We always like to think of history beginning, as stories do, with the words “once upon a time,” or something equivalent. But that is not quite true. We never can work back to the origins of things, not completely so. History always begins in the middle of things. It doesn’t matter where you choose to start the story, there is always something essential that came before, some prior context that is assumed.
This is why the past can’t be divided up into convenient self-contained units, with clear and distinct beginnings and endings, much as we might wish it were otherwise. Instead, the spectacle that lies before us when we gaze backward is more like a sprawling, limitless river with countless mingling branches and tributaries, stretching back to the horizon. Like a river, time’s restless force pushes ever forward, relentlessly. But its beginnings lie far back, eventually extending far beyond what we can see, fading into the mists of time at the edges of lands beyond our knowing.
Consider the story of your own life. The story didn’t begin with you. You didn’t call yourself into existence out of the void. You didn’t invent the language you speak, or the foods you eat, or the songs you sing. You didn’t build the home you grew up in, or pave the streets you walked, or devise the subjects you learned in school. Others were responsible for these things. Others, especially your parents, taught you to walk, to talk, to read, to dress, to behave properly, and everything else that goes with normal everyday life in a civilized society, things that you mainly take for granted.
But it’s important to remember that those others didn’t come into the world knowing these things either. Your parents didn’t invent themselves any more than you did. And the people who taught them were just the same in that regard, taught by people before them, who were taught by people before them, and by people before them….and so on, an ever-lengthening of human transmission that soon carries us back into the misty unknown. We carry the past forward into the present, much more than we realize, and it forms a large part of who we are. Even at the moment of our birth, we already find ourselves in the middle of things.
So how far back would you go in telling your own story? You could go back pretty far if you wanted. Many people are fascinated by tracing out their family history, their genealogy. The details can be surprising and intriguing, and may reveal unsuspected things about your ancestors. But too much of that will get in the way of your relating the most important parts of the story, and illuminating the pattern of your own life. Too much detail muddies the picture, and defeats the ultimate purpose.
What we call History is the same way. It is not the sum of the whole past. It doesn’t include everything, and it couldn’t. Instead, it is a selection out of that expansive river of the past, like a carefully cropped photograph, organized wisely and truthfully, which allows us to focus in with clarity upon a particular story, with particular objectives in mind.
The story of the United States, just like that of any other country, is exactly like this. It is not going to be the story of everything. It’s a story about who we are, and about the stream of time we share, an attempt to give us a clearer understanding of the “middle” in which we already find ourselves. And it is crafted with a particular purpose in mind: to help us learn, above all else, the things we must know to become informed, self-aware, and dedicated citizens of the United States of America, capable of understanding and appreciating the nation in whose midst we find ourselves, and capable of carrying out our duties as citizens, including the protection and defense of what is best in its institutions and its ideals. The goal, in short, is to help us be full members of the society of which we are already a part. In studying that history, we come to know better who we are, and to know the very air we breathe, and the ground on which we walk.
Wilfred McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and director of the Center for the History of Liberty. He is the author most recently of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, from which this essay has been adapted.