08/14/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

The Will of the People

Americans are a terribly ahistorical people. We don't provide our children with a critical in-depth understanding of history. Consequently, Americans have a cloudy idealized sense of our past. We act as if the present generation is the only one ever to face a challenge. You hear it a lot today: the United States has never been this divided or this partisan; the founding generation would have never tolerated this kind of rancor; this is the most divisive election ever!

But American political campaigns have been -- almost from the beginning -- a rough-and-ready, full-body-contact style event. George Washington shunned the concept of faction or political party, but the generation of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams did not. By the election of 1800, the political rancor was fierce. Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans squared off. The personal attacks were severe. John Adams, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, was held up as royalist who secretly wanted to destroy the republic and set himself up as king. He did, after all, have sons upon whom he could establish a dynasty. Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as a miscegenous non-Christian who supported the French Revolution and would bring the guillotine to American shores. Across the country, political parties and their newspapers carried on a blistering campaign of exaggeration, lies, and character assassination calculated to advance their candidate by denigrating his opponents.

That does not justify the way modern politicians attack each other, but if we provided a decent American history and civics education in this country, twenty-first-century American citizens would at least recognize the historical roots of our current situation. Most, however, are woefully ignorant about our past and the way in which elections are conducted. Most don't understand that the electoral process has changed dramatically over time. Nor do they understand that most voting requirements are established by states, not the federal government. People are amazed to learn that, until 1913 and the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, most U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by the people.

We have just been through a long primary season. Now we wait for the political parties to have their conventions, but that isn't how George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were nominated. Originally, a small group of congressional leaders and political insiders selected presidential candidates behind closed doors. William Wirt, in 1832, was the first candidate selected by convention, for the Anti-Masonic Party. By this point in our history, the American people were demanding a larger voice in the selection of candidates. Conventions dominated the nomination process for the rest of that century, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Americans were frustrated by convention bosses who used influence and money to determine the selection of candidates. Again, American voters demanded more participation, and in response, by the early twentieth century, primaries began to appear in the nomination process.

Why is this history relevant? Because it helps us understand ourselves today. Partisanship and rancor are not new. We have not fallen from some republican ideal into a new style of debauchery. Our political battles have been hard-fought and hard-won right from the very beginning. Most importantly, we -- our children especially -- need to understand that our voices count. If we believe the primary and convention system no longer works, we are duty bound to change it. If we believe there is too much rancor in politics, the people must demand a change. We are the American people and American history is the only way for us to understand the responsibilities we hold for insuring the future of the republic.

This fall's political season is a great opportunity to teach our children, and each other, about civic engagement in the United States. Help students follow the election. Watch the conventions together. Talk about the issues. Check out your locality's voter laws -- registration, polling places, balloting methods, and more. And examine the history of some past presidential elections. There are resources to help you look at past elections. Colonial Williamsburg is offering The Will of the People, an electronic field trip on the election of 1800, available for free -- a Gift to the Nation in this election year.

There are great stories of Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, Anti-Masons, and Know-Nothings, full of intrigue, debate, coalitions, and bargains to advance American ideals. These are the stories of engaged citizens at work creating our republic. Their stories can inspire today's students to become active participants in our republic.