Contemporary Politics and Historians
To the Editors,
I was dismayed to read Lacy K. Ford's obiter dicta in Randall Stephens's interview with him, "Justifying Slavery in the Old South: An Interview with Lacy K. Ford" (April 2010). Ford says that "economic considerations usually win out over moral considerations in American life today." Is this why a sizeable majority of Americans, white and black, elected Barack Obama as president, knowing that he would in all likelihood raise the taxes on many of them? Ford ventures: "Most Americans probably know that universal health care is right, but they don't want to pay for it." From what I have read and experienced, the hesitation of Americans to embark upon universal health care, rightly or wrongly, stems from concerns about quality of care, physician-patient relationships, a fear of "Big Government," etc. What has all this to do with "Slavery in the Old South"? My point is that historians should, as historians, refrain from publicizing their opinions on current events; historically speaking, they have no better a track record than politicians, political scientists, or journalists.
The most outrageous recent examples of historians dishing out very unhistorical opinions on contemporary events or persons are the declarations by professors Sean Wilentz and the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that "George Bush was America's worst president." (Worse than Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, or Harding?) How can they know? Are today's historians' opinions based on much more than a reading of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and various Web sites that serve the general reading public? A well-informed chiropractor can do that.
Perhaps paradoxically, it seems to work out that we know far more about events and persons—and see them in a better perspective—the further in time we move away from them. For example, the near-universal lauding of John F. Kennedy by academia in his time now seems fairly superficial. And don't we now know far more about the Lincoln administration than Lincoln's contemporaries did? What historian today would write of Woodrow Wilson and neglect his racism? Historians of his time and later failed to note that. Perhaps historians might agree to a "self-denying ordinance" to allow contemporary affairs to "marinate" for two decades or so before giving the world their opinions as historians.
Spring Lake, North Carolina
Economic History and Cliometrics
To the Editors:
I found "A Forum on the Neglected Field of Economic History" in the April 2010 issue very interesting and provocative. All the articles assume that cliometrics, which dominates economic history in the United States, is the universal norm. But that is not the case. Economic history as practiced among European economic historians, who undoubtedly were the most numerous at the international congress in Utrecht in the summer of 2009, is quite different. For one, literary language (whatever the exact language) prevails, rather than mathematical formulations. Hence it is more accessible to non-mathematicians and non-econometricians. That means as well that technical jargon is less prevalent. And last, theory is not the all-embracing architecture into which historical facts are fitted by cherry picking from the past to prove the veracity of the initial theory. Instead, theory is a key to analyze the past, to raise questions, and to penetrate the historical data for understanding and explanation of what took place. I remember how startled I was, in preparing a course on the Industrial Revolution, to go from European works on the subject to American writings and to discover that stark difference.
Vivian R. Gruder
Queens College, City University of New York