This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta, December 26, 1975. Published in the American Historical Review 81, no. 1, pp. 1-11.

History as a Moral Science

Some years ago, a young American historian undertook the somewhat ghoulish task of unearthing all of the presidential addresses delivered before the American Historical Association during the first fifty years of its existence.1 His purpose, in addition to earning the doctorate, was to discover the kinds of issues that confronted the profession during that half century—or, at least, the issues that presidents of the association thought to be of central importance. Occasionally these addresses created a mild stir of interest, and even some discussion; a few endured to be read and reread by later generations, as milestones or monuments of the historiographical enterprise. More commonly, they inspired such comments as that of Carl Becker shortly after the 1936 convention: “I went to Providence for the meeting of the A.H.A.. a terrible crush of about 1000 registrations: difficult to see anyone except by accident. . . . McIlwain didn’t do himself Justice in the Pres. Ad.: but then very few do.”2

The history of this particular ritual thus offers at least one warning: those who practice it might do well not to take their pronouncements as the voice of God or the crystallized wisdom of the ages. It may be significant that AHA custom calls on the president to speak ex cathedra not at the outset of his term of office but at the very end, only forty-eight hours before he “passes into history,” as the saying goes. By that time it is much too late for him to make promises, to influence the association’s future course, or even to be held to answer for his stewardship or for such sophistries as his swan song may contain. He is allowed one Parthian shot. a gesture that no doubt has symbolic value, but that wins few battles, and rarely creates enduring legends.

How, then, should one perform this ritual most expeditiously and constructively? Seeking guidance from past practice, I find that presidential addresses seem to fall into one of three broad categories: those that reminisce, in the fashion of “forty years on”; those that embody the fruits of specialized scholarship; and those that seek to advance a cause or convey a message. The first sort possesses a nostalgic charm and provides the audience with a tranquil evening. The second, much favored over the years, takes the form of a learned essay focused on the speaker’s own special field, offered as a gemlike miniature, a model of the mature research and reflection to which we all aspire, a tribute to the seriousness of learning. When performed with mastery, such a presentation may inspire historians far beyond the limited field of the speaker himself. It has the further merit of insulating the speaker against serious criticism and thus ensuring him a quiet departure from office, undisturbed by ironic witticisms or cries of outrage.

The third variety of presidential pronouncement involves more serious risks. It seeks to identify a broad issue that cuts across many fields of history, that relates to what most of us do in our professional capacity, and that either opens a new debate or, more commonly, reopens an old one. It poses a question that has been, either consciously or subconsciously, nagging at the speaker’s psyche and at those of at least some of his fellow historians. Its tone can range from the calmly reflective through the confidently prescriptive to the downright preachy. It may stir up a storm; it may fade quietly into the night, like any puff of hot air. The record shows that the association has seen and heard a considerable variety of manifestoes of this sort.

A title such as “History as a Moral Science” clearly belongs in the “message” category, and probably in its more preachful subdivision. Furthermore, it may seem almost recklessly provocative. The idea of consciously reintroducing the moral dimension into history runs counter to the basic training of most historians, and probably to their professional instinct as well. Each of us has some strong views on the general subject of morality; each of us knows the dangers involved in making moral judgments in our work, or even suggesting a need for them. Worse still, a phrase like “moral science” has both a paradoxical and an anachronistic ring; it evokes the Victorian era, the times of Mill, Emerson, and Acton, when life was real and earnest and when coupling the words “moral” and “science” did not yet seem a case of illegal miscegenation. True, the phrase has survived in vestigial form into our own day: witness the French and the Belgian Academies of Moral and Political Sciences, which include historians within their ranks. though whether they belong to the political or moral branch is not entirely clear. But even the members of those academies, I suspect, would no longer try to argue very vigorously for resurrecting the phrase “moral science”—unless they happen to have a taste for the archaic.

