8. The Deactivation of History
MAY 01, 1965 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
To-day… one rarely finds a historical student who would venture to recommend statesmen, warriors, and moralists to place any confidence whatsoever in historical analogies and warnings, for the supposed analogies usually prove illusive on inspection, and the warnings, impertinent…. Our situation is so novel that it would seem as if political and military precedents of even a century ago could have no possible value.
- James Harvey Robinson, 1912
The newer history… holds that few situations in a very remote past will allow of being used as data to test the validity or desirability of measures proposed for present or future application. It regards civilization as a great organic complex and contends that, as the general cultural setting of events in the past was so vastly different from the present situation, past events can furnish only a very doubtful and unreliable criterion for judging of the wisdom of present policies.
- Harry Elmer Barnes, 1925
Many obstacles barred the way of those who were attempting to institute melioristic reforms. The most formidable obstacle was reality itself. As a matter of fact, since reality has not demonstrably changed, it still is an insurmountable obstacle to the success of many kinds of reforms. However, reformers have been able to attempt many of their innovations.
Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at
This means that they have been able to alter generally held conceptions of reality. This was accomplished by embarking upon an extended flight from reality.
Thus far, the story of the advance of reformist ideas has been told within a framework of an enduring reality, and the departure of reformist conceptions from it. In order for large-scale attempts to make over man and society to appear feasible, men had to cease to believe in an underlying structured and ordered reality. Many intellectuals made this step in their thought. It does not follow, of course, that the reason why they ceased to believe in an ordered reality was so that reforms could be instituted. On the contrary, many who contributed to this development in thought were not apparently interested in extensive reforms. Many nineteenth century thinkers who had ceased to believe in a metaphysical reality which endures did not, on the other hand, believe consciously directed reform to be possible.
Nonetheless, by dispensing with the metaphysical framework, they set the stage for reform. If man has a nature, if all things have a nature, if there is an underlying order which endures, it follows that there are great limits to the kinds of change that can be made. These conceptions are, however, metaphysical in character regardless of how obvious and demonstrable they may appear to some people who have not been trained in metaphysics. The metaphysical underpinnings of these conceptions were swept away by David Hume and Immanuel Kant, or, to be more precise, these philosophers held that they could not be directly validated by reason and sensual evidence. The house of philosophy collapsed in the early nineteenth century, and thinkers went off in every direction, erecting ideologies out of the bits and pieces that remained from the wreckage of philosophy.
Reason cut loose from reality, and the imagination freed from the discipline of philosophy were used to draw up plans for new heavens on new earths. Even Americans began to feel the attraction of utopia by the latter part of the nineteenth century. When the enduring was cut away, time and change were all that was left. New pseudo philosophies—Hegelianism, Marxism, Darwinism—arose to offer accounts for changes in time. These were oriented, however, to the discovery and exposition of the laws of change and were not favorable to consciously initiated reforms. Pragmatists offered a way out of this dilemma by setting forth a radical new freedom, freedom from any underlying laws. John Dewey readily wrenched this pseudo philosophy into the orbit of reformism, calling his variant of the philosophy Instrumentalism.
An Obstacle to Reform
Some of the ground must be re-traveled at this point, however. By moving all of reality into time, thinkers did not remove the conceptual obstacles to the triumph of reformism. They only succeeded in making reality the subject matter of history. The traditional role of history was inspirational and cautionary. Men studied history to be inspired by examples of noble actions, to enrich their limited experience by that of others, to draw sustenance for their lives from the lives of others. There was a negative side to this study of history, too: one could find there indications of the limits of what should be attempted, be reminded of the consequences of precipitate action, discover anew what was beyond his power to alter, be chastened by the records of the failure of others. In short, history has usually played a conservative role in society. It was a major obstacle to reform, as men customarily thought of it and utilized it.
