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Gregory Smith: Learning from those who came before

Illustration by Pierce Thiot

Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s cover story “How to heal America’s partisan divide.”

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

When we turn to our shared history as Americans, we encounter stories that can unite our future. Last September, I played a role on behalf of the White House in facilitating what might seem like a small thing: fixing the misspelled headstone of Seraph Young Ford at Arlington National Cemetery.

But I was struck by how this gesture brought together people from all different backgrounds — historians, government officials, educators, politicians and the descendants of Seraph — to remember and honor this American suffragist.

After the Utah territory passed an equal voting law in 1870, Seraph Young — the grandniece of then-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young —became the first woman in the United States to cast a ballot under the new law. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of that historic vote.

But, in many ways, Seraph had been forgotten to history. Her name was misspelled on her own gravestone (it erroneously read “Serath.”) Some of her own descendants weren’t fully aware of her historic role until historians drew renewed attention to it.

During a brief ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery in which a new headstone was featured, Utah dignitaries and White House officials joined Seraph’s own living descendants, including 9-year-old Hope Rice. Hope’s grandfather, Russell ‘Rusty’ Rice Jr., called the ceremony “absolutely” inspiring for Hope.

That’s what happens when we learn about the stories of those who have come before; those who have toiled and sacrificed to make a better life for us. While some have supposed that we can find better unity by erasing or condemning the past, I witnessed how the past can inspire and unite. This isn’t to say that America should avoid its duty to right wrongs; nor do I believe the nation should gloss over past or present injustices.

In fact, remembering the story of Seraph Young Ford helped inspire us more than a century and a half after she cast her historic vote. Our union grew stronger as we drew inspiration from a woman who fought for a more perfect one.

Gregory Smith is special assistant to President Donald J. Trump and Deputy Director of Political Affairs for Policy and Personnel.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.