Historians don’t just study history. We construct it. We puzzle pieces into meanings. Aided by our instincts and experiences, as well as by our research, we make sense of other times, other nations, other peoples. In that sense, the writing of history is always personal.
But it’s one thing to reckon with the past and quite another to make sense of transparently historical events as we live through them. Like so many others, I’m staggered by daily bursts of upset and unknowingness, alternately depressed, anxious, angry, and distracted. There’s a whole-soul exhaustion born of living in the age of Trump.
And looking to the past provides no respite. Indeed, when it comes to decoding our current crises, American history holds some hard lessons. As a historian, I know that things don’t always return to “normal” and that recovery is painfully slow and piecemeal. I know that “good” doesn’t always prevail and that past accomplishments can be undone, past injustices reborn. I know that dangers often rise unnoticed and trigger transformative change in a rush. I know the vital importance of the institutional guardrails crumbling around us, and the dangers inherent in unbridled power. And I know—deep in my gut—that I have taken things for granted that I will never take for granted again.
Of course, this is hardly my first time living knowingly through “history.” As a historian of the nation’s founding, I’m always wide awake to modern insights. The events of 9/11, for example, gave me a new understanding of national vulnerability on the world stage. The new American republic was an infant among empires with the power to destroy it. As much as I had intellectually grasped that fact before, I now felt its consequences in a deep and cutting way.
My historical insights of today are more Cassandra-like. I sense the outlines of disaster—sometimes I see it plainly—but my words of warning often fall flat. Sometimes I myself don’t want to believe them.
This isn’t to say that I have no hope for what’s to come. I do. I know that times of unrest hold the potential for change—even dramatic change—that can right past injustices. I know that people with power won’t hold it forever, and that many repressive regimes destroy themselves by pushing too far too fast. I know the might of public opinion, and how politics from the ground up has countered power grabs time and again. We historians are connoisseurs of the promise inherent in change over time, as unsettling as such change can be.
I also know that before the United States can move ahead, it has to reckon with its past. It has to acknowledge the often profoundly deep roots of modern injustices, and recognize the long-standing assumptions and traditions that have made us who we are, for better and worse. America’s national identity is grounded in a shared understanding of American history—the country’s failures, successes, traditions, and ideals. Shape that narrative and you can shape a nation.
During times of intense change, that narrative has more power still. Thus the current outrage over the telling of our history. The United States is having a full-fledged identity crisis, and given the high stakes, the ownership of national history has become urgent and immediate. Culture war doesn’t begin to do this struggle justice. It is a battle for the soul of America and the survival of democracy, as many Americans know all too well.
This is not a battle of abstractions. It’s a deeply personal fight about inclusion and exclusion. We’re determining whose history counts and whose voices get heard, and reckoning with the many ways in which injustices—and ideals, met and unmet—have made us who we are. The fury of this debate grows from its implications. It’s an argument over what we want the United States to be.
The current clash over commemorative statues brings that argument to life. From roughly 1890 to 1920, people erected statues of key Confederates, staking claims in public spaces and endorsing the Confederates’ defense of slavery in the process; more than anything else, these statues express the values of the people who erected them. In the 21st century, people are taking down the statues to revoke that endorsement. Statues are public tributes to ideas in human form; they’re not objective history. Their meaning goes far deeper than their surface.
And meanings change. The recent release of Broadway’s Hamilton on film shows this in stark relief. (For me, the moment was somewhat personal, as some of my scholarship appears in the musical.) When Hamilton first gained national acclaim in 2015, people complained that it neglected the core issue of slavery and celebrated a small cadre of elites who had long eclipsed much else in the telling of America’s founding. The criticism was sharp but subdued; love of the musical as a work of theater and art drowned much of it out. The release of the Hamilton film sparked a louder, sharper, and more sustained critique. The musical is no less brilliant and, for many, no less loved, but its historical implications are now smack at the center of an urgent public debate. Hamilton has become a litmus test of historical memory.
It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.
The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.
But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.
In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.