UNDER ANALYSIS: The law, history, and a forgotten place

By Michelle St. Germain

Often when we construe the meaning of laws, one of the things we consider is historical context. It would thus seem logical for lawmakers to take a look at our history before they make new laws. They rarely do.

Proposed labor laws and accompanying protests against them have been making the news throughout the Midwestern states of our nation lately. I wonder if the laws and protests would have turned out differently, if anyone had thought to consult their history books.

In a time not very long ago, in a land not very far away, labor issues were fought over, and ultimately enacted. As a result, today I often think about a quiet area in Arlington, Virginia, just around the corner from a decorated grave known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and contemplate another tomb. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia, commemorates the lives lost in wars, but whose bodies were not identified. The tomb I am thinking about constitutes the final resting place of different warriors, from a few very specific wars. Although others do not mention it; I call it the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier.

The Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier represents lives lost in a very long war, made up of many different battles, fought on U.S. soil. The war isn't discussed much and the reasons for that are complicated. Perhaps it is because there was no clear victor in the battles, or that these battles were incredibly imbalanced in terms of power, or that the battles that define the war continue to rage today, or because as a nation we still don't know whose side to take.

If you're thinking that I couldn't possibly be talking about a real war, consider these facts: the battles ended with U.S. citizen blood spilled as a result of gunfire, bombs, or collateral damage. Military men, police officers, and civilian men, women, and children have lost their lives as a result of the battles.

So who are the soldiers within the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier? They are the people that fought, and the innocent lives that were lost, in these battles:

1. The Bay View Massacre was fought in Wisconsin in 1886 to secure an eight-hour workday. Fourteen thousand laborers gathered in protest and faced down their employers, a militia, and the National Guard. The Wisconsin governor ordered the military to fire at the protesters, and seven lives were lost -- including children. The soldiers on both sides of the Bay View Massacre are buried at the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier.

2. The Thibodaux Massacre was fought in Louisiana in 1887 when sugar cane workers went on strike, protesting the meager pay, the form of pay, and several other grievances. The Louisiana state governor ordered a state militia to break the strike. How many lives were lost is unknown, but estimates range from thirty to three hundred. The soldiers on both sides of the Thibodaux Massacre are buried at the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier.

3. The Haymarket Massacre was fought in Chicago in 1886 when a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday took place nationwide. The peaceful protest devolved when a bomb and ensuing gunfire killed police and an unknown number of civilians. The soldiers on both sides of the Haymarket Massacre are buried at the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier.

4. The Ludlow Massacre was fought in Colorado in 1914 when 1,200 coal miners went on strike in protest of work conditions and for collective bargaining rights. The Colorado National Guard attacked a colony of strikers, ending in many lives lost, including children. The soldiers on both sides of the Ludlow Massacre are buried at the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier.

Unfortunately, the list above does not cover all of the soldiers and lives that have been lost or the battles that continue in the war today. Next time you are thinking about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or are considering lobbying for a new law or regulation, take a moment to pause and think about the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier as well. More importantly, encourage our legislators and protestors to do so as well. It is not easy to remember 229 years of American history -- let alone where I last left my car keys. But perhaps with a few more people pausing to give thought to these forgotten soldiers, we will all start to remember our history.

Would the end result be any different? Perhaps not. But at least we would be making laws with knowledge of our history -- justice should be blind, but our legislators should not be blind to our history. The other benefit of knowing our history could be that the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldier becomes an actual monument to our history.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Michelle St. Germain practices law in St. Louis, Missouri. You may direct comments or criticisms about this column to the Levison Group c/o this newspaper, or direct to the Levison Group via e-mail, at comments@levisongroup.com.

© 2011 Under Analysis L.L.C.

Published: Fri, Mar 11, 2011