TIME psychology

How to Avoid Getting Tricked By the Past

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

The fact that new information exists about the past in general means that we have an incomplete road map about history. There is a necessarily fallibility … if you will.

In The Black Sawn, Nassim Taleb writes:

History is useful for the thrill of knowing the past, and for the narrative (indeed), provided it remains a harmless narrative. One should learn under severe caution. History is certainly not a place to theorize or derive general knowledge, nor is it meant to help in the future, without some caution. We can get negative confirmation from history, which is invaluable, but we get plenty of illusions of knowledge along with it.

While I don’t entirely hold Taleb’s view, I think it’s worth reflecting on. As a friend put it to me recently, “when people are looking into the rear view mirror of the past, they can take facts and like a string of pearls draw lines of causal relationships that facilitate their argument while ignoring disconfirming facts that detract from their central argument or point of view.”

Taleb advises us to adopt the empirical skeptic approach of Menodotus which was to “know history without theorizing from it,” and to not draw any large theoretical or scientific claims.

We can learn from history but our desire for causality can easily lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole when new facts come to light disavowing what we held to be true. In trying to reduce the cognitive dissonance, our confirmation bias leads us to reinterpret past events in a way that fits our current beliefs.

History is not stagnant — we only know what we know currently and what we do know is subject to change. The accepted beliefs about how events played out may change in light of new information and then the new accepted beliefs may change over time as well.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

Historian Asks New Mexico to Set the Record Straight on Billy the Kid’s Death

billy the kid
AP This undated photograph shows what is thought to be famed gunslinger Billy the Kid (William Bonney) near the age of 18.

SANTA FE, N.M. — A retired Arizona State University professor is taking his pursuit of a death certificate for Billy the Kid to New Mexico’s highest court.

Historian Robert J. Stahl filed a petition Friday with the New Mexico Supreme Court to order the state’s medical examiner to create the document for the legendary outlaw, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Stahl says he hopes the court will order the Office of the Medical Investigator to consider the evidence and determine whether William H. Bonney’s death can be certified.

According to most accounts, the Kid was fatally shot by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881. But some claim Garrett shot someone else and the Kid took up ranching or escaped to Texas under an alias.

Stahl is a member of the nonprofit Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang, an organization formed to protect the “true” history of the Kid. He wants to silence rumors that Bonney escaped the sheriff’s bullet.

MORE: Famous Outlaw Billy the Kid’s True Character Remains a Mystery

An official death certificate would end the attention that has been given to impostors claiming they were the Kid, like Ollie “Brushy Brill” Roberts of Hico, Texas, said Stahl.

No one in Fort Sumner ever denied that the Kid was shot by Garrett, said Stahl, and six members of the jury appointed to investigate the case knew the Kid and saw his body.

The jury unanimously found Garrett’s shooting of the Kid to be “justifiable homicide.”

The retired professor also wants to correct the coroner’s report on Bonney’s death. Stahl has been researching frontier topics since 2003 with help from his wife and sister and believes the date on the report is wrong.

An English translation of the coroner’s report says the Kid died minutes after being shot, around midnight on July 14, 1881. But Stahl believes the Kid actually died at about 12:30 a.m. on July 15, citing an account by George Miller, who was staying in Fort Sumner that night.

Miller wrote in the Las Vegas Optic on July 18 that the shots woke him and he immediately checked his watch.

Stahl’s previous efforts to get the Office of the Medical Investigator to create a death certificate have failed. He submitted a written request that was denied earlier this year.

Stahl was told he’d need a court order for a death certificate to be issued.

The medical investigator did not return calls seeking comment on Stahl’s latest efforts.

TIME Internet

Today’s Google Doodle Celebrates Journalist Ida B. Wells’ Birthday


She was a journalist, newspaper editor and civil rights activist

Today is Ida B. Wells’ 153rd birthday, and the Google Doodle is celebrating her accordingly with a sketch of the famous journalist and activist sitting at her desk working at a typewriter.

Wells was a journalist and newspaper editor at the turn of the 20th century who documented civil rights abuses and worked toward women’s suffrage. She was editor of two papers in Memphis by the time she was 25, and later moved to Chicago where she ran the Chicago Conservator.

Calling her “fearless and uncompromising,” Google explained its choice to honor her in the Doodle: “We salute Ida B. Wells with a Doodle that commemorates her journalistic mettle and her unequivocal commitment to the advancement of civil liberties.”

TIME society

When Rioting Is the Answer

The Boston Boys throwing tea from English ships into Boston harbor in historic tax protest (a.k.a. the Boston Tea Party).
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images The Boston Boys throwing tea from English ships into Boston harbor in historic tax protest (a.k.a. the Boston Tea Party).

