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Edward G. Ryan: Looking At Historical Figures In Their Own Time

March 8, 2020

In the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal, on the Op-Ed page, there was a column about former Wisconsin Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan.  A Milwaukee lawyer wrote that it was time to remove the bust of Ryan from the notable position that it now holds outside of the court chamber in Madison due to his views of women.

Colleen Ball noted that Ryan had a mix of good and bad qualities, and I would add just like any other person sitting on the high bench.  In Ryan’s case, his positive contributions included the fact he was instrumental in drafting Wisconsin’s first constitution.  And as Colleen added he wrote the famous Potter law opinion which has been called ”arguably the most important decision that Wisconsin Supreme Court ever issued.”

What I found disconcerting in her well-written column was how, once again, we are asked to view historical figures through the lenses of 21st-century society.  With that as our perspective, no one will be able to meet the high standards that we require today of our public servants.  If we are to place such standards on everyone from the past who has served in a public or governmental role there is no way they will end up receiving anything other than contempt or ridicule from one segment of society or another.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive Republican busting up large businesses, thinking ahead for future generations when it came to preserving large tracts of land and marshaling our international prestige. But when it came to his views on how native Americans were pushed aside so that Western Europeans could advance across the American continent we must conclude they were not ones that would align with 21st-century thinking.  In fact, some of his thinking in regards to those with different ethnic backgrounds places him in a less favorable light than his trust-busting adherents might wish to consider.  

Likewise, with President Abraham Lincoln who had an evolving view on blacks in American society. While Lincoln always maintained disapproval of slavery, he had a less robust view on how blacks would fit into American society.  In that respect, he was much in alignment with the majority of the nation, both north and south.  He understood the need to free the slaves, so as to meet the ideals of the words in the Declaration of Independence, but he was not sure how equality could be applied in a day-to-day sense of American life.

Again,  it is imperative that we look at not only the words and deeds of those figures from the past which we now evaluate, but also place them in context, and in the times, in which they lived.  Without such an all-encompassing view we hold such figures as Ryan hostage in a way they can never escape.

Having said that, however, I must make one last point.  There is a distinct difference between Ball calling for the removal of the Ryan bust, and my past calls on this blog for the removal of Civil War statues that were placed so to propel “ Lost Cause” thinking.  There are those characters from history which never fall on the side of acceptability.

Such an example would be General Robert E. Lee who acted in treasonous ways to the United States of America.  Discarding the Union, and seeking a military blow to the federal government can never be countenanced.  We must never rationalize away such actions as he took, and confuse treason with differing views of social norms.

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