What is the Past Asking of the Present?

What is the Past Asking of the Present?
"Dividing the National Map"–Harper's Weekly (1860)

"Dividing the National Map"–Harper's Weekly (1860)

I’m not a historian, but I do love history. And I often feel there are moments where the past, to quote a phrase I recently heard, is asking something of the present. I had one of those moments recently during my annual excursions touring sites from American and Canadian Underground Railroad history. It was the very last day of an 8-day trip and I was chatting with our docent Dr. David Anderson. We had just arrived in Rochester, New York after spending the day in Auburn, the final home and burial site of Harriet Tubman, one of the most well known Underground Railroad operatives when Dr. Anderson asked me if I was aware that we drove passed William Henry Seward’s home as we traveled the streets of Auburn. 

Seward served as governor of the state of New York in the 1830s and 40s.  As governor he advocated that freedom seekers, considered unlawful fugitives, were guaranteed a trial by jury. Seward publicly supported the abolition movement and privately harbored escaping freedom seekers in his home. In his famous speech in 1858 he argued that slavery and freedom are in “irrepressible conflict” with each other, a conflict that would eventually have to be resolved. As a leading Republican presidential nominee in 1860, he risked his extensive political career on his conviction that all men should be free coupled with a strong stance against nativism and the anti-immigrant movement. His party, in an attempt to win the White House, decided that a more moderate candidate would be a better choice, a former congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

Seward later served as Secretary of State in the Lincoln Cabinet, becoming one of the most important and influential of the president’s advisers and considered one of the most successful secretaries of state in U.S. history. He was a key adviser on the content and strategy for the Emancipation Proclamation and offered many revisions and drafts that the president incorporated into the final document. When the final draft was approved by the Cabinet it was “handed to Seward, who had it duly engrossed in official form, bearing the signature of the President and his own, with the great seal of the United States, and placed it on file in the Department of State” On January 1, 1863 Seward took the Emancipation Proclamation to the White House for signatures and authentication.

Dr. Anderson reminded me that my visit to Auburn the day before coincided with the celebration of Juneteenth or Freedom Day, commemorating the June 19, 1865 abolition of slavery in Texas, two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and Secretary of State Seward presented it for authentication. With the current state of unrest within the Republican Party and the national conversations its presumptive presidential nominee has sparked regarding issues of freedom, patriotism, and equality, I stood in the Rochester Park with Dr. Anderson looking at a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, leaders in both the suffrage and abolition movements, thinking about the political courage of Secretary of State Seward and wondering if the past wasn’t simply “asking” something of the present, but instead demanding something from it. Demanding something from us. Forcing us to think about those moments in our history when we had to do what was right instead of what was popular. Reminding us that throughout our history people have sacrificed their lives to fight against inequality and injustice. This is clearly a moment when the past is asking something of the present, the question is, are we listening?

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