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(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Forrest McDonald as he examines conservatism and historical scholarship. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)

library_books historical scholarship

On the face of things, conservatism and historical scholarship would appear to be antithetical ideals. A viable social order seems to require, among its other adhesives, a set of fictions agreed upon as truths—myths and their corresponding symbols—to provide the sense of legitimacy and purpose which are necessary if people are to live together in harmony. The function of the historical scholar is to discover and expose the truth, and if he is fully committed to the scholarly ideal, he is indifferent to the social and political consequences of his findings. To the extent that he succeeds in his undertaking—and is read and believed—he undermines the social order, and to that extent he is ipso facto a destructive radical.

Let me elaborate the dilemma before I attempt to plumb it. The central importance of myth and symbol is most readily apparent in dealing with political societies. Obviously, the operative myths vary from one political society to another: Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, Churchill’s England, de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, were founded on different fictive pasts. Obviously, too, different leaderships employ (or exploit) their nations’ myths in different fashions.

In the United States, until recent times, the principal operative myths have had to do with national origins and development—with Independence, with the Constitution, with the Federalist, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian eras, and with the Civil War. Though the content of the fictive accounts of these historical phenomena has varied, it usually formed a general image of what Americans thought and preferred to think was the essence of their country, past and present. That essence could be expressed in symbolic shorthand: “one nation, indivisible,” “liberty and justice for all,” “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” “the last, best hope of earth.”

Now, in one sense it did not matter whether these things were true. As long as people believed they were true and acted as if they were true, Americans could live together with some harmony and sense of common purpose; and in fact so believing and so acting helped to make them true.

Enter the historian ruthlessly exposing the facts of the matter. “One nation indivisible?” Then how did ethnicity persist, why did the melting pot fail to melt, how did a section founded on racism endure? “Liberty and justice for all?” What about our historical treatment of the Indians, the Irish, the blacks, the Chicanos, the Orientals, women? “Home of the brave?” What about all those cowards and deserters and profiteers in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War; and how much bravery was employed in plundering the hapless Indians, Mexicans, and Spaniards of their lands to satisfy our rapacious greed? “Government of the people?” What about the systematic exclusion of minorities from the political process, sell-outs to Special Interests, endemic venality in high places? An so on: Thus, did the historians do their duty?

And now Americans are suffering a crisis of faith, a tortured doubt about their values, their past, and their future. It would be simplistic and presumptuous to attribute this crisis to historians, but it would be naive and dangerous to fail to understand that they played a critical part in bringing the crisis about.

The purpose of this essay is to inquire whether it need have been so, or more properly, and more importantly, whether it need be so.

* * * * *



Writers of the Enlightenment declared that Herodotus and/or Thucydides invented history by distinguishing between fact and fable, between that which could be proved to have happened and that which could not be so proved. The New Zealand historian Peter Munz in a provocative essay, denies the invention to the Greeks and gives it to the ancient Hebrews and Romans, on the ground that between them they provided the essential ingredient of history, a method of counting linear time in consecutive years.[1] Both views define the historian’s craft too narrowly, for the historian is ubiquitous, existing in all times and in all cultures: He is the custodian of a society’s memory of what it has experienced. Historically, this vital social function has been entrusted to a considerable range of groups, but generally speaking these have fallen into three broad categories: the preservers of myths, the revisers of myths, and truth-seeking scholars. The first two varieties have been around since remote antiquity. The third emerged more recently.

Preservers of myths, at least those of primitive societies and of the pre-Enlightenment West, are readily identifiable and classifiable. The most common sort were the bards, the poet-singers and storytellers among such oral peoples as the Celts. Ossian, the Gaelic poet whom James McPherson “discovered” in 1762, mayor may not have been as ancient as McPherson claimed, and it may be that he was not one poet but several; but in any event he was a historian, the keeper of one of the sets of memories (the Fenian cycle) the Celts had of themselves. So were the hundreds of balladeers who preserved the legend of Cu Chulainn, and the thousands of poets and singers who carried through the centuries the particular stories of particular clans. Myth-keeping historians, too, despite their claims, were those who, on the more “civilized” European Continent, dealt with the written word-priests, annalists, and chroniclers.

Less obvious are the revisers of myths, for they commonly assert (and even believe) that they are enemies of myths and seekers of truth. Carl Becker is instructive on this point. American historians, as he pointed out in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, were wont to think the so-called New History began with James Harvey Robinson, whereas New History was actually an old and recurring thing. St. Augustine had labored to fashion a New History in the fifth century, as had the humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the philosophes in the eighteenth. Convinced, as Becker was by the time he wrote The Heavenly City (1932), that history is always and necessarily propaganda in service of ideology, whether consciously or unconsciously, he was able to fashion a persuasive argument that the philosophes were thus engaged.

