A paper read before the American Historical Association at its meeting in Seattle, Washington, January 9, 1997. Published in The American Historical Review 103, no. 1. (Feb., 1998), pp. 1-17.

The Power of History

When I was a college sophomore, about this same time of the year in 1948, 1 declared my major in history. That was fifty years ago. In this essay, I would like to draw on those years to discuss where we have been as a group of scholars and teachers and, more important, how we might enhance our influence upon our times. This may sound pretentious, but history has an enormous power, and we historians occupy a special relationship to it.

I don’t think that ours is a time of particularly momentous changes. This old globe and the human race on it have been undergoing dramatic transformations for many, many centuries. It is the conceit of all contemporaries to think that theirs is a time of particularly momentous changes. I decline that option. Nor does the coming of the twenty-first century quicken millennial anticipations in me. Still, I am convinced that, in good times or bad, critical ones, transitional ones, or normal ones, history can help human beings think better, live more richly, and act more wisely.

I have quoted my favorite lines from Carl Becker at the end of many a talk, but in this essay I want to begin with them. Confronting his colleagues’ adamantine certitude about history’s scientific foundations, Becker asserted that the value of history was not scientific but moral: “by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, history,” he claimed, “enables us to control, not society, but ourselves. a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future.”1 We’re certainly at home with that sentiment today, but between Becker’s time and our own, there has been a succession of challenges to historical scholarship that has changed our fundamental way of thinking about the past and the human experience.

Becker made a critical observation about history’s effect when he differentiated history’s moral value from a scientific one: people do not need to understand scientific advances to benefit from them. They might have difficulty telling a microbe from a speck of dust, but they would recover from illness as long as their doctors knew the difference. The same could be said of social-scientific research on recidivism, or teenage pregnancy, or financial forecasting: those who benefit from the knowledge need not understand it. Not so with history. It must be a personal possession to do its work, and we who teach, exhibit, preserve, research, and write history have a responsibility that is measurably different from that of the scientist. we must make an intellectual connection with our audiences to have an impact.

Today, we confront a challenge strikingly different from that of Becker’s time. The static in our conversation with the public comes not from an inappropriately positivistic view of history but from its very opposite–confusion about the nature of historical knowledge and the amount of credibility it deserves. Such confusion can well incite indifference, even antagonism. You can’t learn what history has to impart if you start with a false idea of what history is and how historians–amateurs and professionals alike–acquire knowledge about the past. Even worse, without this understanding, you become susceptible to rumors of cultural warfare and academic conspiracies. Doubts about the validity of historical knowledge having been registered, they must be addressed.

I liken the public’s consternation about historical knowledge to the epistemological crises that figure in a provocative article by Alasdair MacIntyre.2 “Epistemological crisis” is a high-falutin’ phrase for what happens inside our minds when a whole set of assumptions collapses, usually as the result of a startling discovery like the betrayal of a friend or corruption in a trusted institution. At that juncture, MacIntyre explains, we can grab a new set of assumptions as we would a life raft, or we can become more philosophical and reflect upon the relationship of all presuppositions to practical action. Clearly the latter, introspective response appeals to MacIntyre, prompting him to advance historical narratives as healers of the damage done, because a historical narrative enables the person. or the field–undergoing the epistemological crisis to explain why the original, faulty assumptions went wrong and then link that explanation to the deeper illumination of how those assumptions influenced action. A narrative that encompasses the sequential steps of unreflective belief, stunned disbelief, and more comprehensive understanding restores the value of human reasoning.

I think that much of the educated public is having an epistemological crisis about history. They may not be able to put the Thirty Years’ War in the right century, but they have certainly heard about revisionism. They know that a subject whose very certainty bored them into the ground has suddenly begun to shake like the San Andreas Fault. Competing accounts of the Holocaust, arguments over the dropping of the atomic bomb, the appearance of Harriet Tubman in school textbooks, descriptions of the demographic disaster that followed Columbus’s landfall in the New World, challenges to the frontier myth, not to mention talk of deconstruction and multiperspectivity, have led to a radical defamiliarizing of the past.

Historians, I believe, are an ideal group to undertake the task of explaining to the public how we got from facts to narratives. We are able to do this in part because the processes through which we reconstruct events are not so remote from everyday thinking. More pertinently, we have gone through a remarkable period of self-scrutiny that has made us acutely self-conscious of the conceptual underpinnings of history. We are now aware of the way that language, logic, and social prescriptions affect our scholarship. We have examined our writings as craft, cultural artifact, and vehicle of power. Simple words like “representation,” “texts,” “interpretation,” “genres,” and “experience” have taken on Delphic overtones, as we have undergone our own version of an epistemological crisis. Not always comfortable, this working-over has raised consciousness along with ire, turning us into good navigators through choppy intellectual waters. This is what I want to talk about–the course we’ve recently traveled and how our reflective backward glance might be turned to account in a broader public discussion.

