All Commentary
Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dear Historians: Are You Trying To Get Us All Killed?

It is unwise for historians to forget the little people who make up history.

Dear historians,*

Are you trying to get us all killed?

Since my first encounter with history, the main stream of your profession has pretty much been broadcasting one story of the human past and how we got here.

That story is the series of conquests and political machinations and elections and political movements and crown successions and civil wars and revolutions and plots and treaties and invasions and bargains and diplomacy.

Lincoln, Hitler, Roosevelt, Louis, Henry, Churchill, Alexander, Octavian, Genghis. The Treaty of Versailles, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Ghent, the Treat of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Civil War, The English Civil War, The Seven Year’s War, The Hundred Years’ War, some seven-odd Crusades, a War of Roses. The Progressives, the Know-Nothings, the Tories, the Bolsheviks, the Cavaliers, the Maoists.

I had to memorize these sorts of things you know.

The Effect on Society

This is the history I encountered as a young man. It’s certainly the history you’ve given to the state for its curricula – albeit whitewashed of its more gruesome bits. Since most people in this country will only ever deal with history in a public school classroom, you’ve effectively given them all their story of what humanity has been.

Can you really be surprised that we continue to build larger and more potentially destructive states? You’ve told us that political decisions drive history forward.

You told us that the scramble for power was the way the world worked and the way the world changed.

Can you really be surprised when promising young people choose to spend their lives catfighting for political prestige? That Americans spend hours every day fretting about politics with talk radio or Facebook news? You’ve told them that only politically powerful people and groups get to impact the world around them.

Can you really be surprised if people are edging toward nihilism? The only vision you’ve given them is the endless turning wheel of power – endless violence and nastiness and brutishness for the sake of short-lived petty kingdoms or long-lived vain empires which crash spectacularly (and are forgotten, except as footnotes in your textbooks).

You told us that the scramble for power was the way the world worked and the way the world changed. Can you really be surprised we have lived through warfare and revolutions and soul-sucking election cycles again and again and again?

“But it’s the truth! That’s just history is like!” you say.

Of course it is. History is bloody beyond belief. You’ve shown me that, and I thank you for doing the work. You’ve shown us how depraved people can become when they mix with power. But in your narrow-sighted focus on the stories of the bloody few at the top, you’re forgotten 99% of the lives and actions and customs and beliefs that make up the human story.

Normal People Shape History

History was emphatically not driven by the rulers. The rulers are the killers, not the creators. Given sole dominion over time, they would have unraveled it in a few generations.

The invisible current of history – the one upon which rulers and politicians and manipulators and killers are just riders – is made of all the normal people. History is made of the mundane stories of unassuming coopers, pig keepers, vineyard owners, fireworks makers, printers, priests, sailors, butlers, sheepherders, tea shop owners, software developers, architects, physicists, and children. It’s made of parents loving their young ones, people loving their work, and strangers learning to trust each other.

Is that such a bold statement?

To put it briefly: human life in the past was defined by the humans who actually sustained life.

Look, I know most of you write about these wars and politicians to warn us. “Don’t repeat your past!” It’s a great message, but we’re forgetting something.

If the only past we hear about is the horrifying one, we won’t have anything good to compare it against. And we humans need a past. Our past shapes us and defines us. If all we have is a bad one, we’ll take it and run with it – moral and historical lessons be damned.

Call to Action

I’m getting on your case because I love you, historians. We need you now more than ever. But we need you to tell the full story.

I know some of you are already out there. You’re heroes. But you need reinforcements desperately.

Don’t you want your work to honor and encourage the normal, “little” people who make them possible?

Consider this my kick in the pants to your colleagues to spend some time on the carpenters, the housewives, the fishmongers, the actors, the milkmaids, the chemists, the truck drivers, the prostitutes, the preachers, the tinkers, the musicians, the slaves, the fathers, and the garbagemen. It may be hard to pick out “great” men and women among them, but together they’ve had a more powerful impact than Napoleon or Roosevelt or Hitler could have hoped to achieve.

They continue to sustain you. They continue to sustain your modern society with its complex division of labor and its clean drinking water and its abundant food and its indoor plumbing and its word processors and its free flow of information. Surely you rely on these things. Surely you know better than anyone how fragile and temporary these things can be.

Don’t you want your work to honor and encourage the normal, “little” people who make them possible?

“This all sounds lovely, James, but the material just isn’t there. The people of the past were far more likely to talk about their rulers than their peasants.”

Yes, well changing that is the whole point, now isn’t it? You have that power.

And I’m not letting you off the hook that easily, historians. You have more access than ever to the artifacts that made up everyday life in the past. Your predecessors may have had the excuse of only being able to rely on old texts. You have the full force of archaeological technology and full decades of findings behind you. By sheer odds, you’re inundated with the mundane objects that tell the mundane stories we need to hear about.

We need more histories of cheeses, of washing machines, of tents, of medieval festivals, of sex, of rice paddies, of boat-building, of monks, of childhood, of horses and their riders, of marriage customs, of hallucinogenic substances, of 14th century fashion, of ice cream.


Because in their unassuming courses through their daily tasks, average people have created the world. And they’ve done it without getting blood on their hands.

* I am not an historian. If you are one, the base fact that you’ve done historical research and written about it and not been a hagiographer means that you deserve a major hat-tip and some embarrassed silence from me. You’ll get the first but not the second. Just imagine that I have a really *nice* hat.

Reprinted from James Walpole

  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at