The following is adapted from an online lecture delivered at Hillsdale College on November 6, 2020.
Every generation of Americans, from the beginning, has had to answer for itself the question: how should we live? Our answers, generation after generation, in war and in peace, in good times and bad times, in small things and in great things through the whole range of human affairs, are the essential threads of the larger American story. There is an infinite variety of these smaller American stories that shed light on the moral and political reality of American life—and we keep creating them. These fundamental experiences, known to all human beings but known to us in an American way, create the mystic chords of memory that bind us together as a people and are the necessary beginnings of any human wisdom we might hope to find.
These mystic chords stretch not only from battlefields and patriot graves, but from back roads, schoolyards, bar stools, city halls, blues joints, summer afternoons, old neighborhoods, ballparks, and deserted beaches—from wherever you find Americans being and becoming American. A story may be tragic, complicated, or hilarious, but if it is a true American story, it will be impossible to read or listen to it attentively without awakening the better angels of our nature.
Here’s one, about the beautiful friendship of two remarkable Americans.
Helen Keller was 14 years old when she first met the world-famous Mark Twain in 1894. They became fast friends. He helped arrange for her to go to college at Radcliffe where she graduated in 1904, the first deaf and blind person in the world to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She learned to read English, French, German, and Latin in braille and went on to become practically as world-famous as her dear friend, writing prolifically and lecturing across the country and around the world. Twain, with his usual understatement, called her “one of the two most remarkable people in the 19th century.” The other candidate was Napoleon.
Keller lived into the 1960s and shared some of her fond memories of Twain in an autobiographical book she published in 1929. In particular, she records recollections from her last visit to her friend in his “Stormfield” home in Redding, Connecticut, which she thought of as a “land of enchantment.” She preserves for us a vivid image not only of Mark Twain—Mr. Clemens, as she called him—but of her own vivacious mind. About Twain she writes,
There are writers who belong to the history of their nation’s literature. Mark Twain is one of them. When we think of great Americans we think of him. He incorporated the age he lived in. To me he symbolizes the pioneer qualities—the large, free, unconventional, humorous point of view of men who sail new seas and blaze new trails through the wilderness.
As they gathered around the hearth one night after dinner at Stormfield, she records,
Mr. Clemens stood with his back to the fire talking to us. There he stood—our Mark Twain, our American, our humorist, the embodiment of our country. He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech.
When Twain took her to her room to say goodnight, he said “that I would find cigars and a thermos bottle with Scotch whiskey, or Bourbon if I preferred it, in the bathroom.”
One evening, Twain offered to read to her from his short story, “Eve’s Diary.” She was delighted, and he asked, “How shall we manage it?” She said, “Oh, you will read aloud, and my teacher will spell your words into my hand.” He murmured, “I had thought you would read my lips.” And so that is what she did. Upon request, and as promised, Twain put on his “Oxford robe,” the “gorgeous scarlet robe” he had worn when Oxford University “conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.”
Here is Keller’s recollection of the evening:
Mr. Clemens sat in his great armchair, dressed in his white serge suit, the flaming scarlet robe draping his shoulders, and his white hair gleaming and glistening in the light of the lamp which shone down on his head. In one hand he held “Eve’s Diary” in a glorious red cover. In the other hand he held his pipe. . . . I sat down near him in a low chair, my elbow on the arm of his chair, so that my fingers could rest lightly on his lips.
“Everything went smoothly for a time,” she wrote. But Twain’s gesticulations soon began to confuse things, so “a new setting was arranged. Mrs. Macy came and sat beside me and spelled the words into my right hand, while I looked at Mr. Clemens with my left, touching his face and hands and the book, following his gestures and every changing expression.”
Keller reflected that,
To one hampered and circumscribed as I am it was a wonderful experience to have a friend like Mr. Clemens. I recall many talks with him about human affairs. He never made me feel that my opinions were worthless. . . . He knew that we do not think with eyes and ears, and that our capacity for thought is not measured by five senses. He kept me always in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him. . . . There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly.
