Sunday Laws—on Tuesday

It’s weird to think about it now, when everything is open 24-7, when you can buy things off the Internet without even leaving your bed, and when people are hollering about letting store employees stay home on Thanksgiving, but once upon a time, Americans were spun up because you couldn’t buy things on Sundays. Nowadays, just about the only things you can’t get on Sundays are booze (depending on where you live) and your junk mail—and even mail carriers are now trucking for Amazon. (The story of Sunday mail delivery is the topic of an article my husband wrote that I really hope he turns into a  book someday. I can’t wait to read it.)

Sunday laws (or “blue” laws), which made it illegal to work on Sundays, have a long and sprawling history, and I can’t begin to wrap my arms around the topic in a blog post. The first one was enacted in Virginia in 1699. Largely grounded in religion, they varied in severity and scope over the years. By 1872, the law allowed for certain vocational exceptions and allowed counties or cities to opt out by holding referenda to override it.

The Alexandria papers were howling about the law that year because the city was poised to vote on it. Some (a majority, as it turned out) backed the law’s selling points of rest and respect (what’s wrong with rest and worship?), while others seemed understandably baffled by the law’s uneven application and lack of common sense (drug stores that sold cigars and soda water could remain open, but cigar shops and ice cream saloons had to close). There were also the sorts of protests you’d see today: the law’s fundamentally un-democratic nature (capitalism ain’t a modern invention; people wanted to make money on Sundays back then, too), opposition to it as violating the First Amendment, and its general ineffectiveness (since you just had to head over to the next town to get wasted if you chose).

Among those for whom warrants were sworn out, in addition to retailers of liquor, are the proprietor of a news store, the keeper of an ice cream saloon, the proprietor of a brewery and an ice merchant—these being reported by the members of the Anti-Sunday Law Association who say they want the law carried out according to its strict letter.

Wait, what? Why would the ANTI-law group want the law carried out? Well, because full enforcement—no ice, dairy, or poultry sales, no public transportation, among others—would inconvenience more people, thus spurring another vote on the issue and possible repeal.

In consequence to the difficulty experienced in procuring liquor in the city, the drinking places at West End and at other points outside of the Corporation limits were visited by numbers of persons who imagined they required stimulation, may of whom having found what they desired concluded to spend the rest of the day where their appetites could be indulged. During the morning a large quantity of cherry bounce was surreptitiously taken from a restaurant on the corner of King and Union streets and distributed gratuitously to persons on the wharf nearby. The bar of the Railroad Shades, kept by Mr. Henry Herbner, one of the parties fined last week with violating the law, was hung with crape during the day.

(“Cherry bounce” just sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Apparently it’s 10 lbs of cherries, 4 cups of brandy, 3 cups of sugar, and a generous pinch of pumpkin pie spice. I’ve never found a place where I could order a glass. I may have to try making it myself. If I do, I’ll let y’all know how it turns out.)

Though based in religion, the Virginia law as of 1872 at least had a veneer of secular sanctimony: “a Sunday law enacted under the police powers of the state for the purpose of providing a day of rest for persons, to prevent the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor does not infringe upon the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.”

Other statutes dealing with a day of rest gave a break to shellfish, making it illegal to harvest oysters (except by hand) or load them on a vessel, to take clams at all, or to catch crabs for commercial purposes. Hunting on Sunday was also verboten.

These days, Sunday laws in Virginia mostly focus on hunting restrictions. You can’t kill bears or deer with a firearm on Sundays. You can’t hunt on public lands. You can, however, shoot other things on private property as long as you have written permission and are more than 200 yards from a church.

As you might imagine, the current Sunday laws generate just as wide a range of reaction as the 1872 versions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FUBAR Love Triangle

fisk-mansfield-stokes(keithyorkcity.files.wordpress.com)

My book (coming out soon, I swear!) focuses on a Southern murder in 1872. In the eyes of the jury, it was a pretty open and shut case.

By contrast, a much higher-profile murder that occurred in New York in January of that year required three trials (and the space of about a year) before all was said and done.

You might have heard of Jim Fisk. He was a war profiteers. He and Jay Gould snagged the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt. His effort to corner the gold market triggered the 1869 “Black Friday” market crash/panic. (This was back before Black Friday was a shopping thing. I think it might have been the first time a market crash was referred to as “black” but I can’t verify that.)

