Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mary Lincoln Gets a Do-Over, But We Don't

Or a retrial, at least of the mock variety.

As an amateur student of history, I've always been wary any time we impose contemporary moral standards on historical events, even though as a Christian I believe a baseline of moral standards from God has long existed in the Ten Commandments.

But, it seems that even by the standards of her time, Mary Lincoln was subjected to kangaroo justice in her insanity trial. At the behest of her son, Robert, Mary Lincoln was found insane and confined to an asylum for a time. She never forgave Robert.

Catherine Clinton, author of a book on Lincoln's trial, is quoted in the linked article: "Under the laws at the time, Mrs. Lincoln was denied counsel. There is not better illustration of railroading, as the phrase goes.”

News of this mock trial comes the day after I read the cover article in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine, an excerpt from Henry Wiencek's new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Wiencek is unsparing in his criticism of Jefferson's treatment of slaves and his careful avoidance of any connection with the emancipation movement, even though Jefferson proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men [sic] are created equal."

In the early draft of that document, of course, Jefferson claimed that the "peculiar institution" of slavery was a barbaric invention of Great Britain imposed on in its North American colonies and held this to be one particular justification for breaking away from the mother country.

"So what?" you might say. "Didn't George Washington have slaves?"

Yes, he did. But, Wiencek joins several other authors who have pointed out in recent works that Washington wrestled with the morality of slavery. Jefferson never did.

Furthermore, Washington worked out a way to emancipate his slaves on his death. That was a far more difficult thing for Washington to pull off than it would have been for Jefferson. Wiencek points out that on his death, Tadeus Kosciusko, the Polish soldier who helped the thirteen colonies win their independence, left Jefferson a handsome sum of money to pay for the freedom of Jefferson's slaves (providing Jefferson with reimbursement for the loss of these "assets"), then providing funds for the freed slaves to establish new lives.

Jefferson had even drafted the Pole's will and was its executor. But, Jefferson refused to take the inheritance or free his slaves!

Besides that, according to Wiencek, in spite of attempts by generations of American historians to whitewash the truth, Jefferson was a particularly violent and cruel slaveholder.

Even by the standards of his time, if we accept Wiencek's reckoning, Jefferson, in the eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, was as guilty of injustice as the late-nineteenth century jury that found Mary Lincoln to be insane.

But this set me to thinking: What level of culpability do we who live in the twenty-first century bear at a time when there are more people bound in slavery, much of it involving the sex trafficking of young children, than any time in history?

The Lincoln jury and, before that, Thomas Jefferson were guilty of overt acts of cruel injustice toward largely defenseless persons. Theirs were the sins of commission, by the standards of any time. But what of our sins of omission, of looking the other way when hundreds of thousands are being violated so cruelly?

The Mary Lincoln "do-over" or retrial was presented for enjoyment and education. The same is true of Wiencek's work on Jefferson as a slaveholder. But there really are no do-overs in life. We can be forgiven. We can make restitution. But we can't relive this day. There are no Groundhog Days in real life. We will either stand for justice or stand in its way.

The prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of God in the eighth century BC, wrote:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Tonight, I'm asking for the forgiveness from God offered to us only through Jesus Christ for my sins, including the sins of injustice against my ignored neighbors around the globe.

And I pray that I will be quick to speak and act on behalf of the victims of injustice, whoever they may be.

UPDATE: See here.

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