Whenever I touched his face his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind—a gesture of the soul rather than of the face. His voice was truly wonderful. To my touch, it was deep, resonant. He had the power of modulating it so as to suggest the most delicate shades of meaning and he spoke so deliberately that I could get almost every word with my fingers on his lips. Ah, how sweet and poignant the memory of his soft slow speech playing over my listening fingers. His words seemed to take strange lovely shapes on my hands. His own hands were wonderfully mobile and changeable under the influence of emotion. It has been said that life has treated me harshly; and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me, but when I recollect the treasure of friendship that has been bestowed upon me I withdraw all charges against life. If much has been denied me, much, very much has been given me. So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart I shall say that life is good.
When Helen Keller left the enchanted land of Stormfield on that visit, she wondered if she would ever see her friend again, and she didn’t. It was 1909, and Clemens would live just one more year. But, she writes for us, “In my fingertips was graven the image of his dear face with its halo of shining white hair, and in my memory his drawling, marvelous voice will always vibrate.”
Here’s another story about an American whose name the whole world knows.
Twenty-two-year-old Marion Morrison, known to his friends as Duke, was carrying a table on his head across the soundstage of a John Ford movie. He was working as a prop man at the Fox Studio in Los Angeles early in 1930. Director Raoul Walsh was looking for a leading man for an epic western film he was developing about a great wagon train journeying across vast deserts and mountains to California. Walsh didn’t want a known star to play the lead. He was looking for someone who would “be a true replica of the pioneer type.” He didn’t want the audience to see a part being acted; he wanted them to see the real thing—“someone to get out there and act natural . . . be himself.” Then he happened upon the young Duke Morrison lugging a table across a soundstage.
“He was in his early 20s,” Walsh recalled, “[and] laughing. . . . [T]he expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movement. . . . What I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity, and [he] had it.” Within a few weeks, after a quick screen test, Duke would be signed up for the part of Breck Coleman, the fearless young scout in an ambitious film to be called The Big Trail; he would more than double his income, from $35 to $75 a week. He had to let his hair grow long and learn to throw a knife—and he would have a new name: John Wayne.
Already, as the young frontiersman in The Big Trail, the man the world would come to know as John Wayne is recognizable. He is more athletic and beautiful than we remember him from his later pictures, and he has a sweetness and shyness of youth that recedes over time, but he is “tough and in charge”; he has “a natural air of command.” The widescreen film is still visually stunning and interesting to watch, but it was an epic flop and left Wayne languishing in B-movie purgatory for almost a decade before John Ford decided to make him a star as the Ringo Kid in the great western Stagecoach.
Ford was inspired by something similar to what Raoul Walsh had seen in Duke Morrison. “It isn’t enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well,” said Ford. “Something else has to come across to audiences—something which no director can instill or create—the quality of being a real man.” Ford added that Wayne “was the only person I could think of at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much. That sounds easy, perhaps. But it’s not. Either you have it or you don’t.” John Wayne had it. As James Baldwin wrote, “One does not go to see [Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne] act: one goes to watch them be.”
And Duke Morrison decided that John Wayne would be the kind of man he—and the audience—wanted to believe in. Whatever his flaws, and Wayne’s characters had many, he would present on screen a character that had something admirable in it. This character took on added dimensions in his greatest films like Red River and The Searchers. But its essence was discernable from the earliest days. He had courage and self-reliance, obstinacy and even ruthlessness; but also generosity of soul and spirit. As his biographer Scott Eyman put it, he had the kind of “spirit that makes firemen rush into a burning building . . . because it’s the right thing to do.” He had “humor, gusto, irascibility”; he was “bold, defiant, ambitious, heedless of consequences, occasionally mistaken, primarily alone—larger than life.” As one of Wayne’s colleagues said, “John Wayne was what every young boy wants to be like, and what every old man wishes he had been.”
Wayne was 32 when he made Stagecoach and 69 when he made his last film, The Shootist, in which he plays the dying gunfighter, John Bernard Books. His oft-quoted line from that film would have been right at home in The Big Trail: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” For 25 years, from 1949 to 1974, he was among the top ten box office stars every year but one. And he was more than a star for his time. Well into the 21st century, 35 years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars; he became “indivisibly associated with America itself.”
On his 72nd birthday, May 26, 1979, as Wayne lay dying of cancer in UCLA Medical Center, the United States Congress, in a unanimous bipartisan vote, approved an order signed by President Jimmy Carter for striking a Congressional Gold Medal in his honor. Wayne would be the 85th recipient of the Medal. The first recipient was George Washington. Winston Churchill was awarded the Medal just a few years before John Wayne. As President Carter said, Wayne’s “ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal conviction and courage—on and off the screen—reflected the best of our national character.” Wayne’s friend, actress Maureen O’Hara, testifying before Congress, said: “To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor, and a very ﬁne actor, John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it will be. And he is what they hope it will always be.”
