Vic Henningsen


Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

After 9/11 it was said that the worst of times brought out the best in people, but, sadly, sometimes they trigger our lowest instincts.

It’s been some time since schools and businesses shut down and the nation observed a sixty second silence at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, marking the end of hostilities in World War I at that time and date in 1918.

On October 25th, 1415, near the small village of Agincourt, a tattered English army under King Henry V scored one of history’s most famous upset victories. Outnumbered, hungry, weakened by disease, wearied by constant marching in autumn rains, English archers rallied to destroy the pride of France’s aristocracy.

In the early 19th century basic transportation hadn’t changed much since Roman times: things moved overland as quickly as a man could walk, a horse could ride, or a team pull a wagon. The fastest means of moving goods was by water, but once on land you were in trouble.

Years ago, a friend used to annoy other motorists by what he called “Vermonting them to death” – imitating his grandparents making their weekly trip to town, driving well under the limit, just over the center line, backing up traffic.

When I first visited Georgian Bay, some thirty years ago, canoes were abundant. It’s not just that they were Canada’s iconic means of transport - evoking the First Nations, explorers, and fur trade voyageurs - and that having one was perhaps an even more deeply-felt expression of nationalism than flying the Maple Leaf.

“People wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get off the grid,” observed my elderly neighbor, “if they knew how long it took to get on it.”

When Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935 planners believed the scheme would work forever. After all, average life expectancy for American women was 63; 60 for men. Actuarial tables demonstrated that those who reached 65 didn’t last much longer and wouldn’t drain the system by collecting benefits for years and years.

The most common body of water in Vermont is probably the farm pond, built for a practical purpose. Ours used to water livestock, but it really was built purely for fun.

South Carolina’s legislative debate over the Confederate battle flag pitted those viewing it as an honorable symbol of courage and sacrifice against others who regard it as an emblem of terror and oppression.

Did George W. Bush do liberals a favor nominating John Roberts to succeed the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, instead of following Sandra Day O’Connor as originally planned?

In July 1776 Abigail Adams faced one of the most difficult challenges of her life. And, like many women at the time, she did it alone.

From my college days, I vividly recall a professor of modern European history chastising students for seeking universal truths in the study of the past. “History is an endless debate,” he proclaimed, “Our understanding of the past is always changing. Nothing stands still.”

I once heard an environmental scientist describe her work as “documenting the decline.” At the time, I thought her overly pessimistic. Now I’m not so sure. Three recent developments should command our attention.

The ice is only just out in the 30,000 islands of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, the world’s largest fresh-water archipelago. The channel markers aren’t up yet, so the boat trip that ends two days’ travel to the family island takes longer than usual. Here we join a dozen or so of my wife’s far-flung relatives for three days of opening camp.

"[H]ere,” said the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “ it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” For many that’s not fantasy – that’s life. And we try to escape it in long walks or silent retreats - anything to slow down. Recently I discovered that international travel offers a similar haven.

As they consider the current house bill mandating school district consolidation many Vermonters seem wary of both intended and unintended consequences. They’re right.

In 1972, when asked his opinion of the French Revolution’s effect on world history, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En Lai responded, “Too soon to tell.”

A long view, to be sure, but many historians prefer it. Only time provides the perspective necessary for genuine understanding.

For five hundred years, beginning in the 10th century, China was the world’s greatest economic power: trading across the southwest Pacific and the Indian Ocean, into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Thomas Jefferson supposedly called Town Meeting the "wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government and for its preservation." That’s something to cling to if tempers rise and snarky comments fly. Too often, this annual gathering can feel more like an old-fashioned witch hunt.