Thoughts on History
Sometimes when we put together an issue of American History we discover that two articles with little apparently in common actually run along parallel tracks. In this issue, for instance, we have two features–one about events that took place in Detroit in 1925 and the other a story from the Oregon Territory in 1876–that deal with the issue of justice, specifically the struggle to achieve it. In the first, “A Case Close to My Heart,” a black physician and his friends and family stand trial for killing a white man while defending their home. In the other, “The Death of Wilhautyah,” a white man is charged with killing a Nez Perce warrior. The different outcomes of the two cases demonstrate that justice is sometimes elusive. I don’t want to give away the endings of these stories, but I will say that justice doesn’t always triumph. Even when it does, the principals don’t live happily ever after.
Justice is supposed to be blind, and it would be in a perfect world. In this one, however, factors other than the simple question of right and wrong often enter the equation. Money, for instance, often helps tip justice’s scales. “Plate sin with gold/And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;/Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it,” says Shakespeare’s King Lear.
In both of these articles, it’s the thorny issue of race that hinders justice. The Ossian Sweet case hinged on issues of black versus white; the Wilhautyah killing on white versus red. In the latter situation, the Nez Perce found themselves fighting against not only the injustice of murder, but also against powerful forces of history. One thing that strikes me with this story is how many people tried to do what they thought was right and see that justice was done.
What exactly is justice, anyway? “Justice is truth in action,” said British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. (Compare that to a quote from another Englishman, Lord Justice Sir Harry James Mathew. My Oxford Book of Quotations includes this quote from the lord justice: “In England, Justice is open to all, like the Ritz hotel.” I’d like to think that the lord justice was being playfully facetious when he said that, for, based on my experience, the Ritz hotel is open only to those who can afford it.) Looking for other definitions of justice, I found a quote from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. “Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render every one his due,” he said. That seems fair.
I’m also intrigued by the Emperor’s use of the word “wish.” It’s as though he’s telling us that true justice isn’t possible, that it’s just an abstract concept and we can’t reach it any more than we can reach absolute zero. The real world tends to be hard on abstract concepts. Here in the United States, while history holds many examples where justice prevailed, there are many others where justice was foiled. Some historians would have us believe that justice always loses, that our history is one long, sorry tale of justice thwarted by the rich and powerful. I don’t believe that to be the case, but at the same time American History can’t ignore the times when not everyone gets their due. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” said American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
On a lighter note, we are proud to announce that Folio, a magazine about magazines, presented American History with an award for editorial excellence in history. The judges found us to be an “entertaining, well-written and authoritative mix of stories. Full of facts that you didn’t learn in high school.” It’s certainly pleasant to get recognition from our peers in the magazine world, but the people we really want to hear from are you, the readers. So drop us a line and tell us how you think we’re doing.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History