Most people in history were jerks.

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.

13 thoughts on “Most people in history were jerks.

  1. All histories have a rhetoric behind them. In order for that rhetoric to be persuasive a writer picks and chooses details to use, focus on or embellish, and that’s what we as readers get to see. (Preaching to the choir, I know…) But one thing that is important, I think, about the Hamilton phenomenon is that people are reading Chernow’s book and also going beyond that too. Sometimes having a taste of something good leads to greater appetite for more. The research my students have done on Hamilton — on their own, not for class — is impressive. And they are learning about the rhetoric of history in the meantime through reading deeply about Hamilton’s life.

    Sometimes when you get more into fact-based research, the complications of the lives that these people have led can be disappointing. We want our heroes to have continuity, and they turn out to be disappointingly human. But I actually like that. I want my heroes to be complex, human, and of this world — not some sort of supernatural entity. When important people are shown to be human, it gives me hope that I can do something with my life too.

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    • I personally am not looking for heroes or role models–but I know that’s a powerful reason a lot of people look to history. I was just musing on how difficult it is to write or otherwise represent honestly and completely the lives of most people–past or present, I guess, but it’s those past prejudices that can really jolt us.

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  2. All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Let us celebrate what is good in each life and how they helped make things better for all of us. Sure, it is harder WRT Jeff Davis than Alexander Hamilton, but we should look.

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    • No one is all bad or all good, surely, but I think you’re right that it’s a tough slog for anyone who’s not a Lost Causer to look for the good in Jefferson Davis! I don’t think I even want to bother, quite frankly–there seem to be so many more MUCH more complicated people than anyone proslavery after 1780.

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  3. Ha! Totally! You have hit the nail on the head Historiann!

    I sometimes tell my students that most of history is about the guys in the black hats winning most of the time and most of them never suffer any consequences. Very few get their just deserts, well except maybe a handful, like Mussolini, Ceausescu or Qaddafi.

    Even when we try to forge new types of justice, we usually come up short. Slobadan Milosevic died before the International Tribunal in the Hague could convict him. The truly bad die in ordinary ways, clinging to their power to the end, like Lenin succumbing to a series or strokes or Stalin who died of some sort of seizure (vividly described in William Taubman’s Khrushchev biography).

    But despite the tendency for things to break in favor for the truly bad, we ought to cherish the good deeds of the humble few even more. And as you say, even those people wearing the white hats wouldn’t look so good in the light of our twenty first century ideals. Holding on to, and celebrating, the rare victory or the tarnished hero makes the rest of it bearable.

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    • “Holding on to, and celebrating, the rare victory or the tarnished hero makes the rest of it bearable.”
      That is truly poetic Matt. Thanks. You are right on.

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  4. I dunno. We’re in a country where a significant minority elected, as in chose, as in actually wants, a sex predator as president. That’s an awful lot of jerks with large heapings of bigotry right here and now. The past was, admittedly, more plainspoken than we usually are, but I wouldn’t take too much comfort from that. We seem to be rapidly finding our inner 19th century bigot without breaking a sweat.

    But I did actually want to add something besides dumping on us. And that’s that judging people outside of their own context is a perspective nobody can win. Imagine 200 years from now when everybody is vegetarian, so they write off anyone in our own stupid century without the vision to see what a stupendously cruel and wasteful and unhealthy habit meat-eating is. (I eat meat. That’s just an example!) So Churchill and FDR and Hillary Clinton are all considered backward and reprehensible.

    Providing that context is exactly what we need historians for. In Hamilton’s time it was *known*, not questioned, that uneducated, unwhite, not-men simply lacked the brain power to make good choices. Somebody who’s worse than they need to be in that context, eg Jefferson Davis, I’d call reprehensible. Our own bigots, when we know full well that bigotry is appalling, are deplorable. But somebody who was actually trying to improve on their own context, such as Hamilton, deserves credit for that, even if they wouldn’t deserve credit *now*.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t be clear on the badness of some of those contexts. I’m just saying all humans are embedded in their own societies, and almost all of us can only hope to be a bit better. We shouldn’t expect them to rise further above their social contexts than we do ourselves.

    (Not sure if I’m making any sense. I know what I mean. Articulating it is another matter!)

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  7. When I engage with the concept of everyone in the past having been jerks (and who doesn’t?), I take some refuge in a paragraph from a long-ago dissertation-revised first book that once served as a potential model for a dissertation that I ended up not writing. The paragraph, in a preface, averred that the book was “about the sadness of being merely human, the limitations of desire, and the compassion one feels in retracing the aspirations of dead people.” The paragraph went on to claim that “history is a sacrament of compassion. Humans in large groups imply the need for mercy.” Doesn’t always work, by any means, but sometimes it does. The miscreants in this book, it should be said, were mostly guilty of things like carelessly tracking beach sand back into their cheesy tourist hotels, or pilfering handfuls of salt water taffy from hapless shopkeepers, so the bar to compassion was pretty low. But it is true that they are all now as dead as dinosaurs.

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