Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Explaining isn't justifying

One very good historian, Gordon S. Wood, reviews a collection of essays by another, Bernard Bailyn, perhaps the most distinguished historian of the American colonial period. From the review:
.... College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by non-academics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars. ....

...[A] new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

These historians see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. ....

Bailyn quotes Herbert Butterfield from his remarkable little book of 1931, The Whig Interpretation of History, to emphasize the importance of context in history. “The dispensing of moral judgments upon people or upon actions in retrospect,” wrote Butterfield, is the “most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection.” And still it goes on.

It continues, Bailyn concedes, because “to explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse.” Placing what we today clearly see as the evils of the past in historical context seems to justify them. Historians can explain, contextually, the Founders’ plight in dealing with slavery. Historians can show, says Bailyn, that they “were confronting without precedent or guidance the problem of racial differences in a theoretically egalitarian society, and that they were struggling with the related dilemma of bondage, an immemorial condition, in a free society.” Nonetheless, the Founders are going to be bitterly condemned by our present-day moralists for not eliminating slavery entirely. The problem, Bailyn concludes, is systematic and inherent: “a seemingly inescapable consequence” of a deeply contextual approach to history.

Despite the difficulties of writing narratives involving good contextual history, however, Bailyn believes it can and must be done. Historians, he writes, have an obligation to tell us, “in some sequential—that is to say, narrative—form, what has happened in the past, what the struggles were all about, where we have come from.” .... [more]