History on currency, Part IV – Harriet Tubman and the way we tell the story

Who should be the first woman to appear on American currency in over 100 years? The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced that it will reveal later this year the identity of a woman whose image will grace a redesigned $10 bill. An advocacy group called Women on 20s is on record supporting the placement of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

This series of blog posts has so far examined the records of Alexander Hamilton, whose image currently appears on the $10 bill, and Andrew Jackson, whose image appears on the $20 bill, and asks the question – what message are we conveying with the legacies we choose to memorialize?

Hamilton and Jackson in some ways represent American success stories. Both born into poverty, each rose to positions of prominence, power, and influence. Hamilton believed in a strong national government ruled by a wealthy elite. Jackson was a champion of the common man who believed in states’ rights, subject to the authority of a national government that was nonetheless limited in its powers by the Constitution. Each man essentially created and led new political parties. And each man made his mark on monetary policy in the young nation.

Each man had political enemies and personal failings, and each left a record that is subject to debate and differing interpretations today. Hamilton could be seen as a hero to political conservatives today because of his policies designed to give government support for a stable economic environment in which American businesses could thrive. But some conservatives would take issue with his advocacy for the expansion of federal power.

Jackson is even more problematic for us today. His championing of democratic rule and the rights of the common man are overshadowed by the fact that he was a slaveholder. Even though he was entrusted with positions of power, he was not above ignoring the law when it suited his purposes. As a general of the army, he waged an illegal war in Spanish Florida. As president, he defied the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Native American tribal sovereignty, reportedly saying, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” But even when he acted outside of the laws, he did so openly and often notoriously. Jackson was controversial in his own time, and then as now, it is easy to condemn parts of Jackson’s record while celebrating other parts.

By contrast, it is difficult to condemn any of the acts that established Harriet Tubman’s reputation. She risked her life and freedom to help others escape from the immoral institution of slavery.

But unlike Jackson and many other celebrated Americans, she acted in secret. And unlike Jackson and other slaveholders whose violations of human rights were perfectly legal in 19th century America, her actions were contrary to the laws of the time. According to the standards of antebellum America, she was a criminal, and the basis for her designation as an American hero is the fact that she refused to acquiesce to the rule of law when her own sense of values compelled her in another direction. Unlike Jackson, who welcomed a fight with his opponents, Tubman carried a pistol with her so that if she were caught she could end her own life and avoid the consequences of her decisions.

And yet it is difficult to find fault with someone who risked so much to combat an evil as great as American slavery. Certainly, the fact that the laws she was violating have since been repealed as contrary to human rights and basic human dignity makes her actions seem even more commendable. There is really no doubt today that Harriet Tubman deserves to be recognized as a hero, along with others whose acts were criminal when undertaken, but are celebrated today – such as every person who signed the Declaration of Independence.

The more interesting question is – what does it say about our values as a country that we believe in the rule of law based on the will of the majority, and yet we also believe that lawbreakers acting as individuals may sometimes be excused for their actions? Is it the fact that she didn’t get caught? Is it the fact that by the time her actions became public knowledge, slavery had been made illegal, and those who had opposed it were being recast as prophets?

Can we really say that we believe in the rule of law if we also believe that if a lawbreaker waits long enough, he or she can not only be excused for criminal actions, but may also be recognized as a hero?

And if the passage of time and the altering of public opinion would allow us to celebrate Tubman for her actions while excusing her for violating the laws of her day, why shouldn’t we also retroactively view the act of slaveholding as criminal? In other words, if we are letting Tubman off the hook, why not hold slaveholders personally accountable?

In its most common form, the story of Harriet Tubman comes with a moral lesson about courage in the face of a powerful yet immoral institution. It is David versus Goliath, the weak defeating the strong. It can be told simply and effectively without even questioning the reasons for the existence of slavery, or of American racism. But told in a different light, the story raises serious questions about American values and American institutions.

The way that we tell the story is a choice that we make.

History is not what happened in the past. It is the events of the past retold – in different lights and for different purposes. History is our interpretation of the past, our selection of heroes, our decisions about which values to celebrate and which to deemphasize.

History is not just facts, but also the organization of information into a new form, with fidelity to the events as recorded in existing records, and constructed by us and for us living in the present. History is not a series of monuments; it is a tool for understanding ourselves.

