When the Hamilton musical brought the Founding Fathers to life through rap and song in 2016, it made Independence-era history more popular than it had been in a long time. Alexander Hamilton is the perfect picture of the American Dream—an orphan and immigrant who worked non-stop to become a critical part of the war effort and Washington’s right-hand man. Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, the musical is pretty accurate, the characters are relatable and the tough issues they dealt with are surprisingly not watered down. Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than can be conveyed in a musical, so don’t see it as a history lesson—rather, let it inspire you to deepen your study of history.
We live in the present and plan for the future, but history is in the past—so why should we care about what has already happened when it can’t possibly impact our lives today or tomorrow? Historical ignorance could prove to be the greatest threat to freedom in the 21st century, because if we don’t know where we came from, we can’t possibly know where we’re headed. It’s not uncommon today to see young people picketing for socialism, which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th century.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”Thomas Jefferson
History helps us understand how people and societies function.Historical trends demonstrate that though technology and society constantly change and advance, human nature is constant and predictable, and as such, history provides a road map for the future. Without history as a guide, how can one assess how a society might respond to a given policy change or national movement?
For instance, prohibition of the 1920s was socially devastating because people found ways to illegally produce and obtain alcohol, and the fact that it was illegal made the trade far more dangerous. It proved that government cannot effectively control people’s moral choices by legal means—a principle that might be applied to a host of modern issues. How can we understand the influence of technology, the development of medicine, the role of beliefs in shaping families and communities, and the simple question of why humans function as they do in social settings? History provides the answers.
Even more important, history affirms our national identity. The past caused the present—it seems obvious but think about it. Any time we seek to understand why something is—from the war in Afghanistan for instance, or voting rights for women and African-Americans, or the existence of America as an independent nation—the answer lies in the past. Sometimes fairly recent events will serve as sufficient explanation, but in many cases the answer lies further back.
We can find great encouragement and inspiration in the study of history—over and over, history demonstrates how one person can alter the course of a nation or the world. If that sounds audacious, remember that William Wilberforce almost single-handedly abolished the slave trade in Britain. He gave his entire life to the cause, and abolition wasn’t actually passed until just after his death—but he did it, and he’s not the only person to change the world on such a scale, either. History presents us with countless individuals who demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity and creativity, unwavering courage, relentless commitment to personal values, loyalty to family and country, sacrificial love, and servant leadership. Following in their footsteps guides us in how to be good citizens, businesspeople, family members, and political leaders.
Inspiring as they are, however, tales of individual valor are only part of the picture. As a whole, history centers around the creation of political institutions and the emergence of national values—and national problems. For example, to understand why religious liberty is so important to Americans, we have to understand the legacy of religious persecution that preceded the Puritan migration to the New World and informed the American Founding. Likewise, if we don’t know that the Second Amendment was designed to ensure citizens’ right to defend themselves against a tyrannical government, then we’ll be susceptible to gun control laws that claim to protect us. Historical study provides a broad perspective on humanity, society, and the world.
Here’s the bottom line: historical knowledge is necessary to protect freedom for the future. It’s not deep, detailed history that we need—it’s just historical context for the basic principles of liberty and limited government that made America unique. The greatest danger of historical ignorance is that we will be forced to re-learn the painful lessons of our past. Historical study helps us answer humanity’s biggest questions and avoid the pitfalls of those who have gone before. Like generations before us, we have a chance at liberty, at the pursuit of happiness, at the American Dream. Knowing what they did to achieve their dream—or to throw it away—will help each of us chart our own path to greatness and to keep America free for another generation.
Where do we start?
I realize that history has a reputation for being dull, boring, and hard to relate to—but as Hamilton proves, there are so many ways to keep it lively, exciting, and personal. If you don’t know where to start, here are a few of my favorite movies, TV mini-series, and books. Better than Wikipedia, these are a good place to start if you’re interested in building your historical understanding.
Movies and TV
- The John Adams mini-series from HBO — not perfect, but quite accurate and very well executed, adapted from David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.
- Mel Gibson’s The Patriot — mostly historical fiction, based on real characters and events during the War of Independence.
- The HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose — one of the most accurate World War II histories ever produced, it follows the legendary Easy Company of the 101st Airborne during and after D-Day.
- Mel Gibson’s Braveheart — probably my favorite movie of all time, the story of William Wallace in the war of Scottish Independence.
- Gettysburg — portrays the critical battle that turned the tides of the American Civil War.
- I’d recommend pretty much any biography by Eric Metaxas — his history is easy to read and extremely conversational. My favorites to start with are Seven Women: and the Secret of their Greatness and Seven Men: and the Secret of their Greatness — short, lively biographies of important historical figures, emphasizing character traits like those I mentioned above.
- Ronald Reagan’s Autobiography, An American Life — don’t be put off by the page count: Reagan’s writing was concise, personal, witty and sincere, and this book is essential to understanding the mind—and heart—of one of the greatest Americans to ever live.
- Lynne Cheney’s biography of James Madison: A Life Reconsidered — carefully researched and somewhat dense, but a surprisingly smooth, enjoyable read thanks to Cheney’s conversational style.
- Larry Arnn’s biography of Winston Churchill, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government — a bit more heady but not as thick, covers a lot of ground and provides a solid foundation for understanding another of the greatest leaders of the modern free world.
I could go on and on—scarcely anything important has happened in history that doesn’t have at least one movie, TV series, or book to its name. A word of warning though: before you dive into anything, especially movies, do a few minutes’ research on its historical accuracy so you can filter it through the lens of reality.
What are your favorite history books or movies? I’d love to know your recommendations! Comment below.
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