The Historian's Craft

Nicole Penn

Current Issue

One of the first courses historians in training take at the beginning of their graduate careers falls under the moniker of something like "The Historian's Craft." With selections culled from Herodotus to Eric Hobsbawm and many leading historians in between, the class exposes students to the various theoretical turns that have shaped the discipline from the time of the ancients to the present.

Writing in the early 2000s, intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb lamented the conflation of what was fundamentally a course on historiography with a course on historical methods that she had endured as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. Instead of reading and discussing other historians, she had received an education in the nuts and bolts of the profession. Her assignments focused on seemingly rudimentary exercises involving primary and secondary sources, such as determining the time the sun rose on a specific day during the French Revolution (and why it mattered), or fact-checking every source cited in a few pages from a notable work of history. "It was a painful experience," she noted, "but also an exhilarating one."

As Himmelfarb understood it, history fell somewhere between an art and a science: It was "a craft that was patently not infallible but that did aspire to high standards and could be tested against those standards." Her training as a historian inculcated in her an enduring respect for the "hard evidence" that forms the bedrock of the field. It also set her apart from the political scientists, sociologists, and journalists constituting the neoconservative intellectual community that she and her husband, Irving Kristol, built and called home.

It has been suggested that if Himmelfarb had attended the University of Chicago just 10 years later, she would have emerged another Straussian political theorist. That might have been the case: Himmelfarb always emphasized the role of contingency in history. She was also wary of historical counterfactuals. She was a historian of ideas, yes, but she was a historian first. She understood that the intellectual genealogies she traced permeated minds and societies composed of flesh and blood, and therefore resisted being reconciled into anything resembling a fully coherent system. Hers was a disposition that balanced admiration with skepticism, and she worked best in the media of shades and nuances, inconsistencies and contradictions.

Despite her prolific output as both a historian and a public intellectual, Himmelfarb never quite received the same degree of renown as many of her conservative contemporaries. Part of the blame might lie in our society's tortured relationship with history — a pathology to which American conservatives are not immune. Although many on the right claim to love the past, it's not clear they really want to listen to everything it has to say.

Himmelfarb neither idealized the past nor found it so unintelligible that it was incapable of speaking moral truths to the present. As the historical profession continues to lose students and support, and illiberalism marches forward on the left and right alike, revisiting some of Himmelfarb's notable works reveals a theory of history that offers one of liberalism's best defenses.


Fittingly, Himmelfarb's first book was an intellectual biography of a 19th-century historian who defied categorization. Himmelfarb first discovered John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton — the British nobleman known best as Lord Acton — through her master's thesis on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influence on the French Revolution. Acton's lectures on this subject spurred her fascination with this incongruous Victorian luminary, who would become the subject of a dissertation she published as Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics. "[T]oo Liberal for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Liberals," as she put it, Acton's lifetime combined an unyielding Catholic faith with a pitched battle against papal infallibility, youthful relativism with moral absolutism in maturity, and a prolific career as an essayist and academic with the failure to publish a single book.

By hewing carefully to Acton's written work, Himmelfarb succeeded in resisting what she termed "the temptation to systematize and organize" his thought that would have otherwise tempted a political theorist. The effect is a biography that measuredly balances criticism with sympathy toward Acton's complicated mind. And despite evincing some disagreement with his philosophy of history, it's clear that Himmelfarb's own thought on the subject was influenced by Acton in key ways.

As Acton believed that ideas are "the moving forces of the world," Himmelfarb credited him with establishing the very field of history she specialized in. Of the many ideas he studied, it was liberty that became a lodestar in his work, culminating in a failed attempt to write a "history of liberty" that rivaled Edward Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies in its ambition. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Acton came to treat liberty not just as a vehicle for virtue, but as a virtue in itself. This intellectual development, Himmelfarb noted, set Acton against "all the most cherished and controversial values of religion, party, nation and class."

Although Acton struggled fiercely against the First Vatican Council in liberty's defense, Himmelfarb pointed out that he had embarked on his career as an intellectual historian under the belief that "religion was the essence of history" — in other words, that religion was the foundational site of world-bending ideas that gave shape to human politics. This was another theme that Himmelfarb herself would carry throughout her work, particularly as it related to the shaping of Victorian minds and the development of the British Enlightenment.