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

From the Boston Tea Party to Ferguson, Americans have employed violence to improve their lot. But does it work?

America was founded on riots. From as far back as the days of tar-and-feathering British tax collectors, citizens have resisted power by fighting back, using fists when their voices weren’t heard.

This violent tradition lives on in the country, boiling up at times in our cities. In places like Los Angeles in 1992, and Ferguson and Baltimore in the past year, urban tensions—often the result of racial and economic inequalities—have exploded into a mess of arson, looting, and police brutality.

What sort of progress is made in these periods of unrest? Do they actually make conditions better? In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA event “Can Urban Riots Cause Change?” we asked people who study, write about, and are deeply engaged with sometimes-violent protests: Have urban riots ever improved the lives of a city’s residents? If so, when and how? If not, why not and what happened?

Sherry Hamby — They work sometimes, but aren’t great solutions

From the Boston Tea Party to the Los Angeles riots to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, violent resistance has sometimes led to positive social change. Most often, rioting has drawn attention to oppressive authoritarian rule (sometimes by kings, sometimes by police). In some cases, it has also spurred investigations into law enforcement or other government systems. Occasionally, it has even forced corrupt or incompetent leaders to surrender or resign.

But rioting—or other violent resistance—does not always make people’s lives better. The 2005 French riots surrounding Paris led to deaths, injuries, car burnings, and arrests. The aftermath was a crackdown on immigration and blaming of musicians instead of a frank assessment of ethnic and religious tensions.

Nonviolent resistance is a relatively new path to social justice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were some of the first to convince large groups of people to protest without physical fighting. Gandhi accomplished something that the early Americans did not; he got rid of British colonial rule through peace, not war.

Riots are not great solutions, but riots are usually caused by real injustices. Thousands of people do not take to the streets for no good reason. That was true during the American Revolution, and it is true today. Riots are often the desperate response of people who feel they have no other recourse. We can reduce rioting by providing better access to justice for everyone.

Sherry Hamby is editor of the journal Psychology of Violence and director of the Appalachian Center for Resilience Research. Her most recent books are Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know and The Web of Violence.

Lawrence Grandpre — Their value depends upon whom you ask

If one had asked the white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 whether urban riots improve the lives of a city’s residents, they likely would have responded with a resounding “yes.” Fresh off burning down the town’s thriving black business district (the so-called “Black Wall Street”) in retaliation for alleged black criminality, residents would have described the event as necessary for the safety and stability of their communities. As might have the rioters in 1860s New York who attacked more than 200 black men in anger over being drafted to fight for the Union, or the pro-Confederacy rioters in 1860s Baltimore.

But the recent black urban uprisings aren’t seen in the same way. Even though they show a historical continuity between America’s past and present, the constant reality of drug raids, pat downs, and “jump outs” is often not taken seriously as a justification of violence, because these violations of bodies usually aren’t violations of law.

It’s presumptuous to assume those who have not experienced 400 years of anti-black violence have a right to moralize on the black community’s expressions of grief and rage. As such, to the extent to which urban rebellions help expand the range of askable questions and speakable thoughts on race in America, these actions have value.

To debate whether riots help blacks win the proverbial “game” of politics ignores that the existence of such conditions should be proof enough that the game itself is not just rigged, but broken.

Lawrence Grandpre is the director of research of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based social justice think tank. He is co-author of The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots.

John Hope Bryant — They signal the need for change

Can urban riots cause change? It’s a bit of a paradox. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1968, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Sometimes it takes a riot to bring attention to needed change. Unfortunately, the new action often comes as a reaction to old pain.

As a witness to the riots sparked by the Rodney King beating some 23 years ago, I chose not to be driven by blind rage, but by a determination to change the very chemistry of this volatile brew of anger, recrimination, and recoil. The difference to my approach is that I was looking for the problem that lay underneath the problem. I wanted to unpack power and money and prosperity and repack it with poor people in mind, because it dawned on me that middle-class neighborhoods no matter their racial makeup didn’t riot; only poor ones did.

In the wake of the Rodney King riots, I founded Operation HOPE, a plan to empower the financially ill-equipped and struggling in America to participate in the only system we have: capitalism. The path I chose was based on the power of free enterprise to change lives—no different from what President Abraham Lincoln did in 1865 after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, when he called forth the Freedman’s Bureau, which created the Freedman’s Bank, chartered to teach newly freed slaves about money.

I subscribe to the simple premise that rainbows only come after storms, and I see a shining light of opportunity emerging from the dark night of tragedy and tears. Let us resolve to erase the impediments to equal economic opportunity, and strife will subside, tempers will cool, and a clearer morning of hope will break through the clouds of animosity and rage.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. He is a member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Youth for President Barack Obama.

