On History


A knowledge of history is more than a means of judgment: It is also a means of sympathy—a means of relating our own experience with the experience of other peoples and lands struggling for national fulfillment. We may sometimes forget, for example, that the United States began as an underdeveloped nation which seized its independence by carrying out a successful revolution against a colonial empire. We may forget that, in the first years of the new republic, George Washington laid down the principle of no “permanent alliances” and enjoined the United States to a course of neutralism in the face of the great-power conflicts then dividing the civilized world. We may forget that, in the first stages of our economic development, our national growth was stimulated to a considerable degree by “foreign aid”—that is, investment from abroad—and by public investment and direction on the part of our state and local as well as our national government. We may forget that our own process of economic change was often accompanied by the issue of wildcat paper money, by the repudiation of bonds, by disorder, fraud, and violence. If we recall the facts of our own past, we may better understand the problems and predicaments of contemporary “new nations” laboring for national development in circumstances far less favorable than our own—and we will, in consequence, become less liable to the self-righteousness which is both unworthy of our own traditions and a bane of international relations.

A knowledge of history is, in addition, a means of strength. “In times of change and danger,” John Dos Passos wrote just before World War II, “when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a life line across the scary present.” Dos Passos called his book The Ground We Stand On—and the title concisely defines the role of the past in preparing us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future. When Americans fight for individual liberty, they have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison beside them; when they strive for social justice, they strive alongside Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt; when they work for peace and a world community, they work with Woodrow Wilson; when they fight and die in wars to make men free, they fight and die with Abraham Lincoln. Historic continuity with the past, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “is not a duty; it is only a necessity.”

A knowledge of history is, above all, a means of responsibility—of responsibility to the past and of responsibility to the future...of responsibility to those who came before us and struggled and sacrificed to pass on to us our precious inheritance of freedom...and of responsibility to those who will come after us and to whom we must pass on that inheritance with what new strength and substance it is within our power to add. “Fellow citizens,” Abraham Lincoln said, “we cannot escape history....The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” American history is not something dead and over. It is always alive, always growing, always unfinished—and every American today has his own contribution to make to the great fabric of tradition and hope which binds all Americans, dead and living and yet to be born, in a common faith and a common destiny.