History without the Black Armband

Allen Guelzo

Summer 2022

Henry Ford had no relish for history. "History," he said, is "bunk." Actually, what he said in full was even worse:

Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don't know...and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today.

Ford's way of thinking affords a great many people an excuse to wave away the study of history. But it's an excuse we embrace at our peril. Robbing a people of their history, warned Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is the first strategy of tyrants, who know that wiping out the past erodes the ground for resistance in the present. As he put it, "[a] people which no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul."

On the other hand, restoring "our memory of what things were like" — which Solzhenitsyn calls "the task of the artist" — can be equally disruptive to the established order. After all, it was a historical undertaking — Solzhenitsyn's publication of The Gulag Archipelago — that moved the earth from under the feet of European intellectuals in the 1970s. "All Solzhenitsyn had to do was to speak," wrote Bernard-Henri Lévy, "and we awoke from a dogmatic sleep."

History's importance to self-government makes it all the more surprising that defenders of an open society are more often found in political-science departments than history faculties. With the reverberations of Solzhenitsyn still in our hearing, the link between good history and the defense of a free society ought to be self-evident. Yet with few exceptions, it is not.

Today, though we write more history than at any time before, it does not appear that we write particularly good history. Should we not wonder why this is so?


My own first encounter with history occurred when I was only seven years old, and it was decisively different from Henry Ford's. I had not done terribly well in my first year in elementary school, and as a remedial tactic, my grandmother bought me a series of reading-exercise books. Working my way through them on the front porch that summer, I was particularly taken by a story about King Robert of Sicily. When I went back in to ask my grandmother what this was, she replied, "that's history." From that moment, there was never any question that history, in some form or other, was going to be the work I wanted to do.

What was less obvious is what this thing called "history" really was, for there is a fundamental ambiguity in the term. History is, in one sense, the events of the past; but what we usually mean when we speak of history is the labor of writing about it. There is, in other words, making history (which is what has happened in the past) and doing history (which is the task and process of writing, teaching, and explaining those happenings). It is the second sense that Herodotus, the first recognizable historian, was describing when he gave that task and process its Greek name — hystoryes — which means "inquiry."

Although Homer had used the same word in Greek to describe a judge or umpire who made evaluations of contests or disputes, Herodotus took it to mean something closer to "research" (what lawyers today call "discovery") or even "fact finding" (in the sense of paying a visit for the sake of acquainting oneself with someone or some place). The shift in definition signaled the fact that Herodotus' work was about what had actually happened: Rather than relying on pure imagination, he would try to dig up the truth about the past. Herodotus' commitment to this sort of history is reflected in his humility: When he does not know something, he admits it. "I can't talk about this," he says at one point early in The Persian Wars, "because I couldn't find any record of it."

So, we may say that history (or history writing) is distinct from the epic poem — for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad — because its first purpose is informing, as opposed to entertaining or edifying. It is also different from a list of events, such as the so-called "Stele of the Vultures" (which marks an ancient Sumerian boundary and recounts the contests that produced it), since the purpose of a list is to establish bureaucratic and commercial legitimacy, not to perform an inquiry into the elements of event, sequence, and location. The same distinction applies to annals, which we receive from the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians as they begin to vie for empire in the ancient Near East. Like lists, annals serve an official purpose — they record battles, conquests, number of slaves captured, number of cities leveled, number of captives put to death in imaginatively unpleasant ways, and so forth. They do not constitute what we might call "history."

In some annals, though, a more plaintive purpose peeps out: the desire of rulers to be remembered for what they have done. "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Ozymandias commands. It is in this respect that we get our first glimpse, not so much of inquiry, but of a desire, perhaps, to anticipate and stimulate inquiry. The past's desire to be remembered will eventually lead us to remember and understand it — to undertake an inquiry into the words, deeds, ideas, conflicts, and sufferings, and the massive skein of operations and influences that connect them. Such inquiry is what is properly called "history," and the study of it is what, in large measure, constitutes wisdom.


Not all history writing leads to wisdom, however. Today, bad history abounds. Some of the blame lies with bad writing, for which historians are notorious. Some of it is rooted in bad faith — the work of people who employ history for the purpose of distortion, who pervert the genuine desire for historical understanding in an effort to buttress some personal, social, intellectual, or political pathology. Still more is rooted in bad understanding — the honest ignorance of people who have never considered the basis for or ambition of good history.

The prevalence of bad history today is perilous indeed, because good history performs certain vital intellectual and (dare I say) spiritual tasks. It does so chiefly by taking both the inquirer and the reader of the inquiry out of the confines of their particular lives. In the account of his journey to the Hebrides, Samuel Johnson could not behold the monastic ruins of Iona without feeling lifted out of himself. He went on to say that "[w]hatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings."