But as usual with Becker, he obscured even as he clarified: The matter was rather more complex than he depicted it as being. He ignored two important strands of Enlightenment history, presumably because he was unaware of them, and he made a glaring error in regard to a third. It is instructive to look into each of these, for each—as well as Becker’s conviction about the nature of history—is central to the question of the relationship between conservatism and historical scholarship.

For one thing, in his eagerness to demonstrate that philosophes used history to justify their hostility toward priests and princes and to propagandize what, as they saw things, ought to be.[2] Becker ignored an important strain of eighteenth-century historical writing, that of nostalgia and corruption. He did devote half a paragraph to Mably’s Observations on the History of France, which maintained that under Charlemagne France had had an excellent constitution that was subsequently corrupted; but he leaves out of account the similar and influential Anglo-Saxon myth of English history which the philosophes’ English counterpart, the Oppositionists, worked so diligently to preserve and spread. The oversight is curious, since Becker was primarily a historian of British America in the eighteenth century. It is doubly curious since Becker used as the subtitle of his chapter on the New History, apparently without knowing its source, a quotation from Bolingbroke, the grandest Oppositionist of them all: “history is philosophy teaching by example.”

Becker’s second oversight was this: while for the most part the French philosophes did, as Becker indicates, bend their history to suit their ideology, their equivalents in Scotland carefully distinguished between history as philosophy and history as past actuality. In writing the former—called variously theoretical, conjectural, speculative, and philosophic history—they made no pretense that they were writing the latter. As Dugald Stewart put it, the historical data for answering many philosophic questions do not exist, since important developments took place in primitive times and thus went unrecorded. “In this want of direct evidence, we are under a necessity of supplying the place of fact by conjecture; and when we are unable to ascertain how men have actually conducted themselves upon particular occasions, of considering in what manner they are likely to have proceeded, from the principles of their nature, and the circumstances of their external situation.”[3] That is, the sort of “history” the great Scottish philosophers—David Hume, Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, John Millar—wrote when their principal concern was to describe the nature of man and society. It is the sort to which Hume referred when he said that the “chief use” of history was “only to discover [meaning disclose] the constant and universal principles of human nature.” But when the Scots—or when Hume, at any rate—turned to write history as past actuality, the methods, the standards, and the goals were quite different.

To focus upon Hume is to focus upon the third of Becker’s flaws and introduce the third classification of historians, scholars committed to finding and reporting the truth for its own sake. David Hume was as committed to the scholarly ideal as it is possible to be; and he was, as far as I am aware, the first historian to write without conscious or unconscious pandering to any ideology save that of the truth-seeking ideal itself. This is not to say that he found the truth or that his multivolume History of England is the final word on the subject. On the contrary: Hume himself, over-modest and ever the skeptic, would have made no such claim. But the truth was what he sought, and that is what is important.

He did have two more or less ulterior motives, as his own philosophy and his friend Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments required that he must. One was the hope of making money from the sale of his books, a hope in which he was for some time to be sorely disappointed. The first in his series of historical works, that covering the Stuart period, failed to depict James I and Charles I as unmitigated fools and scoundrels and pointed out that the Parliamentary Party was not populated exclusively by men of unalloyed virtue. Both observations were contrary to what the British public preferred to believe; and consequently the book sold only forty-five copies during its initial year. (Afterwards, Hume wrote that “I scarcely indeed heard of one Man in the three Kingdoms, considerable for Rank or Letters, that cou’d endure the book.”[4])

His second personal motive was that of his “ruling passion,” the hope for literary Fame,[5] as Fame was understood in the eighteenth century—as the secular substitute for Christian immortality, the grateful remembrance of posterity. In such an aspiration lies the surest, and perhaps the only, by which the historian can maintain a commitment to the scholarly ideal and remain proof against serving an ideology. For if one’s aim is immortality, or a modest measure of it, to be won by an enduring contribution to human knowledge, one places the highest possible stakes on the outcome of one’s search.

It was the spirit of Hume’s historical inquiry, or something approximating it, which underlay the development by Ranke and the other Germans of the modern discipline of historical scholarship, and which in theory at least inspired the “scientific historians” of the first and second generations of American historical scholars. Before proceeding any further, however, it is necessary to consider the vexing question of whether historical truth is knowable.

