History Empathy in Action

This semester, I’m taking a class on nationalism in modern America. Today in class, we were talking about Woden Teachout’s Capture the Flag which discusses the role of the American flag throughout history. One of the chapters we read for class today discussed the 1844 Philadephia Riots. I had never learned about this topic, so it was a very interesting class for me. In antebellum Philadephia, a series of riots broke out between the “nativist” Philadelphians and the immigrant Irish Catholics. At this time, there was a great deal of hatred towards the Irish Catholics, partially because of their success in America, but mostly because of their Catholicism. It was and remains a belief of some Protestants that Catholics cannot be faithful to their nation because of their allegiance to the Pope and the hierarchy of the church. For a more modern example, listen to President Kennedy’s famous speech in which he announces that he will not take orders from the Pope. It’s incredible to me that even during JFK’s time, American citizens did not trust him to do what was right for the country, even with his loyalties to the Vatican, until he completely denied any loyalties to the Pope.

Personally, I am an Irish Catholic, so I found it to be a challenge to sit through this class and read this chapter. It’s moments like this that I’m thankful for the skills that I have gained through studying history. In this instance, I refer specifically to historical empathy, which allows you to study history and understand why things happened without becoming emotionally involved in them. This comes in great use when you’re studying something that hits close to home. Whether it’s studying the hatred and numerous murders of Irish Catholic immigrants in Philadelphia, or learning about the Holocaust, historical empathy allows you to study these events that have had an impact on people with whom you associate yourself and understand the event from the perspective of the person that you would in other circumstances never be able to understand. It’s a powerful skill to have and it truly helps in relating to people and fully understanding how events have occurred in the past. On a day like today, I am thankful for having this skill of historical empathy.

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