The news is full of items about Americans’ ignorance of history. A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, for example, finds that only four in 10 American adults have a basic understanding of U.S. history. New Marine recruits in boot camp, meanwhile, have no memory of the events of 9/11—indeed, some were not yet born in September 2001. To learn about those events, which might cause them to risk their lives, they are required to take a history class. As the last Holocaust survivors die out, to turn to another example, worries mount about who will tell their story.
Yet relative ignorance of history is nothing new in America. From the start, America’s habits have been those of youth: our people have always been ambitious, restless, and on the move. Waves of immigrants and constant technological revolutions keep the country eternally young. And so, Americans scorn history. But they shouldn’t.
While it was an American, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” seven years after making this remark in 1905, he returned to his native Europe, where he spent the last four decades of his life. And for every George Santayana in the USA, there are a thousand Henry Ford’s saying that “History is more or less bunk.”
It wasn’t always this way. The Founders read ancient history and were inspired by it as they imagined a new and independent America. Perhaps because they were born thinking of themselves as Englishmen, they always had an eye on the lessons of the past. They focused on antiquity, a repository of republics like the one they wanted to create. Sam Adams expressed the wish that America be a Christian Sparta, but he was an outlier. It was Rome that fascinated the Founders.
They thirsted for the liberty of the Roman Republic. The Founders saw themselves as new Brutuses and Cassiuses taking down a tyrant. They miscast poor old King George III in that latter role: He was no tyrant but merely a clumsy ruler out of his depth and lacking in the political finesse to negotiate with a rebellious province. But never mind: The Founders stalked the ghost of Roman liberty and they did it well. Take Valley Forge in the troubled winter of 1777, for example, where George Washington gave his troops a teaching moment through a play. It was Joseph Addison’s drama Cato, a tale of the most determined opponent of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, a man who gladly gave his life for the freedom of the Republic. The lesson was obvious.
The Roman Empire also told other stories to the Founders. It was a cautionary tale about how a country loses its liberty, as Rome did after the fall of the Republic. Yet imperial Rome also offered the promise of greatness. The Roman Empire at its height spanned about 3,000 miles and comprised about 70 million people. Already in 1780, Thomas Jefferson imagined America, still a collection of colonies on the Atlantic Coast, becoming an Empire of Liberty growing across the continent. He imagined a new Rome, as it were, but one that would combine the freedom of the Roman Republic and the expanse of the Roman Empire.
Jefferson did all too little to recognize the flaws of Roman society and his own, above all, slavery. We shouldn’t idealize Rome, but by examining it critically we can gain perspective. We can learn how a country produces a great founder like Augustus or how it survives a tyrant like Nero. We can note the long list of imperial women who, although often unsung, held the keys to their men’s success.
Studying history helps us to think strategically. In the case of the Roman Empire, for example, it provides a case study of how large, diverse states work. We learn how Rome achieved a measure of peace and prosperity, but not without exacting a bloody price from peoples who wanted their independence. We learn how the empire survived by changing, with an ethnic and cultural diversity that would have shocked its founders. We discover why and how Rome eventually fell in the West while surviving in the East. And all the while we look at ourselves in the light of events gone by, asking who we are and where we are going.
Americans may be amnesiacs but there’s a whole world out there that never forgets the past. Talk, for example, to a Chinese person about unequal treaties or the Century of Humiliation and you will get an earful. For that matter, ask a Canadian about the “States” and you’ll be surprised how closely they observe America, or how much they know about our history. Canada is a young nation too, but it was founded in loyalty to the mother country, not rebellion. Canadians remember that America invaded their country, twice. Americans don’t remember that, and we lost, so we’re not interested. But ask an American about Canada and he might not get past clichés about hockey and poutine.
We Americans might not be interested in ancient history, but history is interested in us. Our neighbors, friends, rivals, and enemies all get a vote as to America’s future. They certainly put our past in perspective, and we need to do likewise, both with our history and the world’s. Any less would be dangerous for us.
If you are a parent, read your child a history book. If you are a student, listen to a history podcast. If you are going for a walk, visit a monument or site of historic interest and learn its story. Don’t be afraid to start small.
The Romans called history res gestae or “deeds done.” We might add that history is also a story of deeds undone. The more we Americans study the past, the better we’ll be able to plan our future.
Barry Strauss is Professor of History and Classics, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, and author of TEN CAESARS: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Simon & Schuster)