- Historic Sites
I Wish I’d Known
A high school history project brings forth responses from an extraordinary variety of people
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
How did Madison get all these great ideas? What other men were there? What ideas did they contribute? Exactly how was the Constitution written?
Nobody ever bothered to teach me these things, and I wish someone would.
George Washington, because he is far more interesting than the history books ever taught. When I was writing radio shows, I did research on him and realized that those pompous tales told by Parson Weems after he died were largely fabrication. He was a highly disciplined, engaging man. I even wrote a book about him, which no one read, but am enclosing a copy anyway.
It is not a person; it is the history of the United States as it pertains to the truth, starting with Africa and how the Africans were captured. Who brought them here? Who sold them and for how much? The truth. The indentured servants — the Italian, the French, the Irish, the Welsh, to name a few — what were the conditions of their service? How did their contracts between the old and new worlds affect their lives? How did their ethnicity affect their condition?
I can’t remember being taught much at all about important women in our nation’s history and their contributions. Eleanor Roosevelt was an incredible woman and a potent political force in her own right.
Don’t forget that half of history was made by women. It’s just that too few of them get into the history books!
Former U.S. Senator from Kansas
I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn more about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unfortunately, while I was in school, it was too early for President Eisenhower’s contributions to be recorded in books. But at this time I feel many young Americans could learn from this great man’s life.
I chose Alexander the Great because while I learned a little about him in school, I did not realize what a remarkable human being he was until I read some biographies of him after I grew up, the best of which was by Mary Renault.
Most histories relate his military victories and neglect other dimensions of the man. He conquered the known world before he was thirty-three, and one of the ways he was successful in his conquests was that instead of pillaging cities and countries and enslaving populations, he forbade his soldiers to do this and granted clemency and in many cases distributed goods to the conquered people. This resulted in fanatical loyalty to him and swelled the size of his armies, until finally no one stood against him.
It is said that Alexander never needed more than four hours of sleep a night; his stamina and courage were legendary, and he never commanded anyone to do anything he would not do. He was in the forefront of every battle.
History speaks of Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great and Alfred the Great, but Alexander really was great.
Former Governor of Massachusetts
I wish we had learned more about Frederick Douglass and some of the other African-Americans who led the fight against slavery and for the emancipation of black people in America. Douglass was a remarkable man, but he was only one of many African-Americans during both the Revolutionary and Civil War periods who exhibited tremendous leadership and courage under very difficult circumstances.
We were taught almost nothing about them, and it has only been since I left high school that historians have done the research that has made it possible for us to understand the extraordinary role that early black leaders played in American history.
Not only did Jacques Cousteau invent, or help invent, scuba-diving apparatus, but he used that marvelous mechanism to explore our world’s seas and labored to educate us all about the dangers of pollution and how we must understand the need for clean oceans. He was a great man.
Matthew Henson. Once you’ve done the research, why should be self-evident.
Former Speaker of the House