". . . 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

Friday, June 17, 2011

*The Judges of the Secret Court* by David Stacton

Like so many I was ignorant of the author David Stacton, until John Crowley drew it to our attention.

Stacton's novel of Booth and the assassination of President Lincoln, The Judges of the Secret Court, has been re-released by the NY Review of Books. Mr. Crowley has written the Introduction.. It's reviewed today in the WaPo by Michael Dirda.

It seems that Stacton took the same revisionist stance about the Booth conspirators as Redford did in The Conspirator -- maybe that's where Redford got his ideas that Stanton was a cold-hearted villain and many innocent confederates were hung, whereas in reality Stanton and Seward became close friends, and Lincoln was dear to them both.

Anyone who cares about books and writing applauds when a neglected author gets renewed attention. But I wish it had been a different book of Stacton's the NY Review of Books put out, rather than what -- at least the review suggests -- an apology for Booth's co-conspirators to kill Lincoln, by making them sympathetic victims of the military justice system.

This, please be assured, is in no way a criticism of of the wonderful writer and excellent person that is John Crowley, or anything remotely resembling that.

What it is about is that the focus put upon the trials and sentencing.   I've no doubt that is it very likely there were some, at least, miscarriages of justice, because that is how this nation rolls in response to attacks upon itself.  But focusing on the trials rather than their crime(s) obscures that there was a criminal conspiracy and that many people as well as Booth participated and were guilty of killing Lincoln, that they'd tried to find a way to kill him for many years.

Booth was a Confederate criminal -- not an aberrant, lone madman -- and he did create more than one criminal conspiracy against Lincoln and the Union. This last one involved many people, many of them the same people who were part of his previous unsuccesssful conspitorial attempts. His last one succeeded for the most part, the most important part (one of the conspirators chickened out, and at least one of the other intended victims, General Grant, left town unexpectedly -- but Seward was horrifically attacked; that he lived is a miracle, and also the result of the heroism of several people, including his daughter).

Yet the amount of revisionism around the assassination and the aftermath including the trial and who was guilty, never fails to astonish -- it comes from every side: historians, movies, fiction, text books. It's been so constant since almost the moment of Appomattox, that it's only been in the last decades that there has been a review of all these mythologies, and a push-back by historians. Non-historians have still been flowing with the mythologies, however, until even more recently.

The reasons for this revisionism about all matters to do with the American Civil War are many and, for an historian, no matter how distressing for an historian this is, it is also endlessly fascinating for an historian, filled with many lessons about how history is made.  Those who write the history -- in all and any media -- own it.  But we already know that, right?

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