We all have a tendency to believe that if something was there when we were a kid it has always been there. That creepy house down the street, the one we were scarred of when we were kids, undoubtedly scared our parents and grandparents in their day. It is an interesting trick of the mind, and an interesting trick of history.
But here’s the thing, some people know it. Some people know that if they put up a statue today, or adopt a slogan, future generations will assume that statue or slogan has always been there.
Here’s a good example. The words “In God We Trust” were first placed on American money in 1864, and adopted as the nation’s official motto in 1956. Despite this many politicians wrongfully claim that the motto dates back to the nation’s founding. For example Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson has said that “’In God We Trust’ is in our founding documents, … its on our money,” therefore we are a Christian nation. Carson, and many other politicians, is able to get away with saying these because most people assume that since the phrase is on our money it has always been on our money. As noted it has not. In fact the first coin printed in the new nation, the “Fugio” penny had the motto “We Are One” on one side, and “Mind Your Business” on the other.
The Christian groups that pressed Lincoln to put “In God We Trust” on money know that future generations would assume that the phrase had always been there.
Many cities are currently debating the presence and placement of statues honoring confederate soldiers. For example there is a statue of the Confederate General, and notorious “Raider,” John Hunt Morgan in a prominent downtown square in Lexington. Many people suggest that Morgan was a notorious racists and advocate of slavery and the Confederacy and should not have a place of honor in the city. Others predictably argue that the statue is part of our history. This of course suggests that the statue has probably always been there. In fact it was erected in 1911.
Another common historical fallacy is that our fore-fathers were wise and even-handed. Many long for the “good old days” when our politicians were honest and honorable. Of course anyone who reads history knows that this is hokum. Politicians throughout history have been petty and self-serving. Our ancestors were no less venal than we are.
The Christian leaders that pressured Abraham Lincoln to put the phrase “In God We Trust” on money were trying to make a political point, and the same holds true for the Christian leaders who pressured Congress to make the phrase the national motto in the 1950’s. This is also true of those who placed Confederate statues across the South.
Many of the statues of Confederate generals that are in town squares across the south were placed in the early 1900’s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Almost as soon as the guns fell silent after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, southern writers began to spread the myth of the “Lost Cause,” and the idea that the Civil War had not been about slavery. It was a wonderful and largely successful bit of revisionist history. Novels and plays were written celebrating the daring-do of dashing young cavaliers fighting to preserve the honor and way of life of the south. (If that sounds like something out of “Gone With The Wind” it’s because that novel was one of the last, but also one of the most successful, examples of this genre.)
The United Daughters of the Confederacy was one of the leading organizations spreading this nonsense. Their chosen medium was celebratory statuary honoring local confederate heroes. In 1911 the Daughters erected the statue of John Hunt Morgan in Lexington.
Morgan was a Confederate office and most famous for his “raid” into the Union states of Indiana and Ohio. Morgan’s Raiders bravely battled the young boys and old men of the Indiana and Ohio Home Guard, and raided city and county treasuries. Morgan’s main objective was to terrorize the citizens of the north. He was briefly successful, but was eventually caught. He escaped and returned to fight but was killed in battle in Tennessee in 1864. The best part, the raid was unsanctioned by the Confederacy and in direct violation of orders from Morgan’s commander, General Braxton Bragg. For this dubious record he is honored outside of the historic Old Courthouse in Lexington.
The statue remains because it is old and we assume that it was placed their for the noblest of reasons, and not to glorify a scoundrel fighting for a rightfully lost cause.