At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record. This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history. But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.
Maybe there’s hope
As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare. If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust. Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was? Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom? Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia? All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.” To hell with what came before…
Unite us, David
There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people. Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond. In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors.
Historians can say the darndest things… the profession has been sullied by superfluous tales of alleged sexual dalliances, rumors, and tabloid style conjecture. It’s open season on the Founding Fathers, the more outrageous the interpretation, the more air time and book sales can be generated. The current crop of historians, struggling to carve themselves a slice of relevance, is degrading the profession to the point where the messaging more closely resembles Morton Downey Jr. than Dumas Malone, Edmund Morgan, or David McCullough. Say something crazy, but say it often and say in LOUD !
LISTEN TO MY HISTORY !
Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis… is known to stretch the truth about his past, but his scholarship is considered sound and his storytelling compelling. Recent comments Ellis made during the tour for his latest book cast doubt on his judgement, if not his scholarship. Ellis blasted the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC with highly partisan and poorly worded hyperbole. Comparing Supreme Court cases to the Scott vs. Sanford ruling of 1857 makes for an interesting sound byte, but unless supported by relevant evidence(beyond Ellis’s political leanings) it is a dubious historical comparison intended to shock rather than enlighten. He goes on to attack the Heller vs. DC ruling of 2009 as a scurrilous attempt by Conservatives to force the doctrine of Original Intent upon an unwitting society. Ellis has a political axe to grind with supporters of the 2nd Amendment- his reputation as an historian providing a thin veil of legitimacy to his misguided partisanship. He’s screaming that Original Intent is wrong and damaging our society- all the while, his new book stays on the best seller lists.
Trust me, I’m a professor
Joe should remember the words of his supposed hero–
“On every question of construction let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” Thomas Jefferson
Joe Ellis explained the absence of serious Madison biographies… by proclaiming “he’s boring as hell” and that “only lawyers like him.” As previously stated, Ellis’s recent comments on the Framers and Original Intent cast doubt on the rigor of his scholarship- and these nuggets of wisdom only enhance the evidence of his misguided revisionism.
Never far apart
The revision Ellis is peddling holds that Madison and other Framers… rejected the doctrine of Original Intent on its face. The only empirical evidence supporting this notion is Madison’s oft quoted explanation for not publishing his notes on the Constitutional Convention. Once established, the government continued to disappoint Madison, driving him closer to his friend Jefferson. During his presidency, Madison undoubtedly supported Original Intent as he battled John Marshall and Congress for the soul of the Constitution. He feared the elasticity in the Constitution was being abused by ambitious demagogues- Madison wanted the power of government restrained- his original intent.
What have your wrought, Joe?
Friends and rivals
The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.
As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned. Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:
“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.” Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796
It was only a matter of time before political correctness led to historical revisionism… it’s happening on college campuses around the country. Confronted with the realization that their advocacy is redundant and their demands trifling- these cereal box revolutionaries are targeting our history with their misguided platitudes.
The irony is thick as Liberal college students attack the legacy of Progressive icon, Woodrow Wilson… long heralded a progressive hero by academics, and firmly positioned in Schlesinger’s top 10 of all Presidents– Wilson’s name is no longer welcomed by the students of Princeton. A most unreasonable position considering that Princeton’s status as Ivy League mainstay is due in large part to the career and reputation of Wilson. Aside from changing names and blotting out monuments, the advocacy here advances little past public relations.
As predicted in an earlier post… Jefferson’s name was sure to be a target of the politically correct, kiddie cops. Student protesters in Missouri, and most recently Jefferson’s alma mater, William and Mary in Virginia. “Students” argue his slave holding in the 19th century is so offensive, it warrants removing his presence from both institutions. These judicious, young stewards are enlightened far beyond their 18 or 19 years and clearly understand the human experience better than any nasty slave owner from 200 years ago. The sarcasm is only applied to further illuminate the hubris- this could be the beginning of our end.
