Tag Archives: John Lukacs


I was born at a time before it was understood that the purpose of federal holidays was to provide public employees with a three-day weekend, which is another way of saying that I began grammar school before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971.  This means that I can remember when Columbus Day came every October 12th, instead of the Monday closest to that date.  This—along with the fact that I didn’t think of it until now—will explain why I am two days late posting this piece about Columbus Day.

I’m not an expert on Columbus—far from it—and I feel ill equipped to tackle the weighty moral questions embedded in the larger debate about whether as a nation we should have an annual holiday honoring this Genoese sailor.  I’ll leave that minefield to others and simply say that I’ve long found the history of popular memory of Columbus a great way to help students think about the nature of history.

Regardless of the specific course that I am teaching, the first thing that I want my students to understand is that history is not the same thing as the past.  Coming to grips with this bedrock principle is the first, indispensable step to thinking historically.

Academic historians don’t agree on a single, “official” definition of history, but whatever definition they embrace, it always preserves this fundamental distinction.  You’ll find some who define history as the recreation of the past, others who speak of it as the analysis or interpretation of the past, or even as a never-ending argument about the past.  Actually, it’s all of these things.  The definition I like best, however, comes from Christian historian John Lukacs, who defines history as “the remembered past.”

The power of this pithy definition is remarkable.  Once we begin to think consciously of historical knowledge as a form of memory, the analogy points us to a host of important insights into the nature and function of history.  Like our individual memories, historical memory is invariably imperfect; it is faulty, it changes over time, and it is unavoidably influenced by our perspective.  I’ve found that a great way to illustrate that final point is to talk with my students about how Americans have remembered the events of 1492 across the centuries.

"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus," by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1692, the year of the bicentennial of Columbus’ first voyage, few if any American colonists celebrated the occasion because few if any had even heard of Christopher Columbus.  If history is the remembered past, then it is true to say that, for English colonists in 1692, Columbus’ “discovery” of America was not a part of “history” as they knew it.

By 1792, the free citizens of the newly independent United States had discovered Columbus’ “discovery” and were eager to honor the Italian explorer unknown to their ancestors.  While the movement to name the new nation “Columbia” has failed, the Congress had recently agreed to designate the future seat of the federal government the District of Columbia in his honor.  Only a few years earlier, the New York state legislature had changed the name of King’s College to Columbia in recognition of the master mariner.  (Before all was said and done, forty-four cities or counties would take the name Columbus or Colombia in the explorer’s honor.)  No longer part of the British Empire, Americans were struggling to define a new identity, and a new identity required a new heritage less firmly rooted in an English past.

In 1892, on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage, Americans celebrated for an entire year.  Italian Americans raised money to erect a monument to the Italian Columbus in New York City.  Irish Catholics praised the Catholic Columbus and joined a newly formed organization aimed at making them “better Catholics and Citizens” known as the Knights of Columbus.  The nation invited the world to Chicago for the first World’s Fair, known as the “World’s Columbian Exposition.”

In 1992, by contrast, the nation was badly divided as to how to acknowledge the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage—was it a “discovery”?  was it an “invasion”?—and in the end the country did relatively little to observe the occasion.  After extensive debate the United Nations decided not to sponsor any recognition of the event, and the National Council of Churches resolved that the anniversary should be a “time of penitence rather than jubilation.”  In years since, a growing number of states and municipalities have moved away from observing the holiday and some have moved toward replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

When I ask my students what might explain the difference, they understand almost immediately that our changing memories of 1492 have at least as much to do with the present as with the past.  How could it be otherwise?  If history is the “remembered past,” then history, by definition, exists at the intersection of past and present and is inseparable from both.  When it comes to Columbus specifically, our changing priorities and values are always informing how we remember the man.  As writer John Noble Wilford put it a quarter-century ago, Columbus’ “destiny is to serve as a barometer of our . . . hopes and aspirations” and our evolving conceptions of the just society.


Last weekend I posted two essays in a four-part series on how   American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over the past four centuries. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.  As I explained last weekend, for most of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Americans mostly either were ignorant of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration or unimpressed by it.  Today and tomorrow I’ll share a bit about why that changed.