The way we teach history matters. Learning how to remember facts is just a step towards learning how to construct meaning. Learning how to question is more important than learning deference to institutions or laws – which are always subject to change in a democratic society. Learning to take responsibility for the narrative of our lives and of the life of our nation is more important than memorizing a series of bullet points or a set of factoids about a list of Americans who have been designated as heroes. Learning how to judge for ourselves what to admire and who to respect may be the most important lesson we can take from the past.

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I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part III – Jackson

The U.S. Department of Treasury has announced that it will move aside the image of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, in favor of a woman – whose identity has not yet been revealed. A group named Women on 20s had previously come out in support of replacing the image of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with that of Harriet Tubman. This series of posts examines the legacies of Hamilton, Jackson, and Tubman, and poses the question – what message are we conveying with the legacies we choose to memorialize?

Most Americans today know little about Andrew Jackson, a truly galvanizing figure in his day. Jackson’s ideological and uncompromising leadership led to a reordering of the American political structure and the creation of such institutions as the party platform and national nominating conventions. His supporters inherited the political party founded by Thomas Jefferson, renamed it the Democratic party, and effectively forced those who did not support Andrew Jackson to splinter off to form the Whig party.

His legacy is a study in dogmatic policies, apparent contradictions, and unintended consequences.

Our seventh president, Jackson was the first since Washington to rise to national prominence based on his military leadership rather than his political expertise. As a commander in the field he had defeated the British at New Orleans, led punishing campaigns against Native American tribes in Alabama, and launched an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida.

Jackson was enthusiastically supported by western expansionists, and yet his monetary policies effectively made it more difficult for settlers to purchase federal land out west. He refused to act on the annexation of Texas after that state won independence from Mexico.

He ordered the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southeastern states, defied a Supreme Court order to respect tribal sovereignty, had personally warred against the Creeks and the Seminoles, and yet he also adopted an Indian orphan into his home and raised him as a son.

He considered public service a virtue and was notorious for rewarding political supporters with government jobs – a practice for which he was sharply criticized. But the practice of patronage (known pejoratively as the spoils system) neither began with Jackson nor ended with his retirement from public life. Some of his harshest critics practiced it as well.

He was a Southerner, a slaveholder, and a supporter of states’ rights. But when South Carolina announced it would refuse collection of the federal tariff on the justification that state sovereignty entitled them to ignore laws of Congress at their discretion, Jackson threatened to send in the army to enforce the law. It was only a political compromise engineered by one of Jackson’s rivals that kept the Nullification Crisis from escalating into bloodshed.

Andrew Jackson is a particularly ironic choice for a place of honor on American currency. His suspicion and hostility towards concentrations of wealth led him to destroy the Bank of the United States. The financial crisis that ensued led him to order that the federal government not accept paper money in payment for federal land.

Jackson championed the cause of limited federal government, and his policy decisions were often based on a strict constructionist position that just a half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, already seemed poorly adapted to the needs of the fast-paced 19th century.

Strict construction is a form of constitutional interpretation in which Congress is restricted to exercising only the powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution.

Broad or loose construction would allow Congress to carry out the enumerated powers without being limited to the narrow limits of the language in the Constitution. Under this theory, the first secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton had persuaded Congress in 1791 to charter the Bank of the United States in order to create a financial institution that would help to stabilize a fast-growing economy that at that time operated under very few rules.

By the time Jackson took office as president in 1829, the Bank’s constitutionality had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and its charter had already been renewed once by Congress. But in 1832 Henry Clay, the leader of Jackson’s political opposition, pushed for an early re-charter bill in order to force a political battle. Clay knew of Jackson’s hostility towards the Bank, but was convinced that most of the country believed as strongly as he did in its importance to the nation. Clay wanted to force Jackson to choose between an unpopular decision and one that would violate his own principles.

Jackson was a strict constructionist, but when he vetoed the bank bill, he did not explain his decision in terms of constitutionality. He stated that the Bank was bad for the country – that it was a “hydra of corruption.” Of the relatively few presidential vetoes that had been issued at that point in the nation’s history, Jackson’s was the first to be based predominantly on policy considerations rather than constitutional interpretation.