Standing up for TJ
Jefferson critic Annette Gordon-Reed… is discerning enough to see advocacy gone too far. She recently told InsideHighered.com –
“I understand why some people think his statues should be removed, but not all controversial figures of the past are created equal, I think Jefferson’s contributions to the history of the United States outweigh the problems people have with aspects of his life. He is just too much a part of the American story … to pretend that he was not there. There is every difference in the world between being one of the founders of the United States and being a part of group of people who fought to destroy the United States.”
Crawford, Allen Pell, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, Random House, 2009,
“A remarkably disciplined scholar… Jefferson spent money on books the way less purposeful young men spent it on whisky or women.” Allen Pell Crawford begins his study of Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello by reiterating long-established traits in the Sage of Monticello’s character. Crawford spends the first 50 pages concisely detailing Jefferson’s life through the presidency. No new ground is broken and it is clear that the author included this introduction to fit with the book’s overriding structure, chronology.
Crawford crafts a detailed and …readable account of Jefferson’s retirement following 1809. Ample time is spent exploring the personalities in Jefferson’s extended family including his intricate relationship with his daughter Martha. Family was vital to Jefferson’s being and all the heartbreak he experienced is recounted in painstaking detail. Crawford misses a real opportunity to examine loss, one of the accepted but underdeveloped themes in Jefferson scholarship. Rather, Jefferson’s much maligned finances are retold as Crawford does his best to link them to some character flaw, though he never is able to attribute it to more than carelessness. Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s retirement will read with disillusion of the attempted murder of his beloved grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. More examination of the crucial relationships with Madison and Adams could have brought much-needed depth to Crawford’s analysis of Jefferson’s intellectual character. This remains the book’s weakest element, the examination of Jefferson’s mind.
Jefferson’s mind eludes Crawford… despite his best efforts to explain its inconsistencies. “Jefferson’s view of himself as an empiricist may also suggest how little self-knowledge he possessed…” Crawford’s error is applying traditional analysis to a mind like Jefferson’s. Biographers long ago discovered that Jefferson possessed diametrically opposed psychological features. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of Jefferson and slavery. Volumes have been written about Jefferson and the contradiction of his slave owning. Crawford falls prey to the politically correct pseudo-scholarship that dominates current Jefferson discourse. This brand of scholarship deals in absolutes forged in modern racial attitudes leaving no room for nuance or ambiguity. “That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination.” Crawford ignores the clear and well documented evidence to contrary to make the socially acceptable conclusion. The urgency with which Crawford recounts the rumors regarding Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings nearly draws the narrative to the level of tabloid storytelling. Readers familiar with the controversy can’t ignore the fact that Sally stopped having children after Jefferson started residing at Monticello fulltime.
Allen Pell Crawford never actually… decides what kind of book he is writing. At times Twilight at Monticello is a chronological account of Jefferson’s retirement, while also trying to examine complex features of Jefferson’s psychological makeup. The result is a confused narrative filled with interesting tidbits and politically correct platitudes. Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s later years could find some use for Crawford’s study, but students of history won’t find much use for the book off their E-readers.
Jefferson wrote to John Holmes of the Missouri Compromise- “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”
Wolf by the ears…
Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state… threatened the tenuous balance- 22 states, 11 with slavery, 11 without. Missouri was the first territory carved from the Louisiana Purchase to apply for statehood. Jefferson’s vision of America as a land of small, republican farmers was in danger of devolving further into the plantation gang labor system dominating the tidewater south.
Henry Clay of Kentucky
Henry Clay’s solution to the crisis is often reviled… by historians for perpetuating slavery and providing the United States the opportunity to conquer more land. This New Left interpretation of history overlooks the contributions Clay made to our republic during its formative years. His American System had revitalized the nation following destructive War of 1812. Clay had convinced Madison, the National Bank’s most vocal critic, to recharter it in 1816. He had rewritten the rules of the House of Representatives and established the post of Speaker as the force we know it today. Firebrands bent on defending slavery at all costs- even peace and prosperity for all- could not be allowed to derail Clay’s vision. The Missouri Compromise has to be studied from all points of view.