My story covers our discipline’s successive engagement, first with the new social history of the 1960s and 70s, then with the concept of the social construction of reality, and finally with the diffused influence of postmodernism. Different, yet overlapping in time and consequence, the effect of all three has marked a sharp departure from the approach to history I learned as an undergraduate fifty years ago. More important, as I develop in my conclusion, creating a historical narrative of our own epistemological crisis just might enable us to open the public to a history that simultaneously allows us to let go of ossified categories of thought, work through the political uses of the past, and gain a realistic appreciation of how we create knowledge.

To return for a moment to where I started in 1948: although Carl Becker’s skepticism about historical facts had been widely disseminated–notably, in his 1931 AHA presidential address, “Everyman His Own Historian“–when I went to school at mid-century, history texts were still confidently empirical and distinctly God-like with their 360-degree perspective and omniscient voice. Debunking was a favorite classroom entertainment, and, with the close attention given to politics and its ancillary topics of dynasties, elections, diplomacy, and war, there was much to debunk. No doubt, sophisticated heirs of Becker existed, but they weren’t grading my exams.

It was not until the late 1960s after I had received my PhD that I had my first bruising intimation of an epistemological crisis. It came through my husband. When I had returned to graduate school at age thirty-two, my professors had all been considerably older than I. The reverse was true when my husband began doctoral work six years later. All of his professors were much younger and filled with Young Turk élan. Eager to share his learning, he brought home news of something called a “model.”

“What’s a model?” I asked.

“Well, it’s the way of making precise your assumptions. You form a model of them.”

“Are historians going to start writing about models?”

“It’s not a subject; it’s a concept in your head.”

“Not in my head.”

To say that I was furious with this talk of models is to underestimate the anxiety of a freshly minted PhD sensing that she was already out of date, moored to a view of history charmingly compatible with saddle shoes and Sinatra swooners.

An essay by H. Stuart Hughes conveys a sense of the profession’s Zeitgeist in 1963 that I unwittingly reflected. A gem of conceptual clarification, “The Historian and the Social Scientist” is also a historical marker. Hughes had spent a year at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and, with a convert’s zeal, he set out to get historians to adopt some social-scientific techniques, among them model-building. Praising his colleagues for their splendid caution in rejecting the metahistories of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, he hastened to point out that there were lower levels of generalization that historians were already using, implicit in such terms as “industrialization” or “education” or “revolution.” Behind these, he suggested, were models–that word again–that they should make specific. He went on to describe quantitative methods–opinion surveys, sampling techniques, projective tests, content analysis, and scaling. that could introduce precision and analytical rigor to historical studies. Indeed, Hughes hoped that these arrows in the social-scientific quiver might fell the Hegelian dichotomies that historians favored, making room for gradations and continua.3

Social scientists had something else for historians. In their effort to develop larger and larger generalizations about behavior, they had generated hypotheses, lots of them lying ready for people with the empirical bent of historians to test: hypotheses about family formation, voting behavior, residential patterning, and electoral cycles. Historical evidence could be adduced to geographers’ hypotheses about the concentric circles of city growth or sociologists’ distinctions between sponsored and challenged mobility.

One can’t help being amused (and amazed) at the gingerly fashion in which Hughes recommended the glories of schematization and testable hypotheses, knowing that a swarm of quantitative mavens was already poised to turn the discipline upside down with their statistical wizardry. We can figuratively imagine Hughes in 1963 quickly stepping out of the way to avoid the crush of graduate students rushing to their IBM punch cards. The work of these young quantifiers had immediate substantive, conceptual, and ideological effects. Historians’ methods heretofore had focused on evidence, not data, concentrating on how to interrogate dead witnesses or determine the authenticity of documents. Never before, I think, had historians made explicit the assumptions undergirding their research or shown a preference for analysis over description. In doing both, social historians raised the consciousness of the entire discipline.

