September 5th, 2021

old whig

Remembrance, monuments, reconciliation

In 1826, the new capital city of Indianapolis was planning its first-ever Fourth of July parade. The planners thought it would be wonderful to honor a Revolutionary War veteran on this, the 50th anniversary of American independence. It was an improbable quest to find such a person on the raw frontier, as it then was, but they advertised, and lo and behold, they found a Revolutionary War veteran living in Indianapolis. They promptly made him the grand marshal of the parade.

But as the time for the event drew closer, various people interviewing the old man couldn't get his story to add up. Finally, they asked him what unit he served in. The German-American immigrant promptly replied, "Why, I fought mit der Hessians!" After a moment of bogglement, the parade planners decided that, well, he was an American now, and bygones should be bygones and old animosities shouldn't rain on the parade. So the first-ever grand marshal of the Indy 4th of July parade fought for the other side. This is a lovely tale of reconciliation and unity.

I compare this to the ginned-up animosity against memorials honoring various Confederate military figures. Yes, I know, many of these memorials were erected long after the Civil War to make a statement about racial attitudes. But many were simply remembrances of people important in the memories of the dedicators. And in any case, the past is past. We don't achieve reconciliation by demonizing people of long ago. How long ago? The Revolutionary War had been over a mere forty-five years when the former Hessian was honored at a parade; the Civil War has been over now for a hundred and fifty-six years.

Does this make me an apologist for the racial ideology of the South? No. Men such as Alexander Stephens were abhorrent then, and are abhorrent to me now. Such men should be remembered, but not memorialized. Then again, it's not my choice. Unless someone is using a remembrance of Stephens to perpetuate his ideology, then it costs me nothing to walk on by. As for the many military figures remembered, well, tell me again why a statue of Tecumseh (a sworn enemy of the US) stands at the US Naval Academy.

Do we have too many memorials to former Confederates? Then erect new memorials to Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Grant and Sherman and Farragut. As we used to say in this country, the cure for speech you disapprove of is not less speech, but more speech.

A few years ago, the skeleton of Richard III, King of England, was found buried under a car park where once stood a medieval abbey. He was reburied with full royal honors. There was a bit of strident argument about this, but it was an argument between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The Anglicans were intent on honoring him as a king of England, though one overthrown as a usurper by Henry VII. The Catholics pointed out that Richard lived and died a Catholic, and the Protestantism inaugurated under the Tudors would have been alien to him. (The Anglicans won the argument, but nobody is griping about it now.) Oh yes, and there was an argument between two Anglican cathedrals over which should have his tomb. The point is, Richard III was not being treated as a pariah, but as part of the nation's patrimony. All the people arguing wanted to be associated with his memorial. Time moves on, historical figures' places in the story of the nation are constantly being adjusted, and eventually even the villains become tourist attractions, their former causes irrelevant to why people are curious about them now. And reconciliation -- which involves a real reckoning with the past, without being a prisoner of the past -- becomes possible.