John's Notebook: Not everyone deserves a monument

Every generation reinterprets the Civil War.  Our re-examination has been prompted by the debate over Confederate monuments.  This week White House Chief of Staff John Kelly warned about misunderstanding Civil War history only to be rebuked by Civil War historians who said he misunderstood his Civil War history. 

We have these discussions because history is the best instruction manual we have as a country. It tells us who we are, which guides us towards who we want to be.  Churchill said: "The further back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."  

We must be humble in evaluating leaders of the past to understand them in their time.  This context helps us recognize why our forebears were flawed, how those flaws were remedied and how we can avoid similar flaws today.

But that lens we use to understand is different than the gaze we reserve for what we revere.  One of the lessons in the Civil War is that it was possible to do the right thing then by the moral standards of today.  Abolitionists opposed slavery because it was a moral and human wrong, contrary to the principles of a nation founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Those who fought slavery pushed the country to be better when it was opposed by custom, habit and eventually bullets. 

That example is worthy of reverence because we face similar choices today: how to keep faith with standards and morals when it's easier to do the other thing.  When the system encourages you to do the other thing.  It requires character, self-sacrifice and wisdom.  It's not easy, but that's why not everyone deserves a monument.