J.H. Plumb Would Be Aghast at Today's Distorted History


John Willingham is a regular contributor to HNN.  He has an MA in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin.  He is the author of The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.  http://edgeoffreedom.net


Born a century ago this month, the late Cambridge historian J. H. Plumb would be dismayed were he alive today to see how a heavily distorted “past” has assumed center stage in American public life in the decade since his death, at the expense of what Plumb characterized as “history.”

The influence of the anti-historical past is evident.  The most recent example comes in the person of Texas Governor Rick Perry, now a presidential candidate.  Perry not only comes from a state where the past still dominates history in the public memory, but he is the unabashed champion of the same discredited past that Plumb hoped was indeed passing more than forty years ago, when he wrote one of his most influential books, The Death of the Past, in 1969.

As Plumb saw it, until the mid-twentieth century religious and authoritarian elites had created “pasts” that supported their place in the world.  The Christian past began to break down more than two centuries ago, partly as a result of internal dissension about the nature of Christianity itself.  Scholarly inquiry further undermined the credibility of the biblical worldview, and then faith in inevitable secular progress emerged, only to fall away amid the horror of two world wars and the cruelty of totalitarian regimes.

In this context, the generally optimistic Plumb saw the death of misguided and manipulative pasts as a positive development.  In their place would come thoughtful, analytical, and wise “history” that would explain how people and everything they value change through time.  Guided by this deeper understanding, human beings would appreciate the inevitability of change while deriving useful and occasionally inspiriting knowledge from it.  At least some gifted narrative historians (like Plumb himself) would be the conveyors of this knowledge, distilling the more specialized studies by other academic historians into works accessible to the public.  Underlying these views was the idea that humanity, freed from the past, would prove capable of appreciating a deeper, more authentic reality.

Instead of Plumb’s vision, however, we have the ascendancy of a past that is audacious in its confrontation with history.  The dogmatic Christian worldview that he believed was discredited by the philosophes and by later scholarly and scientific inquiry is now passed off as being not only determinative for religious believers but also for the nature and destiny of the entire nation.

It is no violation of their sense of the American past for participants in Rick Perry’s “Response” event in Houston earlier this month to conceive of the event as being quintessentially American.  They and others like them believe that the European settlement of America was the fulfillment of a Christian destiny.  They are convinced that the founders were orthodox Christians, that their documents were Christian, and that their concerns were above all Christian.  The future envisioned by the founders was not pluralistic, not dynamic, and certainly not complex:  it was dogmatically Christian.

Plumb was a charismatic scholar who could be both owlishly wise and passionately ebullient.  (I was around him only once, but the impression was lasting.)  If he were here today he would probably be far too concerned to be fully detached, and a sharper side of the man, sometimes remarked by others, would likely appear.  There it is again, he might say, another damned foolhardy and destructive abuse of history. 

But this is not the middle ages, nor is America like China, where a past supported by successive dynasties became imbedded in the culture.  Now, information abounds in a free society.  So why is history being submerged by the past?

As one who delighted in exploring the maze of interests and factions that marked eighteenth-century British politics, Plumb would easily recognize the artful combination of religion and economic self-interest at work today.  The leading “historian” of the religious right, David Barton, manages to foist off a distorted and simplified past that makes Christianity the ultimate basis for national identity, and then uses Christianity to sanctify economic self-interest by claiming that Jesus didn’t care about groups, he only cared about individuals.

Therefore, it is un-Christian (and, completing the tautology, un-American) to be concerned about the welfare of the whole or a fairer distribution of wealth.  One could hear the same message in Governor Perry’s speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency.

It is clear that many Americans do not appreciate that history is complex, that it urges creativity rather than dogmatism, and that it requires a tilt toward self-edification, not self-indulgence.  These are the values of history that Plumb hoped would seep into human consciousness.

Why is there narrative success for those who distort the past and narrative frustration for those who champion history?  Centuries ago, distorted pasts were often used to persuade people that their terrible lot was the will of God and that it was their duty to accept it.  Now it seems that it is the gauzy, delusional selfishness of the people that the refashioned God is sanctioning.  The new God resembles the old God only when citizens whose real self-interest would be served by, say, more wealth distribution nevertheless believe that somehow the sanctified selfishness will work for them as well.

Plumb might ask:  Where is the new narrative?  Why can’t intellectuals and political leaders with a sense of history present it in a compelling way?   Skepticism about their being “a way” to reconcile narrative with complexity would be no excuse for J. H. Plumb, who never hesitated to clearly express what he believed and never stopped believing that history must have its place in the public mind.

Many of his former students have taken on the challenge:  Simon Schama, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Roy Porter, and Niall Ferguson, to name a few.  The eminent American historian Gordon S. Wood also has much to tell us about the role of historians, the value of history, and the treacherous byways of anachronism.

But would Plumb have the same confidence now about the potential of history to enlighten the public?  The past that he saw as dead or dying now holds forth in its new guise of deified selfishness.  This simplistic past makes it all too easy for human beings, especially Americans, to convert inherent self-interest—which was both understood and restricted by the founders—to a level of self-indulgence that the founders would deplore. 

Plumb the historian was, at the very least, premature in his post-mortem of the past.  One can imagine him taking this mistake in stride and moving on to the next great argument.  But the greatest argument of them all is about the nature of humanity.  Let us hope that it takes a turn toward history.

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