Now For All Those Might-Have-Beens In Your Life

So we were watching this old B&W film about the Civil War which made me think of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper: “History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened.” Perhaps just like our own personal histories in which we didn’t get the girl or guy we originally hoped for….had a boy instead of a girl…took the job with a company that soon tanked… moved to a city which later went bankrupt.

For 40 years I taught history as it happened. Watching this old MGM film, I wondered if instead I should have taught it a little differently. Not just as it happened! not just as it might have happened! but as it SHOULD have happened!

It was a fictionalized scene soon after the assassination of Lincoln. The Confederacy-hating Senator Thaddeus Stevens (played by a snarly Lionel Barrymore) comes to the White House one stormy night just in time to see President Andrew Johnson (played by a noble Van Heflin) sign a presidential proclamation pardoning every member of the defeated Confederacy. From Jefferson Davis to General Robert E Lee to anyone who carried a gun against the Union. A president who sought to carry out Lincoln’s dream of reconciliation versus a bloc of senators bent on political revenge.

In the classroom you TEACH the students the Proclamation. In the movie the students FEEL the enormous national passions at work. The raging feuds between North & South, between whites & blacks, between compassion & punishment. All captured in one brief scene, based on the facts but concocted by a studio scriptwriter. And yet, the lessons revealed inside those foolish feuds were never more real. Never more applicable to our own times. Never more dramatically instructive for a 2011 audience about to commit some of the very same political madness as in 1865.

Nothing wrong with the textbooks. Or the facts. But had I the chance again to teach the Civil War to students today — and to their parents — I’d damn likely suggest they watch a few of these overly-sentimentalized films from the Thirties and the Forties. When the Hollywood studio system was not only out to make a buck. It was also ought to make a point.

They were “teaching” our history not exactly as it happened. Not exactly as it might have happened. But in some ways, as it should have happened. As we should understand it, if we are to draw from our national past what we need to best insure our national future.

I now stand ready to debate the point with my fact-and-quote-loaded fellow educators. Reminding them perhaps of just how many times they themselves were in scenes like this one during their own lives…

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