’s lead Robert K Merton became fascinated by the unintended consequences of history and started a book on the subject in 1936. By 1991, he was in his 80s and the book was six hundred pages long, but he sadly died with the book still unpublished.
[You can read the whole essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Considerations by the Way’ free at Project Gutenberg]