“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, few visual representations of Thanksgiving linked the holiday with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

“Home to Thanksgiving,” George H. Durrie, 1861. As late as the Civil War, few visual representations of Thanksgiving linked the holiday with the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving was “supremely the home day,” with “the gathering together of the family its most charming feature.”

History is not the past self, but rather the “remembered past,” in the words of Christian historian John Lukacs. With this as our starting point, I teach my students to think of history in terms of metaphors. Among other things, history is a story about the past that helps us to frame our lives. It functions as a mirror helping us to see our own age more clearly. Ideally, it is a rich conversation, a dialogue with the dead about enduring human questions. And as Lukacs’ observation suggests, history is also a form of memory.

We need to take this final metaphor seriously. Think about the attributes of human memory generally. Our memories are always woefully incomplete—not a 24/7/365 documentary of our pasts, but a jumble of fleeting images that we draw from to make sense of our lives. Our memories are influenced by perspective, and the significance that we attach to them changes over time. Historical memory shares all these traits.

In particular, it’s crucial for us to realize that popular historical memory of the past changes dramatically over time. Popular memory of the First Thanksgiving is a classic example. As I noted earlier in this series, for the first two centuries after the First Thanksgiving, Americans attached almost no weight at all to the event. The reason for this was simple: no one remembered it.

This changed in the 1840s and 1850s when a variety of Pilgrim documents shedding light on the 1621 celebration were rediscovered and published. Even then, however, Americans did not rush to embrace the First Thanksgiving as a key moment in the American founding. Thanksgiving was growing in popularity as a holiday, but almost no one was linking the tradition specifically to the Pilgrims and their harvest feast. Why was this?

I think the answer is that the story of the First Thanksgiving wasn’t very useful to mid-nineteenth century America. It didn’t fit well with how Americans wanted to remember the past, and it contradicted how they wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving in the present and the future. To begin with, the evidence that was coming to light suggested that Native Americans had been right in the middle of the Pilgrims’ celebration, but the nation in the 1840s was committed to a policy of Indian removal. Second, the evidence cemented the perception of Thanksgiving as originating in New England at a time when tensions between North and South were rising to a critical level. Finally, the historical evidence underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. By the mid-1800s, however, Americans had generally reversed these criteria and seemed satisfied with the new pattern.

It was not until the close of the nineteenth century that Americans widely began to link their cherished Thanksgiving holiday with the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration. From that point onward the correlation between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims grew steadily. Art work, fiction, political speeches, school plays, greeting cards, even advertisements for beer and cigarettes collaborated to convince Americans of the centrality of the Pilgrims to the contemporary holiday. (“How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser,” gushed a 1908 ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune, “how they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”)

By the early 1920s the link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims was widely assumed, as this 1924 cover of the Saturday Evening Post attests.

By the early 1920s the link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims was widely assumed, as this 1924 cover of the Saturday Evening Post attests.

Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations lagged behind but eventually mirrored the broader trend. When Andrew Johnson called for a national Thanksgiving in 1867, he defended the measure as conforming “with a recent custom.” For more than seventy years his successors followed suit. Aside from vague allusions to “practice,” “custom,” or “habit,” they avoided specific references to the holiday’s supposed origins.

It was 1939 before an American president connected Thanksgiving explicitly with the Pilgrims.  In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Americans to remember the Pilgrims, who “humbly paused in their work and gave thanks to God for the preservation of their community and for the abundant yield of the soil.” By the 1950s such references were almost obligatory. They were a staple of Dwight Eisenhower’s proclamations, and in 1961 John F. Kennedy took the opportunity in his first Thanksgiving proclamation to “ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving.” Like the Jewish patriarch at Passover, American fathers were now to instruct future generations about the sacred origins of their celebration. The Pilgrims’ role as the founders of Thanksgiving was now unquestioned.

So why the difference? What had changed since the middle of the 1800s to make the Pilgrims so popular? I think there were two underlying trends in American life that made it possible. First, the obstacles that had discouraged Americans from embracing the story of the First Thanksgiving back in the mid-nineteenth century gradually faded. For starters, by the close of the nineteenth century America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. Although relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had always been tense, writers could begin to rhapsodize over the “friendly redskins” who had assisted the Pilgrims, and politicians could locate in the First Thanksgiving an inspiring “vision of brotherhood.”