* * * * *

Charles A. Beard

Charles A. Beard

Becker, Charles A. Beard, and two generations of American historians who followed them declared that it is not knowable. Becker made his position clearest in his presidential address before the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian:” (1931) Beard did so in his presidential address, “Written History As an Act of Faith.” (1933) Becker, declaring that every historian writes within a “climate of opinion” which delimits what he can see and even the questions he can ask, concluded that each generation must and does revise history in accordance with its current prejudices—in effect, that both historians and primitive bards both preserve the myths, the difference being only that historians revise them to keep them attuned to the changing needs of changing times.

Beard fashioned his trap more artfully and more ambiguously. History, said he, can be seen in but three ways: as chaotic, as cyclical, or as moving in a direction. The historian must choose one of these conceptions, and within it he is confined by his “frame of reference,” a composite of “things deemed necessary and things deemed desirable” about the way history unfolds and will continue to unfold in future. His own frame of reference, Beard said, was that history moves in a direction and that its necessary and desirable course was toward some kind of collective democracy. Beard has generally been read in one of two ways: his detractors maintain that he was advocating the writing of history in service of a cause (in the sense that Becker believed historians necessarily write), whereas his defenders argue that he was merely warning that we have our prejudices and should seek to be aware of and understand them so that we may, to some limited extent, overcome them.

I offer another interpretation, one relevant to the matter at hand.[6] Beard began his address with the assertion that the extent of a historian’s influence and immortality depended on the verdict of history yet to come; he closed it with the warning that historians who ignore his advice do so at their mortal peril. If those statements are borne in mind as one reads the remainder of the essay, it appears that Beard is saying that the historian who wants his work to endure (as Hume did) will not seek the objective truth (as Hume did) but will second-guess the prejudices of the future. The flaw in this perversion of the scholarly ideal is that it is, in accordance with its own premises, built upon the shifting sands of ever-changing myths.[7]

In either version—Becker’s or Beard’s—the subjectivist-relativist school of historiographical thought insists that history is and always will be a succession of myths. It must be admitted that the history of historical writing, even since Hume and von Ranke, has often tended to bear them out. John Marshall was clearly writing advocacy history when he wrote his Life of Washington, as surely as was Parson Weems. The same is true of the succession of nineteenth century historians—Bancroft, Hildreth, Fiske, and others—who wrote about the formative years of the American nation. Needless to say, the game has continued even unto our own enlightened times.

But the question remains, whether it must be so and whether it is always so. To be sure, we are all culture-bound to a lesser or greater extent. Indeed, the very ideal of scholarship as we know it, and even our conception of history as events unfolding consecutively in linear time, are functions of Western civilization. Moreover, we are restricted by the language or languages at our disposal: there are things that can be thought in Chinese but not in English and vice versa. But this is merely to admit that we are finite, that we are not God: to concede that we cannot obtain absolute knowledge and cannot know everything is not to say that we can know nothing.

The belief that we are necessarily myth-makers, however, rests upon less deep and murky foundations than these. Rather, it rests on the belief that we cannot escape what Becker called the climate of opinion, what Beard called our frame of reference, and what I prefer to think of as the provincialism of the present. But we can escape if we try. Let me attempt to substantiate this proposition logically and then make so bold as to suggest how it can be done.

The reason the subjectivist-relativist trap has seemed inescapable is that theorists who have dealt with it have challenged its premises, which are unassailable, rather than the inferences drawn from the premises, which are indefensible. The premises are two: all knowledge is subjective and all observations are relative to the point of view of the observer. It is inherently futile to challenge the first premise, for it is inside our brains that we “know” anything; “objective reality” may or may not exist, and may or may not be what we perceive as existing, but our perception itself is by definition a subjective process.

But what can be reasonably deduced from the premise? The answer is absolutely nothing. Since we “know” with our brains, we cannot “know” whether anything exists outside our brains. The existence of objective reality is therefore an article of faith, not of knowledge. If we accept that article of faith (which comes rather naturally and, in the West anyway, is pretty much indispensable to sanity), further disputation is pointless. Making appropriate allowances for the possibility of illusion and misperception in any individual observation, we proceed to observe on the assumption that what we think we see is really there. If we do not embrace this article of faith, further disputation is likewise pointless. Indeed the relativist portion of the subjectivist-relativist formulation becomes nonsense, for point of view is meaningless if there is nothing to see.

