This is a guest post by Wesley R. Bishop, an assistant professor of American history at Marian University Indianapolis. He is the founding and managing editor of the North Meridian Review: A Journal of Culture and Scholarship.
All knowledge is political. How we think about the past, and our relationship to it, reveals profound assumptions on the subject of how we treat one another, how we govern society, and what obligation we have to institute change in our present societies. In this fashion, the post-2016 landscape has produced no shortage of historians thinking (and arguing) as to what the exact role of historians should be in American democracy.
The Harvard historian and public intellectual Jill Lepore is one such thinker. Lepore has now written a series of books and articles arguing that Donald Trump represents a broader crisis in American life. The reasons for this, she argues, is multi-varied. Yet, she insists we should place a substantial part of that blame on American historians, what we focus on, and the lack of a compelling national narrative to combat “Trumpism,” the devaluing of the humanities in public life, and the austerity-born assault on the academy in civil society.
For Lepore, American historians have forgotten a critical component of American democratic life: namely that, yes, we are a pluralistic society, but ultimately we amalgamate into a whole, but that the nature of the nation is not pre-determined. American nationalism can, as Trump in the present and Andrew Jackson in the past has shown, be based on a racial exclusionary politics. Whiteness, maleness, aggression, etc. are all components of this nationalism.
Conversely, Lepore argues, American nationalism also contains another current, an emancipatory impulse that has been with the nation since before its founding. In many ways, her 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States is an attempt to offer this history.
None of this is particularly new or noteworthy. Even conservative or left-wing scholars who question the legitimacy and usefulness of American liberalism readily acknowledge that the line of influence Lepore is discussing has a long, established history and has appealed to countless past and present actors.
However, where one can, and really should, take issue with Lepore and other liberal historians who are championing this liberal national narrative is in how Lepore insists historians go about constructing that narrative.
Speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education Lepore insisted that when historians construct narratives of past American life, they must do so in a compelling, and easily digested manner. Lepore claims that historians have repeatedly abandoned this task, and as a result have conceded the popular imagining of the American past to two camps. The first is an overly critical retelling of America, such as Howard Zinn and other activist scholars, who only provide a story of the United States’ failings. The second is a journalist/historian type that celebrates America, focuses on “the great men of history,” and never really questions the US’s past actions. In this camp, Lepore places writers like David McCullough and Jon Meacham.
As Lepore states in the interview, “Post-1968 or so, the kind of book you get is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn was a political scientist. The book was an outgrowth of his work in the antiwar movement. It’s a Marxist reckoning with American atrocity. On the other side of the political spectrum, there emerged the American triumphalism of popular history. It’s in this era that academics retreat and what the public reads is presidential history written chiefly by journalists — the McCullough/Meacham tradition of the journalist who writes about men and power.”
Lepore has explained her critique of Zinn further arguing in a piece in The New Yorker that reading A People’s History is perhaps akin to reading The Catcher in the Rye at a young age. “[H]istory’s so goddam phony): it’s swell and terrible and it feels like something has ended, because it has.”
She continues, “Zinn wanted to write a people’s history because he believed that a national history serves only to justify the existence of the nation, which means, mainly, that it lies, and if it ever tells the truth, it tells it too fast, racing past atrocity to dwell on glory. Zinn’s history did the reverse. Instead of lionizing Andrew Jackson, he mourned the Cherokee. The problem is that, analytically, upending isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down.”
Critics would be correct to question this characterization. Zinn was more than simply a rabble rousing writer with an academic job. He was, in fact, a serious scholar who was part of a large shift in American historical thinking that forced the scholarly community to rethink its basic assumptions about America’s past. To classify Zinn as mere critic is to miss the entire point of works like A People’s History. Scores of reactionary denouncements have basically stated that Zinn’s brand of history is “too critical” of the US, ignoring that in fact Zinn was celebrating huge sections of American civilization. People of color, immigrants, the working class, America’s multiple democratic social movements— in short “the people” of America— are all major focuses of Zinn’s work.
Zinn simply credited the impetus of positive social, political, and economic change squarely on the everyday, common Americans and their participation in social movements.
That is hardly a “devastating critique” of America. As I, and countless other historians who regularly teach Zinn’s book point out to classes, Zinn is hardly a nihilist. He simply argued that if you want to celebrate the abolishment of slavery you had best thank the abolitionists and African Americans who refused to be silenced in American society. Far from denouncing “America,” this was simply a shift in focus and a critique of certain figures like Lincoln who historians still often center in studies of the abolishment of slavery.
What is seemingly confusing, then, is why Lepore does this? Why lump scholars like Zinn with writers like McCullough? If we take her, and other liberal historians, at their word should we not be centering the studies of figures like Zinn who have shown how various waves of social movements liberalized American society?
