To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy Soul rest, for none can work in that night.
—John Donne, Satire III (“Of Religion”)
Four years ago this week in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place full of history, two visions of America’s future squared off. On one side were Americans devoted to White supremacy, who had descended on the town to march in the Unite the Right rally. On the other side were Americans devoted to multiracial democracy, there to affirm their commitment to human equality against those who denied it.
In the days following the rally, President Donald Trump made a series of statements that entangled the past, present, and future and further polarized the nation. He argued that while there were “some very bad people” on the White supremacist side, “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” There were “many people” participating in the rally “other than neo-Nazis and White nationalists” who were there “to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue [of Robert E. Lee] and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.” What other statues would be torn down, Trump wondered. George Washington’s? He “was a slave owner.” What about Thomas Jefferson’s? “Because he was a major slave owner.” If the statue of every slaveholding Founding Father had to be torn down, Trump suggested, there would be practically no statues left.
A week after the events in Charlottesville, the New York Times published an op-ed by a former White nationalist and current Ph.D. student in history named R. Derek Black. Black rebutted Trump’s claim that “many people” participating in the rally were not White supremacists. He also criticized Trump’s comments about Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaveholding as having “salvage[d] the message that the rally organizers had originally hoped to project.” Then, from a different direction, he proceeded to argue for the centrality of slavery and White supremacy to the American Founding. He wrote:
The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.
In a key respect, therefore, both Trump and Black endorsed the substance, if not the politics, of the White nationalist interpretation of history: slavery and white supremacy were central to the Founding.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project has taken over and elaborated the interpretation that both Trump and Black endorsed in August 2017, injecting the politics of anti-racism à la Ibram X. Kendi rather than of White supremacy. To challenge those politics, Trump executed a volte-face and appointed the 1776 Commission, which attempted to center U.S. history on the commitment to human freedom rather than White supremacy. These competing historical interpretations have become markers of political identity—Team 1619 is the Left, and Team 1776 is the Right. Each sees itself as the defender of reality and sees its opponents as living in the Matrix, promoting an ideologically motivated myth. History, in short, has become a wedge issue dividing the nation rather than uniting it. Though neither side sees itself this way, both are instrumentalizing, indeed weaponizing, history to score political points.
The proper role of the American historical profession is to resist this sort of instrumentalization. We’re supposed to help the American people to understand the past in all its complexity, as much as possible on its own terms—to see purple where it exists, even when it would be more convenient politically to see red or blue. Yet too many professional historians have failed to combat this instrumentalization of the past—or, worse, they’ve added to it. We’re happy to talk about the problems with the 1776 Commission but, with noble exceptions, reluctant to talk about the problems with the 1619 Project. That’s a double standard.
History of the Historians
However, before decrying (or lauding) the conduct of the historical profession in the history wars, it’s important to understand something of where that behavior comes from. This requires some grasp of the historical profession’s own history.
Although the study of history is very old, its professionalization—that is, the study of history not as an unpaid hobby but as a paid job, with all its attendant professional journals, associations, and so on—is relatively new, dating only to the 19th century. As it emerged, the profession took on two characteristics with special significance for understanding its contemporary conduct.
First, professional historians drew inspiration, and tried to draw prestige, from the professionalization of scientists. Nineteenth-century historians borrowed what they understood to be the scientific norm of “objectivity.” Like scientists, historians were obliged to try to observe reality as it actually was, not as they wished it to be. This conception of objectivity introduced a strong anti-presentist norm into the profession. The past was to be studied for its own sake, not in order to be “applied” in the present. Presentism implied potential bias—an un-scientific commitment to something other than the truth.
Second, professional historians emerged in close symbiosis with nation-states. Historians professionalized at a moment when nations, especially new ones like Germany, were intensely interested in appearing ancient. Nations, like historians, sought to borrow the authority of science to legitimize themselves. (Think, for instance, of Teutonic germ theory, which drew on the authority of evolutionary biology.) But they looked even more to history. Professional historians met the demand, supplying ideologically freighted historical lineages for their nations with the imprimatur of professional neutrality. They saw little to no tension between nationalism and the norm of objectivity.
