The Amend Corner

History can depend on your point of view

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When I was in school, I learned all sorts of facts that my teachers called history. At the same time, I began to learn that some of those facts might not be true, thanks to one of those teachers.

It happened in junior high school during our study of the war we Americans fought with Mexico back in 1846-48.  As we finished the unit, our teacher asked us whether we thought America was right to start a war with Mexico, and assigned a short essay explaining why.

As American wars go, the Mexican War doesn’t get as much attention as our numerous other wars, but it does have significance in our history. The results were certainly positive from the American point of view, especially in the South. We gained the territory that produced three new states — more if you count Texas, whose annexation by the U.S. was actually the primary cause of the war — and parts of four more, including Wyoming. The war also gave a number of junior officers actual wartime experience that made them the core of the officer corps on both sides in the Civil War.

But the war was also divisive. There was considerable opposition to the war in the North, and it was famously and vociferously opposed by men such as Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as a hick lawyer and politician in Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, the war began over a simple border dispute in Texas. An American army entered the disputed area and put up a rudimentary fort of dirt to serve as bait that would draw Mexican fire. The Mexicans obliged and the U.S. then felt entitled to invade its neighbor.

Well, for better or worse, I’m a guy who feels compelled to look at both sides of any issue. Any time a topic is up for debate, at some time during the discussion, you’re likely to hear me beginning a comment with the phrase “On the other
hand ...”

So when I wrote my essay, I said it was proper for the U.S. to try to bait Mexico in order to settle the border dispute, and to engage in armed conflict after Mexico had taken the bait and fired on Americans. But I didn’t think this small provocation over a small bit of disputed land justified invading Mexico and, since it was never explained to me why settling a dispute in Texas required Mexico to also sell us California, I thought forcing them to do so was a little questionable. Apparently, men like Clay, Thoreau and Lincoln agreed.

My essay, which I, like all my classmates, had to read aloud, reflected both of those positions, of course, and I think the teacher liked it. At least I received a good grade on it.

Many Americans look upon history as a body of information, and they resist anyone who suggests that some of what we take as fact may not stand up under close inquiry. As we have learned in recent years, the people who make history often have reason to make sure uncomfortable facts about what they did are erased from history. Politicians of all persuasions often bend the facts to hide uncomfortable truths about a historical event, and they often provide “spin” that tilts the facts in order to make them look good. Events are further twisted to put a positive or negative slant on what happens, and political, social, cultural or emotional biases that afflict nearly all of us can lead us to see a historical event in a certain way from our own narrow viewpoint.

There are reputable historians who conduct honest, objective research into history and the people who make it. They use multiple sources and actual documents to verify the facts they put into their stories. Unfortunately, in our divided nation, too many people apply their own biases to what they read, and if it doesn’t fit their biases, they denounce it as left or right propaganda and revisionist history, or they dismiss it as political correctness.

Well, I’m not going to claim that I have no biases. That would be a stupid thing to say, because I do. But I am well aware of those biases, and I try to account for them when I look into any historical account. The result is that I often warn myself to look at both sides when I’m considering a historical account, a report on a scientific discovery or a political position. And in any discussion where different opinions are on the table, I’ll be the one saying, “On the other hand ...”

That’s just the way I am.

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