As with the holiday’s link to Native Americans, Thanksgiving’s association with New England would also become less of a liability over time. Within a generation of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, both North and South would begin to romanticize the Civil War, promoting sectional reconciliation through a “willful amnesia” that minimized the depth of the issues that had earlier divided them. As part of this larger process, the commemoration of Thanksgiving itself became gradually less politicized, and the day would come when white Southerners could adopt the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors without renouncing their regional loyalties.

Finally, a number of well-meaning amateur historians re-wrote the history of the First Thanksgiving to transform it into a private, domestic event. Whereas the Pilgrims’ 1621 feast likely had the feel of a community barbeque—with at least 150 people taking part in an outdoor celebration in which they ate with their hands while sitting on the ground—Americans by the mid-1800s associated Thanksgiving with homecoming, a time for loved ones to gather around the family table. And so they simply re-imagined the event to resemble their own custom, insisting that the Pilgrims had walked to church for a Thanksgiving service before returning to their individual homes for their private Thanksgiving dinners.

While these changes opened the door for Americans gradually to embrace the Pilgrims, other changes in the late-nineteenth century made the adoption of the Pilgrims not only possible but desirable. I’ll take these up tomorrow.

The Preciousness of the Past, or of Memory and Mirrors:

So I’ve already devoted more than enough time to common misconceptions about the value of history—it’s time to think together about why we should find value in studying the past.  My list is not exhaustive, and it’s far from the last word on the matter, but here is how I typically answer that question at the beginning of the courses I teach.

In our short-sighted pragmatism, we often insist that academic pursuits immediately translate into a higher potential income after graduation, which is another way of saying that we all too commonly equate education and vocational training.  Vocational training is a good thing—we all need to know something about how to make a living—and I do honestly believe that a rigorous study of history has benefits that can help to put bread on the table.  I want all of my students to improve their abilities to read critically, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, and I think that these are skills that are widely transferable to any number of vocations.  And yet these are incidental benefits—as wonderful as they are—and emphatically not the main benefit we seek.  We study history primarily not to earn a better living but to live a better life.

History serves this purpose in several ways.  For the moment let me focus on two, both of which I can best illustrate with metaphors.  First of all, history is a form of memory.  (I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ definition of history as the “remembered past.”)  If we take the analogy seriously, it can teach us a lot about history’s value.  I asked my students recently to list the attributes of memory as an exercise for thinking about the pitfalls and opportunities of studying the past.  Astutely, they noted that memory can be faulty, that it is sometimes selective and self-serving, and that it may change over time—all of which is also true of history.  But they also identified some of memory’s priceless benefits.  “Memory is crucial to our sense of personal identity,” one student noted.  “Without it we would be unable to function,” observed another.  The same could be said for history.  History is crucial to our sense of collective identity.  Just as memory helps in answering the question “who am I?” history helps in answering the question “who are we?”  And because history gives us a memory before birth, it can connect us with the insight and experience of those who have gone before us.  In a figurative sense it actually lengthens our life’s span, broadening our perspective and enabling us, not to predict the future, but to meet it more wisely.

If history is a form of memory—reminding us of who we have been—it can also be a kind of mirror—revealing to us who we are now.   In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul warns us against being conformed to the values of the world.  Unfortunately, many of the cultural values that influence us deeply become invisible to us.  We see them as “natural,” and what we see as natural we eventually cease to see at all.  One of the great benefits of studying history is its potential to remind us that the way things are now is not the way they have always been.  It can be a lot like traveling to a foreign country, except that we are traveling across time instead of space.  As a Christian who focuses on the study of American History, I am struck that we do not have to go back very far in time to encounter individuals who professed the same faith that we do, who lived in the same part of the world that we do, and who nevertheless viewed the world very differently than we do.  When we take such encounters seriously, we become self-conscious of our values in a way that we have not been; they literally become more visible than before.  Thus the study of history helps us to see both ourselves and our world with new clarity, and it is only when we are really see the values that shape us that we can effectively resist the world’s efforts to squeeze us into its mold.

In sum, history’s greatest value is not utilitarian but moral.  At its richest, it furthers our pursuit for a heart of wisdom, the quest at the very center of what it means to love God with our minds.