In the short term, the veto stirred a storm of political controversy, and led more or less directly to a national economic crisis a few years later. But the ideology of strict construction and a limited role for the federal government in setting national policy was already on the ropes.

By the early 19th century, it was clear that in order to prosper, the country needed financing and infrastructure. The nation of farmers that Jefferson had envisioned was being replaced by a nation of merchants and entrepreneurs. The rise of the railroads led to the emergence of corporate wealth and power that would rival that of the government itself. Simply maintaining peaceful and orderly growth would take a larger federal role than the Constitution’s framers could have imagined. Within a few years, the Civil War and the post- Civil War amendments to the Constitution would radically alter the position of the federal government in creating national policy.

Jackson’s impact on our political development is undeniable, but it is difficult to find a way to use his legacy as historical support in present-day policy debates.

In his own time, he was a wildly popular outsider in the political game that he entered, and a polarizing role model in the game he left behind. Jackson was the first president to receive an official condemnation from Congress. And yet for decades, his name was evoked by Democrats as the symbol for their values and aspirations – much the way the name of Ronald Reagan is evoked by Republicans today. Jackson’s success led to the promotion of other politically inexperienced military men for high office. His popularity and image as an uncomplicated man who took direct action ushered in an era of enthusiasm for popular government and high voter participation. Even today, his championing of the common man, and his personal reputation as a self-made success story, resonate with many Americans.

But his status as a slaveholder is hard to reconcile with modern values – perhaps even more difficult to forgive than the actions of the four of his presidential predecessors who were born into the slaveholding class. Jackson became rich through his own energy and ingenuity … and then bought himself some human beings to help maintain his new social status.

Andrew Jackson can today be seen as a man of his time, a colorful American character without a doubt, but someone with little wisdom to offer on current public issues. What does it say about us that his face is familiar to almost every American because of its appearance on the $20 bill, but his accomplishments – let alone an understanding of why he was such an inspirational and controversial figure – are largely unknown to most of us?

Perhaps letting go of Jackson as an iconic symbol on the $20 bill is appropriate and even overdue in the 21st century. Is Harriet Tubman a more fitting symbol of American values? Does her story contain wisdom or inspiration we can use today?

More to come ….

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I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part II – Hamilton

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it will place the image of a woman – to be named later this year – on the $10 bill. An advocacy group called Women on 20s has been recommending the replacement of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. Treasury’s plan would leave Jackson alone and instead move Alexander Hamilton aside in favor of the first woman to appear on U.S. currency since Martha Washington in the 1890s. Hamilton first appeared on the $10 bill in 1928, replacing Jackson who moved to the $20, bumping Grover Cleveland from that place of honor. Cleveland had a soft landing. His image can be found on the $1000 bill.

Why do we place figures from the past in places of prominence, and what does it say when their relevance to us today is so marginalized that they can be considered dispensable?

Many today know Hamilton and Jackson only through the images that pass through their fingers at the checkout line. These men came to power a generation apart, but they were both involved in an ideological battle that dominated the first half-century of our young republic’s political development.

Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. He came to this country before the revolution, a poor immigrant of illegitimate birth, and became a wealthy man and power broker in a political system that was only beginning to discover how to operate under the Constitution it had just ratified.

Hamilton had been a strong advocate of American independence, and had served in Washington’s army as his aide. But unlike many in the revolutionary movement who equated independence with rejection of the kind of heavy-handed government policies Great Britain had enacted, Hamilton did not object to a strong central government. When the United States government faltered in the years after the war, Hamilton attributed it to the lack of national authority under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

Hamilton was one of the most insistent to call for a Constitutional Convention. As a member of the convention, he would be the greatest advocate for stronger national power in the federal system the delegates were creating. He was author of the majority of The Federalist essays, urging ratification of the new Constitution. And he assumed his role in the Washington administration determined to use the national government to build a stronger nation.

His actions as policy-maker in the first presidential administration set off the original debate over the meaning of the Constitution – a debate that wasn’t really resolved until after the Civil War – a debate whose echoes are still heard today.

In the years following the American Revolution, many Americans feared the kind of abuse of power they had experienced at the hands of Great Britain. They felt that the safeguard against overreaching by the national government was to deny it unlimited power. The Constitution set up a system in which power would be shared with the states, and in which federal authority would be exercised only in certain specific areas. Article I of the Constitution listed the areas in which the Congress was empowered to legislate. Many felt that the Constitution still did not sufficiently protect citizens’ liberties. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights were quickly drafted by the first Congress to further weaken the reach of the federal government. Still, many were suspicious of the new charter and of the Congress that would be operating under its authority.

