I Wish I’d Known


As a professor of history I have studied many extraordinary individuals who have shaped our world. But the one who comes to mind is George Washington.

Most people know that Washington was the first President of the United States; however, many do not know about his other accomplishments. He was one of only twelve delegates to attend the First Continental Congress. He was also elected to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army to fight the British. Along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington was also instrumental in leading the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Without his leadership and guidance, our country would not be where it is today. The people’s love for this great patriot was captured in the famous words of Henry Lee, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

John Glenn

Astronaut/former U.S. Senator from Ohio

It is indeed a difficult task to choose one person from the annals of history to learn more about. We have had some incredible individuals who have made significant contributions to the world we live in today. However, if I had to choose one person, it would be George Washington.

He had the courage to lead our new nation. He had a commitment and dedication to the ideals of democracy and making our Constitution work. Today we realize what a revolutionary document the Constitution was, and we appreciate all the more what President Washington did for our young nation in those earliest years.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.


I wish that I had been taught more about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi when I was in school. Gandhi, whose followers called him “Mahatma,” which means “great-souled,” led the Indian people to freedom and statehood a half-century ago. In addition, he led his freedom movement by developing and using his own version of “passive resistance,” a form of nonviolent struggle that greatly influenced my own mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement in our own nation.

Gandhi was a great philosopher of nonviolence and one of the foremost freedom fighters who ever lived. He fought for justice for the common people, inspiring hope around the world. I wish that my own schools had taught me more about his struggle and his beliefs, and I hope that your school will study and learn from both his life and his ideals.

Billy Joel


I choose Thomas Jefferson because he was not only one of the most important and eloquent creators of our country but also America’s true Renaissance man, a man of many outstanding talents—in literature, science, architecture, agriculture, and education, to name just a few. Jefferson’s beliefs were the result of a classical education and his experiences in a new world, a world full of possibilities, open to the great power of new ideas. He was the ideal product of the Age of Reason. Jefferson’s intellect, humanity, and vision of our nation’s future were so profound that his declaration of the right of every man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is still inspiring the world more than 220 years later. And people will continue to struggle for those rights far into the next millennium.

Sebastian Junger


William Bartram had no effect on U.S. history, but he was very interesting. In the 1770s and 1780s he traveled from Philadelphia to, I think, Georgia, the Carolinas, and as far south as Florida, and he wrote a book about it called Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, assembled the first botanical garden in the New World, in Philadelphia. Bartram’s Travels gives you an incredible look at American, and Native American, society immediately after the Revolution.

Edward M. Kennedy

U.S. Senator from Massachusetts

A person I wish I had learned more about as a high school student is James Madison, our fourth President. Madison is the father of the U.S. Constitution, and our whole country owes him an enormous debt.

My long-standing interest in Madison was the driving force behind the creation of the James Madison Foundation, which I cofounded with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah several years ago. The foundation provides fellowships to middle school and high school history and social studies teachers who specialize in the study of the Constitution. Teachers who complete the program return to their classrooms to teach young people about Madison and the Constitution.

If you are interested in learning more about James Madison, some of the best sources are his own writings. Approximately a third of the Federalist papers, including two of the best known, Nos. 10 and 51, were his.