It is thus only the second or relativism part of the trap that can be meaningfully discussed. As with the first, it is futile to challenge the premise, for the very act of observing (whether in a literal sense or in a more general and abstract way) presupposes a point from which to look. The inference Becker and Beard drew from this truism is that historical truth cannot be seen because one views only from where one stands. As a matter of pure logic the inference falls for a pair of related reasons. One: even if it be admitted that each generation rewrites history in accordance with its own preoccupations and preconceptions, this does not argue against a cumulative process in historical inquiry. In fact, since any observation can be valid from and for its own perspective (though only from and for its own perspective), it argues quite the opposite. If generation A views the past in this way, generation B in that, generation C in thus and so, generation D in such and such, and so on, there is necessarily a cumulative process, an accretion of equally valid albeit never absolute observations. Two: there is no reason in logic or fact to suppose that a single generation or even a single individual is confined to a single point of view.

It is the latter proposition that provides the way out of the trap. It is scarcely questionable that, in a strictly physical sense, one readily achieve a multiple perspective. From a mountain-top below, one observes what appears to be a valley from below. One can move to endlessly different vantage points, to the other side, to a different mountain, a treetop, a helicopter, into the valley itself. One can employ cameras, mirrors, periscopes, telescopes. Perhaps with difficulty, perhaps not, one ultimately sees from enough angles to obtain what in the eighteenth century was called “moral certainty”—the inner conviction that if anything exists, which one accepts on faith, then this valley exists and one knows its contours.

Getting to know past actuality is admittedly rather more complex. At first blush it would even seem impossible, for it would seem to involve seeing through eyes other than one’s own, thinking with a brain other than one’s own. A moment’s reflection, however, is sufficient to indicate that we perform these seemingly impossible feats as a matter of daily routine. We know, for instance, what others expect of us, which is not always what we prefer to do, and yet we usually do what is expected of us. To the extent that we do that, we are not only seeing ourselves as others see us—through perceptual apparatuses not our own—but acting in accordance with the dictates of alien perceptual machinery. To put the matter more tangibly, every college student encounters professors who teach from points of view (assumptions, values, ideals) which the student does not necessarily share. In such circumstances, every intelligent student is able, and most are willing, to write the essays and give the answers that the teacher wants to hear.

The principle is the same in seeking to know and understand past actuality. We process our perceptions and do our thinking in symbolic codes or languages. As for how we behave, part is unthinking motor response to internal or external stimuli and another part (though just how much has not yet been determined) is no doubt genetically programmed. All the rest, which is by far the larger part of human behavior, is a matter of interaction between these first two sources of activity and the symbolic codes with which we perceive and think. Now, codes can be broken, languages can be learned. It does not alter the case to concede that some languages are harder to learn than others, that some scholars have greater capacities than others, or that some defunct codes may be unbreakable because not enough clues to their workings have survived.

And this is the pivot on which the question of the validity of historical inquiry turns. If we seek to know and understand what happened in the past, it is essential that we seek first to know the symbolic code of the participants in past events. If we try to employ a different code—if we use our own language—knowledge and understanding are impossible, and we are doomed to the futile fate that Becker and Beard described. Thus, to suggest a concrete example, if we attempt a psychohistory of an eighteenth-century man through the diagnostic models of modern psychiatry or psychology, our efforts are inherently are in vain because eighteenth-century men did not act in accordance with twentieth century models. If, on the other hand, we seek to understand the models of behavior that were available to the subject biographee, there is no reason at all for failure provided adequate materials are available—as Hugh Ragsdale demonstrates in a brilliant forthcoming psychohistory of Tsar Paul I of Russia.

If then, we can know the truth about the past (admittedly not the whole and absolute truth, and surely not the Truth), the question arises: How? I promised some suggestions and now offer them, not as a definitive program but as guides or approaches.

One thought that immediately comes to mind, though partly facetious, is also partly valid. If it were entirely true that, in accordance with the Beaker-Beard dictum, each generation rewrites history in its own image, then one would only have to read each generation’s version of the past discover the prism through which each viewed reality. One would read Richard Hildreth, for example, not to understand Hildreth’s subject, the late eighteenth century, but to understand the 185Os, during which time Hildreth wrote. The flaw in that approach is that the Becker-Beard dictum has been only partially born out by the history of American historical writing: to0 many historians have been free of the “dictatorship of the Zeitgeist,” as someone has called it, and the historian’s Zeitgeist in any event has normally been only one of several that prevailed in a given time and place. Thus, Hildreth’s work does provide a clue to the code used by certain New England Yankees at a particular moment in time, but no more. The point of all this is that one must recognize that in studying the history of any society, no matter how simple, relationships and the symbolic codes through which they are expressed and thought about are intrinsically plural in character.[9]

In seeking to understand these plural relationships and codes, I have found a number of approaches to the primary data to be particularly useful. One has to do with concern for language in the literal sense of the term. The meaning of words changes, often rapidly and sometimes totally, and the historian who studies a document. Without being acutely sensitive to the precise way in which words are used is likely to be led astray. (For historians whose primary materials are in English, the Oxford English Dictionary is an indispensable tool.)

