I was telling someone last night that yesterday was the first time since beginning to shelter in place last month that I felt hemmed in and claustrophobic. Apparently I was not the only one feeling like such; my friend replied that he left the house and went for a drive to clear his head. Las week another friend, an intelligent and thoughtful high school history educator who recently returned to school for another graduate degree, asked me if I am keeping any type of journal or diary during the health pandemic. I actually do keep a journal and while I cover events of the day and the like, it is more for where I am on certain projects at home, work, and in my writing. Of course the outside world touches on all those things, so it is a sort of chronicle of the time.
I was thinking about all these things when I was getting ready for bed last night after watching last week’s premier episode of the National Council for History Education (NCHE) series with Yale history professor Joanne Freeman History Matters (…and so does coffee!). It is a weekly online series in which Professor Freeman shares a primary resource and explains how it is relevant to today’s times. History is always relevant to current times, which the wise among us understand. Last week’s document was a letter written by Alexander Hamilton in late September 1787 a week or so after the September 17 ratification of the Constitution. Ratification at the Convention was hardly the end of the story; from there the document went to the Confederation Congress, and from there to the states for a vote. Dr. Freeman read Hamilton’s letter, in which he cast doubt that the Constitution would come to pass enough states. The title of the episode was “Contingency Matters.” Freeman was trying to show that nothing is ever a done deal or set in stone. Far from being a sure thing, the Constitution hung tenuously in the balance. That was why Hamilton, Jay, and Madison soon wrote The Federalist Papers, each article of which was printed in newspapers and other venues to be read aloud in coffeeshops and other public spaces to sway public opinion.
Closely related to contingency is agency. It is important in these trying times, with the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and seemingly failing leadership on certain levels, to realize that one has more more agency than one might believe. Nothing is set in stone and circumstances change, often when we least expect. That is where contingency and our own agency come in. This was one of the points of the episode.
Check out History Matters at the NCHE website. Each broadcast appears live Thursdays from 10:00-10:30 am Eastern time, but is also available for viewing afterward.
(image/Views in New-York and its Environs, from Accurate, Characteristic & Picturesque Drawings, Taken on the Spot, Expressly for this Work; New York: Peabody & Co., 1831.