The objects of attention changed as well. For years, the traditional methods of historical scholarship had ruled out research on ordinary people. Then the synergy of computers and social-science techniques supplied the deficiency, proving the truth of Ernest Gombrich’s quip that “where there’s a way there’s a will.” It was, in fact, the possibility that something meaningful could be discovered about the unexceptional men and women of the past that stirred the investigative passion of doctoral candidates. Fueled by social curiosity, they strove for a comprehensive knowledge of a past, one in which, for example, Thomas Jefferson could be re-remembered surrounded by his daughters and grandchildren, the enslaved persons at Monticello, the poor farming families of Albemarle County, and the rank and file of voters who had made him president. Soon, the wonderment was how Jefferson and other eminent men had ever been detached from their lived experience, making us aware of how a particular convention in historical writing–now strange to us–had acquired a taken-for-granted naturalness.

The new social history swept all before it for a decade or more. Its practitioners were brash, bold, and a bit too overconfident of their capacity to refashion the historical record, but they delivered the goods–lots of them. They put out an “all points bulletin” for missing persons from the past and soon had a squad room full of raffish characters pressing to get into the history books. With a crowd of new figures–working wives, rebellious slaves, despairing immigrants, striking laborers–clamoring for attention, it soon became clear that, much like uninvited guests at a party, they weren’t going to fit in. It wasn’t just that the newly researched subjects weren’t dressed properly, they also gave evidence of cherishing values inimicable to the ones featured in the familiar account of the nation’s steady advance towards “liberty and justice for all.” Their lives couldn’t be folded into old stories, because the old story line was too simple in its linear development, too naïve in its celebration of individual achievement, too complacent in its insistence upon common national values.

The ideological fallout from longitudinal studies took people unawares. Investigating the behavior of groups, social historians came up with group results! They reported their findings through norms, modes, and standard deviations. Quantitative analysis inevitably uncovers patterns, systems, and processes. From these artifacts of research, it was but a short step to the conclusion that the great bulk of American lives had been constrained by such impersonal forces as resource endowments, capital investments, racial preferences, and categorical mistakes like thinking it was natural for women to stay at home. With long-run data sets recorded, scaled, analyzed, and compared, American history acquired what had always been rigorously denied–a structure. And there were many structures–affecting education, marriage, longevity, mobility, and opportunity in the American past.

Old forms that had stultified research initiatives could now be breached. One could study slaves as well as slavery, immigrants rather than immigration, laborers, not just unions, and women other than eminent females. While it is true that statistics can imply structures without ever proving their existence, in this case the statistics acted like a lever, moving the historical imagination right off its individualistic axis. Literally an embarrassment of riches, documentation of the lives of women, workers, farmers, enslaved persons, and Native Americans revealed a disquieting connection between history and national identity. The nation depended on and expected a tale of social advance, but there wasn’t enough success in the fresh stories to merge them seamlessly into this established narrative. Incorporating the new scholarship into the old posed more than a challenge to synthesizing skills, it forced a recognition of the powerful pull of what we might call the metahistory of the country’s material and moral progress.

The new social history, with its unsung heroes and documented diversity, had dug into the American psyche like a dental hygienist and found a sore spot. What had happened to the indisputable facts that had tied the American past to a progressive future? Why wasn’t that old social alchemy that had turned diverse ethnic heritages into a unified culture still working? As the anguished cries about the fragmentation of American history bounced off the walls of classrooms and filled newspaper op-ed pages, a question insistently pushed itself to the fore. “What lay behind the calls for a unitary history?”

Historiographical forces are no more unidirectional than history itself. Although steering in a different direction, the new social history actually reinforced the positivist outlook that Carl Becker had mocked, despite the ideological havoc it had wreaked, for it had produced a wealth of facts. Moreover, its statistics–arrived at after years of painstaking effort–were often presented standing on their own, as though career patterns, family formation, or voting behavior explained themselves. Without making an effort to discover the human activity behind the statistic, scholars ran the risk of naturalizing existing social arrangements, or they conferred an unthinking legitimacy on the status quo by ignoring the power relations that had produced the pattern. The genuine delight at so many new empirical findings threatened to return history to a new kind of fact mongering.

Moving from information about ordinary people to an understanding of what all this data meant proved difficult as well. Since readers still wanted to know why people acted as they did, tropes from the old national story line were invoked to do the work of interpretation. Occupational mobility was good; immigrant groups that saved for their children’s education were more American than those that pooled family wages to buy houses; voting that presaged party formation contributed to the nation’s political progress.4 Some practitioners spoke dismissively of “literary evidence” and demeaned studies lacking a quantitative underpinning with a new pejorative, “impressionistic,” but, as is so often the case with history, those topics that had been shoved aside profited from their neglect.

