In a review of a new biography that is sharply critical of Winston Churchill, journalist Peter Baker commented that “We are living in an era when history is being re-examined . . .” In the context of reappraisals of Churchill, an authentic giant of history, Baker was referring to statues and monuments in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, where the past has lately been experiencing a reckoning. Jacksonville knows something about reckoning with its past.
To “reckon” means to assess, calculate, and sum up, to settle accounts. To a navigator, it means to estimate one’s location. Reckoning is the process of figuring something out based on what we know and observe. Believers in the afterlife expect that we will all face a “day of reckoning,” when we must give an account of ourselves in this world. God, of course, has the advantage of knowing all. The rest of us do the best we are capable of.
Humans are constantly reckoning with their place history, which consists of the stories we tell each other about the past. When we discover new facts or points of view about the past, we revise the story. That’s why history changes constantly, and that’s why Peter Baker is wrong, I think, to single out the present moment as one when history is particularly under fire. And by the way, Winston Churchill had plenty of strident critics throughout his long (1874-1965) and eventful life.
In Jacksonville, those who argue for the preservation of monuments sometimes express dismay that such memorials draw criticism. We hear laments such as, “now, all of a sudden, they want to change history . . .” Like Peter Baker, those voices are also wrong. Seldom do challenges to historical narrative appear suddenly – instead, they emerge continually over time. Every American, and every place in America, is a living inheritance from the past. Mostly we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, but at times we stagger beneath their weight. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.”
If ever we are to escape the weight of the past and stand on its legacy, discovering and discussing the truth is essential. With due respect for those with whom we may disagree, we can and should argue about the lessons of the past – doing so is the right and duty of every citizen, and that right is part of what defines us as Americans. It also helps keeps historical storytellers honest!
We live in a city approaching its 200th anniversary, and that deserves commemoration. There are older cities in Florida – one of them is less than an hour south of here. Another is less than an hour to the north. But I argue that no place in Florida has more, and more complicated history, than Jacksonville. We have crammed a lot in to two short centuries. We dignify our past by striving constantly to see it clearly, acknowledging its presence in our own lives, and its effects on generations yet to come. That’s why Jacksonville history matters.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer, Jacksonville Historical Society