On Why We Remember

by Joshua Jasmin
First Place Winner - Fall 2020

When I was in third grade, my parents took me on a field trip to Gettysburg.  It was a regular event for my family to visit historical sites – ever since we had returned to the United States, my parents had made sure to give me as many opportunities as possible to learn about America by taking me on biweekly trips to various cultural and historical sites in our area.  I was particularly interested in Gettysburg because I had heard so much about it, and I wanted to learn more about this storied place that held memories of such a critical moment in my country’s history.  Towards the end of our visit, my father and I were walking to an overlook when we happened to cross paths with a foreign tourist headed in the same direction.  He struck up a conversation with my dad, and after we had finished looking out over the fields, he turned to us with a very sincere and unexpected question.

“I’m curious – why does the Civil War have such public prominence in America?  My country went through a civil war, but we never talk about it.  We’re ashamed that it happened, and we’ve even erased it from our history books.  Why is this Civil War different – what does it mean to Americans?”

That question, innocent as it was, has stuck with me ever since.  Up until that day, I had just taken for granted that we studied the Civil War because it was part of our history.  I had never considered that preserving the memory of such events might be thought strange by someone unattached to that history.  As Americans, we not only study difficult periods in our history, we celebrate them – why? 

I do not remember how my father responded to the tourist’s question, but if I had been there as my present self, I might have said something like this.  From the very beginning, our Founders recognized that America was a nation with many faults.  They anticipated the inherent nature of the existence of faults (though not of individual faults themselves, which over time come to be corrected and replaced with others) when they wrote these words to explain the purpose of our Constitution: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”  The American Civil War was a test of whether that Union could continue to be perfected or whether it would succumb to its faults and cease to exist.  That struggle captures the essence of the American spirit: in each period of history, we have always fought to achieve our goal of becoming “more perfect,” recognizing that the struggle is a demonstration of our ability to make changes for the better.  We are not defined by perfection, but by our quest for perfection, and it is that quest which we celebrate each time we revisit the most trying moments of our history.  We look back on that history, not only because we are proud of our high points, but because we are also not afraid to acknowledge our low points.

Those are the words I would have spoken on that day almost fifteen years ago.  America has always been characterized by a certain level of maturity in being willing to talk about our mistakes and learn from them.  It is one of the major factors that has distinguished us from the rest of the world and enabled us to surmount the challenges we have encountered throughout our history.  Is that still the case today?

In recent months, there has been much controversy over the recognition of American historical figures and their legacies in the public square, both through statues portraying their likenesses and through institutions named in their honor.  A large movement has emerged questioning the justice of keeping such figures in positions of public visibility and esteem, with its goal being to “tell the whole story” about our history.  One group within this movement has conducted its efforts in accordance with that goal, thoughtfully and respectfully seeking to bring to light the lesser-known faults of historical figures without denigrating their more commonly known virtues.  Lamentably, that group’s efforts have been eclipsed in the media by a different group’s more radical actions, actions that seek to purge any public recognition of a historical figure deemed to be offensive.  Rather than tell the whole story, the latter group’s efforts effectively function to erase the story in its entirety.  The danger of such an attitude is epitomized by the actions of individuals in Philadelphia who whipped a certain Matthias Baldwin’s statue and defaced it with these accusations: “colonizer” and “murderer.”  Mr. Baldwin in fact happens to be an abolitionist whose business was boycotted by Southerners due to his activities before the Civil War.

Is our history perfect?  It most certainly is not.  Is our understanding of our history perfect?  Far from it.  It is for these very reasons that we must continue to discuss our history openly and freely, refusing the temptations to shut down conversation and erase our past – whether it be the negative aspects of which we ought rightly to be ashamed, or whether it be the positive aspects of which we may justly think with pride.

Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln gave a now-famous address about the importance of continuing the memory of our past.  His words, though given in the immediate context of the men who died at Gettysburg, form an appropriate guide for our remembrance of anyone who contributed to history while fighting on the battlefield of imperfection common to all times.  “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Joshua Jasmin is a senior from Newark, Delaware majoring in Political Science and History.