Although presidents of this association have often prescribed or preached from this podium, it has been a long time since one ventured rashly into the swamps of moral and value judgments. Henry Charles Lea did it in 1903, entitling his much-quoted address “Ethical Values in History”3—and prudently absenting himself from the convention while the corresponding secretary read out his speech. Lea’s message, however, was not a defense but a denunciation of the thesis that the historian should make moral judgments. His target was that géant terrible, Lord Acton, who had just proclaimed the historian’s duty to “suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”4 Acton had excoriated those historians who gloss over crimes of past eras: “The strong man with the dagger,” he declared, “is followed by the weak man with the sponge.”5 Acton was dreadfully wrong, said Lea; moral standards change from one epoch to another; though we may sometimes feel righteous indignation, we must “strenuously repress it as a luxury to be left to [the] reader”; we must not write history “as a Sunday-school tale for children of larger growth.”6 Lea’s audience was receptive; after all, he was only saying what the standard manuals of historical method had already begun to assert as the orthodoxy of a scientific age. Lea’s immediate successor, Goldwin Smith (an Actonian) entered a mild objection, suggesting that Lea’s stance would, as Smith put it, “destroy the identity of the moral law”;7 but this was only a glancing and ineffective blow, and the issue virtually disappeared from later presidential addresses—as it did also from manuals of historical method thereafter. There was a curious interlude in 1923 when Edward P. Cheyney told the association that in his search for laws of history (the historian’s true function, he declared), he had detected one called the “law of moral progress”; he added, as a kind of rider, the curious dictum that “the people” are “always more moral than their rulers.”8 And in 1949 Conyers Read returned to the problem in a considerably different context. He spoke at the height of the cold war and in a crusading spirit. He declared that the time was past for neutrality. “Total war … enlists everyone”; historians, like all others, must be mobilized in defense of our society’s standards and ideals. Certain fundamental values must be recognized as beyond dispute. “This sounds like the advocacy of one form of social control as against another. In short, it is. But I see no alternative in a divided world. … The important thing is that we shall accept and endorse such controls as are essential for the preservation of our way of life.” True, he declared that “this need not imply any deliberate distortion of the past”; but, he added, we must remember that not everything we learn about the past “is appropriate for broadcasting at street corners.”9 Perhaps it is not surprising that during the quarter century since Read’s time, presidents of this association have once again given a wide berth to issues of morality and values in history.10

But if official pronouncements, as well as orthodox manuals, have largely been silent, some individual historians in recent years have felt the impulse to re-examine the problem. either because it presents a persistent intellectual challenge, or because their teaching function forces them to confront it.11 Neither our audience nor the condition of the world in which we live any longer allows us the luxury of escape into a Proustian cork-lined ivory tower free of dust, microbes, and values. Those historians who have grappled with the subject in print are most often scholars of philosophic or methodological bent. But for the rest of us, especially in our classroom role, the theoretical debate. basic though it is. may be less crucial than the practical dilemmas forced upon us in a time of ideological conflict and intense moral ambiguity. No doubt those of us who profess contemporary history have found the dilemma sharpest; whoever must deal with the more brutal aspects of the Hitler or Stalin era, or with the devastating mass impact of mechanized total war, finds it hard to restrain some expression of that righteous indignation outlawed by Henry Charles Lea. But it is not only the contemporary historian who may feel a twinge of self-doubt about his educational role at this point in time. The issue was stated most bluntly at the height of the Watergate melodrama by the eminent literary critic Henri Peyre: “Those of us who have been entrusted with the education of the young may well ask ourselves a harrowing question: Have we failed lamentably to impart any moral sense, any critical spirit to those whom we have instructed?” Those involved in Watergate and related escapades, Peyre pointed out, were not slum-born mafiosi but men who have enjoyed the most advanced educational opportunities offered by our society; more than most others, they should have had a sophisticated grasp of basic values and should have been clearly aware of their moral responsibilities.12 Yet these highly privileged public officials apparently emerged from our universities as moral illiterates or astigmatics, and even after their disgrace they often appeared bewildered or angry rather than chastened and contrite. Thus one former presidential adviser, after the White House roof had fallen in, accused the public and the media of having set moral standards for public servants that are “really mythical,” and clinched his case by asking rhetorically, “Would you rather have a competent scoundrel or an honest boob in office?”13

