U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Merritt Responds to the Responders (on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis)

Dear readers: the following guest post by Keri Leigh Merritt is her response to the response of the roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (forthcoming). She contributed part 2 of our original roundtable. 

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have dinner with a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Most of the historians I know, of course, loathe him. He had used all the same research that several other prominent historians had used. Yet their books sat on shelves collecting dust – most never moved out of a dingy academic press basement. His book, however, was bought and read by thousands and thousands of people, it garnered multiple awards and attention, and inspired documentaries and movies. When we began talking about the key to his success, he revealed that it was all very simple: he just had “the balls to say what historians wouldn’t.”

While I may not always agree with Michael Landis’s intentionally provocative assertions, I still applaud his efforts to – paraphrasing Stephen Berry – awaken a sleeping, complacent field from its long slumber. History is dying out as a major, and yet historians can’t even come up with a coherent response as to why we should save the humanities. Half-assed op-eds blithely blather on about students “becoming good writers and thinkers” and how history can help them get a job in STEM fields.

But how about this: the humanities are important because the study of human beings and human relationships are absolutely essential to the creation of a humane, just, ethical society. The study of history is not only important in understanding the past, but it helps to guide the future. It is the examination of magnificence and atrocity, pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is what gives life meaning; in its highest form it is what makes life beautiful.

As historians flounder around discussing nuance and degrees of distinction, though, others who are willing to make bold and forthright assertions are commanding Americans’ attention. Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan aren’t only popular because they peddle historical lies to white supremacists. In a world where everything is in flux, where everything seems to be careening out of control, people want moral and intellectual surety. They crave simplicity. They want passion about a subject matter. Detached, professorial types are simply not going to inspire anyone to learn more about the nation’s history.

What I see emerging within the profession – especially over the last few years – has been a sharp divide between the moral relativists and the scholars who believe that history does have a presentist purpose. The moral relativists tend to be older, often well-established professors; all of the ones I personally know happen to be white men. The “activist historians,” as I will refer to them here, are in general a younger, more diverse group of scholars, and many seem (anecdotally) to come from poorer or working class backgrounds.

While this divide has always existed within the profession, the activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved at a policy level. They are working to change the world, from prison reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They are winning Pulitzers and Bancrofts and selling books in several languages. They are speaking to an American public who desperately (and increasingly) want to hear what they have to say.

Most activist historians, I would assume, believe that there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we had been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all in stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths. I believe in social and racial justice, and in righteousness. The time and place of events make no ethical difference to me.

Along those same lines, I would not be a historian if I believed the past had no lessons for the future. Researching some obscure event or person that does not have any bearing on the present ultimately does not matter to me. We must devote our precious little research time to things that are generative and beneficial to society.

Despite these beliefs, I still find great value in some of the most morally abhorrent historical works. Part of our doctoral training is learning how to sift through scholars’ biases and personal judgements. Horrible racists to the core, both E. Merton Coulter and U.B. Phillips were damn fine researchers, and have produced some excellent histories that I rely upon in my own work.

Yet as different members of USIH were taking Michael Landis to task for his characterization of Potter, I wondered how many of them would be as quick to defend a member of the Dunning school, or any other racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic scholar from the turn of the 20th century. How many would call ethnic eugenicists “a product of their time,” or ask Landis to place racist murderers within their historical contexts? Andrew Hartman rightly called out the hypocrisy of such an argument.

Reading through the comments following Erik Alexander’s defense of David Potter as a “product of his time,” though, perhaps nothing struck me more than the following response from another USIH member:

“Nor is there much historical value in filtering the past through a presentist worldview. We can find them to be great examples or role models for how we should view the world, but placing our moral stamp on the past will only create works of history that are fleeting and reveal little of what really happened in the past and why.”

This reductio ad absurdum argument captures, in a nutshell, what many responders to Alexander’s post seemed to be saying.

The primary absurdity here is that it was precisely those morally-righteous histories that initially drew me to the subject, luring me in; they kept me rapturously reading; and they still sustain my love of the field. Scholars who were personally passionate about their subjects – people who had something moral and right and good to prove – were and always will be my favorite historians. These are the scholars who continually challenge the profession to move forward. They shatter old beliefs and invent new possibilities. They make history matter.

