Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.