The most recent census data states that there are roughly 328 million people living in the United States at the current moment. If you were to randomly select one individual from among those 328 million you would probably find their life to be relatively boring, and dare I say, insignificant. Yet to that single individual their live is filled with stories, and lessons that they might someday want to pass on to their children, or grandchildren. That simple fact grants significance to them, and their life; as they are part of the fabric that makes up American history.
Most people live their lives in, what you might call, relative obscurity; hardly rating any notice from society whatsoever. These people work, play, live and die with only their immediate family, co-workers, and small circle of friends even recognizing that they even existed. Yet when someone like Ronald Reagan passed away, the whole world knew about it, with the media detailing his life and accomplishments in great detail to memorialize his passing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining that when I pass hardly a soul will notice that I’m gone, I’m only commenting on the fact that some names are more familiar, more recognizable, than others. I mention all this because, to me, the study of history is much more than the memorization of names and dates, it is the study of the men who participated in making those events noteworthy to begin with.
What I mean by that is that November 22, 1963 would just have been another day had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated on that day. It is what happened to Kennedy that makes that day stand out in history; and a study of history should not be the rote memorization that President was killed on that day; it should be the study of the men who made that day memorable in the first place. It is the drama of people’s lives that adds the spice that makes the study of history fascinating; without that spice the study of history would be as bland and boring as watching paint dry.
I have no way of knowing the exact number of people who have lived and died in this land we call America, but I’m guessing the number would be pretty high. That being the case, I cannot expect anyone, including myself for that matter, to know the names of all of them. Yet I’m certain that if I were to mention certain names, people would immediately recognize who they were, and what they were known for. Take for instance George Washington; I’m pretty sure most would at least know that he was the Commander of the Continental Army and that he became our country’s first President under the newly ratified constitution. What about Jimi Hendrix, Prince, or Michael Jackson; do those names ring a bell?
So some names are easily recognizable beyond their families and small circles of friends. Yet, if I were to mention Abel P. Upshur, what kind of response would I get from you? I’m guessing that upwards of 99% of the people in this country would say, “Who the hell is Abel P. Upshur?” Well, let me tell you a little bit about Mr. Upshur.
Abel Upshur was one of twelve children born to Littleton and Anne Upshur in the year 1790 in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was tutored privately until it became time for him to move on to college, where he attended both Yale and Princeton; being expelled from the latter for participating in a student rebellion. During the War of 1812 he served honorably as a Captain in the Army, and afterwards moved on to public life; where he served in the Virginia Legislature, as well as serving as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State under President John Tyler. Upshur was killed on February 28, 1844 in a freak accident when a gun exploded during a demonstration aboard the new warship the USS Princeton.
So while Upshur’s life was more noteworthy than mine, it does not rank up there with the lives of a Lincoln, a Kennedy, or even a Reagan; so you may be asking why I bother mentioning him at all. I mention him because during the course of his life he wrote a book entitled, A Brief Enquiry into the Nature and Character of our Federal Government: Being a Review of Judge Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.
Now I’d be willing to bet that the title of that book means about as much to most people as does the name of its author; yet it was that book, or at least a certain passage in it, that kept me awake for most of the night last night. The particular passage to blame for my insomnia was: A deep and solemn feeling of religion, and an attachment to, and an understanding of, the principles of civil liberty, far in advance of the age in which they lived, suggested to most of them the idea of seeking a new home, and founding new institutions, in the western world. To this spirit we are indebted for all that is free and liberal in our present political systems. It would be a work of very great interest, and altogether worth of the political historians, to trace the great principles of our institutions back to their sources.
It was that last sentence that did it; twenty-eight simple words that unleashed a floodgate of thoughts that kept me awake until sunrise. One of the first things I remember thinking, before the thoughts became a maddening cacophony of noise, was that what Upshur was describing was the genealogy of American Liberty. I found that to be a fitting analogy, and a fitting title for this rant; hence the reason I brought his name up in the first place.
While I have no problem with people wanting to know the history of their family; their ancestors, I do find it somewhat perturbing that they don’t seem to have the same burning desire to learn the history of their country; particularly when it comes to the lives and actions of its most notable figures. You may know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and you may know that he served as our country’s 3rd President; but what else do you know of his life? You may know that Patrick Henry was a staunch patriot, that he spoke the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death”; but what else do you know about him?
I have 3 books written solely about Jefferson; one about his life, one about his political disagreements with Alexander Hamilton, and another one about the contentious election of 1800 that saw him become our 3rd President. How much have you read about the man; other than what you may have read in a high school history textbook? I also have 2 books written about James Madison, 2 about Abraham Lincoln, and 2 about Patrick Henry. I also have 5 books dealing with the drafting of, and the debates over the ratification of our constitution; one of which is the book written by Abel Upshur; and I’ve read all of them at least once.