Social history settled into middle age, its disruptive potential spent by the late 1970s, while that old elitist inquiry, intellectual history. transmogrified into the history of mentalités and ideologies–emerged with born-again vitality. Ideology, as a term, lost its Marxist provenance and became the organizing concept for a fresh look at the connection between belief and behavior, rhetoric and reality. In contrast to formal systems of thought, ideologies were seen as mobilizing the emotions while structuring the opinions that generated aversions, enthusiasms, commitments, and prejudices. In its retrofitted form, the concept of ideology enabled scholars to talk about thinking as a social activity. When first applied by historians of the United States to this country’s nation-building acts of colonial resistance, revolution, constitution-writing, and party founding, it revitalized political history. Like the new social history, the “Republic Revision” of the 1960s directly challenged the venerable assumption that America had been born free, rich, and modern.5

Ideology soon became the political subset of a more profound historical inquiry that began with the assertion that our sense of reality is socially constructed.6 Moving well beyond an appreciation of context, those who began studying under this new influence asserted that our sense of reality itself is socially constructed. This in turn led to a sequence of intensifying questions that has yet to find a resting place. Where earlier disembodied ideas like liberty and class had held sway, now a rather disembodied society became the matrix for cognition and understanding. Society, in this view, shaped human consciousness, so that any particular structuring of consciousness could be studied as a historical precipitate.

The social dynamics of scientific discovery were made accessible in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that became something of a social force itself.7 The power of society to bend nature to its ends focused the insights undergirding women’s studies, changing the referent of “gender” from a grammatical classification to the cultural elaboration of being female. Soon followed the social construction of disease, of deviance, of experience, of the sacred, and most dramatic, of the subject–that subject, the essential thinking man, that once verified existence for Descartes.8 Scholars began to talk about context as more than an amalgam of economic and social qualities, stressing the persuasive power of “paradigms,” a word whose brushfire, spread through the groves of academe, gave evidence of a paradigm shift in the making.

Despite the heavy emphasis now laid upon society, the great German sociologist Max Weber had actually given a psychological underpinning to the idea of the social construction of reality. All human beings, Weber maintained, had an “inner necessity to comprehend the world as a meaningful cosmos and to know what attitude to take before it.” Following this lead, Peter Berger claimed that the “human craving for meaning has the force of instinct.”9 The concept of the social construction of reality thus presumed a human longing that society met with its repertoire of myths, sciences, laws, art, and literature–an arresting proposition that, someday, someone ought to test.

The muted discussions of such ideas in the 1970s was soon drowned out by the din that Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida created in the 1980s. Foucault elaborated a new theory of historical development that replaced the cherished modern mover, the autonomous man, with the postmodern specter of omniscient society exercising a diffuse and pervasive power through discourse.10 More specifically, Foucault scrutinized the mechanisms through which force had been asserted in the modern period, swooping up the scientific revolution, the market, humanitarian reform, and the communication system based on print into one conglomerate of social authority. He searched through history for the hidden organizers of consciousness, the discursive imperatives that controlled both reflection and action. At the same time, he found in the study of the past significant clues about the way that new techniques like solitary confinement or the Catholic confessional restructured social thinking. What gave Foucault’s ideas their sharp edge was his profound skepticism about all the categories of modern thought–the state, nature, the individual, rationality. For him, they became discursive objects to talk about, but they were never to be given the status of a foundation or an origin. And the social power that intrigued him came not from the men with the bayonets and batons but from us, the ordinary and unthinking users of those discourses of everyday life that distribute prestige, contempt, justification, and authority.

An even more radical skeptic than Foucault, Derrida has concentrated his fire upon the realist assumptions embedded in the Western conviction that words could represent reality. Equally suspect to him were the invidious dichotomies of white/colored, male/female, real/fictitious, sickness/health, sacred/profane.11 Despite the overt commitment to rationality, writings in the Western tradition, he has said, can always be found undermining these categories because they were not, in actuality, opposites that explained the world but elements within a hermeneutic system. The deconstruction of texts–Derrida’s perverse method of reading from the margins–offered a way of penetrating the silences and contradictions in texts, but one without the hope of a final interpretation, because texts, for him, act more like a pinball machine than a safe deposit box. The slipperiness of words and the unconscious intentions of word users leave all texts open to successive readings. We can see the cherished clarity of philosophers disappear, wrapped in a fog of linguistic ambiguity. Gone, too, is the raw encounter with reality celebrated by the Enlightenment. In had come the insidious instruction of society, interpreting the world before we discovered it on our own, categorizing and codifying, honoring and disparaging, naming and organizing.