Over the course of the 20th century, these original dual loyalties substantially eroded: objectivity withered under the assault of postmodernism, and nationalism under evidence of the evil done in nations’ names (such as the Holocaust). Some of this erosion was healthy and over-due. Objectivity, as understood in the 19th century, was naive and arrogant. It assumed that accurately observing reality is far simpler than it actually is, given how deeply our subjective perspectives shape our observations. It also held that a sort of self-abnegation was necessary to achieve objectivity, when in fact selfhood can generate important new historical questions as surely as it can corrupt their answers. Similarly, historians’ overriding loyalty to their nations contributed to serious flaws in scholarship. Too often, nationalism led historians to suppress evidence that they feared would cast their nations in a bad light.
Yet for all the faults of the old professional loyalties, what has emerged to replace them has problems of its own. Although postmodernism provides a powerful (and politically protean) set of tools for grappling with certain problems, it can also slide into nihilism—by making all judgments, whether by historians or by the people we study, equally subjective and thus equally valid or invalid. Scholarship and professionalism, which depend on the ability to distinguish between more and less valid judgments according to given criteria, cannot function if postmodernism runs amok.
By the same token, reflexive anti-nationalism is as ideological as reflexive nationalism, and thus carries the same potential to influence the observation of reality. Postmodernism and anti-nationalism have both tended to alienate the American historical profession from the nation that funds its existence, and that alienation is itself a problem. The Charybdis of cronyism has given way to the Scylla of mutual contempt.
That’s where the historical profession remains today, more or less. Objectivity and nationalism are in disrepute, and presentist activism—so long as it’s neither nationalistic nor complicit in oppressive ideologies—is celebrated. To be sure, not all professional historians have climbed on the postmodernist bandwagon. Within the academy, as within the Left more broadly, there is still a major divide between the materialists and the culturalists—that is, between historians (especially those with a Marxist bent) committed to the older objectivist proposition that we can accurately observe a material reality external to us, and historians convinced that any claim to knowledge is a claim to power.
By the same token, not all professional historians regard U.S. claims of a national commitment to freedom and justice as wholly or even primarily lies. Here again there is a divide between left-liberal historians, who are committed to acknowledging the ugly parts of U.S. history but insist that these are only part of the story, and left-radical historians, who see the ugly parts as the story. But materialist, left-liberal historians are swimming against the professional tide.
The histories of nationalism and of the historical profession go far to explain why professional historians have overwhelmingly sided with the 1619 Project and against the 1776 Commission, and why this position has provoked such intense hostility from many Americans. Certainly, critical race theory has replaced postmodernism as the object of the fighting, but many of the guns are being fired from old artillery emplacements. The anger on both sides is not new; rather, it marks another escalation of the long-standing dynamic of reciprocal polarization between the American historical profession and the American nation.
Both sides of this conflict are convinced that the stakes are high. Supporters of the 1619 Project see the 1776 Commission as not only empirically inaccurate but morally reprobate, flattering Americans with a warmed-over version of the now-discredited nationalistic myth that the United States was founded on a commitment to human freedom. From their perspective, Americans’ self-image is at best a half-truth: the nation that sees itself as founded on a commitment to human freedom was in fact founded on slavery and White supremacy, and the people Americans like to think of as heroes, such as the Founding Fathers, had deep villainous streaks. Moreover, by refusing to compel Americans to acknowledge their nation’s historical record of racial oppression, the 1776 Commission delays a necessary and overdue step toward building a truly multiracial democracy.
Supporters of the 1776 Commission believe the same things about the 1619 Project in reverse. In their view, the Project is not about providing an empirically accurate version of U.S. history but imposing left-wing hegemony on a politically diverse country. It seeks to obliterate Americans’ ability to feel pride in their history by suppressing evidence that the United States has advanced human freedom and reducing its record to a story of oppression.
The point here isn’t that objectivity or postmodernism, nationalism or cosmopolitanism, are good or bad. All of them have their uses, and all of them become dangerous when taken to extremes. The point is that the quasi-religious demonization of unbelievers by both sides has triumphed over scholarly humanism.
Framing the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission as polar opposites both feeds and is fed by this demonizing impulse. It also represents a failure of historical analysis. Accordingly, one way we might apply history responsibly is to examine how this framing is itself a political construct. As the historian Matthew Karp notes, these historical visions share two important similarities: they lay great stress on a founding moment, and they both tell stories of continuity rather than abrupt change.
