Aug 29, 2017, 05:58AM

History Has Its Eyes on You

Maybe avoiding difficult truths is the easier course. 

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The New Hampshire Historical Society has launched an initiative called “The Democracy Project: Renewing History and Civics Education in New Hampshire Schools.” The Society is concerned about “Americans’ decreasing knowledge of history and civics.” The Society’s latest newsletter notes that it discontinued a program, “New Hampshire at War,” because many students don’t know what the American Revolution was or even that we fought the British; they cannot list in chronological order the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. They attribute this to No Child Left Behind and an increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), with a consequent reduction of class time on history and civics in favor of test preparation. As the Society’s president writes, “While workforce development is important, it will do little good to have a workforce if we have lost our republic.”

Perhaps this issue goes to the root of democracy. We must understand our history so we may properly judge politics and politicians and keep public problems in perspective. At the same time, there’s been a lot of talk lately of purging the nation of monuments to men and women who, in fashionable 21st-century opinion, are classified as racists. One should never judge the past by the present: as L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Yet in New York, they talk of removing the statue of Columbus from Columbus Circle. We might not be here had he not sailed west. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered the removal of a portrait bust of Robert E. Lee from the Hall of Fame in The Bronx. Already, an Episcopalian church in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, has removed a plaque commemorating Lee. Lee had been assigned to duty at Fort Hamilton during the 1850s. He was a parishioner of the church and served on its vestry, its lay governing body. But what does his adherence and service to that Church matter after Charlottesville, by which time he was some 147 years dead?

It’s been a mild summer in New Hampshire, with only a few hot days and evenings. My office looks out on the lawn, our pond, and the trees. Private life feels good although public life does not.

The foliage reminded me of a day trip with my Aunt Judy some 50 years ago when she gave my parents a brief rest from the burden of raising me. This was when I was seven or eight—a vodka tonic’s stimulating my memory but not necessarily its accuracy—just before my father’s career took him away from the Capital District, the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, out to real apple knocker country in the upper Mohawk Valley.

The Capital District is somewhat history-heavy with colonial settlements, Indian massacres, Revolutionary battlefields, Greek Revival farmhouses, and museums of all kinds. For some reason, Judy and I ended up that day at the estate of Martin van Buren in Kinderhook, New York. His successful 1836 campaign for the presidency made Van Buren’s hometown immortal, in a way: the expression “O.K.” refers to “Old Kinderhook.” Not even “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the slogan of General William Henry Harrison, the victor of the Battle of Tippecanoe, who defeated van Buren four years later, has entered the language in quite the same way.

All this is mere historical detritus enduring long after Van Buren, the most skillful pol of his day—a man they called the Little Magician—had lost his last election. If nothing else, it illustrated how strongly our forebears took their politics: “All the Way with LBJ” or “Nixon’s the One” haven’t quite made the same impression.

I remember nothing of our visit except that the trees were a brilliant emerald and their damp trunks a sooty black. We walked up a driveway, an underused dirt road of two cindery ruts divided by lush grass, toward a carriage house adjacent the main residence.  It was whitewashed, the big double doors were open, and the roses wound up the trellises on each side of the doorway. I hoped they had been there in Little Van’s time.

That particular response was sensual and esthetic, typical of my initial response to history. It’s also emotional. I admit a Pavlovian response to some things: polished marble, lofty ceilings, and reverent hush move me, whether I’m in the lobby of the Woolworth Building or the rotunda of Grant’s Tomb. Bombastic pomp isn’t enough: St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave. in New York, even for solemn ceremonial events, is always just a little too loud.

I remember when I fell in love with history. A couple of years before I saw Van Buren’s roses, probably in August, 1960, my parents hauled my brother Michael and me up to the Saratoga Battlefield. There, they tell us, the Revolution was won. Sir John Burgoyne’s surrender to General Horatio Gates—the first surrender of a British army in history—persuaded the French that we might be able to pull if off with a little support: money, arms, and men. Once the Revolution became part of the ongoing rivalry between two great European powers, the rest was endgame.

I saw a weathered log blockhouse (actually a modern construction, used as the National Park Service’s office: I guess that in Eisenhower days everyone expected historic sites to have blockhouses). Brass smoothbore field guns were scattered about the rolling meadows, marking the lines of battle. Even at that age, I read fairly well and, having read all the maps, brochures, and signs, I was a little bored. I walked just ahead of my parents, as obnoxious children will, down a wooded path into a glade. Nearly 200 years before, this had been Breymann’s Redoubt: an entrenchment built and held by a regiment of Hessian mercenaries in British service, named for the regiment’s commander, and the Americans had taken it largely through the brazen audacity of an insubordinate officer who, though relieved of command, rode back into battle against orders and seized the victory, sword in hand. From the wounds he received that day, he would limp for the rest of his life.