Some reformists, who were also historians, realized this. James Harvey Robinson, writing in the early twentieth century, declared: "History has been regularly invoked, to substantiate the claims of the conservative, but has hitherto usually been neglected by the radical…. It is his weapon by right, and he should wrest it from the hand of the conservative."¹ In short, Robinson, as a would-be reformer, perceived that history must be reconstructed in order to make it an instrument of reform. The older history must be deactivated; it must be replaced by a "new history."
Traditional Use of History
Before describing how this deactivation and "instrumentation" of history took place, however, some examples of the traditional use of history are in order. In an earlier
Americans were fearful at this time of entrusting overmuch power to governments. They found numerous instances in history of the working out of the dangers that they feared. For example, those attending the
Dr. Willard entered largely into the field of ancient history, and deduced therefrom arguments to prove that where power has been trusted to men, whether in great or small bodies, they had always abused it, and that thus republics had soon degenerated into aristocracies. He instanced
A Mr. Nason in the same convention points out the dangers of a standing army:
A standing army! Was it not with this that Caesar passed the Rubicon, and laid prostrate the liberties of his country? By this have seven-eighths of the once free nations of the globe been brought into bondage! Time would fail me, were 1 to attempt to recapitulate the havoc made in the world by standing armies.3
A Major Kingsley cites even more specific historical references, as he argues for better control by the people over their government:
Let us look into ancient history. The Romans, after a war, thought themselves safe in a government of ten men, called the decemviri; these ten men were invested with all power, and were chosen for three years. By their arts and designs, they secured their second election; but, finding, from the manner in which they had exercised their power, they were not able to secure their third election, they declared themselves masters of Rome, impoverished the city, and deprived the people of their rights.4
The Amphictyonic league resembled our Confederation in its nominal powers…. But, though its powers were more considerable in many respects than those of our present system, yet it had the same radical defect….
The Achaean league, though better constructed than the Amphictyonic,… was continually agitated with domestic dissensions, and driven to the necessity of calling in foreign aid; this, also, eventuated in the demolition of their confederacy….
The Germanic system is neither adequate to the external defence nor internal felicity of the people….5
By historical references, Edmund Randolph argues for the desirability of union:
If you wish to know the extent of such a scene, look at the history of
The manner in which they were employing history was not left in doubt. They were reaching back into history for lessons appropriate to actions they were considering. John Marshall makes this clear in the following passage:
We may derive from
James Madison adds: "We may be warned by their example, and shun their fate, by removing the causes which produced their misfortunes."
Common Sense and Philosophy
The didactic use of history rests upon both a common sense and a philosophical foundation. At the common sense level, it is only an extension of everyday practice. If we slip and fall on an icy street, we proceed with caution on icy streets thereafter, realizing that the same thing can happen again. By analogy, we reason that a street is not even necessary to recurrence, that it can happen anywhere on ice. Written history—that is, what is ordinarily thought of as history—is the formalized memory of a people, the record of their experience. History is the public memory of a people, and may serve in more general affairs in much the way that an individual’s memories of experience serve him—i. e., as a compendium of dangers to be avoided, a depository of successful methods, a storehouse of what the world is like and how one may operate within it.
At the philosophical level, the didactic use of history was based upon the existence of an underlying order. It assumes that events, in essence, can recur and that the reason for this is an order in which a given cause will produce a given effect. To return to the example used above, a man walking requires traction to proceed. When he loses traction, his forward motion will continue him downward to the earth, and since he will usually try to brake himself, he will usually fall backward. The occurrence of such events can be stated as laws; they recur and are even predictable.
In the same fashion, there are larger developments that can be expected to recur under certain circumstances. For example, if political power is concentrated, and not strictly limited, tyranny may be expected to result. The explanation is to be found in the nature of man. The didactic use of history rests, then, upon the view that beneath the surface upon which changes occur there is a substratum which endures. This enduring substratum—this metaphysical realm—makes it possible for men to discover from the study of history what is apt to happen when a particular course is followed.
