". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Historic Messages Preserved in Time

President Lincoln's watch contains a secret engraved message put there by the Irish immigrant who was repairing the president's watch when the news arrived in Washington that the rebels had fired upon Fort Sumter.

This is a fascinating story -- the NY Times:

In the article Mr. Dillon, then 84, recounted that he was working at M. W.
Galt & Company, a watch shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in April
1861 when the shop’s owner, Mr. Galt, hurried upstairs to tell him, “War has
begun; the first shot has been fired.”

“At that moment I had in my hand Abraham Lincoln’s watch, which I had been
repairing,” Dillon told The Times, adding that he later learned it was the first
watch that Lincoln ever owned.

An immigrant from Waterford, Ireland, he told The Times, “I was the only
Union sympathizer working in the shop."

First, such a mundane thing, this small repair, for this time. It was a gold watch and such watches were so valuable they were commonly family heirlooms, passed down from first son to first son. Thus the President of the United States sends his watch out for repair rather than get another one. Lincoln certainly wasn't presented this gold watch by his father, thus this watch must have had such deep significance for him, earned by his own efforts in the law. Nor was Lincoln fortunate with his sons, as we know but Lincoln wasn't.

Second, this repairman is the only Union sympathizer in the shop. That small detail shouts volumes about the state of the nation that Lincoln had been elected to govern, and even more particularly about the state of the nation's capital, in which the sights of slave coffels herded through the streets was so common as to become a scandal that had to be outlawed by an act of congress. (Not, mind you, the outlawing of slavery or the slave trade, but the public view of it, so that visitors from other nations wouldn't write about it.) The repairman is an Irish immigrant; at this time Irish immigrants were regarded as barely human, barely a step above the despised slave class. The Union army recruited Irish immigrants by the thousands, many, many of them literally right off the ship. Recruiting tables were set up on New York City's wharfs. The Irish went directly from the ship to the army.

Third, this confirmation of his family's long memory of Dillon's action is confiirmed by a search his descendant did in The York Times archive, now available to anyone, anywhere, from their own homes, since it made the digitized archive free for use to any registered reader. Woo. All the historical pointers and markers for research that can be found now, in the world's newspapers with keywords searches. What a remarkable research tool. The story of Lincoln's watch was reported in The New York Times. The confirmation of memory of this story is also reported in the New York Times.

Is this time and history as an arrow, or time and history as a wheel?

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