Because religion offered such a rich substrate for ideas, Acton resolutely insisted on faith's compatibility with reason. Himmelfarb details how his studies of biblical history under German theologians like Johann von Döllinger made him suspicious of those who clung to biblical literalism and anti-intellectualism. In a similar vein, Himmelfarb would continuously return to intellectuals and social movements that harmonized the mind and the spirit (such as 18th-century British Methodism), crediting them as being among the most significant forces behind social and political progress.

Despite his emphasis on hermeneutical nuance, Acton is perhaps best known for the uncompromising moral lens through which he came to interpret history. Himmelfarb is careful to explain that Acton was not born speaking aphorisms about power and corruption, but instead came around to this position over time. As a young scholar, Acton was heavily influenced by Edmund Burke, and while editor of the Catholic literary magazine The Rambler in the 1860s, he promulgated a vision of liberalism that "would find freedom in a judicious mixture of authority, tradition, and experience." Himmelfarb does not shy away from explaining how this disposition also sometimes lent itself to "tortuous" arguments and blinkered judgments, such as his claiming that Protestant religious persecutions were somehow worse in their intent than the Catholic Inquisition's body count, along with his downplaying of slavery while defending the Confederate states as victims of Northern democratic tyranny.

The fight over papal infallibility marked an important turning point in Acton's thought. He abandoned the prudential political philosophy he had adopted in his youth to assume what Himmelfarb described as "a much simpler formula, in which persecution was murder and all those implicated in it were murderers." To Acton, the historian's task was to defend the cause of liberty through clear-eyed judgment of the moral facts of history. This mission most famously manifested itself in Acton's unwillingness to allow the Catholic Church's role in the Inquisition to be forgotten as a damning historical indictment.

Assessing Acton, Himmelfarb could not seem to help but issue a few judgments of her own, and she appeared to sympathize most with Acton's mentor, Johann von Döllinger. Despite the latter's excommunication from the Catholic Church, Döllinger could not bring himself to embrace Acton's moral rigidity. Instead, he accommodated, as Himmelfarb put it, "the commonplace notion that although there were such things as absolute truth and absolute morality, these were generally beyond the reach of fallible men, bound by their environment, by ignorance and by temptation." Even so, the difference between Acton and Himmelfarb may be but a matter of degree. Like Acton, Himmelfarb reserved a keen sensitivity for the moral facts of history — she was just more skeptical than her subject was of the historian's capacity to cleanly uproot them.

Lord Acton received considerable praise upon its publication in 1952, when Himmelfarb was just 30 years old. Richard Weaver, the famed author of Ideas Have Consequences, knighted Himmelfarb as "a leading authority on the life and thought of Acton." Scottish Enlightenment historian Duncan Forbes called her biography "a useful corrective" to the work of scholars who had attempted "to reconstruct a closed philosophy from the whole body of Acton's work." Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin echoed these praises even as he wondered aloud whether the mass of contradictions in Acton's thought (coupled with his failure as a monographist) rendered him "anything more than a chapter in intellectual history." What Wolin failed to appreciate was that the very tension between faith and freedom incarnated within a modern such as Acton was precisely the reason Himmelfarb found him so significant.


Some two decades after publishing Lord Acton, Himmelfarb had developed a career as a prolific scholar of Great Britain, producing works on leading Victorian intellectuals such as Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill while teaching first at Brooklyn College and later at the City University of New York. Just a few years before leaving academia, Himmelfarb published the first of an intended two-volume opus that fused social and intellectual history together. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, released in 1984, offered a comprehensive study of what Himmelfarb ultimately characterized, in her careful way, as a victory of "the moral imagination": the discursive recasting of poverty from an inevitable condition of human life to a moral problem demanding remediation.

While much of Himmelfarb's work that followed Lord Acton focused on individual thinkers, The Idea of Poverty was an ambitious attempt to capture the intellectual evolution of an entire society. It was first published in the heyday of the social turn in historiography, which emphasized "history from below" through analyses of censuses, polls, tax records, and other quantitative sources. Even if Himmelfarb had reservations about social history, she framed her ambitious project as an attempt to complement the new fashions in the historical academy rather than to oppose them outright. Important as it was to understand the material realities of the lower classes, for Himmelfarb, it was impossible to grasp the reforms that (famously and infamously) characterized Victorian policies toward the poor without explaining how poverty came to be conceived of as a problem in the first place.