For us as historians the question is whether we as professionals bear any responsibility for bringing on such a state of affairs, and, as a corollary, whether we are obligated to do anything about it. Facing up to such questions involves a venture into a kind of no man’s land, liberally strewn with booby traps and dead bodies. I take some comfort, however, in recalling that at least one other historian once found himself in a similar predicament. Carl Becker wrote to a friend in the summer of 1931: “Now I will have to get to work again: . . . the completion of the blasted presidential address. I had it 2/3 finished in June, and then it stuck. I don’t know how to end it.”14 But in the end, end it he did; and so must his successors, even if less triumphantly.

Surely few of us here, and few of our critics either, would hold the historians solely or principally to blame for the moral transgressions of certain public officials, or for the more pervasive ethical confusion that seems to suffuse our age. The fact that some unscrupulous men have made their way into high places and have misused their power is of course not new; nor does it necessarily mean that we historians helped put them there, or that we could somehow have prevented their misdeeds. We might therefore choose to disclaim all responsibility, charging the fault to those in our society who profess to be its moral guides, or to the obtuseness of our former students who failed to penetrate the message hidden somewhere in our unbiased teaching. But that—as a fellow Californian liked to say—would be the easy way. Whether we enjoy it or not, we must ask ourselves whether we bear a more diffused kind of responsibility. Some critics assert that we historians, by insisting over the years that moral standards are relative across cultures and over time, have seriously undermined our own capacities—and a fortiori those of our students—to make moral judgments of any kind. In eschewing the horrors of moral rhetoric, they say, we have drifted into a moral vacuum; to avoid the charge of moral self-righteousness, we have preferred simply to abdicate. True, we have clothed our conduct in attractive garb: we speak of detachment, open-mindedness, tolerance, understanding. But beneath these euphemisms, the critics say, abdication is the essential reality. Twenty years ago our regretted colleague Raymond Sontag was already warning us about this trend: “We historians,” he wrote, “have worked so hard to eliminate passion and fanaticism from our thinking, that we have forgotten how to describe a way of life dominated by passion and fanaticism, and actions which are evil.”15 And C. V. Wedgwood added a further admonition: “History dispassionately recorded,” she declared, “nearly always sounds harsh and cynical. History is not a moral tale, and the effect of telling it without comment is, inevitably, to underline its worst features: the defeat of the weak by the strong, the degeneration of ideals, the corruption of institutions, the triumph of intelligent self-interest.”16 History thus presented, she warned, was likely to produce a mood of cynicism among those exposed to it. a mood that might well suggest that political leaders can only be either competent scoundrels or honest boobs. It might even suggest that Leo Durocher’s law about nice guys finishing last has some kind of universal and timeless validity.

For a long time, of course, historians comforted themselves with the thought that dispassionate value-free history would somehow secrete its own moral lessons, or would at least ensure that those who study it would be led somewhat automatically to sensible and judicious conclusions. Thus Henry Charles Lea, after delivering his thunderbolts against Acton, could conclude that history “may and it generally will, convey a moral, but that moral should educe itself from the facts.”6 Most of us today are a bit less sanguine about the automatic nature of the process, yet the idea does persist that the path from raw data to sophisticated judgment needs no guideposts along the route. And even when we are not so sure that the process is easy or automatic, the alternative. guideposts suggested by the historian, functioning as a moral critic as well as a purveyor of facts. continues to be seen as either illegitimate or ineffective. Thus Henry Steele Commager, after a thoughtful look at both horns of the dilemma, concludes that moral judgments are both “arrogant” and “futile,” and he denies that readers need the historian’s “moral instruction”; while the Belgian scholar Jean Stengers warns that even when the historian’s moral judgments are solidly founded upon a thorough and dispassionate study of the evidence, they are likely to undermine his purpose because his audience will suspect him of grinding an ax. The historian’s best hope of being morally effective, Stengers concludes, is to provide a living example of respect for the one “fragile” value that transcends all others. absolute respect for the truth.17 The case he makes is a remarkably compelling one, yet somehow it leaves one vaguely unsatisfied.

