Abraham Lincoln Memorial
Artillery Row

Can we ever be on the right side of history?

History is the composite of our collective actions, looming over us ready to make a verdict

Amidst the chaos and barbed comments of last week’s debate, Chris Wallace made a passing reference to Trump’s respect for President Lincoln. Earlier this spring the President held a virtual town hall at the Lincoln Memorial, during which he stated that “nobody got treated worse than Lincoln.” Nobody, of course, except for himself. It is a strange perception of history to say the least.

The problem with history is that it is not linear

Recently I visited the Lincoln Memorial on a hot June afternoon. What struck me on this particular visit was the strange nearness of Robert E Lee’s homestead, Arlington House, looming a stone’s throw across the Potomac River from the White House. How these two men, with vastly opposed goals, lived in such close proximity is hard to fathom. But what is stranger is the unlikely belief that these men shared.

Along the vestibule of the Memorial these words are inscribed: “we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the Providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove . . .”

One gazes upon the inscription and considers that Lincoln understood slavery “must” exist as a result of the Providence of God. This idea seems incomprehensible to a contemporary tourist. But it was such a central tenant of Lincoln’s thought that it found its way into the very Inaugural Address featured inside the Memorial itself.

Lincoln’s statement is eerily similar to one Lee wrote in a letter to his wife: “How long their (enslaved people) subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

If there is one force in nineteenth-century American Protestantism that shaped the nation’s response to the ills of slavery, it is the idea of God’s Providence. The thinking goes that because an event happens, God must have allowed it, and therefore, in a subtle way, approves it.

“Merciful Providence” functioned as a vast and dark cultural blind spot: spiritualised resignation in response to pain and societal wrongs. In the name of “Merciful” Providence slavery existed longer than it needed to and was even sanctioned by the very people that should have recognised it as a horrific evil – such was the theology’s perversion of personal agency.

We view history as a dividing line between heroes and villains

If Providence is the great blindness of the nineteenth century, then our view of “history” may be the twenty-first’s. “History” is that mysterious force to which we keep referring, in so far as we want to be on the “right” side of it. We view history as a dividing line between heroes and villains, people to be revered or “cancelled.” History is the composite of our collective actions, looming over us ready to make a verdict.

Our relationship to “history,” like that of our forbears’ to Providence, corrupts our sense of personal agency. For Lincoln and Lee, inaction in the face of oppression; for us, a swing to the other side entirely, with many Americans, especially those in the Antifa and woke camps, believing that the present moment is the vantage point from which they can view history with accuracy. Not just history, but the present, too.

But anyone who believes it is possible to make an appropriate judgment from the present is suffering from a form of blindness, an inability to accept the fact that we are embedded in the narrative of history at this very moment, incapable of stepping outside of it enough to see things entirely.

Because the problem with history is that it is not linear. It is a tangled interplay of contemporary discoveries with objects, events and personalities of the past.

We must be careful in our wish to be “right” that our view of “history,” like Lee and Lincoln’s view of Providence, doesn’t blind us from being able to perceive current affairs with sobriety about our perspective or judgment. We may just find that history tells a different story about us in the end, measuring our actions by a future standard we cannot now imagine in the limitations of the present.

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