No matter the history class that I teach, all historians and all students of history must surely consider three questions: What is history? Why study history? and, How does one study history? Of course, the point that I am trying to convey is that each one of us, regardless of occupation, regardless of our station in life, should be a student of history.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson certainly believed it. These founders argued that in America, where “We the People” rule, rather than a monarch or an oligarchy, it is crucial that the citizens of the nation, those who rule, be an educated citizenry. If the people are to rule, then they must be an educated people to rule wisely.
Few people know about James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky connections. It was Jefferson who penned the “Kentucky Resolution” in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. And in 1822, William T. Barry, Kentucky’s lieutenant governor and head of an education commission charged with exploring the possibility of appropriations for a public school system in Kentucky, wrote to former president Madison, now back at Montpelier, his estate in Virginia. Too few Kentuckians remember that Kentucky led out in education reform in the years before the Civil War, long before the commonwealth’s more recent efforts at reform. Madison’s reply to Barry’s enquiry, written in an August 4, 1822 letter to Barry, was based largely on his close friend Jefferson’s “Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge,” a bill that Jefferson defended in his “‘Notes on the State of Virginia,”‘ published first in the 1780s as the only book that Jefferson ever wrote. (If you visit the campus of Murray State University you might notice the Jefferson quotation on the east façade of Pogue Library.) In Jefferson’s book, we see shades of his belief in the separation of church and state when he advised that “instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.”
Madison agreed. He assured Barry that “this is especially the case, with what relates to the Globe we inhabit, the Nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them.” \
“An acquaintance with foreign Countries in this mode,” he wrote, “has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travelers, which never fails in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings. A knowledge of the Globe & its various inhabitants, however slight, might moreover, create a taste for Books of Travels and Voyages; out of which might grow a general taste for History, an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction.” As a teacher of history, I relish Madison’s description of history as “an inexhaustible fund of entertainment & instruction.” Madison praised Kentucky’s early attempt in 1822 to improve its educational system, and he connected education to the well-being of a democratic republic: “The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded,” he wrote. “A Popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy: or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
For Madison and Jefferson, freedom and education go together, or as Madison put it, “Liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support.” And here we are in 2012 with inexhaustible “knowledge” literally at our fingertips. Now the work of the historian is needed more than ever, for historians gather and analyze and draw conclusions from various primary and secondary sources.
Why study history? For James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, we must all study history to ensure the survival and the prosperity of a democratic republic.
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. He may be reached at JBolin@murraystate.edu.