In reading through my graduate students’ essays on their best ideas for bringing historical knowledge to the attention of a wider public outside university classrooms, it occurs to me that we failed to discuss a really important issue in doing history in public:
Most modern people look to history for inspirational figures, but most people in history were jerks. At least if we measure them against our commonly held values in 2016, they were jerks: Racist, sexist, prejudiced against other religions, and let’s not even get into their ideas about sexual minorities. Just jerks!
Andrew Schocket gets into this in his essay on Ron Chernow’s selective biography of Alexander Hamilton, now enjoying its massive “second shot” as the inspiration of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Chernow’s Hamilton possesses a conscience (in the words of Lilian Hellman) “cut” to “this year’s fashions.” Schocket writes, “Chernow failed to report on Hamilton’s subtle encouragement of a military coup, seemed not to notice Hamilton’s extremely disdainful view of democracy, and vehemently denied, despite Hamilton’s own assertions, that Hamilton’s financial program was specifically geared toward the wealthy. Chernow also exaggerated Hamilton’s abolitionism,” among other absolutions. It appears necessary to write historical lives according to modern fashion for them to get any serious popular attention.
Now, if your goal is to tell a tale of corruption, as in Twelve Years a Slave, or in the imagined past dystopia of The Man in the High Castle, that works for you. Jerks provide a lot of conflict and drama. But the reality is that showing or narrating the full scope of most people’s lives and opinions will necessarily make them less virtuous or heroic in our eyes. The alternative–to pretend that enslaved people really were “servants” rather than enslaved, or to pass over inconvenient details like most Anglo-Americans’ vicious anti-Catholicism or anti-Native Americanism–is weak. Even non-white peoples were mired in ethnic prejudices, although after 1800 or so in North America they only rarely had the demographic advantage to press against their enemies.
What do you think? I must return to my stack of papers and exams.