The Answer is in the Past

By John O’Connell, Montana Historian Magazine

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.” (Excerpt of a letter to the people of the United States by Congressman John Lewis. Published on the occasion of his death, July 30, 2020)

Congressman John Lewis

When I read of John Lewis’ passing, it sparked a memory of my childhood. I was attending Catholic school and Miss Jane was one of our lay teachers. She spent weeks explaining the work of John Lewis, the Freedom Riders, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Just like so many places in present day Montana there were no Black people in our school or church, and we paid little attention to the racial troubles our nation was experiencing in the 1960s. We were more inclined to focus on the violence in Northern Ireland because of the Irish heritage of our church and school. Our priests and nuns were mostly Irish. The stories told to us by our parents and grandparents were about Ireland: The Famine; coming to America; Thomas Meagher and the Irish Brigade; No Irish Need Apply signs; and politics. Democratic politics. The Kennedys were our heroes. JFK our fallen Arthurian king. Bobby, the crown prince, was our hope for the future.

Miss Jane combined all of our history to illustrate the similarities of what was going on in Black America at that time and what had happened to our ancestors not so long ago. The images of whipped slaves, lynchings, and people living in bondage were horrifying to us, but learning about the history helped us make sense of the unrest and violence in the country. The Irish had moved up in society past bigotry and poverty through education and politics. Black people weren’t allowed to move at all because of bigotry and politics.  At the same time, King and Lewis became heroes in our eyes on the same level as Jack and Bobby. They would lead us, and we all would win.

 So, when Dr King was killed in April of 1968 our class was devastated and bewildered. Bobby Kennedy’s death just a few months later shook us to our core. How could God allow this? The nuns and Miss Jane had no answers. I remember walking in school wondering if someone would shoot us or our families at home. Would rioters destroy our town?

It was probably July or August of 1968 that on a beautiful evening at my grandparent’s lakeside cottage, a place of peace and joy for me, that Grandpa asked me what was wrong. I was sitting on the porch overlooking the lake reading a copy of Profiles in Courage by John F Kennedy and I got weepy. I told him all my fears and, even though I didn’t quite understand it as such, my sense of loss. He said that terrible things like this had happened before and they would happen again. What mattered now was to remember those men and what they stood for. We needed to set aside politics and petty “what about” arguments and make it happen.

We sat there not saying much after that. We watched the sun disappear as the surface of the lake calmed to glass. The next day he called me over to his easy chair and silently handed me a paperback about the last year of Lincoln’s life. Without a word, Grandpa returned to his newspaper. I don’t remember the title, but it was a great read and made me feel better. Grandpa was right. Tragedy can be overcome.

President Abraham Lincoln

As I searched that book for answers, the pages eventually wore down to tatters. Maybe my grandfather’s admonition to me

was what Lewis was talking about in the quote above, at least in part. The answers to the present are there in the past.

Our society’s situation at present reminds me so much of that time. We see once again the images of police with batons striking people and deploying tear gas. Cheering crowds ripping down statues and occupying government buildings. There are peaceful protests but also riots. Buildings burn. Our armed forces are fighting in foreign countries and we barely acknowledge it. People want justice or there will be no peace.

So, what are the answers from our past that can help us now? George Santayana wrote probably one of the most misquoted sentences ever about this topic. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He did not say “learn from the past.” The wording was most likely purposeful on Santayana’s part. One, because he was a philosopher and their language is quite precise. Two, because it’s so easy for us to ascertain the wrong lesson when attempting to learn from history rather than taking it at face value and simply remembering it.

For instance, let’s state a simple premise we can all agree on: Slavery is evil. 

If slavery is evil, then anyone who owned slaves was evil. Ulysses S. Grant once owned a slave therefore Grant was evil. Evil people should not be memorialized by monuments therefore Grant should not have monuments erected in his honor.