In terms of its source material, The Idea of Poverty is remarkably omnivorous. Although Himmelfarb focused on familiar intellectual titans of the age, such as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Thomas Paine, she contextualized them in ways that emphasized the many tensions in British attitudes toward the poor. For example, the opening study of the transition between Smith and Malthus illustrates how fatalistic Malthusianism "demoralized" the same poor that Smith understood to have a capacity for self-improvement through education equal to that of the wealthy. Similarly, her extensive analysis of Punch co-founder Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor demonstrates how this 1850s journalistic survey cultivated an image of the "culture of poverty" that horrified Victorian minds and galvanized reform efforts even as it was at odds with real material improvements that were taking place among the working poor.

While complicating triumphalist narratives of the period, Himmelfarb highlighted the humanizing efforts of other writers, such as the nuanced, colorful, and complex working-class characters invented by Charles Dickens. She also drew from radical newspapers, female novelists, and Chartist pamphleteers to flesh out the culture that birthed the 1834 New Poor Law and the reimagining of a "deserving" poor who merited public and private assistance (along with its infamous corollary, the "undeserving" poor).

Even if her methods emphasized written sources, The Idea of Poverty served as a reminder that "Great Texts" alone do not shape history; they are but a part of the interweaving and interstitial layers of a society's conception of itself, borne from a multitude of variegated minds. "A historian," Himmelfarb clarified, "must take seriously" novels and other texts "which may be mediocre and meretricious, which are no part of the 'great tradition' or even of any lesser 'selective tradition.'" To ignore these sources would be to forfeit the historian's humanistic charge to recover a past that is lost to us, however imperfectly.

Even so, Himmelfarb admitted that her methodological approach made it difficult to recover the "one kind of source the historian would dearly love to have: the direct testimony of the poor themselves." She was nevertheless skeptical of the historian's ability to force the subaltern to speak through numbers. A passage grappling with the difficulty of measuring the concept of "living standards" over time offers an example of this skepticism refined into a rhetorical blade that she wielded with Socratic expertise:

How can one quantify and incorporate into a standard-of-living formula diverse factors of unequal weight and importance and, often, of contrary effect (the rising cost of rent and the declining cost of fuel, or regular low-paid work and irregular higher-paid work)? How can one add to these the different kinds of considerations involved in determining the "quality of life," the "amenities" and "disamenities" of different occupations and different modes of life? How can one measure the benefits accruing to the poor by public services and private agencies: hospitals, schools, sewers, street-lighting, police, charity, relief? How can one compare the psychological satisfaction of independence experienced by some young factory workers who took the first opportunity to leave their parents' homes, with the psychological deprivation of others torn from the bosom of their families — or the dissatisfaction of parents deprived of the company (and earnings) of their children?

The Idea of Poverty received considerable attention and inspired plenty of debate in both academic and popular literary circles upon its publication. Some historians took issue with the voices that Himmelfarb failed to include in her study, or with the weight that some thinkers received. Others argued that Himmelfarb's superficial treatment of the shifting economic and technological conditions in Great Britain during this period weakened the connection she was attempting to build between the ideas she studied and the real changes that occurred in how the Victorians treated the poor.

At the same time, many others praised the book for its ambitious scope and lucid writing. One historian even suggested that Himmelfarb's work emulated E. P. Thompson's social-history classic, The Making of the English Working Class, in the breadth and depth of its exploration of the Victorians and poverty, calling it "the most important book to appear on the subject since The Making in 1963." Even if elements of The Idea of Poverty offered a corrective to Whiggish historiographical pretensions, and even if some Victorian "solutions to the problem of poverty were inadequate to the problem itself," Himmelfarb's underlying intervention was clear: In a world of contingencies and human depravity, that poverty became a problem worth solving at all was a credit to the melioristic and morally grounded liberalism of the age.


Just as Himmelfarb characterized Lord Acton as "too Liberal for the Catholics and too Catholic for the Liberals," it could be said that for a long time, Himmelfarb was too much a historian to be a conservative partisan and too conservative to be entirely comfortable in the historical profession.

This was especially true by the late 1980s, when the historical field was splintering into a wide range of methodological schools. At 65, Himmelfarb retired from City University and relocated to Washington, D.C., along with Kristol, where he would continue his work as a public intellectual at AEI. (While she was never an AEI scholar, she did sit on the institute's Board of Academic Advisors.) At this point, Himmelfarb decided to apply her rapier skepticism to the trends in her discipline that she found increasingly at odds with the historian's mission.