In everyday affairs, men have continued to recur to and use their experience very much as they always have. One suspects that even the most determined reformist intellectual wears his rubbers, or puts snow tires on his automobile, when he ventures out upon icy streets. He knows, as do we all, that "history" repeats itself many times over. But at the level of large and complex matters, history has been deactivated, the past has been cut off, and men have been disjoined from the common fund of experience. A new history has emerged which is not a useful record of experience but a herald of the future and an instrument for rebuilding society.
Defaming the Past
One of the culminating steps in the deactivation of history was the defamation of the older history. Just as the older philosophy had been defamed, just as the older education, religion, and economics would be defamed, just so history would be denigrated. The work of undermining the older history was mainly the work of historians. Many contributed, but three men who mounted the assault in the first half of the twentieth century will provide us with sufficient illustrative material. These men were: James Harvey Robinson, Harry Elmer Barnes, and Charles A. Beard.
Robinson launched the attack upon the older history first. His position is made clear in the following:
It is true that it has long been held that certain lessons could be derived from the past…. But there is a growing suspicion… that this type of usefulness is purely illusory. The present writer is anxious to avoid any risk of being regarded as an advocate of these supposed advantages of historical study. Their value rests on the assumption that conditions remain sufficiently uniform to give precedents a perpetual value, while, as a matter of fact, conditions… are so rapidly altering that for the most part it would be dangerous indeed to attempt to apply past experience to the solution of current problems.9
Writing some years later, Barnes much more vehemently denounced the reliance upon past experience. He declared that "the past has no direct lesson for the present in the way of analogies and forecasts." He goes on to cast doubt upon the "wisdom of the Fathers," that is, the wisdom of leaders in past times. "The fact that every civilization prior to our own has ended up in a hopeless wreck should be fairly proof of the frailty of patristic wisdom in all ages of men." In short, "we are grotesquely wrong in assuming that there has been any great amount of true wisdom in the past…."¹ºBut even if there had been wisdom in the past, he pointed out, it would not be relevant to contemporary problems. Conditions have changed.
Therefore, in our efforts to solve contemporary problems on the basis of the "wisdom of the past," we are somewhat more absurd in our attitude and conduct than the animal trainer who would strap his pet anthropoid in the seat of an aeroplane on the ground of his prior mastery of the technique of the tricycle. Not even a Texas Methodist Kleagle would think of taking his car to Moses, Joshua, Luther or George Washington to have the carburetor adjusted or the valves ground, yet we assure ourselves and our fellowmen that we ought to continue to attempt to solve our contemporary problems of society, economics, politics and conduct on the basis of methods, attitudes and information which in many cases far antedates Moses.¹¹
It is not necessary to disentangle all the ideas which Barnes mistakenly or dubiously associated and confused. The point is that he denied the relevance of historical lessons to the present, and, in the same passages, rejected all that may have been learned in the past.
Charles A. Beard, a somewhat more disciplined thinker than Barnes, denied that cause and effect can be isolated in history. He maintained that no group of complications can "be isolated from surrounding and preceding complications. Even ‘simple’ events are complex when examined closely. ‘George Washington accepted the command of the American troops.’ What ’caused’ that action?"¹² He goes on to conclude that it is impossible to draw a conclusion with certainty about the answer to the question he poses. In so complex a matter as the American Revolution, he continues, the attempt to assign causes is futile.