Constitutional tradition

Constitutional Convention

A few random examples will clarify the point. William Pierce, in his sketches of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, described Gunning Bedford of Delaware as “a bold and nervous Speaker.” If we take Pierce’s words at their face value, we conclude that Bedford was jumpy, excitable, fidgety, or whatever. If we look up “nervous” in the O.E.D., however, we learn that in the eighteenth century it meant vigorous, energetic, or strong. Misinterpretation of that word is unlikely to lead to a gross misinterpretation of the Constitutional Convention, it is true; but there are more important words whose misreading will lead to total confusion. I invite you to discover the eighteenth-century usage of the following ten words: nation, state, patriot, rebel, public, republic, commonwealth, citizen, law, and revolution. Each is crucial to an understanding of American political history during the period, and each has changed in meaning; yet, few American historians of the period have shown the slightest awareness of the changes. (An admirable exception is Garry Wills, in his Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.)

Another useful approach, one that facilitates detachment and improves one’s historical vision mightily, is that of the cultural anthropologist, the object of whose study is not to understand events as they unfold in time, but to discover and describe the cultural “givens” which condition or govern the unfolding of events. Toward that end, it is extremely helpful to regard all non-spontaneous social, political, and economic activities as games. War, politics, and capital formation equally with school, sexual relations, and court trials can be fruitfully so regarded. Like baseball and tennis, these “games” have rules, conventions, counters, and rituals, and all involve the suspension of common-sense observation and belief. (That is not a rowdy gang of young men in gaudy underwear you see before you, it is a basketball game.) Indeed, they often partake of the quality of spectator sports and serve the same social function, namely that of providing a ritual outlet for primitive passions whose direct expression would be socially destructive. The essential difference between them and what we commonly regard as games is one of attitudes: We recognize and admit to ourselves that football and hockey are games, but regard commodity speculation and murder trials as reality.

Consider that most terrible of realities, modern war. As it has been conducted in the West since the late seventeenth century, war is a highly civilized form of contest. It begins and ends upon the performance of certain ceremonial rituals, and no combat is permitted in intervals of “peace” when the war is not formally under way. Only certain designated “players,” properly identified by their uniforms, are allowed to participate. All others, “civilians,” are merely spectators (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the “fans” actually went out to the battlefields to watch the fighting; in the twentieth century they watch second-hand through the news media). The spectators are exempt from harm at the hands of the players and are punished severely as “spies” if they surreptitiously participate without proper attire. The game is territorial, both in the sense that the counters are parcels of land and in the sense that the contest is conducted within the confines of specified areas. When a team violates the boundaries, as Germany did by invading France through the Low Countries in 1940 or as the United States did in Cambodia in 1973, it incites the wrath and indignation of the entire civilized world and soon or late must bear the consequences.[10]

And so on. Were this a treatise on historical method I could offer numerous other suggestions. Enough has been said, I trust, to indicate that there are approaches to historical inquiry which, while never producing complete “objectivity,” can yield a close approximation of it in the form of detachment and disinterestedness.

* * * * *

Now let us turn to the question whether, in practice, American historians have actually been learning anything, or have simply been imposing their changing prejudices upon the record. It is true that historians, like other people, have their fads. In the 1930s and 1940s, they devoted a great deal of attention to the history of relations between business and government and between capital and labor. In the 1950s consensus history was all the rage. In the sixties and seventies new-left revisionism, ideological history, ethnic history, women’s history, family history, psychohistory, and cliometrics came and went (or are going). Most of what was written as a result of adherence to these fads was gibberish—the myth of the month, as it were.

