Museum Director Musings: Historical Perspectives from 1830-1930 on America’s Future

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today I attended an executive luncheon hosted by the Industry Manufacturers Council and was curious about the title of the presentation: “Why Trust Determines Who Fails and Who Triumphs in an Age of Disruption.”  This was compelling enough to want to know more, but general enough so that it wasn’t obvious whether this was about national or global levels or something more specific to local conditions.

The speaker, Linnea McCord, is an associate professor of business law at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University, and her area of specialty is how the rule of law is the key to long-term success for national economies and how the American version is unique in world history.  She is the author of The Wisdom of Ants, published in 2015, from which much of today’s presentation drew.

Professor McCord spent much of her childhood in Hawaii and Australia, which impacted her perspectives, as did, she mentioned, her father’s profession as a journalist for United Press International, especially with his counsel that she utilize her critical thinking skills in gathering information to make informed decisions.  With her background in law and business, she has paid much attention to long-term trends in noting how the rule of law applies to business, particularly with a focus on ethics.

What drew my attention as she moved through her talk was her interest in utilizing history to understand how issues have developed and having the past inform her process of thinking about future developments.

These examples of slides from Linnea McCord’s talk are among several that reflect a historical perspective.

For example, she noted that Andrew Jackson, president of the United States from 1829 to 1837, was the first populist leader in the country.  She noted his shortcomings, but also addressed those elements of his life and work that brought him that reputation as the father of populism in America.  I immediately seized upon the fact that the Homestead’s interpretive period begins in 1830, so I began thinking of the context of “Jacksonian” principles and policies as we unfold our narratives.

She also talked about the growing need for the election of a president on par with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, leaders who guided the country through two of the largest period of crises in the nation’s history.  She wryly noted that we received neither in 2012, a couple of years after this imperative came to her, or in 2016, but observed that there is still a chance that could happen in one of the next two election cycles.

Lincoln was president during a notable portion of our interpretive period, even though greater Los Angeles had many Confederate supporters in 1860 and Lincoln only narrowly won the local vote four years later because of the presence of Union soldiers stationed in the region.

Again, the perspectives of national issues in concert with regional ones came to mind. Just last night, in my talk in Chino Hills on the Williams sisters of the Chino Ranch and discussing some context for the first half of the 1860s, I showed an order printed on 17 April 1865 in a Los Angeles newspaper by the local Union Army commander Richard Drum (the Drum Barracks historic site in Wilmington is what remains of Camp Drum, a Civil War camp) that warned that those celebrating the assassination of Lincoln, which took place three days later, would make the celebrants legally accessories after the fact of his murder thousands of miles away.

Professor McCord also made a striking statement when she said that we are now acting like “the 1920s on steroids” in terms of bubbles in the housing market and stock market, the extreme inequities in wages and wealth and other matters.  This particularly resonated as our staff has been talking increasingly about ways in which our programming (events, blogging, social media posts, etc.) can address the similarities between that end of our interpretive period and the current era.


As we approach the 2020s and look at centennials as a way to address all kinds of notable historical topics and concepts, the idea of current life as “the 1920s on steroids” takes on more meaning and possibility.  The uneasy mix of political conservatism, social liberation, the growth of religion, and the development of secular ideas, among others, are fertile ground for the museum to explore and discuss.

More importantly, it is also vital that we engage in this dialog and discourse by doing whatever we can to find ways to involve our visitors interactively.  Additionally, we want to do this through what Professor McCord referred to frequently in her talk:  critical thinking.

One of her more compelling slides was drawing the clear distinction between critical thinking and political thinking.  The latter involves believing propaganda at face value, while the former means looking at a wide variety of sources and then coming to a conclusion after thinking through all of these.

Professor McCord advocates for thinking about the viable future of our country through the conjunction of morality, ethics and law, noting that trust in general takes years to build, but just seconds to destroy.  She also discussed the “Ten Commandments of Trust,” involving truth-telling, loyalty, accountability, fairness, respect, leadership and others, and the reminder that freedom is for grown-ups.



One example, in which she went into some detail, concerned enormous increases in debt, whether through school and auto loans, Social Security and Medicare, and increasing military spending, much less the growing debt servicing facing our nation is a reminder that we are the world’s largest debtor nation, whereas we were once the greatest creditor (we were once the world’s greatest manufacturer and exporter, but now our economy is 70% consumer spending.)  To what extent we tax ourselves further (or, seek to reduce spending in key budget items) has always been a pressing issue for Americans.

Again, understanding long-term trajectories over time and history are part of the tools employed in critical thinking.  Whether we express concepts as we are now living like “the 1920s on steroids” or are in a “new gilded age,” referring to conditions in 1880s and 1890s America, there is enormous value in studying, and hopefully learning lessons from, history.

Professor McCord’s talk was very interesting in the way she applied her perspectives on American history, including elements from the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830-1930, as a way to look at what the future may hold and how we can frame ways to respond to trends and expected developments.

She talked about the challenges Americans face in many areas, but expressed faith in the nation’s ability to overcome them, and making the country stronger, through applying critical thinking, lessons of the past, applying rule of law, rebuilding a culture of trust, and so on.  The nation has been able to address major crises, including those that occurred during the museum’s interpretive era, and Professor McCord believes our systems are strong enough to do so again.  The presentation provided much food for thought and will inspire further reflection and discussion for the Homestead and its future programming.

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