And finally, here’s a story about an American whose name you may not know, but will want to.
“We Are All Americans”
Ely Parker was born in 1828 to Elizabeth and William Parker of the Tonawanda Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy in western New York. Parker became a leader in his tribe at a very young age. Trained as a civil engineer, he earned a reputation in that field. In 1857, when he was 29 years old, he moved to Galena, Illinois, as a civil engineer working for the Treasury Department, and there his life took a fateful turn.
He became friends with a fellow named Ulysses S. Grant. In these years, Grant was an ex-Army officer working as a clerk in his father’s store. Parker later liked to tell the story of coming to Grant’s aid in a barroom fight in Galena, the two of them back to back, fighting their way out against practically all the other patrons. At about five feet eight inches and 200 pounds, the robust Parker referred to himself as a “Savage Jack Falstaff.”
When the Civil War came on, Parker tried several times to join the Union Army as an engineer but was turned down because he was not a citizen. When he approached Secretary of State William Seward about a commission, he was told that the war was “an affair between white men,” that he should go home, and “we will settle our own troubles among ourselves without any Indian aid.”
Eventually, with Grant’s endorsement, Parker received a commission, with the rank of captain, as Assistant Adjutant General for Volunteers. By late 1863, he had been transferred to Grant’s staff as Military Secretary. He soon became familiarly known as “the Indian at headquarters” and was promoted to lieutenant colonel and later to brigadier general. He may have saved Grant’s life or at least prevented his capture one dark night during the Wilderness Campaign in 1864, when Grant and his staff, unbeknownst to themselves, were riding into enemy lines.
But Parker is rightly most remembered for something that happened in the parlor of a private residence in the village of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
In the days preceding, Union armies had captured the city of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Grant and the Federal Army of the Potomac had put Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in such a position that in the late afternoon of April 7, Grant, sitting on the verandah of his hotel headquarters in Farmville, said to a couple of his generals, “I have a great mind to summon Lee, to surrender.” He immediately wrote a letter respectfully inviting Lee to surrender and had it sent to him under a flag of truce. It took Lee a couple of days of desperate failed maneuvers to come around to the idea. But by the morning of April 9, Lee had concluded that “there is nothing left me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
They agreed to meet in the village of Appomattox Court House to discuss terms.
Grant had been riding hard for days on rough roads in rough weather. When he met Lee in the parlor of the brick house where they had arranged to meet, he had on dirty boots, “an old suit, without [his] sword, and without any distinguishing mark of rank, except the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general on a woolen blouse.” Lee was decked out from head to toe in all the military finery he had at his disposal.
After introductions, and not much small talk, Lee asked Grant on what terms he would receive the surrender of Lee’s army. Grant told him that all officers and men would be “paroled and disqualified from taking up arms again until properly exchanged, and all arms, ammunition, and supplies were to be delivered up as captured property.” Lee said those were the terms he expected, and he asked Grant to commit them to writing, which Grant did, on the spot, and showed them to Lee.
With minor revisions, Lee accepted, and Grant handed the document to his senior adjutant general, Theodore Bowers, to “put into ink.” This was a document that would effectively put an end to four years of devastating civil war. Bowers’ hands were so unsteady from nerves that he had to start over three or four times, going through several sheets of paper, in a failed effort to prepare a fair copy for the signatures of the generals.
So Grant asked Ely Parker to do it, which he did, without trouble. This gave occasion for Lee and Parker to be introduced. When Lee recognized that Parker was an American Indian, he said, “I am glad to see one real American here.”
Parker shook his hand and replied, “We are all Americans.”
The American story, still young, is already the greatest story ever written by human hands and minds. It is a story of freedom the likes of which the world has never seen. It is endlessly interesting and instructive and will continue unfolding in word and deed as long as there are Americans. The stories that I think are most important are those about what it is that makes America beautiful, what it is that makes America good and therefore worthy of love. Only in this light can we see clearly what it is that might make America better and more beautiful.
A bit of my childhood died this week, when I learned Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher and greatest Met to ever wear the uniform, had died on Monday, reportedly from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19. He was 75.
