George Washington & Robert E. Lee

Sam Smith

One of the hazards of not studying history is that it can badly distort the present and the future as well as the past. This is a particular problem for younger Americans as, over the past three decades or so, there has been so little evidence of cultural progress in government, the arts, the economy, or America’s reputation in the world. Rare exceptions include cyber technology and, somewhat surprisingly, the declining death rate of war. For an older American like myself, on the other hand, history was an act of progress for nearly my first forty years or so – from the New Deal to the 1960s and up to Reagan. I didn’t have to study this history; I lived it.

And besides, history was a more important item in the curriculum when I was young. One thing I learned from it was that mankind in many ways improved through time, not just technologically thanks to things like the printing press but morally through such things as the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women. One of the reasons post-1980s America has discouraged me so much is that this improvement seems to be determinedly fading away.

I was reminded of this by the argument, offered by Donald Trump’s lawyer among others, that George Washington was no better than Robert E Lee because the former also owned slaves. This ignores the fact that one of the aforementioned help to create the republic while the other attempted to destroy it. And if we as a people had not improved in decency and other ways since the 18th century, what purpose was there for us to be on the planet at all?

In other words, the fact that those in the past were flawed in ways that we now soundly reject is a sign of human progress and our judgment should be based on the time someone lived not by the standards that have evolved. As Barbara Tuchman put it, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”

And though I far prefer Benjamin Franklin or Frederick Douglass to George Washington, for all the latter’s flaws I greatly favor him over Robert E. Lee who, even by the standards of his own time, tried to destroy something great and good.

Remember further, before judging the past, that some day we will share responsibility for the planet’s climate and, perhaps, even for still believing in war, which may have become the abolition cause of another era.

But there is no way we can handle such issues by listening to the likes of Donald Trump’s lawyer. A Don Dileo put it once, “History is the sum total of the things they’re not telling us.”