Should the Past be Judged?
We can learn a lot from consulting the past. We learn more about our world, more about our history, and even more about ourselves. Spanish aphorist George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (qtd. in Moncur 1). In general terms, this famous aphorism means that it is important for us to study and learn from history in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. However, the standards and values that we use today to judge the present are much different than they were in the past. What may have seemed like the right thing to do one hundred years ago might not be viewed the same way today. In her essay “At the Buffalo Bill Museum, June 1988,” Jane Tompkins questions whether or not we should judge the past by the standards and values of today. While visiting the Buffalo Bill Museum, Tompkins mentions that she is disturbed by the scenery of the museum and the statement made by William Frederick Cody, or Buffalo Bill, in the museum’s introductory video. Cody mentions that he wants to be remembered as “[the] man who opened Wyoming to the best of civilization” (Tompkins 588). However, Tompkins isn’t sure if he can be viewed as that man because of his controversial actions in the past. Although today’s standards and values are much different from those of the past, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them to judge the past. If anything, it is beneficial to judge the past by today’s standards, because we can use it as a learning experience. Society benefits when it judges the past from the current standards and values because as George Santayana mentioned, we must learn from history in order to avoid making the same mistakes. To some people, Buffalo Bill is one of the greatest heroes in American history. Buffalo Bill spent most of his early years working for the army. Cody served as a Union scout in the campaigns against the Kiowa and Comanche during the Civil War. He later enlisted with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry. After taking a few years off to settle down with his wife, Cody returned to the Army as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. He fought in 16 battles, including the defeat of the Cheyenne at Summit Springs. After his many years of service, Cody was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872. Cody’s service to the Army was called “above and beyond the call of duty.” In between his services to the Army, Cody took part in the buffalo trade that earned him his nickname. He became a buffalo hunter to feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Although these actions made him a big-game hunter, Jane Tompkins still considers him in part to be a conservationist. “If it were not for the buffalo in his Wild West shows the species would probably have become extinct” (Tompkins 592). However, the main reason for Cody being a conservationist is because he simply wanted to continue living as a hunter. “The combination big-game hunter and conservationist suggests that these men had no interest in preserving the animals for the animals’ sake but simply wanted to ensure the chance to exercise their sporting pleasure” (Tompkins 592-93). In this sense, it is difficult to determine whether Cody really cared for the animals or if he only wanted them preserved so he could continue hunting them. It was actions like these that make Cody a controversial figure in American history. According to N. Scott Momaday, Cody’s actions towards the Indians were what created so much opposition towards him. That’s not to say he wasn’t an authentic western hero. “As a scout, a guide, a marksman, and a buffalo hunter, he was second to none. At a time when horsemanship was at its highest level in America, he was a horseman nearly without peer. He defined the Plainsman” (Momaday 631). Like Tompkins, Momaday describes Cody has an American hero. They both praise him for his heroic deeds to the Army and for his preservation of the...
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