This brings us to the major flaw in liberal historical projects and narrative-focused studies. In the attempt to produce a hegemonic norm of the American past, liberal historians overly rely upon social systems, political structures, and economic stratifications— the things that order and dictate much of American life— to explain American “progress.” Activists and scholars who provide left-wing critiques of American institutions therefore jeopardize that potential hegemony by showing that “liberal nationalism”— insofar as it a thing worth consideration in championing— was greatly constructed by the disempowered, fractured, and raucous social forces which was combatted, more often than not, by American ruling systems.
Liberalism, then, was an arrived upon state that came from compromise. Social actions of the disempowered met reactionary forces met the prevailing ruling system of the US and the result was a compromised entity that gradually (sometimes) acknowledged the rights of others.
How one chooses to treat this is largely up to the person studying the past. Hence, why historical studies are inherently political. One is capable of reading this history and criticizing it as a “sell out,” or one could read this and see it as an erosion of “what made America great,” or one could take Lepore’s advice and celebrate this process.
What Lepore is advocating for, then, is basically what historians like Eric Foner, Gordon Wood, Ronald Takaki, Heather Cox Richardson, and many others have been long at work on— a popular framework of America that normalizes liberal values, justice, and sees American society as fundamentally capable of change.
“The United States rests on a dedication to equality,” Lepore insists in the opening pages of These Truths, “which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching. Its founders agreed with the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, who wrote, in 1748, that ‘Records of Wars, Intrigues, Factions, and Revolutions are so many Collections of Experiments.’ They believed that truth is to be found in ideas about morality but also in the study of history” (xv).
At best, this is debatable, but nonetheless, Lepore then proceeds to spend several hundred pages arguing that this defining feature is one of the major components that have animated American history.
That is fine, and obviously welcomes discussion.
However, what Lepore also does in her plea for this framework is to dismiss potential critiques of a certain style of historical writing, charging that historians who do not take up liberal nationalism as a cause to champion are largely responsible for the political crisis of America and the dire state of the modern academy.
Not only do historians need to adopt her ideas because of their validity, but also because her style and thinking is politically salient. Because for Lepore merely championing liberal nationalism is not enough: historians must also construct their studies in a way that can be easily comprehended by general audiences. Lepore reasons that the nation is currently an inescapable social reality, and therefore, it is largely through telling that nation’s story that we shape our present world. “Nations,” Lepore argues, “to makes sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will” (This America, 19-20).
This is principally achieved via the construct of narrative. The backlash to “theory” in historical studies is a familiar one and the argument that “theory” fails us because of “the public’s understanding” was born seconds after postmodernism and other critical frameworks became popularly employed.
Lepore continues this denouncement of theory, and argues that the historian could create a popular epistemological framework for national politics. This historical understanding should be both based on an expansive, liberal, and universal set of principles (largely grouped into the higher ideals of the American Declaration of Independence, hence the title These Truths) as well as a popular narrative structure, word choice, and critical approach that any reading audience can easily digest.
For example, the Chronicle’s interviewer stated Lepore’s argument perfectly by asking, “For democracy to work… the people must be well informed. Yet we live in an age of epistemological mayhem. How did the relationship between truth and fact become so unwound?”
That question should give historians pause. Contained within that sentiment is a whole set of assumptions about democracy, political societies, and the placement of fault in crises we face. In essence, what that question is really saying is that, “We have a democracy BUT because the populace has such a flimsy grasp on ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ and is so ‘fragmented’ we are now in peril.”
In other words, the cause of our current crisis is epistemological. How we know what we know (or lack thereof) is the key to explaining why our society is in jeopardy. It is not principally economic systems of exploitation. It is not primarily the legacy of settler colonialism (which one could argue is as much if not more central to America than “these truths”). It is not even the electoral system bequeathed to us that continues to defy popular votes in favor of “stability.”
No, America and the academy are in trouble because “we” have failed to solidify our thinking around a set of truths and use those truths to construct a study that can be marketed to the widest audience possible.
When put in this manner it is perhaps tempting to label this critique of liberal historiography as a strawman. Surely, these criticisms are unfair?
But there is a big difference between a strawman critique, and a poorly constructed argument that is being criticized. And this is basically what Lepore and many other liberal historians are providing. Those flaws are seen most clearly in the plea to avoid “theory” and rely on narrative. Because in reality liberal historical frameworks are no more or less theoretically grounded than Marxism or conservative nationalism.
The differences (aside from the morality and implications of the studies) is in the theoretical vigor and honesty of the study in question. Historians have a choice as to whether or not they want to openly and candidly state their theoretical frameworks from the outset, and thereby show the political and social implications of their work, or if they want to subsume those ideas in the comfort of a narrative. Doing the latter, obviously, does much more than increase the marketability of a study. It also makes it very difficult to criticize and engage the historian, as the reader is reduced to the role of an archeologist, digging and picking at submerged ideas. This is the perfect result if, say, the stated goal of the historian is to create a hegemonic system of thinking that escapes possible detraction.
