In a history-making moment for Democrats and the nation, presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden named California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. The senator is the first woman of color to be nominated to the second highest office in the land and a heartbeat away from the presidency. She has already received countless pieces of counsel from colleagues and an army of political consultants. She even received some surprisingly strong insight from another historic vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. The most important advice, however, for the freshly minted VP pick — and for each of us individually — comes from the Broadway musical, “Hamilton”: “History has its eyes on you.”
As Gen. George Washington gives Alexander Hamilton his military command, he encourages and cautions the ambitious Hamilton:
“I know that we can win. I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”
Sen. Harris would be wise to remember this stanza — not with visions of grandeur or ego-puffing pride, but in humility-inducing reflection about her responsibility to the people of this land, the patriots that have gone before and the principles that make our united history all possible.
In Palin’s advice to Harris, she powerfully pointed out, “Don’t forget the women who came before you.” She was in essence saying history, or in this case — HERstory — has its eyes on you. I don’t believe Palin was referring solely to the famous women who fought for women’s suffrage or paved the path in politics. Harris has the opportunity to represent and encourage all women who have nurtured the nation, fought for freedom, inspired innovation and blazed the trail for progress.
Returning to the notion of our nation and the opportunities it presents, Palin wrote of the power and possibility contained in campaign moments along the rope line. She wrote of her interaction with the American people. “Every single handshake and holler and hug and smile melted my heart, energized my soul and gave me the utmost hope in the greatest country on earth!”
History not only watches the noble and great, the gifted and famous, but also has its eyes on the rest of us, too. Indeed, history knows that the forward progress in the march of freedom is driven by ordinary women and men who are willing to step into difficult situations and defining moments.
In the midst of his own history-making moments during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln warned, “We cannot escape history. We … will be remembered in spite of ourselves … We know how to save the Union. The world knows we … know how to save it. … We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
I have learned much in the passing of civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. He understood the wheels of history and the hinge points that make progress possible. I think sensing his own mortality, he wrote an op-ed two days before he died that he instructed be published just before the start of his funeral.
Rep. Lewis wrote: “You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. … Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. … Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” Lewis has joined the historical icons of the ages and watches with his eyes fixed on us.
Regardless of how you feel about Kamala Harris being the nominee for vice president or what you think her candidacy will mean in the end, win or lose, she has the opportunity to impact the nation, inspire young girls and young boys and tap into the greatness that lies within her.
Elections are challenging and require great personal and family sacrifice. Most big things in life and most historic moments do. The lesson is that those who came before and those who will follow will ultimately know how we did in facing, confronting, and overcoming the challenges of our time.
John Adams, another patriot who history clearly watched and watched over, hinted at the sacrifice he and other Founding Fathers made in a letter to his posterity: “You will never know how much it cost (our) generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it! If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it!” That kind of figure from history having his eyes on us should make every one of us just a little nervous and a little more earnest in our efforts to build the nation.
Much will be said and written about Sen. Harris in the coming days based on what she says and does with her historic moment. But what history is really watching is all of us.
History has its eyes on us. It will ask if we will be up to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will history treat kindly the way we cared for the poor, dealt with the downtrodden and addicted or how we guarded the environment? Will the tale of the next several decades include heroic acts of kindness, equality, justice and opportunity for all? Will the American story stir future hearts with love of liberty and commitment to the cause of freedom?
Rep. Lewis’s final words sum up what Kamala Harris, every elected leader and every single citizen of this great nation should be considering: “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Washington’s plea to Hamilton rings true, “Know that greatness lies in you. But remember that from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”
Boyd Matheson is the opinion editor at Deseret News and a former chief of staff for Senator Mike Lee. He is one of the nation’s political commentators with the best handle on the perspective of the middle of the country, while having the ability to uniquely speak to public policy and where politics intersects with religion.