Jim put the gild in Gilded Age. Waxed moustache. Diamond studs. Velvet collars. He aimed for the biggest and best in all things and in sating all his appetites. Naturally, he was married, and just as naturally, he catted around as he saw fit.

One of his Kept Women was Josie Mansfield. Now, this woman is routinely described as amazingly beautiful. (Which… well, look at her. I don’t reckon she’d do so well today. It’s kind of funny how often this pops up in historical commentary, when someone is described as particularly handsome or lovely, and then you see a photo and go, ‘Huh? Him? Really!?”) Anyway, the lovely Josie aspired to be an actress (at least, that was her story) until she landed Diamond Jim, who set her up with a snazzy house near his own, not to mention clothes, jewelry (LOTS of jewelry) and whatever else she wanted. Maybe a nice coach and four.

Edward (Ned) Stokes ran a refinery controlled by the aforementioned Erie Railroad. Ned and Jim had a lot in common—both married, both big spenders with extravagant lifestyles—except Ned wasn’t as good at it as Jim because he had a bad habit of spending money he didn’t have.

(Incidentally, Jim’s wife apparently didn’t care he cheated on her; according to some reports she was off with a woman of her own.) So things are moving along nicely, everyone’s having a grand old time, til New Years 1870. Josie throws a party; Jim brings Ned. Josie and Ned hit it off—better than Jim anticipated. (Surprise!) Josie doesn’t bother to change partners, she just hides her dalliances with Ned from Jim.

So, Jim finds out he’s not the only one getting bang for his buck, so to speak, and he sends a letter to Josie telling her to set things straight. Not entirely unreasonably, she points out the he sees other women (although she’s not subsidizing his affairs—so maybe there’s a little bit of difference there). Anyway, one thing leads to another, and Josie chooses Ned. But she also chooses Jim’s money and tries to get him to hand over money she says he promised her. He declines, but does agree to pay any bills incurred up until the time she formally dumped him.

Meanwhile, Jim and Ned are also at odds. (Surprise! Again.) Fisk and Stokes fight over the refinery. Stokes says he’ll give the newspapers all Jim’s old love letters to Josie if Jim doesn’t pay up. Jim tells him to stuff it and sues him. In arbitration, Ned ends up with somewhere around $10,000—$15,000 and Jim’s attorney gets the letters.

But $15 grand doesn’t last long with Ned. So he goes back to court, saying Jim owes him $200,000 in refinery profits. He also says the love letters prove his claim. The press gets all excited, convinced that the letters are full of racy sex talk AND juicy business intrigue. Jim thinks for half a minute that he might as well have them published, but decides against it.

So things have dragged on like this for two years. A judge finally rules that Ned’s got the wrong end of things, and that the letters are where they belong. Jim decides to toss some salt in the wound and charge Ned and Josie with blackmail. Well, sir, this will not stand. On January 6, 1872, Ned sets off to confront Jim at the Grand Central Hotel, waits for him on the second floor landing, pistol in hand, and plugs him twice before trying to run off. Jim, hit once in the gut and once in the arm, lives just long enough to identify Ned as the killer.

Jim Fisk did a lot of living in the time he was around. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is sobering thought that when Fisk was my age, he’d been dead for nearly a decade. More than 100,000 people showed up at the Grand Opera House, where his body lay in state. A week after he died, the New York Herald printed about 40 of the disputed letters. Turns out, it was all domestic intrigue: loving on Josie and hating on Ned.

Ned is put on Murderer’s Row in Manhattan’s Tombs prison. Maybe you’ve heard about the posh digs that Al Capone had during his time at Eastern State Penitentiary? Ned did it first. He had a fancy carpet, meals brought in from Delmonico’s, bottles of cologne shipped in. He met with reporters wearing a ruffled shirt with diamond studs.

Ned goes to trial during June and July (which is why I’m writing this now) with several defense tactics: He shot in self-defense. He was insane because of Jim’s persecution of him. The shot didn’t kill Jim, the doctors poking around in his guts did—or maybe they gave him too much morphine. Result: a hung jury, with a couple jurors suspected of being bribed.

So Ned goes to trial again in December. That time he’s convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged, but the verdict is appealed and overturned on a technicality (the judge didn’t give the jury sufficient explanation on the explicit intent to kill that is required for first degree murder).