With the election of President Washington and the first Congress, we had a government, and a set of instructions in the form of a Constitution. But the question was, how would the general guidelines of the Constitution be applied in real world situations?

Those who were fearful of a strong central government adopted a theory of constitutional interpretation that became known as strict construction. The strict constructionist approach is to limit Congress to the exercise of the enumerated powers specifically granted to it in the Constitution.

But Hamilton believed that the nation needed to take aggressive action to strengthen its credibility and to promote economic growth. His theory, which became known as broad or loose construction held that Congress may go beyond the specified powers as long as its actions are in service to the intents and purposes of those powers. Article 1, section 8, clause 18, permits federal lawmakers to do what is “necessary and proper” to carry out the enumerated powers.

Under this theory, Hamilton recommended to Congress in 1790 that it create a federally chartered bank. While the Constitution does not bestow the specific power to charter a bank, Hamilton argued that such an institution would better enable Congress to carry out its enumerated powers to collect taxes, pay debts, and regulate the value of money. In an era when all paper money was issued by banks, the Bank of the United States would provide the only completely reliable currency in the nation. Economic growth in the young country would depend on the kind of financial stability such an institution could provide.

Thomas Jefferson and other strict constructionists’ protests against the expansion of federal power, and specifically against the Bank, led to the first political debate under the new Constitution, and led to the creation of the first American political parties.

The Federalist party supported Hamilton’s loose constructionist approach and government policies that actively promoted economic growth.

The Democratic-Republicans supported Jefferson’s strict construction and the kind of limited federal government that would ensure individual liberties.

Over time, the parties’ identities would change, but the debate over limits on Congressional power would remain constant. After the election of Jefferson as president in 1800, the Federalists became a marginalized as a regional party in commercial New England, and then finally died out after the War of 1812. Meanwhile, as the only national party responsible for serving the diverse interests of the country, the Democratic-Republicans lost some of their ideological purity. The party split into factions, with the loose constructionists identifying themselves first as National Republicans, then separating into a new party as the Whigs. The strict constructionists called themselves Democrats and coalesced their support behind Andrew Jackson.

More to come ….

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I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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History on currency, Part I

There is a movement afoot to put a woman’s face on American currency. A group called Women on 20s has submitted a petition to the White House requesting that the face that appears on the $20 bill be that of Harriet Tubman, the former Underground Railroad conductor.

In order to make this change, Andrew Jackson’s face must be evicted. A dead white male pushed aside in favor of an African American female who, well, is also dead. One of the qualifications for appearing on U.S. currency is that the subject is deceased. Perhaps this rule is to avoid the risk that the person so honored would commit some act late in life that would dishonor his or her reputation. Dead people don’t have this option. Their reputations rest in the hands of the people who keep history alive.

Much has been made of the irony of a slaveholder being replaced by a former slave. The fact that Tubman would be the first African American to appear on U.S. currency resonates with many as a significant symbol of national progress. Tubman would not be the first woman – Martha Washington was given that honor – but she would be the first chosen because of her own accomplishments, and not because of her association with a more famous man.

Commemoration on currency constitutes official acceptance and approval of an individual’s legacy as representative of American values.

“Our paper bills are like pocket monuments to great figures in our history,” said Susan Ades Stone, the executive director of Women on 20s.

But what are we memorializing?

Let’s make clear an important distinction between history and the past. The events of the past brought us to the present day circumstances that make up our daily experience. The past shaped our present whether or not we are even aware of it. We don’t need to remember or understand the past in order for this to be so. The past is unalterable, and however we may interpret it, it cannot be changed.

But history – the record of past events that we preserve, honor, and share today – is limited not only by incomplete source materials, but also by the errors, omissions, and biases of those who write and remember it. It is our own creation, and it is subject to the shortcomings, inadequate structure or materials, and creative engineering, that are found in anything that humans build.

And public history – the kind that is found in school textbooks, on monuments, and displayed in public places including currency – is selected specifically for its power to convey a message to us about ourselves.