The founding moment—traditionally 1776—has always loomed large in Americans’ historical imagination. The same is not true for many other nations, which don’t single out a time when—presto change-o!—the nation came into being. Instead, they memorialize and fight over multiple moments, which are understood not as foundings but as important events. For the British, there’s 1066 (Norman Conquest), 1215 (Magna Carta), 1415 (Agincourt), 1588 (defeat of the Spanish Armada), 1605 (Gunpowder Plot), 1688 (Glorious Revolution), 1805 (Trafalgar), and 1815 (Waterloo). None of these bear the same weight that 1776 does for Americans.
This may have something to do with the fact that European settlers in America, whose sense of trans-colonial belonging was thin, had little else to work with. So 1776 in particular, and the concept of a single founding moment more generally, burrowed deeply into Americans’ historical imagination. The 1619 Project selects a different year, but it doesn’t challenge the American instinct to understand the nation’s history in terms of a single founding moment. For all its seeming radicalism, in that respect it is every bit as conservative as the 1776 Commission.
The emphasis on founding moments has produced, in both the 1619 and 1776 interpretations, narratives of continuity rather than change. The founding moment determines the arc of the nation’s subsequent history: America was founded on White supremacy and remains White supremacist today; or America was founded on freedom and remains committed to freedom today. There is little rupture, little contest, little contingency. U.S. history just acts out the inner logic of the chosen founding. True, both visions report evidence of change over time, but neither allows that evidence to disturb the narrative commitment to continuity.
Consider Nikole Hannah-Jones’ opening essay for the 1619 Project. It frames Reconstruction as a moment of change, then attributes the reversion to White supremacist continuity to the fact that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” as though the (aptly) Teutonic germ of White supremacy biologically determined the course of American history. By the same token, the 1776 Commission acknowledges that “the American story” of expanding freedom “has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs,” and then attributes the reversion to universalist continuity to “resistance from the clear principles of the nation,” as though founding principles, rather than people, have causal agency. The point for both is that America’s DNA, whatever its content, is unchangeable.
The 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission also have similar—and similarly unexamined—epistemological orientations. Both invoke the language of objectivity while pursuing presentist agendas. Hannah-Jones writes most of her opening essay in the voice of a journalist-historian confident in her ability to perceive the past accurately; indeed, her essay purports to offer a more accurate understanding of the past than the conventional one. At the same time, she makes no secret of her ideological commitments. These come through at the beginning and end of her essay, when she asks, on behalf of herself, her father, and all Black Americans, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year that we [Black Americans] have never been the problem but the solution?” They also come through when she questions the motives of those who criticize her interpretation.
Similarly, the authors of the 1776 Commission report declare on the first page that they are in the business of historical “facts” and promise to supply a history that is “accurate” and “honest,” thus implicitly casting doubt on the motives of those who disagree with them. Then in the next breath they promise to supply a history that is “unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” These words speak not to objectivity but to ideological commitment. Thus, both the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission mobilize the authority of objectivity against their critics even as they engage in non-objective activism.
The (Complicated) Politics of It All
Much as the framing of 1619 and 1776 as opposites obscures important similarities, their operation as a partisan Sorting Hat obscures the fact that their politics are much less straightforward than they seem.
As the substantive convergence between Donald Trump’s and Derek Black’s post-Charlottesville comments suggests, the 1619 Project’s interpretation of the American Founding has much in common with the White supremacist interpretation. To be clear, there are substantial differences (White supremacists traditionally ignore evidence of violence against slaves, for instance). Nevertheless, the 1619 Project’s core thesis—that America was founded as a White man’s nation—is what White supremacists have been screaming for years.
Indeed, Stephen Douglas infamously said just that in the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate: “This Government was made by our fathers on the White basis. It was made by White men for the benefit of White men and their posterity forever.” The 1619 Project argues that Douglas spoke for virtually all White Americans, including the one we most like to think of as anti-racist: Abraham Lincoln. Hannah-Jones quotes this statement by Lincoln about Black Americans at the first Lincoln-Douglas debate: “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of White people will not.”
