The Seriousness of History

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 06/15/07

Ahistoricality writes that the “historical pathos” is “mostly ironic,” and it’s an undeniable fact.  Nowhere is this more evident than in scholarly evaluations of the Progressive Era.  Most historians of today seem incapable of understanding what could possibly have been the appeal of the moralizing and anti-personal-liberty rhetoric of the Progressive thinkers (John Dewey is an exception).

What they fail to recognize, in my judgment, is the degree to which these thinkers and their devotees (at one time amounting to a sizable portion of the population) saw themselves as part of a historic and divinely-inspired liberation movement for human equality and progress.  It’s one thing to ridicule this movement, such as it was, for its sanctimoniousness and self-satisfaction; but we must realize that it did not appear that way to an enormous segment of the American people during the time (if you count up the votes accorded to the non-Taft candidates, as many as 77% voted for a solidly Progressive candidate in 1912).

This perceptive disconnect stems, in my opinion, from a scholarly population too eager to dismiss emotion-laden words of the past as mere empty rhetoric.  In a mad scramble for the crow’s nest, many of today’s historians throw off whatever shackles bind them to the historical figures they study; these include the throbbing passion with which many of the political and cultural battles of the past were waged, particularly in the Progressive Era.

Don’t get me wrong — objectivity and disinterestedness are laudable traits in modern historians, ones too often lacking in scholars of earlier generations.  But I fear the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the wry bird’s eye view, to the point where we not only separate ourselves from the rampant emotions of the times we study but deny or belittle the importance of these emotions to the people who experienced them.  Too many of us seem unaware that these very intangible emotions, and the effects they had on the mass psyche, are often historical objects of interest just as much as are the more concrete “facts” and human interactions that are our daily fare.

How many scholars active today, for instance, would pen these stirring words about the election of 1912?

Out of this [Progressive Party] convention came the authentic voice of the old Republican party conscience — the conscience of the Abolitionists, of the crusaders against spoils, of the middle-class respectables who hated the vulgar new rich who bought and sold politicians, of the new urban reformers who glimpsed the great collective needs of 20th Century urban America.  Morality was not all on one side.  Taft, too, had his ethic — one that turned more to older, small-town notions of decency and enterprise and self-reliance and freedom from corporate or governmental bigness — just as men who stuck with him, like Root and Stimson, had theirs.  But by the force of circumstances, Taft had been left presiding over a party of regulars, many of whom looked on the Republican party as an enterprise in which they conducted their private business.  He had been left with the cotton whigs of 1912.  The party conscience had bolted with Roosevelt.

Do not these sentences, written by James MacGregor Burns in The Deadlock of Democracy, carry with them some of the charged sentiment that was felt so keenly in the critical year of 1912?  What I admire so much about Burns’ writing is that he manages to maintain a certain distance from his subjects without in any way pooh-poohing their own emotional connection with the events of their time.  The emotional impact of these events on their lives is treated with all the seriousness with which a true friend would comfort a die-hard Roosevelt supporter after his candidate’s defeat in the 1912 election — not with the caustic humor with which an apolitical acquaintance might treat the same Roosevelt supporter’s despondency.

As silly and sanctimonious as they may sound to us in this jaded age, the political actors and events of the Progressive Era mattered greatly and intimately to the people who lived them.  As historians, it’s our job to find out why, not to attack and ridicule the people of a previous age for their naivete or to pretend that they didn’t care about the reform movements that populated their world.  The question is a serious one, and it deserves in response not idle flippancy but a serious, sensitive answer.

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