Finally, I think it’s prudent to point out that the guild-like aspects of our profession make it extremely difficult to be on the activist historian’s path. It is hard to speak ill of someone’s work when all of us are so closely connected; the profession is an insular one and social media has assured that we are even more in contact than were historians of previous generations. Potter, for example, was my undergraduate mentor’s (Jim Roark) mentor – and it feels a bit like parricide for me to speak ill of the man.

Thus said, I thank everyone who responded to the Potter essays. I believe the entire respectful exchange does, indeed, speak to how close we are as colleagues and as an intellectual community, and hopefully, as friends. A healthy debate like this reinvigorates me and reminds me how lucky I am to be doing this.

As I watched a documentary the other night about one of the world’s greatest chefs, Alain Passard, I once again pondered my own love for this job. “It’s complicated,” Passard explained, “It’s not easy. But… What a pleasure. I have chills every day because sometimes I’m afraid…When you close your eyes at night, what’s important? You’ve spent the day taking risks.” Like the famous chef, I truly appreciate these exchanges. “I want to continue to evolve,” Passard concluded, “because, without that, there’s nothing.”

16 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Keri, Excellent essay. I too see history a moral inquiry which presumes that the historian holds some nonnegotiable values. We wouldn’t study slavery at all unless we were not moved by the self-evident evil. Why bother? We would just consider it another force of unchangeable nature like the wind. The understanding of history as having moral weight is not the same in my book as “presentism” which seems to assign contemporary political motivations to the past. The past had its own motivations, scientific, religious, social, affective, and our job is to try to understand them in that frame regardless of how wrongheaded they seem to us now. Which reminds me of Pascal’s “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of. ” That’s the mystery the past.

  2. While I agree with the thrust of this argument, I do want to suggest that there’s some slippage here between historians having an activist agenda and their writing in accessible prose. At least in past generations, some of the most radical, activist scholars (William Appleman Williams, Raymond Williams, Judith Butler) wrote in highly technical, jargon-laden prose that was inaccessible to a general readership. While I wouldn’t presume to comment on the work of the journalist you had dinner with (I’ve read several historical works by journalists that are excellent works of scholarship), my problem with a lot of popular history is that it doesn’t have a radical enough agenda — it wants to tell a story for the sake of telling a story, or to reinforce things people already believe about themselves and their society. I firmly believe that history should be both both relevant to current conversations and be accessible to general readers, but we shouldn’t pretend that the two always, or even regularly, overlap within the current historical literature.

    • I would not describe William Appleton Williams’s prose as “highly technical, jargon-laden.”

  3. A few comments.

    Re this:
    What I see emerging … has been a sharp divide between the moral relativists and the scholars who believe that history does have a presentist purpose.

    I don’t think “moral relativists” is really the right phrase here. ‘Moral relativism’ implies, at least for me, a philosophical position that values are not ‘objective’. But I think that has relatively little to do with the contrast in styles of historical writing and approaches to history that the post seems concerned with. I doubt you’d find any historians today who view slavery as anything other than objectively wrong; that’s not the issue. Rather the issue is how to approach it historically.

    I think what you’re getting at in the post is a divide between ‘dispassion’ and ‘commitment’ in historical writing. These can sometimes display themselves, however, in subtle or muted or jumbled ways, and at different stages of a work. For one thing, political commitment sometimes may have more to do with the choice of subject matter than with the content of the text. For instance, how many of the famous modern works on slavery have been written by historians who lacked strong political commitments? Relatively few, would be my guess, pretty much irrespective of what they ended up saying about it.

    Also, a ‘committed’ historian may at times produce work that isn’t all that different from what a more ‘dispassionate’ one would produce. For example, Hobsbawm was a Marxist and a member of the CP and no doubt some of his work clearly reflects those commitments, but large swaths of his The Age of Extremes (1994) could have been written, I think, by a non-Marxist, as its favorable critical reception in a range of places tended to suggest.

    I’ll close by quoting Immanuel Wallerstein in the introduction to vol. 1 of the Modern World-System (1974). For context, one should read the surrounding passages, but this will do as an excerpt and I think it is relevant to the post; I would particularly emphasize the last sentences, which I’ve italicized:

    “…to be a scholar or a scientist is to perform a particular role in the social system, one quite different from being an apologist for any particular group. I am not denigrating the role of advocate. It is essential and honorable, but not the same as that of scholar or scientist. The latter’s role is to discern, within the framework of his commitments, the present reality of the phenomena he studies, to derive from this study general principles, from which ultimately particular applications may be made. In this sense, there is no area of study that is not ‘relevant’. For the proper understanding of the social dynamics of the present requires a theoretical comprehension that can only be based on the study of the widest possible range of phenomena, including through all of historical time and space.”

