U.S. Intellectual History Blog

history, interdisciplinarity and politics in the new republic

In the July 1 issue of The New Republic, that magazine’s crotchety Zionist neocon editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, took a pot shot at the history profession. His real target was President Obama’s woeful (in Peretz’s view) understanding of Middle Eastern history, as evidenced by his then-recent Cairo speech. But in order to clearly articulate the mistaken paradigm in which he sees Obama thinking, Peretz registered a rather damning criticism of academic history itself.

[H]istory these days is no longer a discipline inclined to defend the truthfulness of its claims or the reasonableness of its arguments or the plausibility of its conclusions. More and more, history has become a competition between and among narratives, self-consciously disdainful or what we used to think of as fact. In this intellectual competition, the losers almost always win, or, at least, they win the “moral argument.” Not in real history, mind you, but in many a Western professor’s classroom.

Peretz’s caricature of history, however, is belied by the writing of two historians in his very own magazine. The issue in which appeared his diatribe also featured a Gordon Wood review of Eric Slauter’s The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution, which Wood describes as “the first full-scale effort by a literary scholar to bring the special tools of his discipline to bear on the Constitution and its cultural origins.”

Wood’s reaction to this project is ambivalent, and often his moderate, restrained criticisms suggest that he is bending over backward not to impose historical standards on this non-historical project. He notes early on that the book finds “[t]he historian’s conception of causality…often bent out of shape,” but seems to register this observation as evidence of a difference between disciplines rather than something far more serious. Considering, for example, Slauter’s read on the sexual imagery of U.S. Constitution-building (e.g., the “erection” of a new government and the “impotence” of the Articles of Confederation), Wood notes only that “playing with images in this helter-skelter manner is bound to make the historian very uneasy” and that “[r]eaders will have to decide for themselves how much of these titillating connections they are willing to accept.” In another passage, Wood politely argues that Slauter elsewhere “pushes his literary techniques much too far, at least for this historian.” After considering some of the concluding chapters that he deems more successful, Wood can only muster the faint praise that Slauter has taken on “a laudable goal,” that the book shows “can sometimes be achieved.”

I will follow Wood’s own example by allowing the reader to decide for him/herself whether the historian’s measured criticism belies a more critical private take on Slauter’s book. But the more interesting point, I think, is that raised by Wood’s consistent invocation of his orientation as an historian as the reason for his occasional discomfort with the book. This line of reasoning suggests a kind of disciplinary relativism in which Slauter’s narrative might be compelling to literary critics, but not to historians. It therefore simultaneously refutes Peretz’s characterization and supports it. On the one hand, by suggesting that some claims that might fly in the English department would not be accepted among historians, Wood positions history as the more rigorous, even more objective, discipline. On the other, he pointedly characterizes his historical standards as merely different from, rather than better than, the literary ones implicitly invoked by Slauter. His larger understanding consequently seems to support Peretz’s characterization of historians as weavers of narratives rather than seekers of truth.

Of interest to me here is not the perennial battle between relativism and objectivity in the humanities. Instead, it is that very prominent historians are taking strong positions regarding the practice of history, and whether non-historians are capable of doing it well. Another compelling example of this trend did not take long to announce itself. In the very next issue of the same magazine (July 15), over a quarter of the issue’s pages were given over to a single essay by Sean Wilentz, one that excoriates a series of scholars for, essentially, writing history without being historians. Though neither article says so specifically, they both suggest (to varying degrees) an implicit pushback against the trend toward interdisciplinarity, on the grounds that disciplines (or, at least, the specific discipline of history) provide methodological standards that are uniquely appropriate for their subject matter. Abandon these standards, they seem to argue, and one is unlikely to find work of great value.

