Friday, November 27, 2009

Do Unto Others

The Thanksgiving holiday brought to mind an excerpt of a speech given in 1871 by Lt. Col. David Branson (1840-1916) of the Sixty-second U.S. Colored Infantry. He spoke on occasion of the dedication of Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Mo. He and his comrades contributed money and helped found the school known today as Lincoln University of Missouri.

In his brief comments, Branson spoke to the value of education and religious freedom in the Reconstruction era, as Americans struggled to deal with a new political, economic and social order as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery. He states:
The future peace of our country is threatened more by the unwise zeal of religious men than by anything else, unless it be ignorance itself; and ignorance is the tool of such unwise zealots. Inquisitions, burnings at the stake, and hanging of the best men and women of their time, have been their work in the past, and will be in the future, unless prevented by just such schools as this, managed by liberal-minded men like Prof. Foster here, who, while holding strong religious convictions of his own, fully recognizes the right under our glorious Constitution of the United States, of every man, be he Christian, Jew or Mahomedan, to his own creed, untrammeled by any law whatever. And right here I cannot refrain from denouncing those men who are trying to insert a religious amendment in the Constitution of the United States.

A well-known author and close observer of events has well said that "It is the point of a wedge whose butt end is an established Church;" and an established Church in England has produced great wars in the past, and I will venture to predict, will deluge the British Isles in blood during the next generation.

But some may ask. Are we to have no religion? no morality? I have this to answer, on the best authority ever given us, and it is the sum of all the commandments, based on justice, tempered with mercy, and adorned by love: "Whatsoever ye would that men do to you, even so do ye unto them."

When we are able to live up to that law, then it will be time to think of teaching creeds and theologies in our public schools; and then they will not be needed or thought of. The future of our own free government depends on us who have the advantages of education. Whether we wish it or not, we must educate the masses pouring in from Europe on the East and Asia on the West, or they will destroy our free government and render despotic government a necessity.

It is our destiny to lift up the races that are down, and we need not be dragged down in the work, but rather buoyed up to a still higher level. Let us then each and all do what lies in our power for the elevation and happiness both of ourselves and others; and so living we shall not, when called from this world to the great unknown, fear to meet the spirits gone before; but rather approach it as we do a new country, whither our friends have preceeded us to enjoy greater happiness than in the land of our birth.
I find Branson's message as appropriate today as they were almost 140 years ago. Read the full speech.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On "Two Ways to Approach One War"

Civil War literature can be divided into two classes of historians, non-academics writing about military events and academics focused on the home front and politics, explains Gary W. Gallagher in his essay in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. Gallagher observes, "Both these Civil Wars form part of a complicated story that cannot be comprehended by mastering only one." He defines a particular kind of military history, a third way that puts the great battles and campaigns in context to the broader impact on Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

To be mindful of the larger context in which events unfold is a responsibility that non-academic and academic historians share alike, regardless of the lens in which an author chooses to frame an article or book. The best writers in either class manage to do this by seeking different perspectives during the course of their research. Moreover, they reflect those perspectives in a measured and thoughtful way in their writing. This is a function of natural curiosity, education and experience.

No single volume about the war captures the complexity of the period. No volume is likely ever to be produced. It is the complete body of literature on the subject that speaks to the depth and breadth of this tragic conflict.

Current and future readers and writers have an opportunity to learn and share and contribute to this dynamic and ever expanding field of study.

As our country evolves in the wake of the great events that have shaped our past and impact the current time in which we live, it is in the best interests of those who will form our future to comprehend how we came to be. For the better informed we are, the less likely we may be filled with fear and anxiety about what we will become.

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