Noche Diaz — Rioters do what’s necessary

After 1967’s “Long Hot Summer” with Detroit’s 12th Street riots, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders found that (surprise!) blacks are systematically mistreated. After 100-plus rebellions following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, additions to the Civil Rights Act passed.

Was it right for Baltimore youth to rise up? Or Ferguson youth before that? Will it be right the next time people are sick of police killing them off?

Yes, yes, yes!

Eric Holder has said, “peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations… have led to the change that has been most long lasting and the most pervasive.”

Get real. Tell that to police committing illegitimate violence on the regular—murder and brutality that destroys lives, futures, and whole people. Holder, and the system he represents, care more about CVS and broken cop cars. They greenlight police terror. A black president, a black attorney general, and still no federal prosecutions of cops killing unarmed black people!

Baltimore rises, suddenly six cops are charged. A light was shined on generations living under police crosshairs. Everyone is now forced to relate to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” This is improvement.

A Baltimore teenager said to me, “I know Freddie [Gray]’s family didn’t want rioting… and people don’t want us destroying our community… but we don’t want police killing us. If they won’t stop, we do what we have to.”

Society was shaken. Lines got drawn. Where this goes is on us.

Noche Diaz is freedom fighter who splits his time between Baltimore and New York City. He is currently facing jail time for protesting killings by police.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

The Christian Roots of Modern Environmentalism

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.
Time Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Presbyterianism inspired Teddy Roosevelt's conservationist zeal

Like only a handful of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt lives in our memory and popular culture. He is the bespectacled face gazing from Mount Rushmore, the namesake for the teddy bear, and the advice-giving Rough Rider, played by Robin Williams in the movie Night at the Museum. We remember him, too, as the trust buster who broke up monopolies, the avid outdoorsman and conservationist who preserved parks, forests, and wildlife, and the politician who crusaded for a “fair deal,” a just and equitable society that works for everyone.

Yet Roosevelt’s colorful life and accomplishments distract us from an essential part of him: the profoundly moralistic worldview that fired his progressive zeal. Some recent biographers go so far as to overlook this element of his character completely, but Roosevelt’s friends and colleagues recognized in him, in the words of one friend, “the greatest preacher of righteousness in modern times. Deeply religious beneath the surface, he made right living seem the natural thing, and there was no man beyond the reach of his preaching and example.” As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mused, “The blood of some ancestral Scotch Covenanter or of some Dutch Reformed preacher facing the tyranny of Philip of Spain was in his veins, and with his large opportunities and his vast audiences he was always ready to appeal for justice and righteousness.”

Lodge astutely singled out the Calvinist traditions in Roosevelt’s ancestry: the Dutch Reformed Church on his father’s side and the Scottish Presbyterian Church (whose Covenanters fought the tyranny of England’s Charles I) on his mother’s, not to mention his own upbringing in New York’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church. How significant Roosevelt’s religious origins were really struck home to me when I realized how many national leaders of the Progressive Era shared them. I had been looking at the denominational origins of major American environmentalists and already knew how dominant people raised Presbyterian, often with ministers in the family, were during its rise. Still, when I turned to progressivism I was unprepared for the extent to which Presbyterians ran the show. Non-Presbyterian presidents held office a mere eight-and-a-half years between 1885 and 1921. Of those born in the church, —Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—two, Cleveland and Wilson, were sons of ministers. Only two Presidents before Cleveland were raised Presbyterian, and none after Wilson has been.

I wondered what all this Presbyterianism could mean for progressivism, a movement that included people of all faiths, and what this religious strain in politics meant for crusades that these days might be typically colored strictly “red” or “blue.”

Progressives grew up in an era in which big money corrupted politics, large corporations dominated the economy, and environmental crises threatened the natural world – forces that might rouse the ire of those on the “blue” side of the spectrum today. But the situation was a call to arms for those who were steeped in the Calvinist demand for a righteous society, a kind of moralizing that might be more considered on the “red” side of the current spectrum.

At this time in history, though, it was the progressives who were the evangelicals out to spread righteousness in the nation. Censorious Presbyterians attacked greed and avarice with a special vengeance, as the sins that prompted Eve to reach for the forbidden fruit and exile us all from the Garden.

I realized how easily Presbyterian evangelical righteousness translated from church pulpits to political podiums. This church imbued Roosevelt and his fellow progressive leaders with the moral courage to take on the concentrated wealth that corrupted American democracy and dominated the economy. When in 1901 Roosevelt found himself with “such a bully pulpit,” in his famous phrase, no wonder that he impressed people as a preacher of righteousness.