Wilentz’s specific topic here is the life of Abraham Lincoln, various aspects of which are covered in the seven books considered in his essay. Wilentz begins by recounting a speech that Lincoln gave when he was still a Whig, before the founding of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1854. In this speech (which, in its original form, took two days to deliver!), Lincoln attacked the Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce for being insufficiently dedicated to the cause of slavery. Pierce, according to Lincoln, despised the Fugitive Slave Law, which Honest Abe proceeded to defend while characterizing Pierce as a metaphorical “mulatto” for his contradictory positions. Wilentz does not introduce this story, he claims, to “debunk Lincoln’s reputation for probity and sagacity.” Indeed, the historian rejects both “the defamatory image of Lincoln as a conventional white racist” and “the awestruck hagiographies that have become ubiquitous in this anniversary year.” Instead, Wilentz claims that his “simpler and larger” argument “is that Abraham Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician.”

Such a claim hardly seems controversial, but Wilentz suggests it is lost on “some current writers” who “imagine” that Lincoln’s “every utterance” represents “a foray into moral philosophy or social theory.” Moreover, Lincoln’s speech, with its “casual racism” had little to do with “the major preoccupations of so much of today’s academic scholarship”: race and gender. Instead, the speech in question sought to accomplish several different political goals that would aid the ultimately unsuccessful Whig candidate (General Winfield Scott) against Pierce. Though this particular speech did not represent Lincoln’s “finest political hour,” Wilentz uses it as his opening example to forcefully argue that understanding the sixteenth president on his own terms requires that we represent him first and foremost as someone devoted to furthering specific political goals that included winning elections, maintaining power and governing an unruly electorate. Those who see him as racist or emancipator, philosopher or party hack, simply get him wrong.

Though these views of Lincoln differ significantly one from another, Wilentz seems to suggest that their misattribution stems from a common motivation: a lack of respect for politicians, who are viewed to be, by their very nature, “cautious and unreliable figures who must be forced by unruly events—and by outsiders—into making major reforms.” Under this interpretation:

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement had to compel the southern wheeler-dealer Lyndon B. Johnson to support civil rights and voting rights for blacks. Thus John L. Lewis and the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations had to push a reluctant Franklin Delano Roosevelt into making and then enlarging the New Deal. And thus Frederick Douglass and the runaway slaves, not Abraham Lincoln, deserve the real credit for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Wilentz believes that this frame imposes preconceptions on those who write about history, and that it consequently tends to limit one’s ability to offer a sound assessment of the past. Those who cannot admire politicians cannot believe that politicians act admirably; consequently, when they do, they are acting in some capacity other than that of a political figure. In the case of Lincoln, this line of interpretation leads to a narrative in which Lincoln underwent a midlife epiphany regarding the injustice of slavery, after which the scales fell from his eyes and he ceased to allow political concerns to limit his moral disapprobation.

Wilentz argues that the frame itself is incorrect and distorting, and, consequently, so are any conclusions that follow from it. Wilentz blames this tendency to misread Lincoln on, overall, two different factors: one political and one intellectual. The political one is an age-old “hostility of some Americans toward partisan competition and political government,” which found its strongest expression in the late nineteenth century Mugwumps. Wilentz argues that this desire to view the actions of one’s heroes as above the political fray, “shows that Mugwumpery has

evolved, paradoxically, into a set of propositions and assumptions congenial to the contemporary American academic Left.” It is difficult to avoid the thought that Wilentz’s ire stems from the embrace by that same group of a more contemporary figure, one who consistently articulates a vision of an America that is far more united than divided, and who prefers the uplifting speech to the grubby political horse-trade. Wilentz, as is well-known, strongly supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in last year’s Democratic primaries, and did not stop criticizing him even after Clinton (now, of course, Obama’s Secretary of State) conceded the race. (Wilentz himself responded to that charge rather angrily in his response to criticisms of the article: “I wrote a 25,000 word essay about Abraham Lincoln, not Barack Obama.”) Since there is no shortage of opinions on the influence of Wilentz’s politics on his scholarship, I instead want to turn to an implicit claim of Wilentz’s piece: that those who do not specialize in political history cannot successfully write about political figures.