It is in this sense that postmodernists have applied the word “textuality” to everything that exists. Everything is a text because everything has been socially rendered. We speak of a particular mountain, and we evoke the multiple mountain discourses from Mount Sinai through plate tectonics. Textuality, for the postmodernists, explains far more than written documents. It is a synonym for interpretation, that powerful social instructor. They see language, both in its structure and its specificity, as the means (or magic) through which human beings confer meaning on a meaningless world. While “death of the author” statements raised eyebrows, the larger point sunk in: the author’s identity is not as helpful in determining how a work acquires sense as is a knowledge of the protocols, rules, and discursive conventions that enable an author to mean something in the first place. Postmodernists have completed the job of placing culture where once stood nature, as the primordial force in human existence.

The postmodern imagination in historical studies followed the new social history into the margins of life: the neglected, silenced, eccentric, and transgressive.12 In these interstices of the historically significant, postmodernists have traced the elusive way that culture serves power. We should accord the movement great respect for turning our attention to the silent workings of human expression and alerting us to the dense intermingling of interpretation and object in language. Stressing the dispersal of authority through multiple levels of social interaction, they have, however, been less successful in linking power to any identifiable group. And their contention that it is always power that creates knowledge, not vice versa, ignores the efficacy of Western technology at some risk of credibility.

Flexing a considerable amount of their own social power, postmodernists have rearranged our conceptual furniture and given members of the rising generation a dazzling lexical wardrobe with which to clothe their prose. Their analyses of discourse, language, rhetoric, subjectivity, and intertextuality have carried us to the spot where imagination and expression encounter the physicality of the world. Even their use of confrontational oxymorons and ear-shattering neologisms have helped in their enterprise, implicitly mocking the clear and distinct idea of the impartial, reasoning man.

Every scholarly movement produces its own waifs. In social history and postmodernist cultural studies, it has been agency. Like all functional inquiries, these have examined the replication of thought and behavior more effectively than they have the introduction of innovations. They have pinpointed how cultural systems of representation and communication perform but not why they lose appeal or even take a different turn. To discuss why a discourse no longer satisfies the living would involve us in the interaction of people with their texts and compel us to look at what happens when the texts that constitute reality are challenged by realities outside of them, such as the joining of the Old and New World. The shift of historical focus from society to culture holds the promise–as yet unfulfilled–of examining the mechanisms through which social power is exercised. As Karl Polanyi remarked years ago, the fact that a ruling class wishes to rule is an insufficient explanation for their success: “the fate of classes will be much more determined by the needs of society than the fate of society is determined by the needs of classes.”13 The same can be said of discourses.

Historians’ recent self-scrutiny has also been informed by some arresting outside critiques of our intellectual practices. Particularly resonant has been Edward Said’s exploration in Orientalism of how Westerners have dealt with those people whom they encountered during a long career of global exploration and military conquest.14 Said’s work has inspired an examination of how “the other” has been turned into an essentialized object in Western literature. Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy have analyzed Western culture from the perspective of the perceiving “other.” Nandy finds disturbing the American self-image as “a model for the rest of the world, a haven where the poor, the powerless and the discarded of other lands have come and remade their lives voluntarily and produced a culture that now makes transcultural sense.” It is “the power of … the displaced, the decultured and/or recultured,” Nandy writes, “and the public values that can survive in such a society of the uprooted which dominates the global cultural order today.” But, far from praising this life form of the refugee, Nandy fears its invasive presence and its alluring mishmash of secularism, Baconian rationality, and incessant, mindless development. Such a culture, he cautions, ensures the decline of community and “the reduction of the person to a fully autonomous, unencumbered individual.”15 Having an enormous partiality for the “fully autonomous individual,” I had to read that several times before I grasped its import.

Eastern critics have been particularly astute in assessing how history has shaped Western consciousness. Viewed in the West as a universal form of inquiry, history appears to them as the normalizer of rapid change and a medium of evangelical nationalism. As Prasenjit Duara has explained, Westerners have naturalized the nation-state, making it the container for the experiences of the past. People in the West, he points out, learn history in order to become members of their society: “It is designed to instill pride and/or vengeance for the nation, not to understand the grammar that could question its categories.” History teaching is identity formation.16 William McNeill has made a similar point. History “got into the classroom,” he reminds us, “to make nations out of peasants, out of localities, out of the human raw material that existed in the countries of Europe and in the not so very United States as well.”17 Initially tied to the concept of civilization, history glided like a tango dancer into the service of Western nations as they began their ascent to world power.