History, in other words, allows people to achieve distance from the era in which they were born, and promotes what one might call social sanity. It is not, as some have shamefully claimed, a form of psychological escapism — at least Johnson didn't think so. Neither did C. S. Lewis, who said that "[t]o study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own marketplace." The historian, he said, "has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age." As Solzhenitsyn feared, without the ballast of the past, the present can easily be capsized by the ruthless and the power hungry.

Though good history transcends local circumstances, it is not removed from morality and does not shy away from making judgments. Emerging from the consensus gentium ("agreement of people," or law of nature), good history seeks not to debase life, but to improve it. It appreciates that, whatever large-scale regulating principles scholars might like to posit as explanations for historical movement, the events people experience in the immediate day-to-day present them with real choices that demand real responsibility and invite real accountability. History, therefore, is not, as Aleksandr Herzen wrote, "a pale, algebraic shadow" whereby "[e]verything that in reality [is] direct, every simple feeling, [is] exalted into abstract categories" that come back "without a drop of living blood."

Saying so will strike some as cause for alarm. Moral history, it is assumed, must devolve into moralizing history, or worse, priggish history (of the "sentence first, verdict afterward" species), or, worst of all, conspiratorial history. But that is not the case. Moral history has plenty of room for disagreement. It also recognizes that there is a certain statute of limitations on its judgments, and that time can render some moral judgments slightly ridiculous. The main difference is that moralizing, priggish, and conspiratorial history are based, not on natural law, but on arbitrary, political, or faddish concerns. As such, it is entirely present-minded, and thus unable to reveal truth, discriminate between good and evil, or dismiss falsehood.

Sometimes the moralizers, prigs, and conspiracy mongers are driven by nothing more harmful than curiosity about the fate of the lost princes in the Tower of London or the real identity of Jack the Ripper. But there are others whose bad history is fueled principally by their philosophical irrationality. The pervasiveness of such history today can be traced back to the 20th century, when the failures of Marxism led to a widespread questioning of all "meta-narratives" (including Karl Marx's dialectical materialism), a vast skepticism toward evidence seeking, a willingness to entertain subjective beliefs regardless of whether they represent truth, and an obsession with discourse and language.

This post-modern mistrust came to encompass all attempts by reason to describe the universe. "Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, allusions" wrote the genius of post-modern history writing, Michel Foucault, "that they finally lose their own form." Science, history, the arts, and even mathematics have been reduced to mere "discourses" whose only goal is the reinforcement of otherwise invisible power structures. Under the eye of critical theory, history writing is reduced to mere narrative, designed for the domination of subordinated groups. As such, it needs to be combatted by counternarratives. All of this, of course, comes without serious recourse to historical evidence — since appeal to evidence itself is a mere narrative, cunningly devised to assist in the social construction of oppression. And why not, on those terms? As James Baldwin said (before French post-modernism made it fashionable), "the cultural pretensions of history are...nothing less than a mask for power." It is full of "so many lies" that it cannot be redeemed.

Baldwin, of course, was a litterateur, not a historian. But it is not difficult today to pick out examples of professional history writing that attempt to transpose political or economic moralism into historical judgment along those lines. In The Half Has Never Been Told, for example, Edward Baptist is so eager to rain down curses on the head of capitalism that he asks his readers to believe that capitalism and plantation slavery were equivalents — a conviction so pure and unspotted that it should allow him to confect what he calls "evocative history." Such writing is called "fiction" in other quarters, but it grants license to announce that — notwithstanding the Great Awakening, the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, the Burr Conspiracy, Marbury v. Madison, the Erie Canal, the California Gold Rush, and the transatlantic cable — slavery is the single controlling feature of all American life. "[T]he expansion of slavery in many ways shaped the story of everything in the pre-Civil War United States," Baptist tells us in an anticipation of the 1619 Project. In fact, "the whole history of the United States comes walking over the hill behind a line of people in chains." Never mind that it is precisely the values fostered by the whole history of republican democracy that form the pulpit from which Baptist preaches.

As Baptist's example proves, historical inquiry is indeed vulnerable to the blandishments of philosophy and ideology. But any moral inquiry runs that risk, and not to run it is to blunt history writing to mere technologia, reduce it to an insipid blandness, or confine it to lists and annals. "[A]ll history writing implies moral discernment," wrote Harry Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation. This does not suggest that history has the power to act as a legal tribunal, but rather that it must offer an assessment, not only of what past actors in history did, but what they should have or could have done, in order to (as James Axtell once wrote) "set the record straight for future appeals to precedent." In that spirit, history should not hesitate to condemn — and especially to condemn those who, in earlier times and places, escaped condemnation. Likewise, it should be willing to rehabilitate, provided that the condemnations and rehabilitations are the result of historical inquiry, not a substitute or, still worse, a starting point.

