Friday, January 30, 2009

The Past is a Foreign Country: Civil War Documents

There is a danger in writing history, that one will portray the past in warm golden hues of nostalgia, or worse yet, that one will super-impose today’s norms and values on people long dead. It is prudent to recall that the past is like a foreign country, “they do things differently there.” What is not different, however, are the basic rhythms of life. The men and women who lived one hundred and fifty years ago possessed the same passions, strengths and weaknesses, and capacity for self-deception and rationalization that we possess today. It is only by turning to the letters, documents and speeches of the people who lived at the time that we have any hope in capturing the mind of the time. In these documents, the people of the time speak by themselves, for themselves. We are all creatures of the times in which we live and must justify ourselves to history as best we can.

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