This same moral courage was necessary to drive American environmentalism. Calvinist churches fostered a particularly strong interest in nature and natural history; John Calvin himself regarded nature as a place where God drew nearest and communicated himself and he spoke of the natural world as the theater of his glory. To many Calvinists, nature study had an aura of sanctity as a moral occupation for men, women, and children alike. God, they said, gave natural resources to humans to use for the common good, but not sinfully to waste or turn to greedy or selfish purposes.

Under Harrison, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson, national government made dramatic strides in conservation. They expanded National Parks from one to two dozen, organized the Park Service, created millions of acres of National Forests, established the Forest Service, and named and promulgated conservation. They had essential assistance from their Secretaries of Interior (parks) and Agriculture (forests), who during the heyday of conservation between 1889 and 1946 were Presbyterians in three years out of four. For Wilson, a Southerner little interested in conservation, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane was prime instigator of major parks expansion and organization.

Roosevelt was the unexcelled exemplar of this passion for nature and moralism about its use. As a boy, he created a zoo in his home and learned taxidermy to preserve specimens. At Harvard, he originally intended to study natural history. After he chose a career in politics, he was an unusually knowledgeable ornithologist and published books on natural history, hunting, and his wilderness adventures. Aptly, as vice president, Roosevelt was climbing Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks when he learned William McKinley had died and he was now president.

Roosevelt believed government must protect nature and natural resources against the rapacious forces of self-interested avarice. “Conservation is a great moral issue,” he asserted. “I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.” As president, he added five National Parks, created the first 18 National Monuments, quadrupled the acreage of National Forests, established the first 51 bird refuges and four game refuges, oversaw the first irrigation projects and several major dams, and made the new term “conservation” the cornerstone of his political agenda.

After he died in 1919, Roosevelt inspired many to carry on with his work. One was the fervent progressive Harold Ickes, who said of the moment he learned of Roosevelt’s death, “something went out of my life that has never been replaced.” Unsurprisingly, Ickes was a Presbyterian who once intended to go into the ministry. One friend even called him “furiously righteous.” Among his many acts as Secretary of Interior in the administration of Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, he desegregated the National Parks and added the first four parks intended to remain as undeveloped wilderness: Everglades, Olympic, Kings Canyon, and Isle Royale. His career was a fitting capstone to the great era of progressive Presbyterianism.

Mark Stoll is an associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He is the author most recently of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

What It Was Like Growing Up at Gettysburg

My family's antique shop by the historic battlefield has helped customers—and me—connect to our nation's history

“Do you have the kind of bullet that killed Lincoln?” asked a tourist buying a Derringer pistol, wearing a God Bless America t-shirt. I looked up from the counter a bit confused. I’d come in late after watching Steven Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 149th Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address. I was cold and my coffee had only begun to wake me up.

“It should be the size of any pistol bullet,” I said. “I’ll look up the caliber on my phone and see if we can find one that matches.” It was a strange request, but it didn’t faze me the way it would have years earlier. I had been working in my family’s store, The Horse Soldier, for a little over six full months after graduating college in that year of 2012. I had promised my grandmother, who still worked at our front counter every day possible until retiring this year, that I would stay at our relic and antique store through the summer of 2013. We were preparing for the deluge of tourists that would be drawn by the 150th commemoration of America’s bloodiest battle; this was no time to be squeamish.

I picked up a U.S. Minié ball from hundreds of bullets stashed in front of our counter and wondered whether my grandfather knew what he was signing us up for when he found his first one.

My family’s business started as my grandfather’s hobby. Chester “Chet” Small, a U.S. Marine, came home to Gettysburg after he and his brothers had served in World War II. While trying to move on from the war he fought in overseas, he kept finding relics and bullets from another war in his backyard, as he and his brothers had in their childhood, over the road from Pickett’s Charge. The harvest of such deadly memorabilia was tragically bountiful.

My dad, Maurice, is named after one of his uncles, the one killed in action in France and buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Most shop customers call him Sam. My aunts tell me my uncle Wes couldn’t pronounce his name when they were little so that’s what everyone calls him. My grandfather started trading the bullets and relics he had found with his old military friends. Sometimes he’d sell dad and Wes bullets for a penny so they could sell them for a nickel to earn money for ice cream at the stand past Devil’s Den.

At some point, my grandmother Patricia put her foot down, insisting that these strange bearded men stop bringing big rifles into her living room. So Sam, Wes, and Chet built a shed out near the side of the Emmitsburg Road in 1972 and hung up a sign that read “Civil War Relics.”

My dad and his brother went off to college and returned home in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with other jobs, they began to build the business and moved the operation into town. The park – like many famous Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg is part of the National Park Service – purchased my grandparents’ battlefield property and tore down their wooden house to restore the land to its state in 1863. Too bad they tore down the house: information later revealed that the house was a witness to the battle after all. It had just moved from its original foundation across the road, transported by horses pulling logs.

