The Importance of History

Unlike other nations, few of which spend as much time and effort on teaching their history, the United States has always emphasized its national heritage. Even its elementary school children learn about the nation’s great men and events. The school curriculum tends to emphasize the ideals of a united nation that is dedicated to unselfish cooperation and support for its citizens. Yet, when the nation is tested, those ideals often prove to be weak. Throughout the course of its history, the United States has seen irreconcilable divisions between right and left, greedy politicians plotting their own fortunes, and cynical individuals seeking power for their own gain.

The most famous example was the American Civil War, fought between 1860 and 1865. The cause was slavery, which splintered the country into two separate political parties and, ultimately, a nation that divided along ethnic lines. It is a lesson that all students should be reminded of, and one that teachers should take care to teach.

Another lesson that history teaches is the importance of looking at events in their full complexity. Many of the most enduring lessons come from the way in which seemingly disparate occurrences are intertwined and influence each other. For instance, a religious revival may lead to important political decisions and a national economic depression might have profound effects on art and literature. These connections are not easy to show in a classroom, but they should be discussed as a means of helping students understand how historical forces affect human activity.

In the summer of 1776 a national convention met in Philadelphia to determine whether a stronger central government was needed. Delegates from all 13 colonies were involved in the discussions. Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the debate by denouncing the failures of the Articles of Confederation and stressing the need for a strong, national government. He outlined a broad plan that he and his Virginia compatriots had, through long sessions at the Indian Queen tavern, put together in the days preceding the convention. It had three branches of government-legislative, executive, and judicial-structured to check the other and to provide a veto for the Congress over laws enacted by state legislatures.

As the convention pressed on, several other issues emerged in the discussion. In August, the Convention was thrust into a strident discussion of slavery. Delegates from South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland argued that the issue was morally as well as economically important, while others, like Luther Martin of Maryland, argued that “interest alone is the governing principle with nations.”

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