While history must make judgments, it does not always need to conclude with a hanging. Hence John Lukacs's rule that the historian should have the ability "to see things with the eye of a novelist rather than with the eye of a lawyer." Good history learns, in the words of William Wordsworth,

To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

Good history should not require a white blindfold, but at the same time it does not — as former Australian prime minister John Howard memorably put it — forever invite us to wear the black armband.

Good history should have the capacity to exalt as well as to humble. It should widen the horizons of empathy rather than contracting itself to narratives of inevitability. It should abjure tyranny and promote self-government and reason. That is, after all, what the Greek historians did. Xenophon, in his Symposium, did not mind saying that a knowledge of the triumphs of Athenian democracy in the past was essential to that democracy's healthy functioning in the present:

[Y]ou must try to find out what sort of knowledge it was that made Themistocles able to give Greece liberty; you must try to find out what kind of knowledge it was that gave Pericles the name of being his country's wisest counsellor; you must reflect, further, how it was that Solon by deep meditation established in his city laws of surpassing worth; you must search and find out what kind of practices it is that gives the Lacedaemonians the reputation of being pre-eminent military commanders.

Finally, good history ought to offer what Marilynne Robinson describes as "precedent and permission." It warns us to avoid certain paths: When we are tempted to appease evil, it presents the image of Neville Chamberlain; when the lure of power begins to overtake liberty, it reminds us of the unhappy end of Julius Caesar. It also shows us that there are more favorable paths: When the sky seems dark and faceless, we remember the testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or the Lübeck martyrs, and we can again confide in faith. When we despair of the future, we remember Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and allow ourselves to hope again. When we despair of human nature itself, history reminds us of those who, in Rudyard Kipling's words, "stood and were still to the Birkenhead drill." We see, as Walt Whitman put it, a 

Token of all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty.

And we begin again to believe in love. In sum, good history points us to how things should be; it holds up models of virtue, and does not fear to be either magical or declamatory.


Our penchant for poor history today is due partly to the fact that we live in what Bonhoeffer called "a world that has come of age," which induces people to believe — like most late adolescents of every era — that they should suffer no illusions about their forebears, concede to no demands for gratitude for what the past has brought them, and tolerate no otherworldly qualities that lift individuals above the flux of human events. This is actually the worst form of childishness, reveling in what it imagines to be adult independence. But it is nevertheless the modern condition, and it explains why so many now write history as though it has nothing to describe except the will to power; and when it does not, it presents nothing but the false surfaces of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation. This is history written to the tune of François La Rochefoucauld's relentless rien d'autres: Freedom is nothing but slavery, commerce is nothing but cheating, property is nothing but theft.

Another piece of the bad-history puzzle is a matter of location: Over the last 150 years, history writing has increasingly been absorbed into university environments. This absorption was already well-advanced in Germany and France in the first half of the 19th century — Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt being prime examples — but it lagged behind in England and America. The great British historians of the 19th century — one thinks here of Thomas Macaulay — were either men of independent wealth but scholarly inclination or public figures who used their positions and experiences as the source from which they constructed great political histories. The small scattering of history academics in English universities date back as far as 1724 (and the creation of the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford and Cambridge), but until the heyday of the great constitutional historian William Stubbs as Regius professor at Oxford in 1866, and of Lord Acton at Cambridge in 1895, these professorships were mostly sinecures for antiquarians. (Stubbs, far from being a professional historian, gave up his professorship in 1884 to become the Anglican bishop of Chester, then Oxford.) Not until January 1886 did a flagship publication for serious historical scholarship appear — in the form of the English Historical Review.

But not even this much development existed in the United States, where no college had anything like a history professor until Jared Sparks was appointed to the position at Harvard University in 1838. By the time the American Historical Association (AHA) was founded in 1884, there were still no more than a handful of history positions in all of American higher education. The AHA's charter members totaled little more than 200, and many of them were not academics and had no pretense of becoming academics: The AHA included, for instance, former U.S. president Rutherford Hayes, and, until 1904, only one president of the association was an academic.

Today, history writing has become almost entirely an academic exercise. For example, your author's running list of books published solely on the American Civil War era shows that 122 of the 224 titles published in 2015 were from academic presses. Only eight were released by what can be called "trade publishers" — and still, their authors were mostly academics. The remaining books were issued by a variety of vanity presses. The same pattern would probably repeat itself if applied to other areas of historical study.