Piecing together a network of collectors, relic hunters, and researchers, my family would encounter an endless stream of Americana’s holy grails. By attending trade shows with vendors, growing up with families that ran Gettysburg’s museums, and distributing a catalog worldwide twice a year for nearly 20 years, my family built a reputation for the honest art of appraising Civil War authenticity. We’ve handled some impressive artifacts over the years; Ulysses Grant’s coat, a set of the Lincoln White House chinaware, signal flags from Little Round Top, a pike from John Brown’s raid, fabric from Jefferson Davis’s chair, Frederick Douglass’s signature.

Most recently, we handled the belongings of General John Fulton Reynolds. Reynolds was shot on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg in McPherson’s Woods and died in the building next door to our store’s current location. His descendants, the Scotts, had passed down the items generation to generation. The family relinquished some of the artifacts—the kepi, belt, sword, corps badge he wore on July 1, 1863–to the National Park Service. A photo of Reynolds ended up in the National Portrait Gallery, and some daguerreotypes and presidential commissions promoting him remain in our store; a commission signed by Lincoln will go for $35,000 to the right buyer someday.

To most Horse Soldier customers, that overpriced stuff is for eggheads. Why pay five figures for a piece of paper when you can buy an 1861 Springfield musket, original Colt pistols, cartridge boxes, an Ames Cavalry sabre, daguerreotypes, a Sharps carbine, artillery shells, a tourniquet, bayonets, a canteen for a lot less? Most collectors aren’t about the big names; they’re about connecting with the historical moment. Civil War fandom is very democratic that way.

Customer nostalgia – if you can be nostalgic for a past you didn’t experience first-hand – is triggered by all sorts of associations. Many come searching for a relative’s possessions or just an emblematic piece of state pride. A lot of our customers are veterans, communing with the artifacts (and sacrifices) of their predecessors.

The word nostalgia is a compound marrying the Greek words nostos (“homecoming”) and algos meaning “pain, ache.” Along with the other quack solutions you read about in Civil War medical texts, doctors believed that the homesickness variety of nostalgia could be cured by exercise and battle or would issue discharges and furloughs to treat more severe cases at home. Musicians, meanwhile, indulged the sentiment, pumping out songs about longing for home – from the hurrahs of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to the forlorn ballad of “Lorena.”

The Civil War is a big draw for the nostalgic set longing for a time of purpose and moral clarity. And battle re-enactments offer adults a rare, if not last, chance to dress up and pretend. The combination of solemn respect and child-like play seem as contradictory as the Blue and the Grey.

The Horse Soldier provided the backdrop to my childhood. It’s where I best remember my grandparents. And everyone remembers the tree that grew right inside the front of the shop where Grandma used to feed acorns to squirrels. Around the corner you would find my grandfather, whom I knew only as Pop-Pop, rooted firmly on a green vinyl Steelcase chair next to the saloon doors and a row of rifles. Eventually, the tree was torn down, replaced with a panoply of cannons and Gatling-guns aimed at anyone who dared to enter.

My grandfather passed away five years ago. As his health declined, some of my relatives, high school friends, numerous Horse Soldier employees, and I boxed up every last item to move down the street to our new location. It was a strange exercise, tearing down something that seemed so permanent, accounting for every piece before I went back to my sophomore year of college.

That winter, I was deeply moved by an old poem entitled “My Childhood Home I See Again,” about the bittersweet mixture of remembrance and loss felt in returning home. Its author, Abraham Lincoln, submitted the poem to Illinois Whig in 1847:

O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise. . .

Lincoln’s poem goes on to describe the feeling of returning home “after 20 years have passed away,” and his sentiments rang true with me only after a couple of years removed from Gettysburg. We often take the places that nurture us into the world for granted. Having grown up surrounded by battlefields, I used to dismiss the reverence people displayed for this American shrine.

After my grandfather’s passing, I began to read Civil War history to coincide with the epochal 150th anniversaries being commemorated. I read Carl Sandburg’s tomes about a home-spun, rail-splitting dark-horse Republican candidate from the frontier that won the presidency that fall, assembled a “team of rivals” halfway during my junior year winter break, and was sworn in just a couple days before my 21st birthday in March. As I geared up for finals in April, South Carolina fired shots at Fort Sumter.

As I returned to Gettysburg in 2012, I knew the buildup to the battle would be long, so I made a daily habit to check the period newspapers—The New York Herald, The New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated— in “real-time.” I also went on a serious history-reading bender, taking on a challenge from Horse Soldier employee, John Peterson, who offered a Bob Dylan poster as bait. Before I read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, “Lincoln freed the slaves” was a platitude. Before I read Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg, the battlefield was a nice place for a picnic, not a three-day ordeal through the crucible of hell that took place during one July’s opening days.