This recent process of soul searching has been confined mainly, I suspect, to those of us who find our identity somewhere in the so-called liberal tradition, broadly defined. Our conservative colleagues. at least those who are self-consciously conservative. have had it easier; a good many of them have always been quite openly committed to a system of absolute values, religiously or ethically based, by which the events of the past can be confidently judged without the least embarrassment. On the left, many self‑styled radical historians have vigorously asserted the idea of a committed history, either because they too possess a coherent Weltanschauung with something like its own absolutes, or because they view history instrumentally, as a tool to achieve social and political change. Both the conservative and the radical positions obviously have their legitimate place in the educational process, so long as neither is imposed as unchallengeable dogma. But the liberals among us. even the “closet liberals” who are reluctant to bear the stigma of a shopworn label. continue to be haunted by our pluralistic, skeptical, antidogmatic heritage, our rejection of absolutes, our distaste for anything that might look like indoctrination. The result, it seems to me, is that while many students of history may be exposed these days to vigorous and confident expositors of either the conservative or the radical value system, they rarely receive any clear vision of the past as it appears in the light of liberal values. I am sometimes tempted to think that we liberals have been re-enacting the charge of the Light Brigade: while cannon volley and thunder to the right and to the left of us, we ourselves gallop on in a cloud of dust, unsure just which way is forward, and shouting to those who follow us to study the map and draw their own conclusions. If part of an educator’s responsibility is to offer some sort of positive guidance, then perhaps it is true that many of us have unthinkingly abdicated.

True, there are critics who doubt that the abdication has been real. that we have actually practiced the dispassionate objectivity that we preach. “Our smartest radicals,” remarked Carl Becker more than forty years ago, “suspect [the liberal] of being an agent provacateur [sic] of Capitalism, while conservatives of ancient lineage treat [him] as a Bolshevik masquerading in a rented dress suit.”18 The leading spokesman of the New Left detects beneath the sham of open-mindedness a hidden vice: support of “the Existing Institution.”19 A talented young American historian, arguing the case of the Annales school, charges that “American historical writing still largely consists of parochial and moralistic studies of events, policies, and individuals,” and proceeds to consign both liberals and Marxists to oblivion as exponents of a dead morality.20 We liberals thus stand accused in various quarters of violating our own professed standards, and acting in reality (to borrow Heinz Hartmann’s phrase) as “hidden preachers.”21

Whether our real fault is hypocrisy or abdication, those of us in the liberal tradition. a sizable remnant still, though probably an endangered species. feel most keenly the whiplash of this particular dilemma. Not all of us will be ready to change our ways. to risk giving up our accustomed armor, that somewhat gray and aloof neutrality (or costume of neutrality) that has been so comfortably protective. Some of us will not find it easy to abandon our indulgent fascination for the charismatic rascals and the melodramatic episodes in history. an indulgence that adds some more vivid colors to the basic gray, thus enlivening our prose and awakening our drowsy students. Nor will all of us readily shake free from the temptation to fix cynically on the flaws and foibles of every leader, nation, age, or professed ideal, to the point that the very words “moral” and “value” take on ironic overtones. Furthermore, it would be self-defeating if all liberal historians were to forswear the ideal of dispassionate Wertfreiheit, for out of that tradition have come. and will doubtlessly continue to come. some of the most impressive products of our profession.