White supremacists are fond of quoting another such statement by Lincoln in his fourth debate with Douglas. In a book about Derek Black’s repudiation of White nationalism, the reporter Eli Saslow wrote,
White nationalists would sometimes describe racial awareness as a choice between swallowing a blue pill or a red pill, an analogy that came from the movie The Matrix. The blue pill offered blissful ignorance, a make-believe story about racial equality fed to the masses. The red pill was the revelation of a thorny, hidden truth buried within America’s founding, and the more Derek dug into American history, the more red pills he found.… There was Abraham Lincoln, the great abolitionist, debating in public with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858. ‘There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,’ Lincoln said. ‘And I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.’
The 1619 Project swallows the same red pill. Like White nationalists, it wants Americans to know that our feel-good story about human freedom is the Matrix. This quiet, substantive agreement beneath the noisy political differences is why Black could accuse Trump of “salvaging” the White supremacist interpretation of U.S. history in one breath and then endorse that interpretation as “most honest” in the next. Black’s politics had changed, but his interpretation of U.S. history hadn’t. The 1619 interpretation remains amenable to widely divergent political uses, though the fact that hard-core racists agree with it has not protected its critics from accusations of racism.
Conversely, the substance of the 1776 Commission report has more in common with a left-wing interpretation of U.S. history than it does with the White supremacist interpretation. The authors recruit Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (none of whom, as Karp notes, are mentioned in the Hannah-Jones essay), for Team America. They also reject the traditional White supremacist argument that only non-White people play identity politics by tagging John C. Calhoun as “perhaps the leading forerunner” of identity politics. The work of left-wing historians made these moves possible; it certainly wasn’t anyone on the political right who saw Truth, Douglass, and King as heroes and did the research to prove it. The 1776 Commission not only doesn’t acknowledge this debt; it actively covers it up by disparaging academia for its leftward drift since the 1960s, which, not coincidentally, is when much of this work began.
Like the 1619 Project, the 1776 Commission also refers to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Indeed, it uses the same passage quoted above to disparage Douglas, omits the Lincoln statement quoted by Hannah-Jones, and quotes a Lincoln statement omitted by Hannah-Jones: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior … until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” The 1776 Commission uses its chosen Lincoln statement to argue, against the 1619 Project, that the United States was founded on human freedom rather than on White supremacy. Both sides, therefore, cherry-pick Lincoln statements that advance their agenda and ignore contrary statements.
Of course, the 1776 Commission’s engagement with left-wing history is highly selective. No serious historian could accept its unnuanced assertion that the United States was founded on human freedom, given the existence of so much contrary evidence. That selectiveness, along with the 1776 Commission’s decidedly not-left-wing move to elevate anti-abortion politics to the level of the civil rights movement, might lead a cynic to suspect that the engagement with history produced by left-wing historians is instrumental rather than sincere. Even so, the substance of the 1776 Commission report has more in common with a left-wing reading of U.S. history than it does with the White supremacist reading. The thinness of its left-wing commitment reflects the 1776 Commission’s swallowing of the blue pill: no Matrix to see here!
Each side’s choice of pill is counterintuitive, and not just because the colors are, on a political map, the opposite of what one would expect. The red-pill history of the 1619 Project, which starts with White supremacy and ends with systemic racism, does not offer much evidence that progressive activism works. A narrative of foreordained, genetically determined failure for progressive activism would seem to lend itself more naturally to right-wing than to left-wing politics, which may help to explain why the White supremacist far Right embraces the same narrative.
On the flip side, the blue-pill history of the 1776 Commission, which starts and ends with human freedom, may not suggest any need for progressive activism, but it does offer evidence that progressive activists fighting for human freedom routinely win and have more right to wave the American flag than do their opponents. A narrative promising success and the mantle of patriotism to freedom-championing activists might seem to lend itself more naturally to progressive politics than to conservative politics, which may help to explain why the 1776 Commission has an unacknowledged debt to the work of left-wing historians.
Perhaps the deepest similarity between the 1619 Project and 1776 Commission, then, is their shared interest in denying any similarity. Their construction as polar opposites legitimizes each in the eyes of its supporters. But political convenience isn’t the same as truth.