One way of thinking about The New History and the Old — a compilation of essays first published in 1987 and revised in 2004 — is as the kind of historiographical overview that graduate students would expect to encounter in a modern course on the historian's craft. Few of the major turns escaped Himmelfarb's notice — Michael Oakeshott and Michel Foucault, psycho-history and micro-history, and much more were subject to her incisive criticism (from which only the Victorian historian Thomas Macaulay escaped unscathed). Despite the collection's wide scope, a couple of key themes emerge when taking it as the sum of its parts.

Himmelfarb had many reservations about social history, but she resented accusations that she sought to excise the subfield from the historical discipline. "No one — certainly not I — can reasonably object to a study of popular unrest in Paris from 1557 to 1572; or of vagrants, beggars, and bandits in Cuba from 1878 to 1895; or of women's work in manufacturing in Central Europe from 1648 to 1870; or of stature and nutrition in the Hapsburg monarchy in the eighteenth century," she clarified in the volume's introduction. The issue was not one of inclusion, but of emphasis. "[M]y objections," she wrote, "are not to social history as such but to its claims of dominance, superiority, even 'totality' — not to social history as it may complement or supplement traditional history but to that which would supplant it."

What frustrated Himmelfarb so much about social history (and its close relative quanto-history) was its downplaying of sources that represented written ideas, produced by "the great men of the time as well as the ordinary men." Worse in her mind was social history's "misplaced precision," "excessive abstraction," and a confident, data-driven objectivity that denuded historical narratives of any moral considerations.

Psycho-history and mentalité history, on the other hand, suffered from the opposite set of problems: They focused so heavily on studying the emotional, behavioral, and cultural structures forming individual and societal attitudes that they failed to pay much notice to well-formed ideas articulated in traditional print sources. Himmelfarb was also suspicious of these subfields' reliance on Freudian frameworks and extended narratives mined from what she considered unreliable sources. "The historical record," she observed, "is notoriously inadequate, full of gaps and flaws, infuriatingly lacking in the missing links we are always seeking."

Because she was a historian, Himmelfarb understood well why the scholarly questions posed by the psycho-historians and the students of the Annales school were worth exploring, and she empathized with the unique challenges these subfields faced. Her emphasis on the significance of letters, books, pamphlets, and treatises that formed the core of the "old" history was therefore not the mark of a closeted political theorist: The same skepticism of system that made her a historian also drove her suspicion of analytical jumps that landed, in her mind, on shaky ground.

But it wasn't just methodological soundness that made Himmelfarb so defensive of the "old" history (which, to invert historian George Macaulay Trevelyan's formula for social history, might be understood as "history with the politics left in"); it was the belief that politics served as the most important arena for working out "the potentiality for freedom," where humanity actively shaped history instead of just being buffeted by its whims.

Recalling Aristotle, Himmelfarb believed that man was a fundamentally political animal. She was offended by the notion that studying politics and ideas — particularly liberal ideas — meant that historians were siloing themselves to studies of the elite. "My rebuttal [to social history]," she put decisively in The New History and the Old, is "that even ordinary people (perhaps most of all ordinary people) had been profoundly affected in the most ordinary aspects of their lives by the founding of the republic, by political events, institutions, and ideas that had created a new polity and with it a new society."

Along with defending the important role political history played in understanding the past, Himmelfarb also offered a nuanced assessment of history's capacity to help us understand the present. In an essay titled "Does History Talk Sense?" Himmelfarb compared Michael Oakeshott's and Friedrich Nietzsche's competing visions of history incarnated as a woman. To Oakeshott, history was a beloved but thoroughly dead mistress, and no amount of "necromancy" by historians could succeed in resurrecting her so that she could be understood on her own terms. No matter a scholar's pretensions at objectivity, for Oakeshott, every historical narrative was inescapably adulterated by present judgments. Nietzsche counterintuitively took the more "Whiggish" approach, treating history as a kind of goddess who was very much alive and actively shaping the present.

