How should we think about the American founding? What role does slavery play in the history of the United States? What should be done about Confederate monuments? How might we think about the legacies of revered figures from America’s past?
Over the past year, these perennially important questions have been unusually central to our public life.

In this Conversation, the distinguished Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shares his perspective on the current debates and the importance of the study of American history. Wilentz argues that understanding America’s past—from the inspiring to the shameful—is vital for what he calls informed citizenship. Nonetheless, he warns against falling into the trap of oversimplifying history. According to Wilentz, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues that slavery is foundational to the United States, is one recent example of this pitfall, because it minimizes important anti-slavery efforts at the time of the American founding. Wilentz calls for renewed efforts toward a reflective and nuanced study of the past. He further asserts that these efforts could help us recover a space in American politics for informed, thoughtful, and respectful debate—not only about the past but also about the future. Wilentz and Kristol also discuss the legacy of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis about whom Wilentz recently published a thoughtful and important reflection.

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