Accepting the past, warts and all

Dangers arise from a selective reading of the past, which can ultimately affect our future.

Andrew Johnson

In the retelling of history, we both evaluate and demonize individuals by current standards. With history always changing, so does its retelling, or at least what is emphasized. Minneapolis was the location of the latest historical reinterpretation this summer in a debate surrounding Lake Calhoun.

Since 1823, Lake Calhoun has been a tribute to one of our countryâÄôs most influential politicians: John C. Calhoun, who oversaw our stateâÄôs earliest settlings as the U.S. secretary of war. Along with being vice president and secretary of state, Calhoun is best remembered for his time as a South Carolina senator and member of what is known as the âÄúGreat Triumvirate,âÄù along with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky. They epitomized the views of the three regions at the time âÄî North, South and West âÄî and were key figures in the first half of the 19th century leading up to the Civil War.

Nevertheless, the Minneapolis Parks Board was presented with a proposal to change the lakeâÄôs name due to CalhounâÄôs stance on slavery; representing his constituents, Calhoun supported the institution in the 1830s and 1840s. For that reason, some âÄî including local man John Winters, who spearheaded the campaign âÄî felt that Calhoun was âÄúone of the worst people ever born in this country.âÄù

Can CalhounâÄôs viewpoint of racial inequality be justified? It can only be done through the prism of his time period, a pass that we have given several figures on the grounds that they contributed more than just an acceptance of slavery. Under this rubric, we would have to rename monuments, cities, streets, bridges, states and schools now named after Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Robert E. Lee and William Clark. When we choose to selectively recall certain aspects of historical figures and ignore their other doings for mere simplification to fit an agenda, we risk not only consistency but forgetting about the successes âÄî along with the lessons âÄî of the past from which we can learn.

Similarly, the debate over the commemoration of Christopher Columbus with Columbus Day actively disregards his discovery of the New World and focuses only on the exploitation of indigenous populations. There is no denying there were atrocities, but to discount individuals for imperfections implies we should only honor perfect beings from our past, of which, of course, there are none.

If we were to go through every venerated historical figure, we not only could, but we undoubtedly would find reasons to oppose their repute. One of the suggested new names for Lake Calhoun was MinnesotaâÄôs own Hubert H. Humphrey. LetâÄôs say that happened, but then we discovered some unfitting quality about Humphrey that will be criticized years from now. Will we rename the lake again, along with the airport and campus building? Would an imperfection make him less impactful on our culture, this state and this country?

From Franklin D. RooseveltâÄôs authorization of Japanese internment camps to LutheranismâÄôs founder being an anti-Semite, is it really worth denouncing these names for the protection of our current comfort?

ItâÄôs dangerous and even irresponsible to shed any person in one particular light, positively or negatively. Everyone that came before us is just like us: a casualty of his or her eraâÄôs thinking with personal faults. To hold that against them is not being objective, but ignorant and close-minded. ItâÄôs forgetting the meaningfulness and impact that they carried in their time, as well as our own. After all, weâÄôre just building on the shoulders of those that came before us, no matter how weak or strong those shoulders are, and progress cannot be made if we forget where weâÄôre coming from.

 

Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]