As it sings paeans to truth, the American Historical Association (AHA), the leading association of professional historians in the United States, has not resisted the siren song of political convenience. Rather than interrogate the binary logic of the 1619 versus 1776 debate, the AHA has accepted and exacerbated it, violating professional and scholarly norms in the process.
As soon as the 1776 Commission report was released, the AHA issued a statement of condemnation. Using objectivist language, it accused the commission of advancing “a simplistic interpretation” of the Founding Fathers “that relies on falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” Written “without any consultation with professional historians of the United States” and “fail[ing] to engage a rich and vibrant body of scholarship that has evolved over the last seven decades,” the report was guilty of indulging in “a screed against a half-century of historical scholarship.”
Here the AHA engages in its own “misleading” interpretation, however, by affirming the 1776 Commission’s incomplete self-presentation. What the AHA fairly characterizes as the commission’s anti-left-wing screed is objectionable on scholarly grounds not just because it’s a screed, but also because it’s plagiaristic: it functions to cover up the commission’s debt to the work of left-wing historians. The existence of that debt is as politically inconvenient for the AHA as it is for the 1776 Commission, and thus the AHA, for all its talk of objectivity, ignores it for equally political reasons.
The AHA’s subsequent statement opposing Republican-led efforts to restrict the teaching of critical race theory in public education exhibits a similar tension between a professional commitment to objectivity and activism. First, the statement declares that, “Educators must provide an accurate view of the past” and affirms that “professional educators,” not “elected officials,” should decide what constitutes accuracy. Then, in a breathtakingly rapid about-face, it announces that, “Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living,” within whose ranks, a postmodernist might speculate, professional educators are regarded as primus inter pares. With the sacrifice of the principle that the past is a material reality that one must attempt to understand accurately, one wonders on what ground the AHA proposes to combat living White supremacists—or for that matter members of the 1776 Commission—who use the past to serve their needs. Presumably, the only ground left to criticize Republican efforts at imposing “some state-ordered ideology” on innocent schoolchildren is that the wrong people are doing the indoctrinating.
This reading of the AHA’s rationale finds additional support in the selectiveness of the AHA’s criticism of inaccurate history and its defense of professional historians. Certainly, the 1776 Commission report can reasonably be accused of containing “falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements.” But so can the 1619 Project, and indeed it has been by some of the leading “professional historians of the United States.” Why, then, did an organization so committed to accurate history, as determined by professional historians, not also release a statement condemning the 1619 Project? And why didn’t it come to the defense of the historians who criticized the 1619 Project, when the Project’s defenders questioned their motives?
Postmodernists have written a lot about the invocation of professionalism and objectivity to subjugate ideologically suspect knowledge. Reflection on their work might give the AHA insight into itself—and into why the 1776 Commission’s “screed” against academia resonates with so many Americans.
The Task at Hand
It isn’t unreasonable that members of the public should expect some measure of national service from the American historical profession, which they fund. But they should be clear about what type of national service the historical profession can beneficially perform.
In an ideal world, the job of the American historical profession would be to serve as trustees of the past on behalf of the American people. In the real world, however, this is easier said than done. For one thing, the American people are often divided against themselves, resembling a pluribus more than an unum. For another, historians are Americans and people too, which helps to explain the ample evidence that we can’t be depended upon to do what we’re supposed to do. Contra our moralistic pretensions, we have not ascended to a higher plane of moral existence, as the slightest experience of faculty meetings proves. And even when we can be depended upon, there’s a disconnect between what we, at our best, want to supply and what the public, in its pluralistic wisdom, often demands.
From the perspective of those paying for our professional existence, we’re vendors, and they’re customers. So when they order history boiled down to easily digestible points, they expect us to comply. But oversimplification makes serious scholars deeply uncomfortable. The result is a double bind: If scholars insist on complexity, they’re alienating their customers; if they indulge customers’ wishes, the customers (correctly) accuse them of playing politics. Each side blames the other and refuses to take any responsibility for the breakdown of the relationship.
It takes two to tango. Both the Left and the Right want to oversimplify history to advance contemporary political agendas, such as atoning for the sins of the past or unifying the nation. These are not scholarly agendas, and it damages the public interest for scholars to cooperate with them. Legitimizing the use of history to pursue one political end necessarily legitimizes its use to pursue any political end. The study of the past becomes just another political weapon, and the professional status of historians lies in tatters.