Although she was more sympathetic to Nietzsche, Himmelfarb ultimately concluded that history was best understood as "a sensible wife." She believed that history offered a source of intelligible wisdom if a historian could accord an appropriate level of respect to the perspective of those who constituted it, along with recognizing that even the most beloved spouses are never perfectly understood by their partners. As half of what Daniel Bell called "the best marriage of our generation," Himmelfarb might have been speaking from personal experience.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, The New History and the Old generated even more controversy than The Idea of Poverty. Both upon its original publication and rerelease, historians of gender and class lambasted Himmelfarb's essay collection as polemic, one that sought to minimize the study of underrepresented voices while enshrining the study of elite thought as history's highest objective.

There are indeed moments where Himmelfarb flattened many of the nuances and internal debates that characterized the subfields she spliced apart under her analytical microscope. At the same time, many of these reviewers refused to acknowledge her concessions to the methodological contributions offered by the "new history." If she erred in any direction, it was in failing to imagine what a productive collaboration between the "old" and the "new" history could look like. Instead, she tended to reinforce the dichotomy between two warring sides.

Retired from teaching and disillusioned by the state of the historical academy, Himmelfarb spent much of the 1990s translating her expertise in British history to public-facing social criticism. Her 1995 book, The De-Moralization of Society, seemed to depart from the carefully researched conclusions she had reached in The Idea of Poverty by arguing that Americans needed to recover the Victorian distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor in the welfare debates of the Clinton era. As New School historian Oz Frankel noted in his bibliographic entry on Himmelfarb for the Jewish Women's Archive, disputes "over her work, which in the past was largely praised for its prodigious scholarship, elegance, and lucidity, grew as her writings focused on the present rather than on the past and as her tone became more bellicose."

While highlighting the critiques of The De-Moralization of Society, Frankel nevertheless fails to assess the book that became Himmelfarb's most popular work. Published in 2004, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments provides one of the best examples of what historians can offer to the public through their craft. By delineating both the intellectual and social forces that shaped the age of Enlightenment, Himmelfarb offered an accessible framework that enables modern society to understand itself.

At first blush, Roads to Modernity appears to be more the work of a political theorist than a historian. But a closer look at Himmelfarb's argument ultimately reveals the historian at work. To better explain the international 17th- and 18th-century movement known broadly as the Enlightenment, Himmelfarb offers a tripartite taxonomy of its French, British, and American components. Distilling each strand to its methodological core, Himmelfarb argued that the French Enlightenment pursued the "ideology of reason," the British Enlightenment cultivated the "sociology of virtue," and the American Enlightenment practiced the "politics of liberty."

Though it painted with a broad brush, Himmelfarb's scholarly intervention involved reconceptualizing the British Enlightenment as a distinct phenomenon. This movement was certainly not homogenous; it lumped leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lockean natural-rights theorists, and British-born radicals under its umbrella. Acknowledging these important tensions, Himmelfarb argued that the glue that held the thinkers of the British Enlightenment together was the movement's inquiry into the development of the moral sense. The idea that all humans had the capacity to form innate moral judgments — best articulated by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments — both facilitated the emphasis on human equality that drove radical thinkers such as William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine, and inspired the flourishing of British charitable associations in the late 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast to the turbulence of France's "age of reason," Himmelfarb concluded, Great Britain's Enlightenment created the conditions for something "less dramatic but more practical and durable...'an age of benevolence.'"

What truly distinguished Roads to Modernity as a work of historical scholarship was Himmelfarb's emphasis on the role religion played in the British Enlightenment. She singled out the rise of Methodism as key to integrating the principles of the British Enlightenment's "sociology of virtue" into everyday life. Promulgating a salvific vision based on faith and good works that was accessible to everyone no matter their gender, race, or class, Methodism was a religious manifestation of the British Enlightenment's insights on equality and moral sense.

Himmelfarb notably pushed back against scholars who characterized Methodism as anti-intellectual. She argued that this democratized faith, popularized by English leaders such as John Wesley and George Whitefield, provided the guiding force behind many of the age's benevolent societies and movements, including the fights against slavery and animal abuse, the education of the poor, and the elevation of women in religious (and, by extension, public) life.

Himmelfarb also argued that attitudes toward religion played a decisive role in differentiating the American and French enlightenments. To French philosophes such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Rousseau (none of whom shared their British counterparts' belief in a common "moral sense"), religion was the enemy of their goal of creating a perfect society guided by reason alone. The pragmatic founders of the United States, on the other hand, had enough respect for the fallen nature of man to view religion as the indispensable ally of a free society — even if that free society precluded established churches.