In his third trial, in October 1873, the jury finds Stokes guilty of manslaughter. He’s sentenced to six years at Sing Sing Prison, but is let out after serving half that time for good behavior (but not before his wife divorces him). He continues to have disputes in all his business dealings until he dies of kidney disease in 1901.

Josie, after trying to sue Fisk’s widow for $200,000, throws in the towel on the whole mess and takes off for Paris with a friend of hers in 1873. She dies there in 1931.

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Mary Walker and Her Knickerbockers

Late posting, again. This time I lagged because I was off on a business retreat where colleagues and I talked about fun things like serial commas, loaded language, the best way to cite weird and complicated documents in bibliographies, and how to make Word and InDesign your formatting bitches.  Then I came home to a proof copy of my book waiting for me to go through it and find all the horrible gaffes I missed in previous versions.  So that’s this weekend’s project.

First, though, some history!

This week in 1872, Washington, D.C. had a special form of celebrity striding along its boulevards. She was so well known that contemporary newspaper accounts only referred to her as “Dr. Walker.” And yet, she is virtually unknown today. Odds are you’ve heard of Susan B. Anthony. If you read Karen Abbott’s book, you’ve heard of Emma Edmonds. If you read my book when it comes out, you’ll know about Victoria Woodhull. So how many of you have heard of Mary Edwards Walker?

Honestly, the argument could be made that Dr. Walker was more of a badass and a way more useful human being than any of the other women mentioned above. She was a doctor, she was an abolitionist, and she’s still the only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor.

Part of the credit for her accomplishments must be given to her parents for her upbringing. Her mom raised her to know that women can—nay, should—pitch in with the men on hard farm labor, and her dad demonstrated that men are capable of whipping up as good a beef stew as any woman’s. Her parents were also responsible for founding the first free school house in Oswego, N.Y.,  in the late 1830s. When she was old enough, Mary taught school so she could pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, graduating with honors as a medical doctor in 1855. Naturally, she was the only woman in her class. And a fat lot of good it did her. Most people in those days didn’t think much of lady doctors, so her practice failed. Didn’t stop her, though.

She also took a dim view of women’s fashion—corsets were bad for the respiration; long skirts and petticoats were not only cumbersome, they were unhygienic,  spreading dust and dirt. Dr. Walker wore trousers from an early age. It’s interesting that there’s more commentary on her disdain for women’s fashion than just about anything else; she herself wrote two books on the issue. And it’s possible (though not necessarily probable) that if she had dressed more traditionally, she might have been taken more seriously in other areas.

In any event, this progressive was also (surprise!) an ardent abolitionist and suffragist. At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian, and was allowed to sign on—as a nurse. She served at the First Manassas and worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga. Apparently a supporter of women masquerading as men so they could serve as soldiers, Walker applied in 1862 to serve as a spy for the Union, but was declined. (The interwebz seem to indicate she did serve as a spy at some point, however.) In 1863, she became the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon, later being appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians. She was captured in 1864 by Confederate troops, arrested as a spy,and  imprisoned for four months in Richmond, Virginia, until her release as part of a prisoner exchange. After the war, she was recommended by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas for the highest U.S. Armed Forces decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, and approved by President Andrew Johnson.

The war having dealt with abolition, Walker hopped on the women’s suffrage bandwagon. She’d actually been preaching this well before most of her peers, and led the way in the argument that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. She attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. When it was clear Walker’s argument was getting them nowhere, the movement changed course and promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment. Walker, unwilling or unable to change her position to gain the advantage, fell out of favor with the majority of her former sisters.

(As an aside, it’s fascinating—and more than a little depressing—to read the old news clippings about suffrage meetings and events. Even setting aside the somewhat sexist slant of most editors of the time, the women’s movement does appear to have been greatly hindered by what might be considered traditionally feminine shortcomings. In much the same way we have Mommy Wars today, so did the suffragists struggle with infighting and women undercutting one another to serve their own personal agendas. 150 years and we still can’t get out of each other’s way about skirt lengths, bottle-feeding, working outside the home, or anything else. Are these really the issues we should be focusing on to judge each other? Sheesh!)

