Common Humanity

On a lesson in shared humanity (plus grit and humility).

Political Historian Heather Cox Richardson last week published a potent story about Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865.

It's largely a story of humility and grit, both of which Richardson doubles back to in her closing paragraph (but you should really read the whole thing first):

The Civil War was won not by the dashing sons of wealthy planters, but by men like Grant, who dragged himself out of his blankets and pulled a dirty soldier's uniform over his pounding head on an April morning because he knew he had to get up and get to work.

Looking now at the numbers of likes, shares, comments, and whatnot particular to this post, I'm far from alone in finding it moving and powerful.

Grit and humility form much of the basis for that. But there is another crucial component at the heart of the story, one that is also deserving of emphasis but that I've seen no mention of—Grant's quiet expression of common humanity, which he conveyed, very notably, to his literal enemy:

As soon as the papers were signed, Lee told Grant his men were starving, and asked if the Union general could provide the Confederates with rations. Grant didn't hesitate. "Certainly," he responded, before asking how many men needed food. He took Lee's answer—"about twenty-five thousand"—in stride, telling the general that "he could have... all the provisions wanted."

Grant's grit and humility are both admirable and virtuous. But if we aim to learn from our past—not necessarily with the goal of making cumulative advancements to civilization, which I'm not sure we're capable of, but rather just to improve our present condition—then what we need to extract more than anything from this story is Grant's lesson in common humanity; this notion that we are all human, all individual, but all ultimately one and the same.

We all suffer, we all fear, we all love and doubt and contradict and err. We are all grossly imperfect and impaired by the same human condition. This is as true in our relationships with our families and friends as it is in our perverse marriages to our enemies, both real and erroneously constructed.

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