Lincoln: “We Cannot Escape History”- (but sometimes we have to rewrite it!)



John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln April 14, 1865. Lincoln died of the wound April 15, 1865. Booth was afterward captured after being shot at the Garrett farm 12 days later. He died there. That’s what history tells us. There are those, however, who have always questioned that it was Booth killed at the Garrett farm. They have maintained that Booth escaped the capture and lived into the 1900’s. As mentioned yesterday, a DNA Project has been approved by Booth descendants to determine the truth of the matter-was John Wilkes Booth killed at the Garrett farm or not. We’ll see.

History is not a static thing. What happened in the past is done-it cannot be changed. We cannot escape it-if you pardon my misuse of Lincoln’s phrase. But our view of history does change. Our understanding of history changes. Among other things-when new evidence is discovered about something that forces us to revamp our viewpoint. If it wasn’t Booth that died in the barn that day then history will have to change-at least to be intellectually honest. I’m not sure what it would mean -but that will be left up to scholars and historians, I suppose.  

In a U.S. News & World Report article in the July 2-9, 2007 edition, startling news was revealed that is one of those history changing revelations. The article was about Robert E. Lee. The article “The Private Thoughts of a Southern Icon” by Diane Cole told about historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book: “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.” Apparently, personal letters by Lee himself had been found in 2002 in a trunk by descendants in Virginia. In the letters he covered a variety of topics-including slavery. What was found- the words of Lee himself-betrayed what history has traditionally thought of Lee’s attitude towards slavery. Instead, the letters portray a man who was a “hard taskmaster.” He broke up families that had been together for generations. The slaves, themselves, resented him. Many ran away when they found opportunity. Lee had some of them severely punished. By a Will belonging to his father-in-law, Lee’s wife inherited his slaves at his death -but they were to be freed within five years. Lee went to court to try and extend their servitude.  The court denied the petition. Lee finally freed them- on January 1st 1863 (ironically the day of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation). This is quite a different Robert E. Lee than the one we all have known. What will be done? Will future biographers of Lee have to deal with all this? I would think so.

So we’ll wait to see what “truth” is revealed with the Booth DNA Project. Whenever new truth is found we should welcome it-even if it means changing what we’ve thought our whole lives.  To not do so is to live in a lie-a fabricated vision of the past. The danger with that is found in the fact that our perpectives of the past profoundly shape our directions for the future-and that should concern all of us.


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3 Responses to “Lincoln: “We Cannot Escape History”- (but sometimes we have to rewrite it!)”

  1. B. Nash says:

    Excellent comments! You make me proud!

  2. Evelyn Respress says:

    Lincoln was very passionate in what he always said.We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

  3. Chris says:

    Great post about how history isn’t static at all, there are always new things to learn about it and new things to discover, even if it’s in the past. Not to mention, there’s always new ways to interpret it.

    Lincoln is so fascinating to me, in part, just because he and his actions and words are applicable to just about any time and place.

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