I’m not bragging, well maybe a little; but the point I’m getting at is how much do you know about the lives and actions of the men whose names we find in our history books? I’m not saying I’m a genius, or even overly intelligent. What I am getting at though is, if you are among those who haven’t read a word about history or civics since you graduated from high school, what makes you believe that your opinions are more factually based than mine are?
The study of genealogy always begins with the name of the person initiating the search. It then moves on to that person’s parents, then it branches out like a tree to include aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and all their relatives they can find information on. Yet if all that person can find is a name, then they know nothing of the life of that ancestor; what they accomplished during their lifetime. That is what makes the study of genealogy so fascinating; discovering little tidbits about the lives of your ancestors.
The study of history should be akin to tracing back your family tree; it is meaningless if all you learn is that on a particular date in history something of importance happened. What makes the study of history fascinating is the learning of facts relating to the event that made that date noteworthy; the arguments or debates of those who participated in making that a date to remember.
If I were to tell you that on September 17, 1787 the delegates of the Constitutional Convention introduced their finalized document to the public, and that on June 21, 1788 that document was ratified, and went into effect, that is pretty boring stuff; even I’ll admit that. It is the study of what went on behind the closed doors of the Constitutional Convention; what led to the requirement that a Constitutional Convention be held; a study of the debates between the constitution’s opponents and its supporters that makes a study of that period of our history fascinating to me. Yet until I endeavored to learn as much as I could about that period, all I basically knew was that dry boring synopsis I gave you a moment ago.
If that was all there was to learn about the establishment of our system of government I wouldn’t have wasted the last 20 years of my life studying that single event with the same intensity and focus I have. What I’ve learned, thanks to many individuals along the way, just scratches the surface of all there is to learn; yet if I were to begin stacking all my notes about it on the floor, I would reach the ceiling at least once. Yet the average person thinks their opinion on the subject is just as informed as mine is? Give me a break!
The thing about all this is, if you think back to the quote that inspired all this, Upshur said, “It would be a work of very great interest, and altogether worth of the political historians, to trace the great principles of our institutions back to their sources.” If you’ll note, he did not say it would be a great work to study our institutions themselves, rather he said it would be a great work to study the principles of those institutions back to their sources.
I would venture to say that everyone has someone who has inspired them; been a role model they looked up to. I think what Upshur was saying is that it would be a great work to study what inspired those we call our Founders and our Framers; see who, or what inspired them; formed their beliefs regarding things like government, rights, and liberty. I have tried to do that to a certain extent; by quoting from books such as Locke’s Second Treatise.
The problem I’ve found is that, for the most part, people just don’t care; they don’t want to spend the time reading over a bunch of stuff written before their great-great grandparents were born. Yet they will spend untold hours glued to a television watching as camera crews record the lives of people like the Kardashian’s, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, or some rich bachelor as he seeks true love. People will spend an entire day of the week glued to their television watching football; which does nothing to improve their life; yet they complain that they do not have the time to read books about history like I do.
Yes they do, it is just that their priorities are wrong; entertainment is more important to them than knowledge. Actor Stephen Fry described people like that when he wrote, “There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren’t lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food, you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”
In wrapping things up there are two quotes I would like for you to read, and ponder:
-But every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor. (Noah Webster, 1788)
-I agree with you that it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country. (Thomas Jefferson, 1823)
Our country is in the state it currently is, not because of tyrannical and despotic leaders, it is in this condition due to the ignorance and apathy of the masses that make up the voting public. As Jefferson wrote to Charles Yancey in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Freedom either begins or ends with you. It begins or ends when you stop believing the lies you were taught, and are currently being told, and begin seeking out the truth. Ten million armed citizens could take this country back from the tyrants who run it, but if the 328 million people living here were not informed as to what constitutes good government, they despots and tyrants would take it back from us within a month. As John Adams said, “The right of a nation to kill a tyrant, in cases of necessity, can no more be doubted, than to hang a robber, or kill a flea. But killing one tyrant only makes way for worse, unless the people have sense, spirit and honesty enough to establish and support a constitution guarded at all points against the tyranny of the one, the few, and the many.”
It all begins and ends with you; so what are you going to do about it; shirk your duty as you have been, or are you going to rise to the occasion when your country needs you most. After all, when it all boils down to the nitty gritty, I think that is what sets patriots apart from the average person; rising to the occasion when they are needed the most. So, are you a patriot, or are you a sheep who prefers to be led around by the nose by its rulers?