Should Historians Influence Present-Day Politics?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gordon Wood’s ideas on the differences between history and political theory. In his book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, Wood briefly reflects on his conception of these differences. One passage in the book is particularly noteworthy and worth quoting in full:

Political theorists, especially those influenced by the ideas of Leo Strauss, tend to believe that the history of political thought can be studied as a search for enduring answers to perennial questions that can enhance contemporary political thought. Historians, on the other hand, tend to hold that ideas are the products of particular circumstances and particular moments in time and that using them for present purposes is a distortion of their original historical meaning. It doesn’t follow from this distinction that past ideas cannot be legitimately used in the very different circumstances of the present; of course, they can be used and are used all the time. Jefferson’s idea of equality, for example, has been used time and again throughout our history, by Lincoln as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Historians contend that such usages violate the original historical meaning of the ideas and cannot be regarded as historically accurate, but they don’t deny the rationality and legitimacy of such violations.

Such distinctions and violations are indeed necessary for contemporary discussions of political thought and are no great sin, as long as the theorists are aware that they are not being historically accurate. It’s the theorists’ claim that their present-day use of past ideas is true to the original way they were used in the past that historians quarrel with. Ideas, of course, do not remain rooted in the particular circumstances of time and place. Ideas can, and often do, become political philosophy, do transcend the particular intentions of the creators, and become part of the public culture, become something larger and grander than their sources. Political theory, studying these transcendent ideas, is a quite legitimate endeavor; it is, however, not history (162-163).

Wood expresses his concern that historians run the risk of thinking “unhistorically” by manipulating past ideas to fit our understanding of political conditions in the present. He worries that holding people from the past responsible for a future they could never envision or conceive in their own time leads to a poor understanding of past ideas within their own historical context – “the original way they were used in the past.” Thus, when politicians like Lincoln and MLK use the past to justify their political philosophies in the present (a common, rational practice then and now), they are distorting and violating the values of historical thinking, according to Wood. Historians analyze change over time and help us understand how our contemporary world came into being, but to use past ideas as a framework for establishing political theories in the present is not history. As Wood comments later in the book, “I suppose the most flagrant examples of present-mindedness in history writing come from trying to inject politics into history books . . . Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office” (308).

These are sharp, intelligent reflections on the historian’s craft, but I think the extent to which politics plays a role in historical thinking is more of an open question than Wood would like to acknowledge. For one, it’s hard to imagine a history book free of politics because the past and present hold a reciprocal relationship with each other that makes it nearly impossible for us to get our politics out of the past. It is often assumed that the past shapes how we view the present, but less often do we acknowledge that the present shapes our conception of the past. It’s probably true that a place like Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by a past legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy, but it’s also true that the political ramifications of a 2014 police shooting of a black teenager by a white cop in Ferguson (regardless of the case’s final outcome) shape our conceptions of what, exactly, that legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy means for our history.

Public historians must also face these sorts of questions because so much of what they do is inherently political. The National Council on Public History defines public history as a set of practices aimed at “describ[ing] the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world [i.e. present-day] issues.” And a recent essay on the NCPH’s blog, History@Work, praised the efforts of a federal district court judge to provide a historical context for explaining her opposition to a 2011 Texas Voter ID law, arguing that this case was an example of putting history to work in the world. These sorts of present-day uses of the past seem to contradict Wood’s distinction between history and political theory.

What is a historian of racism, Jim Crow, and the police state supposed to do with a political hotcake like Ferguson? If that historian embraces Wood’s avoidance of politics in history writing, he or she may choose to focus solely on the political ideas surrounding these topics from around 1830-1890 or a period of that sort, focusing on how these ideas materialized within the context of that period without mentioning or connecting them to present-day politics. But a critic of this approach might argue that limiting a discussion of these topics to the nineteenth century is in itself a political act that also leaves out a crucial piece of the historical narrative. Critics might also invoke the arguments of other historians like Howard Zinn, who asserted in 1970 that “we can separate ourselves in theory as historians and citizens. But that is a one-way separation which has no return: when the world blows up, we cannot claim exemption as historians.”

Food for thought.



10 thoughts on “Should Historians Influence Present-Day Politics?

      1. I bring up the issue of history standards with people who are not historians and are not educators. They seem to think they know more history than the historians and get a little irritated when I point out their errors. Some people are just not interested in history as it happened, but prefer a history that supports their ideology and beliefs. They also really hate it when you use history to shatter their assumptions which they’ve based their beliefs on.

        There is a reason why conservatives of the far right challenge historians and try to control education. They don’t want those messy facts cluttering up what they want people to know. It is ironic that these so called defenders of the Constitution are the biggest tramplers of it in order to get their way. Here in Missouri we have recently seen one GOP legislator sponsor a bill that would restrict those in education to be involved in politics. The far right extremists really fear people teaching something they do not agree with even when what they want taught is wrong. They are willing to deny First Amendment rights to anyone they disagree with.

        This is why I agree with Howard Zinn, “You cannot stay neutral on a moving train.” I was explaining that to my classes today. Sooner or later you have to make a choice. Inaction is a choice. I cited the American Revolution and Civil War as two examples where neutrality was not allowed. Zinn was right. Life does not give the option of being neutral. Sooner or later it forces people to make a choice no matter how hard they try to avoid it. Inaction merely delays the choice.

      2. Andrew: I’m glad you liked the essay. I think it’s great too!

        Jimmy: Thanks so much for commenting. I also live in Missouri, so I’ll have to look into this proposed bill that you’ve mentioned here. I think people of all political persuasions run the risk of distorting the past based on their political views in the present, but I do feel like a lot of the unfair (imo) criticism of historical “revisionism” and “biased” history standards from the College Board that has recently been in the news stems from the right.

      3. The right is using the criticism developed by Larry Krieger who owns Insider Test Prep, a company that specializes in study guides to the AP history test, etc. He stands to lose a large amount of money not because of the content changes to the course, but because of the pedagogical changes to the course which render his guides worthless. So Larry wrote a bunch of bullcrap and it got picked up by the rightwing who whine and cry, but almost none of them are historians or educators. Instead, the groups who are historians such as the AHA and OAH along with education groups back the changes because they are more conducive to student learning.

        That doesn’t suit the right because the other issue is the rejection of the American Exceptionalism myth. That is part of the core identity for the right or more specifically the Teabaggers who have repeatedly shown their ignorance of actual history, but pathetic embrace of false heritage.

  1. Great piece! I agree that Wood’s take is both unrealistic and disingenuous. The very act of choosing a topic is political. In deciding what to focus on (say, elite white males and their ideas), you are inherently privileging that topic. And Wood’s privileging is particularly blatant. Don’t get me wrong-I really like his books, and I think the ideas he discussed are important, but for him to uphold ‘objectivity’ for the historian is willfully naive.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Kevin! I also enjoy reading Wood’s scholarship–which has done a lot inform my understanding of the Revolutionary Era–but I agree that asking for politics to get out history is naive. Knowledge isn’t neutral.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Nick Sacco at Exploring the Past has posted an article asking whether historians should look to influence present-day politics. Sacco cites Gordon Woods’ warning that studying political theory while it “is a legitimate endeavor; it is, however, not history.” Woods believes that historians and political theorists have completely different and incompatible goals. Sacco questions this distinction and wonders if Woods admonition would limit a historian’s ability to discuss events and ideas that were inherently political. Check out his post.

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