President Obama’s second inaugural offers all Americans food for thought, but it has particular valences for historians. Like so many in this genre, it draws on the past to legitimize particular values, to highlight what has been accomplished (and what has not), and to justify a definition of national character and purpose. Anyone who doubts the importance of historical thinking to these sorts of events need only to ponder the president’s frequent use of the past tense. As much as his focus is “this moment, and we will seize it,” as much as he reminds us that we “affirm the promise of our democracy,” he is actually situating us in the past, “recall[ing] what binds this nation together … an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” And what matters is what “history tells us,” at which point his verbs become past tense: “resolved … never relinquished … succumbed … have always understood … .”
Ironically, while Obama pins his argument on historical thinking and what “history tells us,” his vision of education identifies only training teachers in math and science, preparing students to build roads and laboratories. Historians are likely to question this vision. But we are less likely to question the president’s broader message: history matters. Pundits have already noticed his decision to identify three particular historical examples of civil rights activism, which include Stonewall, as well as the more conventional references to Seneca Falls and Selma. Indeed, even Selma is an interesting choice in its emphasis on voting rights in particular rather than the broader frame of the more commonly cited 1963 March on Washington. Obama is the first president to place the struggle for gay rights front and center in the continuing struggle to fulfill the promise of the nation’s founding documents. He does this by doing the work of a historian: selecting and prioritizing elements of the past, and placing them into a narrative.
Since the president ends with a plea to “let us answer the call of history,” I call on all historians to comment publicly and to share their comments with the AHA. Write. And send us the links.