Kenneth Stampp

Kenneth Stampp

Let me cite an example. Amidst the racial turmoil and radicalism that characterized the years from the mid sixties to the early seventies, a great deal of revision of the the history American blacks was published. Some of it designed to substantiate the “black is beautiful” campaign, purported to discover a host of eminent black heroes in the American past or to prove that American industrial capitalism was built by slave labor. That part of it was palpably absurd, though it may be possible to justify it as socially useful mythmaking. But supposedly serious scholarship emerged from the same fad. Kenneth Stampp, for instance, published a history of Radical Reconstruction in which he turned the traditional interpretation upside down. Reconstruction had generally been viewed as a horrendous episode in which blacks were running wild and taking over state governments, Radicals in Congress were imperilling the Constitution by overextending the power of the federal government, and the nation was veering dangerously toward radical and even totalitarian democracy. In Stampp’s revised version quite same things were happening, but instead of being horrible they were now depicted as good: The tragedy of Reconstruction was that the blacks and the Radicals did not triumph.[11]

Stampp’s work is a gross example of myth-revising, a bald illustration of Becker’s dictum that each generation rewrites history to suit its present prejudices. But the same preoccupation with race and ethnicity could and did yield new knowledge and understanding by providing an enlarged and enriched perspective. Previous scholarship on labor relations and on urban politics, for instance had tended to view the “working class” as a single, undifferentiated mass. Common sense should have told us that a black worker, an Irish worker, and a Polish worker were not the same; but we simply did not think in such terms until our racial and ethnic consciousness was awakened. Such scholars as Gerd Korman and Rudolph Vecoli, utilizing this broadened consciousness, produced works that are appreciably to our store of knowledge and understanding.[12]

Another example relates to the oversights mentioned in regard to Becker’s Heavenly City. The “consensus historians” of the 1950s pretty thoroughly demolished the class-struggle interpretation of the Revolution and the making of the Constitution, constructed earlier by Becker and Beard and their followers and subsequently, in the thirties and forties, enshrined as holy writ among American historians. Into the resulting historiographical vacuum rushed a new fad, a wave of enthusiasm for ideological history. In some ways ideological history was as simple-minded as its predecessors (if the Cause of the Revolution was not economic it must have been ideological), and yet it greatly broadened and deepened what is known about the birth of the American republic. Had Carl Becker been able to read just three of the works which emanated from the ideological school—Isaac Kraminc’s Bolingbroke and His Circle, H. Trevor Colbourn’s The Lamp of Experience, and Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution—his understanding of his subject would have been vastly enriched.

He might also have perceived that as the generations have rewritten history, they have not merely been destroying old myths and fashioning new ones. They have, in addition, been learning more and making it possible to understand more. For all its fads and fits and starts, historical scholarship has been cumulative.

* * * * *

Now let us come to grips with the issue raised at the outset. There are three descriptions of historians, the myth-preservers, the myth-revisers, and the the truth-seekers. As indicated, keepers of the myths appear to be conservatives, for conserving a society’s traditional beliefs is their avowed function. But their conservatism is illusory, for the function is one which, in the nature of things, they cannot perform. The root word of conserve is the Latin conservare, meaning to guard or defend. Bards, priests, and chroniclers can, within limits, keep alive the memory which society entrusts to their care, but they cannot defend their myths against the challenge of the myth-revisers and the truth-seekers. At most they can stifle inquiry and the airing of ideas, but Western history for five hundred years has shown that thought-repression cannot succeed in the long run.

The myth-revisers would appear to be radicals, but that, too, is illusory, The word radical derives from the Latin radix, meaning root; to be radical is to get at the roots of a matter, and that, in the nature of things, myth-revisers cannot do. Moreover, if and when myth-revisers succeed in their initial undertaking, their very success transforms them into myth-preservers, custodians of the new orthodoxy they have brought about. Yesterday’s reformers are today’s establishment, runs the cliche; and the cliche happens to be true.

A brief account of the main currents of twentieth-century American historiography-and of a side eddy-will abundantly illustrate the point, Becker, Beard, and others of their generation were once Young Turks, challenging, on the one hand, the “barren political history” of their mentors, the scientific historians; and championing, on the other hand, every manner of Progressive political reform. In due course they rewrote the whole of American history, and from the mid-1930s onward their new myths became the Revised Standard Version of the American past. In a nutshell, the RSV was as follows: American history alternated between reform periods and periods of reaction, the one being good and the other bad; the good guys were farmers, frontiersmen, workers, and the reform politicians who led them, the bad guys were speculators, businessmen, the “trusts,” and politicians in their hire; government regulation of business was always a desirable reform and always worked to the benefit of the public; free private enterprise was a shibboleth to disguise monopoly, privilege, and exploitation. Two generations of Americans were fed this swill in the ordinary course of their education.