Clothing continued to be a cause for Dr. Walker. Newspapers in 1872 discussed how the U.S. Commission of Patents would not allow her “military costume” to be included “in the glass cabinet containing the garments of Washington and Lincoln … as an historic relic for the inspection of future generations!” adding that “the breeches are said to be much admired.” In other clips, the “Dr. Mary Walker style is the prevailing fashion for bathing suits,” and she is reported as appearing “on the streets of Washington in Dolly Varden coat and pants. She looked jaunty though.” I think my favorite retort of hers was, “I do not wear men’s clothing. I wear my own clothing.” She was reportedly arrested on a few occasions for impersonating a man. (She’s not the only one. Plenty of women were arrested for violating anti-cross-dressing laws over the years.)

In 1917, Congress dealt Dr. Walker a dirty blow, although she was likely just collateral damage. Lawmakers created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients, leading the Army to review eligibility for inclusion on its Medal of Honor Roll and changing the rules to require “active combat.” As a result, the review board chopped Walker from the list, along with 910 other people (including Buffalo Bill Cody). But she wasn’t ordered to return her medal, and she continued to wear it until her death two years later in 1919 (when she was buried in a black suit). Her medal was restored posthumously in 1977.

There are a number of books about Walker. Pick one up, and learn more about one of your foremothers!

 

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No Man Is an Island…

Big news out of Britain today.  But as I think you all know by now, I am generally misanthropic about current events. So in today’s post, I will tell you that big news came out of Britain (well, Geneva, really) on this day in 1872, as well.

Admittedly, the events of 1872  had less immediate impact, but as you’ll come to find out if you keep reading, they had pretty intense long-term ramifications.  In June 1872, international arbitration endorsed the U.S. position on the Alabama Claims, Britain paid the United States $15.5 million, a perpetual U.S.-British alliance was cemented, and a precedent was set for international arbitration of disputes between nations.

“Wait. The Alabama what?” I hear you cry.

The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages that the U.S. government sought from the UK for Confederate Navy raider attacks on Union merchant ships during the  Civil War. The most famous of the five ships cited in the claims was the CSS Alabama, which Wikipedia tells me never docked in a Southern port and took more than 60 prizes before being sunk by the USS Kearsage off the French coast in 1864.

What did Britain have to do with Confederate Navy attacks?  Well, the boats were built in British shipyards in 1862, in contracts with Confederate agents (or middle men for Confederate agents). And the British government did not stop the Alabama from putting to sea to wreak its havoc, even though the American Minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams (who would lose the Liberal Republican presidential nomination to Horace Greeley in the same year the claims would be settled), told them the ship was bound for the Confederacy and was clearly intended for use against the United States. There were some shady dealings involved —  Britain had a neutrality law, and while the shipbuilders more or less hewed to the letter of that law they certainly thumbed their noses at its spirit.  The law said Britons could build warships; they just weren’t allowed to arm them. (That had to happen after vessels reached international waters.) Public opinion, however, was rather against the idea of building boats intended for attack on the United States. The Alabama was spirited out of British waters in secret and created a political embarrassment for those in power who favored the Confederacy and let it happen.

After the war ended and the United States got its affairs somewhat sorted, the winning side went after Britain for aiding and abetting the enemy. Charles Sumner (famous for his 1856 “Crime Against Kansas” speech and subsequent thrashing in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks) lobbied for Britain to cough up $2 billion—or he was willing to settle for them handing over all of Canada.  This idea had some support for a while, but that petered out over time: More U.S. groups were anxious for some fast cash, nationalist sentiment in British Columbia favored fealty to the British Empire, Congress got sucked up into Reconstruction efforts, and few Americans seemed very interested in expansion while having to deal with the fallout and expense of the war.

In 1871, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish cut a deal with British representative Sir John Rose. A commission was formed to deal with a number of financial and territorial issues, including the Alabama Claims. The resulting Treaty of Washington got U.S. approval in May of that year. A year later, an international arbitration tribunal met in Geneva and endorsed the whole thing, including cash for the Alabama Claims, settlement of Atlantic fisheries and language on the Oregon boundary line. Britain  expressed regret over the Alabama damages, but claimed no responsibility.

