Sometimes a sentence or a phrase jumps out of context and stands on its own. As I read an opinion piece in the New York Times recently, a sentence did exactly that. In a very short time it has settled into my mind as a useful signpost, pointing me to possibilities beyond the current moment. “A forgotten story,” the author wrote, “teaches history’s most beautiful lesson:
The world we know is not our only option.
In the column, historian Jon Grinspan wrote of the days in the 1830s to 1900 when young people in the U.S. voted in droves, “speechified,” and rioted in wild elections. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.” The forgotten story is captured in the title of his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “One of our political system’s weakest links used to be the strongest. Young people did vote. They could do so again.”
“The world we know is not our only option.” In more ways than youthful voting alone, the future opens up if we are convinced as we face it that new options are possible and that we have a part in creating them.
Photo by Anton Trötscher, Houston, “Butterfly plant”
Jon Grinspan is a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His column in New York Times, “Virgins, Booze, and Politics,” ran on April 10, 2016.