Thinkers outside the West have helped, us see how deeply embedded our categories of thought are in a narrative about human experience that begins with Adam and winds through Adam Smith. Part propaganda and part whistling through the cemetery, national histories have been uniformly proleptic, not just explaining change but also proselytizing for it. They animated the past with anticipation of things to come, like industrialization, the nation-state, democracy–robbing these developments of their contingent origins. Our histories have also served as the authoritative documents for judging those people without history.18 Treating European history as a universal process, they hypostatized a time line for the human race that turned “backward” into an awesome term.

While Easterners like Nandy wish to emphasize the idiosyncracy of the West in order to nurture alternative discourses, for us their insights pry loose vestigial assumptions. To naturalize economic developments, for instance, is to move the topic out of the domain of politics and deliver it to science, just as a naturalized “rational chooser” belongs not to a moral order but to a type of analysis in the social sciences. To stand outside of the filiation of history and the nation-state in 1998 is not to disparage it but, rather, to get some purchase on the powerful presuppositions that have shaped our thinking. American historical writing has played no small part in the creation of “the American people.” It may once have been important to construe the nation as the holder of the collective experience for our “imagined” community, but the trope carries too much baggage to persist.19 The identity politics of our day have emerged precisely in reaction to the claims of the nation to represent a homogenized people. The challenge now is to think ourselves outside those old categories, not in order to weaken the country to which we give our political allegiance but to free ourselves from a kind of intellectual bondage.

To return to my original proposition that history has a compelling role to play in contemporary debates: I do not suggest that we sally forth to perplex the public with the conceptual conundrums of postmodernism. Rather, I want us to do what historians do very well–act as translators. Indeed, we might even say that we have been cultural translators all along, immersing ourselves in that past that is a foreign country in order to sustain our connection to it. We could minister to the confusion and cynicism rampant today by explaining to our audiences how curiosity, interpretation, and culture form the interacting nexus of all knowledge.

There is a pervasive notion abroad in the land that, somehow, the past lingers on to force the hand of those who reconstruct it. Yet we know that the past as a series of events is utterly gone; only its consequences have infiltrated the present. Some remnants remain like litter from a picnic, but these material leftovers never speak for themselves. In fact, they are inert traces until someone asks a question that turns them into evidence. We need to converse about the vital connection of curiosity and inquiry in scholarship, because one effect of the attacks on Western knowledge has been to popularize a skepticism detached from its critical roots. Ours is a knowledge-dependent society, yet people are quick to believe that knowledge changes in arbitrary ways, even that cabals of like-minded academics exist to poison the well of truth. We live in an age without consensus, where, paradoxically, men and women all over the world are gravitating to the same opinions. History can minister to both perplexities, not only by preserving the endangered diversity of the human experience but also by nurturing an understanding of how learned opinions are formed. Whether we meet our audience gathered in the classroom, at museum exhibits, reading our books, or in public forums, we need to offer an alternative to cynicism by making accessible how we reconstruct the past. And since our work is similar to the construction of all knowledge, learning how historical truths are put forward and tested possesses a protean utility.

We should explain the relation of facts to interpretations. Carl Becker said that historians didn’t stick to the facts, the facts stuck to the historians. Yet many of our critics devoutly believe that we could stay out of trouble by sticking to facts–like Julius Caesar’s indubitable crossing of the Rubicon. But facts will satisfy neither them nor us. Thousands of people crossed the Rubicon every day; we stick to the fact of Caesar’s passage because it is tied to an interpretation of the Roman Empire.20

The public is peculiarly nostalgic about historical knowledge and thus repeatedly horrified when historians disturb prior accounts of an event. California textbooks have recently been revised to tell a different story about the Franciscan missionaries and the indigenous people they sought to Christianize, one that describes the effect of the diseases that the friars unknowingly carried north with them. Behind this revision is an active Native American movement and years of painstaking research and scholarly debate about the demographic dynamics set off when Europeans, Africans, and Asians intermingled with native Americans. A compelling instance of power as knowledge and knowledge as power, the new histories are sure to provoke controversy.

We recognize that curiosity drives research, but we are less certain what drives curiosity. There is much about the past that we do not know and will not know until someone asks a question that leads to that particular patch of material remains. We need to explain that historical knowledge, like all knowledge, is revised because of the new questions driving new research. The same public that hates and fears historical revisions rarely laments revisions in chemistry or medicine, which, like those in history, are the result of further investigations, a point that needs sharpening in public.