To apply the physical analogy of "cause and effect" we should be compelled to think of the American Revolution as an entity, like a ball, set in motion by impact of other entities. The latter are the "causes" and the motion of the ball is the "effect." The impossibility of making such analogy conform to the recorded facts of the Revolution is apparent to anybody who employs historical knowledge in the effort. We know that thousands of events took place in time, and that thousands of personalities were engaged in them, but we cannot find chains of causes and effects in them.¹³
Questions Without Answers
However obtusely he had done so, Beard had put his finger on the nerve that goes to the center of the didactic use of history. If it is impossible to discover cause and effect, it is not possible to know what action produced what results. Without this information there is little to be learned from the past. Beard’s examples do not prove his case; instead, they show that it is possible to pose questions in such a way that no answers can be found for them. In the first example, he asked what George Washington’s motives were. He was quite right in pointing out that we cannot discover the answer to this question with any certainty. He was wrong, however, if he supposed that the answer to the question would matter if it could be known. The effects of actions, once they have taken place, are not altered by motives. Suppose he had asked another sort of question, a "simple" one involving George Washington. For example, Continental troops were so disposed on
The case of the "cause (s)" of the "American Revolution," as Beard poses the problem, is even more instructive. It leads us toward an understanding of the position from which historians denied the relevance of the past for the present. Beard started with a dubious assumption, i. e., that there was some occurrence which could properly be called the "American Revolution." This is highly doubtful. At best, this phrase is a convenient designation for a considerable number of events and developments—e.g., the break from
Actually, then, the arguments were irrelevant to the positions taken. Beard had not disproved the existence of cause and effect relationships. Barnes had not shown that there was nothing to be learned from the past, nor that men in the past had no wisdom. Robinson had not shown that past experience is irrelevant in present circumstances. They, along with others, did succeed in discrediting didactic history, but what did the work was not the validity of their direct arguments against it but their assumptions. These men were historicists, and if one accepts the historicist position, he must, logically, reject the relevance of the past to action in the future.
A Hodgepodge of Details
In essence, historicism has been defined—or described—in the following way by one historian: "The subject matter of history is human life in its totality and multiplicity. It is the historian’s aim to portray the bewildering, unsystematic variety of historical forms… in their unique, living expressions and in the process of continuous growth and transformation." In brief, "the special quality of history does not consist in the statement of general laws or principles, but in the grasp, so far as possible, of the infinite variety of particular historical forms immersed in the passage of time." ¹4
Historicism was developed by German historians in the nineteenth century; it stemmed from Herder and was shaped by von Ranke, Dilthey, and Meinecke. It arose as a protest against the scientific emphasis of eighteenth century thought and partook of the romantic concentration upon the concrete and the unique.¹5 It was, in its inception, a definition of the limits and extent of their craft by historians. They were saying something such as this: Each event when viewed as a whole is unique. That is how we propose to view every happening, occurrence, and development. Perchance, there may be common features to them, there may be laws and principles, but this is not our concern as historians.
Well and good, one might say, let other disciplines explore reality from their vantage points and discover such laws and principles as there are. But there was a catch. In the course of the nineteenth century, all of reality was being thrust into the domain of history by thinkers, by Hegel, by Marx, by the Darwinians. Everything was conceived of as changing, and the historicists themselves were among the first to claim every aspect of life as grist for their mills. This brought them into conflict with the various "scientific" schools (Hegelian, Marxian, Darwinian), for these sought for and expounded "laws" of historical change. On the whole, in the West, the historicists appear to have won.
In the main, however, it was an empty victory. Most of the ideas that were denied entrance at the front door by historicists came in at the back by way of assumptions. Thus, scientism, progressivism, determinism, and a host of other isms have pervaded historical work in the twentieth century. Historicism is particularly vulnerable to determinism, and the historicist has no vantage point from which to resist the intellectual currents of his day. This is so because historicism is ineluctably relativistic. Each event is unique; each happening must be understood in terms of the context within which it occurs. To put it another way, everything is relative to its context. Rigorous historicists (some of whom were romantic individualists) have tried to avoid the implicit determinism in this view by insisting upon the uniqueness and individuality of each thing. But most historians are not troubled by such philosophical scruples; thus, they allow the implicit assumption of determinism free play in their work.