When I was a boy at Bear Ridge Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, New York, Seaver was one of my heroes. He loomed larger than life, the guy who won 20 games a season with ease, striking out more than 200 batters a year like it was nothing.
His baseball card, which I never seemed to get, was the one I most hoped to collect. To the best of my recollection, I never saw him pitch at Shea Stadium. I wasn’t even that much of a baseball fan—but every young person needs a hero or two to look up to, and given the affinity most of my classmates had for sports figures, I picked him.
It wasn’t an odd choice. He was “the Franchise,” though no one called him that. Almost single-handedly, he turned the lovable but perpetually losing New York Mets into contenders and World Series champions. It wasn’t that that I identified with him—no, sir. On the diamond, as part of the North Castle Little League’s Angels, my baseball abilities were on par with Charlie Brown’s. Seaver was something special, the kind of player my dad and his dad might have seen at New York City’s Polo Grounds, back when baseball players were figurative as well as literal Giants, or at Yankee Stadium in the days of Mantle and Berra and Rizzuto.Ads by scrollerads.com
Seaver’s record is still amazing and, like Joe DiMaggio’s still unbroken streak of hitting safely in 56 straight games, likely never to be matched. He struck out 200 or more batters each season from 1968 to 1976, a nine-year run that remains the longest in league history. He’s one of 10 pitchers with 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts and holds the record for striking out 10 consecutive batters in a game.
Overall, in 12 seasons with the team (1967 through 1977 and 1983), he had 198 wins and 124 losses, with a 2.57 earned run average. He pitched 171 complete games as a Met, appeared in eight All-Star contests, won three Cy Young Awards and the 1967 National League Rookie of the Year award, and, in 1992, became the first Met enshrined in Cooperstown. Tom Terrific didn’t just show up—he dominated the game every time he pitched, especially during those first golden years, before the evil M. Donald Grant, then the team’s general manager, traded him away to another team.
The day that happened was a dark one. The greatest of the greats, as my friends and I saw it, at least, had been done in by an act of villainy unmatched outside of Shakespearean tragedy (which, thanks to our English teachers Mrs. Weinreb, and Mrs. Nolan and Ms. Nask, had become at least a familiar concept).
Life went on after that, but it was never the same. Heroes, as General Douglas MacArthur famously said of old soldiers, fade away. Young men develop interests that overtake the attention and adoration given childhood idols. Playing for the Cincinnati Reds, Seaver finally pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978, but by then, it was no big deal to me. Though I’m sure it meant a lot to him.
His passing, however, takes a little bit of me with it. The ancient Greeks and Romans reminded us repeatedly that glory is fleeting. So are youth and memory. Which is why it is so important to hang on to what we can for as long as we can.
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson reportedly said, “Blind men come to the park just to hear him pitch.” He’d know. “Mr. October” faced Seaver on the mound 37 times, hitting just .226 and striking out 13 times. He probably remembers every pitch, every swing, every crack of the bat when he connected with the ball and every smack on leather when it went through the strike zone into the catcher’s mitt.
For me, I’ll remember Sunday afternoons at Shea with my dad, gone four years now this coming October, for as long as I can. We didn’t go often. When we did, it was something special. I hope it meant a lot to him too. I can still remember the cellophane-topped sodas and beers sold in waxed cups by the guys from Harry M. Stevens, the hot dogs sold in the stands and the excitement rising up from the crowd when the Mets got a hit, followed by groans of disappointment when the inning ended with runners left on base. Some things, with the Mets, at least, never change.
Now Tom Terrific is gone, hopefully off somewhere in Iowa pitching a perfect game that only those lucky enough to genuinely believe can see. For me, I’m reminded of the need to hang on as best I can to the best moments in life for as long as I can because, like it or not, they don’t last forever.
Professional American historiography has made steady advances in the breadth and sophistication with which it approaches certain aspects of the past, but those advances have come at the expense of public knowledge and shared historical consciousness. The story of America has been fractured into a thousand pieces and burdened with so much ideological baggage that studying history actually alienates young Americans from the possibility of properly appreciating their past. Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a small book called The Student’s Guide to U.S. History for ISI Books. I was unable to include in its bibliography a high school or college level textbook on U.S. history, because there was not one suitable for recommendation.
