The year was 1826. The day: July 4th. Exactly 50 years, to the day, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The people of the United States of America were celebrating their young country’s 50th birthday.
At the same time, about 500 miles apart from each other, two men lay on their death bed.
One lay in Monticello. The other in Quincy, Massachusets.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became friends during the fight for Independence. The unlikely pair had wildly different personalities, but their equal passion for independence brought them together when America needed them most.
Later in their life, when Adams became President and Jefferson his Vice-President, the two grew apart. The difference in their view on how exactly that independence they both so firmly believed in should be achieved became magnified.
The two men didn’t speak and avoided contact with each other for over a decade. It wasn’t until 1812 after both men had served as President and retired from public life, that Adams broke the silence with a letter to Jefferson. Jefferson replied and the friendship was rekindled.
The two men remained close friends and constant writing companions for the rest of their lives.
But on July 4th, 1826, both men lay on their death beds. At 6:20 pm on that day, John Adams passed away. Before he died, Adams uttered a whisper: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Unbeknownst to him, Jefferson had passed five hours earlier at his home in Monticello.
That two of the greatest men this country has ever known, the second and third Presidents of the United States, both died within 5 hours of each other on the 50th Fourth of July is such a ridiculously preposterous idea that no novelist would dare write it. It’s too cheesy. It’s too unbelievable. And yet, it’s history.
“History is boring.”
The number of people I have heard express this sentiment in one way or another astounds me. “History is boring.” I’ve always wondered why people find history to be so incredibly uninteresting.
I’ve more been perplexed by the fact that this sentiment even exists than anything else. Because I love history. I’ve always loved history. Sure, I’m not interested in every single aspect of history. If you were to ask me what the Zhou dynasty was, I would answer with: a) I don’t know and b) I don’t care.
“You should really care about the Zhou dynasty! They’re really important!” I honestly don’t care that they’re important. I just don’t care about the Zhou dynasty and that’s that. Sue me.
There are, however, aspects of history I am incredibly interested in. American History, the history of the west, the lives of American Presidents, the history contained within the Bible, and even the history of Ancient Rome.
But there are other areas of history beyond those we tend to think about. I’m also interested in the history of baseball, football, and basketball. I’m interested in the history of my family. I’m interested in the history that my grandad used to tell me about his days in the Marines.
Assessing these various areas of history, I’ve noticed one interesting thing: I’m interested in history that affects me personally. I care about things that have directly impacted me in some way.
I’m going to make a bold assumption: you like history. Not that you should like history. Not “you’re a better person if you like history”. No. You like history. You might just not know it yet.
See, here’s the thing: our view of what “history” is is far too narrow. The other day I went to the grocery store and stood behind a crazy lady. She had a million coupons and took 30 minutes to check-out. It was maddening, After the fact, I went home and told my friends about this terrible experience. Boom. History.
If you ask me “who won the Masters last year?”, I’d respond: “Tiger Woods”. Boom. History. If you look up online “how many home runs did Babe Ruth hit?” Boom. You just cared about history.
History teaches us things. History teaches us about life. But you can learn from many different people in history. It doesn’t just have to be the people your teachers in school told you were important.
I’m passionate about storytelling, and I’m passionate about filmmaking. So who did I just read a biography on? Walt Disney, of course. And it was incredibly interesting and inspiring. Did I ever learn about Walt Disney in school? Was I ever told by professors to study this great man? Never. But I don’t care about that anymore.
One of my favorite biographers is David McCullough. McCullough’s books are pieces of art. They offer an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of many great Americans. David McCullough’s books are some of the most interesting I have read, and far more interesting than anything I ever read in a textbook. Why?
Because McCullough tells the story of humans. His books aren’t just listing fact after fact. His books dig deeper. His books find the human in the great Americans of the past.
There are some people who love military history. I am not one of them. Military history is pretty boring to me. I don’t really care about what strategy Lee used in the Battle of Sharpsburg. Instead, I want human stories. I want to know what it was like to be there. I want to put myself in the position of those in the past and give myself the best possible chance at understanding them.
That’s the way history should be. And that’s when history is most important. When we get to know not just a list of facts, but a person. A real, living person. A person with faults, with desires, with passion, and with exceptionalism that can only be fully appreciated by spending some time in their shoes.
That’s what history should be. Or rather, that’s what history is. We just need to see it that way.
Just like the story of Adams and Jefferson teaches us, the true history of humans is far more intriguing, more exciting, more heartbreaking, and more inspiring than any story any author would dare write.