Nevertheless, I believe that a case can be made for relegitimizing the writing and teaching of history by liberals whose model is neither the neutral scientist nor the “hidden preacher” but the exponent of a self-conscious and coherent value system. If one purpose of historical study is to broaden and enrich the minds of students so that they can shape their own values and arrive at their own judgments (as I think they should), that purpose is likely to be best served if they are offered not only raw data and quantified facts, but also broad exposure to various mature interpretations of the past. The liberal interpretation belongs in that spectrum: indeed, perhaps more so today than ever before. In an age of unprecedented complexity, when ideological fanaticism, sporadic bursts of tribal fury, and the advocacy of “realism” in both its crude and its sophisticated form put world stability and even human existence at risk, the liberal temper may offer the nearest thing to a set of guideposts through the mine field. Its rejection of a black-and-white world in which the battalions of good and evil line up in serried ranks; its awareness of ambiguity as a profound and pervasive presence in human affairs; its respect for such qualities as skepticism, tolerance, fair‑mindedness, and what George Orwell called (for want of a more precise term) “decency”. these traits combine to make up a world view that in some ways overlaps those of the radical or the conservative, but that possesses its own integrity, its central core of values by which to judge the past and to relate that past to the present.

To argue this case is of course to be immediately suspect. Does it not imply a return to what someone has called “nineteenth-century pieties and platitudes,” to the indoctrination of students through the use of selective evidence, and to a downgrading of the search for truth and understanding as the historian’s highest goal? The answer, I think, is that it surely can lead to any or all of these abuses, if misused; but I see no reason to consider such misuse unavoidable. There are dangers built into all stances toward the teaching and writing of history, including the stance called perfect neutrality. Indeed, the liberal historian who applies his values honestly and consistently will be more likely than any other to take pains to consider all the evidence and all alternative interpretations before advancing and defending his own view of the past. What too many of us have hesitated to do, I believe, is to take that final step. to risk a conclusion, to make a judgment, to advance and defend our view of how things were, and why, and what this meant to people of the time, and what it means to people of today.

Clearly there have been some exceptions: some liberals who have not hesitated to assert their values and to let those values suffuse their work as well as their personal conduct. Most of us could probably name a few from among our friends and acquaintances. To offer you my own list would be in egregiously bad taste, but perhaps I may risk one example. partly because of the subject matter involved, but more because of the spirit of the work. A recent volume of essays entitled The Failure of Illiberalism deals with society and the state in Imperial Germany; it argues persuasively that the fundamental liberal values were badly stunted in the Germany of that era, and that the result was unfortunate all round. The analysis is not neutral or colorless; it clearly reflects, as one reviewer put it, the author’s own system of values. his belief in “the institutionalization of decency, political playfulness, persuasion, debate, and tolerant dissent.”22 Subject and spirit are harmoniously woven together; the author’s value base, vigorously held and clearly implicit throughout, inspired the writing of the book and gives the work its originality and force. Such an example provides evidence that consciously liberal history can be written without preaching or distortion, and that it can give us a deepened understanding of a sensitive and controversial subject.

Liberal historians, I believe, also have some obligation to counteract that “competent scoundrel versus honest boob” syndrome that they have unwittingly helped to implant in the public mind. A highly respected teacher of mine (himself a liberal) used to enjoy remarking that “in politics, a man must know how to rise above principle”. something that he himself, in fact, would never have thought of doing. Perhaps so. Still, all but the most hard-core cynics among us can surely come up with examples of public figures who steadfastly refused the temptation to “rise above principle.” True, the liberal historian is not likely to portray any historical figure as a spotless saint, for he is normally inclined to see men and women as paradoxical mixtures. creatures driven by contradictory impulses, not specimens of pure gold or dross.23 Yet even if such complexity is the human condition, it still leaves room for the occasional Abraham Lincoln, or Tomáa. Masaryk, or Jean Jaurès. Abandoned to the cynic or the ideologue, the Lincolns and Masaryks and Jaurèses can be. and have been. adroitly transmuted into neurotic hypocrites, self-serving bourgeois, or “honest boobs”; but when considered with sympathy in the light of liberal values they emerge as men whose predominant traits would be regarded as virtues in any age, men who both spoke and acted in defense of the highest of human aspirations. What student of history will not respond to a figure like Jaurès, if offered the opportunity to see him as his admirers did, and as some of us still do? Untouched by vanity, arrogance, or a thirst for power, deeply committed to the Orwellian principle of “decency” (he preferred to call it “integrity”), Jaurès dedicated his enormous energies and talents to what he saw as the cause of human justice. Weighted down by a backbreaking load of obligations as parliamentary leader, newspaper editor, traveling salesman for social democracy, crusader for peace, and spare-time historian, Jaurès in those hectic prewar years could somehow still find time to accept a university’s invitation to lecture on the life and work of Leo Tolstoy. The words of the lecture were his own, not those of a professional speech writer; and they culminated thus:

In our narrow, confined existence, we tend to forget the essence of life. … All of us, whatever our occupation or class, are equally guilty: the employer is lost in the running of his business; the workers, sunk in the abyss of their misery, raise their heads only to cry in protest; we, the politicians, are lost in daily battles and corridor intrigues. All of us forget that before everything else, we are men, ephemeral beings lost in the immense universe, so full of terrors. We are inclined to neglect the search for the real meaning of life, to ignore the real goals. serenity of the spirit and sublimity of the heart. … To reach them. that is the revolution.24

Do such impassioned words, does such a dedicated life suggest that we are dealing with just another “honest boob”? Some would say so, and their version continues to be heard.25 But that version is hardly the inescapable terminus of the historian’s search for objective truth. Figures like Jaurès are too rare and too important to be left to the cynics or even to the hard-core “realists”; they need to be viewed in the light of liberal values as well, if their real historical significance is to be fully understood.

David Hackett Fischer, in his provocative catalog of historians’ sins, has warned us against what he calls the “moralistic fallacy,” which, he says, would make history once again the handmaid of moral philosophy. a goal that appeals primarily, says Professor Fischer, to “hairy graduate students.”26 Herbert Butterfield has strongly conditioned us against what he called “pseudomoral judgments, masquerading as moral ones, mixed and muddy affairs, part prejudice, part political animosity, with a dash of ethical flavoring wildly tossed into the concoction.”27 And John Clive reminds us that Macaulay (of all people) once wrote, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”28 Many of my professional colleagues may find that I have been seized by one of those fits, and that I am proposing to sell our birthright for a mess of moralistic pottage. I confess that it is hard to escape a sense of awkwardness after a lifetime of trying to conform to the standards of scientific detachment. Still, as Hugh Stretton reminds us, “Moral abstinence [is] a moral act like any other”; and John Higham adds the pertinent conclusion that what we ought to be after is thoroughgoing moral criticism” rather than “impressionistic moral judgments.”29 It may be the times we live in, or it may be incipient senility, that prods one against his better judgment into reflecting on some of the essentials, and into wondering, as Carl Becker used to do, “what is the good of history?” A valued French colleague remarked to me not long ago that such a question is “terribly American” and asserted that so long as there is a market for what we do, the question is irrelevant. Besides, he added, the question reflects the fact that most Americans are much too moralistic; what they need, for their own arid the world’s repose, is a large dash of cynicism. He may be right. Yet somehow I remain unregenerate. Perhaps it is a buried aspect of that old liberal heritage, so much maligned in our day; or perhaps it is a surviving spark of an evangelical upbringing. It has not yet driven me to the point of urging that we resurrect the label “moral science” as a category within which our profession might find its proper place. But it does impel me to think that for some of us at least, our search for truth ought to be quite consciously suffused by a commitment to some deeply held humane values. The effort to keep these two goals in balance may be precarious; but if we can manage it, perhaps we will be on the way to re-establishing the role of history as one. and not the least. of what we might fairly call the moral arts.

Gordon Wright (April 24, 1912–January 11, 2000) was the preeminent historian of modern France in the United States. He taught at Stanford University for 20 years, where he held the William H. Bonsall Professorship of History. His most important writings include The Reshaping of French Democracy (1948) as well as his much admired Rural Revolution in France: The Peasantry in the Twentieth Century (1964). But surely his most read book was his text France in Modern Times(1st edition, 1960), which became the preeminent survey of French history since the Revolution.