After you actually learn the true history, rather than the ghost story, you can’t escape the grasp of shared humanity. I gained a greater appreciation of what it means to preserve history. Touring where I had spent my childhood, a Horse Soldier regular, Jerry Bennett, breathed life into the past, pointing out buildings and recounting diary stories from housewives describing my hometown under siege.

So much has changed since Lincoln transformed the war from an inexplicable horror into a global struggle for honor in his dedication of these fields. While many Americans have some personal connection to the Civil War, I’m struck by how many people from outside the country are drawn to where Lincoln declared our country would have a “new birth of freedom.” Lincoln was a wise man ahead of his time, but I am not sure he could have imagined little kids far into the future dressed like him with stovepipe hats and beards.

As for me, I am still pitching in at the store then and now, while pursuing a career in DC. But I am pretty sure I will be behind the counter in July of 2063, helping to commemorate the big bicentennial.

Andrew Small is a journalist living in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME History

The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers

Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

One in four Union fighters was foreign-born

In the summer of 1861, an American diplomat in Turin, Italy, looked out the window of the U.S. legation to see hundreds of young men forming a sprawling line. Some wore red shirts, emblematic of the Garibaldini who, during their campaign in southern Italy, were known for pointing one finger in the air and shouting l’Italia Unità! (Italy United!). Now they wanted to volunteer to take up arms for l’America Unità!

Meanwhile, immigrants already in the United States responded to the call to arms in extraordinary numbers. In 1860, about 13% of the U.S. population was born overseas—roughly what it is today. One in every four members of the Union armed forces was an immigrant, some 543,000 of the more than 2 million Union soldiers by recent estimates. Another 18% had at least one foreign-born parent. Together, immigrants and the sons of immigrants made up about 43% of the U.S. armed forces.

America’s foreign legions gave the North an incalculable advantage. It could never have won without them. And yet the role of immigrant soldiers has been ignored in the narrative of a brothers’ war fought on American soil, by American soldiers, over issues that were uniquely American in origin.

In the 1860s, Confederate diplomats and supporters abroad were eager to inform Europeans that the North was actively recruiting their sons to serve as cannon fodder. In one pamphlet, Confederate envoy Edwin De Leon informed French readers that the Puritan North had built its army “in large part of foreign mercenaries” made up of “the refuse of the old world.”

Embarrassed Northerners claimed the Confederacy exaggerated how many foreign recruits made up the U.S. armed forces—pointing to immigrant bounty jumpers who enlisted to collect the money given to new recruits, deserted, and then re-enlisted. The underlying premise was that foreigners were not inspired by patriotic principle and, except for money, had no motive to fight and die for a nation not their own.

It was not true. Immigrants tended to be young and male, but they enlisted above their quota. Many immigrants left jobs to fight for the Union, enlisting before the draft—and the bounties—were even introduced. They volunteered, fought, and sacrificed far beyond what might be expected of strangers in a strange land.

Historians have done an excellent job of retrieving the voices of native-born, English-speaking soldiers. But the voices of the foreign legions remain silent—thanks to the paucity of records in the archives, the language barriers posed to historians, and, perhaps, a lingering bias that keeps foreigners out of “our” civil war.

Why did they fight? What were they fighting for? Recruitment posters in the New York Historical Society provide hints at the answers. One poster reads: Patrioti Italiani! Honvedek! Amis de la liberté! Deutsche Freiheits Kaempfer! (Italian patriots! Hungarians! Friends of liberty! German freedom fighters!) Then, in English, it urges “250 able-bodied men . . . Patriots of all nations” to fight for their “adopted country.”

One immigrant mother gave testimony in 1863 to an antislavery convention as to why her 17-year-old son was fighting for the Union. “I am from Germany where my brothers all fought against the Government and tried to make us free, but were unsuccessful,” she said. “We foreigners know the preciousness of that great, noble gift a great deal better than you, because you never were in slavery, but we are born in it.”

Following the failed Revolution of 1848, thousands of young Germans fled to America. They took up arms in what they saw as yet another battle in the revolutionary struggle against the forces of aristocracy and slavery. “It isn’t a war where two powers fight to win a piece of land,” one German enlistee wrote to his family. “Instead it’s about freedom or slavery, and you can well imagine, dear mother, I support the cause of freedom with all my might.”

In another letter written to his family in Europe, a German soldier gave a pithy explanation of the war: “I don’t have the space or the time to explain all about the cause, only this much: the states that are rebelling are slave states, and they want slavery to be expanded, but the northern states are against this, and so it is civil war!”