We choose the history we want in our lives. We send messages to ourselves with the heroes we select, the achievements we trumpet, and the institutions we honor.

What message do we convey with the placement of Andrew Jackson’s image in a prominent position? What message is communicated when we select Harriet Tubman for such a distinction?

More to come ….

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I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Witnesses to history

Eleven people witness an auto collision. Among them, there are eleven different accounts of what occurred. One week later, each describes the collision. Now there are twenty-two different accounts.

People experience life from different perspectives. We have emotional reactions to the events of our lives and these emotions color the way we experience them. People have different understandings of the rules under which life operates, and so life’s experiences are understood within the framework of these rules. We explain our experiences from the standpoint of our own biases and our particular style of communication.

People can stand side by side with eyes and ears open, and have entirely different experiences with whatever unfolds before them.

Is it any wonder that the records we keep of events are subject to inconsistencies, omissions, even contradictions?

And in examining records to piece together a history of past events, is it any wonder that that we bring to the task the same differences in perspective, biases, world view, and emotional response that we exhibit in experiencing the world in real time?

History is the story we tell about ourselves. It is the way we explain how we came to be who, where, and why we are. Like any story, it has a framework – a setting; a set of characters; one or more conflicts; a plot with rising action, a climax, and a conclusion. It has those elements that make it easy for us to understand by providing the familiar rhythms of a story. We root for the hero. We anticipate the outcome and the just deserts.

But life is not as tidy as a story that we construct.

Those voices from different perspectives clutter the vision we want to create of our characters and our conflict. Compounding the problem is the fact that some perspectives are simply not available. Most of the witnesses to history never created a record of their perceptions, or if they did, that record may be unknown to a modern historian.

The very structure of the story is itself an artful deception. It lures us into thinking that it is self-contained, with a beginning, a middle and an end. But the fact that life goes on challenges the notion that there is a conclusion to the narrative. In fact, the more relevant to a modern reader that the events in the story are, the stronger the argument that the story is not really over at all.

Having a stake in the way the story makes us feel affects the way we construct the story. If it is a family history, we may not want to include events that make our forebears appear as villains. If it is a nation’s history, we may select the details that highlight our virtues, and downplay the events that expose our shortcomings.

Thus a celebrity with a reputation as a political progressive wants to keep quiet the fact that an ancestor was a slaveholder. Conservative activists react to the restructuring of a U.S. History class with concern that the new design inadequately celebrates our traditional heroes.

The past was a messy affair. Just ask the witnesses. The challenge – and the opportunity – that we have today, is to make sense of the chaos without losing sight of the complexity. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that what gives the past its importance is not what happened, but rather the human experience of what happened. It is within the bewildering contradictions of its witnesses that history can reveal the truth.

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History in the digital age

Life just got more complicated. And the really disconcerting part is realizing that it has been more complicated than we chose to believe all along.

Let’s dispose of a widely-held but mistaken idea. History is not what happened in the past. It is what we construct of the past from the evidence available to us, filtered through our ability to make sense of events as part of a coherent narrative.

It would be a lot easier if it were just a story with a set list of characters, an identifiable conflict, and a standard-format plot with climax and resolution. The version of history taught in most public schools is just this simple – prescreened and stripped of untidy details. It is easy to memorize for a standardized test, difficult to care about one way or another.

But the narrative of history is – as it has always been – a framework that we construct from the jumble of evidence at our disposal. Engaging with history, and enjoying history, comes not from memorizing, but from constructing.

Life in the digital age has brought us a different relationship with information than human beings have ever had before. And it has brought us greater opportunities to learn through meaningful engagement.

At one time, knowledge was precious. Literacy was rare. It was an elite few who had the power to access the recorded wisdom of great minds of the past. Only those who enjoyed relative freedom from economic worries had the time to learn. Only those whose lives were devoted to the cultivation and preservation of knowledge had the opportunity to contribute to the body of human wisdom. The canon of knowledge was carefully maintained by scholars and experts who acted not only as contributors, but also as gatekeepers, and guarantors of quality.

It was like this for thousands of years. As recently as a century ago, owning a large number of books was a sign of conspicuous wealth.

Then technology lowered the bar. Printing became cheaper, schooling replaced child labor, literacy soared, as did the volume of published material available. With the advent of online publishing, the gatekeepers who had defined the canon of human knowledge were effectively swept away. The universities that were for centuries the authenticators of knowledge, are now sharing cyberspace with blogs and crowd-sourcing.

