Chapter Excerpt: "A Time for Freedom: What Happened When in America"

by Lynne Cheney

Simon & Schuster

INTRODUCTION

No one can fully appreciate the great good fortune we have to be Americans without knowing the events that brought us to where we are today. Our freedom and strength are products of the past, and although the choices made by the brave men and women who preceded us do not offer sure guidance to the future, they offer the best guidance that we have.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer of us are leaving school knowing the basic facts of our history. One study found that two thirds of seventeen-year-olds could not identify the half century in which the Civil War occurred. A survey of seniors at elite colleges and universities showed that only one out of five was familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address. A significant number of seniors thought that Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Revolutionary War.

Facts alone are not enough for understanding history, of course, but without the facts understanding is impossible. A full appreciation of the achievement represented by the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, requires knowing that women first organized to work for the right to vote in 1848, more than seventy years before. Comprehending why the Civil War occurred in the 1860s requires knowing that our nation expanded dramatically in the 1840s. It was the question of whether new states would be free or slave that finally made it impossible to paper over the great moral contradiction that slavery represented in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Some dates ought to be locked in memory. I think of 1492, 1607, 1620, 1776, and 1787, for starters. But it is equally important to be familiar enough with the order of events so that one has a sense of the progression of our national story. We should all understand that when the delegates to the Continental Congress declared that “all men are created equal,” they provided more than a rationale for independence; they gave inspiration to generations of men and women whose struggles would make that ideal a reality for more and ever more Americans.

There have been missteps in our history and many a backward step, as this time line makes clear. But it also shows that the overall thrust of our story has been the expansion of human freedom. It took us a bloody war to get rid of slavery, but we did it. It took us too long to ensure voting rights for African Americans and to enfranchise women, but we did those things too. And if we have not always understood that our freedom is caught up with the freedom of people around the globe, we do now, and we fight for them as well as for ourselves.

I offer this time line as a way of encouraging study of the past, and I also hope it will spark conversation about what is truly important for us to know. I like to imagine that one of these days I will go into a classroom to talk about history, and an artist in the class will want to know why I left out Mary Cassatt, or a student interested in technology will declare that I didn’t pay enough attention to railroads. And I will say that I chose to concentrate on political history in this time line, but there is so much more and it should be explored. Indeed, the history of the entire world ought to be a subject of interest for students, but in "A Time for Freedom" I have started with America. This is our home — and how lucky we are that it is.

Chapter One — Beginnings

More than 13,000 years ago

Early migrants to America arrive from Asia, perhaps across the Bering Land Bridge or possibly even by boat. Over thousands of years they will be followed by others, who will travel across North, Central, and South America.

More than 2,500 years ago

The Adena people begin building ceremonial earth mounds in what is today the midwestern and southeastern United States. Subsequent Indian cultures—the Hopewell and the Mississippian—will also build mounds, some very large.

THE LARGEST OF THE MOUNDS, PRESERVED ON THE SITE OF AN ANCIENT CITY CALLED CAHOKIA (NOW CAHOKIA MOUNDS STATE HISTORIC SITE IN ILLINOIS), ONCE HAD A MASSIVE BUILDING ATOP IT, PROBABLY A PALACE FOR THE PRINCIPAL RULER. A THOUSAND YEARS OLD, A HUNDRED FEET HIGH, AND BUILT ENTIRELY OF EARTH, THIS MOUND, CALLED MONKS MOUND, COVERS MORE THAN FOURTEEN ACRES.

More than 700 years ago

Anasazi Indians build cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde region, in what is today southwestern Colorado.

500 years ago

Distinctive Indian cultures exist all across the area we now know as the United States. In the Northeast five Indian nations form the Iroquois Confederacy.

THE NUMBER OF INDIANS LIVING IN NORTH AMERICA AS THE EUROPEAN AGE OF EXPLORATION BEGAN IS A MATTER OF DEBATE. ACCORDING TO A SURVEY PUBLISHED IN 1992, ESTIMATES IN HISTORY TEXTBOOKS RANGE FROM TWO MILLION TO TEN MILLION.

1492

Under the sponsorship of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus and his crew sail three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, more than three thousand nautical miles across the Atlantic. Hoping to find the Indies, Columbus lands instead on an island in the Bahamas that he names San Salvador, or “Holy Savior.”

COLUMBUS MADE FOUR VOYAGES TO THE NEW WORLD, WHICH HE PERSISTED IN BELIEVING WAS THE INDIES. HE DIED IGNORANT OF HIS REAL ACCOMPLISHMENT.

1497

John Cabot, sailing for Henry VII of England, reaches North America aboard a small ship, the Mathew. Almost a century will pass, but his voyage will become the basis for English claims in the New World.

The foregoing is excerpted from "A Time for Freedom: What Happened When in America" by Lynne Cheney. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Simon & Schuster Publishers, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

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