We could also make more salient the embeddedness of history in the present. A paradox at first glance, the sparking of research by the currency of curiosity makes sense once one gives up the notion that historians operate like vacuum cleaners, sucking up scraps from the past for later assembling. Our common experience with memory helps to correct this impression. We know that things have happened in our lives; we know that we retain a selective memory of them and, further, that different questions can force us to recover what had been forgotten and hence to view the whole from a different angle of vision. If we can close the door on the popular view of history as an uninterpreted body of facts, we can open it to the infinitely more interesting issue of how questions lead to knowledge through the mediating filter of culture.

History is powerful because we live with its residues, its remnants, its remainders and reminders. Moreover, by studying societies unlike our own, we counteract the chronocentrism that blinkers contemporary vision. That’s why we cannot abandon intellectual rigor or devalue accuracy. History has an irreducible positivistic element, for its subject is real, even if that reality is evanescent and dependent upon texts. Historical writing creates objects for our thoughts, making audible what had become inaudible, extracting latent information from the objects that men and women have constructed. This materiality of historical evidence does restrain us. Imagine a willful forgetting of the Holocaust had the Nazis won World War II. Eventually, someone would have picked up the trail of clues or stumbled over the contradictions in the documents created by the victors. Texts would then replace texts, but the impetus for the change would have come from the past itself, just as scholars reconstructing the succession of post-Columbian demographic disasters had lots of evidence to go on, once their curiosity had turned in that direction. The concreteness of history is what gives it the power to compel attention, to stretch imaginations, and to change minds.

Yet historians have altered their approaches to the past. We can take the case of the United States. During the nineteenth century, most American history was compensatory, giving to the people an account that justified the country’s egregious differences: its relative egalitarianism in a world where privilege was still associated with excellence, its democratic politics in an international order of belligerent monarchies, its heterogeneity at a time when the ideal of a country was to have one faith, one tongue, one ruler, and one set of presumptive ancestors. American history turned the nation’s deficits into assets.

This account changed abruptly in the twentieth century when historians took on the role of social critics, reexamining the founding era. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles Beard dragged the Founding Fathers from their pedestals so that their now-demonstrated human frailty might justify new flexibility in interpreting the Constitution. Following Beard’s lead, historians located interest-group politics in every subsequent era. Over time, the Progressives’ fascination with class struggles merged with the 1960s search for neglected Americans. Admirable as this work has been, it has had the effect of prolonging the life of the Progressive paradigm, the earlier summons to muckraking finding an echo in the battle cry of “race, class, and gender.”

An enduring legacy of the Progressives’ reforming impulse has been that few historians have felt comfortable showing capitalism in a favorable light or even in approaching it as a cultural phenomenon of enormous range and fecundity. Far more often, capital and capitalists appear as shadowy presences or, worse, as emblems of human rapacity. Despite capitalism being the driving force behind Western modernity, scholars have often treated its origins as exogenous, its effects as testimony to mankind’s post-lapsarian condition. From studies of primitive accumulation to those on advertising-induced consuming tastes, capitalism has been treated as an imposition from outside, disconnected from its cultural roots. Having spent a good part of my life thinking about the human possibilities disclosed by the market economy, I have become convinced that this consensual rendering of market relations has constricted our capacity to understand the most remarkable organization of human talent in history. The loss is not moral but intellectual–the dozens of research agendas not pursued, not even conceived because of a reigning ideology.

The complexity of historians’ response to capitalism cannot be laid entirely at the door of an outdated paradigm. There’s more to it than that. As R. N. Carew Hunt noted long ago, “for nearly two thousand years, European civilization has rested upon a contradiction. between a philosophy and a religion which teach that all men are brothers, and an economic system which organises them as masters and servants.”21 In the United States, this contradiction became more acute because of the emphasis placed upon political equality. Looking askance at the European system of inherited status, early nineteenth-century Americans frequently assumed that economic freedom and political freedom would be mutually enhancing. These quasi-utopian hopes led to inevitable disappointment. And there was much to be disappointed about.

A hundred and fifty years ago, historians exalted the nation’s commercial values as proof of democratic vigor; since the Progressives, they have focused more upon those groups that failed to benefit from a profit-driven economy. Perhaps now, as the twentieth century closes, we may be ready to explore the social complexity of our entrepreneurial system while shedding the celebratory and compensatory burdens of our predecessors.

