When young sociologists would consult with C. Wright Mills, it’s said, he would end his recommendations with what was clearly a personal motto: “Take it big!” It was the concentrated expression of an ethos: Tackle major issues. Ask wide-ranging questions. Use the tools of your profession, but be careful not to let them dig a mental rut you can’t escape.
Jo Guldi and David Armitage give much the same advice to their colleagues, and especially their colleagues-to-be, in The History Manifesto, a new book from Cambridge University Press. (Guldi is an assistant professor of history at Brown University, while Armitage is chair of the history department at Harvard.) Only by “taking it big” can their field regain the power and influence it once had in public life – and lost, somewhere along the line, to economics, with its faith in quantification and the seeming rigor of its concepts.
But issues such as climate change and growing economic inequality must be understood in terms of decades and centuries. The role of economists as counselors to the powerful has certainly been up for question over the past six years. Meanwhile, the world’s financial system continues to be shaped by computerized transactions conducted at speeds only a little slower than the decay of subatomic particles. And so, with their manifesto, the authors raise the call: Now is the time for all good historians to come to the aid of their planet.
But first, the discipline needs some major recalibration. “In 1900,” Guldi and Armitage write, “the average number of years covered [by the subject matter of] doctoral dissertations in history in the United States was about 75 years; by 1975, it was closer to 30.” The span covered in a given study is not the only thing that’s narrowed over the intervening four decades. Dissertations have “concentrated on the local and the specific as an arena in which the historian can exercise her skills of biography, archival reading, and periodization within the petri-dish of a handful of years.”
The problem isn’t with the monographs themselves, which are often virtuoso analyses by scholars exhibiting an almost athletic stamina for archival research. Guldi and Armitage recognize the need for highly focused and exhaustively documented studies in recovering the history of labor, racial and religious minorities, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and so forth.
But after two or three generations, the “ever narrower yet ever deeper” mode has become normative. The authors complain that it "determines how we write our studies, where we look for sources, and which debates we engage. It also determines where we break off the conversation.”
Or, indeed, whether the conversation includes a historical perspective at all. “As students in classrooms were told to narrow and to focus” their research interests, “the professionals who deal with past and future began to restrict not only their sources and their data, but sometimes also their ideas.”
In referring to “professionals who deal with past and future,” the authors do not mean historians themselves -- at least not exclusively -- but rather leaders active at all levels of society. The relevance of historical knowledge to public affairs (and vice versa) once seemed obvious. Guldi and Armitage point to Machiavelli’s commentary on Livy as one example of a political figure practicing history, while Eric Williams, who wrote Capitalism and Slavery for his doctoral dissertation, went on to serve as Trinidad’s first prime minister after it became independent.
Between extreme specialization by historians and politicians whose temporal horizons are defined by the election cycle, things look bad. That understanding the past might have some bearing on actions in the present may not seem all that difficult to grasp. But consider the recent American president who invaded a Middle Eastern country without knowing that its population consisted of two religious groups who, over the past millennium or so, have been less than friendly toward one another. (For some reason, I thought of that a couple of times while reading Guldi and Armitage.) Anyway, it did turn out to be kind of an issue.
A manifesto requires more than complaint. It must also offer a program and, as much as possible, rally some forces for realizing its demands. The cure for short-term thinking in politics that Guldi and Armitage propose is the systematic cultivation of long-term thinking in history.
And to begin with, that means putting the norms of what they call “microhistory” in context – keeping in mind that it is really a fairly recent development within the profession. (Not so many decades ago, a historical study covering no more than a hundred years ran the risk of being dismissed as a bit of a lightweight.) The authors call for a revival of the great Ferdinand Braudel’s commitment to study historical processes “of long, even of very long, duration,” as he said in the late 1950s.