I’m sure some are howling at this string of logic and were also doing so when Grant’s statue was torn down in June in San Francisco. After all, Grant saved the Union. He destroyed the Confederacy and with it slavery, which, as you recall, is evil.

Maybe it isn’t so simple after all. John Lewis said that “the truth does not change.” What is also true is that history does not change. An event happened in its entirety. A person lived. A castle existed. The buffalo did roam. Certainly, we may discover a piece of written evidence or make an archeological find that challenges the facts at hand. Despite that, history happened even though we may not understand everything about it, or some parts are lost to…history.

If we look for answers in the past, can we find them by interpreting history through a modern lens? Is it proper or fair to interpret history using present day standards of conduct? In other words, is “our truth” and someone else’s “truth” 150 years ago really equivalent? How about 500 years ago? 1000?

We must look at history as truth. What, where, who and when. Only then can we explore why things happened the way they did. What was their truth in context to the times in which they lived? We can’t explain what was going on in someone’s mind over 100 years ago. After all, it’s hard to figure out what goes on in our own family’s head at times let alone in the mind of an historical figure who has been dead for decades or longer. What was Custer thinking the morning of June 25, 1876 at the Little Bighorn before the fight started? How about when he was on the ridge waving his hat urging Reno on? How about at the end?

General George Armstrong Custer

Understanding motivation of historical figures is tricky at best unless that historical figure has written memoirs that jive with known fact. That being said, people do lie! They change the truth. They change history to make themselves look good or noble or blameless. Sometimes they do it for book sales or tenure, other times they do it for power. It’s ugly but it certainly is human.

Since it’s a topic of protest and commentary at the moment let’s use the Confederacy as an exercise in historical truth.

Wealthy people and politicians wanted to keep slavery in the South especially after the invention of the cotton gin which allowed them to have fewer slaves yet make more money in the growing and sale of cotton. So indeed, the truth is the Confederacy was about keeping slavery legal. However, they realized that was an ignoble reason to many for leaving the Union. So, these same people developed a political platform that became known as The Cause. This was justification for leaving the Union based on economic rights, states’ rights, and tariff policy which were all based on cultural and economic dependence on a slave-based economy. This became the truth for a great many people.

This is an over-simplification, yes. Yet after the war, a new “truth” was developed known as the Lost Cause. This was about idealizing the Confederacy as fighting valiantly for a just cause. This eventually led to the K.K.K, Confederate monuments, Jim Crow and the battle flag of the Confederacy on state flags.

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena, Montana was dedicated on September 5, 1916 and removed 100 years later on August 18, 2017.
( Photo by “Montanabw” and more information on the photographer can be found at: . Photo License through Creative Commons. License can be viewed at

We know all this to be true but did the soldiers of the Confederacy fight for slavery? Many did, especially amongst the officer class who came from wealthy propertied families but what about the barefoot Mississippi sharecropper or the blacksmith from Alabama? Is it really so hard to imagine that many fought for their state where their family and homes were and always had been since before our Revolution? That they never owned slaves and never would, but they saw the Union as invaders? These things are also “truth.”

What are we to make of the Irish in New York that rioted over the draft because they saw no reason to fight to free slaves? They believed the freed slaves would come north and take their jobs. That was their “truth.”

So, we come full circle. What answers can we take from the past to solve at least some of our problems today? Destroying statues or flags will not end racial injustice. Fighting with police and burning buildings will not end police brutality. These big issues have been with us in various forms going back to before our Revolution. Perhaps we have two solutions from the past that will help if we are brave enough.

Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none and charity for all…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Dr King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That it is difficult to consistently apply the sentiments in these two sentences to our lives, laws, politics and diplomacy is certainly disheartening. However, Lincoln and King with their inherent understanding of human nature would not be surprised. We are all flawed, and our worst trait is to justify or ignore our personal failings while pointing out that same failing in others. If we cannot rise above this human peculiarity, we will never find the answers in the past which Congressman Lewis wrote about. Instead we will continue searching for problems to match our answers.

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