So, who cares? Why was this big news? Why does it matter today? Well, it mattered at the time in terms of international policy and allegiances. It put to rest a long-simmering snit between the U.S. and the U.K.  On a bigger stage, it triggered a movement to codify public international law, basically making this relatively little settlement dispute a first step (for better or worse) toward bigger international agencies like the Hague conventions, the World Court, and the United Nations.

So, there you have it. Brexit might or might not mark the kickoff of several momentous European events. But in 1872, the same could have been (in fact, actually was) said about consideration of the Treaty of Washington in Geneva.

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Horace Greeley and His Weird Ways

You guys!  Over the weekend, Roll Call ran my article about Horace Greeley and how Donald Trump might not be the weirdest and worst candidate ever.

You can read it here.

I think that counts as this week’s blog post, no?

 

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Something a Little Different

While I’ve been blogging the bejeebers out of history over here, I’ve also had a lot of fun spreading my Twitter wings, especially with the #TCMParty crew when Turner was running Roger Corman Thursdays.  That appears to have run its course; channel programming seems to have switched to Musical Thursdays, which are a different kind of fun.

I’ve also been working on the book launch. I went through the file again and found some things to fix/add/change, ginned up some related articles to shop around, working on getting included in a couple book festivals over the next year.

But the absolute best part was that I asked some folks whose writing and work I really like and respect if they’d take a look and give me blurbs for the back cover, and  all of them were terribly kind and gracious in agreeing to do so—and then blew me away by expressing the nicest opinions I could ever hope for in regard to my work. I still go into over the moon, happy dance, giddy mode thinking about it.

Current anticipated release date is the end of this month. Need my day job to slow down so I can work harder on the fun stuff!

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Congress, The Klan, and Confederate Amnesty

In May of 1872, Congress and the federal government were already well along in their pursuit of knocking down the Ku Klux Klan, but work was still ongoing. They were also in the (perhaps counterproductive, yet necessary) process of granting amnesty to former Confederates.

It’s odd. I had some trepidation about how to approach this issue. I think it is a little unhealthy that we live in a culture where the very idea of my writing on this topic somehow allows people to assume I’m complicit in the agenda — or even that I have cause to worry that people might do so. But let me say up front: The Klan is bad, y’all. It was/is a virulent offshoot of an angry backlash reaction to a horrible situation wherein there really weren’t any immediate winners, but the long-term benefits surely outweighed the costs. The Klan is what happens when disgruntled and disenfranchised groups decide the system won’t work for them, so they will work outside the system, to ill effect. The thing is, in some ways, the Klan was successful. And we have a LOT to learn from that, lest we be doomed to repeat it. But don’t misunderstand: The Klan is bad. OK? OK.

The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan emerged in 1866. Created by former Confederate soldiers, it developed into an decentralized organization of autonomously administered local units seeking the end of Northern influence presenting itself through Reconstruction. It sought to limit black education, economic advancement, voting rights, political and social status, and the right of African-Americans to bear arms. The Ku Klux Klan’s effort involved intimidating the Southern African-American population,  Northerners working in the South after the Civil War, Southern Republicans, and schoolteachers brought south by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The methods of the Klan grew more violent, and it was most successful at taking the vote away black southerners.

In 1869, a federal grand jury declared the Ku Klux Klan to be a terrorist organization. In January 1871, Pennsylvania Republican senator John Scott convened a committee that took testimony from witnesses about Klan atrocities; this material was published in a 13-volume report in 1872. In February 1871, former Union general, Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts wrote and introduced federal legislation, the 1871 Klan Act. The bill gained favor after the governor of South Carolina appealed for federal troops to maintain order in the State. Reports of a riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippi courthouse, in which a black state representative narrowly escaped death, also added support for the bill. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler’s legislation, which was used along with the 1870 Force Act, to enforce the civil rights provisions of the constitution.

Under the Klan Act, federal troops were used rather than state militias, and Klansmen were prosecuted in federal court, where juries often included blacks. Prosecutions were led by Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman. Federal government actions under the Klan Act from 1871 to 1874 severely crippled the original Klan. Still, the bloodiest single instance of racial violence in the Reconstruction era happened on Easter Suday of 1873: the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana. A group of white men, including members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, clashed with members of Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia at the local courthouse. The cause of the battle was ostensibly a contested local election, though racism and partisan politics were significant factors as well.