So it was civil war, but for many foreign-born soldiers and citizens, this was much more than America’s war. It was an epic contest for the future of free labor against slavery, for equal opportunity against privilege and aristocracy, for freedom of thought and expression against oppressive government, and for democratic self-government against dynastic rule. Foreigners joined the war to wage the same battles that had been lost in the Old World. Theirs was the cause not only of America, but of all nations.

Don H. Doyle is the author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. He is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Facebook. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Alexander Hamilton Was Robbed

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Why I oppose redesigning the $10 bill

Suppose you were Treasury secretary at a moment of worrisome global financial instability. Here is near-bankrupt Greece, truculently threatening, unless Germany pays the pensions of its retirees and the salaries of its public servants, to undermine Europe’s rather fanciful currency, managed by a central bank operating within no single government’s fiscal policy. Meanwhile, in the world’s two largest national economies, China is trying to deflate safely a giant real-estate bubble of ghost cities financed by zombie banks, while the U.S. Federal Reserve presides over the seventh year of capitalism with an almost zero return on capital. Would you spend any time, as Treasury secretary Jack Lew is doing, on redesigning the $10 bill by removing the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the genius architect of the nation’s financial system, as its main image and replacing it with the portrait of a woman, based on the politically correct whim that America should mark the 2020 centennial of women’s suffrage in this way?

What woman? It seems that almost any one will do, from civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller, the Wall Street Journal reports. “It’s very important to be sending the signal of how important it is to recognize the role that women have played in our national life and in our national history for a very long time, really from the beginning,” said Lew, in prose that shows that language can become as inflated and devalued as currency.

This move would be an error of almost comic silliness. What makes money sound is people’s belief in the solidity of its value. It isn’t that it is made of gold, since history teaches that governments have debased even the hardest currency, clipping tiny bits off gold coins or mixing base metal with bullion in new batches stamped at the mint. The same is true of gold-backed banknotes, which governments have devalued again and again. After all, beyond its commodity value for filling teeth or making jewelry, gold has no value beyond the magical quality superstition assigns to it—or once assigned to it.

As world-historical Founding Father Hamilton rightly postulated, a banknote or a coin is just a promise to pay, whose value ultimately rests on people’s trust that that promise will be fulfilled. And it can be fulfilled, not because America’s currency represents some set quantity of specie but rather because it mobilizes “the productions of the country,” wrote Hamilton, fueling the nation’s “unequalled spirit of enterprise, which . . . is in itself an inexhaustible mine of national wealth,” more than any of the gold mines of Spanish America or the not-yet-discovered gold fields of California. The wealth of the nation, at its most fundamental level, consists of the energy and imagination of its citizens in making use of and developing the natural and human resources at hand, often in ways never dreamt of before, and in the constant commercial exchange of the productions of their industry and inventiveness. The medium of exchange—the currency—that allows all this to happen seamlessly therefore does possess something like the magical quality of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The belief that it represents wealth frees and incentivizes people to create wealth.

Recognizing the role of belief—of faith—in making a currency work, Hamilton noted that “in nothing are appearances of greater moment, than in whatever regards credit. Opinion is the soul of it”—that is to say, the spirit that breathes life into it—“and that is affected by appearances as well as realities.” It’s for that reason that our first Treasury secretary backed his paper currency with a tiny fraction of gold, when gold still carried its magical aura. It would make the paper seem sound, so that people wouldn’t try to cash their paper dollars in for it all at once but instead would use them to finance productive activity. Like Dumbo’s feather, the small national stock of gold was a totem that gave people the courage and incentive to work the magic that was in themselves, which is what wealth creation really is. It’s for that reason, too, that Hamilton ensured that the shareholders of the central bank that would manage the currency would be largely private investors, with a minority government stake, because governments can’t resist the temptation to pay off national debt by inflating the currency, thus debasing it as a trustworthy medium of exchange. Private owners, by contrast, care about nothing more than the stability of their bank.

So the completely fiat U.S. currency that came into being when President Richard Nixon ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold in 1971 is scarcely more factitious than Hamilton’s 1790s dollars, but it is theoretically no less solid and effective—as long as the central bank manages it, as Hamilton did, to ensure its solidity. That’s why the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act proved so dangerous to the national credit, for it charged the U.S. central bank—the Federal Reserve—with the impossible, contradictory task of balancing the economic need for a sound currency with the political desire for full employment. And it’s no wonder that the Fed is coming under criticism for its failures to do an impossible job flawlessly, or that critics are proposing such nostrums as a return to the gold standard.