We the People McDonaldNor was dissent welcome: adherents of the RSV, once they became the Establishment, were as kindly disposed toward different points of view as Cromwell had been toward Irish Catholics. Here I illustrate by personal example. In the late 1950s, a president of the American Historical Association attempted to discredit We the People, my critical inquiry into Charles A. Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution—not by challenging my scholarship but by assiduously whispering that my writing was not to be trusted since I was at work on a history of the electric utility industry and was therefore a “tool of the power trust.” In the mid-sixties I was denied an appointment at a major midwestern university—not because my scholarship or my teaching ability was questioned but because I had supported Goldwater for President. Later in the same decade, I was gently invited to leave Brown University—again, not because my scholarship and teaching were questioned but because I had declared publicly that the university’s policy toward blacks was a faddish liberal fraud that masked an underlying racism. My experiences were not atypical among people of my bent and my generation.

Conditions have improved considerably—owing, ironically, to those least tolerant of myth-revisers, the new-leftists. The liberal academicians, totalitarianly illiberal as they were, fancied themselves in the image of young Becker and Beard, crusaders for the truth. My generation of dissenters could be disregarded (or crushed, whenever that was possible) because we were few and because we reinforced the liberals’ sense of self-righteousness by denouncing them for being liberals. The new-leftists, more numerous and tactically more aware, posed a serious threat because they sapped the liberals’ inner confidence by attacking them for being a reactionary establishment. Embarrassed and confused, the liberals trimmed, equivocated, and capitulated, and their stranglehold on free inquiry was broken. By that means did it become acceptable—though it scarcely became fashionable—to be a conservative scholar.[13]

Thus the question I posed at the outset, whether conservatism and historical scholarship are compatible, is one that has taken on meaning for the first time in a long time, perhaps for the first time ever. My original answer, that undermining myths by reporting the truth is ipso facto socially destructive, is accurate only in the short run and to a limited extent. “Disruptive” would better word than “destructive.” It would be disruptive to be forced to move from a house built on sand to one built on rock, but one’s foundations, in the longer run, would be sounder.

It is along such lines that I would argue that conservatism and truth-seeking historical scholarship are not only compatible but inseparable. One reason has directly to do with foundations: it is impossible to guard or defend anything if the ground is continually shifting underfoot. Another has to do with an Enlightenment ideal, that of learning about human nature—or more properly with the earlier humanistic ideal of learning what is man’s “first” or universal nature and what is his second nature or socially derived nature—so that we may know what can be defended and what is worth defending.

But these are practical reasons. The more fundamental reason is this: conservatism is, at bottom, a moral position, and morality based upon lies is a contradiction in terms.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2015. It originally appeared in Continuity: A Journal of History (Spring/Fall 1982). Books by Forrest McDonald may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. Peter Munz, “The Purity of Historical Meth0d: Some Sceptical Reflections on the Current Enthusiasm for the History of Non-European Societies,” The New Zealand Journal of History, V (April, 1971), 1-17.

2. ‘Ought” is a word which, incidentally, Becker misinterprets by reading it out of context. He takes Montesquieu to task for describing things as they ought to be rather than as they were, rendering “ought” in the twentieth-century sense of “should.” In eighteenth-century treatises on the law-natural law , at any rate-ought meant obliged to, owes, must.

3. Quoted in Anand C. Chitnis, The Scottish Enlightenment: A Social History (London, 1976), p. 97. A rillB 1776 .

4. David Hume, “My Own Life,” April 18, 1776, in J. Y. T Greig, ed., The Letters of David Hume (2 vols., Oxford, 1932),I, 4.

5. Ibid., I, 7.

6. I have developed this interpretation more fully in “Charles A. Beard,” in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin Winks, eds., Pastmasters (New York, 1969).

7. Ironically, the history of Beard’s own posthumous “influence and immortality” bears witness to the fallacy of his philosophy. He had been responsible for fundamental reinterpretations of the three most significant political events of America’s first century as a nation—the making of the Constitution, the origins of the party system, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. When he died in 1948 all three of these interpretations had gained almost unquestioned acceptance. In the ensuing years the United States did indeed, as he forecast, move toward “some kind of collective democracy,” with which his quasi-Marxist interpretations would seem to be entirely compatible. And yet within a decade and a half of his death all three of his major interpretations had been demolished and abandoned by the historical profession at large.