At the same time, Congress was struggling over what to do with the Southern states it had to return to the federal fold. Reconstruction was a bumpy, painful, and in some ways disastrous process. You can’t let enemies of the state just come waltzing back, but on the other hand, how much punishment can they bear? The 14th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in July 1868, provided that no person could hold any civil or military office under State or Federal Government who had previously taken an oath to support the Constitution while holding such a position and hen had engaged in rebellion against the United States. The amendment provided that the Congress, by a two-thirds vote in both Houses, could remove this disability, and between 1868 and 1872 a number of ex-Confederates, were granted congressional amnesty.

Even by the election of 1872, this was still an issue, with candidate Horace Greeley musing on allowing “peaceful secession” — an absurd idea given the war that had just been fought to prevent it. But by this time, most Northerners were also losing interest in Reconstruction. Proof of this is that Congress passed the Amnesty Act.  The new bll removed all political disabilities except those upon lawmakers, military and naval officers, heads of departments and foreign ministers who had switched allegiance during the course of their service to the federal government. The effects of the Amnesty Acts were almost immediate. By 1876, Democrats had regained control of all but three states in the South. Republicans clung to power in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, but only with the help of federal troops. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Klan was largely in decline by the 1880s.

In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional, saying that Congress’s power under the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to private conspiracies. However, the Force Act and the Klan Act were invoked in later civil rights conflicts. The Klan would surge in popularity again in the early 20th century, and again in the 1950s and ‘60s in response to the Civil Rights movement.

What’s really notable about all this to me, however, is that pretty much since this hate group’s inception, a majority of the population has deemed it wrong.  We as a nation and society have come SO FAR from where we were 150 years ago. We have been free to debate, discuss, and I believe this is at least part of the reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to say the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.  We have so many arguments over the Confederate flag, over monuments to “the losers” and “the traitors.” I don’t mind the arguments, but I hate the straw man that the only options are “complete embrace” or “complete suppression.”  Europe has banned the swastika; anti-Semitism is alive and well there.  Eradication of the symbol has not eradicated the sentiment.

We don’t need to wipe out our history; we need to learn from it. We need to use it as a tool against those who don’t know or understand where they come from. We need the precedent of slavery as a tool to shame racists; we need the precedent of the Civil War as a (perhaps imperfect, but certainly successful) reflection of the moral universe bending at least a little toward justice. We need to see Brock Turner and shame him. We need to see Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arnt and celebrate them.  Shame is a powerful tool, and one we are falling out of  practice with. We need to stop making excuses and start enforcing our standards. And to do that, we need more discourse, not less. We need more thoughtful discussion, less knee-jerk reaction of hiding bad stuff or pretending it doesn’t happen. We need more accountability and fewer blind eyes.  And for all of that, we need history. We need to be able to point to our past and say “this, and this.” We need to be able to point to our mistakes and say “Never again.”

And we need to be able to recognize that no human—currently alive or in the pages of history—is purely one or the other. The ancient Egyptians had a concept called ma’at. Ma’at was a goddess representing concepts like truth, balance, morality, and justice. Souls were weighed against Ma’at’s feather, and if lighter, the departed were welcomed to the paradise of afterlife. In studying history and judging our contemporaries, we need to be able to weigh souls in the same way. We should forgive shortcomings, but we must be able to weigh their heroism and villainy and decide which way the balance tips in each instance. Thomas Jefferson did a lot of really amazing things for this nation. We know he also held some pretty despicable views on race and was somewhat hypocritical in his calling for the abolition of slavery while owning 600 slaves himself. Should we blast his face off Mount Rushmore?   I would argue not: the good outweighs the bad. Hitler brought about some fantastic economic reforms and did some great things for Germany. His policies also killed six million Jews.  Should he get a monument?  I’m saying no.

So when people talk about the Klan, or the Confederate flag, or the windows in the National Cathedral, or a statue of Robert E. Lee, we need to listen to what is really being said. What are we really honoring? Are we endorsing racism? Are we acknowledging an icky part of our history that we need to make sure doesn’t repeat itself? Are we celebrating a man who fought valiantly on the wrong side based on what we might even today consider the right (or at least justifiable) reasons?  These are conversations that should not be muffled.

Hark back to the NBC PSA jingle. As my son likes to sing, “The More You Know…”

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