Category Archives: American History

Farewell, James Marion Sims … And Hello, Kim Jong-un

When is it appropriate for us to engage in a public commemoration? Most would consider doing so when the honoree is a person, an event, or an idea that makes a permanent impact on society.

For instance, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC memorializes a suitable person. Local towns’ fireworks displays on Independence Day are worthy events. And the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, is an exemplar of an appropriate idea.

But there are times when the progression of history modifies our perceptions about people, places, and ideas. When that occurs, permanent commemorations may become socially awkward, and may even be removed from view.

Consider, for example, last month’s decision by the City of New York to remove a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims from Central Park. The physician had been memorialized as the father of modern gynecology.

But there was a dark side to his fame. Prior to the American Civil War, Dr. Sims perfected his surgical skills by experimenting on human slaves without using anesthesia. In response to public protests, government officials in New York City decided to move the statue to his gravesite, and to present it in historical context there.

When the statue was first erected in the 1890s, Dr. Sims’ honorees could not anticipate the day when public opinion turned against his legacy. In other situations, though, the obsolescence of a commemoration is relatively foreseeable.

For instance, consider the commemorative coin that the White House of the United States recently issued in advance of a scheduled meeting between the American President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It portrays the two men in a head-to-head pose, and even refers to the latter as Supreme Leader.

Some commemorations, like the Sims statue, survive for more than a century. But the memorial coin immediately became a relic as soon as President Trump cancelled the meeting.

From large statues to small coins, our memorials are designed to remain in place forever. Nevertheless, their continuing presence is subject to changes in public opinion and the tides of history.

The Key to Understanding the Second Amendment is its Curious Preamble

In the wake of another public school massacre in the United States, the debate rages anew over the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Many citizens persist in the belief that the Amendment’s protection of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is sacrosanct. Others insist that the Amendment is an obsolete relic of an earlier era, and call for its repeal.

Relatively few on either side of the debate, though, examine the curious preamble to the Second Amendment. In its entirety, the Amendment declares that:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So what is the meaning of the word Militia? And why did the Founding Fathers believe that it is necessary to sustain a free nation? If that belief is still valid, then it may be reasonable to conclude that the right to keep and bear Arms may also remain valid.

Merriam-Webster defines Militia as “a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency.” In colonial times, the famed Minute Men of Massachusetts, who were roused to action by Paul Revere, were members of a Militia. And in modern times, the National Guard plays a similar goal.

At the time of the writing of the Constitution and its first ten Amendments, the citizens of the United States were living under a brief set of thirteen Articles of Confederation. Most of the powers of today’s federal government were exercised by the individual states, and there was no permanent federal Army or Navy.

Instead, according to Article VII of the Articles, “… land forces (would be) raised by any State for the common defense …” The States relied on Militias, akin to today’s National Guard units, to form such forces.

By and large, the citizen members of the Militias were responsible for arming themselves. At times when large numbers of men were needed, self-armed civilians with no prior Militia experience were expected to volunteer for military service. Thus, Militias were indeed necessary to the security of the United States, and the right of citizens to keep and bear Arms was indeed necessary for the functioning of Militias.

Today, though, the federal government of the United States relies on a permanent array of military forces (i.e. the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) to maintain the security of our free nation. Although a National Guard is available to be called in times of emergency, its members are not expected to arm themselves. Furthermore, self-armed civilians no longer join the National Guard at such times.

So is the Second Amendment still valid? Some contemporary commentators assert that the obsolescence of the preamble renders the entire Amendment obsolete. Others insist that the preamble is simply a dated introduction to a timeless personal right.

Nevertheless, individuals on both sides of the debate might agree that the Founding Fathers’ motivation for establishing the right to keep and bear Arms lies in its curious preamble. And if we can agree on the Fathers’ original motivation, we might then be able to agree on how to apply their perspective to our contemporary circumstances.

What Would Robert E. Lee Do?

As the deadly debate continues over the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Charlottesville, a question comes to mind. If Lee were alive today, what would he do?

The answer may surprise individuals on both sides of the issue. Based on his own writings and actions, he undoubtedly would have recommended the immediate removal of his statue.

After Lee’s surrender to Union General U.S. Grant to end the Civil War, he remained a distinguished public figure as the President of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University. He repeatedly stated that public statues of Confederate leaders would “keep open the sores of war …”

Lee’s opinion of slavery may also be surprising. Well before the start of the Civil War, he declared that “in this enlightened age … slavery as an institution … is a moral and political evil in any Country.”

And after the war, when many supporters of the defeated Confederacy supported the continuation of violent resistance, Lee urged reconciliation:

It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.

So what should we make of Robert E. Lee? One might argue that he was a traitor to the United States who engaged in armed rebellion against his own nation, and whom Charlottesville never should have honored with a military statue in the first place.

And yet one can’t argue a simple fact of history. Based on his own words, Lee would have been the first person to pull his statue down.