However, this is deeply troubling to scholars whose stated goal is not to produce a hegemonic norm but to question power, who welcome any and all results a study may produce, who trust readers and the public enough to handle whatever result a theoretically sound and robustly researched study may find.
In other words, as historians we should trust that if we provide a devastating critique to, say, a figure like Lincoln, that people will be able to handle that criticism and if we do it in a way that demands a high level of understanding, then all the better. Obviously this all requires that we as historians be comfortable with the fact that our studies will produce a multitude of different understandings. No singular “truth” or set of “truths” should really emerge from a historical piece of research. That is not a failing of the modern academy. That is simply reflective of what happens when we do not surrender ourselves to the lure of a master narrative.
Lepore’s response to the Chronicle’s questions in this regard are very telling. After acknowledging that “truth” and “facts” and “knowledge” are complex social phenomena, Lepore largely agrees with the criticism against such things as “identity politics.”
Question: “The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.”
Lepore, “It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.
Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.”
This is a dubious claim. To conflate the “identity politics” (really just civil rights campaigns of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, etc.) with the white supremacy of any white nationalist is a false comparison.
But this way of thinking about “identity politics” is vital to understand and key to Lepore’s project. It shows the flaws that arise in liberal historiography when an overriding national narrative is provided which trades multiple perspectives for fixed “truths.” What identity politics, and more theoretically oriented studies forces us to do is sympathize with the fact that “America” has never been one thing. To argue that America was organized around one set of truths is to ignore the fact that it simply was not for everyone. However, we only understand that if we provide for a multiplicity of American pasts. We only appreciate that if we understand the systematic failures of American nationalism and liberalism.
In another recent work This America: The Case for the Nation (2019) Lepore expounds on this point further, arguing that—
“In the 1970s, the historical profession broadened; so did American history. Studying the nation fell out of favor. Instead, most academic historians looked at either smaller or bigger things, investigating groups— divided by race, sex, or class— or taking the vantage promised by global history. They produced excellent scholarship, meticulously researched and brilliantly argued accounts of the lives and struggles and triumphs of Americans that earlier generations of historians had ignored. They studied people within nations and ties across nations. And, appalled by nationalism, they disavowed national history, as nationalism’s handmaiden. But when scholars stopped writing national history, other, less scrupulous people stepped in” (19).
Hence, we arrive at the alleged crisis of America and the academy. By focusing too much on the specifics of certain people, the particulars and not the universals, by noting the fragmented nature of past and present social and political reality, historians provided the uber-nationalists the ability to take the field and dictate what “America’s” definition is. Therefore, Trump and falling public support of the humanities is principally epistemological. We as historians have failed fundamentally to provide a convenient and compelling narrative, focusing too much on hyper-individualized studies.
This position seems almost too ridiculous to have been made. But nonetheless, it sits there, and in many ways is just the latest iteration of a decades long denouncement of critical academic scholarship. Thomas Bender has often made this near identical argument, as did late historians like Eugene Genovese. (See: “How Historians Lost Their Public”).
Do we honestly think that historians who studied African Americans, women, the working class, immigrants, specific regions, etc. contributed to the breakdown of a liberal American nation thereby ushering in the current age? Do we honestly think that prior to the 1970s American historians made bigly great studies that prevented demagogues, far right-wing groups, and propagandists from taking power? Are we really prepared to take seriously the argument, “Well, here comes the Women’s Studies Department, and shit, there goes the country”?
What is particularly striking about this argument is how inherently reactionary and illiberal it is. This is not too far from the same argument political figures like former governor Mitch Daniels made when trying to formally remove texts like A People’s History from Indiana classrooms.
To Daniels and other reactionaries, history acts as an almost mystical like force that binds the people of a nation together in common cause. Overtly criticizing the national project, calling into question the validity of American political power and historical existence, is tantamount to heresy.
Historians, instead, are to focus on the virtuous and noble past men (and let’s be clear this largely does mean we are supposed to be focused on MEN in power) and use their example to instill a kind of civic virtue in the public.
Lepore, and other civic oriented, liberal historians see promise in that project. Yet instead of white-men-praising, she argues that we should return to the national-super-structure of historical writing and infuse our narratives with praise for modern American liberalism.
Lepore maintains that this will allow us to stop authoritarianism in its tracks.
There is one major problem with this, and that is that the US has never been a nation in the sense that Lepore insists it has.
This is true domestically and especially at the borderlands of American imperial aggression. Therefore, the project of American liberal nationalism as defined by some historians rests on the assumption that the current and future generations of American historians build our narratives out of whole piece lies and political propaganda, imagining a national collective held together by “simple truths” that simply never existed. Instead, what we see in historical studies is that the concessions marginalized people won in the realm of liberation came at considerable cost. These victories owe themselves far more to the “identity politics” of groups recognizing shared concern, and organizing to demand change than it has ever to elite liberal “truths.”