  1. Herman Ausubel, Historians and Their Craft (New York, 1950). []
  2. Becker to Leo and Ida Gershoy, Feb. 7, 1937, in “What Is the Good of History?” Selected Letters of Carl L. Becker, 1900. 1945, ed. Michael Kammen (Ithaca, 1973), 252. []
  3. Henry Charles Lea, “Ethical Values in History,” AHR, 9 (1903–04): 233–46. []
  4. Lord Acton, “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History,” in Essays in the Liberal Interpretation of History, ed. William H. McNeill (Chicago, 1967), 351. []
  5. Quoted in G. M. Trevelyan, “Bias in History,” History, 32 (1947): 12. []
  6. Lea, “Ethical Values in History,” 237. [] []
  7. Goldwin Smith, “The Treatment of History,” AHR, 10 (1904–05): 513. []
  8. Edward P. Cheyney, “Laws in History,” AHR, 29 (1923–24): 244. []
  9. Conyers Read, “Social Responsibilities of the Historian,” AHR, 55 (1949–50): 283–84. Read’s blunt remarks continue to haunt his memory; the most recent evidence is a Soviet report presented at the Fourteenth International Congress of Historical Sciences in San Francisco, August 1975: A. T. Danilov et al., “History and Society,” 44. []
  10. Louis Gottschalk and Dexter Perkins might be considered partial exceptions. Gottschalk barely touched on the inescapability of moral judgments by the historian. “A Professor of History in a Quandary,” AHR, 59 (1953–54): 277–8. Perkins, in the only presidential address focused entirely on the historian as teacher, argued briefly but cogently that “we need not be afraid to speak of moral values,” and urged attention by teachers to “the majestic example set by some of the great figures of our history, or all history.” “We Shall Gladly Teach,” AHR, 62 (1956–57): 309, 302. []
  11. Among the recent attempts by American historians to grapple with this problem, I have found John Higham’s essay, “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic,” especially congenial and provocative. AHR, 67 (1961–62): 609. 25. Other stimulating treatments include Henry Steele Commager, “Should the Historian Sit in Judgment?” in his The Search for a Usable Past (New York, 1967); T. P. Donovan, Historical Thought in America (Norman, 1973); David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies (New York, 1970); J. H. Hexter, Doing History (Bloomington, 1971); Edward A. Purcell, Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory (Lexington, 1973); Page Smith, The Historian and History (New York, 1964); Hugh Stretton, The Political Sciences (New York, 1969); P. E. Tillinghast, The Specious Past (Reading, Mass., 1972); Gene Wise, American Historical Explanations (Homewood, Ill., 1973); Howard Zinn, The Politics of History (Boston, 1970). In Britain, the debate has gone on sporadically ever since the famous controversy between Mandell Creighton and Acton, which constitutes a kind of locus classicus. The most recent phase was inaugurated by Herbert Butterfield’s philippic against “Moral Judgments in History” in his History and Human Relations (New York, 1952), answered by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in Historical Inevitability (London, 1955). Other voices include those of Geoffrey Barraclough, History in a Changing World (Oxford, 1957); C. V. Wedgwood, Truth and Opinion: Historical Essays (London, 1960); David Knowles, The Historian and Character (Cambridge, 1963); E. H. Carr, What Is History? (New York, 1963); and G. R. Elton, The Practice of History (London, 1969). Professional philosophers have written extensively on the more technical aspects of the problem and have been inclined, as William H. Dray points out, to ask different questions. Historians, he remarks, usually proceed in a quasi-psychological manner, debating whether man’s nature will permit value neutrality in practice. Philosophers, on the other hand, want to know whether value judgments “enter into the very structure of historical inquiry.” For an excellent brief summary and bibliography, see Dray, “History and Value Judgments,” in Paul Edwards, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967), 4: 26. 