Sunday, March 1, 2009

Grant and Lee at the NY Historical Society

Yesterday I went to the New York Historical Society, where they have a new exhibit: Grant and Lee in War and Peace. These two figures are used to illustrate not only their rivalries, but to also evaluate the forces that have shaped our nation since the Civil War. As usual, I went to see this exhibit with a great degree of anticipation, and as usual, the NYHS managed to disappoint me. The exhibit did not have a coherent sequence and the artifacts shown were in their majority items that can be seen in any antiques store. Furthermore, the displays were explained by articles placed on the walls, and most of the time one had to play detective to find the connection between the article and the displays. Postcards, letters and newspaper clippings were placed too high to read. The animated films were amateurish, and the historical evaluations were a long list of politically correct clich├ęs.

I was particularly incensed by a five minute film that explained the role of the White League and the end of Reconstruction that came with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Compromise of 1877. The narrator of this film concludes with an admonition to the students who watch the film, and here I paraphrase: “Therefore, when your teachers tell you that we have a history of 200 years of democracy, no coup d'etat, and terrorism is something that occurs in other nations, remind them of the election of 1876.

To take an isolated historical event and place it into an historically relativist context is not only poor scholarship, but also unfair. The end of Reconstruction has to be studied within the context of the times, and the fatigue with decades of conflict. Was it a moment to be proud of? I doubt it. But was this event something that we can compare with the lack of democracy and terrorism around the world? The answer is definitely no.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 left in place forces that although dormant for decades, eventually allowed in 2008 the election of the first black president of the United States. Students, tell this to your teachers when they blast our great nation.

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