A Graduate Student in American History Thinks Historically

Some of my dedicated readers may have noticed that someone named “LD” has been offering some insightful comments on my posts.  I am glad he has joined the conversation here (and I hope he will continue to comment), but I also want to direct you to his own blog, Gates of Mercy.  If you head over there you will learn that LD is a graduate student in intellectual history.  I encourage you to bookmark Gates of Mercy or get it in your Google Reader.

Yesterday LD (and I do not know who is, maybe some day he will reveal himself) had a nice follow-up post to my post on “Historical Determinism vs. Universal Truth.”  I hope he won’t mind if I reproduce some of it here.  Enjoy!

…over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home — a blog that is frequently updated by its very congenial and hospitable author, John Fea — I have commented on his recent post
about what the historian’s moral stance should be towards slaveowners.

We were just discussing precisely this problem in my PhD seminar this week. I must confess that I made a comment there which may have sounded something like a complaint: we have been doing an awful lot of reading meant to uncover and set forth the sensibilities of “the master class.” I mean, I felt like I had never read so much self-justifying rationalization in all my life. We had 700 pages of the Genoveses this past week plus a welter of pro-slavery primary sources besides. And this was the third or fourth week in our survey of American Intellectual History that we have dealt with some aspect of pro-slavery thinking. So, I asked the prof, what is the pedagogical purpose of all this mucking around inside of slaveowners’ heads?

I don’t know how most professors respond when asked to explain and justify their pedagogical purposes in front of the whole class, but my professor was game and gracious. He explained that we learn little about doing history by reading the writings of only those historical persons whose moral positions on the issue of slavery seem self-evidently true to us. Their views seem “right” because precisely because their moral vision has profoundly shaped our own. We have to understand “the other sides” of that most vexed issue in American history in order to begin to grasp what a profound transformation of thought and belief took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. And the more alien those other sides seem to our own way of thinking, the harder we should work to understand them.

What I took away from that was this: we are not doing history to pronounce judgment upon the past, or to find in it confirmation for our own views or condemnation for views which seem wrong to us. That is the worst sort of presentism. We have to understand the past on its own terms.

Was there, in fact, self-justifying rationalization among Southern slaveowners who did not want to think about the moral implications of “owning” human beings? I think so. But reading William Lloyd Garrison would have told me that. What I wouldn’t have understood, unless I had been required to grapple with it in the primary sources and in the scholarship of the Genoveses and others, was the far more remarkable fact — remarkable from my moral vantage point, anyhow — that, by and large, slaveowners believed in the morality of their own social structure.

Why should this surprise me? Doesn’t the ruling class always believe it is in the right? But it has been surprising, and it has been surprising precisely because I have grown up believing that slavery is, was, and always will be morally wrong, and that this is a timeless truth that anybody with a functioning conscience would have to acknowledge. But what this sort of thinking does is make the abolition of slavery seem inevitable, that it was only a matter of time before people had to acknowledge the stirrings of their own consciences, and so forth. If that’s not determinism, I don’t know what is.

Thinking historically does not come naturally. It is an acquired skill, and I am working hard to master it. I have good teachers, but the way is fraught with temptations: temptations to presentism, to pillaging the past for polemical purposes, to grandstanding; temptations to simplify what is complex; temptations to skip the difficult questions and beg the easy ones; temptations to identify “the moral of the story.”

And that sort of moralism which confirms us in our basic conviction that we know better, that we would choose differently? That is the most dangerous temptation of all.

2 thoughts on “A Graduate Student in American History Thinks Historically

  1. Wow! This explains why my blog hits have gone through the roof today. Thanks for the kind words, and for being such a hospitable blog host.


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