Historical Humility and the Big Debates of History

I seldom weigh in on the big debates of history that serve as fodder for many internet arguments. It is not only that I find these debates unhelpful, I also think they are mostly unsolvable, at least in this medium. Moreover, the vitriol and certitude in which competing sides of these debates are presented is counterproductive for true historical thinking, which requires patience, depth of thought, charity, and balance to come to mostly tentative, humble conclusions.

The kinds of debates I am talking about are those in which two broad, competing conceptions of history face off and refuse any opportunity for compromise. The argument over the origins of the American Civil War, for example – perhaps the longest ongoing and most fought over historiographical topic in American history – is prone to resurface as a popular internet squabble. Those who join the debate remind me of teenagers rushing into a mosh pit, arms flailing, with little purpose but to hurt or get hurt. Participants in the debate look to score all kinds of political points about the proper role of federalism in the American republic, or the inherent racism of American culture. Now and then, participants will cite some relevant literature or even some new research on the competing “states’ rights” and “slavery” interpretations of the war. But judging from the ubiquity of the debates and the certainty of the arguments stated, it would appear that there are thousands, if not millions of Americans who have thoroughly researched this topic.

I tend to think that large historical questions are harder to answer than small historical questions, that it is easier to argue whether Lincoln was visiting Pennsylvania on a certain day in 1863, than it is to argue what Lincoln’s view (or indeed the nation’s view) about slavery was. I appreciate the views of Richard Feynman, when he argues that physicists require much evidence and confirmation before they are sure of the smallest thing.

I recognize that sometimes, large processes are empirically more easily substantiated: we can be more certain of the spin of the earth than the spin of a particular atom. But when large processes are built out of the interwoven complexities of smaller processes, it is difficult to make the leap from the atomic to the universal.

To be certain about what the American Civil War was fought over, one would need to read more than just the major documents of the war, but also delve into the letters and newspapers of the era. Then, it becomes clear that many people had many reasons to support or oppose the conflict. Add, from these many individual points of evidence, we can draw multiple lines of interpretation. I am partial to the slavery interpretation, but I admit I have not read much of the primary source evidence in the debate. We can find justification for one view or another. Yet, what we cannot do is say that one of the major competing views is completely absurd or untenable.

Arguments over the Great Depression proceed in similar fashion. Large, blunt arguments crash into each other.  Sometimes, a major perspective on the Great Depression won’t even admit of competing views.

By definition, scholars conduct research. And, it is in the process of researching that they learn to become humble when presenting their views, recognizing that while they might be convinced of their arguments now, there remains the possibility that they could be wrong. Most of the time in my own experiences as a historian, my initial views when beginning research on a topic did not survive intact in my final publication. In fact, I am suspicious of any historical argument, even my own, that merely confirms everything I believed at the beginning of the project.

I entreat anyone who wants to be a historian to begin with smaller arguments, to focus on manageable topics, over which they can gain some competency and with it some confidence. Confidence in historical argumentation is not a bad thing, but it must proceed from the effort of considered thought. Opining over the large debates of history, without having ever investigated and satisfactorily convinced oneself of a smaller historical thesis, is antithetical to the nature of historical inquiry.









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