(Photo credit: Revolutionary era flags at Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, courtesy of techfun, Flickr Creative Commons)
One summer a couple of years ago, when I was working as a living history volunteer at Valley Forge National Historical Park (on a day off from doing ranger-ey things), I had just finished a presentation on Continental Army soldiers’ living conditions at the park’s Muhlenberg Huts, themselves a living history memorial to the sufferings of all American soldiers who endured that hungry winter of 1777-78. A member of the audience, an older man with a buzz cut and rigid bearing—probably ex-military—asked me where I was from. When I answered he looked at me with a very curious and slightly combative expression on his face and asked me, “Why is it you do this when you have so much history in your own country?”
Well, I had a two-part answer to that question. First, I pointed out that the United States is my own country now, since I’m actually a citizen (I could have added—but didn’t—that he shouldn’t make assumptions about people and their motivations based on accents). Second, I noted, this is where I have chosen to live (though I could have added—but didn’t—that I’ve often felt a bit ambivalent about living here and still do from time to time, mainly when the wing-nuts come to the fore of public debate and the country veers defiantly away from its highest ideals and enormous potential.)
So initially I kept my two-part response to the gentleman simple and to the point. But on reflection I thought it sounded a little terse, so I felt compelled to elaborate. I went on to tell him that part of my interest in American history, especially from the Revolutionary period, relates to the fact that it is so intertwined with British and European history. But there’s more to it than that. Of course, I said, America’s story doesn’t go all that far back, and Europeans often make fun of the States for its relative youth (at least as a modern, European-dominated settler society). But this place has managed to pack a tremendously rich, varied and fascinating saga into about three centuries. In fact it’s even a bit overwhelming at first when you’re from a small, homogeneous country, as I am. But here’s the thing. I’ve found that this continental-scale country, in all its insane vastness and complexity, makes exactly zero sense if only viewed through the lens of present-day events (and god knows, the so-called news media does not help here). Each succeeding year I live here seems to make less sense than the last—unless, I’ve found, I make a serious attempt to get a handle on the past, whether from 25 years or 250 years ago. Then the present-day cacophony comes into some sort of focus, even if only fleetingly.
That’s sort of what I said, though probably not as coherently. I stopped at that point. But I could also have banged on. I wanted to say to the gentleman-with-military-bearing (but didn’t) that, since the U.S. is the most powerful nation-state in the world, and has been for 70 years, anything that helps us make sense of the place has got to be well worth studying. That’s because what this country gets up to has huge ramifications for the rest of the world—ramifications that most Americans are clueless about because generally they don’t give a crap about what goes on overseas. And in global terms, the U.S. often gets things quite definitely wrong—which brings to mind Winston Churchill’s line (paraphrasing) about how, on the world stage, Americans always end up doing the right thing, but only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities. Maybe if more people knew more about what this country’s past really meant, we’d get a little less wrong and a little more right.
There were good reasons I didn’t add any of this at the time: the park service doesn’t like it if you a.) stray too far from 18th century politics into the 21st century variety or b.) sound like you’re insulting Americans as a national group (although saying Americans typically know or care nothing about the rest of the world is hardly insulting; most Americans acknowledge that fact without rancor). Still, the gentleman-with-military-bearing might have taken offense, and we couldn’t have that. Anyway, to get back to the main point: U.S. history is absolutely worth studying. It’s also absolutely worth memorializing, because without memorials—whether historical or natural—and the people to interpret them, all we’d have is old illustrations and words on paper. And that’s not enough.