The impulse to inject politics into everything, including the study of history, stems from an urgent desire to save the nation from internal threats. But that impulse is itself a threat to the nation. Liberal-democratic politics can’t work without a commitment to process for its own sake (which is why questioning election results is so dangerous). If there is no widely accepted process to legitimize outcomes, then there are no legitimate outcomes—only results achieved and sustained by brute force. If two competing political groups see each other as so dangerous that they have to change the process to prevent adverse outcomes, then we’re out of the world of liberal democracy and in the world of raw power. That’s the world the nation is heading toward.
Professional historians can’t help the nation get off this path by pursuing unity for the sake of unity—that’s putting ends ahead of means. Rather, we can help by putting means ahead of ends.
To begin with, we need to trust that the public can handle more rigorous scholarly process, not less. Maybe they can and maybe they can’t, but the only way to learn is to try. Americans are neither children nor customers; they’re our fellow citizens, who are supporting our livelihoods not so that we can lecture them about politics but so that we can help them better comprehend their own history, and thus make better decisions about the future. In other words, they’re paying us to help them do their democratic duty, not to do their democratic duty for them.
Our professional responsibility to the American people, therefore, entails pointing out the serious scholarly shortcomings of both the 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission. The focus on founding moments flies in the face of the broad scholarly understanding that history is a site of constant struggle, where structure contends with agency. No single year determined, quasi-biologically, the course of the nation’s subsequent history, in large part because Americans fought over what those years meant. History is a dynamic process. Continuities exist, but so do changes. The latter never end completely; they have a way of opening up new channels in the stream of history that can’t all be dammed. But to the extent that they peter out, they do so not because continuities reassert themselves, but because Americans choose continuity over change.
Contra the 1619 Project, Reconstruction didn’t end because America’s DNA made it end. It ended because Americans living at the time chose to end it. And it didn’t end entirely, because the three Reconstruction Amendments profoundly shaped the lives of many Americans then and thereafter. By the same token, the 1776 Commission report reflects change over time: the work of professional historians, mostly on the left, made it infeasible for even a right-wing presidential commission to endorse old conservative tropes about the Civil War like states’ rights. The terms of debate have changed (which isn’t to say that they couldn’t change back). Although the weight of the past means that the American people cannot make their present and future just as they please, they retain democratic agency to make it.
Professional historians should also communicate that the study of history is—like liberal democracy—a process. To do so, we need to rethink the potential for “applied,” “activist,” or “presentist” forms of history. Generally, we think of applied history in terms of outcomes. The 1619 Project and 1776 Commission both represent one kind of outcome-oriented approach, which oversimplifies the past in order to produce a desired ideological outcome in the present. We see evidence of this, for instance, in their respective cherry-picking of quotations from the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Another outcome-oriented approach is the search for historical analogies, identifying ostensible similarities between past and present in order to derive guidance for the here and now. This can be done responsibly—one should be as attentive to dissimilarities as to similarities, and suggest new lines of analysis for the present rather than dictating “lessons.” More often than not, it’s done irresponsibly, employing what the historian Samuel Moyn has nicely termed “riotous analogy without disanalogy.” Even when done responsibly, however, the search for analogies is outcome-based: much as the cherry-picking approach needs an interpretation of the past—the outcome of scholarly process—to advance its contemporary agenda, so the analogy approach needs an interpretation of the past that serves as the historical end of the analogy. These are cramped ways to think about the role of applied history, especially in a liberal democracy, which relies so fundamentally on proceduralism.
In a nation as deeply divided as ours, the process of studying history rigorously has greater potential to unify the nation than does any particular outcome of the process. A fundamental scholarly value is that ends do not justify means. Rather, means justify ends. Scholars aren’t supposed to rig the process to produce desired outcomes. Of course, we do, intentionally or unintentionally, because as postmodernists insist, our subjective selfhood necessarily shapes our perceptions of reality. Indeed, peer review, broadly defined, exists (or rather existed) to identify and correct process-rigging. But it has no point unless our peers, with different subjective selfhoods, can intersubjectively replicate our outcomes by following the same process.