Now it was quiet amid the August heat. In two centuries, the grass had done its work and covered all. One might never have known a battle had been fought here save that the nation had chosen to remember it. At the path’s end stood a small monument, perhaps about five feet tall. It had been erected by John Watts de Peyster. Its sculpted obverse shows a cannon barrel, standing upright. On this was a cavalryman’s boot with a two-starred epaulette across its mouth. On the reverse was inscribed: “In Memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot, the sally port of BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT 7th October 1777 winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of major general.”

The brilliant soldier was unnamed. He was, my mother told me, Benedict Arnold.

What followed, as I sat on a bench looking at the monument, was a surge of confusing emotion. It may seem odd for a five-year old, but then I was an odd five-year-old, more interested in the past than the unpleasant present. Over the next few minutes, my feelings resolved themselves into commonplaces. After all, even the most sophisticated five-year-old is still only five. The monument, I concluded, was somehow wonderful, because I knew that men and women were both good and bad, even as I was, sometimes, and that the better human qualities, like valor, were worth honoring for themselves, even when the people who possessed them were not. Hence, the man who’d raised this stone had understood that Arnold’s courage had to be, must be remembered, even if only as something far nobler than Arnold himself, who was unworthy of being named on his own monument.

Later that day, we drove a few miles to Schuylerville to see the Saratoga Monument. The battle may be named Saratoga, but Burgoyne surrendered in Schuylerville. The monument (which, to add to the confusion is located just outside Schuylerville proper, in the appropriately named village of Victory, New York) stands about 155 feet high. It was begun as a citizens’ initiative on the centennial of Burgoyne’s surrender, October 17, 1877, but patriotism costs money, and after the citizens stopped their voluntary contributions, it stood derelict until it was “given” to New York State in 1890. Twenty-two years after that, the monument was finally dedicated. Then the state neglected it, too. Finally, the National Park Service received it in 1980, only to close it for “renovation” for nearly two decades.

Such renovations remind me of Rome’s so-called Arch of Constantine. In 1938, Prime Minister Mussolini ordered its renovation for the World’s Fair of 1942. Scaffolding and tarpaulins went up with aphoristic efficiency. Then the work stopped. Of course, there was no World’s Fair in 1942. Mussolini, the monarchy, some 50 different republican governments fell. Pope Pius XI was succeeded by Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. The Arch remained under renovation for more than half a century, underneath rusty scaffolds and flapping tarps. Only when the Roman Catholic Church desired the Eternal City’s massive cleanup for the celebration of the second millennium of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was the Arch finally restored.

But back to Victory, New York. In the monument’s base were four niches, three of which contained statues of American officers who’d fought at Saratoga: General Philip Schuyler, General Horatio Gates, and Colonel Daniel Morgan. The fourth niche was empty—no statue had ever been placed there. My mother didn’t need to tell me whose statue it would’ve been. This, too, was wonderfully romantic. After all, the monument had been raised a century after Arnold’s treason, yet a place of honor had been made for him and left vacant.

The final touch was a brief visit during my adulthood to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. It stands at the site of the fortress Arnold sought to betray to the British, atop the grandeur of aged cliffs towering above the Hudson like a Wagnerian vision of the Rhine. With its statues, monuments, and memorials, the lines of artillery taken as trophies of war, and its windswept plain, it’s no place for a pacifist. The east wall of the Old Cadet Chapel, a charmingly eclectic bit of Georgian/Federalist brick and marble, bears 36 black marble shields inscribed with the names, ranks, and dates of birth and death for each general officer of the Revolutionary army. As we might expect by now, one is different. Where the name and date of death appear on each of the others, here the sculptor carved them away. All that appears are the words, “Major General. Born 1740.”

Maya Ying Lin’s noble memorial for the Vietnam War succeeds at least in part because it embraces the historian’s first duty: the recitation of names. Every monument to those lost in war begs us to remember their names. Yet the objects I’ve described above—a stone marker, a heroic obelisk, a marble shield on a wall—are by their reticence moving acts of memory. Their creators remembered so passionately that the name and image were unnecessary. Today, we would repetitively and tediously condemn Arnold whenever he entered the conversation.

Monuments also remind us of basic truths that we sometimes forget. Everything happens in a context, usually defined by the dominant culture. The past shapes both present and future. As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Ignorance of history creates a nation of dupes, ever ready to be swindled by politicians through some cheap appeal to sentiment. Yet too much unleavened awareness of the past leads to a never-ending settling of accounts, a ceaseless tribal warfare over everything from affirmative action to reparations for slavery. Hence, the controversy over the statues of Confederate soldiers throughout the South and the display of the Confederate battle flag in Southern state capitols, which has successfully distracted public attention from real issues. The destruction of a monument to Robert E. Lee redresses no injustice, puts no food in the mouths of poor children.

But some evade such problems. As Tony Horwitz notes in Confederates in the Attic, Alabama and Texas avoid any disagreement over teaching about the War Between the States by avoiding it: their high school American history curricula begins in 1877, after the end of Reconstruction.

Maybe avoiding difficult truths is the easier course. Yet my life would’ve been impoverished if John Watts de Peyster hadn’t raised a monument to a brave man and a traitor.


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