Happy 60th, American Heritage!

A longtime contributor and former editor introduces the special anniversary issue
READERS, I HAVE THE honor of introducing this birthday banquet of essays on critical moments in our nation's story by some of its ablest current thinkers. I even get to follow on the distinguished heels of President John F. Kennedy; whose resounding words in the preceding article remind us of the vital importance of a citizenry knowing its history. It's worth noting that two of Kennedy's White House predecessors-Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were published historians and presidents of the American Historical Association.
Date of Event: 
Monday, January 22, 1866
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JFK on Our Nation’s Memory

Forty seven years ago, the president wrote for American Heritage that the study of history is no mere pastime but the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose

There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and a cumulative vision of the future. Read more »

History Still Matters

A distinguished journalist and former presidential adviser says that to find the meaning of any news story, we must dig for its roots in the past

I am fascinated by what I see in the rearview mirror of experience. The future, being a mystery, excites, but the past instructs. When I was a student at the University of Texas, one of the favorite campus legends concerned a professor of anthropology, whose great power was in bringing the past alive through his brilliant lectures on the ascent of the human species.Read more »

Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?

By no means, said W. H. Prescott. Absolutely, said Lord Acton. The question remains hard—and intriguing

In 1847 that Boston gentleman and man of letters William Hickling Prescott concluded twenty years of labor on the history of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella and on the conquests of Mexico and Peru. It was a noble edifice that he had raised, the most impressive literary monument yet reared in the New World. So said Daniel Webster: a comet had blazed out on the world in full splendor. So said Lord Holland, over in London: it was the most important historical work since Gibbon. So said the great Alexander von Humboldt, who had embraced the entire cosmos. Read more »

The Search For A Usable Past

A distinguished historian describes how America, suddenly thrust into nationhood without a history of its own, set out to create one. And what a splendid achievement it was!

The United States was the first of the “new” nations. As the American colonies were the first to rebel against a European “mother country,” so the American states were the first to create—we can use Lincoln’s term, to bring forth—a new nation. Modern nationalism was inaugurated by the American, not the French, Revolution. But the new United States faced problems unknown to the new nations of nineteenth-century Europe—and twentieth. For in the Old World the nation came before the state; in America the state came before the nation.

On History

"Americans are united by their history and by a faith in progress, justice, and freedom," writes President Kennedy

President Kennedy, who now so prematurely and tragically belongs to history, not only made history himself but wrote it with depth and eloquence. His heightened perceptions of it pervaded his actions and his public papers. Astonishingly in so busy a man, he could even find time in the White House to keep up his intellectual interests, to read good books, and to write prefaces and occasional pieces.

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