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We Don't Use That History Stuff Anyway, Do We?

03/06/2014 11:45 am ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Americans are terribly present-minded. We are mostly concerned about the here and the now. Please consider for just a moment the very unique role of the individual in our American story and what it can teach us about the critical role of citizens in a republic.

I was privileged last weekend to participate in a special program for Jordanian, Moroccan and Tunisian members of Parliament sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the Institute of Representative Government. Participants came to Colonial Williamsburg to learn about the ideas that sparked the American Revolution. They toured the reconstructed eighteenth-century capitol building of Virginia and met interpreters portraying Patrick Henry and the young James Madison at the Fifth Virginia Convention where, in 1776, Virginia delegates declared independence and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the first Virginia Constitution. After the tour, we discussed the history of the American experiment in self-government since those founding days.

At lunch, I spoke with a young Tunisian woman. She had been a protester in 2011: she marched in the streets and organized digital communications. She spoke proudly about what has been accomplished, and with determination about all that lies ahead. With concern, she wondered if the Tunisian people could secure and expand the freedom and opportunity their revolution promised. Tunisia has an ancient history including Berbers, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans, but she observed that all she and her compatriots had to represent their revolution was some graffiti on city walls. Tunisian history, she lamented, does not have the instructive value of American history.

There is no truth to the adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. We can never repeat history. The unique combination of people, place, time, conditions and opportunity will never occur again in the same way. American history does not serve to warn us of what to avoid. It is, instead, the story of individual citizens as they realize the potential of our revolutionary ideals. American history stories remind us that individual citizens working together accomplish remarkable things -- that indeed it is our responsibility as citizens to shape our time and to shape the future of our republic

It was Americans who, in order to put an end to the privilege of monarchs, embraced the Enlightenment philosophy that government rested on the authority of the individual citizen. Americans transformed this theory into a real working system of government, and for more than two hundred years we have reinvigorated and advanced the principle. It is not without a struggle, disagreement or cost. A central principle of our revolution -- that all individuals are free and equal -- has been difficult to implement. The ideal belied the enslavement of African Americans. It took a century to debate whether the freedom of the individual or the freedom of the slave owner to possess human beings was paramount. It can be difficult for a 21st-century American to understand why this debate was even necessary. But one cannot deny that there is much to be learned from the story, nor that we continue to debate how best to define and protect our freedoms and expand equality in the 21st century.

We Americans talk easily and inclusively about freedom -- our desire for it and our devotion to it. Still, our history helps us understand that freedom is neither easy nor all-encompassing. We have debated constantly since before the American Revolution about what freedom is, what it means, how to obtain it, in what ways it must be limited, and for whom it will be denied. It is our story, and if we understand the history of the American people we understand that freedom is not an absolute granted by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. We know that individuals have secured our freedom. We protested British navigation laws in the 1760s and dug the Allied trenches at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. We escaped from masters who would keep us in chattel slavery and we campaigned as abolitionists. Some immigrated and others, concerned that immigrants might change the nation, advocated to exclude or limit newcomers. We served in the military and fought to preserve American ideals, even when that meant waging war against other Americans who defined those ideals differently. We campaigned for women's suffrage. We marched for civil rights and sat at lunch counters to demand equality before the law. We protested our government's foreign policy. In these and hundreds of other stories, the American citizen has shaped the present and future of the nation.

It is a contentious history. Even today we debate the meaning of these stories and interpret them to support current cultural, political and social positions. We debate whether particular documents are interpreted correctly along with the meaning of past events, wars and historical figures. We debate whether institutions have been damaged or in some cases whether institutions should be destroyed. Still, we should never forget that "We the People" are fortunate to have this remarkable American story. It is the story of individual citizens and the possibilities we create, even in the most difficult and dire circumstances. It is an example -- an inspiration -- to every citizen. It is an example to the world.