8. The argument here parallels the thinking of Werner Heisenberg in regard to scientific inquiry. Non-scientists often mistakenly assume that Newtonian physics was rendered obsolete by modern quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. They are, in other words, failing to recognize that an observation can be entirely valid from one perspective and irrelevant—not inaccurate, just irrelevant—from another. Here is Heisenberg on the matter: “Newtonian mechanics cannot be improved in any way, for inasmuch as we can describe a particular phenomenon with the concepts of Newtonian physics—namely, position, velocity, acceleration, mass, force, etc.—Newton’s laws hold quite rigorously, and nothing in this will be changed for the next hundred thousand years. More precisely, I ought perhaps to say: Newton’s laws are valid to that degree of accuracy to which the phenomena concerned can be described by these concepts . . . However there are areas of experience in which we can no longer manage with the conceptual system of Newtonian mechanics. For such areas we need entirely new conceptual structures, for instance, those introduced by relativity theory or quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics constitutes a closed system in [that] there can be no more improvements. All we can do is adopt an entirely new conceptual system, in which the old system is contained as a limiting case,” And here is Niels Bohr: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” And Carl Friedrich von Weizacker: “When we say that, with his ‘a priori,’ Kant gave a correct amount of the state of scientific knowledge n his time, but that modern atomic physics faces a new epistemological situation, then our statement may be compare to the other statement, that Archimedes’ lever laws were the right formulation of the practical rules of the technology in Archimedes’ day, but do not meet the needs of modern technology, for instance of electronics. Archimedes’ laws represent true knowledge, not some vague expression of opinion. They apply to all levers at all times, and if there should be life on some distant planet of some distant stellar system, then Archimedes’ laws will apply to them as well. The fact that extensions of knowledge have helped us to advance into realms of technology in which the lever concept no longer suffices signifies neither the relativization nor the historization of the lever laws; it simply means that in the course of historical development these laws have lost the central significance they originally enjoyed. Similarly, I believe that Kant’s analysis of human understanding represents true knowledge, not some vague expression of opinion, and that it will apply whenever thinking beings enter into a kind of contact with their environment to which we refer as ‘experience’. But even the Kantian ‘a priori’ can be displaced from its central position and become part of a much wider analysis of the process of understanding. In this context, it would certainly be a mistake were we to detract from scientific or philosophical knowledge with the phrase, ‘Every age has its own truth.’ We should nevertheless remember that the very structure of human thought changes in the course of human development. Science progresses not only because it helps to explain newly discovered facts, but also because it teaches us over and over again what the word ‘understanding’ may mean.” Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (New York, 1972), pp. 96-97, 102, 124. I warmly recommend this book and especially Chapter 10, “Quantum Mechanics and Kantian Philosophy (1930-1934).”

The reader is invited to compare these quotations with my “Methodology” in We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago, 1958), pp 411-14, published twenty-one years before I had the joy of reading Heisenberg. It was a comfort to know we were thinking on the same wave lengths. It was a curiosity to learn that the conversations Heisenberg reports were taking place even as Beard and Becker were serving their presidencies 0f the American Historical Association.

9. Far an excellent example of sensitivity to the plurality of social relationships, see Natalie Zeman Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), pp. xvi-xviii and passim.

10. Indeed, the calamity of Vietnam can be seen in especially clear relief if one looks at it in this way. The Americans were attempting to play the game according to Western rules, whereas the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were playing according to different rules-or rather, by no rules at all, which means that we were playing a game and they were not.

11. Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction: 1865-1877 (New York, 1965).

12. Gerd Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants, and Americanizers: The View from Milwaukee, 1866-1921, (Madison, 1967); Rudolph Vecoli, Chicago’s ltalians Prior to World War I: A Study of Their Social and Economic Adjustment, (Madison, 1962).

13. This process, too, can he illustrated with a personal experience. In the 1950s James F. Doster, Lee Benson, and I, along with several other students of public-utility history, separately came up with the finding that utility companies had been the prime movers in the establishment of the independent government agencies which regulated them. Since, according to the RSV, regulation was always a progressive reform, instituted by good-guy politicians over the opposition of bad-guy corporations, our findings met a cool when not hostile reception! to them, we were trying to claim credit for the bad guys. Then in the 1960s Gabriel Kolko and other new-leftists came along and said just what we had been saying, but they phrased it as an accusation: regulation was a sinister conspiracy engineered by big business in their own interests. That thoroughly confused the liberals, but when put that way, the view came into general, if not total, acceptance.

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3 replies to this post
  1. And, there are the myth-creators. A noble profession, according to Plato. I do believe we need our myths even or especially if we know them to be untrue. We need heroes, and if they do not naturally arise, we must create them. Even celluloid heroes.

    As it says in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, — Maybe This Isn’t The Way It Was – It’s The Way It Should Have Been!

  2. How does the non-historian know how much to believe of current works about historic figures?
    Washington, Adam, Lincoln, Rossevelt, Marshall….etc.
    I am aware of how heavily US history sees the world with English eyes. But not much else.
    Is there any society or journal that reviews books about the past.
    I want the closest to Truth that is available.

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