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History Won’t Save Us

Why the battle for history must be won in the here and now

A statue of Alexander Hamilton in Boston (Mario Tama/Getty)
A statue of Alexander Hamilton in Boston (Mario Tama/Getty)

History will judge Donald Trump harshly. That, at any rate, is what many of his critics predict. No less harsh, in this prediction, will be history’s judgment of those who abetted Trump’s evils, who failed to stand up to him, who didn’t support impeachment and removal, even citizens who didn’t sufficiently resist. According to some believers, if House Democrats hadn’t chosen to impeach, they, too, would have been tossed into the outer darkness by the mighty power known as history.

The faith in history is everywhere. Before the House voted to impeach Trump in December, the New York Times editorial board urged Democrats and Republicans alike to heed “the call of history.” “Trump: The Judgment of History” was the title of a New Yorker Festival panel of eminent historians and journalists. Representative Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ lead impeachment manager, addressing the Senate during the trial in February, employed both the stick (“If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history”) and a carrot, plucked not from history, exactly, but from a patch nearby (“If you find the courage to stand up to him … your place will be among the Davids who took on Goliath”).

I feel the pull. Maybe you do, too. The present isn’t going well, so it’s nice to imagine a future in which people look back at these times and say, “At least we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.” The verdict we imagine history rendering is always that we were right, so it’s not only embattled liberals who subscribe to the faith. “History is often an unforgiving critic,” warned Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Daily Signal, on what he saw as Democrats’ abuse of the impeachment process. Kenneth Starr, speaking on behalf of Trump in the Senate trial, trolled liberals about as hard and as unctuously as he could by invoking the famous phrase associated with Martin Luther King Jr., regarding history’s moral arc bending toward justice. 

There is something comforting in the idea that history casts an objective, permanent judgment on the past, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. One reason for skepticism is the contingency precept, important to the modern study of history, which tells us that while it may be hard for us to imagine what the present would be like if great historical events and trends hadn’t occurred, nothing in the past happened inevitably. A great variety of contingencies are always in play. What did happen is only a hair’s breadth away from a dizzying multitude of things that might have happened and didn’t.

Thus no single judgment that historians of the future might pass on our time is inevitable, either. Historical judgment is also subject to contingency. It is shaped by powerful interests and influences and draws energy from politics, economics, and other high-pressure forces. It’s by no means impossible—though creepy as hell—to imagine a future historical judgment in which Trump is deemed the greatest leader of all time. To prevent such an outcome, we can’t rely on anything elemental to history itself. 

In these abnormal times, even scholars of American history haven’t been entirely immune to the “History will judge” mantra. They, too, have turned to history to buttress political claims, participating in a broader tendency to look to the Founding Fathers for an understanding of modern American values. In this effort, even some of our most important historians are showing how the current belief in history’s redemptive power is itself a product of a certain time and place—a postwar model of inquiry whose relevance may have passed its expiration date with the election of Trump.

The valorization of Alexander Hamilton—influenced no doubt by a current contingency: excitement about the musical Hamilton—offers a telling example. In December, the more than 2,000 members of the group Historians on Impeachment rendered a professional judgment—their own, not the future’s—on the president’s fitness for office by signing a statement urging the House to impeach him. In making their case, they cited parts of a passage by Hamilton, not related to impeachment, that has been frequently posted on the internet since the 2016 election:

When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents … despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.” 

It is not hard to see why Hamilton’s seemingly prescient words have become so popular. They have been quoted approvingly in The New Yorker and in the Twitter feed of the Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. They have been invoked in impeachment speeches by Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Schiff. The problem with the meme-ification of this particular passage, however, is that Hamilton isn’t saying what people think he’s saying. 

What conjures the sense that Hamilton is speaking through the years, directly to us and to our crisis, is the total erasure of the context in which his words originated. Hamilton wrote this passage in a white heat. In 1792, President Washington asked him to respond to criticisms of his policies and goals as Treasury secretary. The harshest charge against Hamilton—who was known for his strong position in favor of executive authority—was that he was secretly seeking to turn the United States from a republic into a monarchy. Hamilton knew the political enemies who had launched that attack, and he turned the tables on them with force.

In the section leading up to the clipped internet quotation above, he mounted an argument against favoring the popular will. Those who promote democracy, he said, are really the ones who risk destroying republican government. “It would not be difficult,” he claimed, “to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected” of scheming to topple the republic by pandering to the people. The man that Hamilton was darkly alluding to was probably his bête noire, Aaron Burr.

When reading the historians’ statement, the last thing you’d think is that the quoted words were an ad hominem screed in response to an ad hominem screed. “Hamilton understood,” the historians’ statement says, “as he wrote in 1792, that the republic remained vulnerable to the rise of an unscrupulous demagogue.” That description replaces the real Hamilton with some bookish philosopher type, setting down for posterity the authoritative warnings on the operations of demagoguery. But what he was really arguing, based on his own close study of the past, is that the greatest threat to a republic is too much democracy. “The truth unquestionably is,” Hamilton said, when introducing the out-of-context quotation above, “that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions.” 