The bulk of the article is given over to Wilentz’s treatment of seven books that represent different approaches to Lincoln himself. Taken as a whole, these books represent “an entirely new fashion in the historiography of Lincoln” in which is “diminishe[d] the importance of party politics and government in his career.” Instead, what makes Lincoln a truly great figure is his “literary sophistication and his empathetic powers.” Wilentz traces the vogue for this interpretive angle to Garry Wills’s 1993 Lincoln at Gettysburg; while magnanimously conceding that the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “has its merits,” he argues that because “Wills is more interested in doctrine and culture than in politics, his book elides the basic fact that the speech had…no immediately discernible political effect whatsoever.” In the wake of this treatment, more recent scholarship gives us a “politics that has been cleansed and redeemed, which is to say a politics that is unreal—a politics constructed out of words, just words.” Now Lincoln, writes Wilentz, “belongs to the English department.”

In the treatments that follow, Wilentz takes issue with every book that he mentions, almost all for exhibiting one (or both) of two seemingly interrelated flaws: treating Lincoln as something other than a politician, and failing to meet the historian’s standard of evidence. “Most historians would think twice,” for example, “about relying as much as” does Michael Burlingame in his Jungian biography of Lincoln “on second- and even third-hand testimony.” Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, is one of the few to consider the “mulatto” speech with which Wilentz introduces his article. But because Kaplan is interested in a different aspect of the speech than is Wilentz, his analysis is inadequate. By tracing the origin of a literary trope that Lincoln used in that speech, Kaplan concludes that Lincoln’s racialist patterns of thought were typical of the time. For Wilentz, though, this analysis misses the point. “So the actual subject of Franklin Pierce and the speech’s actual politics have receded into a thicket or words and Lincoln’s misappropriated metaphors and the discursive practices of the 1850s.” Indeed, if there is a third theme here, it is Wilentz’s hostility toward literary criticism. He notes that the Library of America’s Lincoln Anthology, edited by Harold Holzer, fails to include a significant number of historians in its survey of the reactions of “great writers” to Lincoln. “[T]he exclusion…of these authors…who have actually known the most about the man and his times is stunning…As the practice of writing about Lincoln by non-historians continues…it will come as no surprise that English professors are at the head of the line, given the recent trend for literary critics to write about any subject they please, and in a tone of serene authority.”

All of these strains come together in a lengthy attack on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the co-editor of Lincoln on Race and Slavery. (For reasons that are not explained, the other editor of this book, Donald Yacovone, is essentially ignored in this article.) Gates, argues Wilentz, misunderstands Thomas Jefferson’s position on blacks. He treats Lincoln unfairly by emphasizing his objections to slavery as a threat to white “free labor” rather than the inviolable human dignity of blacks. He ignores the nineteenth century Constitutional restrictions on ending slavery and consequently fails to understand the limitations on Lincoln’s ability to oppose the practice. Gates—the literary critic—overemphasizes the effect of a book (by abolitionist George Livermore, who was in turn inspired by black abolitionist William C. Nell) and underestimates the significance of the political and military situation, on Lincoln’s move toward recruiting blacks into the Union army. (This one Wilentz treats at great length, calling it an “outlandish claim” and “a counterfeit.”) Here Wilentz’s criticism of the historical efforts of non-historians dovetails with his disdain for what he views as the naïveté of those who insist on philosophical purity from their political figures. “In effect, Gates—and he is not alone—holds that the radical abolitionist view of slavery and its immediate and total eradication is the only one worthy of respect, let alone serious consideration…This may express a noble morality, but it is bad history.”

John Stauffer also comes in for a sustained criticism, for his book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, which, in Wilentz’s view, “ends up maligning as well as misunderstanding Lincoln’s anti-slavery politics.” The article concludes, however, with a brief meditation on Barack Obama, whose similarities to Lincoln have been noted by many, including the president himself. Despite these similarities, Wilentz sees a problem with a pattern of thinking that trumpets the humble virtues of the non-politican to be found in, of all people, the president of the United States. In his view, this dynamic not only threatens our understanding of history, but also compromises our practice of politics. “The Obama campaign, with its talk of repudiating politics as usual…aroused liberal anti-politics to a fever pitch.” This approach, argues Wilentz, is not that of Abraham Lincoln, who “was never too good for politics” and “would never renounce who he was.” On this view, the idealistic visions of today’s “earnest liberal writers,” are not idealistic at all; instead the insistence on moral purity impedes any politician’s ability to accomplish real good.

