Why does history matter? Dr. Gary Gallagher from the University of Virginia explains in this thoughtful essay.
All American citizens should care about our history. We should care because an understanding of history is vital in a democratic republic that functions best with the type of informed citizenry the founding generation believed necessary for any successful experiment in self-government. Ignorance about the American past gets in the way of fruitful public debate about current issues of surpassing importance. This ignorance affects what passes for discussion of politics and other issues on the 24-hour news channels, on the Internet, and in print media. A shrill tone often predominates in all of these settings, frequently set up by “analysis” that is strikingly uninformed. The “news” emerges from a world of hyperbolic froth, where everything reported is the worst, the biggest, the best, unprecedented in its implications. I think there must be a course somewhere titled “Hyperbole 101,” and perhaps another titled “The Long Reach of History: From Last Thursday to Today.” I say this because the grasp of history, as it exists in much of the media, typically extends back approximately a week. The media often engage the world in much the fashion of little Labrador puppies. Every day brings a fresh adventure in discovery untethered to any longer perspective that might add welcome context and buffering.
Political discussion suffers especially from a lack of historical framing. The handling of immigration over the past few years, for example, betrays little appreciation for the fact that we have engaged in similar public debates throughout our history—or that the vitriol characteristic of those debates makes the current ones seem almost tame. Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now. In 1861, as the loyal states prepared to go to war to suppress the Confederate rebellion and restore the Union, almost one-third of all the military-age males in the country had been born outside the United States. For the entire period between 1860 and 1920, the percentage of foreign-born residents exceeded that of today.
Neither are we more divided politically in the early 21st century than ever before—though anyone who habitually watches Fox News or MSNBC or CNN, follows Twitter, or even tunes in to the more mainstream networks or consults flagship newspapers might not realize this. Rants about how divided we are do not help set the stage for rational consideration of problems facing our nation. A leitmotif in coverage of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and of wrangles in Washington and the hinterlands suggests that we are witnessing a unique breakdown of national civility, and that criticisms of the president—whether Barack Obama or Donald Trump—have reached new levels of intensity. The only way to argue these things is to know nothing about previous American political history. In 1804, the vice president of the United States killed the most famous member of the opposition party in a duel. In 1856, a member of the House of Representatives beat a senator on the floor of the Senate into bloody insensibility. I strongly suspect that Abraham Lincoln, or John Adams or many other presidents for that matter, would find much familiar about political criticism directed toward our recent presidents. As for our never having been so divided, historically literate people can offer the Civil War as an obvious example that puts the lie to that idea.
I believe the era of the Civil War is the most important single period in our history. Only by coming to terms with the Civil War, as well as with how people have remembered and used it in politics and popular culture, can anyone understand the broader arc of United States history. The war functioned as both an end and a beginning. It resolved huge issues left unresolved by the generation that won independence and wrote the Constitution, providing closure for long-term sectional debates about slavery and the permanence of the Union. United States victory in turn set the stage for economic and territorial expansion. Postwar Reconstruction, however, failed to prevent political and social strife relating to race, to the relationship between the central government and the states and localities, and to meanings of U.S. citizenship. Ongoing controversies over the Confederate memorial landscape constitute just one element in the Civil War’s longstanding power to affect the nation and its citizens. Sadly, some school administrators, both public and private, support avoiding the Civil War because discussions about slavery, massive bloodshed, and controversial memorial landscapes can cause discomfort among students and their parents. But a free society should confront its past, warts and all. The many sharp edges and troubling dimensions of the Civil War must be set against uplifting and empowering elements that helped create a better version of the founders’ republic.
My point is simply that if we, as a people, had a more certain sense of our history, we would be in a better position to know that almost nothing is new, that we have overcome immense problems in the past, and that we almost certainly will do so again.
Gary W. Gallagher
John L. Nau III Professor of History Emeritus
University of Virginia