This week we celebrated President’s Day, and we’ve seen all the usual handwringing about what terrible and unenlightened people our ancestors were. Our modern culture seems to be intent on tearing down almost every well-known person in our history, believing that no one had any moral authority until we came along to show how it’s done. That attitude is more than a bit self-aggrandizing, but it has a deeper flaw. If we give in to modern attitudes toward historical figures, we will miss an important opportunity to show our children models of resilience and personal growth.
Abraham Lincoln, for example, offers an inspiring story of someone who overcame childhood adversity and mental health problems. He was 9 years old when his mother died and 19 when his older sister died in childbirth. He struggled with deep depression all of his life, and the only formal education he had was from itinerant teachers. His first fiancée died of typhoid fever, and his eventual wife also suffered from clinical depression after three of their four children died before reaching adulthood. In modern parlance, his ACE and stress scores were through the roof, yet he persevered through all of the adversity. He didn’t fight against slavery strongly enough to satisfy our modern sensibilities, but he does offer profound lessons about resilience.
I have always been fascinated with Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams. She suffered from various illnesses as a child that set back her education. Nevertheless, she taught herself and became one of the most eloquent writers of her (or any) historic era. She had to manage the family farm alone for years at a time while her husband served as foreign ambassador for the new United States. She lost two children as infants, and two other children suffered from depression and alcoholism. Yet she always wrote optimistically and persevered in the face of these difficult circumstances.
Other historic figures offer similar lessons. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, spent most of her childhood in fear for her life. Her mother had been executed as a traitor, and her religious beliefs put her at risk from her own sister and hired assassins. Yet she managed to navigate the politics of her day and usher in an era of literary achievement and prosperity for her country.
Of course we should not ignore the character flaws in these people. Queen Elizabeth I, who was unusually tolerant for the age, sentenced a subject to having his hand cut off after he published a pamphlet criticizing her reign. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the stirring words that “all men are created equal,” participated in a brutal system that treated some people as property. The lesson for us, however, is not that we should condemn and then ignore them. The lesson is that even otherwise accomplished and inspiring people can have deep flaws and blind spots. Even we, with all of our enlightened views and moral authority, need to be humble enough to know that we also can make serious mistakes.
So this President’s Day, don’t simply dismiss every historic figure who doesn’t live up to our exalted notions of what we think we would have done if we had been them. Dig deep enough to understand the customs and culture of their day and the forces that they lived with. Look at the adversity that they suffered, and figure out how they managed to forge ahead despite adversity. In each of these stories, there may be lessons that can help our children learn how to be resilience and move past their own mistakes and trauma. We owe it to them to help find those lessons.