Earlier this year, Northwestern University issued a lengthy report on the life and career of one of its chief founders, John Evans. The report was occasioned by a tide of criticism that the university had, over the years, failed to acknowledge Evans’ alleged complicity in the Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. A panel of eight senior and distinguished scholars from within and without the university prepared the report.
Given the subject matter -- the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers and their government -- there was never any chance that the panel would exonerate Evans. He was there, or somewhere, as territorial governor of Colorado and therefore somehow responsible. The connection to Northwestern is yet more tenuous. Evans, then a resident of Chicago, where he had made a good deal of money in real estate, organized a group of fellow philanthropists to found a university to serve the rapidly developing region. This was in 1850. After the university’s formal founding the next year he continued to contribute to its growth. His role was recognized in the naming of the town that grew up around it, Evanston. Evans was also a pillar of the Methodist Church and a strong supporter of the new Republican Party. In short, he was not a bad guy. In 1862 he was appointed governor of the Territory of Colorado by the president, a Mr. Lincoln of Illinois.
Thus far the report treats Evans evenhandedly. One can only assume that the report continues historically scrupulous as to fact. But once the story moves to Colorado the easy judgments and the tone of moral superiority begin to surface. A random example:
Serious trouble began on April 12, 1864, when the cavalry confronted a group of Dog Soldiers near Fremont Orchard, northeast of Denver on the South Platte. Each side later claimed that the other fired first, but the net results were four troopers dead and several Cheyennes wounded (one so severely he became an invalid)....
The reader is invited to try how many ways that latter sentence might be rewritten. Here’s one way:
...the net results were several Cheyennes wounded, along with a number of troopers (four of whom so severely that for the rest of their lives they were dead)...
No one disputes that the Sand Creek Massacre was a bloody horror, or that the soldiers who committed atrocities that day and the commander who directed the attack and countenanced the soldiers’ behavior deserve the harshest condemnation. Nor is it any mitigation to note that these things happen in war -- one need only mention such places as Dresden, My Lai, or Abu Ghraib -- because war itself is an atrocity.
But the question being examined is specifically what responsibility John Evans bore for what occurred. And despite the best efforts of the panel to sustain an air of suspicion, they find he had none. He did not plan or order the attack; he did not know of it in advance; he was not in the Territory when it took place. The attack was directed by Col. John Chivington, commander of the Military District of Colorado, who, on behalf of the army chain of command, had asserted and maintained full responsibility for the question of war or peace with the Native Americans of the Territory.
The concluding chapter of the report spends pages in considering, not what Evans did, but what he might have done. He had worked hard to pacify the tribes, to resettle them peacefully, to force the agents of the Indian Affairs Commission to deal honestly with them, and to separate the hostile renegades from the great majority of tribespeople. He did not succeed in these aims. Given that neither the federal government nor the army ever managed to develop and apply a consistent policy toward the mainly peaceful Indians in the West, this is hardly surprising.
At times Evans succumbed to anxiety about the possibility of full-scale Indian war, such as had happened in Minnesota in 1862. At times he was angry over depredations committed by Indians and made undiplomatic statements. He was sensitive to his position as an appointed official -- as, given his subsequent treatment by a congressional investigation, he might well have been. In the aftermath of a congressional investigation he was sacrificed to the political necessity that heads be seen to roll.
The panel feel that rather than saying this at some critical moment, he might have said that. And they seem to feel that had he said that, things would have worked out for the better. This is not historical judgment, it is hindsight, and presumptuous hindsight at that. But it is just what was required of this report, so that the critics might be appeased.
(It is interesting to contrast the panel’s attitude toward Evans with this passage:
Honor bound to do so, Lean Bear’s relatives sent out revenge parties in May along the Arkansas near Fort Larned, where they killed two American settlers.
“Honor bound.” That is, they could do no other. They did what they had to do. They were scarcely moral agents at all. No need to look back and judge them by some other standard.)
But, of course, the critics are not appeased. In any tragedy, as anyone innocent of the wisdom of the Greeks knows perfectly well, there must be a villain. A recent letter to the alumni magazine proposes a list of things the university ought to do to atone. Number 2 on the list reads as follows:
Northwestern should issue a formal written and verbal apology to the three Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes for any pain and suffering the University may have caused, directly or indirectly, from its association with Gov. Evans.
What is not explained is what any of this had to do with Northwestern University, sitting quietly in Evanston and educating its students. What is charged by the critics is, on the face of it, guilt by prior association.
“Who killed the Kennedys?” asked Mick Jagger, and he answered his own question, “Well, after all, it was you and me.” This is paradoxically comforting, for if we are all guilty, then no one is particularly guilty.
It follows in this philosophy that you and I are responsible for all the other awful things that have been done by man on Earth. A cloud of guilt hangs over us all and cannot be expiated. It can only be accepted and confessed, over and over, in cathartic orgasms of self-shaming. In these rites we are led by those who, thanks to their greater sensitivity to such things, feel just a little tiny bit less guilty than the rest of us and are eager to proclaim it.
It wasn’t me who killed the Kennedys, and I very much doubt it was you. But once the notion of guilt is permitted to escape from the constraints of specific actions by particular persons, it quickly becomes in some minds a very useful sort of weapon against just about anything and anyone they don’t much like. The idea of collective guilt has produced some pretty nasty business over the ages, as in answering the question “Who killed Jesus?”
UPDATE: A friend was moved to create this work of art, which he calls "THE GOOD REVEREND CHIVINGTON BRINGS CHRISTIANITY TO SAND CREEK"