Nor is there any point to the study of history if we, with our contemporary subjectivities, can’t intersubjectively imagine our ways, with the aid and discipline of evidence, into the lives of people with other subjectivities in the past. Liberal democracy requires the same imaginative capacity of its citizens in the present. Liberal-democratic proceduralism, like proper scholarly peer review, exists to ensure that American citizens with wildly varying subjectivities regard a given outcome as legitimate. If our subjective identities are prisons, we might as well pack up our toys and call it a day—both for the study of history and for the American experiment.
A purple nation needs a purple pill, not red pills or blue pills—a pill that acknowledges the Americanness of all colors, in the past and the present alike, and that recognizes there is no Matrix: it’s all real. Historically, White supremacy is as American as apple pie, and so is opposition to White supremacy. White people and people of color, Democrats and Republicans, are as American as each other. They have been for a long time. Remembering the color purple in our past might make us less hasty in calling any color un-American now.
So let’s go back to Charlottesville. There was no more fitting place for two competing visions of our nation’s racial future to square off than the home of a man who so well represents the complexity of its past. A slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson was more responsible than anyone for making freedom the new nation’s core value—a radical break from the older values of hierarchy and deference championed by Alexander Hamilton.
As historians have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt, freedom is a word with many potential meanings. It has been used to justify forms of unfreedom, including chattel slavery. But freedom has proven a difficult word to limit; it can also be used to critique unfreedom as the negation of America’s core value. So Jefferson bears disproportionate responsibility both for the most glaring hypocrisies of U.S. history and for supplying the most powerful means of redressing them.
That exquisite tension has always been at the heart of U.S. history. The course of that history, especially after Jefferson’s victory in 1800, has been to a remarkable degree a battle over the meaning of freedom and who gets to define it—slave owners or abolitionists, White people or people of color, capitalists or workers, men or women. A striking feature of this battle is that, though Americans often disagree on what freedom means, they agree to argue in terms of it. It’s conflict and consensus wrapped up together.
The past has plural, complex, and dynamic meanings. When people attempt to lock down those meanings, they’re usually trying to sell you something. This isn’t to say that anything goes; professional historians have ruled out certain interpretations on compelling scholarly grounds. For instance, the available evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that disagreements over states’ rights did not primarily cause the Civil War. It also overwhelmingly demonstrates that postwar efforts to frame the war in those terms didn’t stem from disinterested scholarly inquiry. Yet myriad meanings—subject to scholarly standards—remain open to debate.
Consider the statues of Robert E. Lee that dot the South, including Charlottesville until recently. When professional historians look at these statues, they see many meanings. They see a gifted general and a brave man who risked his life and livelihood for what he believed in; an ideologue who believed in slavery and White supremacy; a loyal son of Virginia; a traitor who broke his oath to uphold the Constitution. They see the White Southerners who erected the statues to Lee in the context of efforts to maintain White supremacy after the Civil War; the White Northerners who built many of the statues; and the Black Americans who led the opposition to the statues’ construction and to White supremacy. There are other meanings, too. Citizens can learn to see all these meanings, and they can learn, like historians, that these meanings have always been contested.
Only citizens can continue the contest by deciding which of these meanings are good and which are bad, and whether we need new ones. These are moral and political judgments, not historical ones. The role of professional historians is to understand and explain the past, not to praise or blame it. There’s no professional basis on which to decide whether statues should be torn down, or, if they’re left standing, what they should mean. Statues of Lee may have been intended as monuments to White supremacy or to a beloved leader, but that intent doesn’t fix their meaning for all time.
Citizens could decide that tearing down monuments to White supremacy advances anti-racism, or they could decide that removing evidence of White supremacy in U.S. history retards anti-racism. Historians cannot, in any professional capacity, make those decisions for them. Of course, we have every right to our views on these questions in our capacity as American citizens. But we must have the scholarly humility, in our own minds and in our communications with our fellow Americans, to distinguish between our professional and civic capacities. To do otherwise is anti-democratic.
Professional historians can choose to supply the purple pill. Only Americans can choose to take it. National unity, which is not the path the nation has been following since Charlottesville four years ago, may hang on the choices we make.
Katherine C. Epstein is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden. She received the ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Her research focuses on government secrecy, defense contracting, intellectual property, and the political economy of power projection.
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