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President’s Day and being on the ‘right’ side of history

February 17, 2019

We speak of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as two of our greatest presidents.

Washington has always been popular, but Lincoln is a different story. After Lincoln’s election, many states — including Texas — declared their intention to secede from the United States. But today, politicians across the political spectrum claim Lincoln as a forefather.

Such changes in perspective can befall any of us. Even our most deeply held beliefs may seem wrong or dangerous to others. And time may well prove our opponents right.

Presidents Day provides a welcome opportunity to explore how historical context can help us gain perspective on our own experiences. It is hard to notice our blind spots or to really take in the views of people who see things differently from us.

Making connections between a historical situation and current events can provide the distance we need to consider a range of interpretations of a given situation. When we focus on the past, it is easier to separate emotions from reason.

For example, rankings for presidents who served before the 20th century are more consistent across political parties than those of more recent presidents. Surveys of historians across the political spectrum consistently place Lincoln in the top two or three presidents in U.S. history. But more recent presidents are more divisive. For instance, George W. Bush is rated much higher by Republican scholars than by Democratic ones.

Presidential rankings get more consistent over time in part because the past tends to become clearer and less emotionally fraught as it recedes. But history is always confusing and sometimes terrifying for those living through it.

Even so, most of us are confident that if we had lived through a great historical conflict such as the Civil War, we would have been on the “right” side. We imagine that if we had been there, we would have understood what was happening and how events were going to turn out.

We are wrong.

On Feb. 2, 1861, Texas stated its intention to secede from the United States. The writers of the declaration of succession asserted that slavery was so fundamental and so self-evidently good that Texas should leave the Union rather than give up slavery.

The declaration criticizes the North and its newly elected president for their “unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature.” Slavery is mentioned 21 times in the declaration of secession.

For the writers of this declaration, slavery was good and President Lincoln was bad. Many thousands of Americans died to defend this belief. For most Texans today, the reverse is true.

Just as we see things differently now than the government of Texas did in the 1860s, so too will Texans of the future inevitably see us differently than we see ourselves.

Today, it is difficult for most of us to imagine uttering the phrase “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery,” let alone publishing it in a government document. What saying in today’s politics will border on the obscene to Texans of the 2160s? Will it be “Build the wall” or “Green New Deal”?

None of us will be around to find out. We can’t know whether our opinions will turn out to be more like those of Lincoln, becoming more widely respected and valued as time goes on, or Texas’ declaration of secession, whose words cannot be quoted today without shame.

Those who wrote that declaration did not think that they were doing anything wrong. But they lost the war, not only against Lincoln and the Northern states but also against the principle of “the equality of all men.”

This Presidents Day, we can benefit from reflecting on the principled leadership of our best presidents. We can also benefit from trying to see things from the perspective of those who think differently from us, both our neighbors today and our descendants tomorrow.

That’s something both Lincoln and Washington would support.

Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

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