But criticism of the status quo is easy. What is harder is to create a better alternative. That was my aim in writing Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.
Land of Hope swims against the prevailing currents in several ways, not the least of which is that it is a physical book. It is no coincidence that the giant textbook publisher Pearson has just announced its plans to go digital-first with its own massive array of textbooks, 1,500 titles in all, including those in history. Students will eventually be required to use—and institutions will be required to offer—the constantly updated texts, tethering students and schools exclusively to the publisher’s digital platform. George Orwell, please call the Ministry of Truth.
In the early years of printing, printers would often display a truncated version of a Latin proverb: Littera scripta manet, which means, “The written letter remains.” The whole proverb reads: Vox audita perit littera scripta manet, which can be translated, “The heard voice perishes, but the written letter remains.” It contrasts fleeting orality and settled literacy. What does such a proverb mean today, when our civilization—in which the great majority of inhabitants, as Christians and Jews, have been People of the Book—is fast becoming a civilization inhabited by People of the Screen, people tied to the ever-changing, ever-fluid, ever-malleable presentation of the past made possible by the nature of digital technology?
Land of Hope also goes against the current by not dumbing down the reading level. It is written with an underlying conviction that we should never sell short the capacity of young Americans to read challenging books if they are interesting and well-wrought. Such books are far more likely to stoke the fire of their imaginations and convey to them the complexity and excitement of history—history not as an inert recitation of facts, but as a reflective task that takes us to the depths of what it means to be human.
Let me mention three distinctive themes that run through the book, themes that are hinted at in the book’s title and are instructive about America’s character.
First, there is the theme of America as a land—not just an idea, but also a people and a nation; a nation with a particular history, connected to a particular piece of real estate. To understand our nation, it’s not enough to understand principles such as equality and liberty, as important as those are. We also have to understand how those principles were put into action, how they were developed, how they came to be forces in our national life. American history, to be sure, is inseparable from America’s principles and ideals, but America is not simply those things. It is a place with a venerable history created by men and women to whom our veneration is owed. Think of those who lie in Arlington National Cemetery and of countless others in the long history of such sacrifices made on behalf of our country. These things bind us to the land in visceral ways that go beyond ideas or principles.
Second is the theme of hope. The idea of America as a land of hope shouldn’t be misinterpreted as signifying a saccharine or sentimental view of America’s past, but rather as taking into account history’s spiritual dimension. We are creatures with free wills and aspirations, not merely tumbleweeds at the mercy of large historical forces. Hope is a quality of soul, something that’s not quantifiable or explicable in strictly material terms. It is a consistent characteristic of this country that we have always sought to rise above or move beyond the conditions that are given to us at birth—something not true of every people. To be an American is to believe that the status we are born into is never the final word. We have a spirit of striving, a spirit of hope that goes back to our very beginnings.
Third and finally there is the theme of story. Our narratives large and small are an essential part of the way that we Americans make sense of the world. As I write in the book,
The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call “history” and “literature” are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic human impulse, that need.
The word need is not an exaggeration. For the human animal, meaning is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Without it, we perish. Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. Without memory, without the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are. Without them, our life and thought dissolve into a meaningless, unrelated rush of events. Without them, we cannot do the most human of things: we cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children, establish rules of conduct, engage in science, or dwell harmoniously in society. Without them, we cannot govern ourselves.
Nor can we have a sense of the future as a time we know will come, because we remember that other tomorrows have come and gone. A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous and easily tyrannized, even if it is technologically advanced. The incessant waves of daily events will occupy all our attention and defeat all our efforts to connect past, present, and future, thereby diverting us from an understanding of the human things that unfold in time, including the path of our own lives.
The stakes were beautifully expressed in the words of the great Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day. The whole world, all human life is one long story.”
Singer was right. As individuals, as communities, as countries: we are nothing more than flotsam and jetsam without the stories in which we find our lives’ meaning.
Of course, there are stories and then there are stories. French writer André Malraux once wrote, “A man is what he hides: a miserable little pile of secrets.” That’s one way of thinking about a man’s life, but it’s a reductive and simplistic way. We’ve all read biographies like that. But where in this approach is an account of a man’s striving, his ambitions, his ideals, his efforts at transcendence? Is it a fair and accurate account of a man to speak only or even mainly of his secrets and failings? Similarly with a nation’s history, it must be far more than a compilation of failings and crimes. It must give credence to the aspirational dimension of a nation’s life, and particularly for so aspirational a nation as the United States—arguably the most aspirational nation in human history.