I would suggest the simpler Hamiltonian course of repealing Humphrey-Hawkins, giving the Fed responsibility and regulatory powers only to ensure a sound currency, and insulating it as much as possible from meddling by government, now more fiscally profligate than usual. But with so much worry in the air about the soundness of our currency, I would urge Secretary Lew to remember Hamilton’s words about appearances. Hamilton is on the $10 bill not because he is a white man (though a West Indian immigrant) but because he helped found the world’s oldest and most successful democracy and created a remarkably resilient financial system—if we can keep it. While Misses Parks and Mankiller are no doubt estimable and important characters, it is at least arguable whether they are in a league with Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sarah Jay, or Dolley Madison—and, as a mere matter of historical fact, none of those extraordinarily talented women founded our nation or framed the constitutional system that, however battered, has survived for more than two and a quarter centuries. So we honor Hamilton on our banknote for the inestimable value and worth of his contribution to our own freedom and prosperity.

The change Secretary Lew proposes is, he says, “symbolic,” but “symbols are important.” Indeed they are. So he would do well not to meddle with symbols of value and worth—the nation’s currency—in a way that suggests that value and worth can change with the shifting currents of politically correct fashion.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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7 Reasons Why The Battle of Waterloo is Still Important

Reenactors Prepare To Commemorate The 200th Anniversary Of The Battle Of Waterloo
Dan Kitwood—Getty Images Historical re-enactors on horseback take part in a practice drill in the Allied Bivouac camp in Waterloo, Belgium on June 18, 2015.

The United Nations, the rise of superpowers and the upsurge in nationalism owes much to the decisive battle

It might be 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, but those nine hours of bloodshed on a field near the Belgian town of Waterloo changed the course of history.

It all began on June 18, 1815, when allied forces, consisting of British, Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers, thwarted the attempts of European domination by the French general and emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. The battle marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which took the lives of 5 million people.

The anniversary is being celebrated in Europe by heads of states and the ancestors of some of the protagonists but the repercussions of the battle are still being felt today.

Waterloo laid the groundwork for Nato and the United Nations

Only 36% of Wellington’s army were actually British, the rest comprised of Dutch and Belgian nationals and soldiers from various German duchies. Then there was the 50,000 strong Prussian army (Prussia later became a part of Germany), which worked in alliance with Wellington’s forces to defeat the French, which explains why U.K.’s former defence chief Lord Bramall called Waterloo “the first Nato operation.”

In Lord Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “united nations” was mentioned in the Waterloo Passage. This was picked up by Winston Churchill when discussing the allied war aims after Pearl Harbor and the term was eventually used to name the famous global organisation.

It paved the way for the U.K. to become a global power

The Vienna Treaty that followed Waterloo didn’t give the U.K. land in Europe, but it did hand over territorial possessions, such as modern day South Africa, Trinidad and Sri Lanka. These become the strategic naval bases the U.K. subsequently used to control its vast colonial empire. France had been the world’s superpower for centuries, with it out of the way, there was no one to compete with Britain until the U.S. emerged as a power in the 20th century.

And laid the foundations for the eventual emergence of the U.S. as the world’s superpower

With war disrupting European industry, demand for American products increased massively during the Napoleonic Wars, with its neutrality allowing it to sell to both sides. Although trade was occasionally disrupted by British and French blockades and navies,(and the 1812 Anglo-American War) in the end need for American grain and cotton trumped other considerations.

The battle heralded an age of German nationalism, eventually leading to World War II

The Prussians’ contribution to the defeat of the French Army at Waterloo entered the mythology of the Prussian state, creating a sense of nationalism which then played a key part in the formation of the new German Empire after 1870. Ultimately, this led to the hyper-nationalism which enabled the rise of the Nazi party and the Third Reich.

It has implications for the future of the European Union

Waterloo was not just a military battle. It was also a battle between the concepts of the nation state and the supranational state. The U.K. and its allies were fighting Napoleon’s desire to impose a single state in Europe, which he would control. Napoleon’s defeat meant the victory of the nation state over other concepts such as Napoleon’s French Revolutionary Empire and Holy Roman Empire before it. Two hundred years later, the idea of a pan-European state has become more fashionable but is resisted by many.

The French are, understandably, still a little prickly about that day

Earlier this year, the French tried to block the Belgians from minting a Battle of Waterloo euro coin. The French government has also shown little interest in the week’s anniversary events. While the U.K. and the Netherlands sent members of their royal family to the commemoration ceremony on Wednesday, the only French representative was their ambassador to Belgium.

It inspired a series of famous quotes

“His presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men.” Wellington describing Napoleon.

“It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” Wellington

“Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.” Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables

“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” A quote that is commonly misattributed to Lord Wellington, but was in fact said by George Orwell

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