  4. Thank you for continuing this great conversation, since I was quoted in the piece, I thought I’d build on what I wrote earlier.

    Historians study change over time, and we do so because we know that change happens over time. Everyone is shaped by the context of the period that they live in. Everyone. This includes the people that we study (even if they’re still living). This includes historians who wrote before certain historiography came out. This includes us.

    The task of the historian is to understand the past both in its complex context and our complex context. We can see how major events, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, etc, have shaped historiography. The period that we’re currently living in will shape our work, as well. 

    It makes little sense, and offers nearly no insight, to spend time blaming or condemning people in the past for not living in the future. Everything we write, all the work we do, is time-stamped by the world in which we live, and the same goes for the people we study. It can be humbling to recognize that we also won’t live in the future one day. 

    This is not moral relativism. It’s recognition that we’re human beings. Almost every person holds certain timeless and personal truths, and no one considers themselves to be on the “wrong side of history.” This is true for nearly everyone who has ever lived, from the most evil to the most righteous.  

    This is also true for us living now and for the people who lived before us (and the people not yet born). It’s how human beings operate, and it’s one of the reasons history is worth studying.

    I’ll offer an example of this from the people I study: American slaveholders truly believed they were progressive. They believed they were on the right side of history and wrote significant activist-style works explaining why they were. They insisted they were defending civilization. Drew Gilpin Faust has an entire book devoted to this topic. The best example of slaveholding historians writing “activist history” is Thomas Dew, professor of history at William and Mary, and Bryan Edwards, who wrote a history of the West Indies. These works were used for propaganda, certainly, but they were also believed, researched, etc. They were seen as fact by many, and it took the work of other antislavery historians to prove them wrong.

    Regarding history as activism: History can be used as a tool for political or social change solely because historians are committed to studying change over time. The work we do shows that the world doesn’t have to be this way because it hasn’t always been this way. Our commitment to objectivity, complexity, and nuance is the power historians wield. I’ll give an example from a book referenced in this article as being “activist” or making social change: Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water is 752 pages long. It is not for those who “crave simplicity,” and it’s not “Killing Whomever” by Bill O’Reilly. It’s a complex, thoughtful book that uncovered a problem that our modern morality demands be changed. It was the fuel for activism, not activism itself.

    Everyone’s life is defined by what we believe, what morals we hold, what timeless truths to which we are devoted. Our history work is shaped by it, as well. I study slaveholders whom I find repugnant, but we learn nothing by stating the obvious: these people are repugnant and slavery is wrong. 

    The devotion to defending timeless principles, morality, or ethics expressed in this article is indeed noble, and I tend to agree with them, but any work based defending the timelessness of those beliefs belongs in the field of philosophy or theology. 

    As inspiring as it can be, and every historian has moments of awe and inspiration from a book or documentary we encounter, history is not meant to be a religious experience devoted to defending and uncovering moral truths. We don’t write epistles. We study why people did the things they did, in the context in which they lived, and how that changed over time by presenting evidence. 

    Declaring the horribleness of unmodern people being unmodern doesn’t help us today any more than declaring the horse and buggy to be slower than an airplane does. We don’t learn anything from that. The knowledge we produce as historians is useful to activists and helps promote social change because we are trusted to make a commitment to objectivity while acknowledging that no one can be neutral. To do anything else in the name of justice is to build a house on sand because, as historians recognize, things change over time.

    • Carl, I agree with so much. I have read a few books that are so ideologically driven that I want to toss them across the room. I will refrain from calling them out. The biggest turn off is judging the past by our standards today instead of aiming to illuminate and understand the motivations and thought of the subjects. Histories written this way, even if they are based on important research, really work against themselves wearing their arguments. Ideological self-control must be counted as a virtue for historians. Otherwise one must become a political philosopher or a theologian.

      The future will judge us and will find us lacking in ways unimaginable. Let’s not be smug.

    • Carl —

      There are a lot of straight assertions here: history is x, the task of the historian is y. I notice that in these discussions of what history is and why we do this, we tend to slip into these declarations as if they have some objectivity, as if they exist beyond what our own preferred idea of history is. But the whole reason we are having the debate in the first place is precisely because these things cannot simply be asserted, because there is no objective force out there determining what history “should” be.