In Hamilton’s reading, the ironclad judgment rendered by history is that people who hope to become dictators court and flatter the popular will. They excite the wild passions of the many in order to cause chaos, to overturn the legislator class elected by the propertied to exercise sober government, and to triumph by providing a new order. The view was widely accepted by politicians, even banal, in the eighteenth century. But its anti-democratic bias, in which ordinary people are by definition irrational and have no minds of their own, is by no means a position that Nadler, Schiff, The New Yorker, or the historians who signed the statement would want to embrace when criticizing Trump.

The evolution of our views on the democratic experiment involves another judgment rendered by history in the second half of the twentieth century. In the first half, mainstream historians known for taking what was called the progressive view looked on the American founding as largely an effort by upper-class white men to gain and sustain personal advantage, first resisting British restriction of their commercial endeavors even to the point of independence, then repressing populist efforts by forming a national government under the Constitution. One implication of those historians’ views was that progress toward genuine American democracy was achieved by superseding the constitutional framers’ most anti-democratic impulses. At the other end of that era’s spectrum of interpretation on the founding generation were studies so conservative that they treated the British government as well justified in imposing and enforcing the taxes that sparked the American rebellion. 

All of that was challenged after World War II. The U.S. emerged from the war as freedom’s triumphant defender, just as the Cold War with the Soviet Union was beginning. Scholarship of American history likewise underwent a quick, decisive upheaval. In keeping with new narratives of the U.S. as a global beacon for liberal democracy, American history was retooled to serve as a source of legitimacy for modern foreign policy efforts. The connection between government policy and historical scholarship was a direct one: During the war, the Harvard history professor William Leonard Langer had served as chief of Research and Analysis for the Office of Strategic Services, which carried out covert intelligence and other operations and recruited his graduate students. Yale, especially, had many connections to OSS’s postwar successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1950s, alumni and allies of those agencies at universities promoted what became known as “area studies,” including the expansion of American studies. The next generation of leaders would be trained in an American history defining the United States as a great civilization with foundational commitments to liberty and justice for all.

What followed, over the course of several decades, was a powerful, highly nuanced body of work about the American founding that emphasized the founders’ ideas over their personal interests in seeing the British evicted and in forming a new nation. This work was done by big-name historians, from Richard Hofstadter and Edmund Morgan (now deceased) to Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz. The old schools, both the British-friendly and progressive kind, started to fall by the wayside. While other historical angles—social history, women’s history, histories of people of color—have since gained traction in academic circles, the optimistic framing of the founding that began after World War II has maintained enormous influence on the public. For many years, many well-informed citizens have taken it as given that history judges the American experiment, with some reservations, as fundamentally good. 

Postwar history’s positive judgment of the American founding has been convenient for modern Americans. What we know about the violence and skulduggery that actually marked Pax Americana makes it easy for some to roll their eyes at the notion of some essential, foundational American commitment to transcendent principles of liberal democracy. Yet latter-day proponents of what became known, in scholarly circles, as the “consensus” view of the founding remain highly influential in public discourse beyond academia. 

That influence may be seen in recent objections raised by certain scholars, including the leading consensus-school historians Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which reframes all of U.S. history by putting slavery and racism at its center. If the postwar consensus judgment was that liberal democracy bloomed, with blights and setbacks and struggles, from seeds planted by the founders, the 1619 Project’s new judgment, also supposedly rendered by history, is that the founding was partly driven by the founders’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery; only from black Americans’ struggles against founding impulses, and against white supremacy, did democracy emerge.

This fight between two liberal-history judgments of the past is over ownership, not of historical scholarship, but of the middle-ground, middlebrow cultural sway held for decades by the consensus school. Such sway is not easily overturned. In response to criticism, The New York Times Magazine revised the 1619 Project to soften its suggestion that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all the founders in seeking independence from Britain.   

The generation of American leaders now hitting retirement age has spent a lifetime influenced by the postwar historical judgment linking the American founding to liberal democracy’s postwar global spread. Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time, former president and chief executive of the National Constitution Center, and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Obama administration, recently posted a Twitter thread neatly distilling the entire way of thinking, if in an elegiac and worried mood:

The Enlightenment model of liberal democracy, as embodied by the American experiment has had a pretty good run. Longer than the Framers thought it would. Their idea was that human beings—the People—could rule themselves.… Ever since WWII, we’ve all pretty much assumed that this liberal world order of pluralistic democracies would continue to grow and expand. We saw it as inevitable. That was naive.

There’s plenty to poke at in Stengel’s rueful confession of naïveté about the inevitability of liberal democracy’s spread. Still, his elegy is not for liberal democracy itself but for the belief in inevitability—a belief commonly held by highly informed people for a long time. It’s linked, as in Stengel’s thread, to a historical judgment of the American founding constructed in a particular cultural milieu, for the particular political aims of a particular period. It was always contingent. Now it’s being challenged by other judgments, just as contingent. Maybe the best way to ensure the favorable judgment of history, at least for a while, is to stop looking backward to the founding and forward to the condemnation that we imagine history has in store for our opponents, and to win the present.