The benefit that the academicization of history writing confers on its product is greater opportunity and access for deep research. The glaring defects include the normalization of mediocrity and the defiant strain of cynicism that seems to infect nearly everything academics touch. Bernard Bailyn once complained, "[t]he vast proliferation of detailed technical studies...tends to be cast as criticism of some segment of the received tradition, if only because challenges to accepted formulations provide easily constructed formulations and because they are likely to be noticed." No one with a Ph.D., much less an endowed chair, wants to be called "superficial." The temptation, then, is to present oneself and one's writings as worldly wise, impervious to dissent, and proof against what is commonly thought. As a consequence, it becomes habitual to assume that only the cruelest and ugliest can be true. Like John Fowles's title character in Daniel Martin, it becomes

offensive, in an intellectually privileged caste, to suggest publicly that anything might turn out well in this world. Even when things — largely because of that privilege — did in private actuality turn out well, one dared not say so artistically. It was like some new version of the Midas touch, with despair taking the place of gold.

Such despair hampers nuance. Whereas good history respects complexity, the mixture of motives, and the irony of results, bad history deals in unexamined generalizations and the suspicious accumulation of absolutes: all of them did this, everyone thought that, the entire system is responsible, and so forth. Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told offers precisely this sort of analysis, but the academy is not short on examples — as evidenced by this excerpt from Ward Churchill's "Deconstructing the Columbus Myth":

[C]elebration of Columbus and the European conquest of the Western hemisphere he set off is greatly analogous to celebration of the glories of nazism and Heinrich Himmler....[H]e not only symbolizes the process of conquest and genocide which eventually consumed the indigenous peoples of America, but also bears the personal responsibility of having participated in it.

For his part, C. Vann Woodward nearly equated any history writing with mythology, since "[e]very self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past." Americans in particular, he explained, are prone to foster "the legend of American innocence." But what societies really fabricate is simplicity, not myth, and in that respect academic societies are no different from any other. The distinction is that while myth deals in fantasy (often extremely complicated fantasy), tribal community, and hero worship, simplification involves the smoothing away of complexity, suggestions of dim conspiracy, foundations poured in bitterness, and glorifications of victimhood not unlike the manner in which academics tend to see themselves vis-à-vis the larger society.

No wonder so much history writing emerges from the academy sounding eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: It is fueled by much of the same ressentiment, and recommends many of the same solutions.


The state of history in the academy today calls for a specific caution: Good history does more than remember; it also knows what to forget. Too often we praise movements and efforts aimed at shoring up historical memory without pause, as when we promise to remember the Maine, or the Alamo, or the Boyne, or the Fifth of November. The modern German writer W. G. Sebald deplored the "quasi-natural reflex" of his generation, "engendered by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors," to "keep quiet and look the other way," to commute through the ruins of a firebombed Hamburg on trains "crammed full" but from which "no one looked out of the windows."

While remembering the past is important, not all forgetting is to be deplored. One hallmark of bad history is that it leads us by the high road to the worst of passions: reducing memory to suspicion, clannishness, and unappeasable accusations of oppression that can only be rectified by retribution. David Rieff recalled an encounter of this sort when he was interviewing Vuk Drašković, a Serbian politician, during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. "As I was leaving his office," wrote Rieff, "one of his young aides pressed a folded bit of paper into my hand. It turned out to be blank except for a date: 1453 — the year Orthodox Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans." Analogously, in 1989, Slobodan Milošević began his genocidal campaign of Serbian aggression in Bosnia and Croatia with the words, "[l]et the memory of Kosovo heroism live forever! Long live Serbia!" — a ringing invocation of the battle of Kosovo in 1389.

Here was historical memory with a vengeance, preserved over centuries, serving only to promote hatred and bloodshed. Rieff found matters no different in Ireland, where the injunction to remember Drogheda or the potato famine or the Easter Rising had paralyzed Irish politics for decades. George Santayana's dictum that "[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" is frequently recited as a proverb, but the reality is that those who do remember the past are just as often condemned to repeat it. Truth be told, there are some human deeds so toxic that the health of the present can only be maintained by refusing to cultivate historical grievance. Remembrance, as Rieff warns, is necessary to justice; the problem is that remembrance and justice are often the enemies of peace. Good history, in effect, knows when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em.

The ideal teachers of history always bear in mind that they are teaching not a subject, but human beings. This teaching can take many forms: As Noel Annan once wrote, some teachers hand out conclusions, some try to offer the present outlines of the subject they study, and some attempt to convey what they themselves are learning. All of them, though, ought to be guardians of the intellectual life and examples of people willing to put aside the temptations of vengeance, fame, or profit in order to affirm "some grain of order won by the intellect" from the howling chaos of human experience.

It is not merely universities that have suffered from the dearth of good history; every government, said Johnson, is "perpetually degenerating towards corruption, from which it must be rescued at certain periods by the resuscitation of its first principles, and the re-establishment of its original constitution." Yet as long as progress is the dominant trope of modern culture, there is not much hope for any return to first principles, and Johnson's advice will continue to fall on deaf ears in the university. But for those interested in his injunction, writing good history remains a place where, without too much explaining, one can renew the quest.

Allen Guelzo is director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship and the senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.


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