There is a lot going on in this essay, and even this very lengthy summary leaves much of it untouched. Certainly parts of Wilentz’s article read like it is time for its writer to move beyond throwing darts at pictures of Ralph Nader every morning, but I am less interested in Wilentz’s personal politics than in what might emerge from considering his two theses together. Wilentz argues that political historians possess a clearer understanding of political actors than do scholars working in other academic fields. He also, strongly if implicitly, believes that there is some relationship between the desire for intellectual and moral purity in one’s political heroes, and a tendency to see those qualities when they may not, in fact, exist. While many might argue with the first statement, something like it must at least be plausible if academic specialization is worth anything at all. The second is unassailable. Nonetheless, there is something in the article that is not entirely clear, and that is what, specifically, Wilentz believes to be the relationship between these two propositions. Is it necessarily true that historians see politics more clearly than do literary scholars? Might not historians have their own blinders, biases or preconceived notions with regards to politics, or any other subject? And must it be the case, as Wilentz implies, that historians are more likely to see politics for what it is, while others only view it through the lens of moral purity? That tendency would seem to reflect one’s political, rather than disciplinary, orientation. Is Wilentz suggesting a link between one’s politics and one’s field of study? He is not entirely clear on this point, but something like that seems to be the case.

Wilentz could therefore be accused of smuggling in his own disciplinary biases and political preferences under the guise of an objective quest for standards of greater rigor, and such turf battles seldom showcase anyone at their best. But I personally might prefer such a full-throated defense of one’s own intellectual commitments to the kid-glove approach to other disciplines that Gordon Wood’s review suggests. Wood’s model is certainly more defensible: the standards of history are merely different from, not more accurate than, those of literary criticism. How does one respond, then, to Martin Peretz’s caricature of the history profession as laughably mired in relativism? Richard Rorty argued that the “postmodern bourgeois liberal” is one who recognizes the need to “realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly.” As an inspiring slogan, “postmodern bourgeois scholarship” admittedly lacks something. But it may be the best work that can be done.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Mike,

    Interesting stuff.

    Peretz’s caricature is just awful. This line in particular exhibits a startling degree of ignorance: “History has become a competition between and among narratives, self-consciously disdainful or what we used to think of as fact.” That last clause is, well, stupid.

    I’m surprised to see Wood allowing for a strong relativism (my terms). It’s that tension between strong and weak that distinguishes rigorous history from Peretz’s caricature, respectively, as you note.

    I found myself, surprisingly, nodding in agreement with the initial aspects of Wilentz’s assessment/critique. Too many of Peretz’s weavers of narratives disrespect the fundamental tasks of history: delving into the archives, reading immediately relevant topical accounts, and building context by appreciating larger trends/traditions/ideas and specific temporal happenings. In sum, maybe Peretz is really depreciating incorrect practitioners of history rather than “history”—the profession that is—itself.

    That said, I agree with you, Mike, in denying Wilentz’s assertion about political historians being the only qualified narrators of historical political matters. What’s funny to me is that Wilentz becomes an object of Peretz’s ire but by another means: decontextualizing Lincoln as a man who was also something more than a politician. The irony!

    And of course I agree, Mike, with your underlying assumption about the strengths and weaknesses of different disciplines looking at historical matters. Sometimes historians, who are so focused on context, make strained connections and fail to see how humans occasionally transcend circumstances.

    As for Lincoln and Wilentz’s assertions of the weakness of non-professional historians looking at the president, well, Wilentz strikes me here as part and parcel of the problem Peretz identified: too much narrative competitiveness. In seeking to stamp out some kinds of problems (narrative relativism), Wilentz sets up others (false objectivity, specialty gnosticism). And if Peretz is complaining also about the multiplicity of professional accounts, well, he’s just agreeing with Wilentz.

    Great piece and excellent observations. – TL

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