The national mood used to be ‘let bygones be bygones.’ Will that sentiment work now?

April 7, 2022 3:10 am

The Custis-Lee Mansion, now called Arlington House and the Robert E. Lee Memorial, in a photo taken in 1985. The grave of John F. Kennedy sits in the foreground. (Photo provided by Denis Smith.)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Most of us are certainly familiar with that timeless advice from George Santayana. His words and the wisdom behind them have stood for more than a century. But what if an important part of the past is obscure, perhaps hidden enough to affect our understanding of the present and condemn us to latter-day mistakes?

Something that happened on January 7 might provide an answer for us. And no, that’s not a typo.

On January 7, 1937, a Works Progress Administration employee found a wooden box in the basement of the Richmond, Virginia, post office that contained a treasure trove of documents, including the June 1865 indictments of Robert E. Lee and thirty-two other rebels by a grand jury for their participation in an insurrection otherwise known as the American Civil War.

Part of the historical record found in that wooden box contains this language describing the deeds of Lee and his fellow insurrectionists:

“…armed and arrayed in a warlike manner, did maliciously and traitorously  assemble and gather themselves together, did ordain and carry on war against the said United States of America, against the Constitution, government, peace and dignity…”

For 72 years, the actions of the grand jury in charging Lee with being a leader in that 19th century insurrection were partly obscured from the narrative about how the secessionists who waged war against the United States were punished for their actions. But after much national debate, President Andrew Johnson issued a Christmas Pardon in 1868 “granting full pardon and amnesty to all persons engaged in the late rebellion.”

In Richmond, it must have been about that time when those documents were placed in that wooden box, consigned to the basement, not to see the light of day for the better part of a century.

Johnson’s action meant that Lee’s 1865 indictment was moot, and the papers that represented the actions of the grand jury weren’t accessible to assist in the formation of our collective understanding of the past.

This snippet of our past is instructive for how Americans must understand the type of punishment necessary for not only the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, but also the leader who directed them there.

The identification of that leader became clearer a few days ago when a federal judge ruled in a civil case that “Trump “more likely than not” committed criminal obstruction of an official proceeding.”

The judge’s conclusion only intensified the feeling that the former president must inevitably face justice for his role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection in the first place by his words and actions leading up to the frenzy unleashed by his true believers.

As the work of the House Select Committee continues to reveal the full scope of the conspiracy to invalidate the results of the 2020 election, it’s becoming imperative that the former president should face indictment for his role in igniting additional trauma on a nation that endured four years of his bombastic and erratic presidency.

Yet there is a difference between who should and who will face indictment, and the Robert E. Lee example might be instructive here.

In a 2018 article, one authority on the aftermath of the Civil War and Lee’s avoidance of accountability for his role in our nation’s most wrenching trauma offered an explanation that may not sit well with those who are expecting the former president to be fitted for a designer prison jump suit.

“In the end, the very understandable desire for reconciliation among both northerners and southerners after the war was deemed more important than the obligation to punish those who tried to destroy the Republic.”

This narrative about the past serves to alert you about a wrenching debate which has already started and will only intensify in the weeks and months ahead.

A few weeks ago, my antenna picked up the first signal of the 21st century version of the let bygones be bygones sentiment. The signal came in a somewhat pointed conversation with a friend about the role of Donald Trump in poisoning so many aspects of American life. At the end of the discussion he said this to me:

“OK, he is an a–hole, but going after him and imprisoning him will tear this country apart.”

If hearing this comment from a friend was disarming, something which was written a week later by an individual I last encountered a few years ago at the Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati was equally troubling. It is further evidence of the latest iteration of the let bygones be bygones syndrome growing in our nation among those who are otherwise well informed and concerned about the impact of a Trump indictment and potential conviction.

The prairie philosopher Garrison Keillor penned these words as part of an essay entitled Sitting Scared in Church, Thinking About Evil:

“I wish Joe Biden will show mercy to individuals who got caught up in the January 6 riot … They went at the behest of their president to stop the electoral count and they failed at that and I think most should be forgiven. Our nation is on the verge of a precipice. Mr. Trump should be pardoned as well. The man acted on pure impulse for four years, never a plan, and his intent can never be proved beyond a doubt. He did what made him feel good. Let him go. We need to save our country.”

Let’s repeat that thought from Garrison Keillor and his let bygones be bygones plea with an added thought. It goes like this:

We indeed need to save our country from a pathological liar, conspirator, arsonist, seditionist, distortionist, insurrectionist, gaslighter, con artist, and any other descriptor that might more fully describe Donald Trump, a man without an ethical dimension or any trace of an inner moral core.

By contrast, there are at least two individuals from two different eras who have quite a different view on the subject of let bygones be bygones.

The first is from Judge David Carter of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California:

“If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution. If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself.” Judge Carter wrote in his decision in Eastman v Thompson, the case where one of the central figures of the insurrection was withholding email evidence from the House Select Committee.

As clear and compelling as Judge Carter’s words are, perhaps the last word on the subject of let bygones be bygones goes to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. On the occasion of Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), May 30, 1871, with the insurrection still fresh in everyone’s memory, the former slave spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, the very location of the Custis-Lee Mansion and Robert E. Lee’s estate. Douglass reminded his audience that there was danger in forgetting history:

“I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?”
In his close, Douglass, who was standing on the very ground once owned by the insurrectionist Robert E. Lee, added this pointed warning:

“We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic.”

In remembrance of the past, and in light of what appears to be a growing sentiment expressed by my friend as well as the Garrison Keillors of this nation, we must never forget what happened on January 6, much like what had been forgotten for a time but unearthed on a January 7 long ago.

No, Keillor isn’t right in his views. But William Faulkner was. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he wrote.

If our Republic is to live and flourish, we must provide accountability for the leader of the January 6 insurrection. Frederick Douglass – indeed everyone who truly believes in justice and that no one is above the law – would expect no less.

When the subject is accountability and justice, we should never fail to act based upon fear. Otherwise, we should fear for the future of the very Republic which has endured in spite of insurrection.



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Denis Smith
Denis Smith

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.