A proper history of America must do this without evading the fact that we’ve often failed miserably, fallen short, and done terrible things. We have not always been a land of hope for everyone—for a great many, but not for all. And so our sense of hope has a double-edged quality about it: to be a land of hope is also to risk being a land of disappointment, a land of frustration, even a land of disillusionment. To understand our history is to experience these negative things. But we wouldn’t experience them so sharply if we weren’t a land of hope, if we didn’t embrace that outlook and aspiration. To use a colloquialism, we Americans allow ourselves to get our hopes up—and that is always risky.
Land of Hope’s epigraph is a passage that has long been a source of inspiration and direction to me. Written by John Dos Passos, a man of the radical left in his youth who later moved to the sensible right, it is from a 1941 essay, “The Use of the Past,” and it is uncannily relevant to the present:
Every generation rewrites the past. In easy times history is more or less of an ornamental art, but in times of danger we are driven to the written record by a pressing need to find answers to the riddles of today. We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on. In spite of changing conditions of life they were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts, they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail. We need to know how they did it.
In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking. That is why, in times like ours, when old institutions are caving in and being replaced by new institutions not necessarily in accord with most men’s preconceived hopes, political thought has to look backwards as well as forwards.
Isn’t that marvelous? There’s so much to unpack in it, but of special relevance today is his rather rough denunciation of “that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now.” This phrase expresses something that nearly all of us who teach history run up against. It’s harder than usual today to get young people interested in the past because they are so firmly convinced that we’re living in a time so unprecedented, enjoying pocket-sized technologies that are so transformative, that there’s no point in looking at what went on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To them the past has been superseded—just as our present world is forever in the process of being superseded.
While this posture may be ill-informed and lazy, a way to justify not learning anything, it also represents a genuine conviction, amply reinforced by the endless passing parade of sensations and images in which we are enveloped—one thing always being succeeded by something else, nothing being permanent, nothing enduring, always moving, moving, moving into a new exceptional Now. But it is a childish and disabling illusion that must be countered, in just the way that Dos Passos suggests.
Even in confronting the challenging questions of American history, most notably the existence of slavery, there are deep lessons to be learned. By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the institution of slavery had become deeply enmeshed in the national economy, despite all the ways that its existence stood in glaring contradiction to our nation’s commitment to equality and self-rule as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Hence there was real bite to the mocking question fired at Americans by British writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
How, we wonder today, could such otherwise enlightened and exemplary men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have owned slaves, a practice so contradictory to all they stood for? As I write in the book:
There is no easy answer to such questions. But surely a part of the answer is that each of us is born into a world that we did not make, and it is only with the greatest effort, and often at very great cost, that we are ever able to change that world for the better. Moral sensibilities are not static; they develop and deepen over time, and general moral progress is very slow. Part of the study of history involves a training of the imagination, learning to see historical actors as speaking and acting in their own times rather than ours; and learning to see even our heroes as an all-too-human mixture of admirable and unadmirable qualities, people like us who may, like us, be constrained by circumstances beyond their control. . . .
The ambivalences regarding slavery built into the structure of the Constitution were almost certainly unavoidable in the short term, in order to achieve an effective political union of the nation. What we need to understand is how the original compromise no longer became acceptable to increasing numbers of Americans, especially in one part of the Union, and why slavery, a ubiquitous institution in human history, came to be seen not merely as an unfortunate evil but as a sinful impediment to human progress, a stain upon a whole nation. We live today on the other side of a great transformation in moral sensibility, a transformation that was taking place but was not yet completed in the very years the United States was being formed.
A related lesson of history is that acts of statesmanship often require courage and imagination, even daring, especially when the outcome seems doubtful. Take the case of Lincoln. So accustomed are we to thinking of Lincoln in heroic terms that we forget the depth and breadth of his unpopularity during his entire time in office. Few great leaders have been more comprehensively disdained, loathed, and underestimated. A low Southern view of him, of course, was to be expected, but it was widely shared in the North as well. As Lincoln biographer David Donald put it, “Lincoln’s own associates thought him ‘a Simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker.’” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips called him “a huckster in politics, a first-rate, second-rate man.” George McClellan, his opponent in the 1864 election, openly disdained him as a “well-meaning baboon.” For much of that election year, Lincoln was convinced, with good reason, that he was doomed to lose the election, with incalculable consequences for the war effort and the future of the nation.