Braudel’s longue-durée was the scale on which developments such as the consolidation of trade routes or the growth of a world religion took place: centuries, or millennia. These phenomena “lasted longer than economic cycles, to be sure,” Guldi and Armitage write, but “were significantly shorter than the imperceptibly shifting shapes of mountains or seas, or the rhythms of nomadism or transhumance.”
Braudel counterposed the longue-durée to “the history of events,” which documented ephemeral matters such as wars, political upheaval, and whatnot. The History Manifesto is not nearly so Olympian as that. The aim is not to obliterate what the authors call “the Short Past” but rather to encourage research that would put “events” in the perspective of rhythms of change extending beyond a single human lifetime.
The tools are available. Guldi and Armiutage’s proposed course seems inspired by Big Data as much as by Braudel. Drawing on pools of scattered information about “weather, trade, agricultural production, food consumption, and other material realities,” historians could create broad but detailed accounts of how the social and environmental conditions change over long periods.
“Layering known patterns of reality upon each other,” the authors say, “produces startling indicators of how the world has changed – for instance the concentration of aerosols identified from the mid-twentieth century in parts of India have proven to have disrupted the pattern of the monsoon…. By placing government data about farms next to data on the weather, history allows us to see the interplay of material change with human experience, and how a changing climate has already been creating different sets of winners and losers over decades.”
Any number of questions come to mind about causality, the adequacy of available documents, and whether one’s methodology identifies patterns or creates them. But that’s always the case, whatever the scale a historian is working on.
The History Manifesto is exactly as tendentious as the title would suggest -- and if the authors find it easier to make their case against “microhistory” by ignoring the work of contemporary “macrohistorians” …. well, that’s the nature of the genre. A few examples off the top of my head: Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, Michael Mann’s multivolume study of social power over the past five thousand years, and the essays by Gopal Balakrishnan’s collected in Antagonistics, which grapple with the longue-duré in terms both cosmopolitan and stratospheric. They also shuffle quietly past the work of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Carroll Quigley – an understandable oversight, given the questions that would come up about where megahistory ends and megalomania takes over.
Moments of discretion aside, The History Manifesto is a feisty and suggestive little book, and it should be interesting to see whether much of the next generation of historians will gather beneath its banner.
The men who established the republic were no plaster saints of Red State moral uplift. Only one of the half-dozen figures Thomas A. Foster writes about in Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press) would escape denunciation by the Traditional Values Coalition if the Founders were around today.
Accusations of adultery or of fathering children out of wedlock (or both) were made against George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton; the last two admitted the truth of the charges. Gouverneur Morris managed to draft the Constitution between rounds of frequent, strenuous fornication -- exercise he pursued despite having a severely mangled right arm and amputated left leg.
Only the the tightly wound John Adams seems to have escaped any hint of scandal. By all evidence, he and Abigail were strictly monogamous and not averse to finger-wagging at the other Founders' morals -- especially Franklin's, which were particularly relaxed. Besides writing a notorious essay on selecting a mistress, Franklin lived with a common-law wife; later, he conducted a good deal of his work as ambassador to France either in bed with well-born Parisian ladies or trying to get them there.
He was also broad-minded in ways that would be fodder for cable TV news today. He seems to have been on friendly terms with one Chevalier d'Eon, a French diplomat who preferred to dress in women's clothing. Poor Richard's ventriloquist was, as it's put nowadays, straight but not narrow.
Tabloid history? No, though much innuendo about the Founders did appear in frankly sensationalist publications of the day. (Negative campaigning goes way back.) Foster, an associate professor of history at DePaul University, is innocent of any muckraking intent. Everything in Sex and the Founding Fathers is a well-established part of the historical record, and in the case of Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, you'd have to have spent the last 20 years on a desert island not to have heard about it by now.
The author isn't interested in revealing the character or psychology of the early American statesmen. Rather, the book is a metahistory (not that Foster uses such jargon) of how their sex lives and their public roles were understood during across the past 200 years or so. The biography of a major political figure is itself a political act. Historians and others writing about the Founders have dealt with their peccadilloes in different ways over time, the shifts in emphasis and judgment reflecting changes in the national political culture.
