How Should We Interpret History?
And what will they think of us in the 23rd century?
To most Americans, it is unsettling to watch historical statues toppled and the names of our forefathers besmirched. We used to hold these people in reverential awe, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Andrew Jackson. We certainly knew they weren't perfect, but their accomplishments in the birth of our nation greatly overshadowed their flaws. Even the southern soldiers during the Civil War were held in high regard afterwards by both sides for the bloody lesson the country had to learn the hard way. Time eventually healed the nation.
Those leading the drive to denigrate our history claim we should be ashamed of our past, that it should have all been handled differently in order to be politically correct by today's standards. Unfortunately, history doesn't work this way. Decisions were considered carefully at the time, often debated, but had to be made in a timely manner without consideration for the social mores of the 21st century.
In 1835, Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of the Cherokee Tribe to west of the Mississippi River. At the time, America was still in its infancy but beginning to grow. Settlers were often attacked and harassed by the Cherokee. So much so, Jackson ordered the removal of the tribes so peace and prosperity could take hold. Jackson was criticized for the decision, both then and now, but he did so with the intent of protecting the young country. Could it have been handled differently? Maybe, but this was the course taken by Jackson at the time.
American history has many other examples, such as President James K. Polk's handling of the Mexican–American War in the 1840s, or President Harry S. Truman's decision in 1945 to drop the Atomic Bomb. Whether or not you agreed with their decisions, they had to make them and they considered each problem from many angles, not necessarily what future generations would think.
Those advocating condemnation of our history suggest the formulation of a consensus by the people BEFORE making a decision. This is decision making by democracy, which is fine if you have got the time, but ineffective if you do not. Many times we do not have the luxury to go to the people; a decision has to be made quickly.
In 1980, Boston University professor Howard Zinn published his book, A People’s History of the United States, which offered an opposing view of American history. In it, Zinn portrayed American history through the eyes of common people, such as the native American tribes, African slaves, and the Mexicans of the Southwest. Zinn was an admitted socialist and believed such depictions would paint a sympathetic picture of minorities, and a condemnation of American history. Zinn's book contends America’s riches are due to theft, and as such, America is obligated to redistribute its wealth to the Third World nations. He also contends America needs to redistribute the wealth among its citizens to end income inequality. Since its publication, the book has been used in other university and high school history programs, thereby influencing young people, which leads us to today's defamation of American history.
So, who are we to judge the past? The ethics of today are certainly not those of yesteryear. Back then, decisions were based on the current rules of morality and political expediency. For slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, the Civil War was yet to be fought and owning slaves was considered acceptable, including Virginia and Tennessee at the time. Were these men evil? Not by the standards of their day. This may not make it right for the 21st century, but it was a reality of the 18th and 19th centuries. Do we sweep it under the carpet or do we recognize our forefathers were less than perfect by today's standards and applaud their other decisions, like launching a republic where freedom flourishes?
History is written to describe our checkered past, not its purity. This enables us to learn from it. Historians and the public have the luxury of second guessing the figures from the past, but often have trouble understanding the morality and political mood of the time. It is easier to say something was good or bad years after it occurred when the ramifications are fully known, but people at the time didn't always have such a luxury. This is not to provide a rationale for evil, a la Hitler or Stalin, but to note the people of the past did the best they could based on the information of the time and political climate. Despite their character flaws, as we all possess, we tend to overlook the achievements our forefathers made, such as creating a country that is the inspiration and leader of the free world.
If you are waiting for an official apology from a descendant for some character flaw of our founding fathers, do not expect it anytime soon. After all, they were not responsible for the actions or decisions of their predecessors.
Actually, the problem is more insidious in intent than most people realize. The defamation of the past is designed to make us feel ashamed of our heritage, that it should be torn down and started over. I disagree. As far as I'm concerned, what's done is done. Learn from it. Adapt, overcome, and evolve. Hopefully we'll make better decisions than our predecessors. Regardless of how politically correct we try to be, people in the 23rd century will likely call us "boneheads."
Keep the Faith!
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Copyright © 2017 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.