      For example, I don’t at all agree it is our duty (or our power) to always appreciate complexity. Complexity should be acknowledged and highlighted when it is there, and highly relevant to explaining a historical outcome. But here’s nothing about the order of the universe that always makes that the case. Sometimes shit is pretty straightforward. Moreover, emphasizing complexity — whether it is there or not — doesn’t always have a positive outcome, or get us closer to the truth. It’s a false God, in other words, that many historians don’t even realize they instinctively worship, perhaps precisely because the predominant intellectual culture of the academy always presents it as obviously where “the truth” lies. But that’s not always the case.

  5. I don’t know Luke, depends on what you mean by complexity. Take this historical assessment: Thomas Jefferson was an asshole. If you consider this an impossible thing to say because of “complexity,” then actually I *am* arguing that the most “complex” version of history is not necessarily the most accurate version of history.

    And yeah, I’m aware that I’m kind of taking a piss here on an old, long established tenet of the field — but old, long established tenets have been wrong before and, in any case, that’s kind of how I roll sometimes.

    • I don’t know personally know any historians who would have a hard time saying Thomas Jefferson was an asshole. But, I’d pretty unimpressed if all they had to say about him was he’s an asshole. It’s not exactly much of a historical argument.

      • No, but it is a historical conclusion. That’s not the whole enchilada, but many who hold up “complexity” as an end-to-itself will wring their fingers when one comes to such conclusions.

  6. Hello, Keri Leigh Merritt. We haven’t met, but I appreciate your challenge to those of us who might not see the historical enterprise just as you do.

    Edward Ayers’ forthcoming book, The Thin Light of Freedom, includes (page 65) a passage from Kent Masterson Brown’s Retreat from Gettysburg. It provides a Virginia officer’s eyewitness description of “horrific scenes surrounding the headquarters of the Confederate army” soon after the fighting: corpses were “swollen to twice their original size. Some of them actually burst asunder with the pressure of foul gases and vapors. . . . The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.”

    I introduce this unpleasant matter because it calls attention to the moral complexities inherent in history. You “wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings.” I wouldn’t either. You “believe in social and racial justice.” So do I. But if we had lived in the 1850s and 1860s, what would we have done about slavery? Could we have squared our commitments both to the golden rule and to racial justice?

    Many of our likeminded compatriots during the 1850s, as David Potter reminded us in The Impending Crisis, hated slavery but loved the Constitution and the Union that protected slavery. Like Lincoln, they satisfied themselves that territorial restriction eventually would end the slave system, perhaps in a century. Shall we therefore write off mainstream Northern antislavery as morally bankrupt for its failure to secure racial justice?

    But then in 1860-61 Southern secession unloosed a fearful new dynamic. A war to restore “the old Union as it was” gradually morphed into a war to create a new Union in which slavery did not exist. That transformative enlargement of Union war aims occurred amid a sea of blood. You and I do not like bloodshed. But we likely have no complaint about the Union soldiers whose marksmanship harmed other human beings and produced those rotting Confederate bodies.

    A frightful war brought American slavery to a sudden end. It is hard to imagine how else emancipation could have taken place. But the soldiers whose hard labors made emancipation possible, and the civilian public that supported their sacrifices, considered Union paramount, with emancipation a means to secure that end. Many of them cared little about racial justice. You and I prize emancipation and racial justice; do we therefore look down upon those who did the heavy lifting but who were slow to warm to an abolition war?

    History imposes moral choices, but those choices cannot be other than painful. If we are true to our craft, the historical actors we depict confront moral complexities. The priority, as Carl Paulus has just reminded us, is to tell a story that is as true to the sources as we can make it.

  7. Contingency, causality, context, and those other “c” notions or tenets that Luke Harlow listed, if they are tenets of anything, are not exclusively tenets of “the field” or “the discipline” of history.

    I know this blog has “history” in its title and most of its writers, readers and commenters probably were trained in history depts., but it’s nonetheless a teensy bit annoying to see people here put on their disciplinary armor as if they were going into an AHA conference where they will not encounter anyone but historians and pretend, by implication at any rate, that only historians are capable of opining on, or interested in, the issues raised in the OP.

    Of course it’s not just historians who do this. For example, go into an APSA meeting or something similar and you’ll find political scientists doing their version of the same thing.

    It’s not that there’s anything wrong w a sense of professional allegiance or identity — except when it encourages, which it can easily do, an obliviousness to the fact that the modern lines of academic disciplinary separation are themselves historically contingent constructions (speaking of contingency).

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