John Gast's "American Progress"
Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past. We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible. Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us. I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).
As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals. Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860. It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction. It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole. In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.
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