Holes in History
History has always had a strong place in my life. My father was a professor of American History as I was growing up, so family trips usually included stops at many roadside historical markers – where we kids received an impromptu lesson on whatever happened at that location. But beyond that tutoring as a child, I’ve maintained a great interest in US history – especially the colonial era through the War Between the States (nothing “civil” about that war) and from WWI through the depression, WWII and up to the present.
I’ve been reading Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda. I grew up in the south – in Alabama and Virginia, where some aspects of antebellum life are still mourned. I was graduated from Washington & Lee University, which General Lee led after the War and where he is buried. I am well steeped in that era. But in my mind, the span of time between 1864 and 1914, while only fifty years, is a huge and relatively featureless gulf between the beginning of the nation and the modern era.
But tonight I became acutely aware of some holes in my knowledge while watching the first episode of the new Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts. Theodore Roosevelt was old enough to be aware of the War Between the States – he watched the funeral procession for President Lincoln through the streets of New York. And he considered his father’s decision to send a replacement to fight in the War rather than fighting in it himself to be the one dishonorable decision made by his father. The echos of the War were fading but still strong in the nation when Theodore became President upon the association of President McKinley. McKinley was the last of the presidents that fought in the War.
Franklin Roosevelt served as president until just eleven years before I was born. I consider him to be the first president of the modern era. But he was an adult when his cousin Theodore became president. That period between the War and WWI – fifty short years – is a shorter period than I have lived. And yet it seems to have been when the US stopped being a new nation and became a world power. I wonder if the people living then realized that they period in which they were living were a momentous as it appears in retrospect.
And will this period in which I have lived, with the widespread adoption of air travel, the landing on the moon, personal computers (and smart phones, tablets, watches, etc.), and the creation of the Internet. Will my grandchildren look back at the end of the 20th century / beginning of the 21st century as a momentous period?
I hope I live long enough to find out. Perhaps I will be able to help someone in the future to fill the holes in his or her history.