No Guide for the Future
The main point, however, is that historicism makes history useless so far as instruction for future action is concerned. Regardless of how luxurious the detail with which events are described—or because of it in part—these events contain no lessons. They are unique, self-contained, or, in the case of the way in which most practitioners handle them, prelude to the future. Future happenings will be unique also, perhaps shaped, even determined, by the past, but unlike anything in it. The relativism in historicism can be utilized to reach yet another conclusion—that the past is unknowable. This is roughly the conclusion which Charles A. Beard had reached by the mid-1930′s.¹6 The reasoning follows this line. Both men and events are conditioned by the context within which they occur, are relative to their "times." If this is so, it follows that the historian writes from his own unique position and can never be certain that he is making truthful statements about the past. It is much more likely that he is revealing much more about himself and his times than he is about the past. The idea was already current that each generation rewrites history in its own image, and Beard’s position reinforced it.
The thought may well arise at this point, why bother with history, anyhow? It appears to be useless, meaningless, and in any case, probably unknowable. Some historians have indeed drawn such a conclusion. But the most vigorous defamers of the older history quite often had new uses in mind. They were what may be called historicist-progressives. From historicism they took the idea that history does not repeat itself, that16 ideas and events are relative to the context within which they occur, and that it is the business of the historian to reconstruct the whole of the past, in all its luxurious detail. From progressivism came their idea that all of later history is a product of earlier history—that the past is prologue. If one could delineate all the trends at any present moment, they thought, he could discern the shape of the future. This was a watered down version of the various historical determinisms of the nineteenth century.
Changing the Past
Historicist-progressives turned to the conscious use of history to reform man and society. This was the purpose of James Harvey Robinson’s New History. He declared, "We must develop historical-mindedness upon a far more generous scale than hitherto, for this will add a still-deficient element in our intellectual equipment and will promote rational progress as nothing else can do. The present has hitherto been the willing victim of the past; the time has come when it should turn on the past and exploit it in the interests of advance."¹7 The historian should come forward and direct the reforms, it appears:
As for accomplishing the great reforms that demand our united efforts—the abolition of poverty and disease and war, and the promotion of happy and rational lives—the task would seem hopeless enough were it not for the considerations which have been recalled above…. The reformer who appeals to the future is a recent upstart…. But it is clear enough today that the conscious reformer who appeals to the future is the final product of a progressive order of things….We are only just coming to realize that we can cooperate with and direct this innate force of change….18
Even as long ago as 1913 the villain of the piece—conservatism—had been identified. "At last, perhaps, the long-disputed sin against the Holy Ghost has been found; it may be the refusal to cooperate with the vital principle of betterment. History would seem, in short, to condemn the principle of conservatism as a hopeless and wicked anachronism."’
Harry Elmer Barnes accepted the "value of historical knowledge as an aid in improving the present and in planning for the future…." He declared that the "chief way in which history can be an aid to the future is by revealing those elements in our civilization which are unquestionably primitive, anachronistic and obstructive and by making clear those forces and factors in our culture which have been most potent… in removing these primitive barriers to more rapid progress."²º The ubiquitous John Dewey can be quoted to the same effect: "Intelligent understanding of past history is to some extent a lever for moving the present into a certain kind of future."²¹
The Projection of Historical Trends
History was not only deactivated, then, but also reactivated. The older history was defamed and cast aside, but a New History was conceived to take its place. History ceased to be a record of man’s experience from the past, rooted in an enduring reality, and was given a new role of being an instrument of reform in the present and for the future. This New History was (and is) presentistic and futuristic. The past is consciously and intentionally viewed from the present perspective and in terms of future goals. The emphasis is upon trends and forces at work in history, and upon the changing cultural setting within which men live and events take place.
History was rewritten to the above formulas. The modus operandus was something such as this. The historian combed whatever history he happened to be studying for currents and trends leading up to the present situation or which could be expected to culminate in the not too distant future. Quite often, such history was written with a particular idea, goal, or ideal in mind. A favorite goal for American history has been democracy. A historian writing from this angle is apt to discover "seeds of democracy" in Puritan New England, "limited democracy" in the constitutional period, "Jeffersonian democracy" in the time of the badly misunderstood Jefferson, and "Jacksonian democracy" a little later.