The power of history is liberating. The last four decades have demonstrated this, if proof be needed. First, social historians located and analyzed groups that had been ignored by historians. Then investigations of ideologies and paradigms, followed by postmodernist critique and cultural studies, plumbed the depths of society’s shaping hand in organizing human consciousness through models, discourses, and language’s insinuating codes. Today, as teachers, exhibitors, preservers, and researchers of the past, we have been forced to think through the acts of appropriation and remembrance. We can no longer plead ignorance of their effects. We’re now self-conscious about our assumptions, our forms, our voices. If we can live with this indeterminacy, pursue its implications, contend over meaning, give repeated witness to the magnificence of the human effort to understand, and share these acts with the public, we can be certain that history. the quintessential Western discourse–will have no end.

Joyce Appleby has taught early American history at UCLA since 1981, having begun her career as a historian at San Diego State University in 1967. Writing on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France in addition to early America, she has had an abiding interest in how changing economic systems prompted new ways of thinking about human nature and social action. Her principal works are Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (1978), Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (1984), Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992), and Telling the Truth about History, with Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob (1994).



I would like to thank Mary Corey and Ann Caylor for help at two critical moments in the preparation of this address.


  1. Carl Becker, Dial 59 (September 2, 1915): 148. []
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narratives, and the Philosophy of Science,” The Monist 60 (1977): 453-71; rpt. in Gary Gutting, ed., Paradigms and Revolutions (Notre Dame, Ind., 1974). []
  3. H. Stuart Hughes, “The Historian and the Social Scientist,” in Alexander V. Riasanovsky and Barnes Riznik, eds., Generalizations in Historical Writing (Philadelphia, 1963), 30, 37, 47-49, 51. []
  4. James Henretta, “The Study of Social Mobility: Ideological Assumptions and Conceptual Bias,” Labor History 18 (1977): 165-78. []
  5. Daniel T. Rodgers, “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept,” Journal of American History 92 (June 1992): 11-38. []
  6. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, 1967); Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York, 1966); Joyce Appleby, “Republicanism and Ideology,” American Quarterly (fall 1985): 1-13. []
  7. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962). []
  8. Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773-97. []
  9. Norman Birnbaum, “Conflicting Interpretations of the Rise of Capitalism: Marx and Weber,” British Journal of Sociology 4 (1953): 134; Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, 1967), as quoted in Rhys Isaac, “Order and Growth, Authority and Meaning in Colonial New England,” AHR 76 (June 1971): 730. []
  10. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, Richard Howard, trans. (1965; New York, 1973); The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York, 1970); The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Robert Hurley, trans. (New York, 1978). []
  11. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Spivak, trans. (Baltimore, Md., 1976). []
  12. Pauline Rosenau, in Postmodernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, N.J., 1992), 8, summarized their topics memorably as: “what has been neglected … the forgotten, the irrational, the insignificant, the repressed, the borderline, the classical, the sacred, the traditional, the eccentric, the sublimated, the subjugated, the rejected, the nonessential, the marginal, the peripheral, the excluded, the tenuous, the silenced, the accidental, the dispersed, the disqualified, the deferred, the disjointed. all that which the modern age has never cared to understand in any particular detail, with any sort of specificity.” []
  13. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York, 1944), 152-53. []
  14. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978). []
  15. Ashis Nandy, “Themes of State, History, and Exile in South Asian Politics: Modernity and the Landscape of Clandestine and Incommunicable Selves,” Emergencies, nos. 7-8 (1995-96): 109-14. []
  16. Prasenjit Duara, “Why Is History Anti-Theoretical?” Paper presented at the symposium “Theory and Practice in Modern Chinese Research History,” at the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA, May 10, 1997, quoted with permission, to be published in Modern China (April 1998). See also Duara, “Transnationalism and the Predicament of Sovereignty: China, 1900. 1945,” AHR 102 (October 1997): 1032. []
  17. William H. McNeill, Symposium at the Library of Congress, March 1. 2, 1996, as reported in Occasional Papers of the National Council for History Education, Inc. (September 1996): 1. []
  18. Vinay Lal, “On the Perils of Historical Thinking: The Case, Puzzling as Usual, of India,” Journal of Commonwealth and Post-colonial Studies 3 (fall 1995): 79-112. []
  19. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983). []
  20. Carl Lotus Becker, “What Are Historical Facts,” Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, Phil L. Snyder, ed. (Westport, Conn., 1972). []
  21. R. N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (New York, 1951), 3. []