Though, as Himmelfarb pointed out, the United States initially failed to emulate Britain's philanthropic turn following the Revolution, the young nation created the conditions for associational life that eventually succeeded in marrying the British Enlightenment's "sociology of virtue" with its own "politics of liberty." Of course, the issue of slavery posed a problem for her argument — one that she acknowledged yet failed to satisfactorily answer beyond drumming up Abraham Lincoln as the executor of what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Declaration's "promissory note." A longer book might have enabled her to trace the powerful role religion played in driving many American reform movements that aimed, with varying degrees of success, to realize the Declaration's recognition of equal human dignity and freedom for all.


Even as she drew on a lifetime of scholarly knowledge to synthesize complicated historical developments into a coherent narrative about Britain's, France's, and America's unique contributions to the age of Enlightenment, Himmelfarb couldn't help but hedge. Britain's "'Age of Benevolence' obviously had its underside," she acknowledged in Roads to Modernity. "While one historian finds 1766 noteworthy as the year of publication of Jonas Hanway's Earnest Appeal of Mercy to the Children of the Poor, a tract that publicized infant mortality rates in the poorhouses...another cites that year as a time of an unprecedented number of food riots occasioned by a harvest failure." Captivated as she may have been by the power of ideas, Himmelfarb's perspective as a historian meant that she could not ignore the material forces that naturally competed with and meaningfully altered how ideas influenced the trajectory of human affairs.

Whether writing on British intellectuals, Victorian social issues, or the very discipline of history itself, Himmelfarb looked to the past and what it had to say about liberal society as someone (to borrow philosopher William James's phrase) "twice-born": someone who appreciated the profound and terrible role contingency played in history; who had no illusions about the purported inevitability of progress; who, as she put it herself, experienced "life as a tragic mystery, acutely aware of the potentiality for evil and of the heroic effort required to overcome it."

In a way, this disposition was inevitable. For all she found admirable about the past, Himmelfarb understood well that it could culminate in present tragedies. She was, after all, a Jewish woman who lived the majority of her life in the 20th century, an age that endured the rise of Nazism, the manifold abuses of communist authoritarianism, and a litany of other horrors in between. History did not guarantee the triumph of a good idea.

At the same time, the thrust of Himmelfarb's project as a historian was to mobilize history in defense of good ideas. Although she was effectively a conservative for most of her life (outside a brief flirtation with Marxism in her youth), Himmelfarb had as little use for misty-eyed nostalgia as she did for an unbounded confidence in the moral arc of history. She revered the liberal tradition, particularly the sensible, practical, and virtue-oriented one born out of the British and American enlightenments, and the multi-generational British and American societies that cultivated and transmitted this tradition. Morals and moral sense mattered, in her telling, because they made the pursuit of freedom — of a kind of progress — possible. And because the society within which an idea percolated mattered as much as the idea itself, Himmelfarb's historical awareness enabled her to find worthy subjects in a liberal Catholic intellectual who never wrote a book, Methodist ministers, Chartist journalists, and long-forgotten novels and pamphlets that, while serving as organs for liberal thought in their own day and age, will never be included in a "Great Books" curriculum.

"I suffer from the professional deformation of the historian," Himmelfarb confessed at the end of The New History and the Old. "Philosophers can see the eternal verities that transcend history. Political scientists can see the abstract processes that underlie history. Historians can only see history itself, the 'epiphenomena' of history, it might be said pejoratively — the messy, unpredictable, contradictory, transitory, yet ineluctable facts of history."

Even if history is only visible through a glass darkly and mired in mess and contradiction, Himmelfarb knew that wrestling with its ineluctable facts was an essential part of recovering a tradition worth preserving. Unfortunately, our capacity to meaningfully reckon with historical facts (moral or otherwise) has been jeopardized by those who treat history as a litany of abuses by the empowered against the disempowered, while others sanitize it beyond recognition by cleaving ideas from their historical context. If we are to return history to its rightful place in our civic discourse, it will depend in part on emulating the example Himmelfarb set by treating history as a beloved spouse — warts and all.

Nicole Penn is a senior program manager at the American Enterprise Institute and a doctoral student in history at George Mason University.


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