Of course, the Jacksonians only witnessed the Advent of Democracy, as any reader of such histories knows. A great struggle had yet to take place. Children and women labored long hours in inhospitable factories. The enfranchisement of the adult population was only well underway. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the "plutocrats" almost succeeded in wrenching the control of the government out of the hands of "the people." But, in the early twentieth century, "the people" wrested control away from the usurpers, and turned it over to progressive reformers. From that time on, with some set-backs, the advance of "democracy" has been upward and onward. The work is not finished, of course, as one historian points out in the peroration to his text:
High though our standard of living is, it reveals glaring inequalities. Vigorous efforts should be made to narrow the gap between the rich few and the poor many. A better life must be assured our millions of sub-standard tenant farmers, sharecroppers, migratory fruit-and-vegetable workers, and day laborers, both Negro and white. Millions of our people enjoy less than a decent standard of living, and consequently fall victim to illness, crime, and other misfortunes resulting from a low income. A high standard of democracy and a high standard of decency go hand in hand.²²
He has, of course, already described trends which, when they culminate, should deal rather effectively with these problems.
The Subtle Path to Reform
It should be noted that the historicist-progressive historian need not come out in the open as an advocate of reforms, as the above quoted historian does. He can, and usually does, accomplish his advocacy in more subtle ways. The story that he tells is usually oriented toward reforms. The trends he discovers make the reforms virtually inevitable. He can describe the surrounding circumstances in such a way (the handling of the Great Depression is a good example) that the reforms are made to appear unavoidable and entirely desirable. All of this he can do while maintaining a stance of "objectivity." All that he has been doing, he may protest, is to describe what happened, to show the context within which it happened, and to sort out the trends which led up to the happening. Actually, many historians of this stripe take no particular pains to hide their melioristic bias. The ones quoted above were hardly doing so. It is a handy stance to have around, however, when some historian arises to oppose reform.
It should be noted, too, that "lessons" have crept back into the New History. They usually have to do with the temporary triumph of the "forces of reaction." Perhaps the most commonly repeated "lesson" is the one to be learned from the failure of the
As the above indicates, history has been cut loose from reality. The only reality with which history can properly deal is in the past. When, and to the extent that they did, historians cut loose from reality, they cut all of us off from much of our experience. They opened the way to reform efforts unchastened by experience. They turned history into an instrument for remaking man and society. They wrenched history out of its path of reliance on the concrete experience of the past and attempted to root it in their own subjective longings.
The next article in this series will treat of "The New ‘Reality.’"
1 James H. Robinson, The New History (New York: Macmillan, 1912), p. 252.
2 Elliot’s Debates, Bk. I, vol. 2, p. 68.
3 Ibid., p. 136.
4 I bid., p. 62.
5 Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 129-31.
Ibid., p. 75.
7 Ibid., p. 225.
8 Ibid., p. 311.
9 Robinson, op. cit., pp. 17-18.
10 Harry E. Barnes, The New History and the Social Studies (New York: The Century Co., 1925), p. 588.
11 Ibid., p. 589.
12 Charles A. Beard, The Discussion of Human Affairs (New York: Macmillan, 1936), p. 90.
1³ Ibid., p. 91.
14 Hans Meyerhoff, ed., The Philosophy of History in Our Time (Garden City: Doubleday, an Anchor book, 1959), p. 10.
15 See ibid., pp. 9-18.
His most famous statement of it is in "Written History as an Act of Faith," American Historical Review, XXXIX (January, 1934) 219-29.
17 Robinson, op. cit., p. 24. Emphasis added.
18 Ibid., pp. 263-65.
Ibid., p. 265.
2° Barnes, op. cit., p. 16.
21 John Dewey,"Historical Judgments," in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 172.
22 Barnes, op. cit., p. 16.
23 John Dewey,"Historical Judgments," in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 172.
224Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant (Boston: Heath, 1961, 2nd edition), p. 970.