30; Dray’s pamphlet Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, 1964) contains a somewhat fuller version. Two recent and provocative philosophical treatments are G. R. Grice, The Grounds of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, 1967), and Richard M. Hare, Applications of Moral Philosophy (London, 1972). Grice attempts to distinguish between two kinds of obligation: “basic” (the essentially legalistic sector of morality) and “ultra” (the ethical part of morality, beyond the legal minimum). For questions of the former sort, he argues, professional “moral scientists” are required; the second sort, which involve human character and must be settled by insight and reflection, are not susceptible to scientific analysis and are properly in the province of nonscientific types like, novelists. and, presumably, historians. The Fourteenth International Congress of Historical Sciences at San Francisco gave a featured place to a session on “Value Reference and Value Judgments in Historiography,” with the principal report presented by A. G. Weiler of the Netherlands. []
  12. Henri Peyre, letter to the editor, New York Times, May 30, 1973. []
  13. J. Fred Buzhardt, quoted in the New York Times, Mar. 12, 1975. []
  14. Becker to Gershoy [summer 1931] in “What Is the Good of History?” 145. []
  15. Raymond J. Sontag, “The Democracies and the Dictators since 1933,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 98 (Philadelphia, 1954): 317. []
  16. Wedgwood, Truth and Opinion, 52. []
  17. Commager, Search for a Usable Past, 300–22; Jean Stengers, “Quelques réflexions sur le jugement moral en histoire,” Académie Royale de Belgique, Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales et Politiques, 5th ser., 58 (1972–75): 189–205. []
  18. Carl L. Becker, “The Dilemma of Liberals in Our Time,” in Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, ed. Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca, 1958), 188. []
  19. William Appleman Williams, History as a Way of Learning (New York, 1973), 162. []
  20. Richard M. Andrews, review of Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, tr. Sian Reynolds (New York, 1972. 73), in the New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1975. []
  21. Heinz Hartmann, Psychoanalysis and Moral Values (New York, 1960), 23. A curious insight into American historians’ current attitudes toward proselyting in the classroom is provided by the recent report of the AHA’s Committee on the Rights of Historians, mimeographed (Princeton, 1974). The committee found, on the basis of eight thousand questionnaires circulated in 1971, that members of our profession are sharply divided about their ethical obligations toward students. “Only 49.5% of the respondents thought it impermissible to introduce extraneous material for purposes of indoctrination” (p. 10). This issue is not quite the same as that of expressing value judgments, which surely need not be “extraneous.” But the report would seem to indicate that a good bit of open as well as hidden preaching has been going on. The data permit no correlations between the responses and the various value systems of the respondents. []
  22. Peter Loewenberg, review of Fritz Stern, The Failure of Illiberalism (New York, 1972), in AHR, 78 (1973): 119. []
  23. Liberal historians may not agree with all of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s public statements, but they are likely to respond to this passage: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” The Gulag Archipelago, tr. Thomas P. Whitney (New York, 1973), 168. []
  24. Quoted in Harvey Goldberg, The Life of Jean Jaurès (Madison, 1962), 415–16. []
  25. For example, Jaurès emerges from Guy Chapman’s treatment in The Dreyfus Case (London, 1955) as a somewhat ridiculous windbag: “Like many Socialist leaders, he was a bourgeois, and a comfortably situated bourgeois. The things he valued had little interest for the mass of the workers. Like other bourgeois Socialists he wanted to transform them into simulacra of himself, concerned for what he would call the higher values. … There are no reforms to which the name of Jaurès is attached. Nothing save eloquence” (p. 330). Nothing save eloquence, indeed! One does not have to descend into hagiography to portray the powerful contemporary impact not only of Jaurès’s oratory but also of his personality, his human qualities, and the enduring hold of the Jaurès legend since his day. []
  26. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, 78–79. []
  27. Butterfield, History and Human Relations, 114. []
  28. Quoted in John Clive, Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian (New York, 1973), 493. []
  29. Stretton, The Political Sciences, 31–32; Higham, “Beyond Consensus,” 622. []