Awhile back I wrote a column explaining why I write this column, which (besides it being my living) is because I consider an understanding of our past, both the bad and good, crucial to shaping our future.
As the eminent historian David McCullough aptly put it, “A nation that forgets its past can function no better than a man with amnesia.” Remembering the good inspires us; remembering the bad teaches us.
But I also write this column because I love telling stories, and to me history isn’t about names, dates, facts and arcane statistics to be memorized, regurgitated on a standardized test and forgotten days later.
Frankly, such a rote approach to history is boring, which is one reason our nation is so historically ignorant. (No, nearly 25 percent of America, Judge Judy is not on the Supreme Court.)
History is about people doing wonderful and inspiring things, but also bad things (bad behavior can be fascinating). Meaning history is best learned by focusing on the people who shape it.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I confess plainly that I do not control events; rather events have plainly controlled me.” That was only partially true. Yes, history has a mind of its own, and an amalgam of impersonal forces can certainly influence history. But it was a person, Abe Lincoln himself, who controlled events and bent impersonal forces to his will to win a Civil War, and only Lincoln could have done so.
It was a person, George Washington, who sufficiently controlled events and bent impersonal forces to his will so that an America hopelessly unprepared for war somehow defeated the world’s mightiest military force and gained its independence. And only he could have done so.
And it was a collection of people — Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Sam Adams, John Jay, George Mason, John Hancock, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, among many others — who controlled events and bent impersonal forces sufficiently to create the greatest nation ever. And only they could have done so.
Bad — Robespierre, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Osama bin Laden and many more. Good — Queen Elizabeth I, Harriet Tubman, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady Staunton, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many more. Good and bad, they all controlled events and bent impersonal forces to their will, and they all changed history. And they all lived fascinating lives.
A faithful reader put it best. “What I love most about your pieces is that you bring humanity to history. It’s not dates and numbers. It’s people who are heroic or tragic, who make decisions, often bad ones. People with hearts and souls.”