Information, which was once precious and came to us in a tiny stream from one source, is now an ocean.

There is a place – in fact, an essential function – for the peer-reviewed and diligently authenticated knowledge provided by professional scholars and experts. But it is no longer possible to say that the traditional sources of authoritative information are the only ones worth considering.

A person who wishes to learn in today’s environment must be able to question the source of any information he encounters, as well as whether the information before him is really all there is. One must be able assimilate the facts at hand and recognize that there are missing pieces. How can new information help us to reach new conclusions and new levels of understanding?

Unfortunately, in public schools, we still cling to the bullet-point list of state-approved facts. We require students to memorize enough superficial information to recognize the correct answer on a multiple-choice test. With luck, students emerge from high school with some sense of a story and a few details trapped in their memories, but far too often with the misconception that the items on the list are all that is important.

History offers us far more than that – the opportunity to look at the past, and at human endeavors, from more than one point of view. History allows us to see cause-and-effect from a long-range perspective. It lets us understand the timeline of events – not just what came before when, but why – because we construct that understanding ourselves. History gives us the opportunity to be detectives, to be arbiters of accuracy, to be storytellers.

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I have recently completed writing a book on the teaching of history. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.

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Happy Memorial Day

Remembering the past is essential to a very human need to understand life’s meaning.

To be sure, not all memory is deliberate, or makes us feel like we are closer to any kind of understanding. Some memories force themselves upon us. Traumatic events, sentimental moments, even random curiosities come back to us without will or reason.

But often, we construct a home for memories that we wish to preserve – in books, in the form of monuments in pubic places, by designating days on which certain memories are honored. We honor even the memories of great horrors, collective tragedies, the methodical destruction of human lives through war.

Memorial Day came about after the Civil War as a way to make sense of that traumatic and defining moment of our young nation’s life. It was a war that tore the country apart and forced it together again in a new form. Never again would states be able to claim their rights superseded the will of the nation. Never again would the most basic of human rights – freedom – be subject to another person’s property rights. But it was a conflict that cost more American lives than any other war before or since.

What was purchased at such a tremendous cost? What did it all mean?

It would take years of political and economic negotiations for the outcome of the War Between the States to become clear. Through Reconstruction, Redemption, the creation of multi-state corporations and a national market for goods, the development of federal authority over traditionally local issues, the new formula for the relationships between the United States and its constituents emerged.

But before the war had even ended, commemoration of the fallen had begun. It wasn’t necessary to understand the full impact of their efforts in order to appreciate their sacrifice.

It began with the decorating of graves, perhaps as early as June of 1861. The dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 was the most widely known precedent event. The first widely-publicized post-war observance was on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, organized by former slaves in honor of Union soldiers buried at the site of a wartime prisoner of war camp.

In 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia passed a resolution that led to the institution of Confederate Memorial Day. It would be celebrated on April 26, the anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to Union General William T. Sherman – to many in the South, the official end of the war. Over the years, the theme of the commemoration would emphasize not just respect for the fallen soldiers, but also for the Southern Lost Cause itself.

In 1868, an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic promoted a nationwide “Decoration Day” to be celebrated on May 30. The holiday quickly caught on, and became an event in small towns across the country, often featuring parades and distinguished speakers.

Over time, the name of the holiday shifted from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” which became its official designation under federal law in 1967. In 1968, its date was shifted from May 30 to the last Monday in May, to create a three-day weekend.

Today, the holiday is widely observed by many as the official start of the summer vacation season. There is some public recognition of its historic purpose – somewhat greater recognition during periods of war, or when American troops are deployed in war zones (a distinction that would have made no sense to the public or to politicians in the era of the Civil War). But the need to rationalize the loss of life in war has been drowned out by the need to promote Memorial Day Sales on patio furniture and sun tan lotion. Memorial Day is a placeholder – a relic that is used to mark the transition not from wartime to peacetime, but from Spring to Summer.

Remembering the past is essential to a very human need to understand life’s meaning.

What does it say about the American people that we no longer seem to need to understand the Civil War, or for that matter the human cost of war itself? Is this a good thing, or a troubling development?

Happy Memorial Day.

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