George Washington, for example, seems the most austerely virtuous of the country's early leaders, thanks especially to the moralizing fables of Parson Weems. Recent biographies suggest that he had a number of romantic relationships, consummated and otherwise, before marrying Martha. Writers of historical fiction depict the six-foot-three, athletically built military man as exerting powerful animal magnetism upon the colonial womenfolk. (Like Fabio, but with wooden teeth.) In real life, Washington addressed passionate letters to a married woman. If no further improprieties occurred, it was not for want of trying.
Foster notes the tendency to assume that earlier images of the first president were "disembodied" idealizations which have "only recently been humanized." But the record is more nuanced: "Even the earliest images emphasize both his domestic life and his military and government successes," Foster writes, with some 19th-century biographies and paintings "establish[ing] Washington as the romantic man" as well as "head of a prosperous household." But on that last point, one fact was somewhat problematic: Martha, who was a widow when they met, had a number of children by her first husband but never conceived with George.
"No early account hides the fact that he had no children of his own," Foster notes. "But 19th-century writers do not dwell on this aspect of his life, leaving some readers to their own devices to determine this aspect of his private family life." Biographers in the Victorian era "could not anticipate that readers would ever expect an answer to the very personal question of why he had no children."
Refusing to acknowledge the question did not make it go away, however. The lack of progeny was a seeming defect in Washington's status as embodiment of masculine ideals. One answer to the problem was sentimental: The couple could be depicted as blissfully compatible yet saddened by their plight, even without any evidence of it. ("Americans," Foster remarks, "have never hesitated to speak definitively about the loves and inner lives of the Founders, despite a lack of documentation.") Unfortunate as the situation was, Washington finally transcended it by becoming "father of his country." Another solution was to deny that Washingon's virility was compromised at all, by claiming that he had an illegitimate son by the widow of one of his tenant farmers. See also the rumor that Washington died from a cold he caught "from leaping out a window, pants-less, after a romantic encounter with an 'overseer's wife.'"
No other figure in Sex and the Founding Fathers occupies so markedly paternal a role in public life, but in each case Foster brings out the complex and tightly knit relationship between sexual and political life. Even with Benjamin Franklin -- whose flirtatiousness is well-known, as is his earthy advice about the benefits of dating older women -- the author finds aspects of the record that add some nuance to the familiar portrait. I never appreciated just how disturbing a figure he was to his countrymen in the 19th century, when a senator struck his name from a list of candidates for a proposed national hall of fame on these grounds:
"Dr. Franklin's conduct of life was that of a man on a low plane. He was without idealism, without lofty principle, and one side of his character gross and immoral.... [His letter] on the question of keeping a mistress, which, making allowances for the manner of the time, and all allowance for the fact that he might have been in jest, is an abominable and wicked letter; and all his relation to women, and to the family life, were of that character."
Abominable? Well, he wasn't a hypocrite, and that's always a risky thing not to be. Consider also Alexander Hamilton. When accused of financial improprieties involving public funds, he denied it but admitted to having had a fling with a married woman whose husband then tried to blackmail him. "He chose to discuss the affair, in print, publicly, and in the greatest of documented detail to save his public honor," writes Foster. "He was not divorced. His wife did not denounce him. [George] Washington publicly supported him, as did others."
For a long time, biographers treated the matter evasively. They airbrushed the details out of his portrait as much as possible. Nowadays, Foster says, we get "warts-and-all hagiography -- ones that present failings only to dismiss them or have them overshadowed by an overarching theme of national greatness." Either way, he argues, the statesmen of the early republic stand apart from more recent politicians embroiled in sex scandals in one important way. Our contemporary lotharios can skulk off the public stage after a while, while the Founders never can. Their dirty linen hangs out for everyone to see, forever.