To quote the book again:
We need to remember that this is generally how history happens. It is not like a Hollywood movie in which the background music swells and the crowd in the room applauds and leaps to its feet as the orator dispenses timeless words, and the camera pans the room full of smiling faces. In real history, the background music does not swell, the trumpets do not sound, and the carping critics often seem louder than the applause. The leader or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact true, whether time will judge him harshly, whether his sacrifice will count for anything. Few great leaders have felt this burden more completely than Lincoln.
In conclusion, let me suggest that the story of the ending of the Civil War in April 1865 might hold a lesson for those of our fellow countrymen today who seem to regard America’s past with contempt:
On April 9, after a last flurry of futile resistance, Lee faced facts and arranged to meet Grant at a brick home in the village of Appomattox Court House to surrender his army. He could not formally surrender for the whole Confederacy, but the surrender of his army would trigger the surrender of all others, and so it represented the end of the Confederate cause.
It was a poignant scene, dignified and restrained and sad, as when a terrible storm that has raged and blown has finally exhausted itself, leaving behind a strange and reverent calm, purged of all passion. The two men had known one another in the Mexican War, and had not seen one another in nearly twenty years. Lee arrived first, wearing his elegant dress uniform, soon to be joined by Grant clad in a mud-spattered sack coat, his trousers tucked into his muddy boots. They showed one another a deep and respectful courtesy, and Grant generously allowed Lee’s officers to keep their sidearms and the men to keep their horses and take them home for the spring planting. None would be arrested or charged with treason.
Four days later, when Lee’s army of 28,000 men marched in to surrender their arms and colors, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, a hero of Gettysburg, was present at the ceremony. He later wrote of his observations that day, reflecting upon his soldierly respect for the men before him, each passing by and stacking his arms, men who only days before had been his mortal foes: “Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? . . . On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”
Such deep sympathies, in a victory so heavily tinged with sadness and grief and death. This war was, and remains to this day, America’s bloodiest conflict, having generated at least a million and a half casualties on the two sides combined, [including] 620,000 deaths, the equivalent of six million men in today’s American population. One in four soldiers who went to war never returned home. One in thirteen returned home with one or more missing limbs. For decades to come, in every village and town in the land, one could see men bearing such scars and mutilations, a lingering reminder of the price they and others had paid.
And yet, Chamberlain’s words suggested that there might be room in the days and years ahead for the spirit of conciliation that Lincoln had called for in his Second Inaugural Speech, a spirit of binding up wounds, and of caring for the many afflicted and bereaved, and then moving ahead, together. It was a slender hope, yet a hope worth holding, worth nurturing, worth pursuing.
We all know that it did not turn out that way, due in part to Lincoln’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. But the story is illustrative nonetheless. If Chamberlain’s troops could find it in their hearts to be that forgiving, that generous, that respectful of men who had only days before been their mortal enemies, we certainly ought to be able to extend a similar generosity towards men in what is now, for us, a far more distant past. Lincoln himself said something similar, at a cabinet meeting on April 14, the very day of his assassination:
I hope there will be no persecution, no bloody work after the war is over. . . . Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentment if we expect harmony and union. There has been too much of a desire on the part of some of our very good friends to be masters, to interfere with and dictate to those states, to treat the people not as fellow citizens; there is too little respect for their rights. I do not sympathize in these feelings.
That was good counsel then and now, and it is an example of the wisdom that the study of history can provide us. May such wisdom be an impetus for us to rediscover such a humane and generous example in our own times.
“I am not frightened by what lies ahead and I don’t believe the American people are frightened by what lies ahead. Together, we’re going to do what has to be done.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
On election night November 4, 1980 Ronald Reagan revealed that he had expected “a cliffhanger.” Perhaps the fact that he had previously worked as an actor colored the language he used that night.
He said he was humbled not just because of the large margin of victory, but also the mere fact of being elected. “Even if it had been the cliffhanger that all of us, I think, were expecting, it would have been the same way.”
Reagan said he would keep “the trust you have placed in me sacred and I give you my sacred oath that I will do my utmost to justify your faith.” Continue reading