History And Knowing Who We Are

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In the 19th century, a German-born engineer named John Fritz, working at the Cambria Iron Company in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, captured this spirit, when, after working for months to finish the first Bessemer steel machinery in this country, came into the plant one morning and said, “Allright, boys, let’s start her up and see why she doesn’t work.” The desire to find out what’s not working, fix it, and then maybe get it to work is an American quality and our guiding star. The founding fathers had no prior experience in revolutions or nation-making. The faces of these men, framed by powdered hair and marked by awkward-looking teeth, stare out from old paintings and the money in our wallets, like elder statesmen. But, when George Washington took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, he was 43-years-old, the oldest of the lot. Jefferson penned the Declaration at 33, while John Adams signed it at 40. Benjamin Rush—a founder of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia and one of the most interesting founding fathers—was only 30 years old. Without money and lacking a navy or substantial army, these young people felt their way, improvising at every step, what we call today, “winging it.” Their little country clung to a fringe of settlement along the east coast and contained only 2,500,000 people, 500,000 of whom were slaves. They had not one single back and only one bridge stood between New York and Boston. What a good story! Almost no nation in the world knows how and when it was born with the detail we do.

The freedoms we enjoy represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past

In the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol hangs John Trumbull’s great painting, “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776,” which has been viewed by more people than any other American painting and represents the best known scene from our past. Almost nothing about the painting is accurate, including the title. Our founding fathers began signing the document, not on July 4th, but on August 2nd, and it took months for everyone to make it to Philadelphia to affix his signature. Trumbull painted the wrong chairs, placed doors incorrectly, decorated windows with made-up heavy draperies, and entirely imagined the display of military flags and banners on the back wall. He did, however, accurately capture the likenesses of all 42 signers and five other patriots, and thus made them accountable. Trumbull wanted us never to forget them, because this momentous step was not the act of a potentate, king, or czar, but the decision of a Congress acting freely.

Our Failure, Our Duty

There’s no secret to teaching history well or making it interesting. Barbara Tuchman summed up what every teacher, parent, and writer should know in two words: “Tell stories.” E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition of “story.” If you say that the king died and then the queen died of grief, then that becomes a story, because it calls for empathy on the part of both the storyteller and the listener. We need historians who have the heart and humanity necessary to help students imagine the lives of people who have lived in the past and were just as human as we are today.

Learning about history is an antidote to the hubris of the present, the idea that everything in our lives is the ultimate. Recently, while going through the Panama Canal, I couldn’t help but reflect on the talent, ingenuity, and resilience of the American builders under John Stevens and George Goethals, who built that great path between two oceans in the early 20th century: the stupendous amount of information they had to absorb; their dependence on such a diversity of talent; their creative responses to a series of frequent and unexpected breakdowns, landslides, and floods. They built the canal under budget and finished before the deadline. It still runs today exactly as it did when it first opened in 1914. By present-day standards, these men did not even understand the chemistry of making concrete. Yet when engineers today drill into those concrete locks, they find little if any deterioration. We do not know how they did it. The giant, hollow gates work because they float. The electric motors controlling the gates use power generated by water from the spillway from the very dam that creates the lake, which bridges the isthmus. It is engineering at its best—human creations working with nature. We could not do it any better today, and probably not as well. Take a look, for example, at the “Big Dig” in Boston today: we are not closer to the angels nearly a hundred years later.

Listening to the Past

Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that we should read history because it helps us behave better. So, too, we ought to read history because it breaks down dividers between the disciplines of science, medicine, philosophy, art, and music, which is all part of the human story. History enables us to understand the interconnections. Understanding the 18th century, for example, depends on familiarity with its vocabulary, because their words often mean something different than they do today. In a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” The word “deserve” has such a different meaning today when all that matters is success, getting ahead, and rising to the top.